Artist

The Virtues

Chances are, unless you're a pop music historian, or over the age of 50, or come from the Philadelphia area (or, more likely, all three), you've never heard of the Virtues.

But long before the Ventures ever got together and long before the members of the Shadows had even thought of playing skiffle music or picking up musical instruments -- and, come to think of it, even before Bill Haley & His Comets (or his "Saddlemen"), and before the term rock & roll jumped from a slang expression within music to being a musical reference -- the Virtues were there, doing a brand of instrumental music that could easily have been taken for rock & roll, at least some of the time. It had all of the elements: a beat, electric guitars, and young guys playing it who were trying to do something besides rehash country and pop tunes the old way.

Philadelphia-born Frank Virtue (born Jan 21, 1927) grew up listening to the big bands of the 1930s and early '40s, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Duke Ellington, and Woody Herman. He took violin lessons as a boy and switched to guitar at 15 and to the double bass at 17, crossing paths professionally with such future renowned figures as Mario Lanza and studying the instrument on a classical level with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He studied arranging while attending Temple University, and when he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1945, was assigned to the Regular Navy Dance Band, stationed in Bainbridge, MD, later becoming the band's leader. One of those whose paths he crossed during his stint in the Navy was Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, a guitarist and country musician who was about six years older than Virtue.

Alas, his time in the service was short, despite its promising beginnings -- Virtue received a hardship discharge in 1946 because his father had undergone cancer surgery and he was left as the principal supporter of his family. He still wanted to try something with music, however. Virtue recognized that the economics of the time no longer allowed most of the big bands to sustain themselves (apart from a few exceptions like Duke Ellington, whose high-name recognition allowed him to get a good share of the best work that there was to be had and whose steady stream of royalties as a composer made it possible for him to "deficit finance" the band in the lean times); he also knew that small groups didn't have this problem, only the difficulty of generating a distinctive sound. Amplifiers took care of the latter, while Virtue took his lead from acts like the Nat King Cole Trio and also, just as likely, some of the more musically adept R&B outfits of the time; he put together what was known as the Virtuoso Trio, with himself on bass and guitar, Ralph Frederico on piano, and Steve Rossi on guitar.

They prospered over the next decade, playing small clubs and then bigger clubs and getting featured on the radio and on television once that medium was established, so that by the mid-'50s the group was making a good living working the area around Philadelphia and points north as far as Canada. They were well-known within the city and fixtures on local television and radio, and played as the backup band to singers such as Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Dick Haymes, and June Christy, and also worked with jazz figures like Charlie Ventura. In the meantime, a revolution had swept across the music world that, oddly enough, also had a big part of its start in and around Philadelphia, in the guise of rock & roll; an act out of Chester, PA, called Bill Haley & His Comets had spearheaded the revolution, and Frank Virtue and his band were swept along with it, finding that they could delight teenage audiences with their virtuosity and spirited playing just about as well as any of the younger rock & roll acts coming up around them.

In 1958, the group recorded a new arrangement of Smith's "Guitar Boogie," entitled "Guitar Boogie Shuffle," with new accents and a beat that took it out of country boogie and Western swing and moved it into rock & roll. With Virtue playing lead on a Gibson L5 -- with a delightful call-and-response middle section and a tape echo and shuffle drum part embellishing the piece -- "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" became one of the most popular and influential instrumentals of its era, reaching number five on the Billboard charts in the spring of 1959. It also topped out sheet-music sales as aspiring guitarists all over the country and later around the world decided to learn the piece (want to bet that George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Keith Richards, Bert Weedon, and Big Jim Sullivan all had at least a passing acquaintance with the single, and sometimes more than that?).

The single's release (on the Hunt label) also marked a change of name for the group, to the Virtues, in an effort to widen their appeal. Though they saw little revenue from the single as a result of the record-company business practices of the era, the group -- which had expended to a quintet (Virtue on bass, John Renner on saxophone, Jimmy Bruno on guitar, Joe Vespe on drums, and Dave Kaplin doing some vocals) -- gained so many gigs from the record that they made out well. Strangely enough, the Virtues resembled Bill Haley's Comets in many key respects: They were five white guys who were a lot older than most rock & roll bands of the period, engaged in nearly as many comic antics as musical flourishes, and their informal persona contrasted with their musical formality. None of their later singles -- including "Flippin'," "Boogie Woogie," and "Vaya Con Dios" -- ever sold remotely as well, even after they were picked up by ABC-Paramount, but "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" easily sold in the millions worldwide. Virtue decided to disband the group in 1962 and turned to full-time producing. In 1993, Collectables Records released Guitar in Orbit, a collection of 22 instrumentals by the Virtues. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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