After a lifetime of harmonizing as a family, the Stateman sisters of Highland Park, New Jersey, decided to make an official run at fame and fortune in 1966. Joyce, Phyllis, and Toni were already well into their late twenties, and though they possessed an uncanny ability to follow each other through various registers, they lacked a natural lead. “A fourth sister,” as Joyce would put it. Enter their friend Mary Perry, a first state tenor from Americus, Georgia, steeped in the gospel tradition of her grandfather’s church and blue ribbon finisher in countless talent shows. “In between classes kids would gather round me in the hallway just to hear me sing,” Perry said. “It was encouraging, but I never thought I’d be in a group someday.” Auditions were held to join the Stateman’s unnamed quartet; a revolving door of fearless, yet hopeless leaders. “I remember after the girl they auditioned left I said, ‘I can sing better than that!’” Perry recalled. “After they heard me sing Phyllis hit me on the back of the head. They had no idea that I could sing like that.”
Inspired by the 1954 Humphrey Bogart classic, Phyllis named them the Barefoot Contessas. Brother Neal Statesman pieced together a backing band, and stockingless and shoeless performances followed at New Brunswick institutions the Sportsman Lounge, Nessie’s, the Elks Lodge, After Five, the Washington Bar, and the Esquire Lounge. Out of town dates were secured, as were babysitters for the quartet’s 13 children, bringing the young women to the Rutgers, Princeton, Rider, and Lehigh campuses. With a bit of experience under their belt, the group decided to put their shoes back on and refine their image, trimming their name back to the Contessas in the process. Cutting a record was the obvious next step.
An enigmatic jack of all trades, by his mid-twenties Eugene Viscione’s resume already included stints as a record producer, songwriter, television and radio personality, barber, inventor, and certified madman. Just a few years removed from his partnership with Tom Falcone and Cleopatra Records, Viscione opened WGW Records and studio out of his Somerville barber shop in a stripmall in nearby Manville. Neal’s friend Ronnie Jay had written a handful of originals for the Contessas and introduced them to Viscione in hopes of getting his arsenal of tunes into the world.
No time was wasted as Viscione ferried them between New Brunswick and Mansfield. “He paid the babysitter sometimes,” recalled Joyce. With Jay’s “Just Love Me” selected for side A and James Petrillo’s “It’s Time For Cry” slated for the flip, Viscione brought his Time Masheen band in to tighten the affair up. And although the April 1968 single flopped, Viscione continued searching for the hit, hoping to redeem the overpressed and undersold first single. Fleshing out tunes when they had a sitter, the group tracked nearly an album’s worth of material. None of it made it out of WGW. With a dozen other bands to record and promote, a patented Karate fighting robot named Mad Charles in development, and an exponentially busier schedule, Viscione became less active as the group’s manager, booking fewer gigs and recording fewer songs. “Geno did the best he could, but he was still young and finding his way, like us,” Perry said.
The Contessas’ quietus came when they arrived late to a concert Viscione had managed to book them for at the Palisades Amusement Park in North Jersey. The group were set to open up the WNJR-sponsored/Hal Jackson promoted show with beehive royalty the toys and the Cookies as co-headliners. “Phyllis was finishing her nails and it was taking a long time,” Joyce said. “We kept trying to rush her but she was acting stubborn, telling us ‘you can’t perform without me’ and by the time we got there it was too late.” “Hal Jackson was really upset,” Perry lamented. “He told us that he would never book us for another show again. That really burst our bubble.” Cushioned back into their family lives in New Brunswick, the regret that followed their missed opportunity meant that the Contessas would never play another show again. “The most important thing was that we had each other, we were a family, that came first,” Joyce said. “Sometimes we would sing together—just like we had our whole lives. But if we weren’t singing it didn’t make us any less family.”
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