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Your backstage pass to Northeast Ohio's independent music scene.

Shuffle: The Choir Will Sing Again at the Beachland Ballroom This Weekend

One of Cleveland’s most successful local bands of the 1960s is reuniting this weekend. This week’s Shuffle examines The Choir, their lost album, and their upcoming shows at The Beachland Ballroom.

Jim Bonfanti spent the 1960s providing the foundation for The Choir, both on the drums and by being the only constant member of the band’s ever-changing lineup.

“I was in a band from Euclid called The Caverns. The Mods were from Mentor – they all went to Mentor High School. All I knew is that The Caverns, we practiced all the time. We never played out, we didn’t make any money. The Mods played out every week and I think they were making $7 or $10 a week. When you’re 15 or 16 and it’s 1965, it was like, ‘that’s pretty good.’”

When Bonfanti jumped ship for The Mods, they changed their name and The Choir was born. The band gained a big following in the area’s teen clubs: small, alcohol-free halls where local groups could play and build up their fanbase. After a nearly 50-year hiatus, the band is taking the stage again at the Beachland Ballroom this weekend.

“This band has Randy Klawon. And Denny Carleton plays bass. Kenny Margolis, Phil Giallombardo and myself. That's the Choir that's playing at the Beachland,” but it wasn’t quite the lineup that played on the band’s biggest hit, “It’s Cold Outside.”

“There were so many [members]-- you needed a scorecard to keep track, because this guy would be in this band, then he’d be in this band.”

Changing members, and styles
The constant changes led to the band’s sound evolving throughout the ‘60s, from the tight pop construction of “It’s Cold Outside” to longer instrumental pieces by the end of the decade.

“Music itself just started to change that way. FM radio started coming in; AM radio was less. So it was just a natural progression for us. A matter of fact, we did a lot of jamming. And that’s kind of where music was at the time. You’d start a song, and you’d be playing it, and you’d go into a little part and the guitar player would pick up a little riff and start playing that. We’d kind of tagalong and run that out for a while and the keyboardist would come up with something. So it was kind of a lot more jamming.”

Enter The Wild Child
About that time, Bonfanti says the band started to get the attention of DJ Dick “The Wild Child” Kemp.

“He loved that band and he wanted us to go into the studio and record. We recorded 10 songs, and all this time, totally forgot about that. Never was released. We recorded it all, nothing ever happened. So, The Choir breaks up. One of the songs was a Kinks cover, ‘David Watts.’”

That cover was on a low-resolution copy of the band’s work from the late 1960s, and was posted last year to Facebook by guitarist Randy Klawon. Bonfanti says the response was strong enough that they got some inquiries from Los Angeles-based Omnivore Recordings for more material. The Choir album had been recorded in 1969 at the Cleveland Recording Company, which later morphed into Suma Recording.

“I said to Randy, ‘why don’t you go out to Suma, maybe they have our tapes there?’ And they did. They had the original master. And more importantly, they were in good shape. So many things could happen -- none of them good -- but there they were. So that was just unbelievable.”

'No rhyme or reason'
The rescued tapes were remixed using modern technology, and the result is “Artifact,” an LP which marries The Choir’s original pop sound with then-emerging progressive rock.

“We were young kids. Randy, he was like 17. I’m listening to him play – it was pretty impressive. Phil was just amazing. Kenny, I love his voice. It kind of brought back that, ‘this is a good band that could play with anybody.’”

Bonfanti says the album was shopped around at the time and never generated any interest. But it’s been a thrill to see it finally issued to the public.

“I can’t tell you how many reviews that said, ‘why didn’t this ever happen?’ That’s the million-dollar question: ‘Why?’ Who knows why. There’s no rhyme or reason. A year later, or two years later, who knows? A different pair of ears might hear it and go, ‘oh, that’s great.’ It’s just the luck of the music business. Or, no luck.”

Bonfanti did find some luck after The Choir. One of the band’s fans was another local musician, Eric Carmen. In 1970, the pair formed The Raspberries, becoming one of the most successful bands to ever come from Northeast Ohio.

“Shuffle” is WKSU’s weekly spin through northeast Ohio’s music scene.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.