The Royal Teens’ Co-Founder Tom Austin on Their Hit ‘Short Shorts’
It was 1956. Drummer Tom Austin and keyboardist Bob Gaudio were talented New Jersey teenagers who recruited guitarist Billy Dalton and saxophonist Billy Crandall to form a band, the Royals.
Austin and Gaudio teamed to write “Short Shorts,” a number three hit in 1958. Tours, TV shows and an appearance in the film Let’s Rock! swiftly followed. The band followed with 1959’s “Believe Me,” which reached number 26, but never recorded an album. The band broke up by 1965.
In 1959, 14-year-old Al Kooper, who would go on to record with the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears, joined for a short period. Crandall, using the name Buddy Randell, joined the Knickerbockers and co-wrote their hit “Lies.”
Bob Gaudio left the band to join Frankie Valli’s group, the Four Lovers, which became the Four Seasons. Gaudio wrote “Sherry,” the Seasons’ first number one hit.
Billy Crandall died in 1998, Dalton in 2011. Tom Austin, who continues to perform with a new lineup of the Royal Teens, discussed the band’s history in 2012.
Tom Austin: We started playing at CYO dances, political functions, firehouse parties, Knights of Columbus halls, that kind of stuff. And one night in the spring of 1957 we were playing a Holy Trinity CYO dance in Coytesville, NJ.
Father Geiger asked if we could back up this doo-wop vocal group called the Three Friends, who had a hit record called “Blanche.” Joe Villa was the lead singer. They were three guys from Brooklyn.
We backed them up and played the music behind them. The Three Friends liked our band so much that they asked us to play on their next recording session in New York City. They said they had a manager named Leo Rogers who had an office at 1650 Broadway, room 1111 in Manhattan.
We were thrilled, considering all we had played at so far were firehouses and VFW halls. We went to Manhattan and Rogers recognized that we were pretty good. Leo Rogers had a stable of other talent, including the Corvells and a girl named Diana Lee.
Leo was using us as the workhorses to do the recordings, always promising us that he would eventually record us with our own song. We were getting a lot of experience playing these recording sessions. Finally, he gave us an opportunity to record our own song. We worked on several of them, but the one that seemed to be coming to the forefront was an instrumental and we didn’t know what to call it.
Bob Gaudio and I were riding up the main street in Bergenfield on Washington Avenue in my 1957 red and white Ford Fairlane 500. I bought that car in my senior year in high school. We were making so much money, we were working two or three times a weekend, so I could afford to buy a new car. Can you imagine that!
We were riding up the main street in Bergenfield and we see these girls walking down the street with these cutoff jeans. And they had them cut off so short. We were just young, red-blooded, horny boys. And we saw them and I said to Bobby, let’s call that song “Short Shorts.” He said that’s a great idea and that’s how the name came about.
Up until that time, nobody called them short shorts, they were called cutoffs. We coined the word.
We went back to Bell Sound Studio, keeping in mind it’s an instrumental, and Leo said, all right, we’ll give you guys a chance to record your song, what do you want to play? We said, we have this song “Short Shorts.”
We laid down the instrumental track and it was a good, hot track, it was terrific. And Leo said, where the hell are the words? Who’s singing? We said, we don’t have any words, it’s an instrumental.
He said, well then, we can’t do that, you gotta sing something. None of us were singers in the group. He said, all right, all right, take a break, go out and think of some words.
So we went out in the hall and we came up with these words. I did the wolf-whistle and Billy Crandall did the “Man, dig those crazy chicks.” Diana Lee was there because all the kids would follow Leo around.
We wrote a part in for Diana, she wasn’t part of the group at that point, but we just said, we need some girls to do this, so she sang the girl’s part. She had a girlfriend with her who wasn’t anybody, just a girl, and the two girls sang their part.
That was all created that evening in the recording studio. We just said, let’s make this exciting.
“Diana, we’ll say, who wears short shorts, you just say, we wear short shorts.”We came up with a whole bunch more words and Leo said, No, make it simple, make it simple. The words in the song are who wears, we wear, they’re such, and we like. Everything else was short shorts.
It took us 15 takes. Keep in mind, today if you record something and you screw something up, they can stop at that point, put that note in, they can change the key of the song. They can do so much today that they couldn’t do then. The slightest error, you had to do the whole thing over again. That’s the way it was back in those days. It took 15 takes to do it.
So now the record’s about ready to come out and Leo says you can’t use the Royals name because there’s another group called the Royals. He said, I’m gonna change the name to Royal Teens. We hated that. I said, what happens when we get to be old men? Ah, you dopes, you’re not gonna be old men.
The record came out and it was Hal Jackson, the disc jockey in New York, who broke the record. He started playing it a lot and then they needed more and more airplay so they went to Alan Freed. I wasn’t in on this but our managers had to give a percentage of the publishing to Alan Freed’s company.
Those were the days of payola so then they started playin’ it. The next thing you know, it was Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. We’d be on that show and it took off like a rocket ship.
"Short Shorts" by the Royal Teens from Let's Rock!
“Short Shorts” was an immediate hit?
It took off so big, the fashion industry went absolutely bonkers over those words, Short Shorts. Immediately McGregor Clothes came to us and said, when you go on the Dick Clark show, would you guys wear Bermuda shorts on television?
Now in those days, everybody wanted to be tough guys. Bermuda shorts were the furthest thing from anyone’s mind that men would wear. They were only worn in Bermuda! But McGregor said, we’ll pay you a lot of money if you model our clothes.
Billy Crandall, the youngest of the group, was forced by his parents to drop out of the group because we were going to start traveling and they wanted him to stay in school. Which was the worst thing they ever did to him.
So we replaced him with a fella named Larry Qualiano, a fabulous sax player, a very handsome guy. We did everything that everybody else did, all the TV shows, all the bus tours.
Our first big job after we recorded the song was the Harry Smythe tour in Florida. It was around March 1958 with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Haley and the Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers. We went from VFW halls and CYO halls to playing with those guys overnight.
Did you wear shorts all over the country?
No, we wore them on the Dick Clark show with high knee socks, they were awful. We didn’t care ’cause we got paid pretty good. Then all of a sudden, all the kids started wearing Bermuda shorts.
How many copies of “Short Shorts” were sold?
I have no clue. I never got a gold record for it and the reason for that was, if they gave us a gold record, they’d have to admit to how much money they stole. I think I probably got about $14,000 as the artist, that’s all. Maybe a few bucks more.
We each got about $14,000 and we had to sue people to get it. So it was terrible. The saving grace was the fact that I wrote the song. Because it’s in the Jersey Boys show, it’s in the Nair commercial and it’s played all over the world to this day.
Nair gave your career a resurgence?
It really did. For all those years up until I guess it was the late ’70s, when Nair used it as a commercial, we didn’t make any money. It was nothing, it was just an existence of knowing you got your brains screwed out. When Nair came, we said thank you Jesus for being able to receive the money as the writers. As the writers we made the most but not as the artists.
We ended up in Life magazine, Look magazine, we did Beech Nut gum commercials. It was really good.
Al Kooper later joined the group.
Guys were dropping out of the group. Billy Dalton dropped out of the group early on, before we even recorded “Believe Me.” I guess the reason was the managers and everybody else were stealing all the money, we weren’t making any money. Gaudio had nothing better to do and neither did I, that’s why we stuck it out as long as we could.
"Believe Me" by the Royal Teens
When Billy Dalton dropped out we got Al Kooper to replace him. Now Al was just a kid. You know what he wrote in my copy of his book? He wrote: “To Tom, if it wasn’t for you and Gaudio, this book could never have been written.” I’m just so proud of that.
Totally crazy days. Al came from Long Island, he was an educated kid. Our office was at 1650 Broadway and he’d show up at that office every day, trying to do something. Leo said, Dalton’s gone, use Al. And Al was very competent but he was very naive at the time. He was just a kid, he was just a young boy with no experience with this great love for music.
By this time we’d go on these huge car rides to get to jobs. One time we played the Princeton University prom. It was in the gymnasium. And Les Brown and His Band of Renown was at one end of the gymnasium, another 16-piece big band was at the other end of the gymnasium, Chuck Berry was on one courtside, the Royal Teens were at half court. This was a huge event.
Leo went with us. And Leo kept telling us we stunk, you dopey boys, I shouldn’t even manage you, you don’t deserve anything, you’re getting $250 for this job, that kind of talk. Just very demoralizing to us because he was stealing all our money.
We thought we were going to get $250 to play the Princeton prom. Leo went out to get tea. Because they had so much entertainment there, we only played one set and we were finished for the night. When we finished our set, one of the students comes over and says, my job is to pay you, sign here and here’s your check: $2,500.
We saved it for Leo, we handed him the envelope, we got him in the car, we were gonna break his head. Because that’s what he was doing to us, he was stealing the money.
From that point forward we got our money, but by that time, it was all done. We were on the downside of the mountain. It was all just falling apart all around us.
His sister called me up when he died in California and said, Tom, Leo passed away in California. He always said you were such a nice boy, he liked you so much. Do you have any money to send me to ship his body back to the East Coast? I said, throw him in the river.
Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, one of Best Classic Bands’ Best Music Books of 2022, and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.
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