Stan Zizka is the lead singer of The Del-Satins, a doo-wop group founded in the late-1950s. In addition to their 1962 regional hit, “Teardrops Follow Me,” Zizka and the Del-Satins made rock ’n roll history by singing backup on many of Dion’s greatest hits including “Runaround Sue,” “Ruby Baby,” and “The Wanderer.”
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Zizka and asked him about his musical childhood, his rise to fame with The Del-Satins, his work with Dion, and what he’s currently up to these days.
You were born in Brooklyn and raised in the Yorkville area of Manhattan. Did you come from a musical family?
No, not at all. My mother and father worked in a handbag-making factory. But I met a friend of mine who, actually, was one of the original members of the Del-Satins before we became the Del-Satins. His name was Bobby Faila — he was from Yorkville, where I lived — and he taught me how to sing.
Did you play any musical instruments as a kid?
No, none at all.
What kind of music did you enjoy listening to growing up?
The Flamingos. The Harptones. My mother would always play Frank Sinatra, Jerry Vale, and all the other Italian singers like Tony Bennett. Tony Bennett is still my favorite singer of all time.
Is it true that, as teenager, you had some jobs that didn’t involve music, like driving an ice truck when you were 14?
[Laughs] I always sang — that was my first love — but every once in a while I’d take a job on the side to have a little bit of an income. There really wasn’t so much work out there in the entertainment field, at least until The Del-Satins really got going, which was after I turned 15 or 16 years old. But when I was 14, I drove an ice truck and delivered ice to all the fish markets and stores. Back in those days on 2nd Avenue in Manhattan they had fish stores with fish in the windows. We would crush the ice and put it in the windows, and then the shop owners would then lay the fish on top of it.
You mentioned that you started singing early on. As a teen, you were a part of a street corner group called The Yorkville Melodies. In 1958, however, you happened to meet up with the members of another group, The Jokers. Can you fill us in on what happened?
The Yorkville Melodies were a group from uptown. We used to stand on the corner — like most groups did at the time — [laughs] and get hit with water and eggs from people throwing things out the window. But a social worker came by and said, “I have access to a settlement house down in the 70s and, if you like, I can set it up for you to get you a room to rehearse in,” so we decided to go for it.
We went down to Lenox Hill Neighborhood House down on 70th Street and we were in a room singing. After we finished singing, everyone started to leave to go home, but as I was walking down the hall, I heard another group singing in another room and I poked my head in.
In that room was Les Cauchi, Tom Ferrara, and Keith Koestner. They had a basketball team called The Jokers, but they also sang. Their group had a lead singer, but there was a problem with him making rehearsals, so they asked me if I would sing a song with them because they had heard our group before and they liked the way we sounded. I really didn’t know many leads — I was a background singer in the Yorkville Melodies — but, ironically, one lead I knew was “Sweetest One” by Johnny Maestro and The Crests. So I sang lead on that song with them and they asked me if I would like to join the group and that’s how everything started.
Wasn’t it while you were practicing in the basement of Tom Ferrara’s building that you found the group’s final member?
Yes. Tommy lived with his brother, Freddy, and members of their family were the superintendents of the building where we rehearsed. Freddy would come down to the basement where we were practicing to put coal in the coal stove — which would give heat and hot water to all the tenants in the building — and one night he came down when we were singing and I said, “Hey Fred, can you do this? Just hit a note — go ‘boooooooooom,’ like this.” He did, and we chimed in with him, and that was it. We said, “Come join the group!”
He joined the group and to the day he passed, Fred was the only one of The Del-Satins who never left the group. Tommy left the group to go to Vietnam. Les went to Vietnam. Even I left the group. But Freddy went straight through with The Del-Satins, which eventually evolved into another group called The Brooklyn Bridge.
How did you get the name The Del-Satins?
Freddy came up with it. He took the names of two groups that were popular at the time — The Dells and The Five Satins — and he put them together. In the beginning, we would spell it with two “L”s — D, E, L, L — but then we dropped one of the “L”s, or possibly it was the record company that dropped it.
All of the members of The Del-Satins were between the ages of 15 and 17 — sometimes practicing on Tom and Freddy’s stoop on 69th Street when you weren’t singing inside a reverb-filled subway station or bathroom — when you ended up winning a prestigious New York vocal contest. Can you tell us more about that?
There was a contest for all the vocal groups in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, etc. at the Hotel Empire on Broadway. It was a week-long contest, and it was promoted by Alan Fredericks who was a DJ at the time. I don’t know how many hundreds of vocal groups actually performed that week, but the winner of the contest was to get a recording contract.
So we entered and we ended up winning the contest! I wrote a song called “I’ll Pray for You.” We recorded it and End Records put it out without even meeting us — they thought we were a Black group because of the sound we had, and just put the record out on their label.
Was “I’ll Pray for You” the first song you’d ever written?
Not exactly. I had written one other song before that which became our second record, “Remember.” I think I wrote that when I was 13 or 14, but “I’ll Pray for You” was the first one I wrote that was recorded.
We’re told The Del-Satins got their first paying job in our home state of New Jersey. Do you remember that gig?
[Laughs] Yeah! We were so young that Mr. Ferrara — Fred and Tom’s father — used to drive us around in his red 1955 Ford convertible. And I don’t know how we got the job, but someone asked us to go out to Jersey, and Mr. Ferrara drove us there. It was in a fire house and the firemen were just standing around. We sang a couple of songs and the mayor of the town gave us $5. That was $1 apiece, [laughs] but we gave the whole $5 to Mr. Ferrara for gas.
Jim Gribble — the manager of The Mystics — became your manager and got you signed with Laurie Records. There, you joined forces with Dion who wanted to replace his backup group, The Belmonts. Is it true that, soon after you met Dion, he asked you to sing a very unusual back-up line?
We were signed to Laurie Records and Jim Gribble told us that Dion had just left The Belmonts and was looking for a background vocal group to record with him. Jim said, “Would you like to audition for Dion?” so we went up to Laurie Records and started to sing a song by The Dubs called “Beside My Love” for Dion, but we didn’t even finish the song. Dion stopped us in the middle and said, “That’s it! I don’t need to hear any more. Come to my house tomorrow. We’re going to record.”
So we went to his house the next day and Dion taught us a line from a song he wrote called “Runaround Sue.” The line went “Hape, hape, bum da-haity, haity, hape.” He taught us those words, [spells out] “H, A, P, E — hape, hape, bum da-haity, haity.” We looked at each other. Then, we started singing it in harmony, but Dion said, “Oh no, no, no! I don’t want it in harmony! I want you to sing it in unison!” which means everyone was to sing together on the exact same note. So we had five guys in this group that loved harmony and we were all asked to sing on the same note, which we thought was kind of strange.
But we went in and we recorded it — because that’s what Dion wanted — and I kinda thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. I didn’t think the song was going to go anywhere. In fact, we were laughing when we heard it on the radio, but in two weeks it went to #1 [laughs], so that’s how wrong I was!
That’s crazy! Now while you guys were recording with Dion, you were also releasing songs credited to The Del-Satins, including “Counting Teardrops” for Win Records. Tell us about that song’s lyric, “I am sitting here all alone and blue/Counting my teardrops waiting for Runaround Sue.” Was that supposed to be an inside joke?
We were successful with “Runaround Sue,” so we thought if we mentioned that song, it might be a good thing for the group. But I actually didn’t like “Counting Teardrops” and I had nothing to do with writing it — we just sang it because it was given to us to do.
The lyric did happen to call attention to the group for being a part of “Runaround Sue,” though, a performance that was essentially uncredited to The Del-Satins?
Yeah — and I should also add that not only did we record “Runaround Sue,” but we recorded “The Wanderer” and “Sandy” in the same session, which was the first recording session we ever did with Dion.
“The Wanderer” went to #2 on the charts, and “Lovers Who Wander,” another song you did with Dion, went to #3. Of all the songs you recorded with Dion, do you have a personal favorite?
Well, I think “Donna the Prima Donna” was very good. When we perform on stage now as The Del-Satins we do a lot of Dion songs, and I really like singing “Lovers Who Wander” and “Donna the Prima Donna,” but I really like them all.
In 1962, The Del-Satins released “Teardrops Follow Me” which became a regional hit in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Where did that song come from?
“Teardrops Follow Me” was written by Stan Vincent, who was Jim Gribble’s A&R man. Typically, Stan Vincent would write a song on the piano, teach it to us, and then we’d go into the studio an hour later to record it. Later that night, it would often be played on Murray the K’s radio show on WINS. We had so many records out that we were hoping would become hits for The Del-Satins, but we never really got that one big hit like The Mystics or The Passions or The Tokens. Actually, we recorded nine records with The Tokens — Jay Siegel was our producer, along with Hank Medress — and we never got that lucky.
But you did get to play lots of cool concerts! For instance, Murray the K’s manager, Jay Fontana, became your manager and he booked you to perform at Murray the K’s Fox Theater concerts in Brooklyn. Isn’t it true that you even learned dance routines from The Temptations, whom you had to follow on stage at the Fox?
Yes. Paul Williams, who has since passed on, used to take Tom Ferrara, our bass singer, up to the fifth floor of the Brooklyn Fox building in between shows and teach him routines. The Temptations were one of our favorite groups and we wanted to emulate them. We always felt we were kind of like “The White Temptations.” We developed a stage show that was pretty interesting, and that’s how we kept working a lot — because of our reputation, and the fact that we were on Dion’s records. We used to sing his songs when we performed — even without our own hit record — and we’re still doing it to this day. We went to Spain twice. We went to Italy, too — and that was all within the last five years with the current Del-Satins group. So we’re still out there bumping away even without our own hit record, but who knows, maybe one day we’ll have one?
Going back to the Brooklyn Fox, doing those shows wasn’t exactly easy, was it? Didn’t you have a pretty grueling daily work schedule?
We did five shows a day. We would have to be there at 11 o’clock in the morning. I think the first show went off at 12 o’clock, and then in between shows they would have a movie, and after all five shows we would get out of there at maybe midnight or 1 in the morning. But we performed with the original Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, and many more.
We heard that you also worked with Smokey Robinson at the Fox and he wanted to sign The Del-Satins to the Motown label. What happened there?
Smokey Robinson wanted to sign us as the first white group on Motown Records. He and The Miracles were on the same bill with us and he liked us and he liked how we sounded, but Jay Fontana, our manager, wouldn’t give him our contract.
You mentioned that The Del-Satins created a very popular stage show for your performances. We’re told that one of the most popular routines you did back in those days was called “The Bug.” What was that all about?
“The Bug” was similar to a thing we actually saw The Treniers — a Las Vegas act — do, and we adapted it and put our own twist to it. First of all, I would start scratching myself and would pretend to find a bug on myself. Then, I’d pass the “bug” on to one of the other members of the group, and they would jump all over the stage and start scratching themselves. They’d do splits and everything, and then they would pass it on to all of the group members and we’d do a little routine. Finally, we’d find people in the audience and give them the “bug,” and they would go into their own routines, so it was fun — a lot of fun!
Sounds like it! Dion and The Del-Satins moved from Laurie Records to Columbia Records, and that’s when you recorded your version of The Drifters’ “Ruby Baby,” which went to #2 on the charts. That song was also recorded by many other artists including Bobby Darin, Bobby Rydell, The Beach Boys, and even Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Your rendition of “Ruby Baby” achieved the highest charting position of any of the renditions, but are you familiar with any of the alternative versions?
No, and I have to say that at that point, whatever Dion put out was a hit — he was hot! So Dion was leaving Laurie to go to Columbia and he asked us if we wanted to come with him. At the same time, Phil Spector called me and invited us up to his house and offered us a deal to move to California and become one of the groups he’d be producing. So we had a decision to make: to go to California with Phil, or to stay with Dion and record on Columbia. We decided to stay with Dion and he produced a record called “Feelin’ No Pain” — and on the other side was a song he wrote called “Who Cares” — and that’s how we got to record for Columbia.
Is it true that “Who Cares” was one of your all-time favorite performances?
I have a lot of pride in that song because I did it in one take. When we went into the studio, Dion said to me, “I’m not telling you how to sing the song. Just do it the way you feel it and let’s see what happens,” so I did. I sang it in one take — right straight through — and Dion said, “Great! Keep it.”
And didn’t the well-known Philly DJ, Jerry Blavat, use the flip side of that record as his sign-off song on the radio for nearly two decades?
Yes, for 17 years, Jerry Blavat used “Feelin’ No Pain” as the closing number on his radio show. Interestingly enough, to this day, I’ve yet to meet him.
You’ve never met the “Geator with the Heater?”
No, I never did! I’ve never even spoken to him. In fact, I don’t even know that much about him, except he’s a great DJ — an extremely popular DJ.
Once you were at Columbia, you recorded several additional songs with Dion including one you mentioned earlier, “Donna the Prima Donna,” and you also recorded several Del-Satins’ songs including “Two Broken Hearts” and “Sweets for My Sweet.” In 1965, however, you left The Del-Satins — who ended up recording with Johnny Maestro before transitioning into The Brooklyn Bridge — while you worked with Stan Sommers and The Unusuals which transitioned into Tangerine. In the ’90s you formed a new version of The Del-Satins and recorded the album, Still Wanderin’, working with Les, Tommy, and Fred again. How enjoyable was it to be recording with those guys once more?
It was great! I wrote the song, “Still Wanderin’” with Dion in mind. I presented it to him, and he said, “It’s not for me,” so The Del-Satins recorded it. Johnny Maestro actually produced the whole Still Wanderin’ album. My partner, Charlie Aiello, did the music, and we recorded it at Johnny Maestro’s studio. It took us two and a half years to finish ten songs, because of all the new technology we needed to learn as we worked on it. But we had Les, Tommy, Freddie, and myself from the original group on the record, and Charlie not only did the music on it, he was also one of the vocalists in the background.
Incidentally, Charlie Aiello is also a part of Tangerine. Tangerine is Charlie, Edie Van Buren, and myself — and the three of us also make up the nucleus of today’s Del-Satins, which is called Stan Zizka’s Del-Satins.
And, after six decades, the group is still going strong! As you mentioned, in addition to performing here in the United States, you and The Del-Satins have even traveled to Europe where you performed in countries including Spain and Italy. After all these years, do you still love being on stage performing?
I love it — I just love it! I do music all day long, every day. And in my studio, I also do videos. In fact, I just finished a video for “Still Wanderin’” which I posted on Facebook and YouTube and it’s already getting lots of likes and comments. I just love doing what I do!
Didn’t you also have success with another video you created called “A Piece of Cloth?”
Here’s how that one came to be. On July 4th, 2012, I wrote a poem which I posted on Facebook. It got many positive responses and comments, and someone even suggested I make a song out of it. My guitar player, Joe Weinman, said he could add music to my poem, and I said “OK” and he came up with the music. We recorded the song in my studio and I posted it on Facebook.
Now, every time we go out and we do “A Piece of Cloth” live, I have two friends — John Menechino and John Crowe — as our color guard. They get dressed in full color guard military outfits and come out on stage with us, but the minute I start the song off, everyone stands like it’s the national anthem. It’s a very satisfying experience for me because I’m very patriotic.
Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything you’d like to say to all the fans who have followed you and The Del-Satins for so many years?
I’d like to let them know that we’re going to be doing some upcoming concerts in the area. For example, in the Fall, we’re going to be performing at the Patchogue Theater in Patchogue, NY, with The Coasters and Eddie Holman, in addition to some other shows next year. People can find out more about the places we’re going to be by following me on Facebook. In the meantime, Tangerine is going full force, so we’re good — we’re doing well. I’m happy, and I just hope that I can keep doing what I love for as long as I can!