Midnight Train History...

[From Newark Star-Ledger]

Retro Legend: Tony Camillo. He put Gladys Knight on that midnight train to Georgia From time to time, Ricky Retro, our pop culture expert, profiles Retro Legends -- Jerseyans who have made a significant contribution to the entertainment world. Ricky's weekly column and pop quiz contest appears Mondays in the Today section.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

"I DIDN'T SEE myself sitting in a chair, playing a horn in a symphony orchestra for the rest of my life."

To paraphrase a Dovells hit, Somerville native Tony Camillo can't sit down. Music makes him move around, and always has.

Camillo, whose first principal instrument was the trumpet, went on to graduate with degrees from Juilliard and Columbia, earning a master's and doctorate at the latter, and to study composition under Leonard Bernstein.

But Camillo, who now lives in Hillsborough, didn't want to play classical music for a living. So he switched to popular music, and Gladys Knight, for one, was the better for it.

After Gladys Knight and the Pips, feeling neglected at Motown, left the label and signed with Buddha, Camillo arranged and produced the group's biggest hit, the Grammy-winning "Midnight Train to Georgia."

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Back in the '60s, Camillo had teamed up with recording engineer Tony Bongiovi (uncle of Jon Bon Jovi) to work with acts at a studio in Bound Brook. From there, the pair leaped all the way to Motown, where Camillo had a hand in the Supremes' "Love Child" and Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life," among others.

When the ace songwriting team of Holland, Dozier and Holland left Motown in a dispute with label president Berry Gordy to found the Invictus and Hot Wax labels, H-D-H used Camillo as an arranger on Freda Payne's "Band of Gold," the Honey Cone's "Want Ads" and Chairman of the Board's "Give Me Just a Little More Time."

Eventually, Camillo returned to live in New Jersey and started up his own recording studio, Venture, where "Midnight Train to Georgia" was cut. Camillo has also worked with Dionne Warwick, George Clinton and Funkadelic, the Raspberries, Eric Carmen, Grand Funk and many others.

But Camillo wasn't content to work on the hits of others. He hooked up with Bob Marcucci, an industry legend and pop-idol Svengali who discovered Fabian and others and was the inspiration for the film "The Idolmaker."

When Marcucci became Camillo's manager, he urged Camillo to write a song inspired by a then-popular catch phrase coined by Jimmie Walker on the TV series "Good Times." The result was "Dynomite -- Part 1," a 1975 Top 10 hit for Bazuka, an instrumental studio group headed by Camillo.

These days, Camillo, who does not like to divulge his age, still runs Venture, as well as Venture Music Group International Ltd., a licensing company co-founded with partner Gene Serina to market Camillo's original songs.

He also recently earned a doctorate in psychology via an e-mail correspondence course through Dorchester University in Dorchester, England. He wrote a thesis on the (mostly negative) impact on kids from rap and other current music.

On his lifelong love for music:

"I was born to music. My family all told me that by the time I was 1 year old I could sing a song all the way through. When I was a little kid, I had a soprano voice, and I still remember my teacher, Mrs. Francis. She used to take me all over the state. She'd put me on a pedestal to sing. I used to make people cry. My mother would take me to the butcher shop, and the butcher always wanted me to sing for him. He'd put me up on a block and he'd say, 'If you sing for me, I give your mama free meat.'"

On "Midnight Train to Georgia":

"What (songwriter Jim Weatherly) had written was called 'Midnight Plane to Houston.' I revamped it, because Gladys was from Georgia and I thought that was a perfect setup for her. I wanted to hear something unique -- pop and yet something that demonstrated that quality in her voice that she had at Motown. I wanted to maintain that urgency in her voice, but go pop with it."

On Bazuka's "Dynomite - Part 1":

"I was working with Bob Marcucci. He found Fabian. He managed me for a while. One day, he said, 'Can you write a song?' I said, 'What kind of song?' He said, 'It doesn't matter; just use the word 'dyno-mite.' There's a kid by the name of J.J. (the character played by Walker), and all the kids are running around saying this word he uses.'

"So I wrote this song in 15 minutes, and the record came together real fast. I came up with the idea of doing something that had an explosive sound to it. I also used Whitney Houston's mom, Cissy, and the Sweet Inspirations on it. Bob got the song to A&M Records, and the thing went berserk."

On studying with Leonard Bernstein:

"He was quite a character. He was high-strung and obviously a very talented man. But he was also a nice man, kind and generous. I got a lot of inspiration from him."

On teaching himself to arrange pop music:

"I went out and bought the Top 10 records at the time and listened to them all. I thought, 'This is stupid. I know I can do this as well or better.' Then I started doing some arranging jobs."

If you or someone you know might make a good subject for a Retro Legend profile, drop Ricky a line by mail (Ricky Retro, The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200), e-mail (RickyRetro@starledger.com) or fax (973-242-5967)



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