Kevin Riordan: For nonagenarian, music's still the thing

Dave Appell, who wrote hits for Chubby Checker, Tony Orlando, and others, in his home studio in Cherry Hill. Approaching age 90, he's still writing music and going into the recording studio.
Dave Appell, who wrote hits for Chubby Checker, Tony Orlando, and others, in his home studio in Cherry Hill. Approaching age 90, he's still writing music and going into the recording studio. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: January 24, 2012

Dave Appell's greatest hits topped the pop charts in the '60s and '70s.

But as his 90th birthday approaches, he's still making music.

"I'm going into the studio in Philadelphia this afternoon," says the man who produced "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" and cowrote "The Bristol Stomp," "Don't Hang Up," and countless other catchy confections.

"I hear music in my head 24 hours a day," says Appell, who performed as Dave Appell and the Apple Jacks in the '50s and worked at Philly's hit-making Cameo-Parkway record label for a decade.

He now writes mostly what he calls "a jazz thing." The late Grover Washington Jr. is among the artists who have recorded his songs, and two Appell tunes can be heard on the soundtrack for the movie The Help.

I'm at Appell's home in Cherry Hill, where the atmosphere is anything but sleepy. Gold records and framed copies of Cashbox Top-40 charts hang on the walls, and everywhere are mementos of a career that began with 78 r.p.m. discs and continues in the digital-download era.

"Want to hear something new?" Appell asks, cuing up a CD in his basement studio. A beat or two into a breezy tune called "Jazzioso" and he's got his groove on, bopping his head, tapping his feet.

"My first instrument was my brother's ukulele," says the songwriter, arranger, and performer, who grew up in Philadelphia's Fishtown section. There was music in the family (his father played violin), and Appell taught himself notation by "reading a lot of books."

He played trombone in bands while serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. While home on leave he'd try to freelance his arrangements to musicians at the Earle Theater in Center City.

After the war, Appell worked in the house bands at Ciro's and other Philly nightclubs. He did live TV with Ernie Kovacs and got on the charts with his Apple Jacks band, performing novelty numbers such as "Mexican Hat Rock."

Cameo-Parkway, then on South Broad Street, was akin to New York's famous Brill Building. Except that Philly had a finger-poppin', street-corner sound all its own.

"He was like the unsung hero at Cameo-Parkway," recalls Joe Tarsia, who would later gain fame as the founder of Sigma Sound Studios in Center City.

"I was fixing TVs at night, and he introduced me into the business," says Tarsia, 77, of Haddonfield. "I have the greatest admiration for him."

Appell knew everybody: Dick Clark, the Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp. He wrote "South Street" for the Orlons, and a little ditty for Chubby Checker called "Let's Twist Again" that kept an international dance craze gyrating.

The 70-year-old Checker lives in Paoli and keeps in touch with the man he says gave him "the music behind my big mouth."

Checker, no stranger to hyperbole, credits Appell with giving him "the number-one song" on Earth.

"You want me to give you a quote?" Checker says. "One quote is not enough."

Appell, for his part, is remarkably self-effacing. Music is simply what he does.

"It's quite a thrill when you hear one of your songs on the radio," he says. "You know everybody's listening."

Veteran songwriter and music producer Billy Terrell, who lives in Delran, is working on the digital distribution of Appell's catalog, and other efforts to widen the audience for his music.

What really resonates with Dave, across the board, is melody. "Melodies that stay in your head," says Terrell, 67, who grew up listening to Cameo-Parkway hits. "You can sing along to every Dave Appell song."

"Even the instrumentals!" Appell says.

Indeed, what he calls "dance music for the kids" is the a huge part of Appell's legacy.

"Dad's writing partner, [lyricist] Kal Mann, would go to the teen [clubs] around Philadelphia, and watch the kids, and my dad would set those dances to music," says Roz Appell, 63. "The Twist, the Watusi, the Bristol Stomp. . . . "

There are so many, "I can't choose a favorite," Dave Appell says.

But if he had to?

"Let's Twist Again."


Kevin Riordan:

Meet Dave Appell in his home studio in Cherry Hill.

www.philly.com/appell


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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