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The Ohio Express were five young Ohio kids pumping out Bubblegum Pop hits in the '60s -- or were they?

By Larry Gross · July 4th, 2007 · Cover Story
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  Five kids from Mansfield, Ohio, were marketed as Bubblegum Pop stars in the late 1960s, but they never actually recorded their hit songs. Here's a 1968 version of The Ohio Express with (L-R) Tim Corwin, Dean Kastran, Dale Powers, Buddy Bengert and Doug Grassel.
Five kids from Mansfield, Ohio, were marketed as Bubblegum Pop stars in the late 1960s, but they never actually recorded their hit songs. Here's a 1968 version of The Ohio Express with (L-R) Tim Corwin, Dean Kastran, Dale Powers, Buddy Bengert and Doug Grassel.

Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I got love in my tummy

And I feel like a-lovin you

Love, you're such a sweet thing

Good enough to eat thing

And it's just a-what I'm gonna do

In 1967, 18-year-old Dean Kastran of The Ohio Express musical group stepped up to a microphone on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and started lip-syncing to "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy." It was the group's second single, and it would turn gold later in the year.

He and other members of the band had arrived at the show late because an alarm clock hadn't gone off that morning in Mansfield, Ohio. They barely made it to Clark's Los Angeles studio for their performance. During that performance, every group member was stoned on hash.

"Yeah, we engaged in some hash smoking on the plane," Kastran says. "Back then, you could smoke on a plane. We would light a cigarette with a hulk of hash on the end of it.

"When we got to L.A., we were really high and really late. The cab driver wanted to know who we were, and we told him and then he said, 'Hey, wanta smoke a joint?' So we smoked in the cab, too. When we got to the studio, we were a bit lit up, but we weren't whacked out. We were under control."

Ooh love to hold ya

Ooh love to kiss ya

Ooh love I love it so

Ooh love you're sweeter

Sweeter than sugar

Ooh love

I won't let you go

After lip-syncing "Yummy," Kastran started in on The Ohio Express' new hit single, "Down at Lulu's," again just moving his mouth to the record.

Clark told the group that "Yummy" and "Lulu's" were his daughter's two favorite songs -- a nice compliment to the five young kids from Mansfield.

But here's the reality: Those songs and others to come weren't recorded by The Ohio Express. Their name simply was put on the singles' labels and jacket covers. It was all a hoax.

When Kastran lip-synced those two songs on American Bandstand, he was lip-syncing to the voice of Joey Levine, a 17-year-old kid who came from a musical family and lived in New York City. Levine was a studio singer and writer.

Kastran and The Ohio Express never performed with Levine. He never toured with the group or recorded a song with them.

Now, 40 years later, the lie is still trying to be covered up.

This is the story of The Ohio Express, whom many credit for having started the "Bubblegum" music sound. They originally were a successful Garage band out of Mansfield -- five talented musicians who sold their young souls to New York suits who flew into Ohio one day in the '60s.

Wanna be a star, kid?
Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I got love in my tummy

And as silly as it may seem

The lovin' that you're giving

Is what keeps me livin'

And your love is like peaches and cream

The suits told the kids they would make them stars. The end result was endless touring, partying with superstars and promises never kept.

Now celebrating their 40th anniversary, members of the original Ohio Express still are trying to reconcile and come to peace with a puzzling and confusing past that's full of muckiness and half truths.

They started out as Sir Timothy and the Royals. In the mid-1960s, they were making a name for themselves on the Greater Columbus band circuit, sometimes opening for national touring acts such as Billy Joe Royal and The Turtles.

Sir Timothy (Tim Corwin) played the drums with Dale Powers on lead guitar, Doug Grassel on rhythm guitar, Jim Pfahler on keyboards and Kastran on bass. They hailed from Mansfield and got popular by entering "battle of the bands" competitions.

"Basically all the venues were in Columbus, all the clubs," Corwin says during a recent visit to Cincinnati to be interviewed for this story. "And we were playing every weekend. We got into the battle of the bands and there were some really good Columbus bands, but we ended up beating them. We got our name out and got scouted by people out of New York who signed us up and changed our name to The Ohio Express."

Those New York scouts were Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz of Super K, the production company that already had a hit with another Ohio band, The Music Explosion. On their recommendation, Kasenetz and Katz went to Mansfield with contracts in hand for Sir Timothy and the Royals.

It was a "take it or leave it" deal, as the Super K reps were going to be in town just overnight. Corwin says the only lawyers available to look over the contracts were divorce attorneys.

"We should have realized that a music lawyer should have been the one to review the contracts," Corwin says. "The attorneys we had didn't know what they were looking at."

But were attorneys even involved? Enter the muckiness. In a phone interview, Kastran says that attorneys were never present.

"Some of us were probably 18 years old, but most of were under 18, and those of us under 18 our parents had to sign," Kastran says. "I know I was 17 at the time. The suits flew into town and said, 'We're only going to be here overnight. Either sign it or we move on.' Of course back then it was like, 'Please Mom and Dad, please sign it,' and they did and eventually we went off to New York."

With their name changed to The Ohio Express, the group's first single to chart was "Beg, Borrow & Steal."

"It charted real good for us," Corwin says. "Then after that, we broke into the Bubblegum sound. We had 10 hits in Bubblegum."

In fact, "Beg, Borrow & Steal" had already been recorded and released by another Super K group called The Rare Breed. The same song, the exact same recording, was re-released with The Ohio Express' name on it on Cameo/Parkway Records.

Shortly after this re-release, Cameo/Parkway went out of business. A&R man Neil Bogart formed Buddah Records and took all of the Super K acts with him, including The Ohio Express.

Along came "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" and other Bubblegum-sounding songs. "Yummy" and all the hit singles after it were actually recorded by Levine and studio musicians. It was a sign of things to come.

"I remember we heard 'Yummy, Yummy, Yummy' over the phone and we said, 'Great, when are we going to record it?' They said, 'It's all done.

It's going to come out next week,' " Kastran remembers. "They more or less promised us that we would get to do everything else after that."

What came after was the real Ohio Express doing some of the cuts on albums but none of the singles.

Mike Brumm, who joined the group in the mid-'70s and who recently moved to Cincinnati from Mansfield, remembers the confusion back home.

"There weren't a lot of details about what was going on in the local paper," Brumm says. "We just heard they were going to make it big. When we heard ('Yummy, Yummy, Yummy'), it was kind of a shock, to tell you the truth. That was not the kind of music they played -- not at all. They were an R&B cover band that did all the hits of the day. They had a grittier sound, almost a Rolling Stones sound. This stuff was too Pop and lightweight to be them."

Levine and studio musicians kept cranking out the hit singles. What Kasenetz and Katz and Super K wanted from the real Ohio Express was to go out on the road and do relentless touring to promote the singles they weren't a part of.

Staying high and burning out
See the neon sign

The kids stand in line

And money clutched in hand

They wanna hear that band

Base is thumpin'

Everybody's jumpin'

The drummer keeps beatin'

Everybody meets down at Lulu's

Down at Lulu's

For two years, the real Ohio Express was on the road almost nonstop singing "Down at Lulu's," "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" and the other Bubblegum hits. It was necessary for someone in the group to impersonate Levine's nasal-punk voice, and it was decided it would be Kastran.

He did all the singing for the Levine-sung singles while the other members handled vocals on the songs they wrote to round out their albums. The touring was a grind.

"I was so burned out," Corwin remembers. "I think I was in Baton Rouge, La., and I just started walking down an alley. Someone said 'Hey, where you going?' and I said, 'I'm going home, man.'

"We lived on airlines. I knew every waitress at O'Hare Airport -- so many flights out of Chicago. I knew half the airline stewardesses. We would fly first class and we would sometimes get on with these stuffy business guys and they would look at us with our beads and stuff on and they would go, 'Look at this!' "

While the touring might have been tiring, the young kids from Mansfield had their share of fun on the road. Corwin remembers touring with The Who.

"We did a tour with them in 1968 -- that was a fun thing," he recalls. "Those guys were a wild bunch. We started up in Montreal at the baseball stadium. They had 20,000 people in that thing. They had a riser off the ball field of about 20 feet. I remember we opened up and started playing and all these things were bouncing off the head of my drums. I looked around, and Keith Moon was behind me with a bag of sunflower seeds.

"Those guys were drinkers. We were at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal and had a big dinner and those guys got really loaded and they started with their drinking glasses, busting them up and throwing shit around. We (The Ohio Express) were all stoned and humbled. We don't get that way, so we separated. We got to the room and there's a knock on the door and there's this roadie from The Who. He says, 'You got any grass? All those guys do is drink.' I said, 'Come on in.' "

They opened for Johnny Rivers, smoked pot with Neil Diamond, hung out with Blood, Sweat & Tears, partied once at Jimi Hendrix's house and even knew Tiny Tim ("When we first met him, he played 'My Sweet Ohio Home' on his ukulele," Corwin remembers). Each member of the group was getting paid $1,000 a week for touring, with the rest of the money being put in an escrow account. It was money the group would never see.

"They were retaining half of every gig we played," Corwin says. "All that money was never accounted for. I would say to Jeff (Katz), 'How about that escrow account? What's it looking like?' and he would say, 'Don't worry about it.' "

While Corwin is convinced the group is still owned money from their touring days, Kastran isn't so sure.

"Probably, but I don't know," Kastran says. "None of us knew what the contract said, if it said 'We're going to screw these guys' or not. I know they claim it all went toward traveling expenses."

Bubblegum loses its flavor
Chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy baby

Always got a mouthful of such sweet thing to say

Chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy, chewy baby

Chewy's full of sugar and I love her that way

The real Ohio Express stayed on the road while Levine and studio musicians continued to pump out the hits. The touring group barely even knew Levine.

"Some of the Web sites make it sound like he was part of the band," Kastran says. "We really only met him once, maybe twice, maybe a couple times."

The Joey Levine hit singles were the keys to success -- not the albums. The album tracks fell into two different categories: the poppy Bubblegum sound from Levine and the studio musicians and the real band's psychedelic offerings.

The two different sounds didn't mix well, and none of the albums made it into the Billboard Top 100. The singles were the money-makers, so the lying about the group's true identity continued.

"I think they figured we had the common sense even as kids that we wanted to be the focal point and we just perpetuated the lies," Kastran says. "They kept promising we would eventually get to do it, and we did record on the albums. Frankly, we liked our original stuff on the albums better."

In August 1968, the beginning of the end began for the original five members because of another hit single they had nothing to do with.

"For Dale (Powers) and me, the straw that broke the camel's back was when we were traveling to Cincinnati to play a gig with The Lemon Pipers," Kastran recalls. "The announcer on the radio said, 'Here's a brand new song by The Ohio Express,' and 'Chewy, Chewy' came on and we all looked at one another and said, 'Did you know we had a new song out?' And everyone goes like, 'No, don't know anything about it.' We got to the gig and people there said, 'Hey, we heard your new song, gonna do it tonight?' We said, 'Eh, no, we don't know it.' "

A month after the release of "Chewy, Chewy," Kastran and Powers called it quits with The Ohio Express. Corwin soon followed, but his departure came over money issues.

"I'd let another month go by and I'd call them up and say, 'Hey, I'd like to know how much money is involved here,' " Corwin says. "They knew I was on to them, so at one point we had a falling out and that's when I left the band."

Corwin says the band is owed millions of dollars in royalties put in that escrow account. But with no members actually having a copy of the contract and with Levine and studio musicians producing and singing the hits, there's no evidence supporting his statement.

While Corwin calls the suits that signed The Ohio Express "thugs," Kastran doesn't remember them that way.

"I wouldn't know a thug if it came up and hugged me," he says. "I was back in New York a couple weeks ago, and I wish I could have run into those guys just to say, 'Hi.' "

Shortly after leaving the group, Kastran and Powers were drafted and went to Vietnam. Corwin returned to Mansfield and bought a farm. Levine, the voice on all the hits, left Super K and went to work for music producer Mike Curb on the West Coast and eventually ended up making commercial jingles for Almond Joy ("Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut") and Coca Cola ("Just For the Taste of It, Diet Coke") among others.

With three band members gone and with Levine moving on to greener pastures, it looked like The Ohio Express was finished -- but the group stayed alive. Their music and the muckiness surrounding it weren't over.

Beg, borrow and steal
And I'd rather beg, borrow and steal,

I'd rather beg borrow and steal

I'd rather beg borrow and steal than go back to you

Go back to you

Than go back to you

By the end of 1968, the band was in shambles. Levine had moved on from Super K Productions, and three of the original five band members were now gone. Keyboardist Jim Pfahler soon followed.

"Pfahler was the odd man out," says Brumm, who would eventually replace Pfahler on keyboards. "On the road, they had some pretty bad fights. The rest were always kind of cutting him out of the loop. He just didn't fit.

"After Dean and Dale were drafted, that was kind of the end of the band really. That's when I started hanging out more with Tim (Corwin) and Doug (Grassel). Doug at that time had his own version of the band, just himself usually. Sometimes Tim would join him with some other guys they would recruit. That's when I joined them. I've been in the band for over 30 years."

For the next 20 years, Corwin, Grassel and Brumm continued on with The Ohio Express and would beg, borrow and steal to keep the name alive. They still pretended that they were the ones singing on those hit singles. They would recruit different faces along the way to round out the group.

"One of the best quotes I've heard is that there are 83 members of The Ohio Express," Brumm jokes. "It's like, whenever we would meet somebody who played in a band, we would go, 'OK, you're No. 43.' "

When the Berlin Wall went down in Germany in November 1989, the group found new life overseas.

"They kind of had to play catch up after the Wall went down," Brumm says, "and when they did, all that Rock & Roll came through. We were a brand new band again."

Being a hit in Germany, The Ohio Express got their booking gigs through Mars Talent Agency, one of the country's largest "oldies" booking agencies. But to get those gigs, the agency insisted that the group trademark their name.

"See, (Super K) didn't trademark anything, because if they did they would have to form a corporation and pay taxes," Corwin says. "So I got the name sort of on the insistence of Mars Talent, who said, 'If we're gonna book ya, we want to make sure we got the one and only.' "

The one and only is in name only. Brumm has usually made the trips in recent tours, and sometimes Corwin and Grassel go along. Whoever decides not to go is replaced by another musician, mostly one located in Germany. The "current" group decides who sounds the most like Joey Levine, and the lying continues.

"I always thought if we could just somehow get a chance to present the real version of it, it would exonerate these guys," Brumm says. "It would give them the credit finally, the street credit they always deserved. But because of this hoax that we have to perpetuate, we've tuned into the masters of illusion."

Corwin, while being interviewed for this story, never admits that The Ohio Express hit singles weren't recorded by the group. Grassel, after agreeing to be interviewed, wouldn't return phone calls when he learned I'd done research on the group's history via the Web.

"I don't fault Tim or Doug for not revealing that history," Kastran says. "You know, they're still touring, still carrying on the name and doing things around the country. I'm sure they don't want it to be a public thing, but how much more public can you get than for it to be on the Internet?"

Bittersweet sympathy
Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I got love in my tummy

That your love can satisfy

Love, you're such a sweet thing

Good enough to eat thing

And sweet thing, that ain't no lie

With The Ohio Express celebrating its 40th anniversary, Brumm looks back at his 30 years with the band with some regret.

"This band has cost me dearly," he says. "Because I've been involved with this group, I've lost five women, really good relationships, (along with) four really good jobs, three other great bands which I basically deserted and two houses all paid for.

"I wanted to be famous. I wanted success. I wanted to make it. I thought if I could get myself with this thing, maybe we could do some other things. We talked about that a lot."

There was talk of a tour in Germany this summer to celebrate the group's anniversary, but Grassel had to have hip replacement surgery late in the spring. The tour has now been postponed until Spring 2008. Brumm doesn't know if he'll be going this time around.

"I don't want to make eight-month, nine-month, 10-month trips anymore," he says. "Maybe we'll go over for two or three weeks and really hit it hard. I can do that."

There has also been discussion over the past few years with various record companies of releasing new material overseas, but so far it hasn't panned out.

"You've got a band of middle-aged guys, all in their 50s, some in their late 50s," Brumm says. "How many groups like this are ever going to make a comeback with new releases, you know? Not very many that I can think of."

With no new record releases planned and with facing their ages and reality, the real Ohio Express will carry on their name by doing oldies shows in the U.S. and touring overseas.

More than likely the German tour will happen at some point. Corwin and Grassel will probably make the trip and, if Brumm doesn't, he and the other missing members will be replaced with new recruits -- new members to be added to that growing list that's part of the pretenders. They'll continue to perform the hit singles they weren't part of. The lie will go on.

"In a way, they discredit themselves for life," Brumm says.

Kastran hasn't toured with the group in years and, when remembering his musical past, he downplays his time with The Ohio Express.

"If someone were to ask me about it, I would rather talk about Sir Timothy and the Royals," he says. "We were a very good local band, man."

Regarding Sir Timothy (Corwin), there might be some bitterness with the way things worked out with the New York suits, but he can find a positive side to the Ohio Express story, too.

"I look at it like a college I couldn't get (into) any other way," he says. "In a way, they gave me something I really enjoyed. I know they did." ©



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