Carpe Diem: The Story of Viola Da Gamba
Frank Youngwerth started his own label during the height of the Chicago house frenzy in hope of U.K. exposure. He self-published five of his own productions between 1989 and 1992 on Viola Da Gamba. Frank’s distributor, Gherkin Records, decided to publish his composition “Stay Close” and arranged for Larry Heard to produce mixes. Fourth and Broadway picked up the single for U.K. distribution, releasing it in all formats, including cassette and 45. Frank currently works for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. We spoke by phone October 5th.
Jacob: Did you grow up in Chicago?
Frank: I was born in Ohio, and I lived in Libertyville up through grade school… then moved to Connecticut... finished high school [back] in Ohio and went to college in Ohio, and then I came out to Chicago for grad school. That was 1984, just when house music was really starting to get known. I’ve lived in Chicago ever since.
What was your musical background?
I liked jazz a lot and started playing the trumpet when I was about ten and taught myself to improvise on trumpet.... I still get out and play. I’ve been playing at the Green Mill and with another band at the World Music Festival at Millennium Park, all in the last couple of weeks.
And then I like rock and roll a lot. I came of age in the seventies. I always idolized the sixties. I thought the sixties was an awesome time for pop music.... In the seventies disco came along.... The mainstream of people that liked rock and roll were thumbs down on disco, but I was interested in it. I was interested in all kinds of radio music. We lived in Connecticut at the time and we picked up New York radio stations, like WPIX, that had mixes.... So I had quite a good knowledge of disco music. When I first came to Chicago and was finding out about house I got to know some people at D.J. International and what they would refer to as “deep house” was basically these disco records.
How did you get into house music?
I first read about it in the music papers, like the Chicago Reader.... There was this lawyer, I want to say J.B. Ross. He was a music lawyer and was looking for clients and had a seminar that NARAS, the Grammy organization, had about recording and producing. I went to the seminar ’cause it was interesting to me and house was the thing everybody was talking about then.
I got involved in a rock band out here that was alternative, like R.E.M. But I didn’t last long with them, and then I decided it might be good to try to do something on my own, and I figured out that house music was something that you could put a record together and not have to have a band. That was a pretty new thing in the mid-eighties.
One day I was watching the channel 5 or channel 2 news and out of the blue they had Steve “Silk” Hurley on because his record, “Jack Your Body,” was the number one single in England at the time. And I thought, “Wow! Just some guy making a record in his bedroom.” I mean, he probably made that in a studio, but a lot of the early house people were putting it together right in their house....
An ambition that I had was to have a record that charted in England. I just thought American pop at that time was getting more and more corporate, but I thought that if an indie person from Chicago could make the charts in England, then I wanted to be one of those people.
How did you decide to start your own label?
First I just went in and did a project in the studio. I went to Trax up on North Halsted and I just booked studio time. I had some equipment. I didn’t know anything about producing a record; I had never even met a record producer. But I was really interested in the thing, and I had a lot of musical proficiency, and I thought, well this is the way I’m going to learn how to operate in the studio. The first few things I did didn’t go anywhere.
At some point I got to know Brett Wilcots. First he worked for C.A.P. Exports. It was a distributor on Lake Street. Then Brett broke out on his own and started this label and distribution, Gherkin. I guess I brought a tape to them and they said, “Oh yeah, this is something we can work with. We should do a house mix.” It was more a New Order/Pet Shop Boys/hi-energy kind of thing. I did synths and programmed the beats and sang on it.... I created my label to get this record out and I came up with the name Viola Da Gamba. I guess I just liked the name and, being Italian, it had kind of a European sensibility.
Well, they said, you have to have somebody do a house mix. For some reason I liked a record by The Hot Mix 5 and this guy Kenny “Jammin” Jason. So I called him and I said, “Hey, can I have you mix my record?” And he was like, “Sure.” You know, that was money for him. So I went back to the distributors. There was Brett Wilcots and there was a guy Frank Sells who had worked at Rose Records too. Both of them said, “Oh, no no no, you’re not going to be able to market what Kevin Jammin’ Jason’s doing to your record. That’s a bad idea.” Instead, they said, “Here’s the number for Armando. Why don’t you have Armando do your mix?”
I ended up having Armando remix the song. The song was called “Love for Sale” and I called the artist, even though it was just me, “Paint Dirt Combination.” Which I immediately became embarrassed by, so I shortened it to PDC for the next time. I had Armando come in for the mix. We’d done the tracking session at one point and then we had a mixing session. I remember, it was funny, he called the place where I was living at three or four in the morning the night before to confirm that the thing was on....
He came and he had an acid machine, one of those Roland units. We couldn’t get it synced up with the tape for some reason so he did an acid mix totally manually. He actually synced the machine up so it would pulsate right in time [by ear]. Because it had the Armando mix we pressed a thousand and before I knew it the whole pressing had sold out, basically in New York. And that was the most successful record on the label.
I started working at Rose Records.... Actually, I think it was before I was working at a record store, I bought a sampling keyboard, a little Casio SK-1 that was just a cheap little thing, but it had a little sampler feature on it. The first thing I did then was go to Importes Etc. and I just asked them to recommend a couple of house records to me.
I sampled a few bars of one of them, started playing some jazzy chords over the bassline on the Casio, and I composed a song. And that was called “Stay Close”.... A friend of mine really liked [it], and so I [went] in the studio and started a recording. I think the first thing I did was on 16 tracks, and I think we went up to 24 tracks.
I played “Stay Close” for Gherkin and they were so into it that they wanted it to become a Gherkin release. They had a singer from St. Louis who had done some background vocals for Roy Ayers back in the seventies named Mondeé Oliver, and they wanted this to be a single by her. Larry Heard—Mr. Fingers—heard the track too and he liked it. Here was something that everybody was really excited about. I hired an attorney to work on a deal. One of the clauses I put into the deal was that if it got onto a major label then I’d get some kind of extra bonus. They were like, “Well we’ll put that in the contract but that’s never happened.” And lo and behold it did happen!
“Stay Close” did really well, especially in England. One week I opened the New Musical Express (NME) and “Stay Close” was listed on the house chart as the number two house record. It was a survey, it was based on them calling around to DJs and record stores that sold that stuff. That was the realization of my dream, in a way.
The funniest thing to me was when I actually heard “Stay Close” played over a system at a club, I thought it was kind of hard to dance to. Larry Heard got so involved, I mean, he did the final mix, and at first I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. But I really like the record now. And I have a trumpet solo on it, which I’m really still happy about.
Was this still at Trax studio?
No, I only did the one thing at Trax. And then I did one at the studio down in Pilsen that eventually became Jive Records.... Then Seagrape was the place I did “Love for Sale” [and everything after]. We spent a lot of time in the studio. I was really impressed with the amount of money—seven thousand, or it might have been twelve thousand dollars—they ended up spending to come up with the track. They hired a studio pianist to come in and add stuff. Mike Konopka was one of the co-owners and engineers at Seagrape and he had played with a progressive rock band called Pentwater.... He played guitar and they hired him to put a guitar track on it.
In the meantime I did my own follow-up on Viola de Gamba which was something called “Anonymous,” which I was excited about, but it was much more in the Wax Trax!, almost industrial, direction. From Gherkin’s point of view it was just changing too much and that was not the kind of thing that their customers, the stores that they sold to, were going to be able to work with. They had some connections with people down in Texas ’cause Texas was more of the industrial crowd, but I still have a lot of what I pressed for “Anonymous.”
How many releases were there on your label in total?
Five. I had a friend named Merlin Barnes that uses the name “Fozzy Keith,” and he and I rapped together on a hip-house record named “Get Hip to the Music....” Then I had something with a female singer named Ernestine called “When I See You.” Every release I did, I used a different name even though it was always me. Which was really stupid, because you don’t build up any kind of artist identity that way. Plus I would try different sounds every time.
“When I See You,” which I credited to Frank Youngwerth featuring Ernie, that was more of a deep house kind of thing. I had a girlfriend that was a flight attendent for Air France and lived in Paris. I would see her, but only every so often, so that was the motivation behind that one.
The very last thing I did was sort of a trancey kind of track. It was called “Whirr.” I remember that I wanted to do it more cheaply, and I only needed two tracks ’cause it was already programmed on the equipment that I had, but they wanted to charge me for 24 tracks anyway. That was the last thing I did. I think all of those, the sales were pretty spotty. The only really successful one I had on my label was the first one.
Why did you decide to stop?
Well Gherkin went belly up, went bankrupt. At least I was able to get my records back.... The last one, “Whirr,” I did with C.A.P. Exports, Walter Paas, who I’d first gotten to know when I was starting to buy at Rose Records.
I guess I just stopped because the music was changing. When “Love for Sale” was out there was a St. Patrick’s Day, this must have been 1990. On St. Patrick’s Day, if you’ve ever been to downtown Chicago, everybody’s walking around drunk with green hats just being obnoxious out on the street. There was a group of three or four from England that came in, and the one guy who’d had a couple beers in him… I showed him the house section. I pointed out, like I usually would for customers, and rather naively, I would say, “I did this record myself.” I couldn’t believe his answer. He says, “Oh yeah, I’ve got two copies back home in England.” He says, “You should really come to England, that’s where house music’s really got a big audience.” I was able to stay with him and a bunch of people who lived in this place [in London]....
I made a lot of appointments to see people at record companies. For the most part, they were surprised that I wasn’t black, and they figured that I couldn’t have been too important to “Stay Close” because I guess it sounded to them like a record that wouldn’t have been done by a white guy in his thirties.
At that time, it seemed like the music was changing. It seemed like Chicago house was being taken over by the rave stuff. Chicago house was becoming passé. Since my whole orientation was to have success overseas, when I got that impression I thought time has passed me by....
At the same time I was getting very involved as a jazz trumpet player. I lived down the street from a jazz club on Division Street. I started going to jam sessions and getting some gigs.... After that I got into music journalism. I became a columnist and did some reviews for the Chicago Reader.... Every once in a while I’d go back and I’d say “God, I’ve got all these house records. How much do I even really like this stuff anymore?” All I’d have to do is pull out one of these things that I’d like and I’d say, “Oh yeah, I’m not gonna get rid of these records. I really like this stuff.”