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The Rokes

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The Rokes were one of the more unusual British Invasion-era groups to come out of England, if only for the pattern and locale of their success. They never sold many records in England, or any in America, but they were a major act in Italy and also managed to make an extraordinary, albeit indirect, impact on the 1960s with a song that they originally premiered in Italian. London-born Shel Shapiro (b. 1943) had broken into music as a guitarist and singer with Rob Storm & the Whispers (later the Rob Storme Group) and subsequently backed Gene Vincent during a tour of England. He played in Hamburg as a member of the Shel Carson Combo and then became a member of the band backing Colin Hicks, the brother of Tommy Steele, on an extended tour of Italy in 1963. This group, who later recorded with Hicks, took the name of the Cabin Boys -- their lineup consisted of Shel Shapiro on guitar and vocals, Johnny Charlton on guitar and vocals, Bobby Posner on bass and vocals, and Roger Shepstone on drums and vocals. The Cabin Boys came to the attention of a manager in Italy who got them to sever their ties to Hicks and rename themselves the Rokes. They started out playing on stage behind a female singer named Rita Pavone but were signed to Italian RCA on their own. Their debut release under their new name was a single of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" that failed to sell. Another recording effort, this time in Italian, failed, but their future releases would all be in Italian, with English-language versions issued overseas. The group cut a version of Clint Ballard's "I'm Alive" under the title "Grazie a Te" and Jackie DeShannon's "When You Walk in the Room" as "C'e Una Strana Espressione Nei Tuoi Occhi" in 1965 that reached numbers 12 and 11 in Italy, respectively. These two hits were followed by their debut album and they had further Top 20 successes in 1966 with "Che Colp Abbiamo Noi" and "E La Pioggia Che Va." That same year, the Rokes also won second place in a poll of the most popular beat groups in Italy. Their big success and their major impact on the world of rock & roll beyond Italy, however, came when Shapiro co-authored a song called "Piangi Con Me," a hit for the group in Italy and later released in England by the group as "Let's Live for Today." The Rokes' version was relatively subdued and reflective. It was first covered by a band called the Living Daylights, but it was when the song was picked up by the Grassroots in America and recorded in a more defiant and dramatic fashion than the Rokes' original, with P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri producing, that it made a permanent impact on music and American popular culture. That record not only sold more than two million copies, but became one of the most enduring hit singles of its period -- with a special meaning to Vietnam veterans -- and, stylistically, was a forerunner of a sound that Bruce Springsteen would become a star with nine years later. The Rokes never benefited from the song's success in America. Despite releasing several singles in English in England and evolving new sounds with the times, including moving into psychedelia with "When the Wind Arises," they never charted there. They remained an Italian phenomenon, scoring a number two hit in 1967. They remained in vogue in Italy, even crossing paths with the Cowsills at the San Remo Festival in 1968, and continued to chart records there into 1969. By then, the public taste for pop/rock in Italy was changing and the group broke up during the summer of 1970. In 1972, Italian RCA issued a retrospective album on the group. Shapiro continued to write songs and produce records, forming his own label in Milan in 1977, while the other members of the group eventually left the music business. ~ Bruce Eder

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