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The Village Stompers

The Village Stompers are often misidentified as a folk group, owing to the early-'60s era when they were at their peak, and to their name, as well as the title of their only hit, "Washington Square," which together evoke images of earnest young folksingers strumming acoustic guitars in New York's Greenwich Village. The truth is, they were a Dixieland jazz outfit, and their existence is a reminder of a particular side of student life on college campuses during the late '50s and early '60s. The fact that they released six albums in only four years is also testimony to how popular and visible they were in their time. Along with their resident folk ensembles, many campuses in the late '50s also served as home to amateur and semi-pro Dixieland bands. Although forgotten today as a college phenomenon, the sound became popular at around the same time as folk trios and quartets -- it was a brand of jazz that was not only accessible to wide audiences, and eminently danceable, but it was (in a manner similar to English skiffle music) easy to play competently. As the English trad jazz bands of the era recognized ("trad" being an English offshoot of Dixieland), one needn't be a virtuoso-in-the-making to pass muster in a Dixieland jazz ensemble. The Village Stompers consisted of Dick Brady (trombone), Ralph Casale (banjo), Frank Hubbell (trumpet), Joe Muranyi (clarinet), Al McManus (drums), Lenny Pogan (guitar), Don Coates (piano), and Mitchell May (reeds, winds). They came out of collegiate backgrounds, and all had played in various campus and semi-pro bands -- one member was a professional music teacher, and May had played flute with the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra. The eight of them had gotten together in New York in 1963, initially as Frank Hubbell & the Hubcaps, who cut one single early that year, which vanished without a trace. Later that year, they reorganized as the Village Stompers and were signed to Epic Records, where they cut "Washington Square." The piece itself was a folk-like Dixieland tune, heavy on the banjo as well as the winds, and written by Bob Goldstein, a Philadelphia-born composer, actor, and comedy writer (who'd once collaborated with Woody Allen); in subsequent recordings, they would draw on more of Goldstein's work, both on his own and in collaboration with David Shire, who later achieved renown in the field of film music. The record's success, however, could be traced very specifically to the accessible folk-like arrangement provided by Joe Sherman, who had previously worked with Tony Bennett and the Ames Brothers, among other artists. "Washington Square" was released as a single in the mid-summer of 1963 and entered the charts in late September, hitting the number two spot in December of that year. By that time, the group had cut an album built on the same pattern, made up on Dixieland-style renditions of folk and folk-like material -- "If I Had a Hammer," "Green Green," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" -- as well as a virtual repeat of the album's title tune "The Poet and the Prophet." Some of Sherman's arrangements included surprising little touches, such as the electric guitar that turns up in the middle of the swinging "Cold Steel Canyons" and as the lead instrument on "Blowin' in the Wind" (where the cornets, clarinets, etc. are pushed into the background for the first verse, before coming to the fore on the chorus). The Washington Square album peaked at number five nationally, an extraordinary achievement for a Dixieland band in that era, and a major success by the standards of Epic Records in those days. By that time, the group had gotten a massive amount of exposure on-stage, playing in venues such as New York's Basin Street East. The Village Stompers entered 1964 on a roll, with a Top Ten single and LP to the their credit, and it was here that they began running out of originality. They never found another unknown tune as catchy as "Washington Square," and the title of their second album, More Sounds of Washington Square, only reminded potential listeners of the lack of any significant follow-up, although this was also a very different kind of album -- there were only three folk songs present and the rest drew on popular tunes ("Dominique"), blues, and other sources for a more traditional Dixieland sound and little chance of being mistaken for a folk revival release. They did score a minor hit with their version of "From Russia With Love" in the spring of 1964, which showed up on their next LP, and chalked up another small success with their rendition of the theme from the then-current musical Fiddler on the Roof. By that time, however, the focus of the music business had shifted thousands of miles to the east, to England, with the advent of the British Invasion. The group's easy-going, accessible sound made them popular with deejays, and subsequent singles, such as "The La-Dee-Da Song," "Oh! Marie," and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" were played on the radio but never saw equivalent success in their actual sales. A second album in 1964, Around the World, did passably well thanks to the presence of "From Russia With Love" and "Oh! Marie," but New Beat on Broadway sold more modestly despite the presence of "Fiddler on the Roof," and Some Folk, a Bit of Country, and a Whole Lot of Dixie, released in 1965, saw them recede to the level of a cult phenomenon. Two more albums, A Taste of Honey and Other Goodies and One More Time, followed through 1966, and the group called it quits the following year. Around that same time, Epic released a greatest-hits album. Most of the members of the group continued working, some more visibly than others -- May and Coates both continued turning up on jazz albums into the 1980s and 1990s, and Ralph Casale subsequently played on records by the Arbors, the Free Design, and Laura Nyro, among many others in jazz, pop, and rock. Lennie Tristano-alumnus Joe Muranyi, however, was the major star among the Village Stompers alumni, going on to a major career with the Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars, among other bands.
© Bruce Eder /TiVo
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