As lead singer of the ‘60s pop group The Buckinghams, Dennis Tufano led the Chicago band through a string of the decade’s biggest hits including “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Susan,” “Don’t You Care” and the No. 1 smash “Kind of a Drag.” Once he left the group, Mr. Tufano went on to to have a successful career as both a commercial actor and singer, touring with Olivia Newton-John and singing the theme to the classic ‘80s sitcom “Family Ties.”
Mr. Tufano still tours alongside many fellow ‘60s survivors in “oldies” concerts. Mr. Tufano discussed surviving the ‘60s, putting the make on Olivia Newton-John and losing all that “Family Ties” theme money. (Damn you, Johnny Mathis!)
Question: What is the best part of being an artist who has survived throughout the decades?
Answer: The best part of it now is that we all have our stories connected to the songs. We didn’t have stories when we were younger.
Q: Why did you leave The Buckinghams?
A: Well, I never left the band; the band broke up in 1970. We broke up because of being ripped off by management. The management poisoned us at the record label. We still had “Susan” in the charts at the time. We had six hit records. It went so fast.
We were still a hot group, but the producer had another agenda. We just decided to quit because the last year we were playing was just to pay off all the lawyers.
Q: But the band reformed at one point?
A: We had a reunion in 1980 in Chicago for Chicago Fest. Since we were a local band who hadn’t been seen in 11 years, we had an amazing crowd and reaction. We did this reunion, and the other guys in the band said, “We could do this again.” But I was already living in Los Angeles and had my own solo career. I said, “I can’t just drop it, but if you guys want to do it, go ahead.”
Q: Your solo career includes a lot of jingles, including the “Family Ties” theme.
A: Yeah, I did the “Family Ties” theme. We were in rehearsals for Olivia Newton-John on the Paramount lot. Tom Scott, the musical director for that show, said “Look, I just wrote a song with Jeff Berry. It’s for this new show that’s not out yet. We want to put you together with this great singer, Mindy Sterling.”
No one had seen the show yet. We went in after rehearsal with Olivia and recorded the song. They used it for 13 episodes, and then Johnny Mathis heard the song and said, “I love the song and want to do it.” Well he was bigger than me so —
He took it over, and it was him and Patti Austin.
Q: How did you end up working with Olivia Newton-John?
A: That was a coup for me. She needed somebody who could sing duets with her — do musical theater really. I was acting at the time, which is why Tom called me. He said, “You got to sing some background, but you will also sing two good duets if this works.” I had to go in audition with her because they were already in rehearsals.
Q: What did you sing for the audition?
A: I had to sing “Suddenly,” the love song. I was up all night the night before. “How am I gonna relate this?” Shaking in my boots. But when I got there, I just went for it. And I really put the make on her in the audition.
[“This Is It” director] Kenny Ortega was her choreographer then; he came out after my audition and said, “I don’t care what the other guys do. What I just saw made me sweat.” He said, “I think you got the job.”
Sure enough, Olivia came out and said, “You got it.” It was a three-month tour.
Q: How did you end up doing the PBS special “My Generation: The Sixties Live”?
A: PBS called me. The other guys in the band (The Buckinghams) didn’t want to do it. They were afraid that it would be detrimental to their careers because they had been The Buckinghams without me for 30 years. I told them, “Guys, this is an honor to be on these things. They’ll bill it as a one-time reunion so you guys still have your credibility.”
They said no. Or their agency did.
I called PBS back and told them they didn’t want to do it. PBS said, “You’re the singer.” And they played that thing over and over again. All of a sudden my phone started ringing off the hook about classic rock shows. Promoters said, “You’re still alive? And you can still sing!”
Q: What are you up to these days?
A: I’ve got a couple things that are bubbling. I’m hoping they come together this year.
I still tour. Been back at it after not singing for almost 16 years. I do two live concert shows, the classic rock show and one that is a tribute to Bobby Darin.
Q: At 70, where do you get the energy to perform?
A: From the audience. Some nights I can hardly get up the dressing room stairs, and I wonder, “How am I gonna do this?” Then I get out there, grab the mic, and I turn into a 19-year-old kid again. And the audience gives me the energy.
I just feel grateful as hell I can still be doing what I’m doing.