Longtime musician Kenny Vance turns documentary maker to honor heroes of ‘50s doo-wop era
If you’re looking for a one-stop history of rock and roll — ladies and gentlemen, meet Kenny Vance.
The longtime musician was one of the ‘60s hitmakers Jay and the Americans, with the Brooklyn band opening shows during the British Invasion for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He helped discover Steely Dan. He worked assembling movie soundtracks, including the one for “Animal House.”
Vance is headed next weekend to Asbury Park, where native son Bruce Springsteen once appeared to see his chart-topping group play with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, for a screening of his documentary film “Heart and Soul.”
The film celebrates the work of groundbreaking ‘50s artists like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Chantels, The Jive Five and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
“This is just me,” he explained of the documentary. “No matter what genre you love, you just can’t help but fall in love with these songs. They’re so pure and honest in their presentation.”
The film will be screened March 25 at the Asbury Lanes, with the 79-year-old Vance receiving a “Spirit of New Jersey” award for his efforts to memorialize the music of his youth across a long-ago era he once described as “harmony to heartbreak.”
The documentary has received a positive response at festivals around the country, he says. But the whole project nearly disappeared during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when Vance’s home in the Rockaways was demolished by the devastating storm surge.
“When I came back there was nothing but rubble,” said Vance. “And I had been there for 40 years. The kitchen was somewhat intact and on top was my office — no ceiling, no walls, but the floor was still there.”
A few other things survived, including his guitar (found under a couch) and some random DVDs, audio tapes and cassettes recovered from a desk drawer that miraculously remained closed despite the winds and the water.
Vance, after returning with the storm’s remnants to his temporary lodgings in a Staten Island hotel, was astounded to discover his filmed interviews with stars from the doo-wop era were also improbably intact, the irreplaceable sitdowns with the era’s legendary artists somehow spared.
That was just the beginning of his journey.
“Finding an investor,” he recalled. “Took three or four years to get enough money to start. And another three or four years to come up with the final project.”
Vance enjoyed a good run with Jay and the Americans, recording classic hits like “Cara Mia,” “She Cried” and “This Magic Moment.”
“We got lucky with some hit records when we were just kids,” he said. “And basically, I’ve been doing it for a long time since” — including upcoming dates in Florida and Pennsylvania.
But his career really started inside the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, a life-changing moment where the 15-year-old Vance watched performances by Lymon and his group, Brooklyn’s own the Velours and a guitarist named Chuck Berry.
“All these groups were our heroes,” said Vance, who heard their music on the late Alan Freed’s WINS-AM radio show. “I took the Flatbush Ave. train to DeKalb Ave.. And when I got out, there were all these thousands of people waiting to get inside.
“It was the first ever first rock and roll show,” he continued. “I didn’t know what it was. It cost $1.50 to get inside. And sitting there as a kid, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
His busy career in the ensuing decades included stints as music supervisor for the films “Eddie and the Cruisers,” “American Hot Wax” and “Animal House.” Vance also briefly managed the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker before the pair found a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Steely Dan.
And he still finds time to release multiple albums and tour with his own band, Kenny Vance and the Planotones.
Vance described the final product as part labor of love and part miracle, and he’s never too far removed from his early days singing under a streetlight or inside the New York City subway stations — where the tiled walls provided the perfect backdrop for the time.
“It’s already gratifying to me to see, at the film festivals, how people respond the way they do to this music,” said Vance. “This music was always very important to me … It’s just been a blessed trip.”