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Analog Fog Over Albany: Return Of The Gray Things

Gray Things Steve Colfer and Billy Cioffi at WAMC studios, November 2015.
WAMC Photo by Dave Lucas

This weekend, Albany is revisiting its musical past. WAMC looks back at the 1960s when deejays ruled AM radio and local artists made history.

"There's nothing more amazing than hearing your record on the radio. One of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me was to be sitting with my family and hearing 'Charity' on the radio."  That's guitarist Billy Cioffi, who, along with Mike Olesko, Steve Colfer, Dennis Boyagian and Jack Warrington had been known locally as "The Shan-dels."  Their moment of fame seems to have been perfectly tuned to the times.  Rick Snyder was a DJ at local top 40 station WTRY.   "Every market had local hits, every one. For some reason. Could have been that the record company got to a local deejay to play something, could be there was an obscure record that someone had promoted in a market and it took off."

In 1966, students at Albany's Cardinal McCloskey High submitted the most petitions in a contest to host the radio station's annual "School-Spirit" concert.  The Shan-dels were picked to be one of opening acts for pop group The Lovin' Spoonful.  Billy Cioffi: "Since we were not from Cardinal McCloskey, people didn't know us. So when we got on the stage, they thought we were from New York or something. Chicks started screaming and yelling, it was insane. It was nuts!"

The audience reaction caught the eye of another local DJ, Lee Gray, who took the band under his wing, renaming them "The Gray Things," bringing them to the attention of Laurie records. You could say they were the "Sawyer Fredericks" of their analog time.

October 31st, 1966: the five high school students took a day off from classes, set out in a red VW microbus for Allegro Sound Studios in New York City. The very next day they recorded their first, their only, signature song.

"Charity" hit the Albany sound survey in December of 1966. The mid-60s bubble of fame quickly burst and the bandmates scattered.   "We were growing not only as musicians but as people, we were trying to decide what it is we were going to do and be with our lives. I know myself all I wanted to do was leave Albany."

Cioffi went west, collaborating with industry greats like Bo Diddley, George Harrison and Tom Petty, settling down in Arizona and going on to record a series of CDs with another band, The Monte Carlos.

Credit youtube
Young Steve Colfer

Drummer Steve Colfer:    "Yes, we all did take different paths. What commonality we have is 'Charity,' and it's pretty amazing, the longevity of that song, because if you go on YouTube, you'll see a number of posts from people all over the world have put on YouTube, whether it's the record itself or a compilation album that they found, like 'Mindrocker,' which is the largest collection of that musical genre in the world."

As 50 years passed  "Charity"  became wildly popular worldwide. Interestingly, the band never earned a dime from their "hit record."

Sunday at 5, the past comes home to downtown Albany as the Gray Things join other local bands from that era, including The Bougalieu, Cathedral, and The Sundowners for a 50th anniversary performance at the Hollow Bar + Kitchen on North Pearl Street.

Listen to a portion of the interview with Steve and Billy recorded at WAMC studios on November 25, 2015.

In case you missed Sunday's show, here's a video clip from youtube:

Analog Fog poster

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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