The Classics IV enjoyed pop music success in the 1960s with million-selling records including “Traces,” “Spooky,” and “Stormy.” In 2008, lead singer Dennis Yost passed away, but before he died, he hand picked vocalist Tom Garrett to carry on the legacy of the group.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Garrett and talked with him about his musical upbringing, his connection to Dennis Yost, in addition to his work with The Classics IV.
Spotlight Central: We understand that, originally, you’re a “Jersey Boy”?
Tom Garrett: Yes, I started out as a small child in New Jersey. I was born in Perth Amboy, and lived in Newark and Elizabeth. When I was seven years old, though, we moved to Saint Louis, which is where I grew up.
Spotlight Central: Were either of your parents musical?
Tom Garrett: My mom told me that when she was 17 or 18, she sang with a band in Bridgeport, CT, which is where she was born and raised — so, yes, there was music on my mom’s side a little bit. Unfortunately, she had health problems during her life so that prevented her from trying to do anything with it, but she had a great love of music, for sure.
Spotlight Central: As a youngster, did you play any instruments?
Tom Garrett: Yes, in school, I started playing trumpet. I wanted to grow up to be either Al Hirt or Herb Alpert — they were the hot trumpet players of the day. I was very fortunate that I had a band director in school who had been a road musician; he had toured with Harry James and the Dorsey brothers, so he was a real musician as opposed to strictly being a music teacher. When most other school bands were playing John Philip Sousa marches and stuff like that, we were playing music by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Al Hirt, and popular songs on the radio like “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Sgt. Barry Sadler. My music teacher felt that learning music had to be fun, and he thought the best way to do that was to allow us to play tunes that we knew, or at least had some familiarity with. Maybe you’d call it sort of a non-traditional approach to music eduction — but whatever we did, we knew not to chew gum in his class or there would be serious consequences!
Spotlight Central: What other kinds of music did you enjoy listening to growing up?
Tom Garrett: I listened to KXOK in St. Louis, which was the hot radio station; it was the Top 40 station in the area which was playing The Turtles, The Buckinghams, The Cowsills, and all that. That’s the stuff I used to listen to, but earlier on — I guess, when I was a little bit younger, maybe — I’d listen to Bobby Rydell and music like that. So I guess you could say I was into pop music and the early rock and roll music of the day.
Spotlight Central: Growing up, did you ever listen to the songs of the Classics IV on the radio?
Tom Garrett: I did. When “Spooky” came out in ’68, I was in high school. It was a great song and it was a “big play” song on the singles rock and roll radio stations, so I was definitely familiar with it. All in all, it was a fun time to be listening to music!
Spotlight Central: You’ve said that the first real band you joined was in St. Louis — a 13-piece group with a horn section. What was the name of the group and what kinds of music did you play?
Tom Garrett: The group back then was called the Du-Counts, and we played a weird mix of music. We had three singers, so we did Sam and Dave, The Righteous Brothers, B.J. Thomas, and that kind of stuff. It was a hot band, but with a 13-piece group, it was hard to make any money.
Spotlight Central: You played trumpet in that group, right?
Tom Garrett: I did.
Spotlight Central: But then you decided you wanted to put the horn down and focus on singing. Didn’t you have some sort of connection with Bob Kuban and the In-men — a band that had a hit with “The Cheater” — and especially with the group’s frontman, Walter Scott?
Tom Garrett: Yeah. Walter was the first famous person I’d ever met. At the time, “The Cheater” was a national hit — not to mention a huge hit in St. Louis — so to me, at the age of 15, Walter was a real mega-star.
As you can imagine I didn’t stay very long with the big 13-piece band. I had some musical buddies and we put together a country band, which I guess would now be classified as a country-rock band. We got a gig playing in a little nightclub in St. Louis called The Ranch Room, which was located in the basement of the Club Imperial Ballroom. The Club Imperial Ballroom was owned by a guy named George Edick, and as the story goes — at least the story that George told me — is that he’s the one who got Ike and Tina Turner going.
At any rate, Walter was playing upstairs in the big room, and my little band was playing downstairs in the night club, and I had an opportunity to meet Walter and we talked a little bit. I was just a kid trying to be a singer. Walter was very kind and very encouraging, and I even went over to his house a couple of times to hang out with him. To this day, I credit him in my bio as the guy who helped me feel that I could actually do this — to be a singer.
Spotlight Central: In 1980, you were part of a ’60s cover band called The Spectors. How long did you work with that group, and what headlining acts did you get to share the stage with?
Tom Garrett: I was with The Spectors for 29 years. In those 29 years, we opened for many artists: The Mamas and the Papas, The Lettermen, The Buckinghams, The Turtles, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and more. When I was with that band, I formed a lot of what I call friendships — although, at the time, some might have considered them acquaintances — you know what I mean? But I met so many nice people and had such a great time. That band was really a family, and I had a wonderful, wonderful time working with them.
Spotlight Central: Over the years, you became very friendly with a number of nationally-known recording artists including Tony Butala of The Lettermen?
Tom Garrett: Yeah, Tony is a dear friend of mine, to this moment. A promoter hired The Spectors to open for The Lettermen. This would have been 1987 — [jokes] I was three years old at the time — but it was to be the first time The Spectors were going to open up for a major act.
So we were all set up — and I’m not gonna lie; we were pretty psyched about doing this gig — but I looked over and I saw the promoter talking with Tony. Then, the promoter came over to me and said, “We’ve got an issue” and I said, “What’s that?” and he said, “The Lettermen don’t want an opening act.”
Now I’m a little guy but I’ve always been pretty mouthy, so I said, “That’s not an issue” — and I might have added a couple of other choice words, too — and then I said, “Give me my check.”
He said, “Yeah, yeah,” and then he went away, but he came back a couple of minutes later and said, “Hey, listen. Tony says, ‘You’re here. You’re set up. You’re ready to go.’ He’s gonna let you play.” And so we were the opening act The Lettermen didn’t want.
Tony and I met again later that night and struck up a little friendship. And about four or five months later — right around the holidays — I got a call from an agent in St. Louis asking The Spectors to come and do a show with The Lettermen. I said right there and then, “Well, let me stop you there. The Lettermen don’t use an opening act!” And the agent said, “No, no, no! It’s all good! I’ve talked to their agent and we worked it out because what’s gonna happen is you’re gonna open the show, and then The Lettermen are gonna do their show, and they’re gonna clear the room and there’s gonna be a dance afterwards, and you’ll play the dance,” and I said, “OK — but as long as Tony knows!”
That night, after Tony and The Lettermen did their show, Tony and Bob Poynton — another member of The Letterman — came down and they sat and listened to our set. Then Tony and I sat and talked until about 2 o’clock in the morning, and we’ve been close friends ever since.
Spotlight Central: Isn’t it also true that, during those days, you got to meet one of our favorite singers, Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers?
Tom Garrett: Yes. The first time I met Bill was in Branson, Missouri and I took a picture with him. With his height and my height and my hair being light, I can remember him, after looking at the picture, saying, “Well, darn, son! We are The Righteous Brothers!”
And, later, I got to know him through my affiliation with Concerts at Sea — doing shows where I would emcee. One day, I was seated — just waiting to do some stuff for the cruise — and Bill came over. There were numerous empty chairs around but he sat down next to me and he said, “Tommy! How you doin’?” and I later went back and told my wife, “Bill Medley knows my name!” And I can tell you that I’ve seen him again since then, and he still knows my name — he’s a nice, nice man.
Spotlight Central: You became connected with Dennis Yost in 2006 after he’d fallen and gotten hurt, and Tony Butala suggested you as a possible replacement for him with The Classics IV on stage. Did you have to go through an audition process to get the gig?
Tom Garrett: Yes, I had to audition. It’s a great story, but it’s a sad story. The first time I went to meet Dennis, I went with Mrs. Yost and my wife. I’d already submitted some audition tapes to Mrs. Yost and, as far as she was concerned, I was the guy to take Dennis’ place on stage. But now we were going to meet Dennis and play him some audition tapes.
We got there, and here was this guy who had millions of fans and sold millions of records, and he was sitting in this little rehab center by himself in a room with a little 12-inch TV, all alone. I will tell you that at that moment, it broke my heart — just like it still does. It absolutely breaks my heart.
But we played the audition tapes for him, and his wife, Linda, said, “What do you think, Dennis?” He looked at me and said exactly two words: “You’ll do.” Not, “That was great.” Not, “Not bad.” Nothing else. He just said, “You’ll do” — but he said it with a smile.
From then on, away we went, and I ended up meeting with Dennis many times. We had a plan for how we were going to do things with the band, but unfortunately we were only able to have Dennis on stage with us for one show.
Spotlight Central: We wanted to ask you about that night. We heard there was a show that Dennis was planning to attend, and something special ended up taking place? Can you explain what happened?
Tom Garrett: It was pretty amazing! We had a full house in Covington, Indiana. Before that particular show, the group hadn’t been working much, and Dennis hadn’t been working at all. But this was a place where Tony Butala had played — a supper club — and Tony reached out to the gentleman who owned the place and asked him about putting on this particular show, and the owner said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
So Tony was there. And I was on stage singing all these great Classics IV songs, and in the front row center staring up at me was Dennis Yost! Now these were his songs, and he was looking up at me as I was singing them, and after every song, I’d look down at him and he would smile!
During intermission, I asked Dennis, “Would you like to come up on stage?” and he said, “Yes.” Dennis had experienced some issues from the fall, but he was doing better, so we decided to bring him up on stage with Tony. Now besides The Classics IV having a hit with “Traces,” The Lettermen also had a hit with “Traces” in their “Traces”/“Memories” medley, and the three of us started singing “Traces.” So we had Tony on one side, we had Dennis on the other, and we had me in the middle.
And I’ve jokingly said this in interviews — as well as to anybody else whom I’ve told this story — but you know about this little kid’s thing where you have these pieces and shapes and you try to figure out which shape goes in which hole, and there’s a little song that goes with it which says, “One of these things is not like the other?”
Well, I was standing between these two guys and, trust me, there was no question that one of us was not like the other! I was just overwhelmed by the fact that I was standing there singing this huge hit record with these two phenomenal people. And it turned out to be a truly special night but, sadly, it was the last time we were ever able to be with Dennis on stage.
Spotlight Central: These days, you get to continue to keep the music of The Classics IV alive by singing all their great hits. Do you have any thoughts about performing a song like “Spooky”?
Tom Garrett: Well, “Spooky” was the second biggest hit for the group, but the most recognizable, in my opinion. The band starts to go [hums the instrumental introduction to “Spooky”] “Bamp-um dant-dant/dant-dant dah,” where you get out about three notes and everybody already knows the song. So it’s an honor — that’s the only way I can put it — it’s just an honor to walk out on the stage and represent the group and Dennis and sing that song.
And on the Happy Together Tour last year, for me to be able to come out and sing the four biggest Classics IV hits in the company of Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, Ron Dante of The Archies, The Turtles, The Buckinghams, and Gary Puckett? It was like I had died and gone to heaven! How else can I put it? It was an amazing opportunity and something I will never take for granted.
Spotlight Central: Do you have any particular thoughts about one of our favorite Classics IV songs, “Stormy”?
Tom Garrett: Yeah, I love “Stormy.” It’s a great song. I think it says so much about so many relationships — you know, where everything is going great, and “you are the sunshine of my life,” basically, but not today — today, things have gotten stormy. We’ve all been in those relationships. So it’s very cool to do that song. It has such great lyrics, and I love getting the audience involved. You’ve been to our shows, and you know that on “Stormy,” I like to get the audience to sing, “Bring back that sunny day.”
And the smiles! When I’m doing these songs, I love looking at the people, because the music — these songs — take people somewhere else. The people are sitting in that theater, but for that two minutes and 48 seconds — or however long the song is — they’re really somewhere else. And to me, that’s an amazing thing!
Let me share a story with you. We were doing a show in Lorain, Ohio, and I happened to go out in the lobby; I had some guests coming, and I wanted to make sure I got them situated. A lot of people don’t know what I look like, so I wasn’t worried about being recognized and getting mobbed by fans, but a gentleman came up to me and said, “Aren’t you with The Classics IV?” and I said, “Yes, I am.” He said, “Well, I’m here with my wife tonight,” and then he said, “She has a limited time left to live.”
It turns out that he and his wife were celebrating their 50th anniversary in advance, and they came to the show because “Traces” was “their song.” I got the couple’s names and asked the gentleman where they were going to be sitting.
When we were almost ready to do the song — during the number just before that one — I went out into the audience, and as I was singing and shaking hands and being with the people up close, I worked my way around behind where the couple was. The band knew what I was planning to do, so when that song ended, they got ready to play “Traces,” and I started talking.
And then I did “Traces” next to this man and his wife. She was in a wheelchair. And I have to tell you: I almost didn’t get to the end of the song — [voice cracks] all the love I could see between those two people! For that short little period of time, she wasn’t in a wheelchair, and she wasn’t dying. They were happy for that little bit of time, and I got to experience all of it with them. I will be eternally grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to make people smile for a few minutes.
Spotlight Central: That’s such a sweet story. We understand that, under your leadership, you and The Classics IV have released several albums, including some new songs. Can you tell us about that?
Tom Garrett: Sure. Actually, Tony Butala produced our first new album. You know how radio stations will often play a promo before an upcoming show? Well, I didn’t want our radio promo to have Dennis singing when I’d be the one showing up — I just didn’t think that was fair to our audience — so I wanted to go in and re-record the hits, and Tony produced all of those for us.
Basically, we made a six-song promo CD that had the group’s six most popular hits on it. Everybody knows “Spooky,” “Stormy,” “Traces,” and “Every Day with You Girl,” but there were also two other hits — “What Am I Crying For” and “Change of Heart’ — both of these were Classics IV songs that barely squeaked into the Top 40, but they were there.
Then I got an idea that we could do something else as well, and a friend of mine out of Nashville, Jess McEntire, called my bass player and said, “Kevin, I’ve been writing this song and the more I work on it, the more I think it’s a Classics IV song where I can just hear Tom singing it.” So Jess sent it to us, we listened to it, and I thought, “I think we might have something here.” It’s called “Teenage Lovers,” and it’s gotten airplay around the country.
We took that song and, also, another one which Joe Sadler, our guitar player at the time, wrote called “New Horizons” — it was a song about being on the road, where he incorporated little bits and pieces out of some Classics IV hits — and we put them on the record and named the album, A New Horizon, because, truly, we were crossing into a new horizon with what we were doing.
So, altogether, we ended up taking the six songs that Tony had produced, plus the two new songs, and then we added a version of Joe Cocker’s “Unchain My Heart,” which I just love, and another song called, “All in Your Mind.” And that album became the first material released under the Classics IV banner since 1972 or 1973, so I guess you could say we were able to get something out there that had my stamp on, if that makes sense.
Spotlight Central: Yes, of course. And you released a live album, too?
Tom Garrett: Yes, we did. I was thinking, “What can we do that hasn’t been done before?” At first, we toyed with the idea of doing a Christmas album, but then we decided to do a live album, and we recorded it in Tiffin, Ohio, at the Ritz Theater.
Spotlight Central: That album is called One Stormy Night: Live at the Ritz?
Tom Garrett: Yeah, One Stormy Night. My dear friend, Rex Burks, is a great guy; he lives in Dallas and is a record collector like you’ve never seen. He and I were talking and I told him we were going to call the new album Live at the Ritz and he said, “It needs something more.” I said, “Oh, I don’t know,” but he sent me a text which said, “One Stormy Night: Live at the Ritz” and that became the title.
Spotlight Central: Unfortunately, for the most part, live concerts have been suspended for the time being. What would you say to fans of The Classics IV who look forward to experiencing live music again?
Tom Garrett: I would say this: We are with you! We cannot wait to get back to work. It has been so hard. This is our job — it’s what we do — but, also, I always talk about the love of doing it, the love of the interaction with the audience. We did our last date in February in Texas. It was a fun date, but we certainly didn’t realize it was going to be the last one for awhile. It’s just hard to fathom.
We, as artists, love performing for audiences as much as audiences love seeing live bands. We want to be there! We want that interaction. We want to put a smile on your face — and we can’t wait for the opportunity to be able to do that again!
To learn more about Tom Garrett and The Classics IV, please go theclassicsiv.com.
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