The (Original) Sharkskins - A Brief History
Following is a brief history of the rhythm & blues outfit known as The Sharkskins. To be clear, this account pertains to the original Sharkskins who performed on the East Coast of the US between 1982 and 1987, not to be confused with the newer band of the same name based in Delaware and currently performing in the Northeast (also a fine band). I make no claim to this being a definitive history. It is, however, the story to my best recollection.
Roots rock combo the Sharkskins was formed in early 1982 near Dover, NJ. The original lineup included myself (Phil Lewis) on guitar, my brother Mark Lewis on organ, and drummer John Scott Pallotta (known as Scott in those days). The band was the outcome of our extended jam sessions which regularly took place in the basements of our parents' houses. Scott and I had been childhood buddies, playing in bands since the 6th grade, and all three of us had recently returned from Boston's Berklee College of Music. Scott and I had most recently been having a go of the Downtown New York new wave scene, playing in a seminal punk-funk band known as the Titanics.
One fine New Jersey day Mark approached us with the idea of starting a new band, an organ trio. Why not cover some of our favorite old tunes from the 50s and 60s, he suggested, and squeeze in a few originals as well? In this way, the reasoning went, we would be able to work more than a band playing solely original music but still would have space to keep it creative. Our prospects being somewhat limited at that juncture, Scott and I jumped at the idea.
The Sharkskins original handbill (ca. 1982). From left: Louie "The Shark" Fontaine, Phil Bono, Nicky Hammerhead.
Our first jobs were playing casuals and bars around the "Lakeland" area of northwestern New Jersey. Then, while relaxing after a gig one night, the idea came up that maybe it might be fun to adopt a unifying theme -- not unlike the Ramones or one of those 60s bands where all the guys wore identical suits. In a thunderstrike of inspiration we had it next day: The Sharkskins. We would all wear sharkskin suits (those shiny suits from the 60s) and sunglasses. All the time. Not only that, we'd adopt vaguely Italian-sounding pseudonyms and act like a bunch of guidos.
The proposal was met with peals of laughter and promptly and unanimously adopted. To this end, I became Phil "Bono," Scott was henceforth to be known as "Nicky Hammerhead" Pallotta, and Mark would become "Louie The Shark Fontaine." It was further concluded that it wasn't enough to just project these absurd personae on stage. A pact was made to stay "in character" on stage and off. We developed specific patterns of behavior and speech. Between sets, for example, we would hardly interact with anyone, keeping to ourselves and conversing in a patois of Jersey-speak and antiquated hipster jive. We'd stay in the dressing room; reading dirt bike magazines; drinking only Rolling Rock beer and smoking Bel Air cigarettes. We fabricated histories for ourselves (we all grew up in a tenement in Paterson, for example). We appeared to have no interest in anything other than cars (old Cadillacs specifically), "skirts" (chicks), dirt bikes, and sharks (donning shark jewelry, etc.). We sought out clothiers that still had stock from the 1960s, buying up all the sharkskin suits we could find. This was a significant milestone: the band was now no longer just a pop band; we had crossed into the realm of performance art.
The timing was good. The 80s "roots rock" revival was well under way and audiences were eager for live music with a solid backbeat as a vehicle for provocative dancing and copious drinking. Louie rocking the Farfisa organ gave the band a unique and distinctly 60s flavor. When the dance floor was full, the Sharkskins' covers of tunes like "Got My Mojo Workin'" or "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" would often spin out into extended free-form jam sessions that were known to trundle freely over the hills and dales of American popular music, spontaneously incorporating snippets of everything from classical themes to TV show theme songs. Needless to say it was all in service of keeping booties quaking and bottles draining.
Keep in mind that we're talking here about an era before the more restrictive drunken-driving laws we now know came into effect, and lots of regular folks would venture out at night to their preferred watering hole to shimmy their cares away. This made for a quite lively bar scene and a good many of these establishments featured live music. Although lacking any sort of formal management the Sharkskins were able to find a fairly steady stream of work at nightclubs and roadhouses in New Jersey and New York by contacting club owners and somehow convincing them to hire us (Nicky, with his outgoing personality, was especially skilled at this).
In 1983 Louie "The Shark", now married and living in New York City, announced that he was leaving the band to concentrate on composing for theater and solo piano work. Nicky and I were disappointed by this turn of events, but quickly recognized the opportunity to take the band in a new direction. We invited electric bassist Gene Boccia -- then with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes -- to join us (at which point he was dubbed "Mojo" Gene Boccia). Now a guitar trio, the Sharkskins began to explore more rhythm-and-blues-based material, particularly mining the rich vein where jump blues and rock 'n' roll meet. The band continued to refine its sound when Gene wasn't on the road with Southside, working the bars and night-haunts where the previous incarnation had broken ground.
Down the Shore and Up the Hill
Gene was pretty well plugged into the Jersey Shore music scene and helped the Sharkskins make inroads "down the shore." The Jersey Shore was fertile ground for a band like the 'Skins. Raucous partying was the primary pasttime and the band's maritime theme blended well with sea air and salt-water taffy.
Gigging occasionally at (Springsteen haunt) the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ, the band could more often be heard up the street at Mrs. J's, an open-air tavern popular with local bikers. Our combination of stripped-down, soulful electric blues and high-energy antics (I had recently begun the practice of soloing from atop the bar), began to attract the attention of critics, and the Sharkskins started receiving its first press. It was also in this time frame that the 'Skins began to work regularly at the Stanhope House, a long-established inn and blues roadhouse in Stanhope NJ, which for the remainder of the band's brief life would serve as its unofficial home base.
The Stanhope House was a weathered and venerable structure built in 1790. Over the years it had served as everything from a post office to a speakeasy. Although it had been offering live music since the mid-1960s, it was only after the Wrobleski family purchased the historic property in the 1970s that the Stanhope House began booking country and blues acts. Under the Wrobleski's stewardship, the House hosted many of the greatest blues acts in the country, including the likes of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, and on and on, many of whom we had caught in live performance over the years. It was the place we went to get a schooling in Blues 101.
And there was no party more raucous than a good night at the 'Hope House. Dave Wrobleski once told me of an occasion when Stevie Ray Vaughn was on stage with only a handful of people in the audience. Although I wasn't present on this occasion, Dave said he was cleaning glasses at the bar when he heard a tremendous cacophony, like the sound of a "freight train crashing into a Quonset hut." He practically fell over when, looking up, he witnessed Stevie Ray dragging his guitar across the dance floor by the cable -- strings down and amp cranked to 10. It was that kind of place.
The Sharkskins were right at home in the Stanhope House, serving up ripping original numbers like "Do the Shark" and "Sharkskin Watusi" as well as early R&R covers. One night Hammerhead leapt up from behind his drum kit during a solo and worked his way across the dance floor, drumming on everything (and everyone) in sight. It sounds absurd, but the audience went berserk. Instantly it became another hallmark of a Sharkskins' stage show. We also resuscitated the watusi -- a 60s dance move where the participant vaguely mimics surfing moves (like in those dumb beach movies). It looks every bit as ludicrous as you would imagine. This obsession soon morphed into a nightly watusi contest in which dancers and assorted inebriates competed for worthless-but-still-coveted prizes.
Through the period 1983 - 1985 the band continued to perform around its home (surf and) turf while striking out on occasional road trips, working the blues circuit as far south as Florida. It was around this time that we acquired our signature vehicle: a 1961 Cadillac hearse. Nicky and I ripped the casket-moving entrails out of the back and some ardent fans repainted the exterior a gorgeous custom pearl white. That car was something else. Talk about owning the road, other drivers would pull over when they saw the "Sharkmobile" rolling up behind them -- it was that terrifying (and/or perplexing). Fuel consumption was of course calculated in GPM (gallons per mile). "Hey baby, want to take a ride in the hearse?"
The "Classic" Era
In 1985 the Sharkskin's lineup changed again. Looking for a more authentic "vintage" sound, we brought in Chris "The Crusher" Carmean on upright (and sometimes electric) bass. Crusher was a wiry little guy with arms covered in Betty Boop tattoos. (Folks may know him now as the bassist for the Gashouse Gorillas.) He took to the group like a shark to water, being as much a maniac as the rest of us, maybe more so. Crusher could slap that big bass just like Bill Black from the original Elvis Presley trio. Audiences would go crazy when he would spin the thing around or climb on top of it without dropping a beat.
Later that year we added Carey Terrat (a.k.a. "Snapper Niles") on second guitar. Terrat was a somewhat more reserved fellow with a kind of country twang that he picked out on a big old Gretsch Country Gentleman. His style kind of never quite fit in with the rest of band and Nicky would endlessly give me grief for calling him for gigs. But he was a nice fellow and helped take some of the workload off of me. I have to tell you that playing that high-energy music every night is not a cakewalk, and believe me it's damned hard work to sing and play lead guitar for four sets with only the support of bass and drums behind you. Although Nicky and Gene were both outstanding musicians, I was nearly killing myself trying to hold that trio thing down. It was like doing two gigs at once. Snapper helped lighten the load.
This incarnation of the band soon had a thoroughly dedicated following. Evidently the combination of riotous stage antics and danceable, straight-down-the-middle blues-rock was simply irresistible to bar crowds (a formula proven effective ever since Muddy and The Wolf first rocked the South Side). We began to notice the band attracting larger, more unruly, crowds. In 1985 we cut our first and only recording, a self-released EP titled Shark in the Basement.
A Sharkskins handbill from 1986 showing the quartet lineup of Phil Bono, Nicky Hammerhead, Carey Terrat (a.k.a. "Snapper Niles"), and Crusher Carmean.
Throughout 1985 and 1986 the band worked pretty much non-stop, in no small measure thanks to the herculean efforts of its crew, led by road warrior Steve "Wally" Malanka and sound-and-light man Tom "Turtle" Ahern. The work was coming fast and furious -- we were sometimes making up to three gigs in a day -- and, not surprisingly, the partying was commensurate with the workload. Increasingly, the after-gig parties would last well into the next day and the band's appetite for drugs and alcohol (including my own) was growing -- growing like an insatiable great white shark. As an admitted lightweight, I've never been able to play under the influence of intoxicants, but in those later Sharkskins days I must confess that I could barely wait for the gig to end because I needed that fix so bad.
You may already know that in the 1980s the US was in the midst of a cocaine blizzard (presumably a result of CIA involvement in Central America, but let's not even go there). Although the 'Skins were pretty much toiling in obscurity and about as far from being "rock stars" as Pluto is from Jersey City, the partying situation was starting to get out of control. It certainly didn't help that we had started to attract a coterie of loyal fans, many of whom were eager to share their "party goods" with us. Of course we were all too happy to oblige. So begins the downward spiral as the abominable snowman takes over...
A Ship With No Captain
The band was getting booked, no problems there. Folks were packing in to see us and club owners were making beaucoup even if we weren't. Word was getting around apparently. It was a good time, but without management support and direction, we were a ship with no captain. And we all know what happens to a ship with no captain, don't we? (Hint: it runs aground.) The band was stuck in a maelstrom of low-paying club dates. We had no record label interest, and few incentives to keep up the grueling pace. The faith was beginning to wane. The dreadnaught was starting to take on water.
Ours is not a unique story and I'm sure it's a painfully familiar one to anyone who happened to be hanging around the clubs in those years. As I've already mentioned cocaine was everywhere you looked back then and, in case you haven't heard, it is amazingly destructive. It's the only drug I've ever known that made me feel worse but I still wanted more. It's like a beautiful woman that kisses you once and then -- although you spend every waking hour trying to appease her -- never puts out again. Then she proceeds to take a wrecking ball to your life as she whispers sweet nothings in your ear.
Sharkskins handbill for a show at the Bitter End in New York City (ca. 1985).
I watched in horror as friends and acquaintances threw away their families and fortunes and health for just one more sniff of the magic nose candy. I watched it turn everybody I knew (including yours truly) into a genuine asshole (i.e., a person who has no use for anyone that cannot provide drugs). It just makes no goddam sense at all. But those who are under its spell are anything but rational. The outcome, as always, is a foregone conclusion -- there are only two exits out of the nightmare: Stage right, you get clean. Stage left, you die.
The first sign of trouble was a falling-out between myself and one of the other Sharkskins (name withheld) over a drug deal gone bad. This unspecified band member had given me a considerable quantity of drugs to hold for him, which I was only too pleased to accommodate, and which was subsequently stolen from my house. Of course he quite reasonably blamed me, and fortunately he chose to resign from the band in lieu of, say, shooting me. Needless to say this was not a good sort of thing for the band, as it caused much internecine stress, but it also was very upsetting to me personally. Fortunately, I got the message loud and clear and cleaned up my act. But not everyone had the benefit of this type of wake-up call.
One Sunday night at the Stanhope House the 'Skins were tuning up in the dressing room when someone noticed the House's regular bartender, George, seemingly passed out in the closet. George was known to imbibe to excess so this would not have been an unexpected discovery, except I had seen George the week before and he proudly told me he had finally quit drinking. Before I could consider the situation, it was show time and I took to the stage followed by Crusher. Nicky was last to join us and as he passed me he whispered that he didn't think George was passed out drunk -- he saw something around George's neck. My heart sank.
We didn't play long that night. The cops and ambulance came in a few minutes. George Shire, a kind and gentle human being, had hung himself in the dressing room closet. He was not yet 30 years old.
Unable to make any kind of decent living with the band and finally succumbing to his father's (not insensible) exhortations that he should get a "real" job, Nicky took a job at an automobile parts warehouse. Now torching the candle at both ends, he began spending long days at the warehouse and making gigs at night. Nicky was never one to be accused of excessive punctuality, but soon he started to show up even later for rehearsals and gigs. Or sometimes not at all. And when he did show up he was flat exhausted. Gone was the fiery backbeat that had propelled the band to increasing heights of showmanship and audiences to dance-floor epiphanies.
Then Crusher's girlfriend left him. An ordinary person would have responded to this unfortunate turn of events by grieving for a bit and then finding a new squeeze. Crusher's response was, however, to enlist in the Army.
What followed was a period when the Sharkskins' personnel was fluid, sometimes including John Hughes on electric bass and/or Mark "Palms" Palmerini on organ and guitar. Palms was really something special, tearing it up on both guitar and organ and belting out raucous R&B vocals too. He was like Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, and Otis Redding all rolled up into one loveable package. We did discover fairly quickly though that Palms had a tiny bit of a drinking problem. Some nights we would notice the organ cutting out late in the set only to look over and see him passed out under his rig.
But the Sharkskins were now a quartet again and, having grown a tad weary of the 12-bar blues, we began to work in more 60s R&B-type material which worked well with the revived organ-combo format. This incarnation of the band did some excellent work (it's a shame none of it made it to record), and we struck out on the road to conquer the circuit up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Palms really shined on those old Muscle Shoals-type jams and we adapted a good amount of our original material ("Do the Shark", etc.) to his unique talents.
Without Hammerhead out there knocking on doors though the gigs began to slow, and I started playing casuals and took a job in a guitar store to shore up the old bank account. Then the unthinkable happened. John Hughes called one morning with the news that Palms had died of a drug overdose. This was, I believe, in 1987. I can't really describe what losing Palms did to us emotionally (especially John), but suffice to say it had the effect of knocking the wind out of our sails. In retrospect I see that as being the moment when Nicky and I really lost whatever was left of our enthusiasm for the Sharkskins. At least I know I did. It was a hell of a blow.
After Palms went we would occasionally work as a band called the Sharkskins, but the name was about the only thing these performances had in common with previous incarnations of the band. These were not gigs I was not particularly proud of. It was hollow. It was over, and we knew it.
To be continued...