Johnny Maestro, who sang with The Crests and with The Brooklyn Bridge, died of cancer Wednesday at the age of 70. Dion Di Mucci called Maestro “a class act” and “truly a gentleman.”
The Crests were one of the more colorful groups of their era; the Brooklyn/Staten Island doo-wop quartet was an unusual ethnic mix — including one Italian, two blacks, and a Puerto Rican — and was fronted by the powerful lead singer, Johnny Maestro (born Mastrangelo).
The Crest first formed in the late fifties and signed with Joyce records. They released “Sweetest One,” which made it to the Hot 100 on 7/15/57 for two weeks, peaking at #86. In 1958 they signed with George Paxton, the President of Coed records and on November 24, their first hit, “Sixteen Candles,” made the Hot 100, on its way to #2 and 21 weeks on the charts.
In the early days of rock, a group would often show up in the studio and their label would present them with the songs they were supposed to record. They didn’t have any choice in the matter. In 1958, Coed gave the Crests two songs to record. The first was “Beside You,” a standard doo-wop tune that was expected to get radio airplay. “That song was more in tune with what was happening on the radio back then,” Johnny Maestro recalls, “the real rhythm and blues doo-wop stuff. It had more harmonies, I think. It tended to lean more toward what was happening.” The flip side was “16 Candles,” a teen birthday theme that Maestro remembers as “a little classier,” brought in by staff writers Luther Dixon and Allyson Kent (Dixon co-wrote a ton of rock classics, including “Soldier Boy” and “Mama Said” by the Shirelles).
Although the infamous payola investigations were just around the corner in late 1958, disc jockeys were still obliviously playing whatever they wanted to, independent of playlists. Alan Freed of New York’s WINS and Dick Clark on ABC-TV, were two of the most influential deejays in America, and they liked “16 Candles” a lot more than “Beside You.” They both played the song incessantly. Soon other disc jockeys began playing that record, which led teenagers to start buying it, which led to the song becoming #2 in the country. It was a clear-cut chain, beginning with a few important jocks who decided what American kids would want to hear. And that’s the way it happened with many tunes. Today “16 Candles” is considered a classic, but we never would have heard it at all if it hadn’t been for Freed and Clark.
The Crests’ luck was great, but not perfect. A quirk of timing kept “16 Candles” from hitting #l. When the record was at its peak at the end of 1958, the Christmas novelty tune, “The Chipmunk Song” was in the process of selling about two million copies. Nothing could’ve knocked it out of #l. Therefore, “16 Candles” peaked at #2 and was the Crests’ only Top 10 record.
The Crests followed up the success of “16 Candles,” with “Step by Step,” “The Angels Listened In,” and “Trouble in Paradise,” but in ‘61 Maestro left for a solo career. As a solo artist he signed with the Coed label and The Crests continued to back him vocally. He had three singles on the charts: the Top 20, “Model Girl,” the Top 40, “What a Surprise,” and the lesser entry, “Mr. Happiness.”
Later, he joined a group called the Del-Satins, which eventually became Brooklyn Bridge. The members of the Del-Satins used to play a lot of basketball and in between periods they sang doo wop in the bathrooms. In the mid 60’s they were also looking for a new lead singer as Les Cauchi recalls, “We walked into this gym and we saw this guy singing on stage all by himself, plucking away on his guitar. It was Johnny Maestro.”
They asked if he’d like to join the group. At first he turned them down, but later he changed his mind. As Brooklyn Bridge they had only one top 40 song, “Worst That Could Happen.” which made it to #3 with a 12 week stay on the Hot 100 in 1968. They last charted in 1970. But, I believe Johnny Mastro will always be best remembered for “16 Candles,” and here it is for your listening pleasure.