When the Hallmarks auditioned, Cleopatra's Tommy Falcone turned his back. Twenty bands arranged around the perimeter of the warehouse in Keansburg, New Jersey, in 1966, with Falcone seated in the center, pointing to each one in turn. The Hallmarks were easily the most ragtag gang in the room—with a microphone taped to a birdcage stand, a low end provided by a guitar strung with bass strings, and a mismatched collection of borrowed drum hardware—but Falcone couldn’t see it with his back turned, which was the point. “He didn’t want what he saw to interfere with what he was hearing,” said rhythm guitarist Tony Scalzo. When he finally turned around, Falcone signed them on the spot.
“It was kind of cool because Tommy was looking for originality,” said band leader Russ Scalzo. “He wasn’t looking for everything that was really buffed up and slick because he knew what he could do.”
The Hallmarks had only been a band for a year at that point, forming around songwriter, guitarist, and singer Russ Scalzo, his brother Joe Scalzo on drums, cousin Tony Scalzo on rhythm guitar, neighbor Jim Bova on bass, and friend Rick Gager on lead guitar. “I wasn’t good enough to figure out anybody else’s songs so I’m gonna make my own,” said Russ. “I really appreciated the fact that we got a major record deal after playing our instruments for only two years.” Their first performance came in their own basement in Oceanport, for friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles at Joe’s fourteenth birthday party—it would be exactly a year before he got a full drum kit. The band played so loud that the vibrations knocked screws out of Scalzo’s furnace, until it eventually broke.
With a cigarette burning on every amplifier, Falcone worked to polish the motley group into a diamond-hard professional unit. “When he had us rehearsing down in the basement, he was a ball of fire,” said Tony Scalzo. “He was on each instrument making changes to us. What he did with us was pretty amazing.”
Falcone knew the times were changing, clothes more colorful, even music stores switched from brass to mostly guitars and amps. Beatle bowl cuts and matching outfits gave way to long hair, mustaches, and bell bottoms, which was a problem for the Scalzos at Shore Regional High School. “They threatened me with not going to the prom,” Russ said. “They threatened me with not graduating. It was crazy.”
Harassment from the school authorities over the Hallmarks’ hair got bad enough that Falcone drafted a flattering letter to the principal on official Cleopatra letterhead: “We have just put under contract the group known as the Hallmarks. I understand four of the five members attend your school, and would again like to ask your permission to allow these members to keep their hair as they presently do, for professional reasons. It seems that Shore Regional H.S. has a lot of talent to offer.” A similar letter was sent to Long Branch High about the Inmates’ hairstyles.
But the hair helped when he met his future wife, the daughter of a telephone company party planner who booked the band on February 10, 1967, for a corporate gig. “They were so good and so cute, so my girlfriend and I started dancing like everybody there was dancing,” said Gail Scalzo. “He asked me out I think a week later, we went to the boat show in Asbury Park together.” Russ and Gail had a rare connection, lovestruck in both an instant and five decades later. She wanted him in her life, he wanted her in his band. “Back then, I was shy…. I was thinking there’s no way I’m going to stand up and start singing in front of people,” she said.
But Russ wanted to do for her what Falcone had done for him, working with his new girlfriend to build up her technique and her confidence, giving her the training to unlock her natural talents. Soon Gail was delivering a powerful vocal performance—the band’s showstopper. “We were doing a frat party one night at Monmouth College,” Tony recalled, “and those frat boys were down on their knees in front of her.”
With the band blossoming under his tutelage, Falcone took them to A&R Recording in the city to lay down protopunk rager “I Know Why,” the very song that had won their audition. “It was just on the brink of the psychedelic stuff going more commercial,” said Joe, and Falcone took notice. When he couldn’t sell “I Know Why,” Fred Weinberg suggested an experiment he couldn’t resist. They dipped the track in acid using state-of-the-art studio effects, drenching it in thick reverb, deep echo, and wild flange until it sounded like nothing they’d heard. Retitling it “Soul Shakin’ Psychedelic Sally,” the band “took the original music tracks and we just redid the vocals,” said Joe. “It was more or less pretty cutting edge.”
Unfortunately, the cutting edge was double sided—believing it was pushing a sinister drug message to America’s youth, “a lot of stations wouldn’t play it because it had the word psychedelic in it,” Russ said. Even so, “Soul Shakin’ Psychedelic Sally” b/w “Girl Of My Dreams” leased to Mercury subsidiary Smash in September 1967, made it to number 10 in California and earned a positive review in Cash Box: “Wild echo-filled foot-stomper here. Could be a big one for the Hallmarks.”
Despite the moral panic, “Sally” got enough traction to land the band spots on television—on Philadelphia’s The Hy Lit Show and Washington, D.C.’s WingDing. The song was also played for the dancing teens of American Bandstand, who rated it an 85, beating out the Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” then number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Six months after the single, Nick Masi joined on organ when he randomly met Gager and Joe Scalzo hanging out on North Long Branch Beach.
Falcone’s taste for novelty was undiminished: hoping to sell a holiday follow-up, he had the band redo the vocals yet again to make “Soul Shakin’ Psychedelic Santa,” a lysergic trip to the North Pole. Labels didn’t bite, but the band continued hitting the studio, eventually amassing an entire album of recordings—including the Gail-led Jefferson Airplane intensity of “Distant Rain,” the Animals-influenced “Paper Sky,” the organ-driven dark biography “Miss Judith Finch,” and the prophetic lovestruck duet “Baby We Can Make It Together.” Falcone encouraged the band to experiment in the studio with twelve-string guitars and glockenspiels, at one point even bringing in a gong. “When we were in studio for that short time, I could have spent my whole life there with those guys,” Tony reflected.
“I was the youngest, so I’m thinking like, ‘We’re gonna be stars!’ It wasn’t great for me,” said Bova. “None of those guys really got into drugs, but I did. So unfortunately, by the time I was eighteen or nineteen I was shooting heroin and cocaine. I was pretty messed up.”
Losses mounted. Tony Scalzo was drafted in 1967 right out of high school, shipping out to California to join the Navy Reserve. Losing Falcone hit the band even harder—but he’d taught Russ Scalzo well. Scalzo continued to record and tried to sell a single himself to Columbia, “Cellar Walls” b/w “Just Me and the Blue Jay,” but the labels passed and he grew increasingly frustrated. “Everything for us was backwards,” he said. “We started out with a record deal. I really thought we were going to be the ones that broke into the top.”
A particularly bad drug trip—involving satanic chanting and a levitating woman—sent Bova to the brink of suicide, ready to throw himself off a bridge, and then brought him to Christ. In the 1970s, the Hallmarks changed their name first to Friends and then released three albums as Saved by Grace, transformed by Bova's salvation and sobriety into one of the earliest Christian rock groups in America.
More from Cleopatra
In The Garage
The Cleopatra Label