First Posted: 5/14/2013
Steve Furmanski still plays the 1969 Gibson ES 335 guitar he used to create those ringing cords on the introduction to “Timothy,” one of the weirdest, wackiest, creepiest, eeriest, strangest and both loved and hated songs ever to crack the Billboard top 40.
Reputed to be about cannibalism, “Timothy” was written for Billy Kelly and the West Wyoming-born rock band, the Buoys, by Rupert Holmes, better known nationally as the singer/songwriter of “Escape: the Pina Colada Song.”
Furmanski, 60, was 18 years old in 1969 when he went to New York City as the Buoys rhythm guitarist to record a song for Scepter records.
He and the rest of the guys were a bit in awe of the city and the recording studio. After all, the Buoys — barely out of high school and playing covers of the Beatles, Hollies and the Everly Brothers at high school dances, hose company halls and teenage hangouts — did seem out of place in Scepter’s New York City studio where Dionne Warwick, among other stars, had recorded.
But the Buoys were very good, as their burgeoning popularity in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area showed. They also had the respect of other Valley musicians, like Bob O’Connell from West Pittston. O’Connell was then a keyboard player for Mel Wynn and the Rhythm Aces. Fronted by a dynamic black singer from Wilkes-Barre, the Rhythm Aces were the go-to band for high school proms and adult nightclubs for years before the Beatles reinvented rock ‘n roll and paved the way for local bands like the Buoys.
O’Connell, in his mid-20s then, had done some studio work for Wand, Scepter’s R&B subsidiary, and got to know producer Michael Wright and the label’s songwriter Rupert Holmes. O’Connell suggested Holmes and Wright check out the Buoys at the teen hangout, Pete’s Pizza, on Wyoming Avenue in Exeter.
“I thought Billy Kelly had one of the sweetest voices I ever heard. Still do,” O’Connell said. “They were all very talented. At a time when most bands were using studio musicians, they played their own music. It was very cool.”
Holmes agreed with O’Connell. He fell in love with Kelly’s voice and invited the Buoys to New York. Holmes had Kelly record a song he wrote called “These Days” backed by studio musicians. The B-side of “These Days” was “Don’t You Know It’s Over,” co-written and sung by Furmanski. It was released and went nowhere. Then Holmes gave them “Timothy” and let them play their own music.
“I was a young kid in New York City, checking out the sites,” Furmanski said, recalling the recording of “Timothy.”
“I remember they wanted a song about the area, the Valley, that would fit us. They wanted it to sound like Credence with a chunky rhythm style. I don’t think it did, but that’s what they were going for. I remember taping, then going into the control room to listen. I don’t remember how many takes, but they took us to a couple of different studios to get the right vocal sound.”
Coal mining was a natural subject for a band from Wyoming Valley, but the song Holmes came up with had a macabre twist. The lyrics suggest when three men were trapped in a mine cave-in, two of them ate the third, Timothy, to stay alive.
Stung by criticism of the song’s story, Scepter backed off the cannibalism, sending out a press release, claiming that Timothy was a mule, not a miner.
But Furmanski isn’t buying it. “There was a controversy, was it a mule or a guy? If you listen to the lyrics, three guys go in and two come out. What else could it mean?”
O’Connell, who was a co-producer and sang backup on what he called the “shout” or chorus of the song, didn’t have any input into the lyrics. “My role was on the rhythm section side. Getting the tempo and the groove right.”
Knowing that Holmes had a sense of humor, he doesn’t doubt that the cannibalism theme was deliberate.
Furmanski’s recollection is that Holmes wanted to create a controversy. “I think he thought if it got banned, and it did in Boston, it would sell more records.”
Holmes may have been right, but it took almost two years. “Timothy” was released in 1969, but no chart action. It was re-released in 1971 and took off. It can’t be known how the song would have done had the lyrics been different but the fact that a song recorded by an obscure band of teenagers from Wyoming Valley reached number 17 on the Billboard charts indicates the controversy probably helped more than hurt.
While the song was banned in some major markets and did poorly in others, it was wildly successful in some, like Chicago, where it was a Top 10 hit on WCFL and where DJ Bob Stroud still plays it occasionally on his “Rock and Roll Roots” radio show (97.1 FM, The Drive.)
Stroud also included “Timothy” on Volume 4 of his “Roots” CD series, one of many compilation albums to include the song.
“Timothy” pops up – along with songs like “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band, “Sweet City Women” by the Stampeders, “Sky Pilot” by the Animals, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf and even “Another Day” by Paul McCartney – on various oldies compilations.
“Timothy” was even reissued as a collectible 45 with “Shaking All Over” by the Guess Who on the B side.
The other side of the “Timothy” cult coin has the song on Dr. Demento’s 1995 25th Anniversary Collection with “The Curly Shuffle” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim.
Nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry included “Timothy” in one of his columns, which turned into “Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs,” where the song is listed as the fourth worst song of all time.
And then there’s this from DJs Jonathan and Kitty at 105.5 in Central Wisconsin: “Just when you thought the world’s worst iPod couldn’t get any worse, we give you ‘Timothy.’”
So which is it? An all-time classic that charted higher than the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” in 1971 and is found on compilations with Paul McCartney? Or a novelty song about cannibalism that makes worst songs lists.
Like no other song, it is both.
By the time the Buoys recorded the album that would include “Timothy” in 1971, Furmanski had left the band and O’Connell had moved on to other things. So had Bob Gryziec, a bass player so ahead of his time he played 15-minute bass solos at high school dances and got away with it.
Furmanski said hearing Gryziec is believing and suggests listening to “Timothy” through head phones and paying attention to the bass. Gryziec is still playing with Joe Nardone reunions and occasional jams, as he did at the Bartolai Winery with Barry Rodgers a couple weeks ago.
As things were in 1971, the Buoys line-up which recorded the album “Dinner Music” that contained “Timothy” included Fran Brozena, keyboards and guitar; Gerry Hludzik, bass; Chris Hanlon, drums; Carl Siracuse, bass; and Billy Kelly, guitar and lead vocals.
Neither Furmanski nor O’Connell get any liner notes credit for their roles on “Timothy” but that’s the biz and neither has regrets nor hard feelings. Both are still playing. Furmanski plays with Tom Schappert in the duo Rub Yer Soul. O’Connell plays with blues guitarist Clarence Spady, locally and in New York.
In 1977, Furmanski rejoined the Buoys, sans Hludzik and Kelly who formed Dakota, and they had a successful five-year run playing Vermont ski lodges and Berumda unitl 1983 when they finally ran out of gas.
In 1991, the Buoys famously reunited with Kelly at Gennetti’s in Dickson City. Based on the success of that gig, they reunited periodically at the Northeast Fair and the Tomato Festival. About three years ago, Furmanski, Hanlon, Brozena and Siracuse reunited at a bar in Mountaintop.
Whether that is the last time there will be a Buoys get-together isn’t known, but the love-hate relationship music fans have with “Timothy,” the song with the soaring vocal by Billy Kelly, the chunky rhythm guitar by Steve Furmanski and the haunting line, “God, what did we do?” will endure.