Little Star

A great many children around the world have delighted in the song "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" over the past 200 years or so. "Ah! Vous Dirai-je, Maman" ("Oh! Shall I Tell You, Mother") originated in France as a musical piece in 1761; a poem by British writer Jane Taylor titled "The Star" was published in 1806 in a collection called Rhymes For the Nursery and at some point both works were merged into one. Each generation since has heard the song and its distinctive melody, though depending on your age in the late 1950s or later, you may be more familiar with a variation on both melody and lyrics in the form of a number one hit called "Little Star," performed by The Elegants, a vocal group from South Beach in Staten Island, New York.

Vito Picone and Carman Romano were friends by age six, school trombonists at age ten and members of a street corner vocal group before they were 16. Patricia Croccitto adopted a stage name as the lead singer of Pat Cordel and the Crescents, which included Picone and Romano; in 1956 they recorded one single for the small Club label, "Darling, Come Back," an uptempo Frankie Lymon soundalike released late in the year without notable results (Vito penned the B side, "My Tears," revealing a flair for songwriting he would soon have an outlet for). Patricia didn't make any more records but continued to pursue a show business career; a few years later she became one of The June Taylor Dancers, featured regularly on CBS-TV's high-rated Jackie Gleason Show. Vito and Carman, lead and baritone, started their own group with three other Staten Island teenagers: tenors Arthur Venosa and Frank Tardogno and bass singer Jimmy Moscello. The Elegants name was inspired by an advertising slogan Schenley Distilleries used at the time ("Whiskies of Elegance").

Boldly auditioning for several companies, they landed with Bea Kaslin's Hull Records in 1958; Bea's biggest success so far had been with "A Thousand Miles Away" by Queens group The Heartbeats (a Hull release, it took off after she licensed it to the larger Rama label) and she was in the process of securing The Monotones' place in permanent pop culture with "Book of Love" (initially on her Mascot label, it hit big nationally on Argo, a Chess Records label). Picone and Venosa had come up with the idea for "Little Star," lifted from the well-worn nursery rhyme but using only two lines from it ('Twinkle, twinkle, little I wonder where you are...'), adding a catchy, nonsensical hook ('Wo-o-o-ooo-o-rat-a-tata-tata-to-ooo...' or something thereabouts), adjusting the lyrics to convey romance. The a cappella opening line 'Where are you, little star?' was Bea's idea, intended as a wrap-around for the final declaration, 'There you are, little star!' The parts together added up to an appealing sum. Kaslin skipped releasing the song on her own this time, instead licensing the master to ABC-Paramount, where it was released on a new subsidiary, Apt Records. The song was number one in NYC in July 1958 at about the time it debuted nationally, after which it took just six weeks to reach number one. Bonus: It unexpectedly topped the rhythm and blues charts for four weeks in September.

The Elegants

Following a smash hit record has seldom been more difficult than it was for the Elegants. Late '58 single "Please Believe Me" failed to hit anywhere, not even in New York (several months later, former ABC-Paramount group Royal Teens had a hit with the suspiciously similar "Believe Me" on Capitol). The third Apt disc, "True Love Affair," stalled in early '59 and ABC dropped them, less than half a year after their million selling hit. Bea put out a single by the group on Hull, "Little Boy Blue," but it sounded a bit too much like current hot properties Dion and the Belmonts. Despite the struggles, there were more records to come, many of them written by Picone and/or Venosa.

United Artists signed the group, handing Don Costa the task of upping their game; he produced two singles ("Speak Low" and "Happiness") using a slick teen pop approach. Two earlier Apt tracks popped up on parent label ABC-Paramount ("Tiny Cloud" was the A side). In 1961, Vito Picone was injured in an auto accident; while he recovered, the other four continued without him. "Dressin' Up" appeared on the Photo label, which lived up to its name by plastering an image of the group on the top half of the record's label...the quartet, that is, without Vito! By 1963 Picone was back in action, taking a separate career path from the other four; he had two singles on Admiral (distributed by Laurie Records, former home to the coincidentally separated Dion and the Belmonts): "Song From Moulin Rouge" (a teen-style remake of Percy Faith and Felicia Sanders' chart-topping ten-year-old theme from the film Moulin Rouge) was a fine effort, but it failed, the same as every other post-"Little Star" record.

Picone formed a new backing group, credited as The Elegants and Vito Picone on Laurie, with the mostly-spoken "Letter From Viet Nam (Dear Donna)," then two more 1965 Laurie singles tagged them as The Elegantes ("Wake Up") and Vito and the Elegants ("Belinda"). An opportunity arose for them to sing background on The Barbarians' garage-rock single "Moulty," an oddball autobiographical song with a spoken lead vocal by the band's one-handed amputee drummer Victor Moulton. Though the Elegants weren't credited on the Laurie Records 45, I suppose Vito, at least, could have considered it his second hit when it landed in the lower regions of the Billboard and Cash Box charts in early 1966. The other original group members left show business but Vito Picone hung in, sometimes with latter-day Elegants, sometimes solo or with other groups, eventually forming his own successful booking agency. In the '80s he managed Staten Island-based R&B group Force M.D.'s while extending his singular late '50s moment of glory by touring frequently with whoever constituted the The Elegants at any given time. Original bass Jimmy Moschello rejoined the group in 2006 and they've been going strong ever since.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Little Star