Dennis now displays his own loyalty to one of his earliest musical influences by starring in the spectacular tribute show As Long As I’m Singing the Music of Bobby Darin. “Three years ago, I was in Chicago at my sister’s house,” he says. “My sister was playing a Bobby Darin CD, and I was walking around the house, just singing. And she came up to me and said, ‘Do you realize that your voice is in the same tonal range as Bobby Darin?’ I said, ‘I never thought about it, but I really feel comfortable singing his songs, in the same keys and everything.’ I didn’t have to adjust. So when I flew back home, it was running through my head. When I landed, I picked up my car and I went right to the record store and I bought the box set.
“I started listening to Darin songs slowly but surely, and making lists. So after about seven months, I actually came up with 100 songs that I wanted to do that would fit, and then I just started weeding them down to how they would relate. So my choice to make them all fit together was all the songs that he did that he stylized,” says Tufano. “I started working on the music, and then I realized that it was a big body of work, so I went to a voice coach. And I said, ‘I really need to get my chops back as far as singing, because there’s too many different kinds of genres.’ So I did my homework on that, and then I got a musical director, Michael Acosta, who then brutally, in less than 15 minutes, took us down to 26 songs. And that became the show.”
Tufano premiered his creation at the Key Club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Since then he’s performed it in Las Vegas at a Bobby Darin Foundation-sponsored charity event benefiting the Children’s Heart Association and at the Skokie Theater, where his 90-minute concert was recorded on 24 tracks and videotaped in HD for 2010 release. “The whole show is kind of a chronological timeline, and what I do is kind of a musical documentary,” he says. “I take everybody from the beginning of what Darin did through the changes of what he went through, and then I interject slowly and briefly why the changes were made.” Dennis follows Darin’s career from “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” through the countrypolitan “18 Yellow Roses” and folkish “If I Were A Carpenter,” leaving plenty of time to swing through his brassy classics “Mack the Knife” and “Lazy River.” He’s backed by 11 musicians and three singers throughout the show, which ends with three Buckinghams classics for Tufano’s longtime fans.
“I was inspired by Bobby Darin in high school,” he says. “I first saw him on the Dick Clark show in a cardboard bathtub singing ‘Splish Splash.’ All the other singers were up there in their ties and their suits, and I thought, ‘This guy’s got a sense of humor!’
“Yeah, the Bobby Darin influence was big.”
Even before he saw Darin on Clark’s TV program, Dennis was immersed in music. “My dad sang and played saxophone and violin and harmonica, and had his own band back in the old days called Tuffy & the Redbirds,” he says. “All the guys worked in factories, and they would go play clubs at night. He was called Tuffy because of Tufano. That was his nickname since high school. And the Redbirds, because they found a set of hankies that had a little redbird on ‘em. So that was their only uniform–they just wore their suits and their ties, and they put the redbird hankie in their pocket.
“I saw them play twice when I was like four and five. My ma dragged me to the little club that they were playing at. They were usually at steak houses and places like that,” he says. “To this day, I have to have saxophone in almost anything I do. I just love the sound of saxophone because of my dad.” Mr. Tufano wasn’t at all pushy about passing along his musical legacy. “He never once asked me to play anything,” says Dennis. “He never talked about music to me at all. He just let me discover it myself, which was kind of cool.”
Born September 11, 1946 in the Windy City, Dennis grew up in Chicago’s Logan Square area, attending St. Sylvester Grade School. When he was 16, his family moved out near the intersection of Grand and Austin Avenues. Tufano was attending Gordon Tech, an all-boys high school, when his interest in music really began to flourish.
“My senior year, I was in an acappella group with a bunch of the guys from the neighborhood on the West Side. It was called the Dar Sals,” he says. “There were four of us, and we were singing all the doo-wop stuff. And we would go to the dances sometimes in the neighborhood with a song list of our songs, with the keys that we sang ‘em in, and if the band knew them they would back us up on a couple of tunes. Otherwise when they took a break we’d jump up onstage and start singing. And that’s pretty much how I learned to sing.
“We were only together about nine months. That’s how I learned harmony, how to listen, stuff like that. That helped a lot when I started playing with a band.” When he wasn’t doo-wopping, Dennis was digging local bands. “I was out there dancing when I was 16. I was going out to the Holiday Ballroom,” he says. “All the people we hung around with went and danced, and music was a big part of being at the ballroom. The Holiday Ballroom was the stomping ground back then, Milwaukee and Lawrence.”
It wasn’t long before Tufano was fronting a band himself. “George Legros, who’s gone now, and I were good friends in high school, and hanging around. He was in the acappella group. We used to sing anyplace we went. In the front seat of a Chevy to the radio, playing drums on the dashboard, we’d be singing,” he says. “John Poulos was a drummer, and he had a band. And he came up to us once, because we used to all go to the Holiday Ballroom, and John says, ‘I know you guys sing real well together, and I’ve got a band that can’t sing. They can hardly play, let alone sing. Would you guys sing with our band?’ So we did. And that was the beginning of the Pulsations.
“We went through about three different personnel changes,” he says. “That’s when we found Carl Giammarese and got him as a guitar player.” Giammarese came over from another local band, the Centuries. Curt Backman was the bassist, soon to be replaced by Nick Fortuna, another ex-member of the Centuries. Dennis Miccolis was on organ, and Poulos remained on drums. Mr. and Mrs. Tufano were in their son’s corner when he chose music as his profession.
“They were very supportive of me all the time when I decided to quit my job out of high school,” he says. “I was a commercial artist downtown at Emmett J. Newman Studios, and I came to my dad one day because in second year of art, I started singing. And I was making more money on the weekends, which is not to say that I was making that much–maybe 50 bucks. But that was much more than I was making as an artist, punching a clock for eight hours a day and having to ride the el downtown every day. And I just said, ‘Look, I just want to continue with the music.’ And he said, ‘Okay, go ahead. But don’t come back and tell us, if it doesn’t work, that we told you to do it.’ And that was the only caveat they gave me. And I said, ‘Thanks!’ Because you know, they supported it. So I flew out of the house. So you have that kind of support from your family, you have a pretty good chance of getting it right. I’m very grateful about that.
“My dad, he was quite wacky about it. He actually had a stamp made of my signature, which was ‘Love, Denny.’ People, because in the neighborhood they would know, so they would come and say, ‘Is Dennis around? Can we get an autograph?’ And he goes, ‘Let me go see if he’s busy.’ I wasn’t there, of course. And he’d go back and stamp the picture! We used to rehearse in my parents’ basement early on, and we used to look up at the windows, and there’d be little faces looking through the windows!”
The as-yet-unrecorded young group’s big break arrived when they won a Battle of the Bands to snare a regular slot on a new WGN-TV program, All Time Hits, at the dawn of 1966. And yes, the legend of how the Pulsations changed their moniker to the Buckinghams at the savvy suggestion of a WGN security guard is absolutely legit.
“We were in rehearsal for the TV show, and he heard them ask us to change our name to a more British sounding name,” says Dennis. “We weren’t that popular, except at the car races and some resorts out in the suburbs, so we said, ‘Yeah, we’ll change our name!’ And this guy came up to us. He was a guard, sitting in a corner in a chair. But he had longish hair for the day. And he had that hat on, the whole uniform. He was just handing us a piece of paper. He said, ‘I heard what they said. Here’s a bunch of names you might consider.’ We said, ‘Cool! Great!’
“So we looked at ‘em all. It was the only single name on it. There were some good names on it. But the Buckinghams really jumped out at us, because of Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. We figured, ‘Well, that gives us an English-sounding name, but it also gives us something relative to our hometown.’ So we went with the Buckinghams. And then, of course, WGN dubbed us ‘Royalty in Rock and Roll’ because of Buckingham Palace,” says Tufano. “We were on there for 13 weeks, which is what broke us out in the Midwest pretty big, ‘cause WGN went to four states at the time,” says Dennis. “So that really helped get us out of Chicago pretty heavy.
With manager Carl “The Screaming Wildman” Bonafede calling the shots, they were on their way, initially playing the teen club circuit. “The Embassy Ballroom, the Holiday Ballroom in town, those were the places. And then Dex Card and all those other deejays—Larry Lujack, Clark Weber, and Ron Riley, to name a few--and the Green Gorillas and the Wild Gooses. They were everywhere. So we played all those, and another place we started out was in Old Town. It was called Like Young, and it was at the south end of Wells. It’s now a bicycle shop. It was in the basement.
“A guy named Tom Kane ran that place, and it was painted black. The stage, everything was black. The floor was black. And they didn’t serve liquor. They served coffee, espressos, and sundaes, stuff like that. It was an under-21 place. And there were always two bands. There was like the Buckinghams and the Shadows of Knight, the Buckinghams and the Cryan’ Shames, the Buckinghams and the Flock. We each did three sets. That was six sets in one night! So that was part of the stomping grounds for the new bands too. That three sets a night, you pretty much get your stuff together.
“When we were playing at the Holiday Ballroom–we used to go there to dance, and all of a sudden we evolved into being the band on the stage–we started noticing that the audience would stop dancing, and they would gather around the stage to watch us,” says Dennis. “Bonafede said, ‘There’s something there.’ Especially when we did certain songs. So he came up to us and said, ‘You guys should record. And I know the people at USA Records.’ So he brought us there. And that’s when we started our relationship with them.”
Over the course of four long days, the Buckinghams laid down their first album for USA at the legendary studios of Chess Records. “Ron Malo was the engineer,” says Dennis. “He was unbelievably creative. That was a great introduction. We were gifted with some very, very talented people at the beginning. A lot of the guys would get some garage guy that was gonna engineer your album. We got Ron Malo, which was like, ‘Whoa!’ And just working with him was an education.” Bonafede and bandleader Dan Belloc co-produced the LP. “Frank Tesinsky was the arranger,” says Dennis. “Dan Belloc played on it. He actually played sax on it. He was a sax player, Tesinsky was a trombonist.”
From the start, the Buckinghams incorporated horns into their recordings. “We did a lot of R&B stuff, soul music, in our live act anyway,” says Dennis. “And the sound of horns was something we missed. It was that you couldn’t afford to have horns back in those days live. But when we did the sessions, we said, ‘Yeah, let’s put horns on this!’” The sessions that would constitute their uncommonly strong debut album included the tough rockers “You Make Me Feel So Good,” “I’ve Been Wrong,” and “Don’t Want To Cry,” Tesinsky and Belloc’s “Beginner’s Love,” and personalized covers of “Summertime,” “Sweets For My Sweet,” and the Beatles’ “I Call Your Name” underscoring the band’s interest in British Invasion fare.
For their first 45, USA chose the Bucks’ torrid treatment of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” boasting a sledgehammer Giammarese guitar solo and Tufano’s dynamic lead vocal. “That was the first big local hit, and we recorded it because it was so popular live, when we played it live. It was a song that I found on the Live at the Apollo album,” says Tufano. “The whole album was killin’ me! But it was a little slower on his version. Of course, everything that you did when you were a pop act had to be faster. So we did everything a little faster.”
USA tried twice more, issuing “I Call Your Name” and then “I’ve Been Wrong” without breaking either single into the national charts. Local blue-eyed soul rocker James Holvay wrote both flip sides, “Makin’ Up And Breakin’ Up” and “Love Ain’t Enough.” Holvay had contributed a third number to the album, but for unknown reasons USA just couldn’t recognize the hit potential of that captivating mid-tempo theme, “Kind Of A Drag.”
“It was a thing where (Bonafede) kind of talked to Jim about, ‘Do you have any songs?’ And then we were doing the Dick Clark Festival of Rock or whatever it was called, down by the Stockyards at the Amphitheater. It was a weekend thing, and all the local bands were opening the show for all the headliners. The headliners at the time were like the Rascals, Stevie Winwood–actually it was the Spencer Davis Group then, when they did ‘Gimme Some Lovin’.’ But we were so crazed to see all the big acts, so we were opening the show for all three days, for all these bands. And Holvay was in the band, the Dick Clark band.
“So he was sitting there watching us, and he came up to us and handed us a little reel-to-reel tape, and said, ‘These are some of the songs I’ve written, and my band won’t do them because it’s not the same kind of sound. But listening to you guys and listening to you sing, I think you might be able to do something.’ So we took those songs and played them. And it was ‘Kind Of A Drag,’ and ‘Makin’ Up And Breakin’ Up,’ another song that was on our first album.”
Holvay remembers how intent Bonafede was to acquire material for his protegés. “Bonafede called me up and said, ‘Hey, have you got a song?’” he says. “I said, ‘Well, Carl, I’ve got a song, but I don’t have time. I’m playing this show, and I’m going to college.’ He said, ‘Well, let me come down.’ So he comes down to the International Amphitheater with a reel-to-reel tape recorder in his hand. This shows you the persistence of this guy, because if he hadn’t done that, that just would have been the end of it, and this whole thing never would have happened.
“So he shows up in the dressing room in between shows with a tape recorder, and he says, ‘What songs have you got?’ I said, ‘I’ve only got one song that I think would fit them.’ To me, it was like a Beatles song. It wasn’t an R&B song. Because I was mostly trying to write songs for the Mob, ‘cause we were going to start this group called the Mob. I was trying to write more R&B kind of stuff. So I sat on the edge of the bed–actually, it was in a room that we had rented in the hotel that was right next door there–and I sat and sang, with an acoustic guitar, ‘Kind Of A Drag’ into the microphone. Now I didn’t think anything of it. That was the end of that. I don’t even think they were on a record label. They weren’t on USA yet.”
“‘Kind Of A Drag’ was the first one that we started working on,” says Dennis. “‘Kind Of A Drag,’ being a Holvay song, had an R&B kind of a foundation to it. The chord changes that he uses are very different than most of the pop acts. So that was what distinguished the songs a lot. ‘Kind Of A Drag’ just begged for horns.” But USA didn’t share the band’s enthusiasm for it.
“They wouldn’t release ‘Kind Of A Drag.’ They said it was too slow,” says Dennis. “They said that it wasn’t what was being played on the radio, and that it would never make it. So the last song they released on our ‘sides’ contract was ‘Kind Of A Drag,’ because they had to. It was the only thing they had left. So they released it, and we were done with our contract. We didn’t renew. We could have if there was an option, but they didn’t have it. We didn’t have it. It was mutual. So we were done, and they figured, ‘Well, they didn’t have a lot of big number one records, so we’re not gonna pick ‘em up.’ So ‘Kind Of A Drag’ was released, we had no record label. It was starting to move a little bit in Chicago. Dick Biondi, of course, all the deejays were getting behind it. But the label didn’t promote it, they didn’t do anything, because they just let us go. And that was like ‘66. It was released in November, I think.”
Holvay learned of its success a little belatedly. “The Mob now had formed, and we were playing at the Wine & Roses,” he says. “One of the guys came into the dressing room before the gig started, and he said, ‘Hey man, you know that song that you sang to Carl Bonafede in the dressing room at the International Amphitheater? Something about a drag?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘It’s on the radio!’ I said, ‘What?’ Then the next day, Carl called me at home. I was living in La Grange with my folks. He said, ‘Hey, your song’s on the radio. It looks like it may be a hit!’”
Was it ever. On February 18, 1967, “Kind Of A Drag” was the number one song in the nation and ended up the title track of their USA debut LP. Its success masked considerable internal upheaval within the group. Miccolis left the band near the end of ‘66, initially replaced by One-derful! Records staffer Larry Nestor before the group hired the well-seasoned Marty Grebb, then playing keys with the Exceptions. In addition to being without a record label, the Buckinghams had cut ties with the locally based Willard Alexander booking agency.
“Jon Poulos’ buddy that he went to school with, Burton, was James Guercio’s cousin, and Guercio was working with Chad & Jeremy at the time and had been getting involved with management,” says Dennis. “So Burton said, ‘You know, my cousin’s doing pretty good. Why don’t you go out to L.A. and talk to him, and see what he can do?’ So Jon and I flew out to L.A. and we met with Guercio and a guy named Garrick Ebbins, whose father was an agent with William Morris. So the management team was pretty good, because Guercio was the music part and Garrick was the management. Then we said, ‘This would be great!’ You know, you go to L.A. and you get pretty enamored by it.
“So we talked and talked, and signed with him. He’s the one that then brought us to Columbia. He could have brought us probably to the moon. He had a number one record in his hand when he walked in. So yeah, Columbia signed us right away, and that’s when Guercio called Holvay and we got ‘Don’t You Care.’ And that was our first song that we recorded on Columbia.”
At the same time “Kind Of A Drag” sat proudly atop the pop hit parade, the Buckinghams were in Colunbia’s New York studios with Guercio producing and arranging. Holvay and his writing partner Gary Beisbier had handed them the mid-tempo pop-soul-styled winner “Don’t You Care,” perfect for Tufano’s lead talents. “He gave us ‘Don’t You Care,’ ‘Hey Baby,’ and ‘Susan’ all at the same time. And they’re all about the same girl. They’re all about Susan. Each song–‘Kind Of A Drag’–the whole thing, the whole heartbreak saga of those songs are all about the same girl,” explains Dennis. “If you listen to it, it’s just pretty much the same sentiment: “You broke my heart, but I still love you. You’re gone, but I still love you. You sure you don’t love me? I still love you!” All of ‘em. He dated her, but then they didn’t pan out. She was a go-go dancer at the Whisky A-Go-Go on Rush Street. Her nickname was Susie Creamcheese at the time. She was a gorgeous blonde girl, and he was this rock and roll guy in a band that was popular in Chicago. But she broke his heart.”
The violin-enriched “Don’t You Care” was the Buckinghams’ first Columbia single, a #6 pop smash that was one of Holvay’s finest compositions. “His writing is basically R&B writing. We kind of put a dollop of pop over it,” says Dennis. “Holvay said, ‘Somebody called me, and he said, “I’ve got the demo for ‘Don’t You Care.’ Have you heard it?”’ And he goes, ‘No.’ And he went to listen to it, and he goes, ‘Wow, that’s not exactly the song I wrote, but I like it!’ We arranged the songs to suit us. We didn’t rewrite ‘em, but just rearranged ‘em.” Don’t You Care” did head-to-head battle on the charts that spring with the group’s treatment of Lloyd Price’s “Laudy Miss Claudy” (as it was mistakenly spelled on the label), which USA had issued as a 45. In addition to vocal duties, Dennis played mean harp on “Claudy.” “That was a good one too,” he says. “That was another live thing we did. Because it was performed well, we were comfortable recording it.”
“Don’t You Care” was one of two major hits on the group’s first Columbia LP, the oddly titled Time & Charges. The other one, a cover of Larry Williams & Johnny Watson’s vocal treatment of Cannonball Adderley’s jazz instrumental “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” that came out on Columbia’s OKeh R&B imprint, wasn’t originally intended for single release. “It was an album track. We came in off the road, and we had a demo waiting for us from Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson,” says Dennis. “When we got that one, we were like, ‘Wow! This really fits right in.’ Marty and I immediately picked right up on it, and said, ‘Let’s do a duet!’ Because we wanted to do it, our thoughts were Sam & Dave. We said, ‘We could do a Sam & Dave, where I could sing one, Marty could sing the next, and then we’ll come together on the last.’ And it was a nice blend. So it worked out fine.
“We did it as an album cut,” he continues. “Columbia, once it was all mixed, they said, ‘You guys can take some time off from doing basic tracks for singles!’ Because they had a schedule for when you had to do your singles. They would always try to get us in to do a couple of single basic tracks a year. And they said, ‘No, we’ve got a single. We’re gonna release “Mercy.”’ And we went, ‘Wow, that’s gonna be a stretch!’ But it fit right in. People bought it. They loved it.” The Buckinghams’ soul-steeped rendition soared to #5 pop that summer.
Being idolized back in the ‘hood was a great thing, but it did have its drawbacks. “We drove in from Dakota at like five in the morning, and had to leave at nine. And all I did was go in the house, shower, and have something to eat, and I looked out the window and the van was gone. They stole all of our equipment! So somebody followed us all through the stops. Of course, I don’t know if having ‘the Buckinghams’ written on the side of the van...’” he laughs. “Nobody even thought of, how dumb can you be? Why don’t you just put the keys on the dashboard?” Keep in mind that the Buckinghams had barely reached voting age when they embraced stardom.
“I look at us, and we were all babies!” exclaims Dennis. “Everybody–even the Rascals, singing the sophisticated kind of rock and R&B-rock that they did--they were kids. They were little bitty guys. Where we all got that polish, I don’t know where it came from. But we were all good songwriters. Everybody was a good singer. It was a simpler time. I think the music pretty much carried you then. We performed for three years before we even saw a microphone in the studio.”
Time & Charges only contained one other Holvay/Beisbier copyright, the R&B-soaked groover “Why Don’t You Love Me.” Guercio penned half a dozen of its selections, and the group included another Beatles cover, “I’ll Be Back.” That fall, the Bucks were back with the irresistible Holvay/Beisbier composition “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” which made a #12 pop showing. The same writing team (with Guercio added) was responsible for the group’s #11 smash late that year, “Susan.” The song was terrific and Dennis was in typically fine form, but Guercio’s after-the-fact studio techniques–which the group had no advance warning on--didn’t go over too well.
“When we recorded the song ‘Susan,’ Guercio told us that he had this special idea for the song,” says Tufano. “When we recorded the basic tracks for the song, there was a 24-bar click track. And it was like the drums went, ‘bum-bum-bum-bum-bum,’ and then there was this ‘click-click-click.’ Through the whole session, we had to sit there and wait and wait and wait. And he promised it was gonna be so spectacular that we said, ‘Okay! Whatever you got!’
“We were on the road about a month-and-a-half later and he sent us a demo, an acetate, actually, at the time (they were the hard little records, like 78s), and we put it on this little portable turntable that we had. And we freaked out. We went nuts. We went totally nuts. We said, ‘What the hell is that? It doesn’t even make sense in the song!’ And we were really bummed. And every time we went to a radio station, they would cut it out. They said, ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ We said, ‘Nope. Not at all.’ Only a couple of FM stations played it. But yeah, we were totally disenchanted with it. It just made no sense.”
Both “Hey Baby” and “Susan” were aboard Portraits, the Buckinghams’ second Columbia long-player, again produced and arranged by Guercio. The set hit the shelves just before year’s end and marked the emergence of all five band members as songwriters. Dennis co-wrote five of its tracks: “We Just Know,” “Inside Looking Out,” “Have You Noticed You’re Alive,” “Just Because I’ve Fallen Down,” and “Any Place In Here.” The striking album cover pictured the Buckinghams in Civil War attire.
“If we were anywhere in the area on the East Coast, they would block out a week to come in and do pictures, promotion, and a single. They had their format down. So we would always be ready. We’d be rehearsing the songs on the road, and then we’d just go in and do ‘em,” says Dennis. “We were pretty whacked by the end of the photo sessions, but they were always nice too. They’d always have a nice thing at the end where they’d take you to dinner, and the promotion guys from Columbia, who were the best, would take you to all the great discotheques that were happening at the time in New York, and the clubs that were hot.
“There was a great little club down there in New York in a really bad neighborhood called Steve Paul’s Scene,” he says. “That was the club where I saw Jimi Hendrix sit in. I saw Morrison sit in. There were always these guys coming in to sit in, and they were always walking in and playing. It was a great time to be there.”
Guercio’s insistence on owning publishing rights to their songs played a role in ending his tenure with the group. “We were in litigation with him, so we released him as our manager and producer, which caused a big stir at Columbia,” says Tufano. “Clive Davis was not happy about it. Because he was told that Guercio was the Buckinghams, and we weren’t. And so there were a lot of meetings involved. Clive did not believe us, so he rode out the contract by giving us a series of different producers.” Still, the musical contributions of Guercio (who would proceed to mastermind the rise of Chicago) were impressive. “He was a very good producer, a very good musician, good bass player, a very good ear for music,” says Dennis. “Unfortunately, we got tied up with him with management, and that didn’t work out as well.”
Columbia brought in Philly producer Jimmy “The Wiz” Wisner to assume the Buckinghams’ reins. “Jim Wisner was fun,” says Tufano. “He was a good guy to work with. He actually gave us a decent swan song album.” Wisner helmed the group’s last chart entry in mid-‘68, the Grebb-penned “Back In Love Again,” as well as all but one selection on their final Columbia LP, issued that July. Dennis was in on the writing of its “Can’t Find The Words” and “Song Of The Breeze.” Its cynical title, In One Ear and Gone Tomorrow, was a head-turner.
“People always say, ‘Do they realize what they’re saying?’” says Dennis “Yeah, we did. We knew that was our swan song album. That’s why we called it In One Ear and Gone Tomorrow!” Another producer, John Hill, came in for the group’s last few Columbia singles. “They threw a couple other people at us to get side stuff, but it didn’t work out,” says Dennis.
“John Hill was nice, but he was more interested in doing his things than anything else.” During those last sessions, Dennis co-wrote “Difference Of Opinion,” while “You,” which he penned solo and was done at the group’s last session in November of ‘69, was shelved at the time.
“By the end of ‘70, we were pretty much done. We were trying to play out the last year, from ‘69 on, because the litigation we were in took all our money,” says Tufano. “So we were trying to make up some legal fees by the last year, and that got us into a lot of bad gigs, because it was about the money, and it didn’t work. So Marty was the first guy to leave. But we all knew that we were going, and we didn’t want it to just fall apart and become a bitter band thing. So we just said, ‘Let’s just stop.’ And we did. That’s when we stopped.”
Dennis teamed back up with Giammarese not long after that as a duo. “I took off, Carl took off, and we became hippies and just kind of hid out. And I was writing,” he says. “And he said he was writing, and I said, ‘Well, come on over and let’s play some songs!’ And we started to feel that my songs were compatible with his songs, and we started putting together some tunes and then kind of writing together. And we started knocking on folk clubs as Dennis & Carl. We figured the other names would be too tough for ‘em, so we went with Dennis & Carl. And we played all the folk clubs: It’s Here, over on Sheridan Road. Everybody sat on pillows. It was very cool. And we just started playing our songs. Some of the folk clubs wouldn’t hire us at the auditions, because they said, ‘Your songs are really great, but you guys sing like rock and roll guys!’
“Right around the end of ‘70, ‘71, was when we actually started getting together with that. And through ‘71 was when we worked our songs out. Then we did a demo in Chicago, and that demo led to another demo. Then we sent the demo to every record label including Columbia, and we got rejected. John Poulos, the drummer from the Bucks, was now managing people, so he was managing us. And he sent it on a whim to Lou Adler. And Lou Adler responded by saying, ‘I would like to fly Dennis and Carl out for a live audition. I like their music!’ So we went and did the live audition, and he said, ‘Not only do I want to sign you to the label, but I want to produce your first album!’ So that was the beginning. That was ‘72.
We had ‘Music Everywhere’ that came off of that.” Out on Adler’s Ode label, “Music Everywhere” made a #68 impact during the spring of ‘73 for Tufano & Giammarese, as they were now billed.
“We started touring with Cheech & Chong. That was four months of touring that I don’t think anyone’s ever experienced before–an acoustic act opening for Cheech & Chong!” he says. “I used to say things like, ‘Can you just be quiet long enough so we know that we started the song?’ That’s all I wanted. And then Tommy used to call Lou Adler and complain. ‘Dennis is bumming out our audience!’ And Lou would say something like, ‘Tommy, I don’t think anybody could bum out your audience!’ So I’d get a call from Lou. He goes, ‘I understand, Dennis, but just try to get through it. I know what you’re going through, but just get through it.’”
A few years later, Adler was partially responsible for bringing Dennis into contact with another important collaborator: Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime lyricist. “Lou owned the Roxy, and he owned this private club on top called On the Rox. It was this private little club that he put together for the celebrities that wanted to come up and be on the Strip or see a show at the Roxy without having to be inundated by fans,” he says. “We remained friends. So he told me, ‘Any time you want to go On the Rox, just go on up there on the house.’ I think he was trying to kind of repay me for bungling the last album that came out, which was The Other Side of Tufano & Giammarese, because he had pulled all of the albums that he had released that were on Ode/Epic because he didn’t like his deal with Epic. So he moved the deal to Ode/Columbia, and because of that they shelved all of the albums that they released two months prior. They wouldn’t promote them. So all those albums went down the tubes.
“I pretty much walked away from music for awhile there and actually started acting. And then I was up at On the Rox one night, and I had met Bernie a year before that in a very quick introduction from a girl who lived in Chicago,” says Dennis. “She was dating Bernie at the time. And she saw me up there, hadn’t seen me in 10 years, and said, ‘Oh, my God! Here, I want to introduce you to my date.’ And it was Bernie Taupin. And he went, ‘Hi, how are you? Nice to meet you.’ And that was it.
“So now we’re sitting at the bar, and he’s sitting there next to me and we’re having a beer, and we’re talking, talking, talking. And he said, ‘What do you do during the day?’ I said, ‘Well, I act, and I’m doing some demos with Tom Scott, and I’m working on some music.’ He goes, ‘Well, I’m working on a new album, and I’ve got lyrics. I’m looking for different writers, because I’ve only written with Elton and I don’t want to write these songs with him. Let me hear your demo.’ And I gave him my demo, and he called me about a week later and said, ‘I really like your music, so why don’t you come over?’ And he gave me one set of lyrics, which happened to be the longest song on the album, which frightened me to death. It was like two pages of legal typed. I went, ‘There’s no repeats, Bernie! This is not a song! This is a sermon!’ So he gave that to me to test me. So I went home and I got about half of it done. And I figured, ‘I’d better go to him now with this, to see what he thinks, because if I finish the whole song and it’s no good, it’d really be a waste of time.’
“So I went and I sat down at his house, and he sat down right in front of me, which scared me. Because he has a desk, and I was in a chair and I had my little Pignose amp, and I was gonna play the song. Then he got up off the desk and he sat down right in front of my chair! I was like, ‘Jesus! What the heck is this?’
“He jumped up and went, ‘That’s it! That’s the song! I can’t believe it! That’s the song! That’s beautiful! That’s the song!’ And I was going, ‘Oh, my God! Bernie likes the song!’ So then he goes and gives me a file folder. All the rest of the songs. He goes, ‘Here you go.’ I went, ‘Okay.’ I said, ‘Before I leave, can we go through each title, and you tell me what the feel of the song is like, and what style and everything?’ Because it was a concept album. And so we did. We went through it, and he told me, ‘This one’s rock and roll, this one’s a little...’
“You can tell from song to song, it has a different kind of a feeling, a different production feel and everything. The album was a bit overproduced for me, but I wasn’t involved in the production. I was just the songwriter and singer in certain places. So we just started going at it. And it was a really good relationship, and we had a great time. And I was jazzed out of my brain that I was writing with Bernie Taupin, and he liked it.”
In addition to writing the music for all nine songs on Taupin’s album, released in 1980 as He Who Rides the Tiger, Dennis played rhythm guitar and sang backgrounds, earning a “Very special thanks to Dennis Tufano for his involvement and enthusiasm” credit. Heavy hitters working on the project included: Elton John, Tom Scott, David Foster, members of Toto and the Average White Band, ex-Buckingham Marty Grebb. “Elton sang backgrounds on one of ‘em. It was so much fun to go, ‘Elton? Let’s try that again!’” laughs Dennis.
1980 also brought the rebirth of the Buckinghams by popular demand back in their hometown. WLS radio program exec John Gehron got the ball rolling. “He had contacted Carl and Nick, because they were still in Chicago, and said, ‘Do you think you guys can do a reunion?’” says Dennis. “John Poulos had already passed away the year before, and Marty was working with Leon Russell at the time, so we couldn’t get him. So we put together a couple other guys, (along with) Carl, myself, and Nick.” The reformed Bucks headlined the Navy Pier rooftop stage at ChicagoFest that summer to tumultuous response from their faithful fans.
“We did the reunion, and it turned out to be more than a couple of dates. It just kept going. And the response was so good, so throughout that year we did Park West, we did some other things, and then we did something in Grant Park after that,” says Tufano. “That’s when Carl and Nick said, ‘You know, we could do this again!’ And that’s when I said, ‘I don’t think I want to be a Buckingham, really, anymore. I was a Buckingham, and now I’m doing other stuff.’ And I was making a living, so I didn’t want to drop all that, ‘cause it took me years to get to that spot and I just didn’t want to go back and do that same thing over and over again. So I just said, ‘Hey, if you guys want to do it, you have my blessing. Go do it.’ And they did.
“I had just finished the Taupin album, so I had other things that were actually on the back burner. And I just said, ‘Well, I’m not going to go back to only being a Buckingham.’ Really, in my heart, though, it was half of that. The other half was I just didn’t want to go back and do oldies, in that respect. So I just didn’t want to do it, and I said, “Go, go.’” Carl and Nick have a contemporary incarnation of the Buckinghams flourishing to this day. Dennis returned to L.A. and his blossoming acting career.
“Being the front man in a band, I was the guy that was always looking at the people. And I was so interested in people, and how they react and what they do, and I was always a big movie fan anyway,” he says. “I started (acting) in Chicago before I moved to L.A. in the ‘70s. I started because I wanted to find out what the process was about. And I studied for about eight months. And then I moved to L.A., and the guy that I studied with here gave me a contact there, and happened to be probably one of the best contacts I could have had, as far as a good class. And I started going to that class and started getting into it. Then I started doing theater.
“Theater to me was like doing live gigs. Get up there on a nice wooden stage, live audience, not a bad deal. So I felt comfortable. Whereas I thought I might be a little bit freaked. And then I started doing that. Then I got a few commercials, I got a few things here and there and a couple of bit parts here and bit parts there. I don’t think I had the ‘eat up the other actor’ thing you have to have to be a successful actor, but I made a living as a ‘grunt’ actor, as I call them. And I did a lot of voice work as an actor also. That’s what kind of paid my rent.” Look closely and you’ll see Dennis in the opening party scene of the movie thriller Fatal Attraction.
Voice work in films remains one of Dennis’ primary professions, as a perusal of his entry on The Internet Movie Database underscores. “Some of the work on there is work that I just did voices on. We did about 300-plus movies, background voices and stuff, where you fill in the reality of what’s going on,” he says. “The last one I actually worked on was Public Enemies, the Johnny Depp movie, because they needed Chicago voices. So my phone rang again. I did one day on that.”
Dennis’ singing talents were still in demand during the early ‘80s, notably during three months of touring with Olivia Newton-John. “That came about because of Tom Scott,” he says. “Tom and I were stablemates on Ode, and we became fast friends after that. And I did demos with him prior to the Bernie thing. The demos Bernie heard were the ones I was doing with Tom Scott, the songs that I had written. So we were just hangin’ all the time. And then I was at a barbeque with him, and he told me, ‘Oh, in a couple of months, I’m going to do this Olivia Newton-John tour. It’s three months.’ I said, ‘Wow! That’s a long tour!’
“About a month-and-a-half later, I get a call at 11 o’clock at night from Tom. And he says, ‘Dennis, I didn’t wake you, did I?’ I said, ‘No, no.’ I was actually working on a screenplay that I was writing at the time, so I was up all night anyway. And he said, ‘Look, remember when I told you about the tour?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘Well, we leave in about 15 days.’ I said, ‘Great! What do you need?’ He says, ‘Well, I need a singer.’” says Tufano. “She has two duets. I know you’re a lead singer, so if you got the gig, you get the two duets. But you’d have to sing backgrounds too.’ And I said, ‘Well, I could use the work. It’s not a bad idea, if you’re going to be the band!’
“He said, ‘You’ve got to come in and bring “Suddenly” as an audition piece, and Olivia will be there, because we’re already 10 days into rehearsal. So you’ve got to catch up.’ I said, ‘How many songs?’ So I had a lot of songs to catch up with. So I came in and I auditioned for it, and I got it. Kenny Ortega was her choreographer, then he became a director. But he was the guy who came up to me after my audition. I sang ‘Suddenly’ with her. That was the only song I could do for the audition. It was with her, which was unnerving enough, after being up all night trying to learn the song. Kenny says, ‘You got the job!’ So I went on that tour.
“It was a nice gig. A lot of fun to sing. 25 backgrounds is a lot of songs, but those two duets came off pretty well. We had a ball.” Dennis’ duets of “Suddenly” and “You’re The One That I Want” were featured on Newton-John’s 1983 HBO concert special.
Between his acting, film voice work, and the Darin tribute concerts, Dennis Tufano is a busy man. But there’s still time to reminisce about those days when the Buckinghams ruled Chicago’s Northwest Side. “It’s a lot of fun to have people come up and tell me their stories about the old days,” he says. “Because really now I can appreciate ‘em. Because back then, our heads were up in the clouds. Our heads as young rockers were a little bit overwhelmed, so you didn’t really realize what was going on. And it’s a lot more fun now, I think, because now I can realize everything that’s going on, and also the value of the music is now really sinking in–the looks on people’s faces when they talk about the old songs.
“I didn’t know it meant that much back then, so that’s a good feeling.”
Special thanks to Linda Matlow for all her help in making this feature possible.