Backstage Pass: Don Ciccone reminisces about The Critters

By  Tom Prestopnik

This Critters fan club card pictures Don Ciccone in the lower left corner. (Courtesy of Don Ciccone/Tom Prestopnik)

This Critters fan club card pictures Don Ciccone in the lower left corner. (Courtesy of Don Ciccone/Tom Prestopnik)

The Critters were part of a 1960s cadre of “soft sounds” acts, groups that specialized in harmonized vocals and a brand of light folk-pop that made The Mamas & The Papas, Trade Winds, Lovin’ Spoonful, The Association and The Buckinghams stars.

In college, I remember coming home with The Critters album Younger Girl under my arm and listening to “Gone For A While,” “Children And Flowers” and Come Back On A Rainy Day,” among other songs. Of course, “Mr. Dieingly Sad” and “Younger Girl,” both still played on oldies stations, stood out as hit singles. “Mr. Dieingly Sad” was selected by WCBS in New York City as one of the top 100 rock songs of all time.

Flash forward 40 years, and I’m now living in South Florida, not so far from Don Ciccone, writer and singer of “Mr. Dieingly Sad” and a former member of both Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons and Tommy James & The Shondells. We caught up with him and reminisced.

Let’s start out in Plainfield, N.J., in the mid 1940s. Were you born and raised there? How did growing up in New Jersey in the ’50s and ’60s musically influence your life?

Don Ciccone: First of all my father was the traditional old-world Italian guy who came over to America [and] wound up liking Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Al Martino, etc. My parents were born in Italy. With my brother and two sisters, I’m a first-generation American.

They liked the pop standards like Dean Martin and Perry Como, and I really came to appreciate those singers and eventually became a real fan of Johnny Mathis. But I won’t deny that when rock and roll came in and Elvis Presley hit, I don’t know exactly what it was that made me gravitate towards that music, but I thought that Elvis was great. And then came my awareness of The Everly Brothers. And that did it. If there was any one group that made me enamored of writing, singing, arranging and the record industry, it was The Everly Brothers.

Rock-and-roll music of that day was still wholesome good music, not that my parents thought so. Now, in retrospect, you can look back and see that it was really good music. It was fun.

Among your first recorded music was a single 45 on Speedway titled “Inner Limits,” label credits to Don And The Chevells. The flip side is by Don and Bob and titled “The Only Girl.” Who is Bob?

DC: That’s my closest friend, a guy named Bob Podstawski, a sax player and one of the singers in The Critters. Bob was definitely instrumental in my career. This guy was part of my band Don And The Chevells but eventually left and joined a band called the Vibratones. They were the rival band, and he convinced me to go and hear them play.

It was a rude awakening for me when I heard them play at the YMCA Auditorium in Westfield, N.J. In the first eight to 16 bars I was so much in awe of them, because they were so tight and so musically brilliant. By the time they took a break, I told Bob that he had to get me an audition with these guys. A short time later, during an audition, the guys were shaking their heads “yes,” and Bob told me to play some of the songs that I had written. The guys were so surprised that this new guy could write songs that eventually they all started writing songs. We changed our name, sought a record deal and that’s how The Critters came to be.

I didn’t notice Bob on the cover of The Critters album Younger Girl.

DC: (Looking at album cover)  That’s interesting. I’m pretty sure that by the time we took the photo, he was already drafted into the military. In fact, I was in the military by the time that “Younger Girl” and “Dieingly Sad” started up the charts. Bob was the guy that got me into The Critters and put my talents into the forefront of the band. He’s still living in New Jersey, building hot rods and custom cars as a hobby.

Where was The Critters album recorded?

DC: It was recorded in Allegro Sound in the basement of 1650 Broadway, the offices of Kama-Sutra Productions.

Artie Ripp was the producer of The Critters album. You wrote three of the songs and sang lead on three of the songs. You were about 19 years old at the time. How much influence did you have on the songs, or on Artie Ripp, or the production of the album? Did they give you some leeway or just say, “Shut up kid, you’re just 19 years old”? Did you hear it one way and they heard it another way?

DC: Artie Ripp was part owner of Kama-Sutra, along with Phil Steinberg. It wasn’t a “me and they” kind of thing. Our lead guitarist, Jim Ryan, recognized my musical expertise, and we gravitated towards one another and ended up writing several songs together. The other guys in the band were all excellent musicians. Jack Decker was an excellent drummer but wasn’t a “music musician.” Chris Darway was the keyboard player. I don’t know Chris’ musical background; he certainly played his instrument very well, but I don’t think he had the passion for the inner workings of songs and music that Jim and I had. I don’t think that Chris had the passion of background harmonies and musical structure and intervals and chordal navigation that Jim and I had. Bob Podstawski was really good musically, as well. He played sax for quite a few years and could read like a champ. He was a consummate musician and got into singing. But he never really sat down and wrote songs. I find that people who play instruments that are non-chordal instruments have a difficult time writing, for the most part. Of course, I could have Phil Collins reading this article and saying, “Oh, really!”

I noticed on the cover of the album that you look like a tough guy. Your music is very mellow and soft, but you have your black leather gloves and a cape.

DC: Let me tell you about that picture. I had just gone over to my friend’s house, and that’s the way I was dressed. It was winter, and I put on my Sherlock Holmes jacket that had a cape and my black leather gloves and jumped on my motorcycle to visit my buddy, who was about 20 minutes away. I’ll never forget blasting up Route 22 in New Jersey going from Plainfield to Westfield, and when I got to my friend Jay Herguth’s house and the phone rang. The question was “Don, did you forget about our photo session?”

I quickly got on my bike and drove back as fast as I could. And that’s why I was wearing my gloves and cape.

Talk to me about “Mr. Dieingly Sad.” I noticed on your current CD Lost And Found, the song is spelled two different ways.

DC: When the song was released, I never got to approve label copy. That’s why it was spelled wrong on the label. So for all of eternity, I have to deal with somebody who never knew how to spell, spelling the name of “Dieingly Sad.” I never had any written notes, but of course, I would have spelled it right. The word dying is spelled d-y-i-n-g, but you get these guys working for the record company, they weren’t educated guys from college. They were street guys putting these companies together. So to them it was  d-i-e, die, i-n-g ing, l-y ly. So now I have people looking at the label and asking me “So this is your song Mr. DING-LY sad?” Any time that I will re-record it from here on out, I’m spelling it correctly, with a “Y.” Not that there is such a word.

It’s a very poignant, very thoughtful, very mature song. Tell me about it.

DC: The song was not about love gone bad. If you listen to the lyrics, “Just a breeze will muss your hair/but you smile away each little care/and if the rain should make you blue/you say tomorrow is anew/blue be your eyes/blonde your hair/you realize beyond the care/life’s in a hurry/but you’ve got no worry/you’re so mystifying glad/I’m Mr. Dieing Sad.”

The whole story is about me falling in love with a young girl, a young woman at the time. I thought that she was terrific. And I knew that I was going to get pulled into the military. I knew what was going to happen. We were at war, and the draft was happening. So that was the reason for the lyric of the song. Everything was great for her, and I said it in a nice way. I was glad that it was great for her. But it wasn’t so great for me, because I could see myself as going into a war.

Is there anything else that you want to add about the 1966-67 era Critters? Any regrets? Any songs that should have been on the LP, or ones that should have been left off?

DC: Just a couple of interesting tidbits. “Everything But Time” is on that album. We needed one more song for the album, and I said “How ’bout this?” And I sang a few bars but never had a bridge to it. I said that I wasn’t done with it, and they told me to hurry up and write a bridge while they were taking a break. So the whole bridge was written in the studio while they were on a break. Another good song was “It Just Won’t Be That Way.”

But that’s not you singing or as the writer.

DC: Yeah that’s me singing lead with Jim, and as the writer with Jim. (Looking at record and cover and seeing Jim Ryan listed as singer and writer) Is that right? Whoa! That’s interesting! I’m going to check my BMI. I always took it for granted. I never realized that it said that.

Three of The Critters went to Villanova University and continued your Critters music there. Tell me about the college life.

DC: Jim Ryan and I were roommates, and Bob Podstawski also went there. I quit after my third year to pursue a music career. I joined The Critters the summer after high school. After a few years, we got a record contract, and then I left Villanova and Jim went to another college. I was studying physics and loved the sciences but felt that my real talent was in the music business.

Quitting college I knew that the draft was a possibility, but I had the gung-ho attitude that I wanted to be a Green Beret. I ended up joining the U.S. Air Force and was there from 1966 to 1970, working as an aircraft mechanic. When I was in the Air Force, I remember being in the barracks and we used to check each other’s mailboxes. Somebody was going to the mail room, and I asked him to pick up my mail. I wound up getting a 12 x 12 package in the mail, opened it up and, wow! It was my album, and there I am, with my picture on it.

And you said, “Hey look everybody!”

DC: No I didn’t. I was real quiet about this stuff. Some of the guys had the attitude that, “Oh yeah, you think you’re such a big deal.” There was tension there; everybody was thinking about going to war. I had a small record player in the barracks and played the record. I just loved some of the songs on the album, especially a song that Jim wrote called “Come Back On A Rainy Day.” Jim’s a great writer and still is. And a great musician. And a very creative guy. I’ll have to re-record that song.

You got out of the Air Force in 1970 and joined The Four Seasons in 1972. What did you do during those intervening two years?

DC: I was doing lead sheets, which are a music sheet that embodies the melody of a written song, the chords that go with it above the melody, and the lyrics that go with it below. It’s just like sheet music. I did the tools for the printer to make that sheet music. I put the music, the chords and the lyrics on [special] paper, which would go through the printing machine.

I would get a cassette or an acetate of a song that someone had written and long before the records came out, the publishing companies would have to copyright them. They would have to secure them, and they would give them to a guy like me and I would transcribe the music that I would hear onto paper so the publishing company could send that paper into the Library of Congress in order to get the copyright. It was very technical and specialized work, and apparently there weren’t very many people doing this, and within a year I was working for every single major record company.

Can you think of any specific songs that you heard before anybody else in the world heard them?

DC: I did the copyright work, the lead sheet work, for Hall and Oates’ whole album Abandoned Luncheonette. I did a lot of Lou Reed stuff, such as “Walk On The Wild Side” — “And the colored girls go, do, da-do, da-do, da-do,” and I remember listening to that and saying, “Oh, my God”  and the other part as well. And I thought, “Am I hearing that part right? Am I writing this out?”

Another guy was Buzzy Linhart. He did some wild stuff. He was on the cutting edge and always wanted to do something wild and crazy. He ended up doing a nude scene in the movie “Groove Tube.” I also did the lead sheets for the Bruce Johnston song, “I Write The Songs That Make The Whole World Sing.” And I thought, “Who would write a song like this? It’s so old-sounding.” Barry Manilow did okay with it, though.

How did you leave The Four Seasons?

DC: This is an interesting story.  I left the Four Seasons … I remember celebrating on New Year’s Eve between 1981 and 1982. I remember celebrating my departure. I toasted to a wonderful era, and I was very glad and very proud of the work that I had done as one of The Four Seasons.

Tell me about your beginnings with The Four Seasons.

DC: I joined The Four Seasons because I wanted to be a star, but I wanted to earn that and become a star on the merit of my talents. My talents were as a singer/songwriter. That’s how I saw myself. The other guys in the group wanted to be the very best that they could at their instruments, so when they were asked to join the band, they wanted to be recognized as the best drummer, or keyboard player. When I joined, I was the lead guitarist and I didn’t care if I was the best lead guitarist or not.

If you hadn’t been in music, what would Don Ciccone be doing today?

DC: Wow. I wanted to be a physicist. That’s the study of what things are made of, why they’re here, the principles of light and motion, how time relates to space. It gets almost sci-fi. I’ve written two short stories with some very bizarre physics influences in them. I don’t have a literary agent yet, so I haven’t had them published.


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3 thoughts on “Backstage Pass: Don Ciccone reminisces about The Critters

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  2. My older brother took me to see The “fabulous” Critters at Chatham High School. It was sometime in 65’/66′. I was only about 14 years old, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them. For me, The Critters had a sound that was just as good as The Beatles. Seriously, Paul McCartney would love to have written and performed a song as truly timeless as Mr. Dieingly Sad. The Critters were so polished and professional that everyone absolutely loved them. I remember having to leave early due to my age, but it gave me a chance to see their cool stretch-length limo car that was parked outside the gymnasium. On the back door it read: “You Are Now Tailgating The Critters”. Best of continued success and happiness to Don Ciccone!

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