The epic story of “I’m Leaving It Up to You,” the Dale & Grace hit that reached No. 1 in 1963, fills nearly 50 pages of S.J. Montalbano’s new book, “I’m Leaving It Up to Me.”
The duo's record was at the top of the charts when Montalbano and the song’s singers — Grace Broussard from Prairieville and Dale Houston from Mississippi — were in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963.
That day, Montalbano joined Broussard, Brian Hyland and other performers with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars as they watched President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade pass by. Fifteen minutes later, while Montalbano and Broussard were in a Neiman Marcus department store, they learned the president had been shot. Amid the shock, grief and incessant sirens that engulfed Dallas, promoters canceled that night’s sold-out Caravan of Stars show.
It's all part of Montalbano's fascinating life in the music business from 1958 to the early 1970s, which he chronicles in “I’m Leaving It Up to Me.” With the help of Mickey Montalbano, his older brother by 10 years, Montalbano played a huge role in the local music scene during two of American music’s greatest eras.
For his music business persona, Montalbano streamlined his Sicilian surname and became Sam Montel. He founded Montel Records and its many sister labels, which included a trio of imprints named after his daughters Michelle, Stephanie and Debbie.
In addition to Dale & Grace's big hit, Montalbano produced regional hits — John Fred's “Shirley” and James “Sugar Boy” Crawford's “Danny Boy” — and recordings by The Boogie Kings, Lee Tillman, Joe Tex, Van Broussard, The Greek Fountains and many more.
Montalbano also presented local concerts and nightclub performances featuring Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Fats Domino, Herman’s Hermits, The Who, James Brown, Ray Charles and Steppenwolf.
And he promoted shows featuring New Orleans talent Irma Thomas, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, Ernie K-Doe and many more.
A local celebrity himself, Montalbano will sign copies of “I’m Leaving It Up to Me” at 4 p.m. Wednesday at TimeOut Lounge.
Montalbano started his book three years ago by recording his memories. “For the legacy,” he explained, citing his wide-ranging musical activities and the essential support that his late older brother provided when he was a struggling young entrepreneur.
Anne Mulkey and former Advocate sports writer Sam Muffoletto collaborated with Montalbano, who is 81, on the book. After Mulkey’s home flooded twice in the past three years, Muffoletto came on board to complete the project.
Despite Montalbano’s many music business achievements and his three successful decades operating Bano Fresh Produce, writing his book was a much more difficult task than he anticipated.
“Starting at 78 years old is tough,” he said. “And I didn’t have the help that I was used to having at Bano Produce. I always had superior people around there, but this thing here was all me.”
During the writing process, Montalbano sent a sample of his manuscript to John Broven, the author of “Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans” and “South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous.” The much-respected British music historian advised the aspiring author to add more dates and details.
Montalbano’s memory for dates and his research skills, however, weren’t great. And he grew so discouraged last summer that he asked for help via Facebook.
“It had been too long of a project,” he said. “I was getting burned out, disappointed, thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have done this, maybe it’s too much to take on.’ ”
Muffoletto saw Montalbano’s Facebook pleas.
“I could tell he was frustrated," Muffoletto said. "So, I said, ‘Let me rewrite a chapter. I’ll send it back to you and, if you like it, we’ll take it from there.’ ”
“When Sam came along, boy, he turned me around,” Montalbano said. “I read the chapter he rewrote. I said, ‘Oh. This is what I should have done in the beginning.’ ”
Muffoletto quickly shared Montalbano’s enthusiasm for the work-in-progress.
“I got excited when I heard S.J.’s intriguing behind-the-scenes stories,” he said.
Muffoletto, 61, also has a personal connection to Montalbano’s history. On July 26, 1967, he was among the 5,000 locals who attended a concert starring Herman’s Hermits and The Who that Montalbano presented at the Redemptorist High School football stadium.
“I was sitting on the grass on the front row,” Muffoletto remembered. “For S.J.’s book, I thought I’d be writing a couple of stories about Herman’s Hermits and Jimi Hendrix. But there’s so much more to S.J.’s life in the music business. It’s definitely a ride.”
Montalbano’s Facebook friends suggested he name the book “I’m Leaving It Up to Me.” His working title was “You Can Make It If You Try,” inspired by the 1957 hit by rhythm-and-blues singer Gene Allison.
“The book is not about how great I am,” Montalbano said. “It’s about how, if you pursue something and it’s your dream and you really want it, you can make it.”
WHEN: 4 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: TimeOut Lounge, 4619 Bennington Ave.
INFORMATION: Sam Montel Book on Facebook