BURRILLVILLE – When four young musicians from Burrillville first came together to form the band The Bel-Aires, they say things were very different in town.
Crowds came out for weekly events, such as dances at the Pascoag Fire Station. Venues along Route 44, like The Cold Spring Inn, Cady’s, The Rocking Horse and Ellie’s, offered opportunities to play out nearly every night of the week. Businesses threw parties regularly – not just for the holidays – that featured live music. And smaller venues, like the Knights of Columbus hall, were booked months in advance.
Now, while the members of what may very well be the longest-running band in at least New England have some nostalgia for the old days, they admit that some of the changes to the regions’ nightlife may have been for the best.
“I think drunk driving laws have made a big difference,” said singer and guitar player Jerry Leveille, noting the making smoking in bars illegal in the state also hurt the live music business..
Leveille was a student at Burrillville High School when things first started to come together for the group, now celebrating their 59th year as a live performance band.
“I had picked up an old acoustic guitar, and I was learning to play,” Leveille told NRI NOW of the group’s humble beginnings.
Guitarist and singer Ed Bonczek was a junior at Providence College at the time, and joined up with Leveille, along with saxophone and bassist Paul Cosetta, and drummer Ken Penceira. The young musicians would gather in the basement of Saint Joseph’s Church to practice.
“Father Holland saw something in us that made him allow us to use the church hall,” said Bonczek.
The band’s first gig was also at Saint Joseph’s, on Valentine’s Day in 1961.
“In those days we played a lot of instrumentals,” Leveille said.
“Back in the 50s and early 60s, most of the songs were done with an orchestra behind them,” explained Bonczek.
That was before a little band from London completely changed the music scene.
“If you could learn a couple of Beatles songs you became very popular,” said Leveille. “I wanted to play rock and roll all the time.”
But Bonczek, they noted, was more interested in playing slow songs.
Band members began following local disc jockeys, and taking part in “battle of the bands” competitions.
“We always ended up second,” said Bonczek. “We never got paid.”
It was ultimately the merge of old and new music styles that allowed the group to thrive, picking up gigs at showers and weddings.
“We did both things that we liked,” said Bonczek. “It started there, and just kept going. I experienced the birth of rock and roll because I was the right age.”
In 1964, the band opened for The Searchers from England at the 5,000 seat Rhode Island Auditorium in Providence. The popular headliner had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show just the night before.
When Leveille and Cosetta joined the service, Bonczek found other musicians to fill in.
“The band has had an uninterrupted presence,” he said. “I held the name on until we got together again.”
“We believe we are tied with the Beach Boys and Golden Earring as the longest running rock and roll band in the world,” said Leveille.
Covering popular and generally well-known songs, the band did cut a record, but despite their local popularity, they say it never really sold.
By the time drummer Ernie Ducharme-joined the Bel-Aires in the 1980s, the group had long established itself as one of the region’s top local bands for live performances.
“He’s the newbie,” laughed Leveille.
As the Bel-Aires celebrated their 59th anniversary at a Valentine’s Day dance put on by the Burrillville Lions Club and Knights of Columbus this month, they were joined by newer members; Harry Lawton on keyboard and Matt Swanton on saxophone. Members, some of whom are now in their 70s and 80s, were joined by a female group hailing primarily from Burillville, The Vixens.
And the dance floor stayed packed all afternoon.
Part of the trick to their long-standing popularity, they say, is variety. The band still learns “new” old songs only now, Leveille says, he can pretty much figure out how to play a tune after listening to it once.
“We do a pretty good job of covering other people’s music,” he said.
“It’s not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s about fun,” said Leveille. “We just try to go out and have a good time and hopefully people have a good time too.”
Many of their fans still fondly recall the dances at the Pascoag Fire Station. The first time they played the event for local teens, the cost was just 35 cents a person.
“The hall was filled week after week,” said Leveille. “We’ve had a lot of great times.”
“I’ve known these people longer than I’ve known my children,” Bonczek said of his bandmates. “They’re like brothers. We stuck together through thick and thin. We’ll probably all die together and be buried in the same grave.”
In a moment of clarity about just how much things have changed since those old days, Leveille says he realized one day that no one in his rock and roll band smokes or drinks anymore.
“I think we’re all on Medicare,” he said, laughing. “We’ll still be rocking in heaven.”