The Choir's Randy Klawon and Jim Bonfanti Talk About the New Live Album the Band Recorded in Cleveland

click to enlarge The Choir, back in the day. - Courtesy of Conqueroo
Courtesy of Conqueroo
The Choir, back in the day.
Omnivore Recordings recently announced it’ll release Last Call: Live at the Music Box, a live recording of the Choir’s 50th anniversary performance that took place last year at Music Box Supper Club.

The band plays material from its last album, Artifact, and also covers tunes by Procol Harum, Billy Preston, Spooky Tooth, the Nice, the Kinks, Bob Seger and Jimmy Webb.

The current lineup, which includes Ken Margolis (keyboards), Phil Giallombardo (organ), Randy Klawon (guitars), Denny Carleton (bass) and Jim Bonfanti (drums), also delivers a rearranged version of its big hit “It’s Cold Outside” and brings the show to a conclusion with rounding renditions of "Conquistador" and "Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man."

The two-disc set, in stores June 5, also includes remembrances from each member of the band as well as photos from the night of the show.

In separate phone interviews, Bonfanti and Klawon recently spoke about the release.

This new live album is coming out at a time when most of the country is under lockdown. Does that make its release particularly bittersweet?
 [During this time], I've enjoy listening to my friends playing [on the internet], so I think this album [should provide some relief from the news]. We didn’t know that this was going to happen. I listened to some of the album yesterday, and it really sounds good. I’m biased, obviously, but the part of it that really gets me is that there are five musicians on that stage, and it sounds like orchestras are playing behind us. I’m very proud of it.
Klawon: We’re all in the same boat, and we’re all staring at the same walls. We need some sort of outlet. This could be a great thing to break out when the governor opens things up.

What was the Cleveland music scene like when the band started in the late ’60s?
Bonfanti: It was still rolling from the early ’60s. it really got going after the Beatles when everybody and their brother had a band. It kept rolling. Eric [Carmen] and I have had this conversation more than once. Back in the day, each city was isolated. You didn’t have the internet and things like that to help you keep in touch with the outside world. We couldn’t believe that there would have been an area other than New York or L.A. that had such a huge music scene as Cleveland did back that. It’s hard to say, but the scene here was huge. It was a great time to be in a band.
Klawon: It was fantastic. The bands were still fresh and new. The record companies weren’t in control at that time. You were still able to be creative. In the ‘60s and early’ 70s, there was a lot of creativity, and you saw different genres come out. You had the AM radio type stuff, but then, FM radio came in and that changed all kinds of perspectives. It opened everybody up to progressive music and seven minute and ten minute songs. You didn’t hear that on AM radio. The '60s were very fertile.

Did you guys know about the Beatles and the Who before the rest of the population knew about the Beatles and the Who?
Not really but a little bit. In the original version of the Choir, which was a band called the Mods, was Danny Klawon. He was a year or so older. He would discover all kinds of music that people didn’t hear about. There were so many bands that the Mods did music of that nobody knew about. Danny was really good at that. I can’t recall if we knew ahead of the curve, but it’s possible because of Danny.
Klawon: I think so. We played a show with the Who at the Music Hall in 1967. It was Herman’s Hermits and the Who. We were on that bill. I was 12 feet in the wings from [guitarist] Pete Townshend. I saw [drummer] Keith Moon throw his kit into the orchestra pit. It was amazing. Everybody saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. As these bands toured America, the Choir was on a lot of those shows. We were on the same bill with the Dave Clark Five and the Yardbirds and all kinds of bands.

How’d you wind up joining the band?
In the mid-’60s, there were all kinds of bands. I was in the Caverns. It was a band from Euclid. At the same time out in Lake County, which was the other side of the world from Euclid, the Mods existed. Somewhere along the line in the mid-’60s, our manager and their manager bumped into each other. They floated the idea of putting the two bands together and making one band. It didn’t work out like it was supposed to, but the end result is that that’s how I found out about the Mods. The band I was in wasn’t playing out. We were just practicing. I wanted to play in front of people, and the Mods were playing out. I went ahead and joined the Mods. That’s the short version of it. Danny [Klawon] was the drummer, so we had two drummers. But Danny also played guitar and harmonica. On some of the songs, he would play guitar and harmonica, and I would play drums on those songs. On the other songs by the Beatles and Hollies, I would stay on harmony out front and play percussion.
Klawon: My brother started the band, the Mods, which morphed into the Choir. I was just on the road with them. I was a roadie. I was setting up the gear for my brother. By the age of 16, I joined the band. I was already around.

Did you have some sense that “It’s Cold Outside” would become such a sensation when you recorded it?
I guess we hoped it would become a hit. The first thing that happened was when we went to Chicago to record it, they made us change our name. We went to record as the Mods. We were 16 years old and didn’t know anything about any of that. We were told we had to change the name to the Choir. It wasn’t the worst thing that happened. It was a year later that the song finally came out. We recorded it in 1966, but it didn’t come out until 1967. It came out initially on Canadian-American. It didn’t do much but Roulette Records picked it up, and it got regional airplay and notoriety. I think it got into the Top 100. I think it peaked out at around 70.
Klawon: Not really. That was my brother’s song. He wrote that song. I didn’t play on it. Wally Bryson was the guitar player. They recorded it in Chicago. We expected airplay in Cleveland, but it really took off. It’s still played on Little Steven’s radio show.

The band’s lineup shifted regularly after it formed, but the group had a strong local following. So what caused the band to break up in 1970?
At the end, we were just done. It was that simple. It went from ’65 to the end of ’69. That’s when it ended. There were many variations over the years. Danny [Klawon] was in and out of the later Choirs. This lineup was the one from ’68 and ’69 that recorded this live album. At the end of this Choir era in 1969, I intended to quit playing totally. The last show was at D'Poos. We played there and Eric [Carmen] came to that show and wanted to put a band together with me. I told him no. I was done playing. I thought I would be done. The good news for me was that all my friends who were interested in my drums were musicians who had no money, so nobody could buy my drums. I kept them, and it was April or early May of the following year. I realized I wasn’t done playing, so I called Eric up and we started the Raspberries. That’s how it went. I needed a four-month hiatus, I guess.
Klawon: Well, to be concise here, when we recorded the Artifact album, it was in February of 1969. By April of 1969, we had no response from the recording. Eric Carmen called me up and wanted me to join his band, the Cyrus Erie. They were well-established. They had a big nightclub where they played, and they had Marshall amps. They enticed me to join their band.

Talk about revisiting The Artifact, your "lost album" which finally came out in 2018.
It was great. It’s funny how that all went down. At the time, the Raspberries were putting out Pop Art and were signed with Omnivore. The thought crossed my mind. Denny Carleton called me one day. We recorded that album and it never came out. A few of the songs had come out on compilations. He took one of them and put it on Facebook and got a lot of response to it. He asked about us putting out a self-release of that album. I talked to Omnivore. I thought they might be interested. Once we got the Pop Art Live stuff done, I talked to them and they were definitely interested. They asked me if we had the original masters. I didn’t. I never looked for them or thought about it. So many years had gone by, it wouldn’t be a thought you would consider. We recorded it at Cleveland Recording. Ken Hamann was the engineer. He passed away and his son Paul moved the equipment out to Suma. I didn’t know that they had moved the stuff out there. I called Randy [Klawon], who knew some of them. I asked him to go over there to see if they had them. Not only did they have them, but they were in perfect condition. We did have them baked. Tommy Allen did everything he could to make them right. They remixed from the original multi-track. Tommy remixed it to today’s ears. We didn’t know but there was a song we recorded that we never put on the original album demo, wo we discovered a song. How lucky is all that?
Klawon: I was the one who found the tapes. They were in the basement at Suma Recording. When [the studio] was about to stop working and Paul [Hamann] was getting ill, I went there to find the tapes. When I went there, people from Pere Ubu and the James Gang were also there. We were all standing in the parking lot. One by one, we’d go in the basement and start retrieving these tapes. I found the one-inch masters. There were two reels and ten songs on them. I got the original tapes in my hand. I called Jim [Bonfanti] up, and he contacted Ominivore records. We got the thumbs up and sent them to Sonicraft in New Jersey. They transferred them to digital and from there it went to Tommy Allen in New York, who remixed it. From there, it went to Boston to get mastered and it went to California, and the label there was sold on it. They loved it.

That made you reunite?
We put it out, but we knew the days of selling millions of records were gone. Randy was all excited. He wanted to do some dates. I had done a Choir reunion in 2006. In my opinion, it didn’t go very well. I didn’t want to do that again. I had bad memoires of the last one, so we snuffed it a little bit. It came out in February and in the meantime, the band I’m playing in now, Abbey Rodeo, a local band that does some of the old songs I did back then, had talked to the Beachland about doing some event to celebrate our anniversary. We had been together for about 15 years. We had talked to the Beachland and [co-owner] Cindy [Barber] wanted an event about it. I said to the band, “There has to be a reason for someone to buy a ticket to see us when we usually play for free.” One night at practice, I said, “I have an idea. What do you think about doing a show with the Choir and us? We’re from the same era. It all works. People would buy a ticket for that. We could do something for the Beachland.” That’s how it went down. I just threw it out there and talked to everyone in the Choir and everyone was on board. We did those shows in November of 2018. It went really well. People told us we should do another one. I thought we would record it because I didn’t see anything down the road. Tommy Allen knocked it out of the park. He’s a good engineer and producer. The Music Box has good acoustics in there and a pretty nice system and a nice stage and everything. It was good. We just didn’t think to record the shows in November. This time, I figured we better.
Klawon: The success of that album was so cool and unexpected. We got together and played the Beachland and sold out the first night. We booked two shows there. That was so much fun. We had no plans to play another show. Everybody started talking again. We wanted to record the show. That was the main reason why we went ahead with it. We had a nice venue at the Music Box, and we had video and photographers set up. It was like a media blitz. We did it one more time for posterity. Lo and behold, the live recording from the Music Box really came out great. We got 23 of the 25 songs onto the CD.

That rendition of “Conquistador” is pretty rousing.
All of those Procol Harum songs were ones we did. We had nine or 10 originals, but we wanted to do a longer show than that, and we wanted to pick out songs that influenced us. It was one that we did. Back then, we did it like Procol Harum’s version on their album before they added the orchestra. We kind of took that along with what they did later and melded the two together. It really cooked. We added a few different things. I liked that song a lot. It came out really well.
Klowan: That was so much fun.

That energy bleeds into “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” That was in the encore, right?
Yes. That was the last song we had in our arsenal. We had played every song. We did 25 songs at the show, two of which featured our background singers on a solo. For whatever reason, they used a wireless microphone and something happened on those two songs only that we couldn’t fix. It’s weird because a minute or so is okay and then it gets goofy. Sadly, we couldn’t put those on. We did 25 songs at the show, but there’s only 23 on the CD.
Klowan: That drumbeat on that intro is so powerful and just draws everybody in. The background singing is so cool. The girls did a great job on that. That was the way we closed the night.

Any chance you’ll reunite again for more concerts?
I mean, you know, that’s a hard question to answer. If I had an answer, I would say I don’t know that there would be a reason. But you never know if that reason came around. There are no plans to play. Let’s put it that way.
Klowan: There’s no plans right now, but we said that two years ago too. I’m hopeful we can play again, but we’ll see how this record gets received. Maybe there will be another opportunity for us.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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