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January 29, 2013

Catching Up with Renaissance Man Tom Austin

January 29th, 2013

By Pamela Singer, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent

Listen up, friends. Our great state of New Jersey can boast about numerous accomplished musicians, artists, and realtors. But someone who excels at all three professions, and is a mensch to boot?? Well folks, we’ve hit that elusive trifecta and can proudly lay claim to Tom Austin. Tom is that rare Jersey boy: born, bred, and still living in the Garden State, our very own Renaissance Man. Although best known for co-founding the Royal Teens and co-writing Jersey’s most famous fashion statement, “Short Shorts,” with fellow Jersey boy Bob Gaudio, Tom has talents and drive that have taken him in numerous other directions as well. We can add many other successes to that impressive list, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s begin at the beginning. I had the pleasure recently of talking with Tom about his Jersey roots, and the incredible life he’s led here.

At 6’5”, Tom is a gentle giant of a man. Still boyishly handsome at 72, he is warm, engaging, and articulate. His great stories are interspersed with humor and family lore. Within a few minutes of talking to Tom, I felt as if we’d known each other a long time. As Frankie Avalon, his friend of 54 years told me, “Tom is the nicest, sweetest, most honest man I know. His abundant talents and family values are extraordinary.” Bob Gaudio, his longtime friend and musical collaborator, echoes that sentiment: “Tom and I started our careers together. He is one of the most positive people I know, an excellent drummer, wonderful artist, and all around great guy.”

Pamela Singer: Great to see you again, Tom. How have you been?

Tom Austin: You too, Pam. I’ve been well, thanks. Life has been very good to me.

PS: At the risk of sounding clichéd, I would say you have led a very charmed life!

TA: I’ve never really looked at it as charmed. I just feel very fortunate. I’ve had great opportunities, have been surrounded with wonderful, talented people, and have been blessed with a great family.

PS: As Frankie Valli says in Jersey Boys, “Family is everything!”

TA: He’s right about that.

PS: Let’s go back to those early Jersey days. Can you talk a little about growing up there?

TA: Sure. I grew up in Coytesville, which is now Fort Lee, in Bergen County. I was an only child, and music was a part of my family’s life as far back as I can remember. Mom was a singer, and her mother a concert pianist. Mom’s brother, George, was a professional drummer. I became interested in playing drums around age 9, as my Uncle kept his drums at our house. I wasn’t supposed to touch them, but of course, I did! Since I didn’t know any better, I started out playing backwards. Although I was right handed, I played the bass drum with my left foot. Even after I took formal lessons, I couldn’t break that habit. When I was 10, I played in a band for the first time, at a Police Athletic League dance. My Dad was a local Policeman, and knew the regular band needed a substitute drummer that night.

PS: Your Dad worked at Bill Miller’s Riviera, the famous Fort Lee nightclub, right?

TA: Yes, he worked backstage there. Every top musical act of that time played there, and what a great education it was for me. Dad would bring me on Tuesday nights, typically the slowest night there. I’d sit in the spotlight booth and watch the shows, everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sammy Davis to Jimmy Durante.

PS: Wow, pretty heady stuff for a ten year-old! When did you start playing in your own band?

TA: My first band was called the Continentals, and I was 12 or 13. When I was 16, I met Bob {Gaudio}, who lived a few towns north of me in Bergenfield. We both played on our schools’ football teams. As we got to know each other over the years, we discovered an amazing amount of similarities between us: our birthdays are one day apart, we’re both married on the same day of the same year, both have a first grandchild born on the same day and year, and we share a love of boats and much more! Anyway, Bob and I started playing in a pick-up band in Hackensack. We weren’t really happy with the sound of that band and soon after decided to start our own group, with Bob on piano, Billy Dalton on guitar, Bill Crandall on saxophone, and me on drums. This was 1956. I was 17, Billy 16, Bob 15, and Bill only 14. We called ourselves the Royals and started playing in church basements, parking lots, drive-ins, and schools.

PS: How did you morph into the Royal Teens?

TA: That came later, when our manager, Leo Rogers, told us there already was a group named the Royals. Leo thought the name the Royal Teens had some cachet, but Bobby and I were less than thrilled with the name. We met Leo through the Three Friends, a doo wop vocal group who hired us to do musical back up and got us into New York City for the first time. Leo was their manager and took a liking to us. We started playing back up for some of Leo’s other groups and singers, while still playing our own local gigs. Bobby’s heart was in songwriting, and Leo encouraged us to go in that direction.

PS: What was the first song you wrote together?

TA: It was called ” I’m Going Back To School.”

PS: Love that title! Can you talk a bit about the genesis of “Short Shorts”?

TA: Bobby and I were driving up Washington Avenue in Bergenfield, in the 1957 red and white Ford Fairlane 500 I’d recently bought with band money. We had written some instrumentals and were trying to figure out what to call the song. As we drove past Luhrman’s, the local Sweet Shoppe, these two girls came out wearing the shortest shorts we’d ever seen. We looked at each other, and that’s how “Short Shorts” was born!

PS: That’s fabulous. is it true that the song had no lyrics at first?

TA: Yes, we played the instrumental for Leo one night in the studio, and he asked where the words were. Bobby got up from the piano, gestured for me to follow , and led us into the men’s room to figure out some lyrics! We wanted to keep it simple, and came up with idea of boy’s and girl’s voices going back and forth with the words. Boys: “Who wears short shorts?” Girls: “We wear short shorts.” Boys: “They’re such short shorts.” Girls: “We like short shorts.” That’s the whole song there! On the original recording, I did the initial whistle, Bill Dalton mimicked it on guitar, and Billy Crandall said ‘Man, dig those crazy chicks!” Leo got two of his female background singers to do the girls’ parts, one of whom was Diana Lee.
PS: Did you have any idea that “Short Shorts” was going to be such a mega hit and go right to number 3 on the charts?

TA: We really didn’t . Seemingly overnight, our lives went from zero to a hundred miles an hour. Everything was accelerated and put in high gear. Leo originally released the song on his own label, Power Records. When he couldn’t keep up with the demand, he got us a contract with ABC Paramount Records. He sold them the master for $18,000, out of which we saw a few hundred dollars.

PS: Was that an issue?

TA: We were kids and didn’t know much about the business aspect of music. I remember another time that we were playing the Princeton Prom with Les Brown and Chuck Berry. Leo told us the band was going to get $500 for the gig. When Leo went out to get something to drink, the student helping with the prom handed me a check for $2500. I said, “We’re only getting $500,” and he said “no,” and showed me our contract, which said $2,500. We found out later that Leo was stealing from us all along. That ended our managerial relationship with him.

PS: Wow, I remember Tommy James telling me something similar about his manager, Morris Levy. What was it like touring with so many musical greats and icons?

TA: It was amazing! We went from playing local dances to touring with some of the biggest names in music. Our first tour was with Bill Haley and The Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and The Everly Brothers. Once we started touring it was nonstop. We went all over the United States and Canada.

PS: Bob Gaudio told me the “Short Shorts” adventure was the “education of a lifetime, a musical bootcamp but with better food,” and talked about “being 16 when we went on tour and 35 when we came home.”

TA: He’s right. It was a powerful education along the way. Again, you have to remember we were all still teenagers living at home at the time. Our parents had to give permission for us to go on tour, and we all had to check in with them once a week. We had a system to let them know we were ok, so as not to incur any long-distance charges. We’d call, let the phone ring three times, then hang up. I had already graduated high school by then, but the other guys hadn’t. Billy Crandall had to drop out of the group when his parents wouldn’t let him leave school.

PS: You were a teenager. What was going through your mind at the time?

TA: We were a bit scared and intimidated at first. It was really hard to wrap our minds around everything that was happening. Mentally, we were still back in NJ playing local gigs. Bill Haley and The Comets took us under their wings and showed us the ways of the road. We had a lot to learn. I remember going into hotels full of screaming girls and asking the managers what was going on. “They’re here for YOU,” we were told, which took some getting used to. Bobby and I would be at the airports putting coins in the insurance machines, and writing out girls’ names as beneficiaries!

PS: Any other memories from that time?

TA: In 1958, Bob and I were being given a BMI Songwriters Award, which was a big deal for us. The presentation was going to be at the Pierre Hotel in NYC, really top of the line. We were excited, but running a little late, and got out of the car at Columbus Circle. The hotel and conference area were surprisingly not crowded, and there was a lavish buffet of food. Since there were so few people assembled, we figured we had some time and helped ourselves to the spread. Finally we asked a manager where the presentation was, and he said “what presentation?” Turns out we had walked into the wrong hotel, mistaking The Plaza for The Pierre! Fortunately, we made it across the street in time to get our award.

PS: What a great story! So much for being “Big Men In Town!” Was there a point when you did embrace your success?

TA: I remember buying a pink Cadillac around that time and feeling so proud to drive around my hometown in it. That was a great moment.

PS: I can just picture that; the prodigal son comes home in style! What happened to the Royal Teens after “Short Shorts”?

TA:
We had a few other hits with “Believe Me” and “Harvey’s Got A Girlfriend,” and then I got drafted. We came back from our last tour and my Dad met me coming off the bus and told me I had to report to Fort Dix the next week. I was in the Army for 6 months and in the reserves for 6 years. When I got back, Leo told us the group was finished. It was a tough time for all of us, but we persevered. Kids still recognized us and some asked for an autograph, but it didn’t feel the same. Bobby was working in a printing shop during the day and soon after joined The Romans, who became The Four Seasons. I started working as a draftsman, painting white lines in parking lots, and thinking about how I was going to make a living moving forward.
PS: That sounds like a very difficult time after being a major Pop Star.

TA: It was, but I always felt there was something else out there for me.

PS: There’s a great line in The Sound of Music, which I saw again recently. “When God closes a window, he opens another door”.

TA: Exactly, although I wasn’t quite sure where that door was! So I went to a local employment agency and got a job with a company that was looking for an apprentice draftsman. They liked my recent “experience” painting white street lines! I’d always liked to draw, and really learned a lot about structural design over the next four years there.

PS: Did you ever have serious artistic aspirations?

TA: In high school, my art teachers, Mr. Mardy and Mrs. Glasscock thought I had some talent and encouraged me to pursue a career in art. However, my head and heart pointed towards music at the time. After my active duty was up, I attended Fairleigh Dickinson University and met Paul Orlip, a well-known artist. He really took me under his wing and entered my first serious painting in one of the college’s shows. Paul always told me not to copy anyone else’s style or work, and that advice always stuck with me, personally and professionally.

PS: Did you decide to pursue art full time then?

TA: No, I was still scrambling to make a living. The Royal Teens were still playing together, backing up groups like The Belmonts and Chuck Berry, but we weren’t doing a lot of touring. My next job was at a German engineering company in Englewood Cliffs, Hoesche Uhde. I must have looked German to them! They didn’t speak much English, and I spoke very little German, but it turned out to be a good fit. It was like “the Peter Principle” over and over. I kept getting promoted, even though I was scared they were going to see I didn’t really know what I was doing!

PS: Talk about being in the right place at the right time. When did you start feeling more confident about your art and painting?

TA: In 1996, I was asked by a friend to visit a sick young man who lived in Dover, New Jersey. The young man had been a backup singer for Ben E. King and Darlene Love and was now very ill. We had a lovely visit talking about music and many other things. It was a very moving experience that has stayed with me to this day. Something else happened that day that changed the course of my life. On the drive down, we stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. A gentleman named Bill Sturm was hanging his paintings, and I stopped to admire them. We got to talking, and he said he’d love to see my work. I sent him a pen and ink sketch, to which he replied, “What about your paintings?” I told him I didn’t really paint much anymore, and the next day he showed up on my doorstep with an easel! Bill became my mentor and encouraged me to paint what was very meaningful for me. That’s how I really started painting!

PS: Wow, another example of kismet, and more importantly, of paying it forward. What things have you painted that were meaningful?

TA: Great art should tell a story and elicit emotion, both of which I try to do with my paintings . Artists are always putting their emotions at risk in hopes of entertaining people. I’ve tried to paint things that are both meaningful and entertaining. My first paintings were of Coast Guard sailing ships, in addition to “Amistad” and “Wednesday Night Race.” Then I started painting things from my past. “Gasoline Alley” and “The Riviera” came out of my memories of growing up in New Jersey in the 1950’s.

PS: Of course, you have that terrific painting “Short Shorts Season,” which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.

TA: Thank you. I was inspired to paint that after going to the opening night of Jersey Boys on Broadway. That night was spectacular and so special to me. Not only was the show phenomenal, but being there with Bob {Gaudio}, Charlie Calello, Bob Crewe and Frankie Avalon was amazing. I was so moved to be among such greatness that I wanted to immortalize that feeling in a painting. I actually went back to 52nd St. where the August Wilson theatre is, and took a picture, then began painting and trying to link the past, present, and future of that block.

PS: You succeeded beautifully with that ! Going forward, you’ve had amazing success as an artist, with your first show at the Fieldstone Gallery in NJ several years ago. Your paintings are now hung in the Coast Guard Museum in Washington DC, as well as the Patterson Museum and the Fort Lee Historical Society in NJ. You’re also a Resident Artist at the Salmaguendi Club Village, one of the premier Art Clubs in the world.

TA: Yes, it’s been a wonderful experience all around.

PS: Tell us how you got involved with real estate, your next successful endeavor.

TA: That necessitates a segue to talking about my wonderful wife, Lorraine, who’s been my rock and inspiration for almost 40 years.

PS: Of course.

TA: I met Lorraine while I was still working at Hoechst. A group of us guys were out drinking one night, and Lorraine was there with some girlfriends. Her beauty really wowed me. I finally got up the nerve to talk to her alone. Turns out she was a math tutor, so of course I asked if she would tutor me in math! Her answer was, “only if we go to your mother’s house.” Guess she didn’t trust me! We spent some time together over math, and then I asked her out on a real date. She didn’t want to go out with me at first, so I had to start thinking creatively. I asked her to go fishing, which she agreed to, and seemed to go okay. Then I heard she loved to play tennis. I’d never played tennis in my life, but I took lessons, in order to play with Lorraine.

PS: Wow, you were really persistent. Very impressive!

TA: She was totally worth it. The turning point came when I broke my back in an auto accident and was in the hospital for some time. Lorraine visited me very often, and that was when we fell in love and knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Almost 40 years later, after 2 children and 5 grandchildren, we still feel the same way.

PA: How wonderful.

TA: Yes, she is! My life would not have been the same without Lorraine. She’s been my anchor and inspiration from the day we met. She was the one who told me “Tom, you’ll never be happy as an engineer because you hate math,” and she was right. I started thinking about what else was out there professionally that might interest me. At the time, I had some experience through Hoechst finding housing for German engineers. When a temporary position came up at a real estate office, I decided to take it, with Lorraine’s encouragement. Little did I know how profound a decision that turned out to be.

PS: Another example of kismet!

TA: Right.

PS: Let’s get back to real estate for a minute. How did your career there evolve?

TA: I was laid off from Hoechst in 1971, and in somewhat of a panic to find work, as Lorraine and I were planning on getting married. Two offers were on the table, a similar engineering position, and one in a real estate office. I took the real estate position and went to school in preparation for the real estate exam. I remember studying for the exam on our honeymoon, between other things!

PS: Sounds like you’re a good multi-tasker!

TA: Yes, I passed the test and am still married to Lorraine all these years later! After passing the exam, I took a job with Woodbury Real Estate, bouncing from office to office, learning all I could about how a good real estate office is run. In 1973, after a lot of studying, I passed the broker’s exam, and opened my own office in Ramsey, NJ: Tom Austin Realtors. I’m still working there full time today, along with Lorraine. The people who came to work for me usually had some connection to show business, either actors, musicians, or their wives and husbands. Many of them stayed for decades because we enjoyed each other’s company. When I was introducing my staff to anyone, I never said “This person works for me.” I would always say “This person and I work together.” People appreciated that kind of relationship.

PS: How lovely. When did you become an appraiser?

TA: In 1975, my friend Don McKeon (also a realtor) suggested I become an appraiser, for several reasons. He thought with my architectural background I might be good at it. Also, given that Lorraine and I now had 2 young sons, appraising would provide a more steady income than just real estate sales. Of course, studying to become an appraiser was no easy task, given my limited education. However, Lorraine told me I was smart enough to pass that test anyway. She always said that I was a self-educated man.

PS: You certainly are. How did you do on the appraiser’s exam?

TA: I passed it on the first try. What I learned from that was respect for the profession. To become an appraiser was a proud goal that I was thrilled to achieve. From that point forward, I kept studying, year after year, taking more difficult exams as I went along. Ultimately, I passed the test to become a Certified General Appraiser in both NY and NJ. This means I am qualified to appraise everything from the smallest home to the Empire State Building. One of my first assignments was to appraise 26 miles of railroad, which took 5 years to complete. Finally the day came when I was asked by my peers to become the New Jersey State Director of Education for the National Association of Independent Fee Appraisers.

PS: That’s quite a resume! What I’m most struck by is the diligence and persistence with which you approach all aspects of your life.

TA: After all is said and done, I owe a lot to all of the wonderful people who helped further my ambitions in my life’s journey. I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without Bob Gaudio and Frankie Avalon with the music, Bill Sturm with art, Don McKeon with appraising, Ron Kase with writing, and most of all to Lorraine, who always believed in me.

PS: We haven’t even touched upon your other accomplishments as a writer and yachtsman. Your book on Bill Miller’s Riviera, co-written with Ron Kase, came out in 2011.

TA: Yes. Again, that came from memories and reminiscences from that time in my life. Dr. Lisa Lutter, a Professor of Music at Ramapo College, is talking about doing a musical based on the book.

PS: Fabulous! Will you be adding actor to that impressive resume now?!

TA: I don’t think so, but it’s a real honor that someone thinks that part of my life might be interesting enough for the stage. Frankie Avalon once told me that I was very fortunate to have lived the life I have, and he’s right. So many of the people that I knew back then ended up in terrible situations. Through all of the incredible things that I’ve experienced, it’s my family that have always grounded me and been my greatest source of pride. My wife and I have 2 wonderful sons: Michael, an attorney, and Tom, who owns a trucking company. Our 5 grandchildren range from ages 2-9. We’re all close and see each other a lot.

PS: As Gyp DeCarlo tells Frankie in Jersey Boys, “You take care of family. I like that.”

TA: Exactly.

PS: What would you like your legacy to be?

TA: You know the expression “let me live by the side of the road and be a friend to man”? That’s how I’ve tried to live my life. I’ve always felt it was important to be nice to everyone, because you never know who will give you your last drop of water!

PS: Tom, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to talk with you. You are truly a Renaissance man, Jersey style!!

TA: Thanks, Pam.

6 Comments »

  1. Great job, Pam. Just think: if Tom Austin hadn’t helped Bob Gaudio write Short Shorts, maybe none of this would have happened! No Four Seasons! No Jersey Boys! No Jersey Boys Blog with its very special correspondents! So, thank you, Tom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Comment by Charles Alexander — January 29, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

  2. Love this article on Tom Austin, Love the Bergenfield connection! Love the pictures!

    Comment by Barbara Bartley — January 29, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

  3. Pamela, this is such a great interview with such a charming man…is the next stop “The View” or “60 Minutes”? (Please don’t tell me “Fox News”!)

    I know Tom about 5 years and am a very proud owner of the above referenced print “First Cars Owned by the Jersey Boys”. But I only now know what a humble, talented, and witty man he is, and that, after “Short, Shorts” his best times were ahead of him.

    Great history of his music and touring, with the amazing parallels of Tom and Bob Gaudio’s lives. The similarity between Leo Rogers and Morris Levy was also interesting, although not totally surprising.

    I am so in awe of Tom’s progression in the real estate and apprasing businesses, and his wonderful love story with Lorraine. I do have three questions: how many fish did Lorraine catch, who triumphed in the tennis match, and most importantly, did Lorraine’s math tutoring cover the Kuhn-Tucker Theorem, or at least, the Tucker part of the postulate??

    Comment by Howard Tucker — January 29, 2013 @ 10:21 pm

  4. Sending my friend Tom a dozen of reasons why he remains to be such a treasure to all that meet him. First time in New York, he was so gracious,and kind. Second, a family man that adores his wife, children, grandchildren and his face with glow. Third, a journal of knowledge about living life. Fourth, someone who listens and gives a spiritual ear. Fourth, a golden talent with his paints. Fifth, drumming along to his own beat before, and today. we can say ” when I asked Tom to listen to my symbolic words about my First Bloom painting, he completed “Wildflowers” which I read to various cancer organizations”. Sixth, when I had dinner at the Austins, food fab! and Lorraine, his wife a marvelous lady with class. Seventh, Listening to his inner voices to spread good for everyone. , His display of heart, and soul can transform individuals to find that passion. Eight, Laughter, you can feel that the moment he speaks. Ninth, encouragement, don’t sweat the small stuff, learn to relax. Tenth, Onward and Upward, never give up a dream, I guess you could say its the instrument of his nature. Eleven, Simply love life to its fullest. And Twelve, my gratitude to know such a authentic friend that is a Mother Nature Mentor. Thanks Tom! In essence, I’m pleased to know such a honorable family man.

    Comment by Joni Relyea — January 30, 2013 @ 10:03 am

  5. Who wears shoirt shoirts?

    Comment by Gary — February 1, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

  6. Great story about a great guy!!!!! Carmine

    Comment by Carmine basciano — February 5, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

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