The Cyrkle is a 60s-era rock band which is well-known for their hits, “Red Rubber Ball” and “Turn Down Day.” Founded by lead singer/guitarist Don Dannemann, the band toured with The Beatles, opening for them at the Fab Four’s final show at Candlestick Park in 1966. After breaking up, The Cyrkle reunited nearly a half-century later with Dannemann at the helm, performing concerts around the country, including their first revival show at The Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Dannemann to ask him about his early musical memories, his rise to fame with The Cyrkle, his recollections of touring with The Beatles, and what he’s been up to lately.
Spotlight Central: We understand you were born in Brooklyn to a mom who played the piano. Is it true that your mom said you were already humming songs when you were only 10 months old?
Don Dannemann: Yes, that’s actually true. My mom told me that when I was only 10 months old, she was diapering me and she was humming the song, “Little Brown Jug,” and I hummed it back to her. Now, I don’t remember that, obviously, but that’s what she told me.
Spotlight Central: You’ve said that in fifth grade, you can recall listening to Alan Freed’s 1010 WINS show on your transistor radio. What kind of music were you interested in at the time?
Don Dannemann: As a family, I remember when we would travel in the car, we would listen to Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom, and I was always interested in the music he played. But around 1955, for my birthday, I got a transistor radio, and I was sitting on the front porch of our home in Brooklyn when I came upon Alan Freed’s rock and roll show on WINS in New York and I was transfixed. The first song I heard was a song called “Story Untold” by The Nutmegs and it just caught me. I remember listening and listening — to the point where I even missed my favorite TV shows — and thinking “I want to do that! This is great!”
Spotlight Central: After taking piano lessons, influenced by Elvis, you started taking guitar lessons. Tell us about how, as a youngster, you began your recording career with a tape recorder you received as a gift.
Don Dannemann: It’s interesting you mention that. This would have been, probably, around eighth grade or so. I had gotten a tape recorder as a present, and not long after, I was given a second tape recorder. As soon as I got the second tape recorder, the first thing I did was put the two tape recorders next to each other to record myself performing the song, “In the Still of the Night.” I recorded the first part [sings] Sh-doo, shoo-be-doo/Sh-doo, shoo-be-doo” into the first tape recorder. Then I put my head next to the speaker of the first tape recorder and I took the mike of the second tape recorder and I put it in front and sang the second part, the harmony. Then I went back and forth a few times with that between the two recorders, and finally sang the lead. It was an awful recording — it was hissy and there was room noise and all that — but it was correct. It was the way overdubs were done later on and even now — where you can sing along with yourself — and I did exactly that with my two tape recorders, so I guess you could say I got started with multi-track recording pretty early on.
Spotlight Central: As a high school student, you played in different groups and then, at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, you founded a band called The Rhondells. What kind of music did you play and where did you perform?
Don Dannemann: The Rhondells got started at a freshman mixer at Lafayette College during my freshman year. A couple of guys started playing when the hired band took a break and a friend of mine said, “Hey, Don, you should go play with them.” I got my guitar and went down and started playing with them, and it was one of those magic moments where we all went, “Wow, we can play the same stuff!” It was basically rock of the time — Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and some doo-wop stuff. Soon after, we started rehearsing and a major thing happened at Christmas when my high school girlfriend broke up with me. It really made me very sad, but it freed me up to say, “All right, my girlfriend’s gone. I don’t care about seeing girls on party weekends, so if you guys want to get some jobs for the band, let’s do it.”
My bandmate, Jim Maiella, who was our first drummer at college — Marty Fried, the original Cyrkle drummer, came about two years later — got us a job playing a fraternity party at Lehigh University, which was just down the road a bit from our college. So we started playing fraternity parties doing the rock and roll music of the time and, over the course of our stay at Lafayette, we became the band to get for fraternity parties.
Spotlight Central: For two summers in a row, The Rhondells had a summer gig playing in Atlantic City at the Alibi Bar. That’s where you were heard by a New York City lawyer, Nat Weiss, who introduced you to his business partner. Tell us what happened there?
Don Dannemann: We were playing at the Alibi Bar during our second summer there — this was the summer of 1965 — when I had already graduated from Lafayette, our original keyboard player Earl Pickens had graduated, our bass player Tommy Dawes had about six months left to go, and Marty Fried our drummer had a full year to go. Basically, we were going to break up and go our separate ways — we’d already acknowledged what a great time we’d had together — when Nat Weiss walked into the Alibi Bar, heard us, and introduced himself. He said, “My name is Nat Weiss and I’m a good friend of The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. We’re forming a management company here in this country and if you’re interested, give me a call,” and we all thought, “Baloney, baloney, baloney — we’d heard all of this before.”
So summer was over and I was back living with my parents in Eastchester — which is a suburb of New York City in Westchester County — and Tom and Marty and I were still playing occasionally back at Lafayette, and I was working for my dad at the sheet metal factory, and I thought, “Well, why don’t I give this guy Nat a call? Maybe it’s for real?”
So I called Nat and he remembered me and said, “Oh, yeah, Don! Great to hear from you!” and he gave me an address and a time and said, “Come down to this place and I’ll introduce you to Brian.”
So, gulp, “OK!”
I drive down with a buddy of mine. It was the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and it was a small walk-up building in the middle of the block. I walk up to the first floor where he told us to go and there was a party going on, but Nat wasn’t there. It took awhile, but he finally showed up and I said, “Hey, Nat, here I am.” He said, “Oh, yeah, Don, follow me down.”
And I follow him down, and there’s a limo parked right outside on the street, and with a very magnanimous gesture with his hands, he opens the door and beckons me into the limousine. I follow him in and he sits me down and, son of a gun, I am now sitting face-to-face with Brian Epstein! To me, this was just incredible, and I’m just trying to be very cool about all of this. So Nat introduces me — and whenever I tell people this, I have to preface it by saying that I’m a pretty good guitar player, but I’m not an incredible guitar player — but Nat, however, introduces me saying, “Brian Epstein, I would like you to meet Don Dannemann, one of the finest musicians I know.”
So, gulp, again.
I shake Brian’s hand and there’s a little exchange back and forth. I say, “Brian, wow! We’re such big Beatles’ fans and it was great to meet Nat, and now it’s great to meet you, and maybe we can get something going.” And Brian, who in all of our interactions with him was always a gentleman; just a very lovely person — says in his very English accent, “Oh, yes, Don. Nat has spoken very highly of you. We are looking forward to, perhaps, getting something going with you, so stay in touch with Nat and I’ll be back and forth and we’ll see what happens.”
Then, as graciously as Nat beckoned me into the limo, he now opens the door and beckons me out, and I’m out standing in the street watching the limo slowly pull off into the dark where, like in a video, it just fades out.
Spotlight Central: So Brian Epstein became your manager and the band became The Cyrkle. Where did the name come from and who came up with the unique spelling?
Don Dannemann: So here we were with our new management contract with Brian Epstein and Nat Weiss, along with our new Columbia Records recording contract. We were still in the early stages of all this and still known as The Rhondells from Lafayette College, but we knew we needed a new name and were constantly thinking, “Well, what could the new name be?” One day, we were recording at Columbia and Brian Epstein was in town and he came to the studio. He walked up to me and said, “Hey, Don, take a look at this,” and he handed me his business card. It was a typical business card and I could clearly see it said “Brian Epstein” on it, but he said, “Oh, no, no — turn it over!” so I turned the card over where I could see some scribbling that was a little hard to read: “CYR… KRR…?”
“I’m sorry, Brian, what am I reading here?” I ask, and he says, “Don, this will be your new name! As you can see, it’s ‘The Cyrkle,’ but notice the funny spelling. When I was back in Britain, I talked to ‘the boys’…” — he always referred to The Beatles as “the boys” — “…and I told them we have a new American group and we need an interesting new name for them, so I asked, ‘Does anybody have any ideas?’ And it was John who came up with ‘The Cyrkle’ with the funny spelling. You know how John thinks — he always has an interesting imagination — he’s the one who came up with the name.”
So there we were. We were now The Cyrkle. It came from John Lennon, and I’m so honored to have been named by him. It’s an amazing little piece of history.
Spotlight Central: And it’s so cool how your group name has an unusual spelling just like The Beatles! You mentioned that The Cyrkle signed a deal with Columbia Records. One of the first songs the band recorded for Columbia was “Red Rubber Ball,” which was co-written by Paul Simon. Although you’ve said that it took you guys until 6am to record it, you’ve also suggested you weren’t particularly enamored with the song at first. Why not?
Don Dannemann: Well, this is just me, personally. I thought it was a cute song, but that’s about it for me; I thought, “Yeah, it’s cute. Let’s record it and let’s see what happens.” So we recorded it. The recording obviously turned out quite well and it became a huge hit. Even during the time it was a hit and during the time we were out there performing it, I still thought it was a cute song, but not incredible. That said, let me give you my sense of how I found out that “Red Rubber Ball” — and our recording of it — actually is incredible.
Way later — we’re talking in the mid-’80s — after the group had broken up and we had gone our separate ways, I got into producing commercials, and I had a very lovely career doing that. A small record company called Sundazed got the license to release our stuff — they specialized in oldies music — and they wanted comments about the material. I was all by myself in an airplane flying somewhere and I thought, “All right, let me listen to what they gave me.” It was a cassette with a Walkman and a pair of headphones. I put my head down and started to listen to the tape and “Red Rubber Ball” was the first thing that came on. I hadn’t listened to it for awhile, so now I’m really listening to it, and in the first second or two, I actually have an epiphany.
The sound of “Red Rubber Ball” — as soon as it comes on — it just sounds like a hit. It has its own unique sound quality. It has elements that just bring you in — there’s the organ [sings] Bah-bah, bah-da-bah-pah” and the guitar [sings] “Bah-dah, buh-dah, dah da-dah-da-duh” And then it goes on to our vocal, which I start out, and then my bandmate Tommy — who, sadly we’ve lost — joins me, and the harmony is just our sound. Nobody else sounds exactly like us, and I start to realize, “Wow! I understand why it was a hit record.” So that’s one thing.
The next thing I can share with you in terms of my newfound appreciation of “Red Rubber Ball” is: fast-forward to the current revival that we’re now in, where we have revived The Cyrkle. I have found that in meet-and-greets which we do after concerts, I’ll get comments.
Sometimes, it’s simple stuff where people will just come up to me and say, “Wow, I love ‘Red Rubber Ball.’ It was my first 45. I played it to death. It’s a great, great song. Great memories.” That’s one.
Second, a guy comes up to me, shakes my hand, and he says, “Thank you.” I say, “You’re welcome, but why are you thanking me?” He says, “I want you to know that ‘Red Rubber Ball’ got me through my divorce. I would get up in the morning and that song would come on the air and it just brought me up! That lyric, ‘The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball…,’ was just amazing.”
And the last one I’ll share with you is one which brought me to tears. An older gentleman with a veteran’s hat came up to me and said, “I want you to know that in ‘Nam, we had a little battery-operated tape recorder that had ‘Red Rubber Ball’ on it. I can’t tell you how many battles that song got us through.” And we hugged and teared up.
And so, what I have realized — and it’s amazing that it took me this long to realize it — is that “Red Rubber Ball” was, has become, and continues to be, an “up anthem” of that era. You know? It really affected thousands and thousands of people — it had a good effect on thousands and thousands of people — some of whom I’ve gotten to meet since our revival and, as a result, I’m honored to have been a part of that song.
Spotlight Central: In 1966 “Red Rubber Ball” sold over a million copies, it earned The Cyrkle a gold record, and it went to #2 on the Billboard pop chart, where it was only kept out of the #1 position by The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.”
Don Dannemann: Yeah, “Paperback Writer” kept us out of the #1 spot, and I actually mention that in our show. After a few songs, as a part of the show, I’ll address the audience and say, “You all know how big ‘Red Rubber Ball’ was — it was a huge song with a lot of influence on a lot of people — but I’m sad to say that ‘Red Rubber Ball’ only made it to #2.” Then I’ll put my head down and the audience will usually say, “Awww….” And then I’ll finish it up by saying, “But the following song was #1” at which point we bang into “Paperback Writer.”
Spotlight Central: The Cyrkle’s next single, “Turn Down Day,” became a Top 20 hit for the band in 1966, but we understand that one day in the studio, Paul Simon said to you, “Here’s a song we’re recording on our latest album which I think would be perfect for you guys.” Which song was that — and did you take his advice?
Don Dannemann: No! That was probably one of the biggest brain freezes of the 20th Century! I also talk about that in the show, too. Basically, we were in the studio and Paul Simon — who was just finishing up his latest Simon and Garfunkel album — came up to us and said, “There’s a song on the new album that I think might be perfect for you guys. The album’s not coming out for awhile so if you want to do it, you can put it out as soon as you want and it’ll be your song.”
We listened to it, and everybody in the studio was bopping around. It was just a wonderful “up” moment where we all agreed, “Yeah, it’s a hit.” And the song ended — and then this big brain freeze cut in — and we looked at each other and agreed, “It is really good, but just not for right now. Maybe this would be better to do in six months. Let’s just continue with what we were doing.”
And then, at our shows, I’ll say to the audience, “So, ladies and gentlemen, we didn’t do the song, but I’ll let you decide if we made a mistake, because had we done it, it would have sounded like this…” and then we bang into our version of “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).”
Spotlight Central: Yeah! In the summer of ’66, Bobby Hebb, well-known for singing “Sunny,” and The Ronettes, famous for “Be My Baby,” joined you in opening for The Beatles during their US Tour. You were even there for The Beatles’ final concert at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. Do you have any special memories of that historic final performance?
Don Dannemann: The thing I remember most about that last concert at Candlestick was George Harrison taking personal pictures and saying, “Just in case we don’t play these kinds of concerts anymore, I thought I’d like to have some personal memories” — and it turned out that was their last in-person concert. Evidently, they had been talking about maybe not playing in-person shows anymore and just doing the more intricate studio stuff they wanted to do. So that actually is my main memory of Candlestick — George taking pictures and making that comment about The Beatles possibly not playing live concerts any more.
Spotlight Central: Definitely some foreshadowing there! It’s been said that The Cyrkle was one of the bands that was the inspiration for the Tom Hanks’ movie, That Thing You Do. Do you know if that’s true?
Don Dannemann: I don’t, but I can tell you that when you look at that movie, the band’s story is a bit like ours. So whether that was an inspiration, I don’t know — I never had any contact with anyone associated with the film — but if you look at our history and our story and then look at that movie, there’s a relationship.
Spotlight Central: You mentioned that after so many years of the band being apart, The Cyrkle was recently revived with several new members, and one of your first live concerts was at The Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ. After all of those years, how did it feel to be back on stage and playing live music again?
Don Dannemann: I can’t tell you what a kick it’s been! I’m 77 years old now — and we started this a couple of years ago — but to be able to get on stage and to play rock and roll and to still be in pretty good health? Thank God, I’m in pretty good health and I can bop around on stage and my voice has held up — but it is a thrill to be on stage. And when we played in Lakewood, that was actually our first commercial concert after the band’s revival, and we didn’t know how it was gonna go. We only got to play it because another band had to cancel and there was an opening so the promoter, Joe Mirrione, asked us to be a part of the show. With this being our first commercial performance, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but after “Red Rubber Ball” finished, the crowd responded with a standing ovation and we thought, “Wow, this is great!”
Spotlight Central: With concerts generally being postponed lately, what have you been up to?
Don Dannemann: Well, I’ve actually been doing a fair amount of interviews, which is kind of cool; I get a lot of requests for them and I’m happy to do them. There are a few recording projects that we have going on, as well. The Cyrkle is doing an album. And I was also approached to see if I’d be interested in doing a duet of a doo-wop song with a young singer named Chris Ruggiero. I did it — and I also produced the music part of it, which I mixed in my studio in my basement — and we did a video of it which has already gotten thousands of views on social media so far, and we’re gonna do more of those, actually. So between that and The Cyrkle project, I’ve been sort of busy.
Spotlight Central: Is there anything you’d like to say to music lovers who are looking forward to seeing the group live in concert — or anything else you’d like to add?
Don Dannemann: I’d suggest they go to thecyrkle.com, or go to “The Cyrkle” on Facebook, and at the point when we’re able to start performing again, they’ll be able to see where and when we’re doing it. Right now, we just don’t know — but we certainly do miss it. Just to reiterate, however: It’s been a real honor to have been a part of “Red Rubber Ball” and to have had an influence on so many thousands of people and to get to meet some of them, so I guess you could say I’m just looking forward to it all continuing!
To learn more about Don Dannemann and The Cyrkle, please go to thecyrkle.com.
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