He worked with Wayne Newton, helped discover Hall and Oates, and crafted chart-topping hits for Len Barry, Chubby Checker and Lesley Gore.
But Cambria resident John Madara is best known as the co-writer and record producer behind the hit song “At the Hop.”
“The two most important titles in rock ’n’ roll history — Billboard and Rolling Stone (magazines) have said this over and over again — are (Bill Haley’s) ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and ‘At the Hop,’ ” the Philadelphia native said. “They represent that era the best.”
In October, the Philadelphia Music Alliance honored Madara and his longtime writing partner David White for their contributions to the so-called “Philadelphia Sound,” along with another Philadelphia songwriting duo, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. All four received markers on the association’s Walk of Fame.
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Looking back, Madara never suspected he would be part of rock history.
“Listening to all these great singers growing up you never thought, ‘I’ll be doing that someday,’ ” Madara, 77, said. “I didn’t know what my future was. I didn’t know that (music) was going to be my life.”
A way out of poverty
Part of a large Italian-American family, Madara grew up in the projects of south Philadelphia.
“We were so poor, we couldn’t be p-o-o-r. We could only be po’,” he joked. “It was good because it gave me a lot of ambition. (It taught me) not to ever take no for an answer and to always keep pushing.”
Inspired by the music he heard on the radio — early rock acts such as Jackie Wilson, The Clovers and the Moonglows — Madara trained to become a singer.
On the encouragement of vocal coach Artie Singer, he recorded the song “Be My Girl” as Johnny Madara. “It was a medium-sized hit, but it got me out there, into the music business,” he recalled.
Real success would come when Madara met White, then a member of the doowop quartet The Juvenairs.
“I was in bed and I heard this group singing up at the corner (outside),” Madara recalled. When he queried neighbors the following day, he was told, “ ‘Oh, that’s Danny Rapp and those guys.’ ”
Madara befriended the group, later teaming up with White and Singer to write “Do the Bop,” a song inspired by a fading dance craze. But “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark suggested that they change the title to something more current. (Clark also recommended renaming the group Danny and the Juniors.)
After Danny and the Juniors played “At the Hop” on “American Bandstand” in December 1957, the song spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. They followed that hit with “Rock N’ Roll Is Here to Stay,” produced by Madara and written by White.
White left the band in the early ’60s and joined Madara at the Philadelphia record store where he sold gospel, jazz, R&B and pop records to a mostly black customer base. That’s where the two launched their songwriting and producing careers in earnest.
Their dance song “The Fly” caught the attention of Philadelphia label Cameo-Parkway Records, which recorded it in 1961 with “The Twist” singer Chubby Checker. It went to No. 2.
“That was it. Now we were in the record business,” said Madara, who estimates that the pair had about 25 Billboard-charting records between 1957 and 1967.
“You Don’t Own Me,” recorded in 1963 by “It’s My Party” singer Lesley Gore, reached No. 2 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart — trailing The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
“It was different for that era, a girl telling a guy off,” Madara recalled. “ ‘Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t tell me what to say.’ That was unheard of.”
Madara and White next teamed up with Len Barry to write 1965’s “1-2-3,” a No. 2 Billboard hit that ended up in rotation on John Lennon’s personal jukebox. The same year, the pair launched a music publishing company whose songwriting staff included Barry and Huff.
Although Madara loved singing — he formed pop group The Spokesmen with White and radio personality Ray Gilmore in 1965 — he said writing and producing felt “more complete.”
“You were coming up with an idea. You were hearing in your mind what it was going to sound like before it was even done,” Madara said. “And then you went in the studio and made it happen.”
He liked to tailor each song to a specific artist — whether that was ’70s sex symbol Joey Heatherton or pop-rock duo Daryl Hall and John Oates.
Asked whether he knew which songs would succeed, Madara said, “We never walked into the studio to make a No. 90 record. (We) walked into the studio to make a No. 1 record.”
After parting ways with White over creative differences — his partner was interested in psychedelic rock while he preferred to “stay contemporary” — Madara moved to Los Angeles in 1972.
“I wanted to do movies. I wanted to do things I had never done before,” he explained, such as work with drummer Hal Blaine and his legendary Wrecking Crew.
Madara’s first Hollywood gigs included writing the title song for the 1973 movie “Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies” and producing “Star Wars” composer John Williams’ soundtrack for 1973’s “Cinderella Liberty.”
Also in the ’70s, Madara served as music director of “The Krofft Super Show” for two seasons, penned a theme song for “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” and produced albums for artists including Denny Doherty of The Mamas and the Papas.
Madara spent about three years in Las Vegas in the mid-’70s working with singer Wayne Newton, producing two albums and a Christmas television special.
Sitting in the studio in the early morning hours, “Wayne would tell me (show business) stories I would never repeat to anybody,” said Madara, who remembers hanging out with Vegas fixtures Robert Goulet and Buddy Hackett in Newton’s dressing room. “We just had so much fun.”
In 1982, Madara cowrote the soundtrack for the animated movie “Hey Good Lookin’.”
Madara and his partner, Christy Webb, moved to Cambria about a decade ago. (He discovered the Central Coast through his son, professional photographer Jason Madara.)
Not content to rest on his laurels, he’s currently working on an independently funded film, “At the Hop.” Set in Philadelphia in 1957, the film follows a young Italian-American singer whose life is changed by the birth of rock and the death of a friend.
“When somebody watches this movie, they’re going to see rock ’n’ roll as it really happened,” Madara said. “It’s a great story (with) lots of tears, lots of laughs.”
He hopes to start production on the movie in September.
Madara is also crafting his first solo album with Cambria composer Danny Pelfrey, which will feature a mix of old and new songs.