Up Close with Ray Graffia, Jr. of New Colony Six
Their '60's Hit Helped Stimulate Local and National Airplay for Chicago's Garage Bands
"By about Christmas of '65 we had a hit record, with 'I Confess' ... five weeks before the Shadows of Knight began getting airplay with 'Gloria.'"
One of the more versatile bands of the sixties had to be the New Colony Six. Garage band collectors worship them for the early Sentar recordings, while oldies stations still frequently spin the band's two best known hits, "Things I'd Like To Say" and "I Will Always Think About You." Founded by Ray Graffia, Jr., New Colony Six is still going strong today, and performs a steady series of concert dates in and around the Chicago-land area. I was fortunate enough to see the band perform this summer, and though they sprinkle in a number of classic rock tunes, their set is heavy on the group's hits and lesser known songs. Unlike other bands from the '60s that ignore their heritage, New Colony Six does it proud.
[Lance Monthly] How did you first get interested in music?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] My family always sang. At every gathering of the Graffias and Wieses (my mom's side) there was a non-stop "Hit Parade" of tunes - continuous barbershop harmonies to oldies from the '30s and '40s being sung by my folks and all my aunts and uncles. At home, we always sang the melodies of the seasons and those to commemorate special events, from Christmas carols to endless repetitions with made-up verses for things like "Happy Birthday." We sang in church - my folks in the choir and we kids from the pews; we sang in the car, when we visited friends and neighbors, on the porch, at the dinner table, almost everywhere. Hence, when I got into high school, it was a natural to join the chorus, out of which, coincidentally, the band eventually developed.
[Lance Monthly] So New Colony Six was your first band, correct? What year was it formed?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] The Colony was my first band and we founded it the end of our senior year at St. Pat's high school, late in 1964. While I left on August 4, 1969, the group stayed together well into the early '70s. Jerry Van Kollenburg was the last remaining original member at the tail end.
[Lance Monthly] Wasn't the Colony, however, initally called the Patsmen?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] The Patsmen sprung from a bit that Pat McBride, Jerry, Wally Kemp, Jim Chitkowski (Chic James) and I did at our final concert with St. Pat's chorus. We did a live cover of the Beatles "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." It went over so well that the neighboring girls' high school (St. Pat's was all male) invited us to repeat the skit at their first sock hop the next fall. Not satisfied to simply do a single tune, we decided to form a band and learn a whole set of tunes. Since Wally and Jerry played guitar, Chic the drums and Pat and I sang, we engaged a sophomore (all of the rest of us were graduating in '64), whose name was Chris Wolski, to play keys since he knew how to play accordion. We did a single party as the Patsmen, then Chris's mom made him quit since we were so old by comparison and she didn't want him playing that nasty rock and roll anyway. Wally's cousin, Greg Kempinski (Craig Kemp) played the organ and accordion so we asked him to join in Chris's place.
[Lance Monthly] So what led to the name change to New Colony Six?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] We decided the name Patsmen was lame and, having settled on a goal to actually become a real band, one that got paid to play in clubs and at school functions, etc., we developed a theme--a mission statement if you will--to 'bring rock and roll back to America' (the British Invasion was in high gear). From that goal and the fact that England called America the new Colonies, we selected the moniker, New Colony Six (to match the number of folks in the group). We really did want to perform--to make music--but I guess if you really get down to the essence of what drove that desire, it was probably the improved opportunity to meet girls.
[Lance Monthly] The New Colony Six played many of the great local Chicago clubs in the '60's. Which ones were your favorite?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] We had two sort of home bases, both faves: a bar in the suburb of Schiller Park, called "Wine and Roses" and a teenage night club in Old Town, named "Like Young." The former afforded us countless hours of practice time (open 'til 4:00 a.m. with varying levels of patronage throughout any given evening) and the latter gave us a venue where we could begin to explore our own material and, of course, explore the possibilities of dating the visiting females who frequented the establishment.
[Lance Monthly] Was your manager, Tony Terissi, influential in the band's initial progress?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Tony was a good friend of Pat McBride and did his best to make us known and get us booked, but Tony was our age and we were his first venture into entertainment, so success was less than overwhelming. But he was a great guy and helped break stalemates when a band decision came down to three "ayes" and three "nays." We first met Tony in high school and it was he, I believe, who suggested we hit the West Coast, [which was] logical since nobody out of Chicago could get airplay at that time.
[Lance Monthly] While in California, New Colony Six was scheduled to appear in the Natalie Wood movie "Penelope." Why didn't that materialize?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] I can't recall what happened there, but, in light of the way bands were shown in most films of the era, 'twas probably not so bad that we didn't get to make that film (sour grapes, I'm sure).
[Lance Monthly] Eventually, the band returned to Chicago in the fall of '65. It sounds as if the California trip didn't pan out the way I'm sure you would have liked.
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Our dreams were pretty much shattered by the lack of success but at least we began to polish our writing skills. So we came back to Chicago quite down but with some pretty cool music in hand.
[Lance Monthly] And this led to the recordings on Centaur?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Hearing those tunes, my dad was inspired to suggest to the other parents that they form a record company so we could put out a record. Most of our folks threw a little money into the hat and from that idea Centaur (later Sentar) Records materialized, which my dad fronted. My father believed in us so much that he put his back into and bucks behind us; soon we hit the studio and, to make a long story short, by about Christmas of '65 we had a hit record, with "I Confess" - five weeks before the Shadows of Knight began getting airplay with "Gloria."
The New Colony Six, my dad and our management team (by that time Pete Wright and Howard Bedno, professional record promo men) kicked open the door for Chicago bands to get local and national airplay. After that came the Shadows, the Cryan' Shames, the Buckinghams, the Ides of March, the American Breed, etc. right through to Chicago, REO Speedwagon, Styx and so on.
[Lance Monthly] What do you recall about Peter Wright and Howard Bedno?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] They were strong, as in powerful, business-wise, guys. I'm not sure we would have had the breakthrough (pun intended) with the Six had not they been involved in management when we were trying to get airplay for "I Confess."
[Lance Monthly] You share song writing credits on "Love You So Much," one of the truly great but unheralded songs of the era. It's one of those songs that is instantly memorable and liked immediately by all who hear it. Were you surprised the song wasn't a bigger hit?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] "Love You So Much" was actually a love note to my then girlfriend, now my wife of nearly 34 years, Bonnie. As to its success, it served its primary purpose . . . I got the girl, but it would have been even better had the tune done as well elsewhere as it did in the Midwest. C'est la vie.
[Lance Monthly] What led to the Colony signing with Mercury Records in '67?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Mercury was, we felt, a shot at better national distribution, moving Sentar to production company. To some degree, it was a move that worked.
[Lance Monthly] The band's early Centaur/Sentar recordings really exemplify the '60's "garage band sound," yet it is the group's later radio friendly pop songs on Mercury for which it's best remembered. Which style do you prefer?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] I admire the work of Ronnie Rice, whose joining the band led to the more pop direction we took, but if I had my druthers, we'd have stayed edgy, with stuff like "At the River's Edge" and more adventuresome, like "Let Me Love You" and later, "Sun Within You," but how can you argue with success? You'd not be asking me these questions without the ballad hit records, and who knows if our "garage band" stuff would have made the impact that the pop music did. I still get to perform today, as a 55-year old, because of the love songs, so God bless the Colony's pop music!
[Lance Monthly] How did Ronnie become a member of New Colony Six?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Ronnie was going to Columbia College, where Pat McBride and I were going after I transferred from NIU (Northern Illinois University) to be able to meet band commitments. When it was apparent that Craig Kemp and the band were going to part ways, both Pat and I thought Ronnie played keys well enough, plus we knew he dabbled on guitar and had a great voice that we offered him first dibs when Craig indeed left the group. Obviously, he accepted. Once we realized that Ronnie's skills on keyboards were less than stellar, we started carrying Chuck Jobes as a sideman, and then eventually made him an official member, bringing our number to 7 in the NC6. We elected to not change the name (to NC7) since we feared that folks might think we were some rip-off band, trying to steal NC6's thunder.
[Lance Monthly] There's a vintage video circulating of the band's appearance on the Chicago kiddie television show, "Kiddie A-Go-Go." What do you recall about that show?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Isn't that a classic clip?; I love it . . . now. But at the time, we were completely embarrassed by the opportunity, ticked off that they made us the last bit on the show, aggravated that they made us stand in one place, limiting movement to bouncing mildly, and enraged that they didn't even let the tune, "I Lie Awake" go to its natural end point - they cut us off mid-record . . well, late record to be more accurate, but it still ticked us off.
[Lance Monthly] Whose idea was it to cut the band short, the Mulqueens (hosts for "Kiddie A-G-Go")?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] I haven't a clue on who decided to pull the plug. My best guess is that they ran long on another segment and, since we brought up the rear, so to speak, we got cut short.
[Lance Monthly] What other TV shows did the band appear on?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] We did oodles of regional and syndicated shows, mostly "American Bandstand" ripoffs, whose names escape me but we did do the Mike Douglas Show and a national special called "Showcase '68," if I recall correctly.
[Lance Monthly] Chicago is known for it's many great '60s garage bands, including the Shadows of Knight, Saturday's Children, the Shady Daze, Cryan' Shames, and the Little Boys Blue. Did the Colony associate with any of these other bands?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Band relationships in the '60s were fairly cut-throat to be honest. We didn't wish each other bodily harm, but we all vied to be the number one group in Chicago, from record sales to stage performances. When booked at the same venues, we were civil but not cuddly.
[Lance Monthly] You left the Colony in '69 and played briefly in the Raymond John Michael Band. What caused you to leave a band that you formed? Did you keep contact with the Colony at all during this time?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] Without getting into specifics, suffice to say that I left the Colony because blood is thicker than water and some decisions that were about to come down in '69 would have strained or broken my relationship with my dad, so I left instead of being part of the struggles. I also kind of felt like our best shot at stardom was already past us and that it was time to get on with life outside rock and roll. So I began teaching inner city kids in a G.E.D. program. The stage has a tremendous allure however, and, missing that feeling, I asked Chic, who had left the Colony earlier, and Craig, who had left the Colony earlier, to join me in the Raymond John Michael Band. We added Greg Nashan, an outstanding guitar player, and Terry Stone, a superb bass player to round out the group and actually opened for the NC6 at one appearance . . . that was a bit sticky and uncomfortable: "Aren't you glad you used Dial?"
[Lance Monthly] Did you talk to your former mates at all? Was there any hint of resentment?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] It was a bit uncomfortable but we certainly exchanged pleasantries. I'll tell you this: I never worked harder to win over a crowd than at that gig. With some legal issues over the band's relationship with my dad still current, there were some seriously weird vibes in the room. I don't think they resented RJM; I don't think they gave a rat's derriere . . . we were just another opening act.
[Lance Monthly] What can you tell me about the singles that the Raymond John Michael (RJM) band recorded?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] RJM was signed by a local label, Ivanhoe, which then sold our rights as I recall, to London Records and we all thought this was going to lead to our being bigger than our wildest dreams, higher levels than with the Colony, but that never happened, unfortunately. The rumor was that folks influential in the music biz and with strong ties to the Colony were powerful enough to stymie movement of RJM's records. Who knows? No point in cheap shots three decades after the fact. The bottom line is RJM didn't make it big time, but I thought we had two killer tunes on vinyl . . . the ballad "Let There Be Love" and a rocker, "Rich Kid Blues." We also taped another half dozen to a dozen songs, but those never hit the streets at all. Some good stuff there too, along with some funny, tongue-in-cheek ditties, albeit very silly and politically incorrect material.
[Lance Monthly] Were you in any bands after RJM?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] The end of RJM signaled the end of my professional musical life until the resurrection: the reunion efforts by the Six. That started in 1986, when Ronnie Rice and Bruce Gordon (the Colony's third bass player and the reunion Colony's first bass player) first asked me to consider doing a one-gig reunion performance in support of Ronnie's solo act. After two years of badgering I agreed to a single date. We've been playing every summer since then . . . too much fun. I had forgotten that part of it, the fun. The first reunion performance had Billy Herman, the Colony's second drummer, Ronnie, Bruce Gordon, Bruce Mattey (essentially the Colony's replacement for me I think) on guitar, and a keyboard player who was in the '70s version of the NC6, whose name escapes me at the moment. Jerry was asked, but declined and by this time Chic had moved to Atlanta and Pat to Florida, so they weren't around. Had Bruce Gordon not played bass, I suppose we could have asked Wally to join, but Bruce was a real driver of this reunion attempt, so that was out of the question. The funny thing is that this reunion band membership has been more stable than in the early days. Other than Bruce Gordon leaving to attend more to his business last summer, we've had the same line-up for seemingly an eternity. We have Rick Barr (the NC6's third drummer - early '70s) on drums, Bruce Mattey on guitar, Gary Greenman on keys, Mark Eskin on guitar, Bill Szostek on bass, and me.
[Lance Monthly] How often does the New Colony Six currently play?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] We probably have averaged about a dozen to twenty-five gigs each year since 1988 and those obviously focus around our home bass of suburban Chicago land, though we have kidded about a road trip to Las Vegas.
[Lance Monthly] Which of the original Colony songs does the band play?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] In performance we now tackle all the NC6 hits; that's what the people come to hear and we sprinkle in other smashes from our era along with a smattering of current material that fits. A couple of examples from this summer are "That Thing You Do," which sounds like it was written in the '60s anyway, and the Barenaked Ladies' tune, "It's All Been Done." We kind of believe that all of the new music has sort of been done in one way or another before so it seemed like an appropriate lyric for a bunch of old guys still performing as a nostalgia act. My son, Ray III, challenged the guys and me to do something he would dig and gave us a list of songs from which to choose. On it was SR71's "Right Now" which we do just to show we've still got chops that can dish out what the Y2K bands serve up. Ray's a real critic and just 14, and thinks we do a great job - makes me feel good. Actually, he's just about to start drum lessons and I think that this interest in performing just might be in part due to the obvious great time I have with the reunion band and our ability to still play raucous music after so many years.
[Lance Monthly] So . . . what are yours and the band's 2002 music plans?
[Ray Graffia, Jr.] What does the future hold? Good question and my guess is that, while the creative juices still bubble under the surface, our ages and other interests, like businesses, families and church work (I'm an ordained Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church for the Archdiocese of Chicago) preclude trying to make it one last time. Maybe we'll venture back into the studio, but I wouldn't hold my breath.