But is he such an original that Manzi is the only man in the world who is a member of the Communicators Corner of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and a doo-wop disc jockey?
“I would definitely say that’s the truth,” the 68-year-old Manzi said with a laugh. “I don’t know how many other people would want to be.”
Probably a lot of people if they got the same joy from it as Manzi.
As the son of John Manzi, Sr., the nephew of Al and Richard Manzi and the cousin of superstar driver Cat Manzi, John’s roots are in harness racing. He has been a star in his own right as the public relations/marketing director at Monticello Raceway since 1980, and is in hopes of surpassing Roosevelt’s Lew “Tootie” Barasch’s mark of 40 years as a PR director at a track.
Famous for his wild marketing schemes that have had elephants, camels, New York Giants football players and a bunch of other characters on the racetrack, Manzi was inducted into the Communicators Corner of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2006.
His Monticello efforts make people feel good about themselves and about being at the racetrack. But that’s only part of the feel-good story.
|"JM in the PM" has been playing oldies music on the radio every Sunday night for the past 30 years.|
For the past 30 years, every Sunday night, Manzi has spun oldies records on the radio in the Catskills. His entire show comes from his own personal collection that spans back 45 years and it gives pre-Baby Boomers a chance to recall their youth with a smile as the Cadillacs, The Earls, Drifters, Velours, Strangers, Five Satins, El Dorados, Spaniels, Ravens, Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Dion & the Belmonts and many others flood the airwaves from 8 p.m. to midnight.
John started in 1983 at station WSUL, and recently moved to sister station WVOS (95.9 FM/105.7 FM) since his show fits in with that format of “playing the greatest hits of all time.”
WVOS extends from southeastern New York, to northeastern Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey. It recently allowed the entire world in on its playlist, as it now streams on the Internet (http://wvosfm.com), giving Manzi an even wider audience.
“I get calls for requests from Florida, Michigan, Long Island, Virginia, South Jersey, New York City,” Manzi said. “People definitely follow us. There are definitely people out there who still like this music.”
It’s a pretty good gig for something Manzi terms his hobby.
“Record collecting has always been a passion; I’ve been collecting vocal group and rock ‘n roll records for 45 years,” he said.
He put that collection to good use in 1983 when WSUL had a Sunday night show called “The Gold Room,” which spun those golden oldies. The problem was they didn’t have enough music and wanted to borrow from Manzi’s collection.
“Against my wife’s better judgment, I went in and sat with them from 8 to 11 all summer long,” he recalled. “We were racing seven days a week at Monticello at that time, with a doubleheader on Saturday. The only night I had off was Sunday, so my wife wasn’t too happy.
“A guy named Mark Seacrest did the show. I sat in the back studio and played my music, and he and I would talk about it on the air.”
One day, Seacrest said he was leaving for another station and asked Manzi if he wanted to take over the operation.
“I pulled a Jackie Gleason,” he said, referring to Honeymooners character Ralph Kramden. “I was like ‘Hu-men-uh, hu-men-uh, hu-men-uh!’ I wasn’t good with the controls. Even today I’m not good with the computer. You had to prop the songs up on two turntables. So I sat in with him before he left to see how he did it. The first Sunday in October 1983 I soloed.”
The honeymoon was just beginning, and it hasn’t ended yet.
“I guess I did good and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.
One of the first things Manzi did was change the program’s name from the Gold Room to the Bop Shop. He is assisted each week by Joe “Doo Wop” Greco, who says the two have done 1,572 shows together.
“I guess he’s been counting them,” Manzi said of Greco’s specific number. “I still look forward to Sunday nights. I play different things that other people don’t. I play a lot of vocal group harmonies; I go back in the late ’40s with the R&B stuff.”
And it wouldn’t be a Manzi-run operation without some gimmicks. Aside from playing music, he plays various games with the listeners, asking them to name the artists, telling them to take sides in the battle of the groups.
“Sometimes it’s tough,” he said. “The songs are only like, two minutes, so when you’re getting 30 calls in two minutes to name the artist; it gets hard to handle them all sometimes.”
Manzi has also brought vocal ensembles such as Larry Chance and the Earls, Guy Villari & the Regents, The Shallows, the Cliftonaires, Mystique, the Creations, the Arrogants, the Excellents, Sentimental Journey, and BQE into the studio for live shows.
Conversely, he has bridged careers by bringing that music to the track at Monticello on occasion.
Manzi and his posse, which include Greco, Steve “The Eggman” Ristano and Cindy “G,” give the show an added dimension by providing background for the songs and where they landed on the Billboard charts, along with discussion of the artists and their roots.
The Bop Shop is southeastern New York’s longest running radio show and Manzi says “we’re the No. 1 show in the time slot in the whole area and the station is the No. 1 station.”
John can’t say enough things about Watermark Communications, which owns the station.
“When I moved over to WVOS, they made room for me, put turntables back there,” he said. “They’ve been so gracious with me, I can’t say enough about them.”
What makes Manzi so unique (reason No. 637) is that all the music comes from a massive private collection that includes rare 45s and albums, some that are worth well more than $1,500 and some that can no longer be obtained.
“I’ve sold records for $2,000,” he said. “The first 45s came out in spring of 1949 and I have a couple of them from late ’40s to early ’50s. I have them up to 1964; that’s the era in which I collect.
“They’re in pretty good shape. I clean them up regularly. Even on my show I play them. . .it’s a little rare and scratchy rock and roll. People don’t mind it, I don’t try to hide it. I’ll tell them ‘I’m gonna play this one, it might not be in the best condition.’ If you’re honest you get by with it. If you’re not, they’re going to kill you.”
Then again, there is scratchy and there is scratchy!
What many people don’t realize is that chaos such as camels on a racetrack and happy-go-lucky music that sounds like it just happens actually takes meticulous planning. Each week, Manzi decides on approximately 150 different records to bring to the studio, and then listens to them beforehand to make sure they are actually listenable.
Once that’s taken care of, he wings it while on the air and “goes by the seat of my pants. I just try not to play too many slow ones or fast ones in a row. I try to keep a balance.”
Like most of us, Manzi is a product of his generation when it comes to music. He shuddered when Bob Dylan and the Beatles came on the scene, saying “there goes my sound.”
And yet he couldn’t help but go to Woodstock, since it was right in his own backyard.
|Photos courtesy of John Manzi|
|Manzi was the master of ceremonies at an oldies show at Bethel Woods, which is on the site of the original Woodstock. He was joined by another disc jockey from WVOS-FM, Chris Ingram, who is the son of famous longtime New York City DJ “Big Dan” Ingram.|
“That was a monster, it was unbelievable,” Manzi said. “I was racing and training horses at that time. You could have gotten from the raceway to Bethel just by walking on the roofs of cars. And when you got there you could catch a contact high just by walking through the place.
“What I remember, like most people, was the rain and the mud and the weather was bad. I didn’t stay there for too long. It really wasn’t my sound. I was married and had two kids at the time, but I did want to check it out. I saw a few acts, I remember seeing Country Joe and the Fish.”
But that was the electric era of rock ’n roll, which Manzi tolerated but didn’t embrace. He claims his second favorite musical period was the disco craze of the late 1970s, and rates the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever album as one of the greatest of all time.
John can totally do without today’s music of rap and hip-hop, but refuses to criticize it or the youth that listen to it.
“I don’t like the music of today, but I don’t want to sound like my parents who didn’t like rock ’n roll,” he said. “That’s the kids sound, it’s what they like, just like we had what we liked. I sometimes wonder if they’re 65 or 70 if they’ll be listening to the rap that’s going on, but I don’t discount it. You never know. I still listen to Elvis.”
And while music has given Manzi tremendous joy over the years, he does admit to making one bad move in the industry.
When the Beatles released their Yesterday and Today album in 1966, the original cover had the band dressed in butcher’s smocks, holding hatchets with be-headed dolls. An immediate uproar by the public forced the albums to be recalled and re-released with new covers.
No one knew then, that those original covers would be a gold mine.
“Bruce (Cousin Brucie) Morrow’s (ex-)wife was married to Leon Greenberg, and his son gave me a copy of the Beatles’ butcher cover,” Manzi said. “I looked at it and I’m like ‘What am I gonna do with this thing?’
“I took it to Bleecker Street in (Greenwich) Village and traded it for $75 in bootleg records. Last I saw the thing was worth $25,000! People talk about the one that got away. That was definitely my biggest blunder.”
But Manzi isn’t into music for the money. It’s more a part of his soul than his pocketbook. He has a collection of more than 20,000 records that he catalogs.
“And not on a computer,” he said proudly. “I put it in a journal book with those big hoops that keep it together. And I put the records in those ugly carrying cases you used to get when you were a kid. I must have 350 of those boxes.”
And the collection still grows.
“I still buy them now, I must spend $4,000 a year buying records like an idiot,” Manzi said. “If you ever went into my basement, it’s flooded (with records), sort of like my desk.
“But like Einstein said, a cluttered desk is a sign of genius. I don’t know if I’m a genius, but I do have the cluttered desk.”
He also has a memory bank cluttered with wonderful memories of harness racing and spinning doo-wop discs.
Few other people can say that.
If any at all.