Five nights a week, Al Latta turns the Cigar Box into a hot spot

It’s His World 

Five nights a week, Al Latta turns the Cigar Box into a hot spot

Page 5 of 8

Latta peaked in 1981, singing with a latter-day version of the Duprees, a 1960s-era male-harmony group like the Drifters, the Coasters and the Platters. With their crooned romantic lyrics and three-part backing harmonies and sha-la-la-las, a couple of the Duprees' songs had been make-out standards. In 1962, the group's big-band-backed cover of the 1940s Glenn Miller song "You Belong to Me" sold more than a million copies and made Billboard's Top 10. That year, other Duprees songs -- "My Own True Love," "Have You Heard" and "Why Don't You Believe Me" -- broke the Top 40.

By the 1980s, though, the Duprees were more a brand than a band. When Latta joined the group, only one original member, Michael Arnone, remained, says Ron O'Brien, who has managed the act for the past eight years.

"Although he didn't sing on the original recordings, there was a time he did sing with the Duprees," says O'Brien, who remembers seeing Latta perform with the group at an Atlantic City casino in 1982. The Duprees still perform at casinos and private parties -- without any of the group's original members. "The emphasis should be on the Duprees, because there never was any glory in it [for individual members]," O'Brien says.

But there was glory for Latta. Traveling with the Duprees, he played a series of rock-and-roll revivals at Philadelphia's Spectrum, Madison Square Garden, Kemper Arena and the Midland Theatre, where the band shared booking with his idols: the Drifters, Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson.

"Any old guy you can imagine, I've worked with," he says. "It was like meeting people that you admire all your life. People you used to dream about and admire on TV. To work on the same stage as those people -- oh, my god."

By the late '80s, Latta had left the Duprees and started his own band. The name Al Latta began appearing on handbills.

"I had enough of doing backup and doing lead," he says. "I wanted to be known for myself."

So he concentrated on impressions.

Dressed in his stage regalia, he would spend hours in front of a mirror, practicing facial expressions and comparing them to video clips of his subjects, recording his own voice and listening to it against celebrities' albums.

"I really made music for myself," he says. "That was when I found out what my forte was."

He spent late nights partying in after-hours clubs across the country. It was a white-dusted era. "You could get messed up and crash your car into a fucking pole and leave it there, and nothing would happen to you," he says almost wistfully. "Those were the days where cocaine was flowing rapidly. Everything seemed to come so easily."

On Kansas City stops, he played smoky lounges at Anthony's and at the 28-story Americana Hotel (now the downtown Doubletree). He took his band to Canada and was getting good reviews, he says. In 1987, he says, Manitoba's Brandon Sun called him a "rock and roll champion."

But in the early '90s, Latta's band fell apart. A few years earlier, he had met a singer from Wichita at a hotel gig in Texas. The two married, and he moved to Topeka to live with her. There, he took a job laying carpet. The live-act industry had shifted by that time, anyway. An era that saw big bands enjoying $4,000-a-week payouts collapsed when club owners learned they could hire cheap karaoke acts and the audience would sing the same standards for free.

Latta's marriage fell apart, too, and in 1993 he went solo, having accumulated enough sound equipment for a one-man show. He played winter gigs at a Branson mall and summer gigs at Palm Beach resorts, but he settled in Kansas City and played at Touche until Louis Ribaste called for him.

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