Back in 1981, when the people of Milwaukee, Wisconsin first heard Joe Bonsall and the Oak Ridge Boys sing Elvira, they already knew the song very well. That's because it had been a regional hit fourteen years earlier for a local band who called themselves The Skunks. If that band's 1967 recording had broken out nationwide, Elvira might have been a pop hit before it was a Country hit. But that's not what happened. On Memorial Day in 1981, the Oak Ridge Boys version of Elvira had already gone to #1 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart, and by August it had crossed over to become a #5 hit on Billboard's Hot 100 as well.
The Skunks were four guys pulled together by guitarist Larry Lynne, aka Larry Ostricki of the western Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha. He brought in Rick Allen, aka Rick Sutherland, to play keyboards, Duane Lundy on drums, and Tony Kolp on sax. Playing on the band's name, Larry had everyone dye their hair black with a white stripe down the side. The band first appeared in 1964 at a place called Monreal's on 16th Street at National Avenue. The group went to Chicago to record some demos with the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson sitting in on harmonica, but those recordings were never released. A couple of changes were made, with Rick Allen replaced by Jack Tappy on bass, and Duane Lundy replaced by Teddy Peplinski on drums. The band moved about 100 blocks west to a place called Papa Joe's in Brookfield. Tony Kolp was then replaced by Randy Klein, playing rhythm guitar, and the band moved out to California. They played at a club called Gold Street in Garden Grove. They cut their first record on the Era label for release in November 1965. But the label's owner, Herb Newman, didn't like their name and changed it to The Unbelievables for that release. For their second single, the guys went to the Gold Star Studio and recorded their version of Elvira, along with the flip side, The Journey. The record wasn't released until the band moved back to Milwaukee.
Here's Elvira by The Skunks on USA 865 from 1967:
But The Skunks didn't record the first version of Elvira. The song was written and first recorded by Dallas Frazier in 1966. His version didn't do very well, peaking at #76 on Billboard's Hot 100 and only touching the very bottom of the Cashbox charts at #100.
Here's Elvira by Dallas Frazier on Capitol 5560 from 1966:
But The Skunks didn't cover Dallas Frazier's version. Instead, Larry Lynne heard a blues version of the song on WLAC Radio from Nashville by a cat named Baby Ray, aka Ray Eddlemon. All I know about Ray is that he married a girl named Terri Prim Zephyrhills. Ray and Terri were good friends with the famous World War II hero and actor, Audie Murphy and the three of them wrote songs together. Ray made many other singles, all of which are great, and opened for a Sonny And Cher concert in Dallas in late 1966. He died in 2000 at the age of 62 while serving time in the Nevada State Penitentiary, but I can't tell you what Ray did to get sent there. Although he sounded black, Ray is actually a white singer. Attempts to keep that information from the public is probably the reason why it's virtually impossible to find a photograph of him today. More mysteries to solve, I guess!
Here's Elvira by Baby Ray on Imperial 66232 from 1967:
Elvira - The Mistress of the Dark
The song really has nothing to do with the sexy TV movie host Elvira, host of the syndicated Movie Macabre television show. They simply share the same name. But, if you are one of Elvira's many fans, you probably think of her when you hear the song. But just how much do you know about the Mistress of the Dark?
Elvira was born Cassandra Peterson on 17 September 1951 in Manhattan, Kansas, and raised in Colorado Springs. She became a Las Vegas showgirl when she was just 17 years old, appearing in Viva Les Girls at the Dunes. She made her TV debut doing a guest appearance on Seymour's Fright Night on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles, featuring Larry Vincent as Seymour, the weekly horror movie host. Ironically, Cassandra would, herself, eventually become a horror movie host on that same station several years after Larry's death, thus getting her start as Elvira.
While working in Las Vegas, Cassandra met Elvis Presley who convinced her that she should go to Europe to pursue a career as a singer and actress. She did just that, landing a small part in a Federico Fellini film called Roma. She also toured Europe as lead singer of an Italian rock band called I Latins 80, incorrectly called I Latins Ochanats on many online reference sites. Good luck trying to research the band using that name! For you die-easy Elvira fans (sorry for my lame attempt at Elvira humor), here's a sample from that group's 1972 album, which was called Foglie Gialle All'imbrunire, or Yellow Leaves at Dark in English.
Here's Ci Vuol Pazienza (English: It Takes Patience) by I Latins 80 on Cinedelic CNCZ20083 from 1969:
I find it odd that Cassandra isn't credited on this album. It could be that she simply joined the group when they went on tour, or maybe she was using a fake name. The girl on the left in this photo from the back of the album sure looks like Cassandra to me.
After making this album, the group accompanied several other artists, including Domenico Modugno. In 1974, they changed their name to Expo 80, and then became known as Cappuccino in 1976. The band members credited on their 1969 album were: Franco Marcangeli on piano and vocals, Wilfrid Copello on drums and percussion, Lino Ranieri on bass, Vincent Barbera on guitar, percussion and voice, with Jackie Gustamacchio and Rosalba DiMarzio on vocals.
Another mystery, perhaps solved, perhaps not. If you can shed any light on Cassandra's other life in Italy, please share what you know with the class. In the meantime, I'll keep coming up with interesting bits of musical history for you, all of which can be heard in the massive archive of MusicMaster Oldies.