Born 1942, Liberal, Seward County, Kansas

Born of Italian descent (his full surname is Zeppanini), Benn Joe Zeppa was a child prodigy. His mother had always dreamed of being a popular singer, but family commitments (Benn was the first of seven children) made that dream impossible. Benn's mother spent all the time she could encouraging and developing his vocal talents, which were apparent at an early age. In the process, she spoiled him and Benn became arrogant and cocky. It was not until he reached military service age that he was able to break away from being "the songbird in the cage" who always had to live up to parental expectations. The Zeppanini family relocated from Kansas to Richmond, California when Benn was still very young. While attending Coronado High in Richmond, Benn was first exposed to rock 'n' roll, in the shape of "Rock Around the Clock". It altered his musical perspective and he played the record over and over until he could sing the song note for note. In 1955 at the age of 12, Benn caught the ears of Garrie and Clara Thompson, who became his managers and acted almost as surrogate parents to the youngster. Thompson brought Zeppa down to Hollywood in 1956 and hustled his act to all and sundry, not without success. Benn appeared on the Groucho Marx, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mickey Mouse Club TV shows among other engagements. His school commitments were now divided between Richmond High and Le Conte Junior High in Hollywood. Garrie Thompson wanted Benn to cover Frankie Lymon's big hit "Why Do Fools Fall In Love", which was recorded in five takes in a large Hollywood studio. The Thompsons sold the recording to Tops Records, a dimestore cover label. It came out on an EP (the remaining three songs being by other artists) and attracted the attention of Art Rupe at Specialty, who gave Benn an audition. On April 19, 1956, Benn recorded "A Foolish Fool" and "Baby I Need (Ting-A-Ling)" at the tail end of a Lloyd Price session, backed by Lloyd's band minus the sax section. "A Foolish Fool" (written by Richard Berry) is a fine jumping rocker, but could have done with an instrumental break. Rupe released it on Specialty 577 in May, but as he was too preoccupied with Little Richard, the Zeppa record never got any promotion and didn't stand a chance.

Benn's next record session was for Lou Bedell's Era label in 1957. By then his voice had broken and on "Topsy Turvy" (Era 1042) he sounds very confident, belying his tender age. Probably also recorded for Era was a demo of "Hocus Pocus", which was first released on an Ace CD ("Bay Area Rockers") in 1999. Zeppa's version of "Hocus Pocus" is not as frantic as Larry Williams's Specialty cut (unreleased until 1987), nor as slick as the Raiders' 1958 Andex release, but it features great guitar work and convincing vocals. Both "Topsy Turvy" and "Hocus Pocus" were written by Fred Smith and Cliff Goldsmith, who would score a giant hit with "Western Movies" by the Olympics the next year. Still in 1957, Benn recorded an extravagantly wild coupling, "Terry Lou"/ "Shame On You, Miss Lindy", the latter based on "Shame, Shame, Shame" by Smiley Lewis. It was first released on Metrol 9001 in 1957 and then on Award 124 in 1959. Zeppa was backed by a vocal group called The Differentials, made up of Joe Simon and his sisters. In 1958, the Thompsons set up their own record label, Hush Records, on which Benn had two releases, "Young Heartaches"/"Ridin' Herd" and the much more exciting "Louise"/"Doctor Doctor" (1959). Due to the Thompsons' lack of promotional funding, these records never made more than a regional splash.

"Louise" would be Zeppa's last record, as the restless teenager joined the Marines in September 1959. "I felt like a tiger locked in a cage and I had to get out and do something". Benn spent four years in the Marines, after which he found a job at Sears Roebuck, while still performing with a small combo. Around 1971 he joined a group called The Younger Brothers, who would later (1982) score a Top 20 country hit with "Nothing But the Radio On". Benn left the group in 1974 and went to work for Chevron Oil at their Richmond refinery. He stayed there for 23 years and eventually retired in 1999.

His recorded legacy is small (13 songs), barely enough for a CD of his own. His youthful energy and remarkable voice made him one of the most important acts on the Northern California rock 'n' roll scene, which had its golden years in 1958-1959.

More info : Acknowledgements :

- "Topsy Turvy : The Benn Joe Zeppa Story" by Opal Louis Nations and Alec Palao. In : Now Dig This, issue 246 (September 2003), page 6-8.

- Alec Palao, Liner notes for the CD "Bay Area Rockers" (Ace 734, 1999). This compilation includes three tracks by Benn : "A Foolish Fool", "Hocus Pocus" and "Louise".


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