A mutual acquaintance connected me with Lenie via Facebook, where he graciously agreed to grant me an interview. Lenie was very generous with his time and chatted with me by phone to tell me all about his career journey. He talks honestly and humbly of the ups and downs he’s experienced over the past 30+ years. He offers his wisdom and advice to aspiring musicians and provides fascinating insight into the music industry. He shares so much great information, in fact, that I couldn’t fit it all into one or even two blog posts, so this interview will be published in three parts over as many weeks.
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Starring as Paul in Broadway’s, BEATLEMANIA!, Lenie Colacino is a musician and actor who has toured the world, from New York to New Zealand, and from Brazil to B.B. King’s, in many national and international tours of the Broadway show.
He is the founder of The Cast of Beatlemania, a completely live show that has delighted audiences in the US and Canada, South America, Austria, and Japan. It has been performed for members of the British Royal Family and for US presidents.
He’s also sung and voiced dozens of national ads, including those for Hershey’s, Tropicana, the US Army, as well as for Nickelodeon’s Emmy Award-winning animated series, The Wonder Pets.
Lenie is also the founder of The Most Excellent Order of Sir Paul, a show completely dedicated to the music of Paul McCartney, rock’s greatest living legend.
A true left-handed player, Lenie plays a vintage left-handed Hofner violin bass and is an endorsed artist by Hofner.
Over the years, Lenie has shared the stage with such greats as Dion, Billy J. Kramer, Pete Best, Laurence Juber, and many more.
A recognized expert on the Beach Boys, Lenie contributed to Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds by Charles L. Granata.
Colacino lives with his wife and their dog, Trooper, in Montclair, New Jersey. His interests include vintage guitars, film, and the New York Yankees.
Let’s start with you telling us more about yourself, where you grew up, how you got exposed to music.
The first seven years of my life, I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Then my mom and dad emigrated out to Long Island in about 1960 or so. Music was always a part of the household. My mom and dad were not musicians themselves, but they loved music. The record player was always going. I think my first inclination to get into that life was the influence of the music they loved to listen to.
I always had a musical ear. My first musical experience was in the sixth grade, because I was selected to play a role in an operetta, HMS Pinafore, by Gilbert and Sullivan. I discovered I had a singing voice at that time. I wasn’t considered a prodigy, but it was considered kind of unusual that I had a pretty good musical ear at an early age. I loved to sing. I sang at all sorts of school functions.
Then I think everything changed, as it did for a lot of people my age, when the Beatles came along. Pop music went from the Frankie Avalons of the world to the more rock and roll type-singing. I caught the bug like millions of other kids my age. That’s what started me on a career in music, actually.
So, from that point was it kind of an epiphany for you, like, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life?” Or was it just sort of a hobby for you at the time?
No, it was the former. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. When you’re that young you…well…I had no idea what it really meant to do that. I think I had the fantasy that, “Well, this is the easiest life anybody could ever imagine. I get to sing for a living? Let me do that. Let me get a guitar and all the girls will love me and I’ll be rich.” You know, that common fantasy that every school boy had, I imagine. It took me many years to discover that’s not exactly how it goes.
I must say, though, the thrill of it, the idea of that lifestyle was very seductive. I think when you’re in with a bunch of friends or you join high school bands, they all have the same sort of feeling about where their lives are going to go. Some, like you said, think, “Well, this is just something I’ll do for a little while before I become a dentist.” There were those guys, but for me it was always, “No. This is what I want to do. This is what I’m going to do, come hell or high water.”
Were your parents encouraging?
No, as a matter of fact, they were very discouraging. Maybe that was a factor in my determination. As a parent and a grandparent myself, I certainly understand where they were [coming from]. They were Italian immigrants and my father was an incredibly hard-working fella. He didn’t want his son to be what I wanted to be. He wanted me to be what he was and more successful. He wanted a better life for me and he thought this was the road to ruin. I don’t blame him. It’s not like I have resentment for that. In fact, I respect it because I understand what he wanted for me was good, but he didn’t really understand the passion in it. I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand that passion, that drive. “Why don’t you get a real job?” is what I always heard from both my parents forever.
[My parents] did have some pride with me. We did many concerts where they lived and my mother would always get all of her elderly friends to come see our shows. She was proud, but not outwardly. It was just her upbringing. They weren’t the gushing, supportive type. They were hard school, grew-up-in-the-Depression Italians.
When was the first time you performed in front of a large, say 500+, audience?
Well, our high school events were really well-attended. There were a bunch of high school bands and we would have these concerts in the gym. They were attended by between 500 and 1,000 people constantly. So my first exposure to an audience that size was in my teens. Those were tough proving grounds. Usually it was one of those battle of the bands type things where you had four or five bands set up in the same gymnasium. You played a few songs, then another band played a few songs, and [the audience] voted.
So, after high school you went to university, correct?
Was music your major?
It was. Actually, I was very involved in the college choir at that time [at Oneonta State College – NY]. My first two or three years of college, I didn’t play in any bands. I’d basically given that up, so I dove into music theory. Singing was always my passion and group singing, too. I love the sound of human voices together, so there was a concert choir in college that I was very involved in. It did some very weighty pieces, like Bach’s B Minor Mass, which we rehearsed for the entire semester. I enjoyed all of that without being in a band. At that point in college I said, “I’m going to get my teaching degree to please my parents or to please some notion of normalcy. I’m going to play the game and get a job,” because it’d been drilled into my head that music was no way to make a living.
I left college in my third year. There were some tapes lying around from a band I had recorded with before I left for college, like two years prior. Someone at Gulf and Western picked up the tapes and it became an album. Then suddenly I needed to get a band together to perform the songs on this album. That was one step where I kind of got jolted back. I thought, “Well, I finally got that record deal.” (I was 21 years old.) “Yeah, life’s gonna be great.”
Singing is your passion and you play bass guitar. Do you play other instruments, as well?
Yeah, I play the piano and the guitar. Bass is my main instrument, but I found that the guitar and especially the piano were terrific in scoring things out and writing songs. Every song I ever wrote was mostly on the piano because it’s all laid out there. The guitar is a bit more of a negotiation. I have a pretty good foundation as far as theory goes, but piano is a little easier.
I was self-taught, for the most part. I took singing lessons. I’ve seen about five vocal coaches in my lifetime, so that I did study a lot. I took guitar lessons for two or three years with various teachers. I think I learned early on to have a good foundation, a good knowledge of your instrument, whether it’s playing an instrument or singing. It’s essential to what you want to do with it. That doesn’t mean you have to sound like Pavarotti. You can use your voice to sound like whatever you want it to sound like, which led to some of my later work in jingles and voice-over work.
What happened after that record deal in college?
It was pretty disastrous. It was the early 70s and I was living in Manhattan. It was very bohemian. We were playing all these gigs and doing pretty well in support of this record. By the end of that year, the band had basically broken up and no one that we had gotten together wanted to be in it anymore. The gigs were sparse. Money was very, very tight. I couldn’t pay for anything. I was having a really bad time making a living.
Then, my record producer at the time, Michael Wright, may he rest in peace, was engineering for Scepter Records in the 60s and 70s. He knew of this band in Scranton, PA, of all places — a band called Ralph, which was a local legendary band that was looking to replace its guitarist and singer.
[Michael] recommended me for the job. Having no prospects at that point, I took the gig and left the only home I’d known, which was Long Island, NY. I moved to Scranton, PA, which was as depressing as it sounds, but the band was great. I worked with that band for four years. It was a 10-piece band, very sophisticated. We were trying to be a progressive rock band in a time when Yes and Genesis were very popular. I did that for four years, and then I got the call for the Beatlemania show.
Tell us more about that gig. How did that all fall into place?
It’s really weird. The band, Ralph, was doing okay. It was very socialistic. I think we were making about $100 each, but living on a communal property at the top of a mountain, rehearsing all day. It was very early 70s.
I would see TV ads with the original Paul for the show, Mitch Weissman, and I would say, “Wow! They got the right guy. That guy looks just like Paul. I could do that, but they don’t need me. They got this guy.” Then I got a phone call from the aforementioned Michael Wright, who was living in Manhattan. He said, “They’re holding auditions for the next Broadway production of this.” The original cast was going to go on tour and open in Los Angeles. They needed another cast for Manhattan. So I said, “Why not? Let’s give it a shot.”
I remember I walked into the audition and saw a bunch of guys who were not very good. They got through maybe five or six lines of a song before they were told, “Thank you.” I got up there and got through my first song. I had four or five songs prepared. I’d always been a Beatles freak anyway. I realized I was doing well when I didn’t get the hook. As soon as my audition was over, they offered me the job on the spot, so I said, “Yes.” It was quite a shock to me.
For the next year, I did the Broadway show, then [for a few more years] I did national and international tours. I really got to see the world. We went to 17 or 18 different countries, all over the world, playing this music that I loved to play and still play to this day. I had a great time doing that. It was a fantastic experience, but in my youth or naiveté I didn’t realize that, “This will end. You’d better shift. You’d better prepare for what’s next,” which I never did, as a kid or young adult.
So after five or six years, I found myself without work again. My marriage was in terrible shape. I had two young children, twins. They are now in their late 30s. I wasn’t much of a father or husband. I wasn’t around much. So I decided, “That’s it. I’m going to go into the straight world. I’m going to get a job,” which I did, at a cable company. Very soon after that is when everything fell apart. The marriage fell apart. I was completely miserable being in the straight life. I didn’t like my work. There I was in my mid-30s, very unhappy.
Slowly, but surely, I got back into the work I love. I credit my [current] wife, Barbara, with encouraging me with the “do what you love and the money will follow” theory. I got back into music in a different way. I didn’t want to go on the road again. I wanted to get into jingle and voice-over work, which I found a lot of fun, much easier to do. The work was in New York, right across the river. Even if you got an audition that week, or seven auditions that week, they were paid auditions, so it helped pay the bills.
Luckily, through hard work, I was able to get myself onto what they call ‘finals,’ which are jingles that become commercials. I had a really good run there for several years with jingles for the US Army, Hershey’s chocolate, Tropicana, Folgers, a bunch of national ads. You know all those “Be all that you can be” ads from the 80s and 90s? I sang in a bunch of those, which could’ve been the easiest work I ever did, six seconds of singing. I thought, “This is a good way to make a living.”
Eventually, I got more into doing voice work. Sometimes, when doing the jingle work, you would get called to do the voice-over or ‘doughnuts’ they would call them, which is spoken around the singing part. It might be 10 seconds of saying something like, “Try Tropicana. It’s great!” or whatever the script was. Then I got more into character voices, as well. Then I got more into character voices, as well. I hooked up with the show The Wonder Pets, [worked] with some great composers, and did a bunch of voice-over work for that.
The big thing that happened in the jingle business, however, is that the union (Screen Actors Guild), which I had to join, went on strike. This was, I guess, the mid-90s and at that point the jingle business changed from hiring writers and singers to sing these things to going to what they call ‘needle drops,’ which was finding some record that they liked without hiring a composer or singers. The industry kind of got used to us not working.
Even once the strike was over, we found it very difficult to get work. It came full circle. The only way to make a living in music anymore (there was a brilliant article on this in the New York Times a few weeks ago), except for the elite, like the Taylor Swifts of the world, is to go out and play your music live. Selling records is a thing of the past. Everything’s streamed. It’s easy to get for free. Artists can’t make a living composing and recording anymore. “Keep your chops up,” is the mantra now. Sing as long as you can.
Guys I knew who were making six or seven figures a year in the jingle business are now working in bands. I find that there’s no shame in that. I love it. I still love performing. I have a bunch of gigs coming up this year. It’s basically all that’s left to a lot of guys in my position, that is, who had success, who did records, who did work in jingles, whatever. I’ve sung at weddings and funerals. Whatever the work is, I tend to not turn down anything, just to keep singing. I have a great friend in the business who calls it “vocational playing” — it’s work, you’re getting paid, smile, do the best you can, and move on. Some of these guys play for $30 or $40 a night, guys who’d been in touring bands making thousands and thousands of dollars.
If this is what you love to do, do it. It beats the hell out of your day job, which I’ve been doing and not doing for 30 years. I know the difference. I know a lot of guys who are resentful, who say, “I used to do this or that. I used to make this kind of money and I don’t anymore.” I think, “You guys are nuts. Be grateful for every second you have doing anything that’s not digging a ditch.” That became my very humble philosophy after 30 or 40 years in the business.