As the Beatles and Rolling Stones invaded American shores in the early '60s, an odd musical scenario was unfolding over the Pittsburgh airwaves. Disc jockeys on low-watt AM stations were blasting a strange combination of mystery music that took the form of undiluted rockabilly, exotic doo-wop, booze-fueled rhythm and blues, wailing and weird guitar and sax instrumentals and, more often than not, a full-on combination of any and all of the above.
Often issued on tiny labels that eluded the national spotlight, these records — chosen strictly for their unique qualities — were often played nowhere else. Hence, groups like New Orleans' Saxons, Detroit's Aqua-Nites and the Delcos out of South Bend, Ind., toiled in obscurity, even in their own hometowns, while ruling the record hops in the Smokey City.
This strange phenomenon could all be attributed to pioneering pied piper, Mad Mike Metrovich. In a career that would make most current crate diggers' heads spin, Metrovich went to the ends of the earth in search of the eccentric sounds that he loved. Beginning in 1960, his record hops ruled Pittsburgh's teenage population with a vengeance. That's the way eyewitness Howard Kozy recalls it: "It was wild Mau-Mau music, kids fighting, doing splits, somersaults, drinking wine and shouting — this kind of stuff was out of vogue everywhere by the early '60s. Everywhere except Pittsburgh."
By the time Mike hit the airwaves in '64, he was a self-made, bona-fide legend. Going up against the British Invasion with off-kilter discs like the Vels' ethereal "Mysterious Teenage" might seem suicidal, but Mike's reputation as a tastemaker was based on formulas that still resonate with DJs today.
Like the earliest Sound System spinners in Jamaica, he recognized his records as calling cards, scratching off or "covering up" labels, renaming songs, shifting speeds and generally doing everything in his power to keep the records he championed shrouded in mystery. There was a method to his madness: the only place you could hear these sounds were at Mad Mike dances or on his radio show, and the mystique created a heightened appreciation — and fiendish desire — for the music.
"Listen in," Mike was fond of saying, "because you may never hear it again." Thankfully, there were exceptions. And 50 of his favorites now reside on three indispensable volumes — with more forthcoming — thanks to the Mad Mike maniacs at Norton Records. You've heard "The Goo Goo Muck" by the Cramps, right? Well, aficionados can now dig the ultra-rare original by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads. Mike's "Monsters," as he referred to them, embraced everything from Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones' 1952 blues pounder, "Certainly All," to the Sonics' newly-minted proto-punk masterpiece, "Psycho."
Every bit as impressive as the music is Mike's story, passionately told by friends, followers, fellow DJs and foremost Metrovich historian (and original Cramps drummer) Miriam Linna in the accompanying booklets.
"I suppose I spread the disease of records!" he proclaims in the riveting liner notes. "My record collection took some strange directions. I didn't limit myself to any one kind of music."
Besides Seattle's aforementioned Sonics (a band Mike booked for their only live appearance outside of the West Coast), he earned the respect of Memphis's (by way of Texas') Sam the Sham (of "Wooly Bully" fame), who wouldn't begin a local concert without giving Mike a standing ovation. And Michigan's own Tommy James remembers the Mad One rescuing "Hanky Panky" (the song that later launched the '60s hitmaker's career) from obscurity by — musical mad scientist that he was — speeding it up to 48 RPM with a pitch control fashioned from a model railroad transformer. As a result, it's now burned into our collective memory — three RPMs faster than originally recorded.
"Outside of Pittsburgh, I'm a nobody," recalls James, whose band had splintered shortly after the recording session. "Within their city limits, I'm a rock star with a No. 1 record. It was Mad Mike who made it happen. Pounding the record — he didn't just play it — he pounded it."
"Mike was never a guy who sought publicity," observes his friend Jay "Jaybird" Kuchca. "He just loved finding records that no one else would ever consider playing. What he instilled in us was to go out there and just go through everything, play both sides, and find these things, things that someone had spent a lot of time and emotion recording that had been forgotten or never even really heard."
Michael Hurtt writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].