Despite their name, the Inmates evinced the wild careless freedom of a breakout—ripping through teen clubs and boardwalks in beach towns up and down the shore, the most raucous live act in the Cleopatra orbit. Ron Flannery trailing red-white-and-blue streamers as he danced, twelve-year-old Al Aschettino playing bass behind his head, Bobby Nolan shredding solos with his back turned to an audience of screaming girls who were out to steal guitar picks and harmonicas. “I would be exhausted when I would go home,” said drummer Sam Falvo.
The Inmates began their spree in 1964 when Flannery bought an $8 pawn shop guitar and replaced the rhythm guitarist in the Renditions. At first called the New Renditions, the mostly Catholic band found inspiration in the dirty looks of a priest who’d overheard them chatting in church. “Somebody leaned over to somebody else and said, ‘We’re all inmates in this institution,’” said Flannery. “That’s how we got our name and that’s how it stuck.”
Producer Tommy Falcone had a different take, telling the Evening News in 1967, “The idea behind the name was that the younger generation today always seems to have a feeling of wanting to ‘bust out,’ and this group hoped to develop a sound that would seem like it wants to ‘bust out,’ so they could be in tune with this deep-seated feeling of the entire young generation.”
Featuring Flannery on harmonica, flute, rhythm guitar, and vocals, Bobby Nolan on lead guitar and vocals, and Falvo on drums, the group was virtuosic compared to their peers, despite their fresh-faced youth. “We all played music before the Beatles even happened,” said Falvo.
A chance encounter brought the prepuberty Aschettino into the fold as a second rhythm guitarist. “I was in a music store looking for the sheet music of ‘As Tears Go By’ when I started talking to Ron,” he said. “I found out we liked the same kind of music. Before I knew it, I was the fourth Inmate.” Despite his fresh-faced youth, Ashcettino become the wildest one in a group already known for hijinks. Gordon Rhodes on bass completed the line up as the fifth Inmate.
A pure product of the Jersey Shore, the band was centered mainly around Falvo’s family candy shop and Long Branch High School, only a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. “One good thing about having parents who owned a candy store and an ice cream parlor, they were out working a lot,” he said, allowing the band to relentlessly practice in their basement multiple nights a week.
Their grinding work ethic turned the Inmates into a local smash with a dedicated following, and found them besting a hundred other groups in the Teenage Band Competition of New Jersey at St. Joseph’s in Keyport. Their Chuck Berry, Barry McGuire, and Solomon Burke covers netted them second place and a cool $50, losing out to the Clique—whose guitar player, Jimmy Scott, had also recorded with Falcone—but, according to legend, beating out the Castiles, featuring a young Springsteen.
With the British Invasion landing in full force, the sound of American rock ‘n’ roll grew rowdier, rawer, louder, and the Inmates were just the kind of group Tommy Falcone needed to capture the revolutionary mood. He held open auditions, placing ads in newspapers seeking bands that could write their own songs. Though they’d only been together a year, the Inmates showed up to a warehouse with dozens of other groups coming in and out, setting up and breaking down, one after the other, all trying to impress the Hazlet impresario.
“Tommy was listening very carefully to what was going on and his comment was that we were really tight. We were the tightest band he heard,” said Flannery. “We were really impressed with him as a musician too because he could sit there and write out sheet music without an instrument…. He had a crew cut, but other than that we thought he was really cool.”
The kids weren’t the only ones that Falcone impressed. “I come from Italian descent, with parents that came over on the boat,” said Falvo. “The fact that they let him take me to New York at night time… they had to really like him.” The feeling was mutual, and Falcone soon installed a record rack in the Falvo family candy shop.
Falcone started working with the band on their original material, helping them with arrangements and technique. Though he never dictated the direction of their songs, his studio experimentation found a ripe home in the rowdy teens: he brought in a celeste, an instrument they’d never heard of, for use on “Perfect Prayer”; he had Falvo rattle a chain on a stick to the beat of another project; and he played with then state-of-the-art phasing sounds that swooped through “Crystal Ball.” “One of his favorite questions was: ‘Can you reproduce that in the studio?’” said Flannery. “If anybody made a noise of any kind, he always said, ‘Can you reproduce that in the studio?’”
Falcone’s penchant for renaming and reusing also came through, as an acetate of the sinister and psychedelic “More Than I Have” b/w “Fakirs and Thieves” was cut under the name the Electric Carnival. And “I’m Watching You” later became the basis for Eugene Viscione’s demented “Mad Charles” single in 1975, long after the group had broken up.
Even with racks all over New Jersey, money was increasingly tight for Falcone, sending him to new studios in makeshift locations at graveyard hours, trying to save a buck. “We went into studios that were in people’s basement, we went in studios in New York City, we went in studios that were in Newark,” said Flannery. “To make a record, you might spend 3,000 dollars, which back then you could buy a car.”
Columbia Records saw potential in the recordings, leasing the Kinks-loving “Local Town Drunk” b/w the country-tinged garage rocker “You Tell Lies” in April 1967. “We were trying to sound like we were English,” said Flannery, laughing. “If you listen to Bobby, he was even trying to fake an English accent.”
Billboard predicted the single would reach the Hot 100, and Cash Box proclaimed, “The Inmates should get loads of attention with this funky, pounding knee-slapper. Watch it move.” They were soon back at St. Joseph’s opening for another gang of Jersey boys, the Four Seasons, then nearing the end of their remarkable first run of Top 10 hits. Tickets were $2.50. “It was a quick bunch of years that was a whirlwind because on top of doing the stuff with Tommy and running back and forth to New York and practicing our stuff we were playing almost every weekend,” said Falvo.
The song charted way out in California and earned the Inmates a spot performing it in a television commercial for John F. Kennedy’s VISTA service program, a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps. After that, the single stalled out. “We didn’t get much promotion,” said Flannery. “I never made any money on it. I might have made 40 bucks or something like that on the whole thing.”
Falcone began acting as the Inmates’ personal manager, printing business cards with the logos of both Cleopatra and the band. But in studio photos from this time, he looks increasingly weary, with visible bags under his eyes—the years of late nights, the endless cups of coffee, and packs of cigarettes catching up with him. They ultimately recorded twelve songs, an entire album worth of material, though Rhodes was out after the Columbia single, and Aschettino moved over to bass.
Despite the wealth of material and Falcone’s best efforts, he never managed to sell another Inmates single, and money troubles nixed any further releases on Cleopatra proper. “He wanted to make it big. He knew the time was right to do it,” said Flannery. “I remember one time we went up to see a record company and Tommy had one of our records. I don’t remember what the conversation was but Tommy was really excited but the guy was pushing back on him. And Tommy took one of the records that he had with him and he broke it over his knee.”
The remainder of the band’s recordings remained unreleased. The Inmates later self-produced demos and made studio recordings with Angela Valentino and Arnie Capitanelli, though this material is believed to be mostly lost. Without Falcone to serve as their engine, the Inmates quickly lost direction, energy, and ambition, felled by a creeping disillusionment. “I was afraid it was just going to be a bar band and I didn’t want to be a bar guy the rest of my life,” Falvo said.
By 1971, with Falvo graduating college and Flannery drafted, their teen dreams gave way to adult realities. Though he never left New Jersey, Flannery said, “It’s hard to be in the army and the rock ‘n’ roll band at the same time.”
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