Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — On the Flip Side with Guitarist Richie Annunizato

by G. Jack Urso 

Richie Annunziato in concert, circa 1980 (photo credit R. Annunziato).

I fumbled around quickly looking for a pen and paper. Richie Annunziato, one of the guitarists for the Hot Hero Band, just called me. I wasn’t new to this. I interviewed actors and musicians and politicians during my radio days, but as it was with other Hot Hero alums like Sherry Coben and Patrick McMahon, Robert Brissette, Mike Ratti, and now Richie Annunziato, I am suddenly reduced from being a 58-year-old man to the 15-year-old kid I was when I first saw the show.

I was in a slight panic, asking him to repeat something he just said so I could get it down right.

Sensing my anxiety, Rich offered, “Hey man, you should record this,” in a calming voice.

I chuckled. Not just because I had the equipment and did not even think of turning it on, but also at the idea of someone who taught me lessons 43 years ago was still doing so today.
Caricature of Annunziato by Hot Hero Sandwich writer Sherry Coben that hung on the halls backstage at Studio 8H along with those of other band members in the Summer of 1979.
Richie Annunziato stands out in the Hot Hero Band with his lighter hair compared to his Raven-maned band brothers. In addition to crunching out sweet lead work on the guitar with Mark Cunningham, Richie made his mark with fans on the double-arm ax and lead vocals on “Promises.”  

The Hot Hero Band is a Classic Rock quad squad: Two guitarists, bass, and drums. It’s the same set-up like many rock bands, but this time the kids were not only the audience, but also the muse. The band sang on topics that reflected the episodes’ themes. We didn’t have to figure out what the lyrics to a Beatles song meant, what the Who’s Quadophenia was about, or if Jethro Tull was a band or a man. This was not a Disney approach to rock. The band wasn’t condescending to us kids by playing generic rock with generic lyrics. They came to rock!

Despite no recordings of the band or the show before the Internet came along, and then only a few precious clips (more has been posted since the creation of the Hot Hero Sandwich Central YouTube channel), we kids are still fans four decades later. That’s a pretty good legacy for any band, and even more so for one without any label releases.

What’s in a Name?

Hot Hero fans know that Annunziato is also known professionally as Rich Steele (go to RichSteele.com for music downloads and more!). The switch came after his Hot Hero days on the advice of a friend who suggested a shorter name might lead to more music publishing opportunities. Rich’s sister noted that since he played with steel strings, “Rich Steele” might be a little easier to remember and apparently it was since business picked up after that. Much of his professional work since has been under than name.

As a fellow Italian whose first name is “Giocchino,” and who goes by “Jack” instead, I fully sympathize.

Rich’s journey before and after Hot Hero Sandwich is one long rock and roll road — writing, producing, playing, recording, gigging — if a rolling stone gathers no moss, then Richie Annunizato is definitely a rock and roll rolling stone.

The Road to Hot Hero

Annunizato cut his teeth playing dances and in clubs in a trio of bands around the New York City area with some classic 70s band names like Odyssey, Slaughterhouse, and Lance Romance.
Photo credit, Rich Annunziato.
In the early 1970s, Annunizato played with Odyssey, a three-piece band consisting of guitar, bass, and drums, a power trio format.

“We loved Mountain, so all we played was Mountain songs . . . all night long.” Rich said with a chuckle, thinking of his later association with Mountain’s Felix Pappalardi, who produced the Hot Hero Band.
Photo credit, Rich Annunziato.
A little after Odyssey, came Slaughterhouse. “A little bigger band, we had keyboards, we had two guitars . . . bass, drums, two singers . . . you know, The Band kind.”

By the mid-70s, Rich was playing with Lance Romance. The alliteratively evocative name was inspired by a friend out in California who had a glam band called “Lance Romance and the Pirates, or something like that,” Rich noted. “Back in New York I was working with a band . . . and we were doing Yes and Spooky Tooth . . .  and we needed a name to go along with it and I said “How about Lance Romance?” So that’s were that comes from.”
Photo credit, Rich Annunziato.
Rich explained that each of the band members adopted a pseudonym for performance. Rich was Lance Romance and the others were Dance Romance, Prance Romance, and No Chance Romance — a very 70s hook for band. As an aside, I noted how in Albany, NY, where I live, there was band in the early 80s, Blotto, who did something similar with their name for the band members: Sarge Blotto, Lee Harvey Blotto, Broadway Blotto, etc. They are most known for the video to their single, “I Wanna Be A Lifeguard,” being played on MTV’s first day.

There was no way anyone would know this — a local one-hit wonder band from Albany, NY, of all places — I was embarrassed I even mentioned it, but Rich started to laugh. I was confused.

“I know Blotto! We were on the Uncle Floyd Show with them when we were 212!” [Uncle Floyd is a popular NYC-area radio and TV personality who has hosted some of the music industry’s biggest acts since the 1970s].  Rich noted that they discussed Hot Hero Sandwich on the show as well.

I was a little mind-blown Rich would even know this. It’s the kind of knowledge that only comes from years of being in the scene.

This type of gigging and moving from band to band is fairly typical of young musicians looking to make their mark — and it’s a pretty brutal way to try and make a living. The only ones who survive have to be able to burn through their riffs like a Classical musician and have the same dedication and passion.

And when four of them get together, something special happens.

Hot Hero Band Origins

Ae13U: Did you know Mark Cunningham before Hot Hero Sandwich?

Richie Annunizato: We weren’t in bands together, but I knew Mark. We didn’t play together, but I would go see his band, he would come see my band, and we’d sit in . . . and we were both living in Rockland at the time. We just knew each other . . . we kind of had the same influences, Humble Pie, Savoy Brown. We didn’t play together, but we were jamming together at the time.


Ae13U: How did you get involved with the show?

Richie Annunizato: That’s all Mark. Mark knew the producers. He had done a film [Sooner or Later, produced by Bruce and Carol Hart] with Rex Smith and he was in the band with Rex . . . and I think Rob [Robert Brissette] and Mike [Mike Ratti] were too.

[Editor’s Note: Barbara Feldon, who did the bumper voiceovers for Hot Hero Sandwich, also appears in Sooner or Later. Rex Smith would appear in episode 10 of Hot Hero Sandwich.]

And so Mark calls me up one day and says. “Rich, I want to audition for this kids’ show . . . in New York. Do you want to come down and do it?”

Alright, you know, I ask who's doing it? And he mentioned Mike and Rob, who I didn’t know.

So, we didn’t rehearse! [Anninziato continued with a laugh] “We go down to S.I.R. [Studio Instrument Rentals] and there’s every band within fifty miles!


Ae13U: Really?

Richie Annunizato: Oh yeah, ‘Network . . . looking for a rock band,’ that’s what the ad said.


Ae13U: I didn’t hear this story before.

Richie Annunizato: Bruce and Carol Hart, who are the producers, they know Rob and Mikey, they don't know me, but they like the way the band looks, number one . . . before we played a note! They wanted a little “Poppy” [as in Pop music]. There were bands from all over the place . . . and we got it!


Ae13U: I can't imagine the rush it must have been to beat out all those bands for a network show.

Richie Annunizato: And these were major bands were playing all over New York. I knew a lot of them.
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According to Annunizato, the bands that didn’t get the gig were gracious and wished the guys luck, but as the show was short-lived, perhaps they felt a bit relieved when the series came to an early end after 11 episodes and were glad they and their reputations didn’t get tied down to a quickly-cancelled kids’ TV show — but 43 years later we’re still talking about the Hot Hero Band and not them.

And that’s the name of that tune.

On the Band Stand

One observation in researching the show is the lack of merchandise. No albums, photo books, posters, etc. The short-lived nature of the show is not necessarily the reason. Hanna Barbara’s and Sid and Marty Krofft’s Saturday morning TV series are filled with one season wonders that had merchandising. Even the low-rated 13-episode Sealab 2020 (1972), got a board game, but with Hot Hero Sandwich — nothing.
In this previously unpublished photograph, the Hot Hero Band in rehearsal at RPM Studio
in Greenwich Village (left to right), Annunziato, Robert Brissette, and Mike Ratti
(photo credit, Rich Annunziato).
Ae13U: There was no music released, why was that?

Richie Annunizato: My issue with Hot Hero was you have this band on television every Saturday and they don't have a record. There’s no record there . . . and my friends are saying, “You don't have a record out and you're on TV?”


Ae13U: I always wondered about that. It seems like a lost opportunity.

Richie Annunizato: Because the TV people aren’t record people and they didn’t care about that. It boggles me because they showcased us. They brought every record label in – the guys who did KISS and bands like that – they brought us into S.I.R. [Studio Equipment Rentals] and put us up on a stage and we played Hot Hero songs — everybody passed. The thing was, they said, “They’ll sell singles, but they’re not going to sell albums.” That’s what the beef was. The kid’s market wasn’t there yet. It was the 70s . . . it came in the 80s.


Ae13U: Well, one thing about being ahead of the curve is that it doesn’t always help out in the short-term.

Richie Annunizato: I am so thankful for it. Mark and the guys, we became great friends . . . and Felix [Pappalardi] was dynamite.


Ae13U: Since you mentioned Felix, I have to ask, I understand he had some hearing problems. Was this an issue in his work with Hot Hero and you guys?

Richie Annunizato: It wasn't an issue because we weren't playing like . . . Mountain [Pappalardi’s band] was a loud band . . . and that was long before Hot Hero was around . . . but Felix, he was . . . so musical. Nothing got in his way.


Ae13U: It sounds like Felix knew exactly what he wanted and what the show needed musically.

Richie Annunizato: I mean, you know the story where they brought all the studio musicians in to do this and the underscoring because . . .  we couldn't read music and stuff . . . the guy who was producing it said, Get these kids out of here . . . blah, blah, blah, blah.” And so when Felix showed up, he says No, I want these guys to play — to give the show a sound, to give it its own sound.” Felix was behind all that. We didn’t read music, but Felix would get us to play what he wanted, that’s for sure.
Annunziato discussing an arrangement with Pappalardi in a Hot Hero recording session 
(photo credit, R. Annunziato).
Ae13U: I know you guys used instrument rentals on the show, but sometimes your own equipment. Can you tell us a little bit about the equipment you used?

Richie Annunizato: The guitars weren’t rentals. The amps were, all the amps and the drums . . . because they had this set that was neon and you can't have an amplifier on stage cause it'll hum . . . you can’t have that stuff going on video lines so they couldn’t have amps. All the bands, we either sang live . . . Eddie Money, Joe Jackson . . . he sang live, but they were still singing to the tracks because of that reason.

Left to Right: Robert Brissette, Richie Annunziato, and Mark Cunningham.

Ae13U: So, let’s talk guitars. What did you use?

Richie Annunizato: Well, a good thing about the show was we were getting endorsements from guitar makers like Ibanez, Kramer, Dean were sending me guitars to use on TV. I also used them for gigs, and I had a few guitars myself. The double-neck was a guitar that I purchased, a lot of Gibsons. I still have my Les Paul from when I was a kid. Over fifty years I’ve had the guitar — it’s my baby. So, Fenders, B.C. Rich, we got some endorsements from them as well. So, we had some perks there.

[Editor’s Note: Comments for Hot Hero Band videos on social video invariably always include some praise for the guitar brands by name – proof that product placement works, even four decades later.]
Hot Hero Band and 212 scrapbook clippings, courtesy Rich Annunziato.
Ae13U: Robert Brissette noted the recording studio where you laid down the tracks used 2-inch tape. Do you know how many tracks were used to record?

Richie Annunizato: It was a 16-track.


Ae13U: Where were you guys living during the time of the show?

Richie Annunizato: I was living in Rockland. We would rehearse at S.I.R., Mark was living in town, Mikey in Great Neck, and Rob was living in town too. They were all in New York, except for me.


Ae13U: Robert Brissette noted that Felix did the “lion’s share” of the composing, and so I'm guessing that means songs like “Promises,” “Last Night,” and “Show Your Love.” Would that be correct?

Richie Annunizato: Yes and no. “Promises” is by Mark. Basically, the songs that were there had to have the theme of the song in them.
A bare-chested Robert Brissette and Richie Annunziato on stage in 212, circa early 1980s
(photo courtesy Rich Annunziato).
Ae13U: One thing I liked on “Promises” was when you traded some lead work with Mark Cunningham. That was some pretty hot stuff.

Richie Annunizato: Yeah, me and Mark used to do a lot of that when we played live [as 212]. We really liked that, and he has a double neck too, so we had some songs with the both of us on double-necks.

[That sound you may be hearing right now is the collective gnashing of teeth of Hot Hero Band fans frustrated at never having witnessed that epic moment.]


Ae13U: There was production going on both coasts, right?

Richie Annunizato: We were recording everything in New York, but the show was put together in L.A., so we didn’t really see the show until everyone else did, when the first show aired. All the music was done in New York, all the bands were done there, but the interviews with Tom [Cottle], that was all done in L.A.
Scholastic Magazine 1980 feature article on the show and the band.
Ae13U: Interesting that you never saw a complete show until it was broadcast. What was your reaction?

Richie Annunizato: I was knocked out by it . . . I was in awe. I couldn't believe it . . . I like the way it was done because we were there for all the music and doing all the bumpers and stuff like that. Most of the people don't know any of that stuff. That's the stuff we're most proud of because that was really the creativity that we really put out. That first show was seen by 28 million people — 28 million people that watched that show.

[Editor’s Note: There were 63.7 million children in 1980, according to the U.S. Census report for that year, which means 28 million viewers are approximately 43.9 percent of the total number of children in the United States living at the time of the first show in November 1979.]

Takin’ Care of Business
A selection of Annunziato’s albums (RichSteele.com).
After Hot Hero Sandwich, Annunizato remained in the music business — and largely on his own terms. He lived in Nyack and later had a recording studio, Peaceland, out in Pelham, NY. In the 1980s he did some work with friends in the early days of HBO where he was doing music for short films of about 27 minutes in length each, though it took some adjustment for the double-arm axe-master.

“It was the 80s, so they didn’t want guitars — they wanted synthesizers for some reason,” Rich noted with a slight sigh tinged with a still lingering sense of exasperation at that particular musical fad.

He had a good run on the college scene in the 1990s, where he enjoyed a strong presence on college campuses and college radio on the East Coast.

“I was big in college radio, and this was before Napster, and MP3s, and all that stuff. I was selling CDs out at colleges,” Rich noted, further explaining that he eventually was selling his CDs and was being played on college radio stations on campuses from Florida to New Hampshire.

“College radio was very good back then, until MP3s and all that came out,” Rich added with a chuckle and some resignation. Fads are inherent to Rock and Roll and if you want to survive in the business you have to know when to move with times and when to move on.

Annunziato bounced back and forth between Vegas and the East Coast a couple times before permanently settling there in 2000s with Sin City providing opportunities for gigging, producing, and recording. Along with several high school friends who also transplanted themselves to Vegas, Rich quickly found himself at home.

During this time, Rich produced music for The Food Network. An unusual experience, it allowed him to work at home and explore different styles. Unlike HBO, he wasn’t given standing orders on what type of instruments to use. Ironically, he had more freedom. Rather than composing for one show, he would produce pieces of various lengths in various styles which would then be made available in a sound library from which show producers could draw from.

“My stuff was a lot different than a lot of other people were doing [for the Food Network].,” Rich noted. “I was more of the home-grown kind of guy, so I had a whole clientele that like that style, so I was writing for that . . . I was doing country styles and sitars and a little rock stuff as well.”

Vegas proved to be a good move for Annunziato and inspired his creativity. Between 2002 and 2005 he released an astounding nine albums of material in styles ranging from Rock, Punk, Country and Western, and even Sitar-Rock fusion [Ravi Oli, Before Your Time (2003), this writer’s personal favorite]. More than just stretching his creativity, Rich really bites into the material and nails the styles down. Generous to his fans, he has made tracks from 11 of his albums available for download or streaming from his website RichSteele.com.

There is an authenticity to the music, not only in lyrics, but also in spirit. Rich isn’t just playing Rock, Punk, Country and Western, or the Sitar. He IS a Rocker, he IS a Punk, he IS a Cowboy, and he IS a blissed-out guru in a desert Shangri-la.

And frankly, we expected nothing less from a Hot Hero.
Annunziato in action as part of 212 (circa early 1980s) (photos courtesy Rich Annunziato).
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4 comments:

  1. Jack amazing
    you are our hero........
    Typo : Kramer guitars with K

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Got it corrected - and thanks! Good stories are easy to tell when you have a good source!

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  2. Rich Steel is a guitar God and the coolest guy I’ve ever met!

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  3. The interviews keep getting better. I can't get over how fantastic and personal the pics are. Good job.

    ReplyDelete