by Peter Van Ness
Children are playing in a warm, sunlit field behind the Amero’s Southern Avenue home in Essex, MA. Suddenly, Mother shouts out the back door: “Come quick! Gene Krupa is on Dave Garroway.”
Dennis “Fly” Amero, along with his older brother and sisters race into the dark living room to be instantly mesmerized by the first superstar drummer. Gene Krupa had catapulted to fame on Benny Goodman’s 1937 cover of Louis Prima’s hit, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” one of the first recordings to feature a drum solo and fill both sides of a 12-inch 78rpm slab of vinyl. That record was among a large collection that helped shape Fly Amero’s world in the mid-1950s.
Nearly sixty years later, Fly recalls his early childhood with remarkable clarity. “The radio was always on. We listened to everything from Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” to “One Eyed Purple People Eater,” to Al Jolson on our crank 78 record player. We watched Lawrence Welk as a family every Saturday. I remember the blue corduroy pants I wore as a little kid making a musical swish, swish. Music was part of life.”
A sickly kid, who battled chronic bronchitis, Fly was hospitalized when he was two. One day, when his mother came to visit, she found him standing on his hospital bed in his underpants performing LaVern Baker’s 1954 R&B hit “Tweedlee Dee” to the delight of the nurses. Many mothers would have been horrified, but not Fly’s. “Once I could see how happy this made my mother, I was hooked,” he remembers with starry eyes.
But by the time he was 10, Fly saw himself as a sketch artist, influenced by his father—a well known sign painter, whose work adorned top local restaurants, including the once popular Fleur de Lis and the Essex institution, Woodman’s. One look at Fly’s gorgeous, self-designed website and CD covers and you’re not surprised by this. When asked how he chose a career in music rather than visual art, his answer is swift and clear: “Stress. Once I discovered it could be good, the stress kicked in. I’d look at a drawing and see that the next stroke could wreck the whole thing. Music isn’t stressful. It’s in the moment—a continuum of moments—good for the soul.”
And then there was Elvis. “When I saw Elvis, I wanted to play guitar.”
Finally, there were the Beatles. “The Beatles were impossible to avoid. It wasn’t long before I realized I wasn’t complete until I was performing.”
Fly got his first gig at 11, when he sat in on guitar and got paid. Then he started a band, the Jays. “We sucked,” he remembers with a laugh. Fly played in various bands at YMCA and Gloucester High dances. His first “break” came when big brother, J.B., asked Fly to join his band, J.B. & Water. Fly smirks: “We were the same age difference as Beaver and Wally, but J.B. was more like Eddie.” Then Fly makes sure I understand that while J.B. idolized James Brown, his name is James Bryan Amero, so the “J.B.” moniker is his own.
At 16, Fly was playing six to seven nights a week. “At some point, I realized that’s it for me. I have to take the risk—put my ass on the line. Then I heard: ‘Fly, you’re over the hill. There’s a new kid in town and his name is David Brown.’”
Fly tried many times to contact David, to no avail. “Finally, we hooked up for a jam at Gordon Baird’s Chicken Shack. That was a magical musical moment for me. Everything rang like bells. David made me play things I’d never thought of before. I realized I could no longer play with kids who were going to be postmen or lawyers. I had to perform with people who were would make music their life.”
In 1978, David Brown had a loft in the furrier district of New York City. David had become a top session guitarist in high demand, and he was recording and touring with Billy Joel. He invited Fly to share his loft and introduced Fly to a community of musicians, including Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and legendary producers Phil Ramone and Jack Douglas. Because he was new to New York’s music scene, Fly became known as the “affordable David Brown” and recorded at some of New York’s top studios, including Hit Factory and Electric Lady Land.
David also recorded and toured with Garland Jeffreys and met Larry Hoppen, Orleans co-founder/songwriter, when Larry joined Jeffreys’ band after John Hall left Orleans to pursue his “No Nukes” work with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Graham Nash and others. David convinced Larry to hire Fly to rehearse for Orleans’ next album with Larry, Lance Hoppen (Larry’s brother and co-founder), and drummer Wells Kelly at Bearsville Studio (near Woodstock, NY). During those rehearsals, Fly developed rhythm guitar parts that John Hall eventually recorded after re-joining Orleans.
Fly and Larry immediately became best friends. When money was tight and band members had to share a room, the guys always put Fly and Larry together saying: “You deserve each other.” And they loved it.
Fly accepted Orleans’ invitation for a national tour, plunging him into the rock-star life where drugs are abundant and girls ditch their boyfriends for a chance to get back stage. “I was surrounded by people all the time, but I’ve never been so alone,” he complained.
Addicted to cocaine, Fly quit the band after a couple of years. “I didn’t want to be in music. All my ideas were shot out of the sky.”
After a year and a half, Fly re-emerged in the Mitch Chakour Band, touring mostly in the Worcester, MA area, where he met his wife, Donna, along with Brian Silva and WAAF radio personality Bob Rivers, with whom he recorded and produced the comedy album Twisted Christmas for Critique Records, distributed by Atlantic.
During this entire time, Fly and Larry remained best friends, playing corporate shows, house concerts, and sitting in with each others’ bands.
In 2006, John Hall got elected to congress, precluding him from recording and touring with Orleans. “We picked up where we left off,” says Fly about re-joining Orleans. They toured the world. Some of Fly’s personal highlights include singing the National Anthem at Fenway Park, performing for the US troops overseas, city-wide concerts in Greensborough and Winston Salem, NC, with the city’s philharmonic orchestra, and a fund-raiser at the Von Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe Vermont. Fly and Larry were both fond of supporting charities. “We’re making a dent and not wasting our time while here on Earth,” insists Fly.
On what Fly refers to as Black Tuesday, July 24, 2012, he got a call from Lance Hoppen. “Are you sitting down?”
“Okay, now I’m sitting. What?”
“Larry’s dead. He hung himself.”
“No, no, no!” Through his tears he broke the news to his wife, Donna. They cried together.
“It was like losing my brother,” Fly remembers as his voice cracks. “It’s still difficult.”
The next night, Fly hosted his weekly Rhumb Line show. Friends and fans asked, “How can you be here tonight?”
“The show must go on,” replied Fly. “It’s not just a slogan, you know. We take it very seriously. If Lance had a gig tonight, he’d be there too.”
My family and I were at that show. Some of Fly’s musical family, including his brother J.B., David Brown, and Allen Estes joined him on stage. By the time the audience sang along during the last chorus of Larry Hoppen’s hit “Dance With Me,” Fly had lifted us through his personal grief to a higher place you can only reach through music.
“There’s no calling in sick,” says Fly nearly eight months later. “When you’re a person who isn’t complete unless you perform, there’s a hole in your heart if you’re not there. Orleans is my day job. The Rhumb Line is my down the street keep me from going fucking nuts gig. It’s been my music gym, where I worked out bugs and practiced finger picking. I’m honored to be the opener, guitar tech, sound tech, lighting tech, MC for guests.” Today, Fly is still touched by the love and support the community showed him during that dark time.
“People think Gloucester’s at the end of the universe, but there’s nothing in Boston that’s anywhere near as good as this. Some of Gloucester’s legends have made a real contribution to contemporary pop culture: Willie ‘Loco’ Alexander [the Godfather of Punk], Allen Estes, David Brown, Chick Marsten and his wife Ellen, who sings like a songbird, Linda [Fly’s sister], who is one of the best entertainers you’ll see.”
Fly’s Rhumb Line shows are a major part of Gloucester’s burgeoning music scene. In addition to old friends, Fly invites rising stars to share the stage with him. “I love it when young people are listening. Makes me want to turn up the flame.” Fly singles out two rising stars. “With Chelsea Berry and Inge Berge, I’m in good company,” he asserts.
Looking toward the future, Fly is headed back into the studio, both with John Hall and to record new original material for an all-original CD. “It’ll be a solo album but with some guest performers,” he hints. Fly hopes to release the CD in September, but that could be delayed by a summer tour with Orleans.
He’s also promoting a beautiful Christmas song he wrote with Allen Estes called “I Wish I Could Fly” that sounds like a standard and, in this writer’s opinion, should be recorded by Tony Bennett before he gets too old. Got that, Tony? This could be a signature song for you.
When I ask Fly for his take on the music business, he says: “You earn your money dragging your road case through the airport, setting up, sound check, breaking down, back to the airport. What’s in between is the gift, the payback.”
“I love every audience like my family,” he continues. “There’s singing. There’s delivery. Then there’s shooting a song into a person’s heart like an arrow. I embrace people with music. They embrace me back and I can feel that embrace with every note I play.”