New York Daily News (NY):
(Published March 6)
Sometimes the most modest radio shows have the most interesting
stories behind them, and that was surely true with Ronnie Italiano,
better known as Ronnie I, who died Monday night after a long battle
with liver cancer.
Ronnie was a champion of rhythm and blues vocal group harmony music in
the style of the 1950s, and he played it on WNWK, WHBI and WNYE for 23
years. As recently as last year, he sat in for Christine Vitale on
WFDU (89.1 FM), where she is one of a handful of hosts on various
stations who still play that music on "specialty" shows.
For a time, a half century ago, some of that music - think "Earth
Angel" or "Silhouettes" - made it into the popular mainstream,
particularly in New York. Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, or the
Cadillacs, Heartbeats, Flamingos, Moonglows, Five Satins and
Harptones, were the street sound of their era, like rap a generation
or two later.
Most of the great early New York radio deejays are associated with
that sound, from Alan Freed to Jocko, Hal Jackson and Dr. Jive. When
WCBS-FM launched its oldies format in 1972, R&B vocal groups were a
But as years passed and the original fans drifted away from music,
moved out of town or died, it receded more into the past - which is
what Ronnie Italiano spent his life fighting not to let happen.
He sold the music at his record shop, Clifton Music. He worked to
reissue the most obscure R&B material. Perhaps most critical, he
founded the United in Group Harmony (UGHA) which, since 1976, has held
monthly meetings with live shows, becoming a place where fans could
get together and know the music hadn't died.
He tracked down vocal group singers who hadn't performed in decades,
adding immeasurably to the history of the music and, even more
important, reinforcing its stature as a living, breathing art form.
Since music fans are as contentious as those in any other avocation,
Ronnie had his skirmishes. For starters, he hated the term "doo-wop,"
which he felt trivialized and insulted his music.
It also drove him crazy when WCBS-FM reduced and then virtually
eliminated R&B vocal groups. He praised WCBS-FM hosts Don K. Reed and
Bobby Jay and accused the station of abandoning the city's music roots.
But his real focus was the larger prize: honoring and preserving the
music he grew up with. He was convinced tens of thousands of people
still loved it, and that it needed to be kept alive for those who will
love it in the future.
In that pursuit, he left everything on the field - just like the good
Yankee teams he also loved. We as music lovers," said Terry Stewart,
president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, "are all better off for
I knew Ronnie for a long time as he was the producer of the New York
Harmony Sweeps back in the 90's and I have been buying and selling
wholesale CDs with his record company Clifton Music for years. Ronnie
certainly was a character and perhaps as I'm a noted curmudgeon myself
I could never really get mad at him for his occasional inexplicably
ways of doing business. Ronnie was very much a product of his time and
place and his genuine passion for vocal harmony music was undeniable.
He may of been controversial but he really was instrumental in keeping
the Jersey vocal harmony group tradition alive and much of his work
will, I'm sure, live on forever. - John Neal