Drummer Ron Pell On A Summer Of Alive N Kickin’

By Scott Benjamin

In June 1970 drummer Ron Pell was driving his car while his Brooklyn friend, keyboardist Bruce Sudano, was ahead of him in a U-Haul van returning equipment from the most recent performance of their band, Alive N Kickin’. 

By then the band had become popular in New York City, having played the high-profile Action City club. There is a December 28, 1968 air check of a Musicradio77 WABC mid-day show with air personality Ron Lundy with a commercial for Dynamite, a music venue, which announced that Alive N Kickin’ would be appearing at an upcoming show. 

Now a year and a half later, the band had recorded its first song, written and produced by the famed Tommy James and his cohort Bob King. 

When Pell and Sudano heard “Tighter, Tighter,” which was listed at # 70 on the WABC music survey during the week of June 9, on the air, they pulled over and started to hug each other. 

“Getting it on WABC was huge,” Pell recalled in a January 27, 2017 phone interview with Musicradio77.com. “WABC had a large share of the audience and at night it could be heard in all parts of the United States.” 

Pell said over the coming months “Tighter, Tighter” would sell 1.3 million copies. 

“It’s a love song, which makes it a great summer song,” he said. 

“Aside from the lyrics, it partly has to do with a man and a woman both singing lead vocals going back and forth,” Pell said of the duo of Sandy Toder and Pepe Cardona, who still does 150 appearances a year in the new version of Alive N Kickin’, which he started in 1976. 

Cardona said that he considers it the most romantic song that Tommy James ever wrote. 

He said that years later former WABC night air personality Cousin Brucie told him that the first time he heard “Tighter, Tighter,” he knew it would be a hit. 

Pell said Cardona, whom he had met at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, modeled himself after James Brown, Joe Tex and Little Richard. 

Cardona had praise for Pell. 

“Ron was not only a talented drummer, he was very reliable as a person,” he told Musicradio77.com in a January 29, 2017 phone interview. 

Sudona became a protégé of Tommy James and was one of the co-writers on his 1969 hit, “Ball of Fire.”  He would marry the late Donna Summer - the disco queen of the late 1970s and early 1980s - and produce songs for artists from Michael Jackson to Dolly Parton, and is still active. 

For Pell, who began playing the drums at age 13, the summer 1970 represented a whirlwind in which he would see the single reach number 6 on the WABC music survey during the week of August 4 and remain on the chart through the week of September 1 and end up at #47 on WABC’s Heavy Hundred of 1970. 

Cardona said, “There was a period of days when we did American Bandstand, played at the Whiskey A Go Go, did a television show in Houston and then flew to Pensacola, Fla. where an air personality picked us up in a limousine and took us to the station to record promos and then do an interview. “ 

“There were days when you couldn’t wait to get up and see what the agenda had you doing,” he added. 

However, Pell remembers the less glamorous moments, such as in May and June 1970 when they drove the East Coast and made “$3,000 or $4,000 on a good night.” 

Pell said Alive N Kickin’s association with Tommy James came from his wife, Ronnie, being friends with Doris Toder, the sister-in-law of  Sandy Toder. 

Doris Toder, who became Alive N Kickin’s manager, convinced Tommy James to attend one of their concerts, which, according to Pell, eventually led to him offering them “Tighter, Tighter,” which was co-written and co-produced with Bob King. Alive N Kickin’ recorded it in late 1969. The record was released the next spring. 

Pell said he marveled at Tommy James’ production skills. 

“He was a genius,” he said. “In the studio he was like a technician. You didn’t have the digital equipment that you have today, but he would blend sounds. When he first played us the song, it didn’t sound good. But Tommy had a vision. He had a gift for editing and bringing different sounds together.” 

“Tommy was very prolific,” Pell added. “He knew how to create a hit record.” 

From 1966 to 1971, Tommy James along with Shondells and then as a solo act, had eight songs make the Billboard Top 10 survey. 

However, Pell said he believes James “regretted not doing [“Tighter, Tighter”]  first himself. I don’t think he recognized that it was going to be such a big hit.” 

Cardona said initially James gave them “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” which they rehearsed for three months. James took that back and recorded it himself and it soared to number-one on the WABC survey in August 1969 and was number-twelve on the station’s Top 100 of 1969. 

“It ended up being the correct decision,” said Cardona, who is still friends with James, who lives in New Jersey. 

Cardona explained, “We couldn’t have done as well with “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Tighter, Tighter” was meant for a male and female lead singer.” 

Pell said that Doris Toder, as the group’s manager, signed Alive N’ Kickin’ to Roulette, the same label that had Tommy James & The Shondells. 

In his 2010 memoir “Me, The Mob, And The Music ”(Scribner, 240 Pages), James wrote about the complex and terrifying relationship he had with Morris Levy, the president of Roulette, which was a front for a mafia operation. 

Wikipedia has reported that the late Levy at one point owed James $30 million to $40 million in royalties. 

Pell said Alive N Kickin’ had a similar experience in which Levy said they wouldn’t be paid for “Tighter, Tighter” - the album they later produced or the follow-up single, “Let It Come.” Both of the latter projects were produced by Bob King after Tommy James proceeded to other projects. 

“It was as though we had the audacity to ask Morris Levy for money,” he recalled. Alive N Kickin’ was told that to make money they would have to tour. 

Pell said by the fall, “the in-fighting had started” among Alive N Kickin’s members. “There were tensions. It happens to all groups.” 

“When you have a group of people, whether it’s a rock group or a sports team, confined to small spaces, such as cars and hotels, people are going to clash,” he explained. “It’s part of the human condition.” 

After a summer of touring, recording a follow-up single and an album that neither of which sold well, Pell returned for his senior year at Brooklyn College, where he would earn a bachelor’s degree in Communications that next spring. 

Alive N Kickin’ gradually disbanded. 

Cardona said if they had reached the biggest television venue, CBS’ “The Ed Sulllivan Show,” it might have kept the group together and Tommy James might have not moved on to other projects. He noted that the Brooklyn Bridge, who Alive N Kickin’ toured with, did the Sullivan show when “The Worst That Could Happen” was on the charts in 1969 and afterwards they had a small number of minor hits. 

By the mid-1970s, Pell was living in Connecticut and since he was familiar with radio from visiting stations during the group’s 1970 tour, he took the course at the Connecticut School of Broadcasting in Hartford and before completing it was on the air at WINF in Manchester. In addition to being an air personality, he sold commercial time, wrote copy and did production. 

But needing more money to raise a family, he pursued a referral in the sales department at WDRC in Hartford, the Connecticut’s number-one Top 40 station, and over the years held sales management positions. 

During his early years, the station was programmed by the beloved Charlie Parker, who was noted for developing contests that were copied across the country and having a good rapport with his air personalities. 

 Parker worked at the Big-D in various capacities from 1944 to 1983. 

“He loved being in Connecticut, but he was so good that he could have worked in New York City or Los Angeles,” Pell said. 

“When you look up genius in the dictionary, you see a picture of Charlie Parker,” he said. “He was under a lot of pressure, because WDRC was making considerable money for Buckley Broadcasting. But Charlie never got angry or excited.” 

Pell said he looks fondly on his days at WDRC. However, in 2006 he became the director of media relations for CRN International, based in Hamden, CT. He negotiates deals with such companies as MicroSoft, Hershey and Chrysler on promotions and podcasts and oversees the Connecticut Radio Network, which has been in operation for 44 years. 

Pell said that in a typical week 260 million Americans listen to audio programming. 

“That’s probably more than the number that watch television,” he said. 

“However, a lot of people don’t listen to the radio when they’re home,” Pell said. “It is still consumed mostly during the day and away from home. And now there are many options, particularly with satellite radio and more podcasts being available.” 

“There will always be the need for the local radio station,” Pell said. “However, even though you have CBS and Cumulus and the other big networks, there are a lot of stations that are part of a chain of five stations or less. The question becomes with so many audio options, how do those stations survive even if they might be the first source when you want to find out what the local weather is going to be.” 

Cardona said that 47 years later couples tell him that they remember “Tighter, Tighter” “because it was on the radio when they started dating or were getting married.” 

Pell said he still feels special every time he hears it.                 

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