The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is quite well-known, but not too many people know that a certain regional hall of fame exists right here in Pennsylvania. Though the “hall of fame” is not an actual building, the newly established Pittsburgh Rock ’n’ Roll Legends Music Awards was created to honor those connected to the Pittsburgh music scene.
Composed of 15 music industry experts and professionals, the Legends awards nominating committee includes Jerry Zolten, an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State, and Paul Carosi, creator of the Pittsburgh Music History site. They are charged with developing the criteria for induction and a list of deserving candidates in several categories, who will be voted on by a larger group of music industry professionals and the public early next year.
“My writing about black music and my producing of a Grammy-winning a capella gospel group, the Fairfield Four ... have given me a certain cachet,” Zolten said. “So when the idea to do the Pittsburgh Rock ’n’ Roll Legends Awards came around, it was thought that I’d be a good person to have on board.”
Making a name in Pittsburgh
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Zolten grew up in the Pittsburgh area. During his high school years in the early 1960s, Zolten was organizing record hops and hiring bands to perform at them.
Pittsburgh has produced its share of early blues, gospel, R&B and vocal groups, which were part of the first wave of rock ’n’ roll. One could go as far back as the early 19th century and talk about Stephen Foster as a foundation to American popular song. But in the modern era, Pittsburgh offered artists such as Iverson Minter, known as “Louisiana Red,” who learned to play the blues on the streets of Pittsburgh, and Tommy Hunt, a Pittsburgher who sang with the doo-wop group the Flamingos. Other important groups with Pittsburgh origins include the El Venos; the Del Vikings; the Skyliners; the Val-Aires, who went on to become the Vogues; and jazz musician George Benson, who had a vocal group, the Altairs, who were hired to perform at one of Zolten’s record hops.
“I would come in with sound equipment and vinyl 45 rpms, and I would spin those records,” Zolten said. “In some cases where the budget allowed, about three quarters into the evening, an actual group would come in to perform for maybe a half an hour. So I got involved very directly in the music scene that way, but then over the years, I began playing and performing music.”
Zolten later put together two bands in the State College area — Body and Soul and Code Blue, which played rhythm and blues and soul music.
Legends and memorials
The idea for the Legends event came from board President Mary Beth Beggy, a general sales manager with Clear Channel Radio, who passed away in June. Along with Theresa Sciullo Kaufman, a public relations representative in Pittsburgh, Mary Ann Miller, who is on the board of directors of the Cancer Caring Center in Pittsburgh, Miller co-chaired the launch of the Pittsburgh Rock ’N’ Roll Legends Music Awards in January, when the organization inducted legendary concert promoter Rich Engler, former co-owner of DiCesare-Engler Productions.
The Pittsburgh Rock ’n’ Roll Legends Music Awards was created as a local registry, rather than a museum, Miller said.
“The organizers of the Legends Awards have been working with a team of leading local musicians and industry experts to create an entity and an event that will annually recognize the many individuals and organizations that have played an integral role in making rock and roll music part of the fabric of life in western Pennsylvania,” Miller said. “As a fundraising event, our goal is also to raise money for the Cancer Caring Center.”
Notables by name
On a national level, disc jockey Alan Freed, from Windber, was credited with calling the music rock ’n’ roll. But on a more regional level, the disc jockey who, beginning in 1948, opened the doors to rock ’n’ roll by playing R&Bs to Pittsburgh teens, was Porky Chedwick.
Many popular R&B artists — including Hank Ballard, who created “The Twist,” Bo Diddley and Smokey Robinson — credited Chedwick with introducing their records to national audiences. It was Pittsburgh native Art Rupe whose Specialty record label introduced Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price and more to the growing rock ’n’ roll fanbase.
Later rock ’n’ rollers who called western Pennsylvania home include singer Lou Christie; garage band the Swamp Rats; Thom Mooney, who played drums for Todd Rundgren; guitarist Sid McGinnis, of the “Late Night with David Letterman” band; and Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails.
Each year, new honorees will be celebrated at the event and will have their names added to a permanent display at the Hard Rock Café in Pittsburgh.
“Given the long list of talented music industry people here in Pittsburgh and throughout Western Pennsylvania, we’ll have a lot to choose from for many years to come,” Miller said.