The Story of a Bar Band

The Kit Kats

by Alex McNeil

The Kit Kats were a bar band, staying together, with no personnel changes, for a dozen years. They released four LP's and eighteen singles between 1963 and 1971, but enjoyed little chart success, with only one single denting the Billboard Hot 100. Eventually tiring of the grind, the band broke up.

With slight modifications, that summary could be made to fit quite a few bands, but it most accurately describes the Kit Kats, a Philadelphia-based quartet which was formed in 1962. Finally, twenty-five years after the group broke up in 1974, much of the band's studio output has been issued on CD.

The two-disc set, lovingly remastered and re-engineered by Tom Moulton, includes most of the band's studio work on the Jamie label - as the Kit Kats and as the New Hope - all in stereo, with several unreleased tracks.

Karl Hausman, the Kit Kats keyboardist, arranger, and co-writer of most of their original material, recently reminisced about the group. [By the way, Hausman spells his first name with a "K," not the "C" as usually appeared on the record jackets and labels. "A lot of times I let it go with a C because I thought it was less ethnic. As I grew older I thought, 'No, let it go back.' My grandfather was thrown in jail by the Nazis. He came over here in 1934, and if it hadn't been for that I would probably have been born on the other side of the ocean."]
The band formed in 1962 in a section of Philadelphia known as Fishtown. Hausman had already been on the road for a year with Roscoe and the Green Men, an Indiana-based band. Shortly after returning home he met up with a childhood friend, guitarist John Bradley, whose father owned a neighborhood music store, and drummer Kit Stewart ("He's Carson Wesley Stewart, Jr., but when he was little the kids called him Kit Carson," explains Hausman), who had stopped in at the store in the hope of finding a guitarist. Bassist Ronnie Cichonski ("It's pronounced Sha-Heinski," notes Hausman, "but he called himself Ronnie Shayne to make it easy. That's showbiz.") soon joined, and the new group, named for the drummer's nickname, started looking for work.
Fortunately, Philadelphia had a lot of bars. "We would load our little amps and drums into two cars and go to four different bars a night and audition for free, just trying to get work in the beginning," Hausman recalls. "That's when we were accused of being four noisy kids. We loved to play, so to us it was unpaid rehearsal. With bars open 'til 2 a.m. we had plenty of time to get from one bar to another. Eventually, it did pay off. The people liked us and the owners noticed that the bartenders were pretty darn busy."
Even in those early days the band's repertoire was broad: besides the standard Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis covers, the boys mixed in Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and even standards such as, "Twelfth Street Rag" and "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." The band usually rehearsed at Hausman's house, where he would teach each new song to his three bandmates. Hausman soon became known as "The Professor" to the others. Vocals were handled by
Hausman, Stewart and Bradley. Bradley was originally assigned to sing the bass parts, but when the others realized that he possessed a high tenor voice, Bradley found himself with most of the lead vocal chores.
Before long the Kit Kats came to the attention of Frank ("Guitar Boogie Shuffle") Virtue, who owned a local recording studio, and offered the group free recording time. The band recorded several tracks for Virtue, and the Kit Kats first single, "Aba Daba Honeymoon," was released on Laurie records in July 1963. "That was an oddball thing," says Hausman. "We had fun doing it, we didn't think anybody would like it, and if they did like it terrific! Frank Virtue liked the idea. Oddly enough, we got a great review from a critic in San Francisco."
A second single from the Virtue sessions, "Cold Walls"/"You're No Angel," would appear in late 1964 on Lawn, a subsidiary of the Philadelphia-based Swan label. Like its predecessor, it sank without a trace.
By this time Hausman and Stewart had begun writing original material, with Hausman composing melodies and Stewart supplying lyrics. And the band kept on playing in bars, often working seven nights a week. In those days, Pennsylvania bars were closed on Sundays, but across the Delaware River in New Jersey the bars stayed open. The repertoire continued to expand, as the band added Beatles, Beach Boys and Four Seasons covers as well as the occasional original song. Among the band's regular haunts was Mattero's T-Bar on MacDade Boulevard in Ridley Township, a largely blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia.
One day in 1965 recording engineer Bob Finiz caught their show, and raved about the group to Harold B. Lipsius, head of Jamie/Guyden Records in Philadelphia. When Lipsius learned that the group had original material, he offered free studio time, as Virtue had done two years earlier. After finishing an engagement at 2 a.m., the quartet packed their equipment, drove into Philadelphia, and recorded from 3 to 7 a.m. "The first thing we did was 'Won't Find Better Than Me,"' Hausman remembers. "Harold liked what he heard. He wanted to know how much more stuff we had; we had maybe a dozen songs, so we were put under contract."
From late 1965 through the spring of 1966 the band recorded quite a bit of material for Jamie, usually booking the sessions in the afternoons so they could continue to make money playing the bars at night. The summer of 1966 found the band booked seven nights a week at The Elmira, a nightclub in Wildwood, New Jersey, one of the most popular Jersey Shore destinations for Philadelphians. In July 1966 the group's first Jamie single, "That's the Way"/"Won't Find Better Than Me," was released.
Engineered and produced by Finiz, the uptempo A-side, "That's The Way," boasted huge reverb in the Phil Spector vein, making the groups four-instrument lineup sound very big indeed. "That's what Bob Finiz bid decided to do," notes Hausman. "I did the arranging. We always respected what he was doing in the studio. Working with only four tracks in those days, it's amazing what he got."
Although "That's the Way" failed to chart nationally, it did achieve success in several local markets; Hausman reports it went to number one in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and, not surprisingly, that it did well in Philadelphia. Hausman also remembers hearing the song on the radio for the first time: "I was on the beach at Wildwood and we heard a station from Atlantic City playing it. Something you had thought of, and there's the finished product being played on the radio. It was disbelief that [we'd] even gotten that far."
In November 1966 the next single, "Let's Get Lost on a Country Road," actually did dent the charts, appealing at #119 on Billboard's Bubbling Under list. "Country Road" was not a hard-driving rocker like "That's the Way," but rather a softer, folk rock-influenced tune that one could imagine the Left Banke having recorded.
The year 1967 saw four more Kit Kats singles released on Jamie, only one of which, "Sea of Love" (a cover of the Phil Philips hit), reached the charts at #130 on the Bubbling Under chart. The group's studio album, "It's Just a Matter of Time," was also released. An interesting mixture of originals (including most of the titles issued on the first five Jamie singles) and covers, it showcased the band's versatility. The covers included "Nut Rocker" "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things," and the nineteenth-century pop hit, "Liza Jane." The latter song was usually the closer at live gigs; Hausman had seen Ronnie Hawkins perform it, and adapted it for the Kit Kats.

The Jamie LP sold well in the Philadelphia area, a fact which came to the attention of Frank Virtue, who quickly packaged twelve of the group's 1963-64 recordings with the misleading title The Very Best of the Kit Kats. The Kit Kats themselves were dismayed, but powerless to do anything about the record.

"We tried to stop it. We were ashamed of it, it was really primitive. But we found out that Virtue owned it, he paid for it, we didn't pay anything for the sessions, and so he was entitled to put out the whole darn album. Today I'm happy to have a copy, but back then we felt funny."

Meanwhile, the band continued to work as hard as ever in the bars and nightspots of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. By 1967 the group had acquired a substantial minority interest in a Wildwood venue, the 1600- seat Riptide Nightclub, where they would perform seven nights a week during the next four summers. The group had always managed itself, and received so many offers for local bookings they seldom had to travel far from their Philadelphia base. Although they acquired bigger and better equipment, they never compromised on one contractual requirement - an acoustic piano for Hausman to play "You needed to run up and down all the keys," he explains, "so we needed a full 88. The clubs agreed to refit a piano for us every time we came. They figured we weren't going to destroy it, and we didn't. We weren't the Who. I love a piano; you treat it with respect. Inside of every artist you're still Beethoven, you play with a love. A hard love with rock and roll, but it's still a love."
To get the piano to sound as loud as the electric bass and guitar, Hausman looked back to his days with his first professional band, the Green Men, "I learned a trick from the piano player with Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto. He said, 'Get yourself a D'Armand ukulele pickup, wedge it in against the soundboard, and you won't suffer any feedback. It's a contact mike, so you can turn up the amplifier.' I still have one in my bag."
Three more Kit Kats singles were issued in 1968, none of which charted. The band also cut two instrumental singles, which were released on Jamie's sister label, Guyden, under other names: "Hanky Panky"/"Let's Get Lost on a Country Road" (Guyden 2129) was credited to the Pablo Ponce Four, while "Nut Rocket,"/"Let's Get Lost on a Country Road" (Guyden 2130) was credited to the Tak Tiks. A second Jamie LP was also released, The Kit Kats Do Their Thing Live. Again, the band was disappointed with the album, which was recorded at Mattero's T-Bar. "We were one of the heaviest sounding groups," says Hausman, "I mean driving, rock and roll groups, but the album sounds more ricky-ticky It just didn't have the bottom; it was very tiny. Kit had a really driving rock and roll beat that they just didn't seem to capture."
The Kit Kats returned to the studio for a third Jamie album in 1969. It was produced by Mike Apsey, who had scored big in 1967 producing "Love (Can Make You Happy)" by Mercy. Apsey had the band re-record his favorite Kit Kats song, "Won't Find Better Than Me," and felt strongly that it should be released as a single; however, the earlier version had already been issued twice as a single, once as a "B" side (Jamie 1321) and once as an "A" side (Jamie 1337). To avoid confusion, Apsey convinced the band to change its name to the New Hope, inspired by, the quaint artsy town in suburban Bucks County near Apsey's home. According to Hausman, the band was receptive to the idea. "I was never in love with the name Kit Kats anyway. In time I got used to it. But when [Apsey] suggested New Hope, I thought, 'Maybe something will happen with this new name. Let's give it a shot."
The name change worked, "Won't Find Better Than Me" by the New Hope was released in December 1969 and brought the group its biggest chart success, peaking at #57 on Billboard's first 100 in February 1970. The record did well in local markets such as Louisville and Des Moines, and the band actually flew to Louisville to promote it. But because of their steady schedule of local bookings, the band was not particularly interested in traveling far. As the new decade dawned, the band members were doing well financially, owning houses and luxury cars.
Perhaps the Kit Kats/New Hope's pinnacle of success had been reached in 1970. Three subsequent New Hope singles and an LP were released, but again, to little airplay. In 1971 the group left Jamie, took back the name Kit Kats, and recorded what would be a final single for Paramount in 1971. The latter disc, "Taking My Time"/"That You Love," is one of the group's better efforts. "Taking My Time" is a midtempo rocker with great hooks, while the flip side, "That You Love," is especially noteworthy as it may well be the first pop tune to advocate tolerance for gay people. Hausman, who wrote the music and the lyrics, recalls his inspiration. "One Sunday night - remember that Pennsylvania was primarily private clubs on Sundays back then - Kit suggested that we go to a club to see the Frisco Follies. I said, 'Who are they?' He explained it was guys who dress up as females, So we went, and it was excellent. I got the idea to write the song based on that show. None of the Kit Kats were gay, but many people in the recording business were, and I had always enjoyed my conversations with them. I thought, 'What's the big deal? I don't hate them; why do other people?' So I wrote a song about it," The lyrics were unmistakable, with lines such as "It ain't natural so you say/For a man to love my way," "Do you beat up women, too/Do we pose a threat to you/Is it possible that you see me in you," and the chorus, "It's not who you love/It's not how you love/It's that you love." Hausman reports that several other tracks were also recorded for Paramount, but none has seen the light of day.
By the early seventies, after a decade together, the band had finally begun to tire of the bar and club scene. The group saw that pop music, and the music business itself, was also changing. A breakup was inevitable, and an amicable end came in 1974. Hausman attributes it to a number of factors: "We started in the early '60s, and look at the sounds that were out by the end of the '60s. We started to wonder whether people still wanted our sound. We weren't a disco band, we weren't heavy metal. And we refused to take outside management. As far as direction, we had to do it ourselves."
Following the breakup, Hausman, Stewart and Bradley remained in the music business, while Cichonski joined his uncle's meat business as a butcher. Stewart briefly managed the band Stanley Steamer before establishing a successful produce business. In 1999 he began producing and hosting "Young at Heart," a talent show for older and younger performers on Comcast Cablevision of DelMarVa, which is aired in Delaware, eastern Maryland and parts of Virginia. Bradley founded Big John & Company, later toured with Chubby Checker and Bill Haley, and eventually took over his in-laws' vacation resort in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.
Only Hausman has continued to make his living in music. He decided first to become a solo act in restaurants and supper clubs. "I started learning show tunes and Gershwin and Porter and a lot of the old songs. You have to have a big repertoire, your audience is 50 and up. I always liked boogie woogie. I did Philadelphia Main Line restaurants, got a haircut and wore a suit every night. After life with the Kit Kats, piano bar was really tough.
"You're down there, right with the people, you're not up on stage. Nobody had ever heard of me. Some of them, they hated rock and roll, they figured all good music died in 1955. But I hung in here, and you know what? I love those old songs. I figured out people are people, and if you make them happy you'll be all right. In time I could sneak in my rock and roll tunes, and the women would drag their husbands onto the dance floor."
After a few years of Philadelphia piano bars, Hausman married and moved to the Pennsylvania Dutch country, eventually buying an old general store and turning it into an ice cream parlour. He also spent two years at Walt Disney World in Florida as the Main Street pianist in the Magic Kingdom. Today he splits his time as a pianist at Pennsylvania's Hershey Park and at the Showboat Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.
In 1988 the Kit Kats re-formed for what was planned as a one-night reunion at Immaculata College in eastern Pennsylvania. Delighted that more than 600 fans showed up for the gig, the band hosted several more shows over the next year. Hausman found the reunion rewarding, if bittersweet. "It was great, like a time warp. I loved the experience. After the band broke up in the seventies, once in a while I would dream about being back onstage with the band. For many years it was too painful to think of the guys; I didn't even hang pictures on the wall, because it hurt. I would change the subject if people brought up the Kit Kats. It was too much a part of my life. I loved it so much, and I think the other guys did, too. We did the reunion, and I think we realized we got it out of our system. I've never dreamed about it again. I was happy that we did it, and I was happy to see them again, and I wish them all well."
The two-CD set, long awaited by Kit Kats fans, should be of interest to all fans of mid-to-late sixties pop music.


Discography
Singles: [As the Kit Kats] -

Laurie 3186 Aba Daba Honeymoon/Good Luck Charlie July 1963
Lawn 249 Cold Walls/You're No Angel Dec. 1964
Jamie 1321 That's the Way/Won't Find Better Than Me July 1966
Jamie 1326 Let's Get Lost on a Country Road/Find Someone Oct.1966
Jamie 1331 You've Got to Know/Cold Walls Feb. 1967
Jamie 1337 Won't Find Better Than Me/Breezy May 1967.
Jamie 1343 Sea of Love/Cold Walls Sept.1967
Jamie 1345 Distance/Find Someone Nov. 1967
Jamie 1353 I Want to Be/Need You Feb. 1968
Jamie 1354 You're So Good to Me/Need You April 1968
Jamie 1362 Hey Saturday Noon/That's the Way Sept. 1968 [As the Pablo Ponce Four]
Guyden 2129 Hanky Panky/Let's Get Lost on a Country Road 1968 [As the Tak Tiks]
Guyden 2130 The Nut Rocker/Let's Get Lost on a Country Road 1968 [As the New Hope]
Jamie 1381 Won't Find Better/They Call It Love Dec. 1969
Jamie 1385 Let's Get Lost on aCountry Road/Rain April 1970
Jamie 1388 Look Away/The Money Game Aug. 1970
Jamie 1422 Find Someone/Breezy 1971 [As the Kit Kats]
Paramount 0110 Taking MyTime/That You Love 1971 [Karl Hausman also recorded one single with Roscoe & the Green Men in 1960: Pontiac 105, Roll Over Beethoven/Bye Bye Blues]

Albums: [As the Kit Kats]

Jamie 3029 It's Just a Matter ofTime'67
Virtue 102067 The Very Best of the Kit Kats 1967
Jamie 3032 The Kit Kats Do Their Thing Live 1968 [As the New Hope]
Jamie 3034 To Understand Is to Love 1969

 

Review in Discoveries, June 2000

THE KIT KATS


It's About Time
Jamie Records Jamie - 4008



The Kit Kats never had an album make the Billboard charts, never had a Top 40 single, and were barely known outside of their hometown of Philadelphia. Why then would Jamie Records bother to release a 2 CD set of their material?

The answer is simple: because The Kit Kats recorded some of the finest music of the late 60s, and it was a crime that it didn't make a bigger impact when it was first released. This two-disc set culls the cream of the crop of Kit Kats material, a must for collectors of '60s pop music.
The first disc features several cuts from the Kit Kats 1967 album It's Just A Matter Of Time, as well as several A and B sides and previously unreleased tracks. The disc illustrates the bands ability to write songs as well as pick from a wide variety of covers, but its main strength is in the showcasing of their individual skills. Lead singer John Bradley's voice can go from baritone to high tenor in the blink of an eye, the backing vocals of Karl Hausman, Kit Stewart and Ron Cichonski are quite striking and complement Bradley's leads well, and Hausman's strong, baroque keyboards are indeed the band's trademark.
"Let's Get Lost On A Country Road" mixes classical and baroque influences, featuring a powerfully dramatic verse which leads into a cataclysmic chorus. "That's The Way" is extremely Spectorian, "Breezy" boasts some excellent minor chord structures and is captivatingly eerie in its execution, "Cold Walls" is a cool Odessey and Oracle-ish ballad, and "Can't Live Without Her" is a harmony feast. The ultimate classic here is "Won't Find Better Than Me," a folk song dressed in baroque clothing that is utterly brilliant, with Hausman's leads and the bands backgrounds dancing together like Rogers and Astaire. This track is presented in two versions, the original single and a denser version which was recorded a bit later.
The songs the Kit Kats chose to cover are a very eclectic bunch. They do R&B right on the classic "Sea Of Love," and Bertha Tillman's "Oh My Angel," a song which was a Philadelphia hit. They also do very nice versions of The Ivy League's soft pop gem "Funny How Love Can Be," The Sound Of Music's "My Favorite Things," the instrumental smash "Nut Rocker" (a natural for them), and give Kit Kats treatment to the traditional "Cotton Fields."
The second disc is comprised mostly of tunes the band recorded in the late '60s, as well as in 1970, after they had changed their name to New Hope. Beginning with yet another version of "Won't Find Better Than Me," this one opens with a beautiful three minute keyboard passage. Other cool originals include the gritty "Money Game," and "Look Away," a seven minute magnum opus that deftly combines baroque and Irish folk (!) stylings.
The disc also features some nifty radio spots and covers, and even a fine video of, you guessed it, "Won't Find Better Than Me".
The liner notes on It's About Time are lovingly written by Bob Hyde, and there's a retrospective by Karl Hausman. The sound quality is good throughout, and any of the songs are presented in true stereo for the first time. It's About Time is an essential package of tragically forgotten songs by a band who, thankfully, are finally getting their due. wwwjamguy.com


David Bash