BOOTLEG FILES 691: “Peter Lemongello – Love 76” (1976 TV commercial for a double-album release).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There is no reissue channel for old TV advertisements.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
Back in the 1970s, the only way aspiring singers could achieve stardom was to go through major record labels that produced music that received constant playing on popular radio stations. But one unlikely singer made a bold attempt to buck the system and circumvent his way to stardom. His efforts ultimately failed to work, but it laid the groundwork for a bold new approach to popular music marketing.
By 1976, New Jersey-born Peter Lemongello was hitting a career dead end. A one-time barber who was drafted into the Vietnam-era Army, he avoided being sent into battle by falsely claiming he was a singer – he did play drums as a teenager, but his first singing gigs involved appearances in USO shows with Martha Raye. Once he was discharged, he managed to land a few singing gigs in Brooklyn and Long Island, but mostly supported himself working in construction and odd jobs. By 1971, he snagged his first major gig on “The Tonight Show” – albeit on a night when Joey Bishop was guest hosting and in the last time slot before the program’s 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time sign-off.
His television debut did nothing to move his career further, but Lemongello persevered. He released two singles on the Rare Bird label 1971 and one on the Mark V label in 1972, but they failed to chart.
“I campaigned for Joe Scandori, Don Rickles’ manager,” Lemongello told The New York Times in a June 1976 interview. “He had the hottest comic in the business. I figured if I could get him, it’d be great leverage. I could get a free ride opening for Rickles. The right people see me under the right conditions, they’ll see I can be a star on my own.”
The Rickles connection helped snag more “Tonight Show” gigs along with appearances on Merv Griffin’s and Mike Douglas’ talk shows, and Lemongello landed a $7,500 recording contract that guaranteed the making of three singles for Epic Records, a subdivision of Columbia. But only one single was released in 1973 and Lemongello was dropped label.
But Lemongello refused to throw in the proverbial towel. “I was going straight to the public and ask them to vote,” he told The New York Times. If they voted yes, then the whole market would open up. If they voted no, well I’d have taken my three swings with all my might, and I’d go back to the dugout, take off my spikes and go sell Mr. Coffee.”
Working with a Long Island banker named Bob Pascuzzi, Lemongello sought to bring himself into the public spotlight as the next big singing star. He arranged an appearance at the then-popular Westbury Music Fair on Long Island for a one-night engagement to attract additional financial backers, and then hired composers and musicians to create a double-album that was dubbed “Love 76.” (Half of the album was produced in a studio and the other half came from a recording of the Westbury gig.) And to sell the album, a television commercial was created, which debuted on New York City’s television stations on New Year’s Day of 1976.
The commercial for “Love 76” promised the viewer: “You are about to witness a new dimension in entertainment.” We see Lemongello, standing before a curtain and singing into an oversized microphone a 1970-style adult contemporary vibe that sounds a lot like Engelbert Humperdinck. The commercial’s narrator insists that Lemongello was bring forth “a mood rock experience” rich with “a new type of music that is romantic and moving.” The narrator adds that “you will experience all of the warmth and tenderness” of a Lemongello stage performance.
Really? In the commercial, Lemongello comes across like a typical 1970s lounge singer with long hair, an open shirt exposing a hairy chest, and a passable voice. The music seems rather square – remember, this was the dawn of the disco era – and the charisma that the narrator insists is oozing from its star is not visible, despite the claim, “When you hear ‘Love 76,’ you will fall in love with mood rock and a man named Peter Lemongello.” Even for the 1970s, a decade known for its bizarre excesses, the two-minute-plus commercial stood out for being peculiar.
“Love 76” sold as a mail order item for $6.98 for a two-album vinyl LP record and $8.98 for an eight-track tape; the album never made its way into traditional retail channels. The commercial hawking the record debuted on New York City’s television stations on New Year’s Day of 1976 and was shown incessantly in that media market during the first half of the year. The commercial also went to Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas television stations. How many albums were sold is unclear – Lemongello insisted the number was around one million, but a music industry trade journal put it closer to 43,000. Still, Lemongello became such a cultural oddity that Chevy Chase parodied him as “Peter Lemon Moodring” on the first season of “Saturday Night Live.”
The initial New York City run of the television commercial concluded in May 1976, with Lemongello coordinating two sellout performances at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center and a four‐year recording contract for albums and singles with Private Stock Records, a package worth about $250,000 if the options were picked up each year. Quite the Cinderella story, yes?
Well, no. Lemongello’s first Private Stock Records album “Do I Love You?” bombed, and it ended his association with the label. No other label wanted him and Lemongello would retreat to the fringes of show business, performing at retirement villages in Florida and at the tourist trap mecca of Branson, Missouri, while making his full-time income as a housing contractor in Florida. In the 1980s, Lemongello re-emerged in two headline-generating stories – one involving a conviction on arson and insurance fraud and one as the victim of kidnapping plot – but those stories are annoying post-script distractions to his fascination role in music marketing. While Lemongello’s star never ascended, he managed to kick off a trail of television commercials hawking the mail order music of such unlikely stars as yodeling cowboy singer Slim Whitman and New Agey flutist Zamfir. And, quite frankly, Lemongello’s direct-to-consumer approach with a self-produced album laid the groundwork for countless independent recording artists selling their work without going through major labels or retail chains.
Today, Lemongello is best known to younger audiences as the father of Peter Lemongello Jr., an up-and-coming singer who has been featured on “American Idol” and the PBS “My Music” series. The elder Lemongello would later reissue “Love 76” on CD and still makes occasional concert appearances in under-the-radar gigs. The “Love 76” commercial can be found on YouTube, appealing to survivors of the 1970s who vaguely remember the singer who threw mood rock music at a baffled yet amused audience.
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