Monday, December 19, 2011


Sam and the Twisters- the most popular, most in demand, most expensive, most publicized, most hyped, most envied, most loved (never lacked for lady companians), most hated and the best band in Syracuse in the early 1960's. The name Twisters as their business card shows had nothing to do with the dance craze but was twisting tornado.

Their story begins in 1959,  with a trio composed of Sam Amato (lead guitar), Jan Fetterly (drums & vocals) and Chuck Mellone (accordion). This unlikely combination called themselves, Sam and the Twisters. They worked together two years until Mellone left to join Don Barber and the Dukes. In 1961, Al Wolf became bassist of the group. Jerry Vassalo played rhythm for a while and then was replaced by Mickey Palumbo from Paul and The Velvets in 1962. This foursome of Amato, Fetterly, Wolf and Palumbo would become known as Syracuse's  greatest band. They were inducted into the Sammy's Hall of Fame in 1993.

The key to their success is found in one word "promotion". They constantly appeared live on WNDR Radio with Dick Snyder, Jim O'Brien and "Dandy Dan" Leonard. They also played record hops with "Jolly Rolly" Fowler for gas money, entertained at dances with Pete Cavanaugh ,and became regulars at the Teen Canteen at Three River Inn  with "Dandy Dan'. When ever you looked. up came the name Sam and the Twisters. The Twisters even promoted as the performed though contests with numerous give-a-ways.

With this enormous amount of promotion behind them the Twisters didn't let their fans down. On stage they all dresses alike and played the loudest hard driving music Syracusan's had head to this point. Their sound was big as they had the best and latest in Fender equipment, with an echocord. They were the first band in Syracuse to use a separate PA system (SUN) with large twin horns, along with Jeff and the Notes (now The Dynamics), the Continentals, Ronnie Dio & Redcaps (Dio, Pantas, Botoff, Rogers),  the Twisters also featured a lead vocalist in Jan Fetterly with backup harmonies by Mickey Palumbo. They prided themselves by playing the Top 40 hits, popular oldies and the instrumental sounds of The Ventures (Walk Don't Run & Lullaby of the Leaves), Link Wray (Ace of Spades) and Jorgen Ingmann (Apache).

The leader of the Twisters was Sam Amato, known for being a tight businessman, owner of motorcycles, over 100 cars, dating two thousand women and for his check writing practices. On stage Sam was not the world's greatest guitarist, but he had a unique sound (echo) and played his parts strong, loud and clear- totally engrossing. His guitar playing was not their total sound, the Twisters owned a dynamic rhythm section that was tight and powerful. Together they blended a overwhelming powerful driving force. Their shows varied in variety of material, from hard loud rock to slow love ballads made possible though the unique voice of Jan Fetterly, consequently, Sam and the Twisters had no problem finding work. The only thing they insisted on was not overplaying themselves in one certain area. Steady weekly bookings brought the Twisters to the Monticito and the Parquet in 1961 and 1962. In 1963, the Twisters moved to what was to become Syracuse rock's first super nightspot, Hewitts.

Located just off West Genesee Street across from what is now Fairmount Fair Shopping Center, Hewitts was one of the first clubs to draw people from all parts of Onondaga County. Hewitts, owned by Ed Hewiitt and managed by Joe Davoli, became the first to charge admission $1.00 to pay for the entertainment. He also was the first to use the hand stamp, most common to clubs even today. Sam and the Twisters would play to overflowing crowds at Hewitts many times including Fridays when you always could see a good fight. Hewitts became a steady booking except for a short period after a pay dispute. But they were given a raise quickly when attendance dropped during their absence.

While the Twisters were taking Syracuse by storm they were yet to reach the peak of popularity. Dan Leonard's daughter Darcy discovered a song in her second grade reader that would change a local band into national recording artists. The song "Fooba Wooba John" listed in the reader as a native American folk song, was put to music at Philadelphia's Cameo Parkway Studios. It was released nationally on Lawn Records (a division of Swan Records) by owner Bernie Binnick and Tony Mamarella, who met Dan Leonard while touring with their national acts Freddie Cannon. Link Wray, Mark Valentino and the Rockin Rebels (Dan Leonard wrote the albums liner notes). Binnick was already familiar with Central New York music as he had released songs by Bobby Comstock and Ronnie Dio earlier. He also know of WNDR's great power as Dan Leonard single-handed helped the "Wild Weekend" by the Rockin Rebels and "Jack the Ripper" by Link Wray become national hits for Swan Records early in 1963.

Following the recording session, Sam, Al, Mickey, Jan and Dan Leonard squeezed in Sam's Cadillac for there return to Syracuse to await the arrival of tapes of what they had just recorded. When they did arrive, the band was totally disappointed in the vocal tracks (Lawn 212). So they re-recorded the vocals and added echo and a mystery voice (Dan Leonard) at Syracuse's Riposo Studio to the already mastered instrumental tracks. The record was released by Lawn nationally (#214) in July 1963 with the flip side being an old Ritchie Valens hit "Come On Let's Go" under the name "The Original Soundtracks." Their thinking for the change was that the name Sam and the Twisters sounded small time.

Upon the records release many new markets opened- Auburn, Utica, Fulton, Ithaca, Oswego, which brought many exciting new fans. Other Central New York doors opened- Cayuga Lane, Holiday Bowl, Bobs Inn and Suburban Park in Manlius.

Suburban Park was a family amusement area as it presented all styles of entertainment from jugglers to high wire daredevils. The sound of Sam and the Twisters still echo from the spot where the park once stood. People claim to still hear Sam's perfect interpretations of Apache, Ace of Spade and Walk Don't Run as they drive by. As their popularity spead television appearances also followed in Buffalo, Utica and in Syracuse.

Even Syracuse's answer to Bobby "Boris" Pickett, popular WNYS-TV (now WSYR) personality Baron Daemon (Mike Price) crossed careers with Sam and the Twisters. The Baron's popularity was gigantic as he hosted the late night monster movie aired weekly on Channel 9. To further his increasing popularity he decided to record a song in the monster style. Along with Mike Riposo and advertising man Hovy Larrison, they wrote new words and the Twisters re-recoded the instrumental track of "Fooba Wooba John" with backup singers the Bigtree Sisters (Norma, Jean & Sandy), it soon became "The Transylvania Twist" by Baron Daemon and the Vampires. This record soon became Syracuse's all-time best selling single totaling over 10,000 copies.

Following their recording Sam and the Twisters appeared on stage with the following ton names in rock n' roll. The Angels, Gary "US" Bonds, The Belmonts, Anita Bryant, Freddie Cannon, The Chiffons, Johnny Cymbol, Jimmy Dean, Del Vikings, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana, Brian Hyland, Joe Jones, Johnny Maestro, Tommy Roe, The Ronnettes, Shanghai-las, Shirelles, Santo & Johnny, Johnny Tillotson, Mark Valentino, Bobby Vee and Link Wray .

Their final recording was done for WNDR's Jim O'Brien as he used the instrumental version of Wild Weekend as his theme song with lyrics added. Later in their career Sam and the Twisters played on the roof of the North Drive In Theater for the preview of 'A Hard Day's' Night" by The Beatles in 1964. They also played at WNDR's giant Beatle Dance at the War Memorial. also for Chappelle's Department Store fashion shows between 1966-68.. You could see  play steady engagements at Deb's (who's bouncer was Syracuse University All-American Larry Csonka) and the Red Dog Saloon. Sam Amato left the band in 1968, Al Wolf, Jan Fetterly and Mickey Palumbo continued to work together under the new name "The Livin' Ennd".


  1. I remember seeing and hearing Sam and the Twisters many times at The 320 Club. Great memories, great music, a wonderful time and, yes, the fist fights in that muddy parking lot! Audience was diverse with sharp dressed African-Americans dancing on the left, nearest the bar. Then Air Force servicemen on the right. Then the rest of us!

  2. Hewitt's burned down sometime in the 70's and was never rebuilt. I'm not sure Sam & the Twisters were still playing at that point.