The Mystics are a doo-wop group from Brooklyn, NY. The group’s biggest hit, “Hushabye,” climbed the charts in 1959, a disc called by critics “one of those perfect records” which exemplifies the doo-wop genre.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Al Contrera, an original member of The Mystics, and asked him about his musical childhood, his rise to fame with the group, his work with several notable singers, and what he’s been up to lately.
Spotlight Central: You’re from Brooklyn, NY. Did you grow up in a musical family?
Al Contrera: No, not at all. No one in my family was musical, in any sense of the word, except my mother and father did play music all the time in the house. But that’s really as far as it went — they played records — 78s.
Spotlight Central: What kind of records did you listen to?
The music that was popular at the time. Don’t forget, I’m talking about the early ’50s, so we would listen to big band music, like the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Eventually, though, as we got into the middle to late ’50s, I started to listen to rock and roll — [laughs] but my parents never listened to rock and roll.
Spotlight Central: Did you play any musical instruments when you were a kid?
No, I wanted to take drum lessons — because I really liked the drums — but we lived in a very tiny apartment in Brooklyn and it doesn’t make any sense to be a drummer and live in an apartment. There’s no place to put the drums!
Spotlight Central: We know, however, that you became a singer. How did you get involved in that?
That’s a good part of my story. As a kid, I went to New Utrecht High School on New Utrecht Avenue and 79th Street. There was a little candy store right around the corner that I probably spent more time in than I did in school. We used to go there for egg creams and sodas, and to hang out and stuff like that.
So I was in there one day with a good friend of mine and I’m at the counter with a couple of guys and I asked the guy behind the counter, “Could you give me an egg cream?” And a young guy who had just come in and sat down next to me says, “Wow? Are you a singer?” and I said, “No! What would make you think I’m a singer?” He says, “Because you have a really deep bass voice,” and I said, “No” and paid him no mind, but he says, “You know, I’m a singer.”
Now, at this time, I’m in high school so I’m maybe 16, 17 years old — and he was a senior — so I said to him, “Oh, you are?” And he says, “Yeah, I sing with a local group called The Overons,” and I said, “Well, that’s nice.” Although I loved music and I listened to it on the radio, I never considered myself a singer, but he says, “It’s hard to find young guys who have a deep voice.”
So I didn’t pay much attention to him and just went on talking — just me and the other guys. But the guy goes over to the juke box, puts a coin in, and chooses a song saying, “Hey, listen — when this song comes on, just try to sing along with it.”
I said, “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. I am not a singer!” He says, “Just do me a favor!” and my friend who I was with says, “Yeah, try it out! Try it out!” so I said, “OK.”
The song was “You’ll Never Know” by The Platters, right? It comes on and it goes [sings in deep bass voice] “You’ll never know.” And I did it! I didn’t realize I could do it, but I did.
And this guy — his name was Tony Armato — he went crazy! He says, “Oh my God! You’re a bass! You’re a singer!” and I said, “Oh, come on. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” but that’s the beginning of how I got involved in singing. He asked me to join his group as a bass singer and it went from there.
Spotlight Central: So The Overons invited you to become a member of their group. What kind of songs were you singing, and did you start performing right away?
Well, we didn’t perform right away. We really didn’t have a group yet. Like everybody else, we were just trying to learn. In 1956 and 1957 there were groups on every corner, and all of them were trying to become singing groups. But we really didn’t know how to harmonize yet. So we had to practice. We would go to one of the guys’ houses to practice. And I do remember singing a song somebody selected called “For Sentimental Reasons” — you know, [sings] “I love you/For sentimental reasons.”
The method to learn how to sing harmony at that time was: you’d put a record on and all five guys would try to emulate what they thought was their part based on their vocal ability. Of course, I was the bass, so I tried to do the bass, the tenor would try to do the tenor…and we kept doing it over and over. Now, we had no formal music training. We had no idea what the hell we were doing! But after awhile, it almost sounded like something — while we were singing with the record. When we took the record off, though, we sounded terrible, so we knew we had a lot further to go.
In those days, none of us played instruments and none of us had any musical training, so it was kind of like a trial and error thing. But by the same token, trial and error meant the guys who really couldn’t sing eventually dropped out on their own because they realized they really couldn’t sing. Some, however, had to be told “You can’t sing.” So it was a heck of a method to get this thing done, but eventually with a lot of practice and a lot of time — and, boy, did we put a lot of time into it — we got it done.
Spotlight Central: Eventually The Overons — you, Phil and Albee Cracolici, Bob Ferrante, and George Galfo — became very good, and you signed a contract with a man who, as it turns out, was a mobster. He sent you to a recording studio to do a demo, and that’s where you met your long-time manager, Jim Gribble. For some reason, though, you decided against calling yourselves The Overons. What happened?
We actually changed our name because of the mobster who got us into the recording studio. He had a friend of his who was sort of in the music business, and the two of them realized that we really could sing — we were pretty decent by that time, which was 1957 going on 1958. So the mobster, who made the deal for us to go in and record a couple of songs in a studio for demo purposes, said, “I don’t like the name The Overons, but I’ve got a great name for you guys.” He said, “I’m gonna call you The Courtesans!” And at first we said, “Oh, that sounds decent,” until we looked it up. If you look Courtesans up in the dictionary, it means “Woman of ill repute,” [laughs] so we said, “We’re not gonna use that. We’re gonna find ourselves our own name.”
To make it easy for everybody to pick, we decided that everyone would go home, choose a name, and then put it on a little piece of paper. Afterwards, we’d come back and put all of the suggestions in a hat and Bobby would pick one out and that would be our name — no discussion — and we all agreed.
Now, the day before we did this, I was thinking to myself, “I can’t come up with a good name! I want to think of something different.” So I started looking through the dictionary. I just flipped open the dictionary and it went to the “M” section, and I looked at “mystic” and I thought, “Wow, that would be a cool name for a group.” So I wrote that down on a piece of paper, folded it up, and the next day Bobby picked out that name and that was how we became The Mystics.
Spotlight Central: As The Mystics, you recorded “Adam and Eve” and “Wimoweh” for Laurie Records, but the company also asked songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman to write an original song just for you. What song was that — and what happened with it?
We were up at the record company where we met Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman — and, actually, I kind of knew Morty, because Morty lived a few blocks from me, and I never realized he was a songwriter and he never realized I was in a group. They came up to the office to hear us sing and they said, “We’re gonna write a song for you guys.” They came back a couple of days later and they played that song for us. It was called “Teenager in Love,” and we loved it! “What a great song!” we said, and we started rehearsing it. And the president and all the other people at the record company said, “That sounds terrific. It’s great!”
But the next day, we got a call from our manager, Jim Gribble, and he said to us, “Listen, guys. We gotta run into New York and meet at the record company because they decided not to give you the song.” And we said, “What the heck?”
We go in and Gene Schwartz, who was the president of Laurie Records, sat us down and he says, “Listen, guys. This is a business decision. That song is a monster. We realized right away that it’s gonna sell a lot of records, and because you guys are just starting out, you don’t have a track record in the business, so you could record it — and you’re probably gonna do a great job with it — but we are in business to sell records, so we’re gonna give it to Dion and the Belmonts, because they already have a couple of songs out there and it will be easier for our publicists and our business people to sell the record.”
We were very disappointed. And Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman came up to the office and they were disappointed, too, because they wrote it specifically for us. So Doc says, “We’re gonna write another song for you.” We all said, “Great!” And Gene Schwartz said to Doc and Morty, “Could you write something in the flavor of ‘Little Star’ by The Elegants,” because that was a really big song and he thought we could do something like that.
So that’s what Doc and Morty did. They came back the next day and they played “Hushabye” for us. To this day, I can’t help but think: How amazing was it that these songwriters could write “Teenager in Love” and then, just a couple of days later, “Hushabye?”
Spotlight Central: “Hushabye” was released in 1959 and it was backed with “Adam and Eve.” Featuring one of our favorite Jersey guitarists, Bucky Pizzarelli, it became a hit. Did you guys have any idea that your first record would be that successful?
[Laughs] No! Of course not! We didn’t even know what the hell we were getting into! Really! I had just graduated from high school and had taken some classes at the local community college — and the other guys were all in a similar position — so we all had jobs. You know, at that time — in 1958, 1959 — you went to work; you had to help your family out, so you went to work. I had a job as a draftsman at the time. I had taken some courses in mechanical engineering at the community college and Bob Ferrante, who was already a draftsman, got me a job at his place, so we had jobs — and everybody else had jobs, too.
So we had recorded and released “Hushabye,” but we didn’t think that much of it. I mean, the odds of getting a hit record are a billion to one. And when it came out, we heard it on the radio and we thought, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” but we still never realized it was going to be a hit until a few weeks later when our manager called a meeting and brought us into his office and said, “Listen guys. I think we’ve got a hit on our hands. This thing is selling like crazy. Laurie Records is happy. They’re getting orders from all over the place. They just sold 20,000 copies in Connecticut…” and we said, “Wow, what does that mean?” and he said, “You’ve got to quit your jobs.”
We were all in complete silence. [Laughs] We just looked at each other going, “That doesn’t register.” “What do you mean, quit our jobs?” “Well, how do we make money?”
He said, “This is your business now. This is your job.” It was hard for us to realize that.
Spotlight Central: Is it true, though, that after “Hushabye” came out, the mobster who you originally signed a contract with, all of sudden, showed up?
Yes, he did. Of course, he had found out what happened— I mean, the whole neighborhood knew we had a hit record! So he showed up, and we happened to be in the office that day. Unbeknownst to us he had called ahead of time and made an appointment to see Jim Gribble; obviously, he had found out who our manager was — and he showed up and went into Jim Gribble’s office.
Even to this day, we don’t know what the discussion was between the two of them because both Jim Gribble and the mobster never disclosed what the conversation was, but we did find out we were now under contract with Jim Gribble. That’s all Jim told us. He said, “You’re ok. Everything’s cool. I straightened it out.”
Spotlight Central: So it’s still a mystery as to exactly what transpired there — but what is not a mystery is that you guys started appearing on TV shows like American Bandstand and on some extremely popular tours around the US. We understand that at one show in Peoria, IL, where in order to reach the stage you had to make your way through the crowd, you came upon a fan you called “scissor girl.” Tell us what happened there.
[Laughs]. Well, it was a really, really crowded venue. Picture a stage which is set up like a prize fight. It was in a big auditorium — there were probably over 10,000 or more people there — and the stage was kind of like where a boxing ring would be, and there were people seated all around it. In order to get to the stage from the dressing rooms, the police and security formed a double line and we were to walk through it. If you think about The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or any of those groups — and I’m not saying we were them — but it was the same kind of hysterical craziness that was going on.
So we made our way through the crowd and arrived at a couple of steps which took you up to the actual stage, which was the ring. And while we were waiting there, I was the last one in line, so I was on the floor, Albee was in front of me on a step, and everybody else was on the steps waiting to be announced. There were guards around and security people trying to hold the crowd back, which was mostly comprised of girls — to tell you the truth, it was mostly young kids.
And all of a sudden, this arm comes out with a scissor and grabs Albee’s hair and pulls his head back! I say, “What the hell?” and I reach out, but I can’t get there in time — there were so many arms and so much confusion — but one of the security guards just whacks the “scissor girl” in the head and she drops the scissor — and I’m saying, “What are we getting ourselves into here? This is crazy!”
Spotlight Central: It sure sounds like it was! And after that, you got to go back to your hometown of Brooklyn and appear in a show with Alan Freed which featured artists like Jackie Wilson, Dion and the Belmonts, and The Isley Brothers. But once Phil was no longer able to appear with the group, you got a young singer who had a hit called “Hey Schoolgirl” to fill in for him. Can you tell us more about this guy?
Well, after “Hushabye” became a hit, every young person in the city who wanted to be in the music business realized Jim Gribble was the guy who was gonna try to help them get a hit record. So a lot of would-be singers started hanging out in Jim Gribble’s office and they would all mingle and sit around and play music for each other and sing.
And after Phil got in trouble with the law and we had to find a new lead singer, Jim Gribble said, “Why don’t you try that guy over there in the corner? He’s got a pretty good voice — he’s a quiet kind of guy.” And I said, “Which guy?” and he said, “That guy — Paul — over there.”
So we said, “Paul, we’ve got to do a recording and Jim Gribble said, maybe, you would want to sing with us.” He said, “Oh, yeah! Sure! Sure!” because he could do harmony really well. He knew music and was a phenomenal guitar player, too.
So we rehearsed with him — and, by the way, his name was Paul Simon [laughs] — the Paul Simon. We recorded three sides with him and then realized that although he was a great singer, he was really not the kind of guy who would work out well with the group — [laughs] but boy did we make a mistake!
Spotlight Central: After Paul Simon, you had another singer join the group — Jay Traynor — who went on to become the original Jay of Jay and the Americans and then, later, a member of Jay Siegel’s Tokens. With Jay Traynor, you recorded several songs including “White Cliffs of Dover” which featured you doing a very low bass lead. How much fun for you was it singing lead on that one?
Oh, amazing! Every song has a story, and the story behind that one is: we thought Phil was gonna come back into the group shortly — and when Phil did come back, of course, he would become the lead singer again — so we didn’t want to record anything that would pigeon hole us into something that would be hard to get out of, as far as his lead singing voice was concerned. So we were having trouble figuring out what songs to record, but since Jay Traynor had a similar voice, we decided to record “Blue Star” and “Over the Rainbow,” and we also decided on “White Cliffs of Dover” because we did that one in our live act at the time.
So we recorded it and Jay did the falsetto part. Our arrangement was styled after The Del-Vikings version of “White Cliffs of Dover,” which they had on one of their albums, and which we could do because I was a bass. You know, not too many groups had basses at the time for the same reason that I got my start with The Overons — there just weren’t that many young kids who had deep voices.
Spotlight Central: Over the years, The Mystics’ song, “Hushabye” has continued to stand the test of time. In the late-‘60s it was recorded by Jay and the Americans, and in the 1980s it was even featured in the movie, Stand By Me. But lots of people — including us — know the song from Brian Wilson’s arrangement for The Beach Boys. What were your thoughts about that version?
I absolutely loved The Beach Boys’ version — it was spectacular! And the story with that is: many years later, Phil and a good friend of ours, Joe Mirrione, went to a Beach Boys concert. Somehow they got backstage and Phil was introduced to The Beach Boys as the lead singer of The Mystics. The Beach Boys were thrilled to death to meet him, and he was overwhelmed. When he tells the story, he says, “Oh my God, they loved our recording of it! It was so great!”
And then a few years later — maybe just three or four years ago — we did the Malt Shop Memories cruise with a whole bunch of artists. The Beach Boys were on that cruise and I got to talk to a couple of them. Joe Mirrione introduced me saying, “This is Al Contrera” — at the time, I was singing with The Classics — but he added, “Al was an original member of The Mystics.”
You know, we were at a bar — just having some drinks and talking — and one of The Beach Boys said to me, “You know something? ‘Hushabye’ was one of our favorite songs, and you’re just blowing my mind” — [laughs] “just blowing my mind,” he said — “because you guys had great harmony, and that’s what we’re all about, too” and we got into this whole discussion about music and that made me feel really good.
Spotlight Central: Sure! And speaking about “blowing your mind,” in 2006, The Mystics’ recording of “Over the Rainbow” appeared on The Sopranos TV show, which, we’re told, was a complete surprise to you, wasn’t it?
Oh, my God! I was home watching The Sopranos, like everybody watched The Sopranos. And I’m listening, and I hear this song playing. It’s toward the end of the show and I say to my wife, “There’s something that sounds so familiar about that.”
It started out very low, but then it got louder and louder, and I say, “That’s us!” She goes, “How could that be? That’s impossible! Why would they pick your version of that song?” and I say, “I don’t know! I mean, there are a million versions of ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I don’t know why they would pick ours, but that’s us!”
So we have this service that monitors songs that are played on the air and, also, songs that are optioned for various purposes and, when that happens, we get royalties for our performance. If somebody else sings the same song, we wouldn’t be involved — only the publisher would be involved — but that was our version of the song.
So I call up United Artists and I say, “Listen. Our song was on The Sopranos,” and he says, “OK, let me check.” Then the guy calls me back, and he goes, “It was — it was on there. They optioned it, and you guys have $35,000 coming to you,” and I say, “What? We haven’t made $35,000 the whole time we were The Mystics!”
Spotlight Central: [Laughs]. In 2015, the five original members of The Mystics — you, Albee and Phil Cracolici, Bob Ferrante, and George Galfo — were inducted into the Doo Wop Music Hall of Fame. How did it feel achieving that kind of recognition?
It was pretty cool. It’s an honor to be chosen — that’s all I can say about that — it’s an honor that people would recognize who we were and what we did. Also, we're very honored to have learned that The Mystics have recently been nominated for a 2021 East Coast Music Hall of Fame award.
Spotlight Central: And, nowadays, as you mentioned, you’re a member of The Classics with Emil Stucchio — who, as we understand, was a member of The Mystics at one point during the ’70s — and you also recently published your memoir, Hushabye: The Mystics, the Music, and the Mob. What was the impetus for writing your book?
Well, I guess the most important factor was Phil Cracolici, because Phil had gone through something that was rather unusual. We all had certain things happen to us — like singing with Paul Simon, and singing with Jay Traynor, and meeting all these great people — and so I always had this feeling that I should write a book about The Mystics and what we went through. Mostly, though, it was because of Phil’s story — which, over the years, kind of got blown out of proportion as to what happened — and I figured it was finally time to set things straight. So I sat down with Phil and we talked about how we always meet people who say “We heard this” or “We heard that,” and I said, “Why don’t I just write about what really happened?” But I didn’t know I could write a book — [laughs] as a matter of fact, I still don’t know that I can!
Spotlight Central: But you did — and it’s a good read, too! It’s like a movie where you feel you’re really a part of the story.
That’s what a lot of people say — that it’s like watching a movie — and I don’t want to jinx myself, but we’re in discussion with some people about possibly doing that, so that would be really cool.
Spotlight Central: It would! And right now, as you mentioned, you sing with The Classics, but with the suspension of most live concerts, what are you up to these days, more than 60 years since “Hushabye” was released?
Well, with The Classics, we recently did a virtual concert — a virtual Zoom concert — which took place a couple of weeks ago. It’s sort of like a nightclub performance, and it was a very interesting concept. You’re in a studio where you’re being televised and it’s going out as a Zoom conference, and we can see all the people who are watching it on a screen. Now, I’m not into the electronic aspect of all of that, but I can tell you it works, and it was a lot of fun.
Spotlight Central: Is there anything else you would like to add, or anything you’d like to say to all the fans of The Mystics, some of whom have been following you for over six decades now?
We absolutely appreciate our fans. Sometimes, people want to get in touch with us. We get e-mails and things like that, and if anyone wants to email us — or if they want to find out more about the book — they can contact us at hushabyebook.com. The book is also available at Amazon and other places, and there’s even an audio version of the book which I did myself, and that was a lot of fun, too.
In addition, Phil and George are still performing as the original Mystics with some other guys in Florida — and, of course, every once in awhile when I get down to Florida, I’ll get in on the show and do a song with them.
And I’m also a part of The Brooklyn Reunion, a group which is scheduled to appear on the next Malt Shop Memories cruise in November of 2021. Barring any more interference from viruses, this will happen, and it will be phenomenal! The headliners on this cruise will be Gladys Knight, The Righteous Brothers, Jay and the Americans, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, and a whole bunch of acts including our group, The Brooklyn Reunion, which includes members of The Mystics, The Classics, and The Passions — three groups that all grew up together in Brooklyn. We put a show on that involves all of us, so it will be just great getting to perform again. It’s gonna be so much fun, I just can’t wait!
To learn more about Al Contrera and Hushabye: The Mystics, the Music, and the Mob, please click on hushabyebook.com. For the audio version of the book, please go to audible.com. To learn more about The Mystics, check out theoriginalmystics.com. For information on The Classics, please click on facebook.com/emilstuccioandtheclassics. For further information on the Malt Shop Memories Cruise, please click on maltshopcruise.com.
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