There may have been more than one Jay to front Jay & The Americans, but anyone who’s ever heard him sing will agree that Jay Traynor was one of a kind.
Jay Traynor passed away on January 2 of this year, 2014, leaving a legacy of great performances, great recordings, warm memories and one killer hit record. He was a personal friend, and it has taken me until now to come to grips enough with his passing to be able to write this reflection.
It’s tough for me to write all I’d like to because Jay was a very private person and as funny and touching as some of my personal recollections are, a lot of the more intimate stories must remain private in his honor, as innocent as they are. He had moved to Parrish, Florida (near Tampa) to escape the harsh winters of upstate New York where he lived most of his life. His first Christmas in his new digs, he sent me a photo of a plastic Christmas tree it looked like he had bought at Wal-Mart for $9.99 and set up on his porch, with a caption that said something like “I’m ready.” He had a great sense of humor that was just a little “off” but always in good taste. A week or so before a solo gig he did for me at a showroom in Boca Raton, he sent me an e-mail that said, “Today I went over most of the songs in my head and I remembered most all the lyrics without looking at my sheets. This from a man who can’t remember why he’s in the bathroom!” He was a humanitarian. When he and the other original Mystics who recorded “Over the Rainbow” received a settlement of royalties that were due them from the song being used in The Sopranos, it was suggested that even though original lead singer Phil Cracolici was not on the recording, he be included for a share of the spoils. Jay never sang in the group with Phil, and unlike the other 4, did not grow up with, sing with or have any relation to Phil. However, he recognized that, if not for Phil leaving the group, Jay would have never made the record which launched his recording career. He essentially gave up almost 20% of his share to a stranger. He wanted to record again, and cared nothing of the financial gain it might bring. He just wanted to make music.
He loved South Beach and really appreciated the beautiful women there. He was comfortable connecting with strangers and enjoyed it, even if it was just a glance, which was great when he started touring with The Tokens, because people swarmed him constantly. He loved to dance and frequently travelled around to hotels that hosted weekend-long events for ballroom dance enthusiasts. He loved talking about the women he met, and you could tell, he genuinely admired and respected them. He was a perfect gentleman.
He enjoyed the company of, and loved, the original Americans, but he never felt like he fit in with them. He got a kick out of the fact that he got to build a friendship with Jay Black, after being invited to sing at a surprise party for him a few years ago. He always said, “My life would have been so much easier if they had just changed the name of the group to Dave & The Americans when he joined.” He was great at doo wopp and the like, but he really shined when he ventured into swing music and soul music. He did a couple of shows for me titled “Frank, Bobby & Me”, a reference to the music of Sinatra, Darin and his own
favorites. The first half of the show consisted of songs like “East of the Sun”, “Clementine” and “Fly Me to the Moon”. The second half floored everybody in the room. He did songs like “Since I Fell for You”, “Stand By Me”, Bobby Caldwell’s “Stuck on You” and “What You Won’t Do For Love” with an impassioned and soulful delivery that rivaled any Sam Cooke / Otis Redding / Chuck Jackson disciple that I’ve ever heard. You couldn’t believe it was coming out of the same body that had just done a faithful rendition of a Sinatra tune. He didn’t have a specialty. His wheelhouse was music.
The saddest thing, for me, about Jay’s untimely passing, is that he died with so much music still inside him. He started becoming very interested in gospel music and Christian rock in the early 2010’s. I would loved to have heard what he could have done in that genre. He had a broad musical horizon and had a lot of hopes and dreams that he never realized. Most guys his age are content to enjoy the sunset. He was always thinking about the next sunrise. It’s tragic that it ended so soon. In late 2011, he told me knew “something” was “wrong” with his liver and suspected he had liver cancer, even before it was diagnosed. He took the confirmation that followed seriously, and while he received conflicting reports about the severity of the condition and the suggested course of action, he went about changing his diet and finding natural adjuncts to what he anticipated would be a debilitating treatment. He went out on stage several times, weak and hoarse, and somehow, pulled it off like the consummate pro that he was. He got good news on top of good news from his doctors and he beat it the first time around. He came back strong in 2012, but the second time around, in late 2013, he wasn’t so lucky. In the days that followed his death, I reflected on the good times we had and spent hours on the phone with many of the people who knew him best. I still grab my phone to text or call him once in a while, and it’s always a heartbreak all over again when I remember he’s gone. He was a one of a kind and I miss him terribly. Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago that I know he loved. I’ve tweaked it slightly since his passing and I hope it helps you to get to know my friend Jay a little better…
Before he was Jay, John Traynor was growing up in Greenville (upstate New York) when he discovered his penchant for entertaining. “I was a country boy and as a kid, we used to sit around these bonfires and talk,” Jay explained. “For some reason, I would get up on my seat and sing Buttons and Bows.”
Jay was listening to Percy Faith and other light musical fare when a friend introduced him to The Del-Vikings’ Come Go With Me. Jay was hooked. Then a radio DJ brought The Fidelitys (The Things I Love) down from Albany and it became evident to Jay that he wanted to sing professionally. “I was working as an activities director in a resort in the upper Catskills and these guys would come up with their families – guys who were singing in acappella groups in Queens and the Bronx – and I really wanted to be a part of that.” At 16, Jay convinced his mother to move a bit closer to the action, which they did, settling into the suburban town of Mineola on Long Island. “God bless her,” Jay laughed, “Otherwise, I’d probably be milking cows or something.”
It wasn’t long before a teenage Traynor hooked up with a group in Queens, called The Abtones (named after their leader, Abby.) The group would sing in the subway for passengers coming off the train to hone their sound, but Jay soon became discouraged when he saw that nothing was happening for the group. Through a friend’s connection, he signed with manager Jim Gribble and began to frequent Gribble’s office, where he would often bump into a then-unknown Paul Simon and “a thousand Frankie Avalon types.” Discouraged by previous unfruitful visits, one day Traynor decided to pay “one last visit” to 1697 Broadway, where Gribble’s office was headquartered. He walked in to find a hushed intensity in the office and felt something big was going on. An aspiring singer-songwriter named Artie Kornfeld sat alone on a bench in the office and Jay inquired about what was going on. Artie replied that they were auditioning for a new lead singer for The Mystics and that he was the last guy going in. The bench gained a new “last guy” and within an hour, The Mystics gained a new lead singer. Jay recalled, “We had just moved from Mineola to Bay Ridge, which is right next to Bensonhurst, where The Mystics were from. I knew all The Mystics’ songs. My voice was fine. I sang their songs really well and they liked the way I looked, but the clincher was their former lead singer was a 42 regular and I’m a 42 regular.” With his new group and ready-to-wear wardrobe, Jay began touring and recording immediately. Perhaps the highlight of Traynor’s 3-song recording career with The Mystics was the group’s up-tempo re-working of The White Cliffs of Dover. The session used two-track technology, with the lead singing on one microphone and the group singing in a partitioned area of the studio on another. Al Contrera, the group’s bass would lead the song’s first few verses and bridge before Traynor would come in with a falsetto lead. “Allie was on the other side of the room so I would have to run across the room to Allie’s mic and sing falsetto, and then run back in time to start singing harmony again. It was a crazy experience.”
After a bus tour of the northeast with Alan Freed (which happened to be Freed’s last) and a big show in New York City with Clay Cole, Traynor was unceremoniously fired from The Mystics. “I had gone to Jim Gribble’s office to get a picture of The Mystics for my friend and Gribble wasn’t there,” Jay explained. “I asked Stan Vincent, Gribble’s right-hand man, if I could get a picture and he told me to go into Gribble’s desk to take one. So, here I am, this quiet kid from the country that would never do anything wrong and I’m looking through the drawer when Jim Gribble walks in. He thinks that I’m going through his desk looking to steal contracts or money or who knows what. He ended up throwing me out of the office and the group.” If Jay were not so meek and innocent, the story might sound fishy or contrived, but knowing Jay, you just have to believe this very strange ending to his beginning as recording artist. (The only thing that would make this story more remarkable would be if the friend who asked for the picture that got Traynor fired was the same friend whose connections got him hired by Gribble in the first place. Believe it or not, that was the case.)
Sandy Yaguda (a.k.a. Sandy Deanne) and Kenny Rosenberg (soon-to-be Kenny Vance) called Traynor when they heard what happened and invited him to join their group The Harbor Lights. The addition of Howie Kirschenbaum (stage name: Howie Kane), who Traynor fondly recalled as “a good-looking blonde guy” and “a fashion expert”, solidified the line-up that became known as The Americans. A successful audition for independent producers Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller led to recording sessions for United Artists, who had the boys record Tonight in support of UA’s new movie West Side Story. Lieber & Stoller must have seen something very special in the four Brooklyn kids, as up until this point, they had worked almost exclusively with African-American artists. “They loved Jay Traynor’s voice, they loved his vibrato, they loved his sound up front and they loved the harmonies,” Sandy recalls. As evidenced by listening to their many comedic Coasters productions, Lieber & Stoller also had a very unique sense of humor. “They decided to call us ‘Binky Jones and The Americans’,” Traynor used to recall with a chuckle. “So I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be ‘Binky’ for the rest of my life.” They relented and agreed to use the nickname Traynor’s grandfather had given him as a child, Jay. (In hindsight, Jay did not completely dodge the bullet. Until his untimely passing, the other Americans still called him “Binky”.)
Tonight sold moderately well, but it was She Cried that put the group on the map. “It was a very haunting tune,” Jay recalled. “The drummer, Gary Chester, grabbed this hairy African drum and started playing that instead of his drums.” Originally intended as the B-side, She Cried was #1 in many local markets and only its lethargic marketing kept it from hitting the top spot nationally. “When it was #1 in New York City, it was dying off the charts in L.A. It was never pushed.”
Around the same time, neighborhood friend Marty Kupersmith (a.k.a. Sanders), who had been the group’s guitarist and fill-in vocalist, became more of a presence in The Americans. A rushed LP (recorded in just two 3-hour sessions) and two more excellent but unsuccessful singles on United Artists led to Jay’s disenchantment with the group’s situation. All of the original members, including Jay, also agree that a country boy thrown into the fast-paced world of 3 street-wise kids from Brooklyn made for a tempestuous mix. A missed rehearsal led Sandy to call Jay and have an “are you in or are you out” conversation, which ended with Jay choosing the latter. Today, Sandy, Howie, Marty and Kenny all sing Jay’s praises, agree that their parting had more to do with outside influences than anything internal, and agree that they would have loved to keep Jay in the group if he had been “in it till the end” the way they were. Songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry hooked up Jay with über-producer Phil Spector, who rehearsed Jay to record Little Drummer Boy for Spector’s in-production Christmas album. Then, all at once, Spector moved his operations to L.A. and Jay had to join the Marine Corps Reserves to avoid being drafted. The recording never materialized. Disappointed and in need of an income, Jay took a job at Warner Brothers in the mailroom but quickly ascended to a more apropos position as a recording engineer, spending days on end in the studio cutting acetates with the likes of up-and-comers like Bob Dylan. Among his accomplishments at the label, Jay got Marty Robbins to record the Gordon Lightfoot ditty Ribbon of Darkness, which went to #1 on the country charts. Over the years, Jay also recorded I Rise, I Fall and Carole King’s I’ve Known You All My Life, two of a handful of highly-regarded but unsuccessful sides at Coral Records. (Around the same time, he also waxed a Bob Crewe song called Up and Over, which failed to dent the charts, but later became an underground hit on the Northern Soul scene.)
Jay was singing with a blues group called Great Jones when a friend, who knew how meticulous and well-organized Jay is, asked Jay to help him by being in charge of all of the ticketing outlets for a music festival called Woodstock. The event was, coincidentally, being organized by Artie Kornfeld, who Jay followed but beat out for the part in The Mystics a decade earlier. “The night before the concert, I got 25 gigantic boxes of tickets and drove to the concert. I said, ‘Okay, I’m here. I’ve got the tickets. Where do you want them? At the front gate?’ They said, ‘Forget the front gate. There is no front gate. It’s a free concert.’” In a strange twist, when one of the scheduled artists’ helicopter arrival was delayed, Jay was ready to fill the onstage void with Great Jones when John Sebastian popped out of the crowd and edged him out.
Through the late 60s and early 70s, Jay became a road manager and toured extensively with Mountain and Bruce, West and Laing, before hooking up with local cover bands in upstate New York to develop his chops on a wider variety of music that included R&B, blues and pop. After a squelched attempt (read: lawsuit) to perform under the name Jay & The Americans in 1988, Traynor joined the Joey Thomas Big Band and fell in love with re-creating the music of Sinatra and Bobby Darin.
In 2006, Jay Siegel, the original Tokens lead singer (and a phenomenal record producer who’s produced the likes of Randy & The Rainbows, The Chiffons, The Happenings and Tony Orlando) took up Jay Traynor on his offer to “call if he ever needed somebody.” The addition of Traynor has been a game-changer for the already-top-shelf Tokens. “Besides having an even better voice now than when he made those records, he really adds a touch of class to the group,” Jay Siegel said at the time. “He has great stage presence.” Siegel’s praise doesn’t end at the stage door. “As talented as he is as a performer and a singer, he’s equally as nice as a person. He’s a pleasure to be with off stage as well as on stage.” For
Traynor, it was an emotional experience, being back on major stages and reclaiming the legacy of his big hit. “First of all, when Jay Siegel introduces me, I actually get a little choked up. I don’t know why,” said Jay Traynor of the experience. “The best part is when I see the people really, really listening and somehow I’m capturing something in their hearts, that’s the most important thing for me. That, to me, is what singing is about. It’s not about your egos. It’s about getting to the people.”