What does Robert Antoni have in common with Vincent Furnier? Both men fronted 1960s bands called Nazz and came up with theatrical stage names -- Alice Cooper for Furnier, and Stewkey for lead vocalist/keyboardist Antoni. Stewkey first got the idea for the name Nazz from Richard "Lord" Buckley, a preacher/rap artist from the '50s and '60s who proclaimed "the Nazz" is coming -- meaning the Nazarene, or Christ. The Yardbirds' single "The Nazz Are Blue," the flip of "Shapes of Things," also probably added a tilt toward Nazz as the name of this innovative ensemble.
Born in New London, CT, on November 17, 1947, young Robert Antoni started his musical evolution singing when he was eight and nine years old, picking up an instrument around the age of 14 with influences coming from the Beatles, the Who, Cream, the Move, and other artists riding into America on British waves. Stewkey acknowledges having varied musical tastes, a child of radio and many musical memories. His first band was called the Mods and happened when he was 13 years of age. He played some keyboard and guitar. Then came Public Nuisence, followed by an ensemble known as Elizabeth, which led to the immortal Nazz with Todd Rundgren.
Stewkey was actually headed to Florida -- a planned spring break rocking & rolling in February of 1967 -- when the vehicle he was driving blew up in Philly. That twist of fate gave him pause as well as his participation in the group Elizabeth, a softer folky rock band. It was while playing with Elizabeth at the Second of Autumn club -- in a one-block area where the scene-makers were hanging out -- that Stewkey encountered a blues band called Woody's Truck Stop. The guitarist, Todd Rundgren, wanted to form a more "Beatles-ish-Who-ish" flashy dress band, and the singer was into it. It was exactly where Stewkey was at, and what he signed on for. The vocal style and attitude owes much to John Lennon, credited as the biggest influence in his music career and his life, Stewkey feeling Lennon really taught him a lot about himself. The singer found his sea legs as Nazz got to play on bills with Albert King, the Bee Gees, J. Geils Band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Spirit, and others as well as performing at the legendary 1969 Texas International Pop Festival with Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, Sam & Dave, and so many more.
Nazz recorded two albums, the second disc intended to be a double album. It was this recording which led to the musical disagreements which would splinter the entity. Todd Rundgren had fallen in love with the music of Laura Nyro, impacting the group's style. Add to that a management decision to charge much more money for live shows, and an eye toward the band being considered "the American Beatles" (at least by management) combined to bring the group with so much potential to a halt after only a couple of years.
There are misconceptions about the second album. The intended double disc, Nazz Nazz, had material recorded with Todd Rundgren on lead vocals. The label later convinced Stewkey to sing on them. Stewkey liked the tunes, but he and the drummer fought hard against having this melodic music appear on the second disc. It wasn't because they weren't happy with the songwriting, but because the music was not the rock & roll vision that was the original Nazz. Also, the band didn't think it had the clout to sell a double album, especially since they weren't touring that often.
And when Nazz got to Texas their management company dissolved, leaving the band high and dry in the Lone Star State. Carson VanOsten and Thom Mooney both went to California and this gave Todd Rundgren the opportunity to get out of the group as well. Stewkey decided to stay in Houston to continue playing and keep away from the New York music business that he felt had burned him. Years later he felt it was a mistake, but things happen for a reason. That reason and a twist of fate eventually had the singer fronting the three musicians from the eventual Cheap Trick prior to Robin Zander joining that group of players.
Stewkey got a call from Rick Nielsen asking him and Tom Mooney to join an already working band called Fuse, a group which included bassist Tom Petersson. Perhaps Rundgren had told Nielsen about Stewkey, the guitarist getting the phone number from Stewkey's dad. The band lasted about six or seven months calling themselves Fuse or Nazz, depending on where they were playing. They were performing in Wisconsin when Petersson came up to Stewkey and told him that Nazz had come out with a third album. The news was not expected and threw the singer a curve. Stewkey got "a hole in his soul," as he puts it, when the unreleased masters were issued without his knowledge. Though the record label had asked him to sing on the tracks he didn't think they were going to issue the disc. The urban legend that Stewkey intentionally sang on the tapes to remove Rundgren's vocal participation is just that -- urban legend. It is not based in fact.
The release of the disc gave Stewkey a real need to go on the road, especially because Nazz never really did. He was just 19 turning 20 when "Hello It's Me" hit. Fuse eventually ran its course and turned into a group called Sick Man of Europe with Bun E. Carlos replacing Tom Mooney. Three quarters of Cheap Trick were now in place, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, Carlos, and Stewkey.
The band ventured to the East Coast to see if they could get a deal, and then went to Illinois. Stewkey had married and had a wife that was pregnant at the time and with responsibilities he chose to raise his family from 1975 to around 1995, working and playing music here and there. Stewkey drove a limousine and tended bar for years, raising three kids who in turn gave him five granddaughters.
In the early 2000s, a founding member of Utopia, Moogy Klingman, called Stewkey out of the blue and asked him if he wanted to do a combination "Nazz"/"Utopia" tribute to Todd called, of course, Nazztopia. They recorded the Nazztopia DVD on October 2, 2002, at the Triad club in New York, Stewkey hooking up with New Jersey musicians and the idea of putting a new Nazz together a reality.
The band evolved to a format Stewkey became happy with -- one that guitarist Otto Capobianco likes to call Nazz 5.0. The five piece unit also features Sebastian Bach bassist Larry Fisher, keyboard/vocalist Rich Carley, and drummer Mark Montoro. They issued the album Hello It's Crazy Me to reintroduce the lead singer's interesting music to the world, a promo DVD featuring live footage of "Open My Eyes" and music-and-slide-photography shows to other Stewkey/Nazz favorites: "Hello It's Me" and "Wildwood Blues." Gigs with classic rock & rollers like the Orlons, Charlie Gracie, Essra Mohawk, Rick Derringer, the Soul Survivors, and others helped relaunch Stewkey and his Nazz. ~ Joe Viglione, Rovi