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How Greensburg’s ‘T-Bird’ and ‘The Red Rooster’ launched the careers of legendary musicians

A poster for the Thunderbird Lounge & Restaurant.
Baltzer Meyer Historical Society
Greensburg Then & Now Facebook Page

Two blocks west of the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg, a Pennsylvania Department of Health building occupies 233 West Otterman Street. Nearly 58 years ago, an earlier building at that location was the site of rock music history.

The dark, single-story wood-framed structure had a classic 50’s design. Sam Felder’s Restaurant was an early occupant, but in December 1961, two local men incorporated it as the “Thunderbird Lounge and Restaurant,” nicknamed the “T-Bird.” It became a part of the area’s over-21 nightlife and it kept up with the times.

As mid-60’s Beatlemania gave way to new an endless eruption of new rock sounds, the T-Bird began presenting live go-go dancers, complete with an outdoor sign proclaimed it a “discotheque.” Owner Joe Lotto presented a regular lineup of local bands. Especially popular: the Raconteurs, a quintet largely made up of music majors at Latrobe’s St. Vincent College.

They were onstage one evening when 18-year-old Tommy Jackson walked in with manager Bob Mack. When the band took a break, the bartender, nodding toward the younger man, said, “That kid wants to talk to you.” They quickly discovered Jackson had a problem any young musician would kill for.

In the fall of 1964, he sang with the Shondells, a quintet of Niles, Michigan high school seniors who recorded “Hanky Panky” for a local label. While the group disbanded after graduation, Jackson remained a working musician. Less than a month before visiting the T-Bird, he was stunned to receive a phone call, telling him “Hanky Panky” was the #1 record in Pittsburgh.

Mack, who found the single, played it at teenage dances he staged at suburban Pittsburgh clubs. His dancers went crazy for it. Soon, thousands of bootlegged copies were flying off store shelves. Before Pittsburgh had FM rock stations, local AM stations blasted it day and night. “Hanky Panky” fever began spreading to other cities. Major record labels were interested.

Jackson renamed himself and wound up signing as “Tommy James” with Roulette Records, owned by New York’s Genovese crime family. Morris Levy, Roulette’s president (and the model for “Sopranos” character Hesh Rabkin) wanted a Tommy James and the Shondells LP and follow-up single, and he wanted it yesterday. James needed Shondells 2.0 — fast.

The Raconteurs invited him to sit in. “They knocked me out,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir “Me, the Mob and the Music. “These guys looked and played great, sang like birds, and the crowd loved them,” The Raconteurs agreed to become the Shondells. Despite subsequent personnel changes, bassist Mike Vale and keyboard player Ron Rosman remained, playing major roles in the band’s string of hits including “Say I Am,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” ”Mirage,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

Before meeting James, the Raconteurs were regulars at another Greensburg outlet: The Red Rooster, an expansive building just off U.S. 30 between Greensburg and Latrobe. The Hartman brothers opened the “Rooster” at the dawn of Beatlemania, at a time “teenage nightclubs” became a national fad. They hosted local acts, and regularly presented national artists having their first big hits.

Among Rooster headliners: The Turtles, Janis Ian (who had her first hit, “Society’s Child,” at age 16), The Outsiders (from Cleveland), Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, The Cyrkle, a young Bob Seger and two other Pittsburgh acts who went on to national fame: The Vogues and Lou Christie. Among the R&B acts gracing the Rooster’s stage: a young Aretha Franklin, enjoying her first big hits, Peaches and Herb, the Capitols, Jr, Walker & The All Stars and Wilson Pickett.

A flyer for local bands at the Red Rooster club.
Baltzer Meyer Historical Society
Greensburg Then & Now Facebook Page

The T-Bird featured local acts through the 70’s, after it became Jacob’s Ladder. A new owner named it Wooly Bully’s before the building was razed. In the early 70’s, the Hartmans rechristened the Red Rooster as Harty’s Pub. Throughout the decade, they mixed in local acts with established stars such as Edgar Winter, Badfinger, Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf. In 1983, under new owners, it became Davoli’s, a family-owned banquet and party facility until a December, 1989 fire destroyed the building.

No one younger than Boomers and older Gen-X’ers may remember these places. Even so, both were a vital part of western Pennsylvania music history.

Rich Kienzle is an award-winning music critic, journalist and historian and author of three books. A former contributing editor of "Country Music Magazine" and "No Depression," his work has appeared in "Texas Monthly," the "Austin American-Statesman," "Fretboard Journal" and the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." He has also authored liner notes for numerous historic CD reissues.