Flipping through page after page of a scrapbook detailing John O'Banion's album and magazine covers, awards, and movies, Carroll Webster remembers O'Banion being disappointed he wasn't a household name in Kokomo.
"He was famous, known mostly in Hollywood and Japan," Webster said. "He just wasn't a household name in his hometown except with his family, classmates, and close friends."
Some might remember the 1965 Kokomo High School grad being the singer in Hog Honda & The Chain Guards, which was a big hit locally in the early- to mid-1960s. Others might remember his program on WIOU or his television show " The Johnny O'Banion Show."
Some might remember him performing with Doc Severinsen's band, Today's Children. Others might remember one of his 27 appearances on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson," or seeing him on "American Bandstand," "Solid Gold," "The Merv Griffin Show," or "The Mike Douglas Show."
Some might remember him starring in "Courage" with Sophia Loren and Billy Dee Williams, "Borderline" with Charles Bronson, or as Jesus in "The Judas Project." Others, like Webster and Bob Bailey, remember him as a talented friend.
O'Banion died early this year, just two days shy of his 60th birthday.
The early days
O'Banion was always singing, either in Hog Honda & The Chain Guards or in choir at KHS, Webster said. Jim Day, a DJ at WIOU, was the band's manager and wrote the song "Street of Broken Hearts," which was a local favorite.
"When we first started out, we only sang three songs," said Bailey, who played the guitar. "Little Latin Lupe Lu," "Blue Moon," and "Louie, Louie." One night at the Y downtown, this was when we were first starting, there was a semester break dance. We had a lot of fun then. We had that place rockin' that night. None of us could believe we were getting paid for making music. We got $20 apiece, and we thought we'd hit the lottery.
"O'Banion sang, and he could make his voice sound as if he were playing a harmonica," Bailey said. "He was unbelievable. When the Kokomo basketball team advanced to the semi-state, he'd sit in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Fort Wayne and draw crowds. Young people, older people gathered around. It was amazing to see a kid of that age sing like that. They were almost mesmerized by him. It was an absolute God-given talent."
Other members of Hog Honda & The Chain Guards were Phil Harmon, Gary Johnson, Doug Lambert, Cart Ellis, and Jim Cox, according to Webster.
"It was a very popular band," Bailey said. "Those were good days. I have a lot of good memories."
Webster remembers O'Banion's love for Frank Sinatra and that his friend often sang "Old Blue Eyes' " songs and sounded just like him.
Pursuing his dream
When O'Banion quit Delco to pursue his dream, folks at the factory thought he was being silly; he proved them wrong with each success, Webster said.
As O'Banion auditioned for Today's Children, the amazed band members called Severinsen, who flew out to hear him sing. "Doc made him the lead singer," Webster said.
That led to O'Banion being booked on "The Tonight Show."
In a February 2005 Kokomo Tribune article after Carson's death, O'Banion recalled his favorite moments on the show and with Carson.
"As a young kid from Kokomo, you can imagine how exciting it was to suddenly be welcomed onto 'The Tonight Show.' … No one had a greater hand in launching my career than Johnny Carson. He took notice of me when I was singing with Doc Severinsen and Today's Children. He expressed genuine belief in me and couldn't have offered me greater encouragement as a singer. … He always made a point of catching my shows at the Playboy Club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Often after my performances on his show, Johnny would join me for drinks at Sneaky Pete's, which was a popular night point in the '70s."
While on "The Tonight Show," O'Banion met Hollywood legends, such as Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., and John Wayne.
"I'll never forget running into John Wayne, standing by in his bathrobe," O'Banion said during the 2005 interview.
"It was fun seeing your friend on the Johnny Carson show and 'American Band Stand,' " Webster said.
O'Banion's two most popular songs were "Love You Like I Never Loved Before," which made it to No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart back in 1981, when songs such as Sheena Easton's, "Morning Train," Kool & The Gang's "Celebration," and Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" were popular, and "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love."
Webster remembers the time O'Banion had him and his other friends back home in Kokomo go over to O'Banion's parents' house. He mailed them a video and told them to watch it.
It was a tape of the Tokyo Music Festival. "We heard John sing, and other stars, but he was the best, and I'm not just saying it because he's my friend," Webster said. Then they announced O'Banion was the winner with his song, "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love." Webster's eyes filled with tears remembering that moment. "That was just really special, to be there with his parents and see that."
The award is the equivalent of a Grammy.
O'Banion found great success in Japan, where he released four albums, three of which also were released in Europe and the United States. He's also remembered for his song "When I'm Dreaming," used in a Lux commercial with Catherine Zeta Jones in Japan.
But this is how O'Banion summed up his career. "I always loved when Sinatra sang, 'It Was a Very Good Year,' and now I'm old enough to sing it and mean it."
After his death, caused by complications from a blunt force trauma years ago while touring in New Orleans, comedian Richard Lewis led the memorial service at the Comedy Store.
And comedian Steve Bluestein wrote about O'Banion, on www.einsiders.com: "I need to tell you a story of the early days. The days when dreams were what we lived on and success was what we hoped for. … In the very beginning at The Comedy Store there were not enough comedians to do a show every night, and so Sammy would allow singers to use the stage to showcase themselves. … It was just another night at The Comedy Store. The regulars were hanging out at the bar. Barry Levinson and Craig T. Nelson were in the hallway, George Miller in the back and me sitting in the little alcove right outside the original room. … In walks the singer.
"How can I put it? Plain and simple, he was the handsomest man I had ever seen. He wasn't handsome like Clark Gable was ruggedly handsome; he was Brad Pitt pretty. His dark hair framed a chiseled face of high cheekbones and a perfect nose. His eyes were wide set, deep and dark. He wasn't a big man, maybe 5'8' or 5'9". His frame was slight, but the women in the club were immediately smitten by him. And the buzz started in the club, 'Something special is about to happen.'
"The singer took the stage, and you could hear a pin drop. He opened his mouth, and jaws dropped. He had the most magnificent voice I have ever heard, a pure, clear voice, with a top range that could pierce the smoky night air of a smoke-filled nightclub and turn it into pure magic. I looked out into the audience, and it was mass hypnotism. Not a person moved. Not a drink was served. … Everyone wanted to love him, to listen to him, to know him. He was star quality of the finest magnitude. When he got off the stage, to thunderous applause, the manager and the entourage whisked him out of the club like he was Cinderella. It left magic in the room. Who was that masked man? What's his name again? Where can I see him? Soon talk began in the industry. There's a new star in town. …
"I always end my pieces with a little smart remark at the end, something to make the reader smile. I don't have a joke tonight. My heart is too heavy to make anyone laugh. I just wish you could all have heard him sing. You'd understand why I grieve so tonight."
Webster couldn't say it any better.