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CC Life Judy Salamacha

Philly Sound Legend Going Strong at 80


A life well lived and still going strong at 80, John Madara of Cambria continues to build his legacy.

The 1950s rock ’n’ roll hit, “At the Hop,” not only earned him a Gold Record, but is the title of a movie he plans to produce about Philadelphia’s musical hey-day. Why not? He lived the dream before he conquered La La Land.

“I grew up in the projects,” he said. “Billy Jackson [future Columbia Records producer] was my best buddy. We were ‘po’ not poor. I’d walk to the store and offer to carry groceries home for folks for tips. Seventy-five cents would buy ingredients for Grandma’s pasta Faggioli.”

His Italian parents stressed a strong work ethic using one’s best talents. “My voice was my best instrument.”

The first-born of six, Madara had three jobs by age 17 — messenger for the Philadelphia Inquirer, gas station attendant and clerk at a record store. “My friends were my neighbors,” he recalled. “I never knew color. Everybody’s colored. I marched with them in D.C. and Mississippi in the 50s and met Martin Luther King and John Lewis.” He’ll meet up with Lewis again this May in Philadelphia.

“I never planned a career in music,” he admitted, but when his first record “Be My Girl” reached national charts, his path showed potential. Madara’s R&B and Gospel roots struck “gold” in 1957.

“That same year I co-wrote ‘Be The Bop’ with Dave White. American Bandstand with Dick Clark had just gone national. He suggested bop was out and “At the Hop” was a better title.” Clark was right.

Performed by Madara’s group, Danny and the Juniors, the song went “Gold” and was No. 1 for seven weeks. A classic today, it was the first record to achieve that level of success.

“I bought a record shop and met distributors picking up records,” he said. “When I added a piano, the kids would play and ask about the gold record on the wall.”

For many of those kids he would launch their careers — including Carl & the Commanders with “I Need Your Love,” and Maureen Gray with “Today’s the Day.”

Madara co-wrote and/or produced mega hits like “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” for Danny and the Juniors, “The Fly” for Chubby Checker, “1-2-3” for Len Barry and “You Don’t Own Me” for Leslie Gore (See: www.thephillysound.com).

Madara also discovered future talents. Leon Huff was performing with The Lavenders in a nightclub. Huff later teamed with Kenny Gamble to become one of the most prolific songwriting teams in Rock ‘n’ Roll history. Madara and White co-produced many of their songs, including “Western Union Man.” The Spokesmen formed by Madara released the controversial answer song to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” titled “The Dawn of Correction” — both featured in Time Magazine.

Madara’s created a publishing company in 1965 and talents like Hall & Oates until he sold it to Michael Jackson in 1984. “Everything you learn you keep up here,” Madara said pointing to his brain. “He anticipated technology would change the sound of music — provide options never heard before. He’s been called an industry futurist.

Certainly, his 60-year tenure is testimony that Madara’s musical offerings are contemporary — “Speaking clearly of given eras, but have equal impact on all eras.”

When Hollywood was where the record industry was growing, he moved his company west. Instantly, he launched into movies producing the soundtrack for “Cinderella Liberty,” and accomplished prolific projects in television including music supervisor for the “Sid and Marty Kroft Comedy Hour.”

With Quincy Jones, he arranged, “You Don’t Own Me.” Still a classic, the song has sold over 400,000 records internationally, been used in television shows, commercials, covered by multiple recording artists and was the theme of the movie, “First Wives Club.”

Madara worked with greats like Wayne Newton in Las Vegas, John Williams, and the Beatles. While dating Joey Heatherton, he toured with Bob Hope entertaining the troops. His songs and productions have appeared on some of the biggest grossing soundtracks of all time, including “Hairspray,” and “Dirty Dancing.”

More than 60 television shows have featured his songs, including “Donny and Marie,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Sonny and Cher,” and most of Dick Clark’s productions.

“At the Hop” was voted into the Top 100 songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and in 2013, Madara was inducted into the Philadelphia Walk of Fame.

Madara’s youngest of three sons, San Francisco-based photographer, Jason Madara, suggested he and Christy relocate to Cambria 14-years ago. He practices and touts healthy living for keeping him young.

Besides producing his movie “At the Hop” what else is on John Madara’s bucket list? “I’ve never done a CD of my own voice,” he said. “I have six new songs. If Tony Bennett can do it at 90, I can do it at 80.”

Freelance writer, columnist and author, Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: judysalamacha@gmail.com or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.

By Judy Salamacha

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