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Jeff Wallack: A Personal Reflection
April 1, 2010 - Jim Price
Jim Mincin wrote a feature story in the Altoona Mirror’s Thursday Life section about the upcoming 6th annual Jeff Wallack Memorial Jam, which takes place this Saturday night, April 3, at Aldo’s in Juniata. Proceeds from that evening will benefit a music education fund established in the name of Wallack, a popular Altoona area guitar player who passed away unexpectedly on April 2, 2005 at age 40.
In the article, Mincin explores the life and times of Wallack, his popularity and impact on the area music scene.
As this benefit jam approaches every year, I find myself reflecting on Jeff Wallack. I remember him as a friend and musician, of course; and I can honestly say that it’s likely I wouldn’t have started writing about the area music scene – and probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now – had it not been at least partly for Wallack’s impact on me some 25 years ago.
Jeff Wallack was part of a unique dynamic that came together for me in the mid-‘80s. To explain: In early 1984, I landed my first professional radio job, playing easy-listening elevator-style “muzak” on (pre-Froggy 98) WFBG-FM. My first regular part-time gig was overnight Saturday into Sunday, from midnight to 6 a.m. In the former old red WFBG facility, the FM studio was just a few feet down the hall from WFBG-AM, then a popular hit music station. I was just a few feet away from WFBG-AM evening jock Jay Randyll, who hosted the popular “All Night Album Rock” program during that same Saturday-into-Sunday overnight time slot. As a devout fan of “All Night Album Rock” stemming back to when Steve Kelsey first launched the program in 1975; it didn’t take long for me to venture down the hall and hit it off with Randyll, and I soon become a contributor and eventual co-host of the program.
My contributions to “All Night Album Rock” included a weekly CD review feature called “The Final Cut,” and a local show/concert review feature called “From Beneath The Bar” (named in deference to “View From The Bar,” a column written by one of my early writing influences, Xavier Russell, in the British heavy-metal music magazine Kerrang!). For the latter feature, I started heading out to local nightspots to see area bands perform. It was then that I first encountered Jeff Wallack.
I was still a relative “newbie” on the area music scene at this point; familiar with the best-known local bands at the time, The Front and Sidewalk Romeo. This was also the ‘80s “hair-band” era, so I quickly became a fan of local hair-metal acts like Altoona’s Slammer and Mount Union’s Bashful. By late 1985, Jay Randyll even started his own hair-metal band, Tommi-Gunn; and his co-worker who happened to be a writer, Jay recruited me to become Tommi-Gunn’s manager and publicist. In that manager capacity, it was part of my job to begin lining up shows for Tommi-Gunn; which sent me into venues such as the Sebastiano’s Hotel (now the Monkey Wharf), Aldo’s (which at that time was just a one-room venue, the current-day restaurant; bands played in the corner by the door), The Tavern (now a medical center parking lot), Engine Room, 4D’s Lounge, Pellegrine’s, Rodeo Lounge in Duncansville and other locations to try to land shows. As I would arrive to book shows, I would observe the talent onstage in these venues. There was a lot of it…Bands such as Xeno, Audio, The Rolling Rockers, The Edge, Psycho, Anaconda, Thin Ice, Saber Tooth, XL, Back Street Boyz, Guardian, Teazer (featuring future local country sensation Ricky Lee), Paragon (featuring both members of the future Michael O’Brian Band, Brian Anderson and Mike Zerbee), The Catch from Bedford (featuring future Hurricanes bassist Jeff Clapper) were some of the acts populating Altoona area stages at this point in time.
And Rapid Fire…After hearing some impressive eyewitness accounts about how good Rapid Fire was, I decided to investigate for myself. I soon tracked them down one Friday night at the old Sebastiano’s Hotel, and experienced the bottom falling out of my jaw for the first time as I witnessed Jeff Wallack in action. Here was a shredder who could nail everything from Yngwie Malmsteen to Michael Schenker to Van Halen, to the guitar heroics of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Riot, Ozzy and Black Sabbath, Queensryche and more. And his talented bandmates impressed me as well; the powerhouse, high-ranging vocals of lead singer Steve Oswalt, and two interchanging rhythm sections (bass players John Scarfone and Joe George, and drummers Bob Watters and Bob Weidmann) that operated like clockwork and brought the fury.
Rapid Fire’s musical talent was sharp, I enjoyed their setlist of ‘70s and ‘80s era hard rock/metal, and this group was down to earth and never took themselves too seriously. One night at Sebastiano’s, the band members performed Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” while seated in outdoor lawn chairs. There was always a bit of clowning around during and after shows, and these musicians were audience friendly and didn’t act like rock stars. Rapid Fire were powerful rockers onstage, and down to earth guys off stage.
I quickly became a Rapid Fire fan, and frequently checked out their regular shows at old Sebastiano’s, Aldo’s and elsewhere. I remember the group’s performance at the 1987 “Macadam Beach” Easter Seals benefit concert outside the Logan Valley Mall. And I was in the audience when Rapid Fire competed in the 1986 edition of the “Seven Sundays of Rock” battle of the bands competition at Cisco’s in Altoona. (I have a sound board recording of Rapid Fire’s set that night, and play songs from that set on my “Homegrown Rocker” radio program from time to time to enlighten listeners about Jeff Wallack’s guitar talents.)
Although they amassed a good following along the way, Rapid Fire was never in the top echelon of area bands in terms of show attendance. A lot of times, the group played to smaller and mid-sized audiences in the smaller rooms they frequented, but didn’t often get to perform on the bigger stages of rooms like Cisco’s, the 4D’s or the Engine Room. If only there was a way to let people know that the Altoona music scene had this type of talent, so new fans could come discover these guys!
That mechanism appeared…It was at around this general time frame that Pennsylvania Musician Magazine started arriving in the Altoona area, and copies would appear at local record stores like The Wall and National Record Mart. I had noticed that there were columns representing music scenes from other parts of the state, such as State College, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Reading, Scranton, York and others; but nothing about Altoona’s music scene. One day, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head; by starting my own column in the magazine, I could write about Jeff Wallack and Rapid Fire, Tommi-Gunn (the band I was managing), and all the other talented musicians who populated this area’s stages. I could let the world know all this talent existed in Altoona!
Pennsylvania Musician editor Robin Noll was lukewarm to my article proposal at the time (she later admitted to me that at that point, she didn’t even know where Altoona was, let alone that it had any kind of music scene). But I submitted an article anyway; and my first column about the Altoona music scene appeared in Pennsylvania Musician in June, 1987. I’ve been in the magazine every month since.
Without the inspiration from Jeff Wallack and his Rapid Fire bandmates, it might have never happened. And I wouldn’t be here spreading the evangel of the local music scene 23 years later.
Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Wallack, performing with Rapid Fire during a show at the Sebastiano's Hotel in Altoona on August 11, 1989.