March 29, 2008

JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Tom Austin–Part One!

March 29th, 2008

In Jersey Boys, we get just a glimpse into Bob Gaudio’s first group–The Royal Teens–but there’s a lot more to the story! For years, I’ve been wondering about the story behind how the group got started, and who were the other young musical geniuses that were playing with Gaudio! It is an honor to present Part One of a two-part JBB EXCLUSIVE Interview with Tom Austin, one of the founding members of The Royal Teens!

In Part One, Tom talks about his beginnings, how he and Bob Gaudio started The Royal Teens, their first hit, “Short Shorts,” the incredible tour experiences, and more!

JBB: How did you become interested in music and playing drums? Did you come from a musical family?

TA: I became interested in drums because my Uncle George (my mother’s brother) stored his drums at my house. I would sneak the drums out of their cases and fool around with them when no one was home. I was told never to touch them. I was probably 9 or 10 at the time. I did not know how to set them up correctly, so I put the high hat on the right side instead of the left side even though I was a right handed drummer. The result was that I taught myself to play right handed and left footed. My left foot plays the bass drum and my right foot plays the high hat. This became a habit I could not break. I don’t think it affected my ability, but it made things extra hard when I was learning.

JBB: How did you and Bob Gaudio become pals and decide to start The Royal Teens?

TA: Let’s go back to the beginning. I met Bob Gaudio when we both played in a band in Hackensack, New Jersey. Bobby was probably 15 and I was 16. We had lots of coincidences. His birthday is November 17; mine’s on November 16 and we were both only children. He was going to Bergenfield High School and I was at Fort Lee. We were both on our football teams and played each other.

Then, we played together in a band in Hackensack…I played drums and Bobby played only piano back then. Every time we would go to a job somewhere he would pray that the piano was in tune. Many times, the piano was so out of tune that the sax player, in order to tune with the piano, would have to use a matchbook wrapped around the neck of the sax where the mouthpiece attaches, to allow the mouth piece to be extended so far out on the horn to get it in tune with the piano. The leader of the band was Joe Durante–I think he was called “Fat Joe.”

Being the newcomers in this band, Bobby and I started hanging out together. We didn’t especially like the music and wanted to create our own, so I said to Bobby, ‘Let’s start our own band’—so we did. This was in ‘56. We teamed up with two other guys, Bill Crandall, who played saxophone and bassist Billy Dalton. You know, Crandall was only 14 and he had already won many talent contests and was on Paul Whiteman’s TV show. In the ‘60s he joined The Knickerbockers, who had a hit with “Lies.”

JBB: Sounds like you and the other guys were very determined. What kinds of gigs did you play in the early days?

TA: So, we formed the group and named ourselves “The Royals.” We played block dances, the VFW, and CYO dances. This was in 1957. We made some money on these jobs. In November ’57, I bought a brand new 1957 Ford Fairlane. My Dad didn’t even own a car back then. Two or three times a weekend, we would play a CYO dance from 8PM to Midnight, then we’d play at parties after Midnight and we’d pass the hat around for money.

Back at Holy Trinity Church in Coytesville (which was the North end of Fort Lee at the time), they had a basement where the CYO dances were held. Father Geiger was the priest who would hire us. Coytesville lies between Englewood Cliffs, NJ and the Fort Lee High School. It was a one traffic light town. That is where I came from.

At the CYO dance, we met up with a group called “The Three Friends,” who had a hit record called “Blanche.” They were a doo-wop vocal group that had a local hit, so they were guest stars at the CYO. Because they didn’t play any instruments, we were asked to back them up– me on the drums, Bobby on keyboards, Crandall on the sax, and Dalton on guitar. The Three Friends loved the way we played and asked if we’d be interested in playing instruments on their upcoming recording. So, we went into the City at 1650 Broadway and met their manager, Leo Rogers, who asked us if we’d be interested in doing backup work for some black groups, including The Corvelles, who had a hit called, “Miss Jones.”

JBB: Was that at the Brill Building?

TA: No, the Brill Building was more sophisticated. At this place where we recorded, it was every man for himself. All the young musicians from our studio and the Brill Building would all go get coffee at Hanson’s Drug Store—me, Bobby, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, Little Anthony of the Imperials, and Al Kooper, who was all of 13 years old at the time. We got to know him and all these other musical geniuses at Hanson’s.

JBB: At first you guys called yourself “The Royals.” Why did you change your name to The Royal Teens?

TA: We called ourselves The Royals when we started, but when it came time to release our first recording, our manager Leo Rogers told us that there was already a group called the Royals–they pronounced it as “Roy-Als” phonetically. Anyway, Leo actually stuck the name of Teens on the end. Bobby and I never liked it.

JBB: So, how did things progress with The Royal Teens?

TA: I graduated from high school, but Bobby was still in school. Leo encouraged Bobby to write his own songs—that’s where Bobby’s heart was, and he got me involved. We were driving around Washington Avenue, in Bergenfield, passing Luhman’s Candy Store. There were these two girls wearing cutoffs that were, well, so short (laughs)! Bobby was riding shotgun, noticing those two girls. We looked at each other and said, “Let’s call it “Short Shorts.’”

JBB: What happened when you recorded “Short Shorts’?

TA: We were scheduled to be in the recording studio that night with The Corvelles, The Three Friends, some other groups, and two girl singers. That night, we recorded the instrumental track. The engineer and soundman said we created a new beat with the sax solo. A major saxophone artist at the time, King Curtis, was in the studio and said, “WHO is playing that SAX?? It’s unbelievable!” And, here it was, this skinny little 14-year-old—Bill Crandall.

After we played our instrumental for Leo Rogers, he asked where the words were. Bobby and I looked at each other and Bobby jumped up from the piano and motioned to me to go outside with him. We walked into the men’s room and started figuring out where we could put some words in. Bobby said, lets keep it simple and we did. The lyrics we put down were: Boys: Who wears short shorts? Girls: We wear Short Shorts. Boys: There such short shorts. Girls: We like short shorts–and that was it. We were hoping Leo would like those words because we wanted to keep the essence of the song being an instrumental. It worked!

Leo was managing two vocalists who happened to be girls, and he told us that he was bringing them to the session. That is how the story of the girls being at the studio at the time we recorded all started. Leo hired them as background singers. The one girl had her own recording deal with Leo. Leo used The Royal Teens to back her up on her own recording session, just like he had us back all of his other groups including The Corvelles on theirs. I can only remember the name of the one girl and her name was Diane Costello from Forest Hills, NY. She used the stage name of Diana Lee. I forgot the other name. I remember Diane, of course, because she toured with us and was in the movie called “Let’s Rock” with us. Bobby needed to have a lead male voice in the group so we got Joe Villa, who was the lead singer of The Three Friends, the guys that discovered us. It was then that Joe joined the group to allow Diane to leave and continue her own vocal career.

I did the whistle on the recording, and then Billy Dalton did the whistle imitation on the guitar. It was first released on Power Records, Leo Rogers’ own label. Alan Freed started playing it on his “Moon Dog” show. He played a lot of Rhythm & Blues on his show, and a lot of people thought we were a black group. In 1958, we won a number of BMI pop music and R&B awards for the composition. We were now in the top echelon.

JBB: It seems like “Short Shorts” became an instant hit—a #3 chart hit when you were still in high school?!

TA: Leo, our manager couldn’t print records quick enough on his Power label, so he and his partner Lee Silver got us a contract with ABC Paramount Records. They sold the master for $18,000. I don’t think Bobby and I saw any of it—maybe a couple hundred dollars.

A lot of people who didn’t hear the song until much later thought “Short Shorts” was just a commercial for Nair hair removal—the royalty checks for our song paid for my kids to go to college! (chuckles)

JBB: Just like that, your group went from the local scene to having a big hit record and touring with some of the biggest pop groups on the charts?

TA: Yes, that’s how it happened. We were now on ABC Paramount Records. All of this took place in a month. We were at CYO dances one week and the next, we left on the Florida tour with Bill Haley and the Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Everly Brothers. This was a major leap for us! We were like scared little rabbits. Bill Haley and the Comets took a liking to us and our music, and showed us the ways of the road.

Bill Crandall had to leave the band. Since he was only 14, his dad wouldn’t let him go on the road. Bill was replaced by Larry Qualiano, who was 17 and had just finished at the Manhattan School of Music.

JBB: Along with all of the concert appearances, The Royal Teens were on TV, in a movie, and did some other appearances?

TA: Okay, we looked like basketball players. I was 6’5”, Larry was 6’4”, Bobby was 6’2” and Billy was probably nearly 5’10”. Macgregor Clothing hired us to model their new line of Bermuda shorts on TV. We were also in a 1958 issue of Life Magazine, the issue with the McGuire Sisters on the cover.

Then, we were in the Columbia Pictures film, “Let’s Rock” with Julius LaRosa and Danny and the Juniors. We filmed it at the Gold Medal (the flour company) studio. We watched the movie at a theater in Times Square It was so bad—we walked out!

We were on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” 13 times, total. We all watched Dick Clark, and never, ever dreamed of being on his show. In fact, The Royal Teens were on Dick’s very first nationally televised evening show at the Little Theatre in New York. Beechnut Gum was the sponsor and The Royal Teens did the commercial—“Flavorific Gum.”

JBB: What about the concert tours?

TA: We were in a tour called, “The Biggest Show of Stars of 1958.” The show was produced by Irving Feld, who owned record stores in New York and Boston. He was Paul Anka’s manager and later purchased Ringling Brothers Circus. We did one-nighters all over the US and Canada on a tour bus. We also did 30-40 one-nighters by car, going to places like Minnesota and Nebraska.

The Royal Teens played a show right after the Buddy Holly plane crash. We had to call our parents to tell them that we were alright. Of course, that was in the day when calling long distance was an expensive big deal. So, we called them, and let the phone ring twice and hung up to let them know we were fine.

JBB: How would you describe being a young pop star on the road in the late 1950s?

TA: Management wasn’t as honest as it is today. They didn’t treat us fairly at all. No food to eat; sleeping in one room with cots. No glamour whatsoever. We were too embarrassed to say we were getting screwed by our manager, so we had to make believe it was better than it was.

JBB: The Royal Teens toured with some of the biggest names in pop & Rhythm & Blues. Who were some of the other artists in the lineup?

TA: The tour lineup consisted of Sam Cook, Paul Anka, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, Jackie Wilson, the Everly Brothers, Paul Williams, The Crescendos, George Hamilton IV, and Frankie Avalon. In fact, I’m seeing Frankie this weekend. Avalon was so small; he slept on the luggage rack on the bus (chuckles).

There were many famous black bands on the tour; the bus driver was black, and the road manager, Charlie Carpenter was black. We used to see people throwing stones at our bus in the South. We’d all be sleeping on the bus and wake up in the roughest, dingiest section of a town—the black section. The black bands had to stay in that section of town. Those were in the days of segregation in the South. Tour after tour, we saw it happen. For Bobby and me, it was a big culture shock.

JBB: Considering you and Bobby were roommates on the road, are there any wild stories that have stuck with you that you’d like to share?

TA: Bobby and I started smoking cigarettes when we were on the road, probably out of boredom. One night, in our hotel room, I was smoking in bed and Bobby went to take a shower. I fell asleep and my bed caught on fire! So, I woke up to Bobby throwing water on me, putting out the fire!

JBB: These road stories are amazing. What happened after “Short Shorts”?

TA: After “Short Shorts,” we had a couple of other hits—“Harvey’s Got A Girlfriend” and “Believe Me.” By this time, Bobby was starting to get production ideas; he knew where he wanted to go. The Royal Teens were not the greatest singers; we had to use background singers. Bobby was already starting to think more about big orchestral arrangements.

Back around the time “Believe Me” was released, we were pretty established as a band. On one of our last tours, we were going through Pennsylvania, New York State, and Ohio. I remember one kid playing an accordion. It was Charlie Callello and he was a member of The Romans with the song “Como Si Bella.” I met him at Nola Studios on 57th Street.

I’ll never forget the night of our last tour. Our families would always meet us when we got off the bus. My Dad was there that night as I stepped off the bus at 1AM. I remember telling my Pop that I was going to sleep for a month. Pop told me that wasn’t going to happen–because I received my draft notice and had to report to Fort Dix the next morning–off to the Army.

JBB: Just like that, you went from a pop star to basic training in the Army? That must have been rough!

TA: We were now with Capitol Records and here I am in basic training. We were scheduled to appear on Dick Clark’s show. My manager Leo called the Commander and asked, “Can Tom be excused to appear on Dick Clark’s show?”

I was permitted to go on the Dick Clark show providing I wore the Army uniform for the publicity for the Army. Our Company Commander, (unbeknown to me) brought the entire company of 190 men, home from the bivouac range to watch me and The Royal Teens on The Dick Clark show. Although we actually were televised that day, none of us knew that the show on that particular day was being videotaped. We never heard of videotape up to that point. Therefore, the show was not televised on that particular day.

When I got back to the barracks that night the soldier on “Firewatch” (he is the guy who stays up all night to guard the barracks and makes sure the fire in the heater does not go out) met me and told me that the Company Commander brought the company out of the woods and back to the barracks just to see me and I wasn’t on TV. He told me that I was in a lot of trouble. The next day I had to explain about the videotape thing.

That Thursday afternoon the videotape was scheduled to be aired. I was sweating when the Commander brought the entire company back from the field once again. Thank God we were on this time.

JBB: Was this appearance on Dick Clark’s evening program The Royal Teens’ swan song?

TA: Well, I was in the Army for six months, but then had to attend Reserve meetings for six years. Bobby was working at a printing company during the day. Leo our manager told us that The Royal Teens were “finished.” I remember seeing Bobby at a bar when he was playing in The Romans. After the Army, I was painting white lines on parking lots and driving taxi cabs. People were still asking for my autograph. It was a low point for all of us, but we all kept trying.

Thank you to Tom Austin for taking time for this wonderful interview. In Part Two, Tom will reflect on his post-Royal Teens life, his career and passion as an artist, his inspiration for his incredible “Short Shorts Season” painting, and his thoughts on the Jersey Boys experience!


  1. Fascinating interview – filled with facts one would not know from the little bit that has been written about this group and its very talented members.

    Comment by David Cace — March 29, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

  2. What a great interview! Loved hearing about Tom Austin and Bob Gaudio’s life on the road and great photos, too!

    Comment by Paula — March 29, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

  3. What a great interview! Really nice story-telling. Captured the good times and the bad times – but overall, the message for me is to follow your dreams. Thank you for this wonderful interview! Looking forward to Part Two!

    Comment by Angel — March 29, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  4. First of all I would just like to say I love to read anything past,present are future pertaining to The Four Seasons.This was very interesting interview and I look forward to reading and viewing the others.Thank you so much MR.Austin for sharing your musical story it helps fill in some of the gaps. I will be looking forward to the next interview.GOD BLESS! Ike

    Comment by ikie Wayne Durham — March 29, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

  5. As some may recall, “Short Shorts” was sampled (in today’s vernacular) in Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater”. I don’t recall if credits are made to the writers of “Short Shorts”, or if the “two measure rule” applied.

    Comment by Ted Hammond — March 30, 2008 @ 9:20 am

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