Kenny Vance is a renaissance man of the entertainment world. He has been a pop singer since the age of 15, when he formed the Harbor Lites and, soon after, co-founded Jay and the Americans, a hit-making vocal group that holds the rare distinction of opening for both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on their first U.S. performances.
Following Jay and the Americans’ dissolution, some 11 years later, Vance transitioned to the back-of-the-house side of the music business, where he would compose, supervise and produce scores and soundtracks for films like “Animal House,” “The Warriors” and “Eddie and the Cruisers.” He became the musical director on “Saturday Night Live,” booking adventurous, first-time musical guests like James Brown. He even started acting, appearing in four Woody Allen films. In 1992, Vance’s career came full-circle: He formed a new band, plying a brand of blue-eyed soul and doo-wop not unlike the kind perfected by Jay and the Americans.
In the 2010s, Vance moved to Boynton Beach, and though a tragic event brought him here—as he explains below—he is by no means a retiree. The 78-year-old still tours the country with his five-piece group the Planotones, and in 2020 released his 17th album, For Your Love.
On discovering music as a teen
When we were about 13, we started to hear this rhythm and blues music on the radio. Alan Freed started to play the music in New York. We were captivated by it. Adults had their world, and they had their music, and kids were removed from that. But when we heard this music, we connected to that, and it gave us our identity. So one of the things we started to do was buy these 45s that [Freed] was playing on the radio, [and] we started to imitate them, and sing along with them in our parents’ house.
On forming Jay and the Americans in the late 1950s
Four of us got an audition with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They were the two biggest record producers in the world at that time. They signed us up, and we made a record, and when I was 18 or 19, we had a No. 1 record with a song called “She Cried.” Then, for the next 10 years, we basically had hit records. Even when the Beatles and Rolling Stones and British Invasion happened in 1964, somehow we had a big hit with “Come a Little Bit Closer.” Then in 1965, “Cara Mia.”
On being mistaken for another fab foursome
When we got to Washington, D.C., we hung out with [the Beatles], and we basically took a train back with them on the same car, to Penn Station in New York. And when we got there, it was like a scene out of “A Hard Day’s Night,” looking out the windows of the train. And when the door opened, there was a mob of people, [until] they said, “Oh, it’s just Jay and the Americans,” and they created a pathway, and we walked through it. I I said, “what just happened?” My god—I was a witness to history.
On forming the Planotones after his movie career
I had worked for the next 14 years in the film business, and at some point—it’s a joke now, because I’m old—but then, I thought I was getting old! I was in my late ‘40s. I said, I’m going to start a group again, because this is why I got into the business in the first place. I started a group naively thinking that, oh boy, if the group is great, it’s going to work. That wasn’t the case, because … even though a lot of guys, including myself, were known in the business, it didn’t translate to a marquee. Nobody showed up.
We hung in there, because we loved what were doing, for about 10 years, and then slowly, through word of mouth and really being good, and “Looking for an Echo” all of a sudden catching on with all of these small radio stations, it became the anthem of doo-wop. We started to get more jobs, and traveling all over the country. It’s amazing, because the audiences still show up. We just played at the Parker Playhouse to a sell-out crowd. It’s a blessing to be able to do what you love.
On moving to Boynton Beach
I lived in Rockaway. I bought a house 40 years ago on the ocean, and [Superstorm] Sandy showed up and washed my house out to sea. There’s a picture in the New York Times of me standing on the rubble of my house. That tragedy brought me down to a place that I had always visited as a kid. My parents came down to Florida; my grandfather moved there. It was familiar to me, and we had played there a lot. I knew a few people, and I thought, OK, this is a safe move.
Compared to New York, I said it was like being in the witness protection program. But I’ve grown to love it. You make your own way. You make your friends. You discover things that, as a tourist, you never see. So now I call it home.