‘Bristol Stomp’ to debut as art

The hit song put Bristol Borough on U.S. cultural map in the 1960s.

I first heard it on the radio when I was 17. The pulsating “Bristol Stomp” by the Dovells. Wow! As a senior in high school on the West Coast, I thought it was about kids in Bristol, England. Students in El Capitan’s gym tried to get it right but it was unimpressive to me. I never did get how those English kids did it. Years later on arrival in Levittown as a cub reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times, I was amazed to learn the tune derived not from England but a firehouse dance hall in tiny Bristol Borough. Not only that, I met and married local girl Mary Anne Ferber. She and her brother frequented local teen dances and showed me how to Stomp. Quick timing with hard heels pounding the floor on cue. Sadly I could barely manage it with my “West Coast rhythm”, as Mary Anne would crack.

Sculpture of dancers using their heels to create the “Bristol Stomp” on display at former borough art center on Mill Street.

Skip ahead to today and “The Bristol Stomp” will be getting a reprise – as art. William Penn Bank has employed a group of renowned artists to paint a massive mural on the side of the bank’s branch office on Market Street. Work is to begin soon to memorialize the dance and firehouse that made Bristol famous in 1961. It’s all part of the ongoing Raising the Bar campaign to revitalize Bristol, a town that predates by a year William Penn’s arrival in 1682. Among recent goals is to highlight the many historical aspects of the walking community. That includes its 60-year-old anthem. People of a certain age anywhere in the world recognize “The Bristol Stomp.”

Curious about its roots, I contacted Jerry Gross of the Dovells several years ago. He gave me the low down that traces back to him being an a capella singer and former drummer-pianist-guitarist for the Brooktones R&B quintet at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School in the late 1950s. The group earned a recording contract with local Cameo-Parkway Records, the label that launched pop idols Chubby Checkers and Bobby Rydell. About that time, recording studio owner Bernie Lowe returned from vacation at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach. He proposed a new name for the Brookstones – the Deauvilles. “The guys changed the spelling to the Dovells,” explained Gross. “The big thing then in pop music was the ‘L’ sound – the Shirells, Bobby Rydell, the Chantels.”

The re-branded group was in the studio on Locust Street in the spring of 1961 when music magic struck. An excited Billy Harper, independent promotion manager, popped in and stopped everything. “He says to us, ‘I want to play something for you.’ He puts on a record by The Students called ‘Every Day of the Week’ and he starts stomping the floor to the beat, and says, ‘It’s the latest dance. They’re doing it in Bristol at the Goodwill fire hall and the Edgely fire hall.”

The Bristol Stomp dance came about under this mirror ball in the Goodwill firehall.
This fire hall in Bristol is where the Bristol Stomp was created by local kids in the 1960s.

Dance tunes could reap millions. So song writers Kal Mann and Dave Appell wasted no time crafting a song based on what Harper was telling them. “They called it ‘The Goodwill Stomp’, then changed it to ‘The Bristol Stomp’,” said Gross. Cameo-Parkway Records released the Dovells single, hoping to make it a summertime hit. It slowly caught on at area teen dances because DJs like Hy Lit and Joe Niagra hammered it. A radio station in Chicago picked it up, making it a Midwest hit where kids thought it was about Bristol, Ill. or Bristol, Ohio.
Back in Philly, the Dovells’ big break took awhile. “It was the end of the summer and Bernie Lowe calls me and says, ‘Get your guys together. You’re on ‘Bandstand’ tomorrow,’ ” said Gross. The next day, the Dovells debuted “The Bristol Stomp” on Philly’s nationally televised “American Bandstand”. That sent the record into the stratosphere on Sept. 11, selling more than a million copies and sitting atop the pop charts.

Riding the crest, the Dovells and incredible lead singer Len Barry (who passed away last November) performed to a packed house at the Goodwill firehouse on Mifflin Street. “It was deafening,” said Gross of the dancers’ heels smacking the floor in perfect timing with the opening guitar riff. “The sound they made shook the building. Incredible.” Al Barnes, of Levittown, also witnessed it. “I was not a dancer but more of a wallflower. You know, being ‘cool’ and trying to meet new girls. I remember the rhythmic beat of the kids doing the ‘Stomp’, making the fire hall sound like the floor would cave in. It was quite a sight to see and hear back then.”

That tune and others ensured a career of live performances of The Stomp for the Dovells. “I’ve seen every incarnation of the dance you can imagine, completely crazy versions,” said Gross. “But only the kids in Bristol knew how to do it right.”

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You can catch up with the Dovells by going to www.dovells.com. “Bristol Stompin’ Bonnie” Nadley demonstrating the Stomp with the Dovells can be seen on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XExONqoJujk. To see an incredible live performance of the Dovells in the beginning, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCOB5

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