Everything's Turned All Around

The Choir comes in from the cold.

Still cold outside: The Choir boys ditch their day jobs for two nights this week.
Still cold outside: The Choir boys ditch their day jobs for two nights this week.
In the spring of 1967, the Choir hit it big with "It's Cold Outside," a wistful ode to a lost girl that shouldered past Nancy and Frank Sinatra's "Somethin' Stupid," making stars of local boys Dan Klawon, Wally Bryson, Dave Burke, Dave Smalley, and Jim Bonfanti.

Now those Mentor High School boys are back, at least for a couple of shows this weekend.

Nostalgia runs deep with "It's Cold Outside," which is nearly as much a Cleveland anthem as that 1966 chestnut "Time Won't Let Me" by the Outsiders. Like the Buckinghams' "Don't You Care," the Turtles' "Happy Together," and other tunes from what would come to be known as the Summer of Love, "It's Cold Outside" braided pluck with despair, woe with wonder.

Driven by Burke's thick bass and Smalley and Bryson's ringing guitars, Klawon's opening verse heralded a band on the rise: "Well, my world used to be sunny/And jokes used to be funny/But now you're gone/And everything's turned all around."

The song found heavy rotation at AM powerhouses WIXY 1260, WHK 1420, and WKYC 1100, eventually reaching as high as No. 68 on the Billboard charts. At the time, bands all over the country, particularly in Cleveland, were being influenced by the British Invasion.

"When the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan, every town had a band that responded to the Beatles," says Joe Madigan, a John Carroll University senior who hosts a Tuesday-afternoon retro radio show on WJCU-FM 88.7. "In Cleveland, that band was the Choir."

Like the Byrds and the Beau Brummels, the Choir delivered memorable vocal harmonies and ringing guitars. They were good enough to open for the Who, Herman's Hermits, and the Blues Magoos at the Music Hall in late 1967.

The bandmates perfected their sound in the Mods, an earlier incarnation of the Choir. They had a standing Saturday-night engagement at the Painesville Armory, for which the group was paid $14 a week.

"It was a great time to be in a band in Cleveland," Bonfanti recalls. "I can't remember the Mods ever playing in a bar; it was all high school stuff or armories."

Facing a legal challenge, the Mods changed their name to the Choir in 1967 and continued to play the Hullabaloo circuit, a collection of alcohol-free teen clubs in Mentor, Chesterland, and North Ridgeville.

"The band that recorded 'It's Cold Outside' was really the Mods, and they played Finlandia every Saturday night," Bonfanti says.

The lineup added Kenny Margolis shortly after the song dropped off the charts, then disbanded in 1970.

"We made a few bucks playing around," says Smalley, who lives in Phoenix, "but back then, it was tough to survive. Most of us still lived at home. It was just something that, boom! It was there."

While the Choir never repeated its initial success, Bryson, Smalley, and Bonfanti went on to greater fame, joining Eric Carmen in the Raspberries, one of the most successful Cleveland groups of the 1970s. The Raspberries filled a void created by the breakup of the Beatles and the creative decay of the Beach Boys, notching such hits as "Go All the Way," "Overnight Sensation," "Let's Pretend," and "I Wanna Be With You" before eventually breaking up in 1975.

When the Raspberries reunited in late 2004 and delivered several concerts, they found that loyal fans were still hankering to hear "It's Cold Outside" live.

"We'd get a lot of requests for it," Bonfanti says. "Raspberries fans know the history, so we'd play that song. It was kind of strange, being that young and not really knowing the impact -- that it would become a classic."

Getting the Choir back together hasn't been easy. But it has proved more of a draw than expected, necessitating the addition of a second show.

"I'm amazed that tickets are selling," says Klawon, an electrical contractor who sings and plays piano at Lakeside Baptist Church in Painesville. "I sort of half-expected to say they're not selling and cancel the gig."

The closely chaperoned teen dances and the Catholic Youth Organization soirees are but memories, the armories are silent, and the Hullabaloos long gone, but in some ways, the Beachland resembles Finlandia Hall, the Fairport club where the Choir last played, back in 1989.

"It hit me that the Beachland is like Finlandia Hall, but bigger," Bonfanti says.

To the Choirmen, comfort is now as much a concern as creativity. These guys have had day gigs for decades and, except for Smalley, Bonfanti, and Bryson, don't have much time for music anymore. The two-night stand at the Beachland offers them a chance to reconnect both with fans and with each other.

"It's exactly like a high school reunion," says Klawon. "We were all high school friends."

Even if you can't make the show, it's worth checking out "Choir Practice," a 1993 compilation on Sundazed. Besides "It's Cold Outside," the CD contains Bryson's plaintive "When You Were With Me," jazz-inflected instrumentals from later versions of the group, and a tart cover of the Kinks' "David Watts."