Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who've been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
If you didn't know that actor Joe Mantegna played in a garage band called the Apocryphals in high school and college, you're not alone. I had the privilege of getting the story from the man himself, and as far as I'm aware, what you're about to read is the most detailed account of the group's history published anywhere.
Mantegna was born in Chicago to Italian immigrants on November 13, 1947, and as a kid he regularly attended his older brother's accordion recitals. He didn't initially have much interest in making music himself—he got an earlier start as an actor, playing a dog and a pixie in hospital shows while being treated for rheumatic fever at age eight. Mantegna does remember entertaining his family by doing an impression of popular singer Johnnie Ray, though, specifically his 1951 tune "The Little White Cloud That Cried."
During Mantegna's junior year at Morton East High School in Cicero, his English class was assigned a project on British culture. His classmates Art Stout, Ricky Johnson, and Neal Sordelli decided it'd be hilarious to make their project a Beatles tribute band (it was 1963, after all), so they christened themselves the Weasels and donned Beatles wigs. They couldn't be the Fab Four with only three kids, though, and they needed somebody to play bass and sing. Mantegna could carry a tune but couldn't play an instrument, so they got him a regular guitar that he learned his way around well enough to get by, sticking to the lowest four strings as though it were a bass. The Weasels were an instant hit, and suddenly started getting invites to play local sock hops and teen dances—which convinced the band there was actually money to be made.
They got encouragement from Mantegna's mentor and drama teacher at Morton East, Jack Leckel, who also ran the theater departments at Morton West in Berwyn and a nearby junior college. Leckel came up with the name "the Apocryphals" (the band didn't even know what it meant at first) and helped them buy their first sound equipment. He also suggested they wear frills, pearls, and one glove, but he was a little too far ahead of his time for Chicago. "We just thought of ourselves as a rock 'n' roll band, not a glam band," Mantegna says. "We're thinking, 'What, this is nuts!' But then bands like the Beau Brummels came along and did stuff like that."
Mantegna got a real bass at a pawn shop, and when Stout and Johnson left the Apocryphals, the band brought aboard drummer Tom Massari and guitarist Chris Montagna. Leckel asked the group to write a song for a school play, so Mantegna and Sordelli came up with "Bernardine"—which in 1965 became the A side of the Apocryphals' first small-press 45 (Leckel chose the B side, "Gloomy Sunday," aka "the Hungarian Suicide Song," made famous in the States by a Billie Holiday cover in '41).
The band did mostly R&B covers, gigging at north-side clubs such as the Cheetah, the Holiday Ballroom, and My Sister's Place. They ended up playing with several notable locals, including the Missing Links (three members of which would help form the Chicago Transit Authority in 1968) and a very green Ides of March (whose front man, future superstar Jim "Eye of the Tiger" Peterik, got his first studio experience playing tambourine with the Apocryphals). They eventually secured management with Joe Sugarman, who in the 90s would strike it rich as the creator of BluBlocker sunglasses. In the late 60s he brought the Apocryphals to the Mad label, founded by bar-walking sax honker Tommy Jones, and it released three of the band's five singles. Sugarman also helped the Apocryphals land opening slots for bigger national acts, among them Paul Revere & the Raiders and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. In April 1968, they warmed up for Neil Diamond the night after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Mantegna began studies at the Goodman School of Drama at DePaul in 1967, and until '69 he was able to keep playing in the band. But as soon as he made his professional acting debut—a role in a 1969 production of Hair that required him to do eight shows per week, spread over six days—the writing was on the wall. The rest of the band had been wanting to move in a heavier direction (you can hear hints of it on the psychedelic Sordelli original "Images"), so the Apocryphals called it a day. The other three members added some players and carried on as the horn band Rajah, with Mantegna occasionally filling in on vocals until he got another role in Godspell. Massari, Sordelli, and Mantegna remain friends to this day—and Mantegna is also close with the founders of Chicago he met through the Missing Links. v