Nearly 60 years ago, the Baltimore area was flush with local rock groups playing sock hops, CYO dances and teen centers in hopes of making a name – and a record – for themselves. There were the Van Dykes, Admirals, and Sentries; also The Royalettes, Tommy Vann and The Echoes and Bob Brady & the Con Chords.
And there were The Lafayettes, a clean-cut band from Towson that made the rounds, won acclaim and, against the odds, waxed a disc for RCA that charted on the Billboard Hot 100. The song, “Life’s Too Short,” sold 150,000 records in its first week and hit No. 87 on July 21, 1962. A week later, it shot to No. 4 on the Top 40 at WCAO-AM, then Baltimore’s top rock station.
In the months to come, The Lafayettes would perform at places like the Alcazar Ballroom, on Cathedral Street, and the Dixie Ballroom, in Gwynn Oak Park, alongside big-name artists like The Drifters and The Marvelettes. Once, they played Mondawin Mall on the same card with Brenda Lee.
“It was a pretty wild time,” said Lee Bonner, 76, leader of The Lafayettes and co-writer of their hit. “To do that, as a teenager, was amazing, a fabulous experience. It’s like we were stars, with people dancing to our music and applauding.”
The group, mostly teenagers who’d attended Towson High, had played some original rockers during a “Battle of the Bands” competition on television’s Buddy Deane Show, Baltimore’s answer to American Bandstand. That effort led to a trip to New York in the spring of 1962 where RCA producer Hugo Peretti (who wrote songs for Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers and The Stylistics) heard the group, liked a raspy up-tempo number called “Nobody But You” and asked them to write a flip side for the 45 rpm record.
Bonner came home and, with a friend, Phil Huth, penned “Life’s Too Short” in one hour in his basement.
“I played the guitar and Phil wrote the lyrics as we went along,” Bonner said. “Where did the idea come from? Who knows?"
The tune featured a frenzied chopsticks-like drum beat and seize-the-moment lyrics:
Well life’s too short
And you’re too sweet.
Every day of your life, child,
You’ve got to spend with me ...
When the group played it for RCA, producers asked drummer Ben Proctor to turn his timpani upside down and tap those sticks on its metal base.
“We all thought it was a fun idea,” Bonner said. Peretti concurred.
“I like that,” Peretti said. “It’s got that dumb sound to it.”
In hindsight, life wasn’t too short for most of The Lafayettes. Five of the seven band members have survived into their 70s. Bonner, 76, lives in Annapolis and still receives residuals from sales of the record.
“Last year I got $150, so they’re still selling it somewhere," he said.
“Nobody But You,” penned by Bonner and Frank Bonarrigo, The Lafayettes’ lead singer, made history on its own. Early on, before their prime, The Beatles performed the song at concerts, according to the book, “Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years” by historian Mark Lewisohn.
The Lafayettes waxed a catchy follow-up, “Caravan of Lonely Men,” which stiffed. Bonner took the setback in stride.
“I wanted to make records, but I was afraid of being a big hit,” he said. “The people at RCA just ruled us, and it scared me. I didn’t want to be too big or we wouldn’t be in control.”
Eventually the group faded. But in 1988, Bonner got a call from John Waters, writer and director of the movie “Hairspray,” a nod to Baltimore’s teen culture in the early 1960s.
"He (Waters) said, ‘I don’t have any money, but I’d like to use your song in the film,’ " Bonner said. “How hysterical was that?”
Nowadays Bonner, who owns a film company, has but one copy of “Life’s Too Short,” though he can’t play the entire song because “the record has a melted spot near the edge.”
He has five children, six grandchildren and three great-grandkids. Are they proud of his claim to fame?