We all played The Swamp Rats back in our BlipFM days. And seeing that I’m from the great city of Pittsburgh, consider this post a nod to the legends of my hometown.
Terry Lee’s Garage Band Heroes -The Fantastic Dee Jays & The Swamp Rats from Pittsburgh Music History
During the 1960s Pittsburgh Radio DJ Terry Lee produced a series singles and albums by the Fantastic Dee Jays and the Swamp Rats that are respected favorites of vintage 1960s garage band music collectors around the world. Both bands were popular in the Pittsburgh market during the 1960s with airplay of their singles on Terry Lee’s radio show and their live performances at Terry Lee’s dances. Initially released in 1966 on Stone Records the “Fantastic Dee Jays” album sold well locally but was not distributed nationally. It featured original Brit Pop style songs written by Dee Jays members Dick Newton and Denny Nicholson: “Get Away Girl”, “Love Is Tuff”, “Two Tymes Too”, “Mr. Sad” and “Shy Girl”. The highlight of the Dee-Jays career came June 26, 1966 when they opened for the Rolling Stones at the Civic Arena.
After the Fantastic Dee Jays broke up Terry Lee organized a new harder edged band, The Swamp Rats, with a revolving cast of 12 musicians that included several former members of the Dee Jays. Terry produced and released several Swamp Rat singles on the small St. Clair label in 1966 and 1967. The early punk music of the Swamp Rats was ahead of its time, linking mid-’60s garage rock with late-’60s crazy pre-metal MC5/Stooges rock. They were forerunners of the Ramones and MC5. Reviewer Jake Thee Pope of the spendingloudnight blog calls the band “Sheer punk dementia”. Alan Wright of Cosmic.com calls them “one of the most demented, unhinged and fuzzed-out bands this side of the Sonics.”
The Swamp Rats were popular in the Pittsburgh market but never had the opportunity of a national distribution deal. They disbanded in 1967. Record collectors in the late 1970s digging for 60s garage rock gems unearthed the Swamp Rats and the Fantastic Dee Jays records sparking international interest in their music. A compilation album of the Swamp Rats recordings entitled “Disco Sucks” was released in 1979 by Keystone Records. Several of the Fantastic Dee Jay singles were reissued by Get Hip Records in 1995. In 1996 the “Fantastic Dee Jays” album was reissued by Millennia Records. A second Swamp Rats compilation album titled “Disco Still Sucks!” was released in 2003 by Get Hip Records.
Fantastic Dee Jays
The Fantastic Dee Jays band was formed in McKeesport, Pa by Denny Nicholson, Dick Newton, and Tom Junecko. At age 13 both Denny Nicholson and Dick Newton started performing professionally as vocalists in a McKeesport based group called Bob and the Highlanders. After leaning to play guitar Denny and Dick formed their own group, the Larks with jazz drummer Tom Junecko. In early 1965, Terry Lee, a disc jockey at WMCK (now WIXZ) in McKeesport, hired the band to play at his popular dances and became their manager/producer. Terry Lee also managed and produced the Arondies of “69” fame, the Fenways, the Racket Squad, Chrome Flower, Lucy Blue, Trinity Max and other bands during the 1960s.
Terry changed the Larks’ name to the Dee Jays. The band rehearsed every day after school in Dick Newton’s basement. Terry directed their practices, picked their songs and organized the tight set list, wardrobe, and equipment. Their repertoire ranged from original British Invasion style pop garage rock songs to covers such as “Apache” and ‘Fight Fire’. The hard work and long practice paid off at their first Saturday night appearance at Terry’s dance. The crowd went wild screaming and rushing the stage. The following evening Terry announced on his radio show “You’ve got to see the Dee Jays. They are fantastic!” The description stuck and they became the “Fantastic Dee Jays”. Only 16 years old they were on their way to Pittsburgh stardom.
Terry recorded the Dee Jays after midnight at the WMCK studios. They released their debut single, a cover of “Apache,” in March 1965. They recorded a cover of “Fight Fire”, a Golliwogs’ song that was written by future Credence member John Fogerty. They also recorded several original songs written by Denny Nicholson and Dick Newton. Vocalist / dummer Bob Hocko joined the band and sang lead vocals on the song “Get Away Girl” that he co-wrote with Nicholson and Newton. Their self-titled album the “Fantastic Dee Jays” was released in 1966. The band disbanded in 1966 after the opening for the Rolling Stones. Dick Nicholson was drafted into the military and Tom Junecko enrolled in college.
Terry Lee organized a new group with a new sound with Dee Jays’ guitarist Dick Newton and new comers Dave Cannon and Don Schreiner. He named them the Swamp Rats as their punk sound was drastically different from the Dee Jays pop sound. They released several cover song 45s on the St. Clair label. Terry recorded their debut single “Louie Louie”/”Hey Joe” with Dave Canon on lead vocals. Critic Jason Jason Nardelli of the risingstorm.net wrote: “This single was issued by St. Claire in 1966 and is one of the essential garage 45s – don’t miss this one. The way I see it is that only two groups other than the Kingsmen did right by “Louie Louie,” one of them was the Sonics and the other was this masterful version put down on wax by the Swamp Rats”.
Shortly after the Louie Louie release former Dee Jay member Bob Hocko joined as lead singer. Bassist Paul Shalako was also added to the Swamp Rats line-up. Their second 45 was a cover of the Sonics “Psycho” and folk-rock version of the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere.” Critics regard “Psycho” as the Swamp Rats best song with Bob Hocko screaming psychotic vocals and guitarist Dick Newtown laying down heavy fuzz and a thrashing solo. Their next 45 was a fuzz cover of the Sparkles “No Friend of Mine” and the Stones “It’s Not Easy”. In 1967 Nick Cenci took over management of the Swamp Rats and produced their last 45 on his Co & Ce Label, a cover of “In The Midnight Hour”.
According the Terry Lee, “There was no actual “band”…the Swamp Rats was a group of people that I put together to make records and do live shows at my dances. The group slowly started to change. As it changed, there were personality conflicts, members left, members returned, and new members were added. It was like a revolving door. The Swamp Rats consisted of over 12 people at various times…Dick Newton left the Swamp Rats due to a conflict with Bob Hocko, over the style of music that they wanted to record. I can remember Bob and Don Shriner quitting because they wouldn’t do the vocal for “Here, There and Everywhere”…they walked out of the studio, so I had Paul Shalako do the vocal, and it was one of the most popular, most requested records on my radio show.” Former Dee Jay Denny Nicholson joined the band when they were managed by Nick Cenci replacing Joey Guido who fled to Canada to avoid the draft. They broke up in 1967 after the “In the Midnight Hour” single release.
The All Music Guide Swamp Rats article and dozens of other music websites that repost the All Muisc Guide article state that: “They were also held back by Lee’s reluctance to let the band record original material, and Newton left after a dispute with Lee over musical policy.”
Terry Lee reports that is an inaccurate rumor. “The original 3 members of that band were some of the most talented kids that I’ve ever worked with. When the group was called the DeeJays, we recorded a lot of original material, including Two Tymes Too, Shy Girl, Love is Tuff, Mr. Sad, and others. I encouraged them to write the songs and to record them. The proof is in the records that I produced with them (The Fantastic Dee Jays) in 1965, and the tapes that I have kept for all these years. There were original songs recorded…many of them…I never inhibited anyone from doing original material. The band members were never consistent enough, however, for original material to be agreed upon by all the members. I remember Dick Newton leaving the Swamp Rats due to a conflict with Bob Hocko, over the style of music that they wanted to record. Hocko wanted to record “Tobacco Road” and Newton wanted to record another style of music. Original music was recorded when he was with the band, and after he left the band. I don’t know where the rumor started, but it’s not true, and I have the tapes to prove it.”
Disco Still Sucks
The “Disco Still Sucks” compilation album that was released in 2003 includes previously unreleased original songs written by Bob Hocko that were recorded by the Swamp Rats: “Hey Freak” and “I’m Going Home”. It also includes all of the Swamp Rats cover song single releases: “Louie Louie”, “Psycho”, “No Friend of Mine.”, “Here There and Everywhere”, “Hey Joe:, “It’s Not Easy”, and “In the Midnight Hour”. Two unreleased covers of Tobacco Road and the Kinks’ “She’s Got Everything” are included.
Bob Hocko formed a hard rock band Galactus which released an album in 1976. Before joining the Fantastic Dee Jays in 1966 Hocko led a McKeesport band called the Chains. Two previously unreleased Hocko Mersey beat originals written for the Chains are included on the Swamp Rats 1980 “Disco Sucks” compilation: “I Cried” and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”. Hocko died in 2003 of lung cancer. Dick Newton now lives with his wife Mae in Boston.
After turning over the Swamp Rats to Nick Cenci, Terry Lee became the host of the “Come Alive” television dance show on Pittsburgh’s channel 11. Terry Lee went on to host a radio show in Arizona and buy a radio station in Florida. He sold his station and retired from radio in 1992. Terry returned to Pittsburgh in 2010 and is back on the radio in Pittsburgh with his “Music for Young Lovers” show on WLSW-FM 103.9. He planning to issue more unreleased tunes from his treasure trove of 1960s Pittsburgh bands recordings.