The Poni-Tails were one of the first successful girl groups of the rock and roll era, along with the Chantels and the less youthful Chordettes. The original group consisted of Toni Cistone (lead), Karen Topinka (low harmony) and LaVerne Novak (high harmony). They were students of Brush High School in Lyndhurst, Ohio (an upper-middle-class suburb of Cleveland) when they started singing together. In 1956 they were introduced to a music publisher named Tom Illius, who liked the soft style of the trio and the song they had written, "Que La Bozena". Illius offered to become their manager and took them to the local Point label, who issued their first single, "Your Wild Heart"/"Que La Bozena" in January 1957. "Your Wild Heart" was nearly a hit, but 15-year old Mercury artist Joy Layne covered the song and took it to # 20 on the Billboard charts.
Their second single, "Can I Be Sure", on the Marc label, didn't do as well as their debut recording. Parental pressure forced Karen Topinka to leave the group ; her replacement was Patti McCabe. Illius managed to get the girls signed to ABC-Paramount. "Just My Luck To Be Fifteen" vanished from sight upon release, but the next single (1958), with a similar theme, would secure the Poni-Tails a place in pop history. It was the Fred Tobias/Charles Strouse composition "Born Too Late", which reached # 7 in Billboard and # 5 in the UK and is now a girl group classic. Ironically, ABC originally pushed the other side, "Come On Joey, Dance With Me" as the A-side, until several Cleveland deejays started to promote "Born Too Late".
For the next two years, the Poni-Tails tried their best to recapture that magic, but only "Seven Minutes in Heaven" (# 85, late 1958) and "Pennies From Heaven" (# 87, autumn 1959) made a modest chart noise. In the UK, "Early To Bed" (my personal favourite by the group), went to # 26 in April 1959, helped by heavy exposure on Radio Luxembourg.
ABC wanted to renew the girls' contract for another five years in 1960, but their interest in the music business waned. The business is not for everybody, and certainly not for suburbanites with other options at their disposal. For their recording efforts, all the Poni-Tails ever received was fan mail and some spending money. The lack of royalties, which undoubtedly was devored by the cost of the recording sessions, outfits, travelling expenses, and promotional costs, probably related to their decision to call it a day and settle into family life, turning in their ponytails for husbands.
In the 1990s, Toni Cistone was working at a high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. LaVerne Novak was working for a real estate agent in Menor, Ohio, and had five grandchildren. Patti (McCabe) Barnes died of cancer on 17th January, 1989.
After "Que La Bozena", the girls never wrote another song. The composers of "Born Too Late" did, though. Fred Tobias wrote "Good Timin'" for Jimmy Jones and "One of Us" for Patti Page (this song is referred to in the lyrics of "Let's Think About Livin'" by Bob Luman). Charles Strouse wrote the music for "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Those Were the Days", the theme for TV's "All in the Family".
CD: The Poni-Tails, Born Too Late (Famous Groove FG 971035). 24 tracks, their complete recordings, including some alternates and a demo. There is also "Born Too Late" on South Bay 9934/6 (18 tracks), obviously a bootleg.
Acknowledgements: - Jay Warner, The Billboard book of American singing groups (1992), page 279-280.
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