Louis Antonio Castro was born in Spanish Harlem to Puerto Rican immigrants from Ponce. There were musicians on both sides of the family and according to Castro that’s where he inherited his voice. Growing up it was mostly Latin music being played in the Castro household. However, as a young man Castro took a liking to greats like Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole and even Argentinean Tango singers. Due to 1960’s foreign politics Castro used the stage name of Tony Amaro for the majority of his career. His first record release was in 1960 on Chicago based Stacy Records. His vocal feature on the song “Little Shepherd Boy” by Pete King Corale Orchestra came out the same year. Later he teamed up with Gospel group the Sweet Chariots and they released a 45 on Loma Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, in 1967. Two more releases, one of them the stunning and attentive W.E.L.F.A.R.E. track on the delusory Universal International Records, and Castro’s career in music wrapped up.
Antonio Castro has been away from the music scene for the last almost 40 years. This is his first interview in at least as long.
When was the first time you performed on a proper stage in front of an audience?
I hit the stage at the Apollo Amateur Night and placed fourth. I think I must have been around 14 or 15. I almost died because I was so nervous. One of the guys from the block was on the same show. In those days if you didn’t make it there was a character named Puerto Rico and he would come in wearing diapers and a pistol and shoot you off the stage. That’s what happened to my friend. His name was Camacho and my name was Castro. He was right in front of me but somehow I came out fourth. They were merciful (Laughs).
Who did you work with before Tony Amaro & the Chariots came about?
Before I got with Chariots, I worked with Tedd Browne who was a very interesting folk singer. Tedd and I used to do private clubs. We did a duet together. There was a club in New Jersey, which was like the Copacabana (in Manhattan) in those days. It was called Chubby’s. We worked there for a week.
We never recorded together. Tedd moved to Cleveland and he wanted me to come with him but I couldn’t because of my day job here in New York. There was a race riot (in Cleveland) and everybody was going crazy and while Tedd was waiting for a red light some one came behind him for no reason at all and blew his brains out. Tedd was a big guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly. A friend and myself flew out to the funeral. Even the mayor of Cleveland was there. Tedd left a couple of kids. It was really very sad!
How did you move on from there musically?
I met a man named Tad Truesdale at my day job and he happened to be working as a performer in Greenwich Village, at the Café Bizarre. Greenwich Village was a fascinating place. It was like a Mecca for young artists. It was very different and I met a lot of people that were very interesting.
Tad Truesdale had his own group over there. Tad was a fine entertainer but he was short one vocalist. He found out that I used to sing and he asked me to join his group. I said, “Ok, fine”. I did background with a couple of other vocalist. Tad also had a rhythm section. I added a conga drum for Calypso and Latin type effects.
Can you tell me more about the coffee houses in Greenwich Village in Manhattan?
They had these coffee houses all around the Greenwich Village area and a lot of stars came out of there. Many of them got their training in the Village like Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan, Lovin’ Spoonful, Richie Havens… There were so many. It was very liberal and everybody had their own style. Not only did you have entertainers but you also had people that recited poetry, folk singers, hillbilly music and contemporary singers. You even had Calypso bands playing steel drums. The array of different types of music was fascinating. It was wild.
The coffee houses didn’t sell any liquor. They just sold milkshakes, sandwiches, sodas and stuff like that but no alcohol. The name of the place I worked at was called Café Bizarre. It was a very plain place but they did have a stage. It wasn’t lavish in any way. The coffee houses had all kinds of weird names. It was very exciting because you had all kinds of people coming in. These places were always packed and the Village was always packed. It was like Grand Central (train station). It was also a tourist attraction. You had people coming in from all over the world. You had black and white people mingling together. There was never a problem with race. It didn’t exist down there in the Village. It was a very bohemian scene where people were doing their own thing. I never encountered any racism.
You kept a day job while you performed at Café Bizarre. What were you able to take away from an experience like that?
I kept my job because I had a family to support. I had no choice but what I took away was a wealth of experience and I got to hear and see many different types of music. Richie Havens was a great Blues and Folk singer. Lovin’ Spoonful was kind of loud but that was Rock ‘n Roll. I remember John Sebastian who was the leader asking me what I thought of the group. I said, I thought they were great but maybe they should tone it down. He didn’t take my advice. In retrospect I think it’s funny (Laughs). We used to hang out at Richie Havens place on 3rd Street. At that time he was married and everything. All the entertainers from the Village used to go to his pad periodically and have wild parties. We had a nice time (Laughs).
One night there was a group called the Sweet Chariots performing Gospel and religious songs at Café Bizarre. We eventually became the Tony Amaro & the Chariots with me as the lead singer.
You already used the name Tony Amaro before meeting the Chariots. What was the reason behind not using your given name?
I couldn’t use the name Castro because (Fidel) Castro was not a very well liked figure in the US at the time. I used my mother’s maiden name which is Amaro. My middlename is Antonio and I cut it down to Tony, Tony Amaro.
What can you tell me about Sweet Chariots who became The Chariots when they joined with you?
They were a gospel group from Philadelphia and were really good vocalists. The Sweet Chariots and later the Chariots consisted of three singers; Herman Edwards, Kenneth Corprew and Henry Miller. We just merged the talents and kept the group going. We played in clubs and recorded together.
I also had a small band. Johnny Castro (no relation) was my drummer and James Harlan Taylor was my pianist. They weren’t in the Chariots. They were just my band. We had different bass players all the time. Personally, I don’t play any instruments except for a bit of Conga but it’s really not my forte. I sing and write.
On your first recording you were just Tony Amaro. That was in 1960, right?
I released at least a couple of records before joining with the Chariots. The first one was “Heart & Soul” and “Please Stay With Me”. It got a lot of promotion and they were about to launch it nationally but then the payola scandal took off and the DJ’s wouldn’t touch new material. That was the end of it. It was on Stacy Records out of Chicago. The people who were behind it were independently wealthy. They really didn’t need it. It may have been just an adventure (in the music business) for them. They were crazy about my style. Unfortunately, it didn’t go anywhere. I thought it was going to be my big break.
How were you trying to get a break in the music business during those times in the 1960’s?
I always had a day job because I had a family to support. I just kept at the music part time and did the best I could. It was very hard to get the right gigs. There were a lot of shows where you have to go out of town but I had a day job and couldn’t go. It was a little complicated. Eventually, I had to make a decision about what do to. I had held Tony Amaro & the Chariots together as a group for several years but I finally had to decide. They had called me from New York Transit and the first time I refused their job offer. The second time I accepted. Then I couldn’t gig and perform because when you start out they give you all kinds of hours, midnight, early AM – you name it. It was a heartbreaking. I have gone to concerts through the years and tears roll down my eyes because possibly I could have had my group performing in these places. It was a tough decision to make.
After Tony Amaro & the Chariots split up you began to use your own name again. You released the fantastic track W.E.L.F.A.R.E. which I consider a highlight in your career. What can you tell me about that song? Is it really an acronym?
I don’t think it’s an acronym. I don’t know how that came about but it speaks for itself, welfare. The song is inspired by Spanish Harlem and it’s surroundings, there were poverty and some people did well. You heard stories through the years and that’s how I got the idea (for the song). I think the words tell a compelling story about hope and longing. It’s about a man who’s trying to hold on to his dignity. I’m really proud of the composition and that it come across so well. It was written by my drummer Johnny Castro, my pianist James Harland Taylor and myself. I’m not exactly sure where or when we recorded the song. I don’t know maybe in 1970.
Alan Fontaine was a friend of mine so I asked him for his help with the session. I knew him because he was married to a girlfriend of my wife. He had been with (the Doo-wop group) the Flamingoes prior but he was a very talented guitarist too. Fontaine helped me on different recordings. I was really relying on friends like Johnny Castro, James Harlan Taylor and Alan Fontaine who played the guitar solo on W.E.L.F.A.R.E. Alan was very helpful in my career. I’m very grateful to him. And James and Johnny!
What happened after W.E.L.F.A.R.E. was released as a 45? Is it fair to say that it never took off?
I wasn’t really able to get it off the ground and get it on playlists. I didn’t have the money so I wasn’t really able to promote it properly. I had several hundred copies made but it was very difficult to make it take off.
After that release you decided to let music be music and focus on your day job. Do you have anything you would like add about the decisions you have had to make during your life?
It’s what you do with your life. I remember being a child and my mother told me that we were on welfare. It was a period where I guess things were bad. I’m not ashamed of it. Later when I got married my wife was very supportive and at times there weren’t too much to eat but she never complained. Sometimes it’s difficult but you just have to keep logging away. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. You have to make some tough decisions. In my case God gave me a gift. I call it a beautiful gift because I inherited my voice from both sides of my family. I’m not an overly religious person but I believe things happen for a reason. God gave me talent to sing and write songs but because of my job I just couldn’t focus on music. I don’t regret it. I had to let it go.
Louis Antonio Castro still lives in New York City.
Louis Antonio Castro discography:
Stacy Records 920 Tony Amaro – Heart & Soul // Please Stay With Me (January 1960)
Kapp K-360 Pete King Corale – Little Shepperd Boy (feat. vocals by Tony Ellis aka Louis Antonio Castro) // My Favourite Things (November 1960)
Loma Records 2068 Tony Amaro & the Chariots – Hey Baby // Runnin’ Around (February 1967)
Ford Records 166 Antonio Castro – Baby Come Home // Why Can’t I Have You
Universal International Records 1001 Antonio Castro – W.E.L.F.A.R.E. // Why Can’t I Have You
(The order of the last two titles is uncertain)