LONG LIVE THE TRENIERS
The Treniers are unquestionably one of the first (if not the first), self-contained REAL ROCK AND ROLL groups, ever. They are also probably the greatest living entertainers in showbiz today. Among some very gifted peers, they stand out as the only pioneering Jump Blues stylists to not only thrive when the rest of the world caught up with this Rock'n'Roll stuff (some ten years after they started it) but also to continue to thrive in the ensuing decades as a successful, and far from sedate, lounge act. The group has survived the ever-changing cycle of disposable pop culture trends thrown their way not in spite of their resistance to change, but because of it. By upholding traditions thought long gone by many, and by keeping it lively, The Treniers' performances are just as vital and hypnotizing today as they were in the era when they helped to create Rock'n'Roll. I'd like to think that they've been having too much fun to fully realize this.
Identical twins Claude and Cliff Trenier were born into a very musical family in Mobile, Alabama on July 14th, 1919. In 1939 they began to attend Alabama State, but studies took a backseat to their love of music. Montgomery, Alabama was then a hotbed of musical talent and the twins were soon performing with the likes of Joe Newman, saxophonist Don Hill (who still performs with the group today), and pianist Gene Gilbeaux. After leaving school, and after the World War II draft took them out of commission for a while, they were at it again. Claude began a tenure with the seminal Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, bringing Cliff in to record "Buzz Buzz Buzz," (which appears on the Dr. Horse Treniers reissue collection, You're Killin' Me) and Claude found himself providing vocals for several Jazz legends. In 1945 Claude did a successful years residency at The Melody Club after replacing the great (but foul-mouthed) Wynonie Harris at Club Alabam. The twins, however, were inseparable and they were soon back together and eventually got Gene Gilbeaux, who became the band's arranger, and Don Hill back in the fold.
The Artists Formally Known as The Trenier Twins and the Gene Gilbeaux Orchestra, The Trenier Twins, and finally The Treniers, were born kicking and screaming as sure as the day the twins actually entered the world. Signing their first recording contract a half century ago with Mercury Records, The Treniers quickly earned a reputation as much for their frantic actions on stage as for their music itself. While Claude and Cliff were undeniably the real court jesters, the entire band moved in perfect synchronicity, like Siamese quintuplets connected by a single pulsebeat. Agile as a snake, wilder than a hyena, the group was a perpetual motion machine. But then, how can you not move when The Treniers are on your stereo, your TV, or if you've had the good fortune, on stage, live and in your face? The beat, as well as the joy they produce, is infectious.
In the early fifties, The Treniers' real heyday began. Joined by older brother Buddy and younger brother Milt, they signed with the legendary Okeh label, producing a remarkable string of killer Rock'n'Roll sides, each of them an out of the ball park homer in terms of quality, if not always sales. It's been said that The Treniers couldn't capture all the energy of their live act in the confinements of the studio, but what they did come up with are some of Rock'n'Roll's finest moments nonetheless. "Rockin' Is Our Business," "Rockin' On Saturday Night," and "It Rocks, it Rolls, it Swings!" are all self-explanatory in their rockingness. The drunken revelry of "Hadacol (That's All)," the horniness of "Poon-Tang!" ("Poon is a hug! Tang is a kiss!" Uh, yeah...) and the audacious date rape classic "(Uh Oh) Get Out Of The Car" (Covered by Richard "Louie Louie" Berry and Sammy Davis, Jr.), were all done strictly in fun, but were the beginnings of a revolution that, fortunately, was televised. Taking what they learned from artists they'd worked with and admired like Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and Jimmie Lunceford, The Treniers added their own inimitable personal touch and took the whole thing into the highest gear imaginable. Rock and Roll was still better known as a metaphor for sex, and The Treniers were bringing it to it's first climax!
Other artists would soon reap the rewards of the seeds they had sown, but The Treniers found themselves in a very respectable position of visibility by 1956, their departure from Okeh notwithstanding. They were reaching a wider audience through various TV shows, including Jackie Gleason's and Red Skelton's programs, and through a number of movies, Don't Knock the Rock and The Girl Can't Help It being the best known today. In the former, The Treniers appeared with Alan Freed, (who had been honored by a Treniers original for his theme song) along with Little Richard and Bill Haley. For those who recognize Haley's place as one of the breakthrough Rock'n'Roll artists with "Rock Around The Clock," another direct lineage between The Treniers and the birth of Rock'n'Roll exists. Haley, who had caught The Treniers act in New Jersey when he was still a Country artist with his group The Saddlemen, "and wasn't nothin'" as Claude says, was significantly influenced by their sound and show. In Don't Knock The Rock, The Treniers' explosive, boozy, bluesy, hand-clappin, finger-snappin' performance of "Rockin' On Saturday Night," in a thoroughly whitebread setting, is at once provocative and surreal. The even more pronounced clowning on "Out Of The Bushes" takes the prize. Alongside prettyboy Milt's almost robotic primping, Claude and Cliff hold court in bughouse square, each attempting to outdo the other in sheer craziness, even resorting (before even some parents of the Lallapaloser Nation were born) to stage diving! The song itself, more or less a word of warning from a stalker, ("Something's gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you...") is an outrageous combination of some more complicated Jazzy sequences and The Treniers' own brand of contagious humor. It even spawned one purely novelty version by Joe Besser soundalike Crazy Otto. "It was big in Guam," Claude jokes today.
Their real crowning cinematic moment came in the (hourglass) form of The Girl Cant Help It, the greatest Rock'n'Roll movie of all time. In gorgeous Technicolor and stereophonic sound, The Treniers performed a well beyond crazed, "Rockin' Is Our Business," by then their signature song and still their set opener. In such a class-A package, with an All-Star lineup that included Little Richard, Julie London, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, Abbey Lincoln and The Platters, The Treniers still stand out like Jayne Mansfield's Double D's! Only little Richard could have possibly matched them for flamboyance and kick-out-the-jams conviction, but then again, he did do three songs.
By the late '50s, Rock'n'Roll was going out in a blaze, not one of glory, but of deaths, scandals and personal turmoil. Alan Freed was crucified on payola charges. Dick Clark, inexplicably, eluded such a fate, though he started playing records so bad, Freed couldn't have been paid to play them. He became the movement's new "leader," while Freed went on to die broke and broken. The living didn't all fare much better. The Treniers found themselves on the fateful tour of England with Jerry Lee Lewis where he brought himself down by making public his marriage to his teenage cousin, ("That big dummy!" Claude sums up in his best Redd Foxx). Where could The Treniers turn to in the dawning of the era of teen idols who wouldn't know ROCK if it hit them upside the head? Would you believe, Vegas?
Once the smoke had cleared, The Treniers found themselves doing very well on the Vegas/Atlantic City circuit. Milt had left by then to pursue his own solo career, cutting some strong sides in a big, brassy baritone, not unlike Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Nephew Skip, also possessed of a fine set of pipes and enough good looks to keep the ladies coming back, took Milt's place and remains with the group to this day. Rock and Vegas up to that time had been strange bedfellows. Even Elvis flopped in Vegas his first time out in 1956. But The Treniers came in anticipating that the patrons not only demanded a show, but the sun, the moon and the stars as well, and The Treniers were there to give it to them. Louis Prima had already proven you could rock in Sin City and not starve. Though his distant cousins in the Rat Pack, (except for Sammy who liked anything hip) dismissed Rock'n'Roll as a passing fad, Prima staged his comeback by incorporating it's rhythms into his act. With charisma and versatility (they mastered every style of pop imaginable at the time), The Treniers, along with Prima and his hired gun Sam Butera, were the only artists to rock Vegas and Atlantic City with class and without compromise. When other Rock'n'Soul artists were gaining acceptance by the early 70s, they had already staked their claim. One such figure was Elvis Presley who met up with The Treniers and told them how as a kid he had learned "Good Rockin' Tonight" from their version.
Brother Milt opened a most swinging lounge of his own right here in his wife's home town of Chicago. He booked the band twice a year between engagements in Vegas and Atlantic City, though their visits to the Windy City have been more sporadic since the aura of Atlantic City has dimmed in recent years. Through the years they've shared stages with the likes of Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bill Cosby. Cosby was so fond of Cliff that he named his television character, Heathcliff Huxtable, after him. Their success in Vegas has been phenomenal and even recently, against stiff competition obviously, they've won Las Vegas Entertainers of the Year several times.
The group displayed remarkable longevity and seemed indestructible, but sadly, fourteen years ago a reminder of their own humanity fell upon them. In 1983, Cliff Trenier passed away. Claude was now faced with what was probably the biggest decision of his life. Should he retire the group, or should he carry on in Cliff's memory? The bond was so strong between these twins, that the decisions one makes are undoubtedly influenced by the other. Cliff had been called home, and for the rest of The Treniers, their home in this life, too, was beckoning. They returned to the stage. Skip, approaching his 25th year in the group, ably took the dual frontman position with Claude (Buddy has since retired). Don Hill is still lending his distinct sax wizardry to the band, while acting as an affable fall guy to Claude's and Skip's incessant goofing. Dave Akins, also a veteran from years back, keeps the beat steady and smokin', while more recent additions, bassist Donald Jackson and keyboard payer Jack Holland, keep the groove and help things move.
To witness The Treniers now is to be transported to an atmosphere and an age that one could be forgiven for thinking we'd never again witness. The friendliness they convey and the obvious love for their work is so genuine. Their kind of one-on-one rapport with an audience I've rarely seen elsewhere, and it brings the things my generation has missed out on to light. Most younger performers should live to move like Claude and Skip do today. Of course The Treniers would land in the hospital if they were doing all the things they used to do on stage, but then, so would most guys my age if they tried to do what the Treniers still do every night. The Treniers are still, as always, a live act. Always about life and always lively. LONG LIVE THE TRENIERS!