The most resonant room in the Newark Public Library in 1958 was the locker room where Gary Swangin practiced his singing. Swangin, a high school student who worked part time at the checkout desk, would often sneak away during breaks to hone his technique and work on an original song, “The Promise of Love”—until he got caught.
When co-worker Salvatore Girgenti heard it echoing off the tile and steel, he was so taken that he suggested they play together. With Girgenti on rhythm guitar, they recruited the D’Amato brothers, Charles, who played drums standing up, and Peter on lead guitar. “Peter was older than we were, I know that, and he was more serious than we were,” Swangin said, “very quiet, soft-spoken guy.”
Johnny Silvio, who later worked with D’Amato, agrees: “He was very blase and didn’t smile a lot. He just didn’t fit the picture for a lead guitar player at the time.”
D’Amato’s neighbor Francis Corragio brought virtuosity to their nascent band, at first playing an amplified upright bass. Corragio had started playing at eleven years old, and by the time of the Centuries he was taking lessons from members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. “I was really interested mostly in playing classical but I ended up playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said.
The library would prove crucial in another way. Swangin checked people’s books and bags as they exited the building, bringing him into contact with a wide range of folks—including Tommy Falcone. “Tommy was an interesting guy, he was very hyper,” Swangin remembered.
“He was strange,” Corragio said. “His wife was absolutely gorgeous at that time and Tommy Falcone was kind of nerdy. He was out of style compared to his wife. . . . I remember thinking, ‘What did she ever see in him?’”
As always with Falcone, the topic of music came up and Swangin saw his opportunity. “I said to him, ‘You know I can sing’ . . . but I’d never sung publicly or in front of people at all.” Still, Falcone took the teens to Hertz Recording Studio in Newark to get “The Promise of Love” on tape—a dreamy doo-wop fantasia. “It was like an orchestra studio,” Corragio said. “We were really impressed as young kids. We felt we were big time.”
Swangin, choosing to record under the name Gary Marlow, saw an instant change in Falcone as they stepped into the studio—his normally hyperactive demeanor seemed to settle and focus as his life’s purpose lay directly before him. “I always found him calm except for the time when he was out of the studio,” Swangin said. “You could see that he struggled. I don’t know how he did it, but it seemed like he ate, slept, did everything around producing music.” Swangin believes this recording was issued on Lionel Hampton’s Glad Records, and even received royalty payment, but information is scant.
It was only after the recording session that Gary Marlow & the Centuries played their first show, at the Garden State Shopping Plaza in Paramus. Falcone soon had the group paired with Joseph Null Jr., an African American singer from Newark about a decade older than the band. Falcone had given him the stage name Joe Templeton and had previously used him uncredited as the nonduck vocals on “Wacky and Quacky.” He now had them pursue a similarly off-the-wall song, “Little Miss Mousey,” based on the seventeenth century ballad “Froggie Went A’Courting.”
“They took the melody and kind of rock ‘n’ rolled it up,” Carragio said. The song wouldn’t see release until August 1962 when the Amy label paired it with “Lover Be Fair” as the b-side. It earned a review in the October 13, 1962 issue of Cash Box: “Templeton is the pro vocalist, while a combo-chorus go a-rockin’ with finesse.”
By 1960, Swangin’s education at Rutgers University was taking priority and his musical ambitions were expanding. “I thought I had to evolve faster than the Centuries musically,” he said. He went on to Columbia University and performed in the Greenwich Village folk scene with a far-ahead-of-its-time fusion of modern lyricism with African rhythms. His astronomical impulses eventually took over and he began writing a suite of “songs from time and space,” with which he still tinkers. Today, he lives a life among the stars as a professor of astronomy and the director of a planetarium—and even has a planetarium in Afghanistan named after him.
With Swangin gone, the band took a sharp turn into new waters rough with surf—losing lyrics but compensating with invention and melody. The Centuries transformed into an instrumental rock group inspired by the space race and Polynesia, becoming Falcone’s very own version of the Ventures with whom to explore the then-burgeoning sounds of surf rock and exotica. “I think Peter was wishing he could do like that. That’s also one of the reasons I left the Centuries,” said Swangin. The releases came fast, eventually making the band the most prolific of all the Cleopatra artists—six more singles on five different labels.
Though nearly all of their material was written by Falcone or D’Amato or both, 1961’s “Ship-To-Shore” b/w “Like Weird,” on the Design label, is the only release credited to Tommy Falcone & the Centuries, likely because Falcone himself played the wild bouncing organ riffs on the tracks. It would be the second and last release to feature his name as an artist. The group was also used as the Cleopatra house band for a time, backing up other singers and releasing material under different names.
Falcone was successful in licensing more Centuries material for releases on other labels: in 1962 Flamingo released “Chihuahua Cha Cha” b/w “You’re A Dirty Robber” and a vocal 45, “She Wobbles (All Night Long)” b/w “Do It,” credited to Four Hits & A Miss (acc. by The Centuries). In 1963 the Carlton label released the Dick Dale–worshipping “Anniversary Hop” b/w “Theme of the Centuries.” Their releases on Cleopatra Records include 1963’s spacey “The Outer Limits" b/w "Polynesian Paradise” and 1964’s “Jack 23” b/w “4th Dimension,” their final release. “Beach Umbrella World,” with an unknown vocalist, went unreleased.
“Like Weird” is a perfect title for Falcone and his genius for sound. These early sides demonstrate his talent for inventing mutant sonics and throwing them into otherwise ordinary tunes, demonstrated by Carragio’s tuba on “Chihuahua Cha Cha” and the faux-exotic vocals on “Polynesian Paradise”—provided by Harriet Rogers, the stage name of opera singer Harriet Wagenheim. Falcone’s instinct toward novelty occasionally found him inventing the future: the spacey noises of “The Outer Limits” and the theremin on “4th Dimension” are among the earliest known uses of electronic sound in rock ‘n’ roll.
Although Swangin had been out of the group for years, a rerecording of “Promise of Love” was finally released on Amy in May 1963 with a different vocalist, credited to the Montgomery’s. The flip was occupied by “Gotta Get a Hit (Ballad of a Recording Company),” written by Tom De Cillis, a local deejay, label owner, and songwriter. A rewrite of “Kissin Krazy” by Richie Dennis—orchestrated by Nick Massi of the Four Seasons—the song is a wonderful and bizarre piano romp with hysterical vocals all about the recording industry and it served as a theme song of sorts for Cleopatra, complete with shout-outs to a number of Falcone’s artists, including the Centuries, Bernadette Carroll, and Johnny Silvio.
When and why the Centuries ended is unknown; the fate of Salvatore Girgenti and the D’Amato brothers is a mystery. “I don’t know that we actually broke up,” Carragio said, “I may have just left the group because I was getting drafted.” He entered the Navy in 1964, joining the service band on tuba and upright and electric bass. While in the military, Carragio studied early computers, room-sized behemoths programmed not with code but with wires, and later went to work on Wall Street developing software for NASDAQ. Much like Swangin, he never stopped playing music, performing with the George Lang Orchestra for eighteen years and, after a move to Florida, the Jacksonville Symphony, the St. Augustine Orchestra, and the Fascinating Rhythm Orchestra.
The story of the Centuries gets murky from here. Much of the Cleopatra story does at times. The act of documenting Tommy Falcone’s work is complicated by the fact that nothing was ever singular in his world—the same band used different names, different bands used the same name, variations of the same songs were done by multiple singers, the same backing tracks were used in different songs years apart, and some groups appear not to have existed at all outside a recording studio. For instance, the Centuries themselves were credited under no fewer than three pseudonyms and their “4th Dimension” was the exact same track as “The Outer Limits,” but with different effects; “Jack 23” was later recycled as the Shoestring’s “Shoop-de-Hoop Twine” and overdubbed with vocals as both the Killer Joe Piros’ “Let’s Kangaroo!” and the Shandillons’ “Shoop De Hoop Twine.” Some of the master tapes have no credits at all, leaving the musicians and groups completely unidentified. Others who did have releases, like Russ Raymond and Jimmie Davis, have left behind little besides names so generic as to be unfindable and a few songs sliced into vinyl.
The fate of Joe Null, however, is known: He continued to appear uncredited as a session vocalist on Falcone productions for years before ditching his dreams of fame. Unlike Swangin, who found a different route to the stars, Null entered a more earthbound profession, serving for decades with the Newark Police Department before retiring and passing away in 2015 at the age of 85. Swangin, whose father was a policemen, had a final encounter with him on the department’s annual fishing trip. He attempted to reminisce but Null, surrounded by his colleagues, felt a surge of embarrassment over his old life, his old dreams. “Whatever you do,” he told Swangin, “don’t ever tell anybody that I recorded that song called ‘Miss Mousey.’”
More from the Centuries
In The Garage
Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights
The Cleopatra Label