At 73, Lou Christie's voice still hits the mark
Before he became one of the standout vocalists of the 1960s, Lou Christie had a typical Western Pennsylvania childhood. His Italian father worked in a steel mill and his Polish mother, formerly a vocalist with big bands, stayed home with Lou and his five siblings. The family had a farm with chickens, goats, pigs and a cow, and “everything we grew, we ate,” he says.
With so many people in the Glen Willard, Crescent Township, home, quiet times were rare. But most of the noise was joyous and musical.
“My mother had a great voice; my dad did, too,” says Christie, who performs March 12 at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg. “Everyone could sing in the family, and I really thought anyone could sing. I didn't think it was anything that unique.”
Others disagree. The All Music Guide calls Christie's falsetto “among the most distinctive voices in all of pop music. He was also one of the first solo performers of the rock era to compose his own material, generating some of the biggest and most memorable hits of the mid-'60s.”
Those hits — “The Gypsy Cried,” “Two Faces Have I,” “Rhapsody in the Rain,” and especially “Lightnin' Strikes” — and that piercing falsetto made a star of Lugee Alfredo Giovanni Sacco, born Feb. 19, 1943. If those songs sounded different from most of the pop hits of the day, that was by design.
“I didn't try to make a record like anyone else,” says Christie, a graduate of Moon High School. “I take pride in the originality that I somehow stumbled into or created myself.”
But Christie needed a partner to help him realize his musical vision. He was 15 when he met the woman with whom he would write his biggest hits.
Christie met Twyla Herbert at an audition in a church in Glen Willard. Born in 1921 in Riverside, Calif., Herbert was described in Dave Marsh's “The Heart of Rock and Roll: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made,” as a “bohemian gypsy, psychic and former concert pianist.”
But the age difference didn't matter.
“It's like you meet one person, and, for the rest of your life, you'll never come up with that same combination,” Christie says of Herbert. “It was just so unique. It was a snowflake that sparkled with angel hair. There was something about it, the communication we had between us.”
The first song they wrote together was “The Gypsy Cried” — Christie says they finished it in 15 minutes — which rose to No. 24 on the Billboard singles charts in 1963. “Two Faces Have I” would hit No. 6 later that year, and after Christie served a couple of years in the Army, “Lightnin' Strikes” reached No. 1 in 1966.
The duo's songwriting process was instinctive and unusual. Instead of one person concentrating on lyrics and the other on melody, Christie and Herbert didn't have assigned roles. Their influences — Christie was a fan of opera, jazz, Peggy Lee and Perry Como, and Herbert (who died in 2009) a classical pianist — gave them a broad canvas from which to draw.
“We could write anything you could think of,” Christie says. “We would just keep talking, and the ideas and words would come. We would create this scenario of what we were going to write about. And we would always start with the title. If you think about our titles, they were always different: ‘Rhapsody in the Rain,' ‘Lightnin' Strikes,' ‘Jungle,' ‘Trapeze,' ‘Two Faces Have I.' Who says ‘two faces have I'? But the way we said it — two faces have I/one to laugh, one to cry — was uniquely put together.”
With the hits came recognition that gave Christie a national, and international, following. He was 20 when “The Gypsy Cried” was released in 1963 and was immediately lumped in with the other teen idols of the era.
Christie admits he wasn't fully prepared for the frenzied atmosphere and the screaming teenage girls who greeted him and other similar artists on tour.
“I didn't get into it to be a teen idol or anything like that,” he says. “I never really took it that seriously because I always wanted to write songs that were different and have my own records. The music was the most important thing, but the popularity came right along with it. I never realized it would be like that.”
Christie became a regular on the musical caravans that would travel across the country. There were long bus rides with kindred hitmakers of the day: Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, the Supremes, the Ronettes, Gene Pitney. They became his closest friends and remain so 50 years later by way of their shared experiences.
“I started recording during high school, and life just made such changes for me,” Christie says. “You have a hit record and life changed so much, sending me around the world many, many times.”
Christie, who now lives in New York City, admits he could have lost his way during those early days. But growing up in a large family helped him stay grounded. Life for the Sacco family was never about material things, but how to live a good life. The Sacco children worked on the family farm. The family attended Mass on Sundays, then hosted or visited relatives for spaghetti dinners.
“It was that wonderful ethnicity that happens, I think, around Pittsburgh,” Christie says. “My mother was Polish, my father Italian, and we had this wonderful thing Pittsburgh was made up of. You had the Ukrainians, the Greeks, the Slovenians, the Polish, the Russians, the Italians. They came from Eastern Europe, they came from Europe, and they worked hard and they really built America.”
That was the world Lou Christie came from, and the one he carries with him today. He is busier than ever, crisscrossing the country for concerts, and still hitting those amazing high notes. It's a wondrous life, but part of Christie still seems to think it's all a dream, that he's still Lugee Alfredo Giovanni Sacco, the kid who loved to sing with his family.
“I guess I don't take myself seriously anymore,” Christie says, “and I guess I never have.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.