Under the harsh stage lights, Chuck Corby's face is strained, reddened as he crouches and begs over the end of a musical phrase: "Honey, let me stay." It's a plea he's been making for over 40 years, and yet tonight, in the confines of Clairton's small, worn Valley Hotel -- a dusty roadhouse between disused Mon Valley mills -- his "Honey, Let Me Stay" means something new. It's as though Corby, the definitive music-world veteran, is begging for one more shot at salvation: one more roadhouse gig, one more aging audience, one more dismissive woman to sing for. (Click here to listen to a clip from Corby's original recording of the song.)
It's hard to understand why. In the half-century since Corby began his career singing R&B, soul, jazz and pop, the music business has stolen his money, his legacy, even his true surname. He and his band, Quiet Storm, have gone from singing alongside superstars, to the so-called "mob circuit" of casinos and nightclubs, to the network of Southwestern PA lounges and bars they now call home. And Corby can only watch as collectors scramble to pay top dollar for records he hardly saw a check for.
Yet Corby still strikes a proud figure, full of flash and vigor: A bright red jacket adorns his smallish frame, accentuated by his signature chains -- one of them a necklace bearing a gold cross whose crossbar consists of the letters C-H-U-C-K. His hair may be graying from its once-deep black, but it's still pushed back off his brow, revealing those eyebrows that retain their youthful alacrity -- rising with his every joy, falling with his melancholy. When Corby talks about his past, biting the nails on his many-ringed fingers, he conjures a blue-eyed soul capo di tutti capi -- somewhere between Van Morrison and Goodfellas. And there's still that voice: breaking grittily on high notes, then holding as steady as clasped ringed fingers, mid-prayer.
And even at nearly 61 years old, Corby finds ways to strike back at the business he both loves and loathes. Like Saloonatics, the music-biz revenge-fantasy film Corby made with a host of cronies. But Corby's final triumph is that he's never given in. For half a century, every time he's pleaded with his muse, "Honey, let me stay," she has given her consent.
Chuck Ciorra was 8 years old when he first walked out to the corner.
It was 1955, and Ciorra was living a storybook urban childhood in Pittsburgh's tiny and isolated Hays neighborhood. Like most of his neighbors, Ciorra's family was staunchly Italian and working class: His bricklayer father and house-cleaner mother were both children of immigrants. And like most of his neighbors, Chuck was obsessed with the black doo-wop and R&B music he heard Porky Chedwick play on WAMO, broadcasting from just down the road in Homestead.
With some third-grade pals, Ciorra formed his first group, singing doo-wop like The Jacks' "Why Don't You Write Me?" But while his friends were content to sing between playing ball and going to the movies, little Ciorra had his sights set higher -- on the street corner outside.
"Pittsburgh was really happy times then," says Corby. "On every corner there was a group of regular guys, out there singing doo-wops. So I'd go up to them and say, 'Hey, I can sing that song!'"
But the corner guys didn't care -- Ciorra was just a kid. And with things heating up in Pittsburgh for locals like the Del-Vikings and the El Venos, this was no time for messing around. But even as he went back to singing "Jitterbug Mary" with his pals, Ciorra was planning his return to the corner.
"I'd written a letter to Ted Mack," the host of the Original Amateur Hour TV show, says Corby. "Ted Mack's show then was like Star Search or American Idol. Two years go by, and I didn't ever hear back, and then I got a letter that said Ted Mack was coming to Pittsburgh -- 'Bring this letter down to KDKA-TV at this time on this date.' So I go down to the corner, and I said, 'You guys gonna let me sing in your group? 'Cause I've got this letter ...'"
Ciorra arranged to meet his new group before the audition. But at the appointed time, he found himself standing on the corner alone. The older boys had taken his letter and gone on without him. But rather than souring him, his first taste of music-biz cruelty fueled Ciorra's fire. It wasn't long before he was taking his career even more seriously.
"I saved my money up, got some of the guys together to back me up, and went down to George Heid's studio Downtown," says Corby. "I made a dub [a one-off record], walked it from Hays down to WAMO in Homestead, and played it for Porky."
"He was only about 13 when he came into my life," says Porky Chedwick. At that time, Chedwick, a deejay, was the most important tastemaker in Pittsburgh -- and among the biggest names in American radio. "He had a little bit of a sound in his voice. I was playing [mostly] black artists, and he had a good black-artist sound, but without really striving to be that way. So I tried to help him out."
With a reference from Chedwick, Ciorra approached Pittsburgh's Svengali-like record mogul, Joe Averbach, whose Fee Bee Records was relishing its Del-Vikings success. After a few years of club gigs and false starts, a never-released single featuring a young George Benson on guitar, and a minor bidding war over Ciorra with Detroit's Golden World Records, Averbach sent Ciorra to New York City to record.
Ciorra's "Man Loves Two," which he wrote and recorded around his 18th year, set the tone for the singer's career in ways he could never have known. (Click here to listen to a clip of "Man Loves Two".) There's the verge-of-a-breakdown balladry that became his trademark. Then there's the self-fulfilling prophesy of its tale of a marriage disintegrating: At 18, the Frankie Valli-handsome Ciorra was married -- a no-go in Averbach's star-making playbook. But when he hit the road to promote his record, Ciorra's wedding ring was left behind. So was his name.
Pittsburgh music has a long history of racial cross-pollination, stretching all the way back to Stephen Foster. (Besides being one of the first white Americans to capitalize on the music of blacks, Pittsburgh native Foster was a pioneer in the field of getting screwed by the music business, dying penniless despite being possibly the best-selling songwriter of his era.)
Beginning in 1948, Porky Chedwick taught white Pittsburghers the joys of obscure black musicians, championing forgotten R&B and gospel records as well as then-little-known artists such as Bo Diddley and Smokey Robinson, and smashing the color barrier -- at least on the airwaves.
Chedwick's audience consisted of the most passionate fans of black music in white America, and they helped to create the city's history of so-called "blue-eyed" soul. From the Del-Vikings, one of the country's first commercially successful racially integrated groups, the trail led to solo artists such as Jimmy Beaumont (of the Skyliners), Stax artist and Otis Redding protégé Johnny Daye ... and, as he soon became known, Chuck Corby.
"I got back from [recording in] New York, and Joe [Averbach] said, 'By the way, from now on, your name's Chuck Corby,'" he says. "He thought my name sounded white, but that my sound was black, and back then it was impossible to get your record played on some R&B stations if you're obviously white."
Not only did Ciorra become Corby, but Averbach had "Man Loves Two" released on a small affiliated California label instead of Fee Bee. So even in Pittsburgh, many DJs assumed that Chuck Corby was a talented black singer from California. It wasn't long before the much larger Veep label picked up the record. Then Chess Records heard it, and that same year, the famed label's blues singer Little Milton charted with his own version. But don't look for the name "Corby" on those records -- even on his own version, the songwriting is credited to "Crosby" and "Brancho."
"I'd look at my records when they came out, and say, 'Who's this guy [listed as co-writer],'" says Corby. "Joe [Averbach] would chomp on that cigar of his and just say, 'Don't you worry about that, Chuck.' It's him! He used to 'ghost' on my songs -- taking half the [publishing] rights!"
But WAMO was playing "Man Loves Two" and, soon after, Corby's "City of Strangers" and "Honey, Let Me Stay." Corby and Chedwick remained close, and the DJ booked him for a summer concert, alongside soul stars Eddie Holman, Sonny & the Premiers, and the Intruders. In at least one way, Corby stood out. "I was about the only white person there! I walked out on stage, lip-synching 'Man Loves Two,' and there's about 4,000 black guys looking up at me like, 'What?' So I stopped, and sang it live, and they went crazy."
It was a scene repeated time and again as Corby hit the road practically full time with his band, The Entrees. Corby performed in thousand-plus capacity casinos and theaters with legendary names like David Ruffin (of the Temptations), and J.J. Jackson. Just as often, Corby headlined on the so-called "chitlin' circuit" -- clubs where R&B and soul ballads still held sway amongst an overwhelmingly black adult audience.
By the tail end of the '60s, however, things weren't necessarily easy for a white singer in black neighborhoods.
"We'd do a couple nights [in each city]: Columbus, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland," says Corby. "In the clubs, it was beautiful -- people loved us. But once I stepped out that door -- man, it was scary. This was after Martin Luther King [was assassinated], and Detroit looked like a war zone. We'd have to get an escort from our audience just to get out."
Despite the tumult, it was around this time that Chuck Corby experienced perhaps his finest hour. Corby and Averbach (who died in 1999) had allowed Little Milton to record "Man Loves Two" even though Corby's version was still on the shelves. Chess Records owed Corby a favor, and in 1969 released "Complete Opposites," Corby's apt farewell to the '60s. It's the old tale of love between working-class boy and uptown girl. But it might well reflect Corby's despair at the musical world disappearing around him: a white, emotive balladeer sinking in a new world of the black, funky dance music spawned by James Brown.
"Complete Opposites" is stunning, Corby's singing and songwriting at its finest. Fronting typical Chicago-soul backing, with lush horns and harmonies like Curtis Mayfield might call for, Corby's voice had matured as much as his melancholy message -- deeper, gruffer, more lived-in. He pushes away the girl and the world, understanding that he's not meant to win.
"Complete Opposites" hit the charts in a few towns, gained some radio airplay and a caused brief resurgence of gig interest, and then disappeared. Chess never called back. The single had been a favor, nothing more. (That same year, moreover, the label was sold.)
"When I got that record on Chess, I thought, 'Wow,'" says Corby. "I was on the label with all the guys I idolized. I thought, 'This is it.' But they never got behind it -- I was just a token. I got really disappointed, and things were tough for a while. The '70s were a tough period for me."
The cougars swirl swizzle-sticks in their drinks and dart their eyes around the bar at The Living Room, a South Hills supper club. "It's ladies night," declares Corby's voice from the tiny stage, "and the feeling's right." In high heels, the cougars click onto the dance floor, affluent middle-aged women weaving past older men wearing white-on-white ties and faux-guayabaras to grab for the few strapping young lads in attendance: If it's ladies night, damned if they're not gonna feel all right.
There's no room in the set list for "Honey, Let Me Stay" tonight -- not with the Lou Rawls and Frank Sinatra that the three-piece Chuck Corby & Quiet Storm will fill nearly a half-dozen sets with. Hell, there's not even room for a drum kit. Keyboardist Walt Laughlin, quiet and serene in his ever-present cowboy hat, covers drum and bass duties on his bank of electronics, while joining hirsute, '70s-hep guitarist Tom DeJohn in harmonizing behind Corby's lead.
Corby, DeJohn and Laughlin have been performing as Quiet Storm for close to 30 years, and it shows -- in the ease of their harmonies, their instinctive inflection, their joking manner offstage and on. In that time, the group has collaborated on records, CDs, even a film. And yet in settings like The Living Room, that material takes a back seat to Kool & the Gang.
"The people who come out to the clubs we play, they want something that they know," says DeJohn. "You play an original they've never heard before, they look at you like, 'Huh?'"
After the Chess fiasco, Corby walked away from music briefly, co-owning a bar with organist John Papi. But he couldn't stay away. With Chuck Corby & Co., a brief stint singing with his childhood heroes the Del-Vikings, and finally with Quiet Storm, Corby spent much of the 1970s locked into an exhausting schedule. By day, he worked construction -- as he'd done off and on for years -- and by night played gigs on what DeJohn refers to as the "mob circuit," from Atlantic City, to Florida, to nearby Youngstown, Ohio. For these gigs, Corby would get instructions from colleagues as "remind them you're half Calabrese."
"It was all crooked noses in that circuit," jokes DeJohn. "The clubs we played were pretty much all run by" -- he pauses -- "those guys. Whether they were up front about it, or behind the scenes, they were in charge."
The circuit could be lucrative, but it could also be troublesome. Once, when the band canceled a gig at the last minute at a Florida establishment with owners of dubious reputation, Corby had to scramble for a way out. Finally, he told the others to drop him off at a local psychiatric ward and had himself committed: He couldn't play the gig if he were locked up. "You know what," jokes DeJohn, "I think he got along just fine with those people."
Back home, things were just as tough. Quiet Storm would play a gig until 1 a.m., then run across town to play one of Pittsburgh's many after-hours clubs. After an hour or two of sleep, Corby would show up to work at a construction site, sometimes aided by "black beauties" -- speed.
"It messed with my head: I didn't know what time of day it was," says Corby. "I'd wake up, the clock said '7,' and I'd put my suit on. My [second] wife would say, 'Chuck -- other job!' And it's 7 in the morning.
"I was in a stupor for a long time, drinking all the time. R&B wasn't that popular anymore. I'd play [residencies], and at the end of the week, I'd owe the club money! We went from working the big rooms to playing Holiday Inns and getting heckled."
In the later 1970s, while Corby was being heckled in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, his music was packing dance floors across the country and overseas -- unbeknownst to him. In 1968, label-owner Joe Averbach had sent Corby to New York City to record a new Fee Bee single, eventually credited to "The Soul Communicators -- Lead Vocals: Chuck Corby." The A side was "Those Lonely Nights," a pounding dance tune with Corby's by-now signature heartbreaking vocals. The record disappeared until England's northern-soul scene -- a network of late-night clubs obsessed with rare, up-tempo American soul records -- adopted it as an anthem. (Other Corby songs -- like "I Need Love" and "Happy Go Lucky" -- have also garnered northern-soul play.)
Today, "Those Lonely Nights" is one of the world's most sought-after rare-soul records. Original copies have fetched as much as $1,000. It has been released on several northern-soul compilation CDs, and as a U.K.-released bootleg 45-rpm record. Most recently, in 2005, German neo-mod dance-music producer Frank Popp released "Breakaway," a song that samples the backing tracks from "Those Lonely Nights" in their entirety, adding new vocals. It reached the lower levels of the charts in Europe.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, The Soul Communicators' B-side, "Please Don't Go," was adopted by the West Coast's low-rider music scene -- ballad-obsessed Latino DJs were already giving heavy play to Corby's 1966 single "City of Strangers." The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Music says Corby could "out-sing most of the famous 'blue-eyed soul' singers. It is a shame he is not mentioned in the same breath as the Righteous Brothers and Van Morrison."
"'City of Strangers' had those beautiful melancholic lyrics -- it seemed to be written for L.A," says Old Barrio author Ruben Molina. "It caught on quick -- before you knew it, everyone knew the lyrics."
But in the Holiday Inns and mobbed-up casinos of the East Coast, Chuck Corby & Quiet Storm knew none of this. (Corby earns no royalties from the bootleg releases; until talking with CP for this article, he hadn't so much as heard of the Frank Popp single.)
Corby was used to low points -- in the early days, in fact, they had been something of a musical raison d'etre. "Joe Averbach used to keep me down on purpose," says Corby. "Every time I was down, I'd write another song. If I got too happy, and we were getting ready to go in the studio, Joe would say, 'Chuck's too happy -- tell him his wife's runnin' around or something. If he's going into the studio, I want him crying his heart out.'"
Desperate to record, if just for respite from the grind that gigging had become, Corby returned to Averbach, who got Corby & Quiet Storm a shot on the once-famous Sceptre label. In 1983, they released "See You When I Get There" on Sceptre. Again, despite limited sales at home, Corby had a classic in foreign hands. This time, the so-called "modern soul" scene of rare-disco collectors and DJs, from Europe to Japan, adopted "See You When I Get There," with its odd, almost discordant chorus and shuffling neo-disco rhythms.
"We're just in the wrong place, I guess," says DeJohn. "There's interest on the West Coast, interest in the U.K. -- it seems like, in some other places we might be able to do some things we just never could do here."
Chuck Corby and his wife stand in the kitchen of their Clairton home, arguing. Corby's wife is sick of their penniless existence, and tired of Chuck's constant, go-nowhere gigging. But he is somebody, he argues: He's had hit records, and worked all over the country. She'll have none of it.
"What do you have to show for your accomplishments?" she shrieks. "Everybody else gets the money, and you get the glory -- but guess what? Glory fades."
It's not real life, but one guesses it might as well be. In Saloonatics, the yet-to-be-released film Corby and friends made in 2002, the singer, his band, even his father -- everyone plays himself. (A fall 2007 DVD release is planned.) Every character is played by its real-life analogue except for a mob-boss club-owner (portrayed by Bruno Sammartino) and an amalgam of Corby's several ex-wives -- he's unmarried these days (played by B-movie super-starlet Debbie Rochon,). As one Corby barroom crony puts it, "The cops are real cops; even the hookers are real hookers!"
In Saloonatics, Corby and Quiet Storm are constantly ripped off by -- and in debt to -- Sammartino, but find a way to get back at him and at the entire music business that has done them so many wrongs. In doing so, the band sets in motion events that bring Sammartino's empire crashing down, all to a soundtrack of Quiet Storm's loungey material. It's low-budget, heartwarming fun with a body count, even if the gloomy reality of music-biz life can get you down. (When Rochon says, "You're just a nobody who can sing a little bit," Corby, devastated, responds: "What do you mean, 'a little bit'?")
But Saloonatics isn't just a film. It's a kind of ritualistic drama -- a carnival-like act of vengeance against the harsh realities of the music world. To that end, Corby couldn't have found a more like-minded partner than screenwriter and director John Russo. Famed as the writer behind Night of the Living Dead, Russo is the movie world's Chuck Corby: lauded in some circles, laughed at in others, and almost always winding up with the short end of the budget-and-fame stick.
"I just wanted to capture the flavor of what it's like to struggle for 30 years," says Russo. "What it's like to have the talent, have everything going for you, but still just get beat up at every turn."
As Saloonatics opens, a very young Chuck Corby is standing in front of U.S. Steel's Clairton Works mill, surrounded by '60s-era classic cars and singing the Soul Communicators' "Please Don't Go." At 13, "Little Chucky" Ciorra, Corby's son, was the same age when he played his father in the film as Corby was when he began singing in Pittsburgh's clubs.
It's only fitting for the Ciorra/Corby legacy: Chuck Corby has never left Pittsburgh, and his fortunes have mirrored those of the city. (Despite one moment of near-fame -- his wedding-standard single "For All Time" was a hit in Pittsburgh and Baltimore -- the 1980s were relatively gloomy for Corby.) Pittsburgh, many believe, is responsible for everything he is ... and everything he never was.
"Chuck could write, he could sing, he's always been blessed with so much talent, and I've seen 'em all," says Porky Chedwick. "But he was in Pittsburgh, a small, smoky city, with nobody promoting him. His only exposure was through me. If he was from Chicago, he'd have been surrounded by [the business]. No, he was always held back by technicalities -- never by his sound or the admiration [of his fans]."
"If I had been born in New York or Philly, it would've been a different story," says Corby. "But I'm the person and the singer I am because I'm from Pittsburgh, because I had Jimmy Beaumont, the Del-Vikings, the Marcels to look up to, and because I had Porky."
Nonetheless, for the past 19 years, Corby has finally called music his one and only career, foregoing the construction jobs that so often paid the bills in the past. When his granddaughter sits on his knee, it's not a Disney DVD she begs for, but Saloonatics. And despite all the near-misses, the also-rans, the could've-beens, Chuck Corby still pulls his boots on three or four nights a week and jumps onstage with Tom and Walt to do what he's always done -- sing like he's out on the corner, whether it's disco covers with synthesized strings and a drum machine, or "Honey, Let Me Stay."
"No, I'm not bitter," says Corby. "Hurt, sometimes, but not bitter. There are times, even now, when I think, 'I can't do it.' We just had a show recently, and I thought to myself, 'I just can't do it, I just can't get up there.'
"Jimmy Beaumont was there, and he said, 'Once that music starts, once you get out there, you'll be on -- you know you will.' And he was right. As soon as the music started, as soon as I started singing, I forgot about all the aches, and all the hurt."
Chuck Corby & Quiet Storm perform at 9 p.m. Fri., Aug. 10, at The Living Room, Upper St. Clair (412-835-9772), and at 9 p.m. Sat., Aug. 25, at the Valley Hotel, Clairton (412-233-9800).
For sound samples of Chuck Corby's records, see www.pghcitypaper.com.