RIP Tom Luciani, a Patron Saint of R&B Vocal Group Harmony Music

Tom Luciani was born with a great radio voice. He developed great musical taste on his own. By combining the two, he brought enjoyment to thousands of radio listeners.

Tom Luciani, who passed away on Jan. 2 after a long struggle with a heart condition, was on the radio around New York City for decades. He played splendid music that most of radio had stopped playing, which isn’t a ticket to fame or fortune, but provided a cherished oasis for those who remembered or appreciated it.

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Tom Luciani, 1968. Photo from harmonytrain.com.

He was heard for many years on Long Island stations playing Sinatra, Ella, Count Basie, jazz, big bands and popular standards.

But he may have been most beloved by fans of rhythm and blues vocal group harmony music from the 1950s.

In March of 1963, when Luciani and his lifelong friend Joe Marchesani were students at Fordham University, they started The Time Capsule Show on WFUV, Fordham’s radio station, playing vocal group harmony music for an hour a week.

College radio programs come and go. The Time Capsule Show ran almost 15 years, after which several fans revived it and kept it going until 2017 with hosts who included George Tompkins, Bill Shibilski, Dan Romanello, Sal Mondrone, Neil Hirsch, Bobby Leszczak and Rich Adcock. That’s remarkable. Outside of Geico ads and 1–877-Kars-for-Kids spots, nothing lasts 54 years on radio.

Vocal group collecting was already a thing by 1963. Fans gathered at record stores like Times Square Records in New York, the Record Museum in Philadelphia or Skippy White’s in Boston. They played records for each other. Their Internet was word of mouth.

There were a few radio shows, of varying quality but sometimes hosted by professionals like Jocko Henderson and Alan Fredericks. The TCS, as it quickly became known, built off those earlier shows and took them to another level.

It wasn’t long before the TCS became the R&B vocal group harmony coffeehouse. WFUV had a 50,000-watt signal, so it reached much of the New York area, while out-of-town collectors had friends capture the show for them on reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorders.

Long before streaming and the reissue boom of the 1980s, the TCS became the place to hear the exotic records that expanded the vocal group universe. Listeners who loved the Platters and the Teenagers and the Five Satins — the groups who were familiar from mainstream rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s — now were hearing the Five Crowns, the Musketeers and the Ambassadors. Listeners who knew the Canadian vocal group the Diamonds for the hit “Little Darling” could now hear an earlier black New York Diamonds group singing songs like “A Beggar For Your Kisses.”

“From my perspective,” says Tompkins, “there is no doubt that the entire vocal group harmony scene, at least here on the East Coast, can be directly attributed to Times Square Records and The Time Capsule Show.”

Nor did the TCS just play weirdly wonderful records. Marchesani and Luciani also provided information about them, like group members and recording dates and fun facts.

“They set a unique standard for the music’s presentation,” says Dan Romanello, who hosted the Group Harmony Review, the TCS successor show, for its last two decades. “They would feature the music from an educational point of view.”

That may sound dry, and it would certainly never get past commercial radio programmers, who distrust any talk that lasts longer than a sentence. But Luciani and Marchesani never sounded pedantic. Nor did they ever sound like they wanted to hear their own voices. They sounded like two guys who loved the music talking about the music, and they did it without ever sounding like a couple of kids just playing their records.

They sounded professional. Marchesani was fine, and Luciani was the ace.

“Tom was terrific from the first time he stepped in front of a mic,” says Marchesani. “He sounded like someone from network radio.”

That’s the great radio voice thing, polished through practice and hard work, and it reinforced the unspoken message of The Time Capsule Show: that this music, long ignored or dismissed as a passing novelty, was a legitimate American art form, full of lovely songs and melodies with solid musical accompaniment by first-rate musicians and intricate vocal harmonies.

Sure, some of the music was just for fun, or just for dancing. The same could be said of Mozart, which is not to equate Mozart with “Rama Lama Ding Dong.”

Luciani and Marchesani respected the music they played. They spent many days combing through microfilm of 1950s music trade publications to provide TCS listeners with context and details about it. They spent part of their summers on record-hunting trips around the country, seeking out record stores, jukebox distributors and junk shops that might have a dusty stack of rare discs they could take back to WFUV.

Tom Luciani grew up in the 1950s, in the Bronx. Radio was the musical vehicle of the time, so he was hearing R&B personalities like Dr. Jive and Jocko. By the early 1960s, prodded by his friend Joe, he was listening to DJs like Fredericks to hear vintage vocal groups.

In the summer of 1962 Tom and Joe decided they wanted to do what Alan did, so with the help of an electronics geek friend, they built their own radio transmitter in a closet at Marchesani’s apartment on Lurting Avenue in the Bronx. WCBR, they called it, and it played vocal group oldies on Sunday nights on 1620 AM.

Pirate radio stations are surprisingly easy to build. They are also illegal, and after a few weeks, the FCC shut WCBR down.

Back at Fordham, where Luciani was a junior in the business school and Marchesani was a sophomore in the college, they got WFUV to let them do a legal show.

WFUV liked it enough to let it continue after they graduated, and again after Marchesani moved out of town, first to Philadelphia to work at Temple and then in 1972 to Iowa. He would tape segments and send them to Luciani, who stayed around New York and would do his own part of the show live.

They signed off in December 1977, by which time their lives included other responsibilities like marriage.

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Tom Luciani 1981. From harmonytrain.com.

Luciani by that point was also a banker. Still, he did not let the radio voice go silent.

”I would frequently visit Tom at WVOX in New Rochelle on Sunday mornings,” recalls Tompkins. “Tom was the Sunday morning voice of WVOX and ran their automated FM station WRTN at the same time. He would run back and forth between studios keeping everything in working order while delivering the news and weather.”

Luciani also periodically contributed to the TCS’s successor show at WFUV.

“I learned a ton about radio from Tom,” says Tompkins. “I only wish I could have developed a voice like his. He was the quintessential radio voice and the master of enunciation.”

After Luciani moved to Long Island, he hosted jazz and standards shows on small stations. He never got rich from radio. He was doing something he liked and he was good at.

It worked out nicely for everyone.

“You’ll never meet finer gentlemen than Tom and Joe,” says Tompkins. “They deserve a place in history for their love of the music.”

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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