Gone Autos Podcast #5 transcript

Donny Conn of The Playmates
Todd Ruel
Release Date:
Podcast link:

(00:01) Donny Conn: It was thrilling to think that, gee, I, I, uh, I [laughs] contributed something to Americana and not even realizing it.

[Music Opens]

(00:09) Todd Ruel: You’re listening to a Gone Autos Podcast. Nash Rambler fans, how would you feel if you found out your big novelty song was actually a big mistake written about a smaller Nash? Oh, the humanity! Donny Conn joins us to talk about the history of his band, The Playmates, and the true story of his most famous song, Beep Beep, next on the Gone Autos Podcast.

[Music Ends]

(00:31) Ruel: Welcome to the Gone Autos Podcast. I’m Todd Ruel, the Top Wrench here at Gone Autos. Joining me today is one of three men who performed a hugely popular song in 1958. You heard it for years on Dr. Demento’s radio program and you’ll still hear it at every Nash car convention to this day. Rambler fans always somehow make sure this song is playing on an infinite loop. Donny Conn of the music group The Playmates joins me today to talk about the song Beep Beep.

Donny, welcome to the podcast.

(00:58) Conn: Thank you.

(01:01) Ruel: First of all, for our younger audience who has never heard this gold record song, uh, tell us who were The Playmates and how did you guys get started.

(01:09) Conn: Well actually, we were three of us from Waterbury, Connecticut. We were all musicians. And in high school, we had a little band together, not necessarily the same three guys, but we always were musicians.

[Music Cue: Just a Little Bit by The Playmates]

And then we went to college together. We went to the University of Connecticut. And so, we just played at university fraternity functions and dances, and we really didn’t sing then. One or two of us singing solos, but we never did harmony. So, we were more or less – we’re like a dance band.

[Music Cue #2: You Can't Stop Me From Dreaming by The Playmates]

So then, after we graduate at college, we started playing little lounges around the country. And then I guess it was a group called The Four Freshmen came out with the song called It’s a Blue World, singing in four-part harmony, and we decided we should start singing.

[Music Cue #3: Bachelor Flat by The Playmates]

And then we started to become more proficient vocally. And then we went to New York to try to get a record contract -- in other words, to try to get a record company interested in the group. And that was the next step from just working lounges. We wanted to become recording artists. And we had a very good sound, and at that time, music was starting to change more toward rock. And every time we went to recording companies, they said, “Well, you guys sing great, but you sing too good for records.” And we didn’t have any original material, we were always singing songs that other people had sung. So, it was difficult for us to try to get a record contract.

[Music Cue #4: While the Record Goes Around by The Playmates]

And the group got an engagement in Nassau saw working for a convention. And while we were on there, we learned two or three calypso songs.

[Music Cue #5: Barefoot Girl by The Playmates]

And then when we came back to New York after that engagement, we happened to see in the trade that this record company, Roulette Record was a new company startin’ to – just start up. And at that time, Harry Belafonte had come up with the record Day-O which was a big hit, and everyone thought there’s going to be a calypso craze. So, we called this record company – I tried to talk like a Jamaican. I says, “Ya, mon, you need a Calypso band.” And they said, “Oh yeah, you sing calyp--?” “Oh yeah, we sing calypso.” “Come right up to the office.” So we went up to Roulette Records, and they were still hammering up walls, and they still weren’t even functioning, and we sang these three calypso songs, and they said, “Gee, you guys sing great! You have enough material to do an album?” We said, “Of course.” So they said, “We’ll start recording Monday.” Well, my partner and I went back, and “Oh my gosh. Huh! What are we gonna do?”

[Music Cue #6: Wemoweh by The Playmates]

So, we started writing calypso songs, and we wrote a beautiful calypso album, and they recorded it, and before they got the album up, calypso was dead. But at least we had our foot in the door with the record company, and they liked us.

So, there was a group called The Twin Tones that put out a record called…

[Music Cue #7: Jo-Ann by The Playmates]

And my record company heard of it and wanted us to cover the record. At that time, if other artists would cover another record, hoping to get the hit away. So, we recorded Jo-Ann that the Twin Tones did. We did a much better arrangement, and our record became a hit. So, we had a hit record.

And then after that, we had a song called Don't Go Home. So, we had two hits under our belt.

[Music Cue #8: Don't Go Home by The Playmates]

And since we started out doing a lot of comedy, my manager said, “You know, if I get you a spot on television, and they might want you to do a little comedy, you have to have something prepared that you can do in three minutes. Something that’s funny.”

So as it happened, we were coming home one night, we were working in New York, we were coming up the Palisades Parkway, which, uh, bordered the Hudson river going north because we lived up in Bergen County, New Jersey. And as we were coming home late at night, this little Metropolitan was trying to pass us out, and we’re playing games. As he came to the left lane, we would pull over the left lane, the guy kept tuning his horn, and we played this game with this little Metropolitan. And it gave me the idea from that experience of writing a song about, we thought was called the little Nash Rambler. So, it gave me the idea of this little Nash Rambler trying to pass a Cadillac. And I laid down this one night. I put the song together, and I would write a verse, and I’d write it down.

And the next day, uh, I sang it to the piano player, we wrote songs together. His name is Carl Cicchetti. And I sang it to him, we wrote it down, and we started rehearsing it. And then we would play it in clubs, and people would come in and say, “Hey, do that little Beep Beep song, little song about the Rambler.” And we got so many requests for it that we went to the record company and said, “Look, I think we got a hit record here.” We sang it to ‘em. They said, “Yeah, it’s funny. It’s cute, but, you know, it, ahem, it’s never make it. And they won't even play it on the radio station because it changes tempos, the kids can't dance to it, there’s so many words to learn. You know, it’s good for clubs, but it will never make a hit.” And I said, “Well yeah, I guess you’re right.”

So, at that particular year, the, uh, Association of Disc Jockeys had this big convention in Kansas City, and they had all these disc jockeys, and every big record company sent an artist. Capitol Records sent Frank Sinatra. Someone else sent Connie Francis. Tony Bennett, Count Basie Orchestra were all there to put on a show, and Roulette Records, ‘cause it was a new record company, they only had The Playmates. So they sent us there.

So in the show, after Sinatra or Count Basie Orchestra - I forget which – out came The Playmates, three young guys playing drums, bass, and piano, and we sang Jo-Ann, and we got a big round of applause. And what else are we going to do? So, we sang Beep Beep, and we got a standing ovation, and these disc jockeys came up after and said, “Why don't you guys record that song?” We said, “Well, you know, it’s good for clubs, but you know, it will never make a hit because it changes tempo, the kids can't dance to it…” They said, “You’re crazy. You record that song, we’ll play it.”

So when we went back to New York, we were doing an album called At Play With The Playmates. And we had a little extra time on the session. We said to the A&R man, “Why don't we throw in that little Beep Beep song?” They said, “Oh go ahead. Do it.” So, in the end of this album, they stuck on Beep Beep.

[Music Cue #9: Beep Beep-First Verse]

And when the album went out, every disc jockey in the country almost simultaneously played it. You couldn’t turn on the radio station without hearing Beep Beep.

[Music Cue #10: Beep Beep-Second Verse]

And we were working Vegas at that time, and the lounge at The Sands, and we were coming back to New York. And my manager called us and said, “You guys got a big hit.” We said, “What?” He said, “Beep Beep.” I said, “Really!”

[Music Cue #11: Beep Beep-Third Verse]

Well you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Beep Beep.

[Music Cue #12: Beep Beep Fourth Verse]

Then it became the Number One record for, I think it was13 weeks it stayed on the charts.

[Music Cue #13: Beep Beep Fifth Verse]

And that’s the history of Beep Beep. [beep beep sound]

(12:43) Ruel: Well, Donny, this is primarily a car-centric podcast, and I’ve got to ask you the question. So you’re saying, that you originally wrote this song about a Metropolitan and not about a Nash Rambler?

(12:55) Conn: Well, you know, I can't remember if we thought the little Metropolitan was a Nash Rambler, or I mean I can't remember, but we wrote the little Nash Rambler, but I think it was the little Metropolitan, and we thought the Metropolitan was the little Nash Rambler. I mean at that time, uh…

(13:10) Ruel: Yeah. They did look alike.

(13:13) Conn: Yeah. And they were both small little cars. So I’m not sure if it were the Metropolitan or the little Nash Rambler, but we wrote the little Nash Rambler. But I know the Metropolitan people think that’s their theme song. And so, whatever it is, it was a little car associated with Rambler.

(13:30) Ruel: It was probably a-- some sort of Nash. [Laughs]

(13:32) Conn: Yeah.

(13:33) Ruel: Okay. I got a big one for you here. So when Beep Beep was a big hit in 1958, America was going through a little bit of a recession, and people later called it the Eisenhower Recession. But that proved to be a pretty huge advantage for American Motors, because the Rambler was an American economy car when there were no other American economy cars like it. AMC was selling every Rambler it could build, but I have to believe The Playmates helped out a little bit.

Did George Romney ever thank you guys for the free publicity?

(14:00) Conn: Uh, not really. Actually, well, my manager goofed, he said he’d contacted Romney before we recorded it and said “Here, we got this song about a Rambler. How can you support us, promote this record, or how can you utilize this song in some way as an advertisement for us?” And he didn’t do that. After song started to take off, he called Romney and said, “Maybe we should do something for The Playmates because they’re talking about that little Nash Rambler. Maybe you should give the group a little Nash Rambler.” And Romney said, “Well, that’s against our policy. We couldn’t do that. But maybe we’ll send them these little toy Ramblers.” And my manager said, “Well, forget about it.”

I think the stock was around 20 when Beep Beep came up, and I think it shot up to like 84 in that period. I’m not sure of that, but I remember the stock just shot way up. And a lot of the Rambler dealers were advertising, “Come to Rambler Show Room, and we’ll give you a free copy of Beep Beep.” And I know a lot of the Rambler dealers around the country did that. So maybe that helped the sale too.

(15:06) Ruel: But Romney never did a lick for you guys.

(15:08) Conn: No. No.

(15:10) Ruel: Interesting.

(15:11) Conn: Never event sent a Thank You. In fact, he said he was going to send us these little toy Ramblers but never did. So…

(15:16) Ruel: Hmm…wow. Okay, another question for you. At that time, the British couldn’t play your version of Beep Beep. Why not, and what did The Playmates do about it?

(15:26) Conn: Well, the BBC wouldn't allow mentioning the commercial product. So, you had to take out Rambler and Cadillac. So, what we did, we changed it to a limousine and a bubble car.

[Music Cue: #14: British version of Beep Beep by The Playmates]

They used to call the little cars their bubble cars.

We still get royalties all around the world -- because we went to Australia, and the record was Number One there, and we still get royalties from every country, still getting royalties on Beep Beep getting airplay.

(16:21) Ruel: That’s fantastic. How many versions of Beep Beep did you guys record? Uh, a British version, the American version, uh, was that it?

(16:29) Conn: No, that’s it. We didn’t do the Italian version. [Laughs]

(16:33) Conn: It would beepa be…would be Beepa Beepa

(16:34) Ruel: Beepa Beepa. [Laughs]

(16:35) Conn: Beepa Beepa. [Laughs]

(16:36) Ruel: [Laughs] Uh, so let me ask you this. Did Roulette Records ever pressure you guys to do a copycat follow-up song like Honk Honk or something like that to exploit the success of Beep Beep?

(16:46) Conn: Actually, what we did, we did a couple other novelty songs, because we thought well maybe that was our niche: novelty records.

[Music Cue #15: Keep Your Hands in Your Pocket by The Playmates]

So we did a funny song called Stanley The Lifeguard, which was a funny novelty. Another thing called A Bag of Sand. We wrote a bunch of novelties, but none of them ever took off.

And then actually we did some movie themes from Fiddler on The Roof. We did the theme from that. We did the theme from a movie called On The Beach that they used in the movie. We were looking for that big giant classic hit that would really push the group over the hump of becoming a big, big name. We just kinda got to the ridge. So, we never had that continuity. So, groups like The Rolling Stones that continued...After a certain period, we just kind of went out of business, because music changed, and we didn’t fit in to the genre anymore.

(17:54) Ruel: I want to ask you a side question. You were recording in the golden age of rock & roll. Did you have similar experiences to what a lot of other performers talk about during those days? They got no money. They were shut out of the royalties, or they still haven’t received a dime? Were you aware of maybe some of the more unpleasant aspect…Did you learn a lot as a recording artist in those early days about the entertainment industry and about the record industry?

(18:20) Conn: Well, payola we knew was a big thing. And Roulette Records, I’m not sure if there was a shady side to the investment in Roulette Records. But, if we went to a distributor in a certain area and said from what you sold for your distributorship, what do you think Beep Beep sold? And they said, “Well, based on what percentage of the market we have, Beep Beep certainly had sold 2 million records, uh, in this period.” And we were getting paid on, like, maybe half a million records. So, we were not compensated.

And then another thing that companies would do is, say you had a build-up of, oh, maybe $20,000 that’s due you in two months, they would call you into to the studio to do an album, because you will pay out of your royalties for all dates for the musicians, for the studios, and every, always came out of your royalty. So, you paid for the session, and they took it out of your royalties. So, you maybe paid for an album that didn’t sell. So, we never got totally compensated, but we did very well though.

(19:29) Ruel: You learned pretty much, and, and I think the record companies continued those kinds of practices for many, many years.

(19:36) Conn: They had two sets of books. And unfortunately, the artist always got taken advantage of, in most cases.

(19:42) Ruel: Yeah.

(19:43) Conn: But the thing is that records made you large sums of money for your performances.

(19:49) Ruel: Right, for the live performances. Right.

(19:51) Conn: And we had the advantage of touring the world. We went all over the world and did concerts, and it was a great experience. We wouldn't have been able to have that without Beep Beep. We wouldn't have been able to tour the world and play with some great artists. We did rock & roll shows with some of the biggest names in show business at that time. So, it gave us a great opportunity.

(20:12) Ruel: Fantastic. So, Beep Beep is now 53 years old as we’re speaking here. After all these years, how do you feel about creating this little piece of American pop culture?

(20:23) Conn: Well, you know, when I did the presentation in Kenosha, it just was a thrill to think that people still loved the song after my presentation, that people came up with sheet music of Beep Beep for me to sign. They even had, 45 records that they saved of Beep Beep from 50 years ago.

It was thrilling to think that, gee, I, I, uh, I [laughs] contributed something to American and not even realizing it. And then every once in a while, someone will email me, say, “You know, Beep Beep is our favorite song. My parents played it. We heard it as kids…” And, uh, you realize that if you mention the song to anyone, of any kind of age, they say, “Oh you know, we know the song Beep Beep.” [Laughs] You ever realize how…the continuity of the song…

(21:11) Ruel: It’s amazing to realize that you were a part of something that was a heck of a lot bigger than just you.

(21:16) Conn: Uh-huh.

(21:17) Ruel: And that’s very cool. So, Donny, my last question is this: I, I understand that you’re a professional speaker these days and that you own a, uh, company that represents professional speakers. How can people contact you if they want to say hi or they want to say “I love that song” or if they want to hire you for a professional speaking engagement?

(21:32) Conn: Well, my email address is Donny, that’s D-O-N-N-Y, @conventionconnection.net. And my company is – our website is www.conventionconnection.net. And we represent many speakers.

After the group broke up, I went out as a stand-up comic, and then I started speaking at business conferences as a speaker. And I did a comedy routine where they thought they were gonna hear some professor from Yale speaking on communications, and I just went out a lot of nonsense, and it was kind of an entertaining presentation, and I did that for maybe 20 years. And then I started the company Convention Connection to book other people.

And so, entertainment has been my life from college when I got out in ‘52. And now, in January, I’ll be having my 82nd birthday, and I’m still active. So, it’s been a wonderful life.

(22:37) Ruel: Fantastic. Fantastic. You’ve been listening to the story of Beep Beep, a gold record for The Playmates in 1958 and a song originally recorded…probably…about the Nash Metropolitan.

Donny, thanks for joining us and sharing the real story behind Beep Beep.

(22:53) Conn: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

[End Credits Music: The Day I Died by The Playmates]

(23:20) Ruel: Thanks for listening to the Gone Autos Podcast. You can get this and other podcasts from goneautos.com. That’s G-O-N-E-A-U-T-O-S dot com. Or you can get all of our new podcasts by subscribing to our channel on iTunes. If you do, please take a minute to write a review.

All of The Playmates music that you heard in this podcast, except for the British version of Beep Beep, is available online through emusic.com and iTunes.

Don't forget to check out the Gone Autos website for T-shirts, books, discussions, and other tools for living the orphan car life.

Special thanks to Chris Custin. He’s the historian for the Metropolitan Owners Club of North America. Chris discovered Donny’s story and first brought Donny Conn to our attention.

This podcast is copyright 2011 by Ruel The World Media, Inc. And most importantly, Nash fans, it’s not a thing to scorn.

[Music Fades Out]