I recognized the song at once – the harmony and especially the plaintive, faintly nasal falsetto of the female lead voice. It was Little Jan and The Radiants belting out If You Love Me (Really Love Me) from 1959 … doo-wop at its finest, with a killer finish. I hadn’t heard the song in decades, but its refrain had clearly lingered in my brain.
During those heady days so many years ago, the song was a local hit in Syracuse, and had now emerged on the airwaves of The Doo-Wop Stop, a nationally syndicated radio show. Host Cool Bobby B has kept alive both familiar and obscure doo-wop for those of us who have never quite gotten it out of our systems. With passion in his voice, Bobby fondly described “Jan’s great falsetto riffs” and shared them with listeners across the country.
From Glenn Miller to Jay Z, music clings to each generation, a melodic companion to the growing, learning and maturing demanded of youth. The music of each era is personal – parents generally disdain the tunes revered by their children as “nothing but noise.” Ah, but doo-wop and the music of my youth … that was different … special … classic … perfect.
I wondered about YouTube. Could the song possibly be on that copious video-sharing site, an archive of all things from the Stone Age to the present? Yes, it was, and along with it were the only other songs recorded by the group: Heart and Soul, Now is the Hour and Is It True. There were no group snapshots, only the music accompanied by photos of well-worn 45 RPM record labels.
I listened to each track several times and read the accompanying comments …“amazing, listening to this I’m immersed in nostalgia”…“my favorite and what a knockout ending”…“an unknown gem.” One post mentioned “my aunt Jan Perolla.”
Further reading and some detective work revealed that Jan Perolla still lived in the Syracuse area, but had been out of the music scene for several decades. I found a phone number and gave her a call.
“Is this Jan of Little Jan and The Radiants?” I asked.
“Yes …yes it is,” she replied.
“Would you be interested in getting together to talk about those days and the music,” I asked, “possibly for a short written piece?”
“Well sure,” she said, “why not?”
So on a crisp fall morning, I ventured out to Jan’s place in the countryside. Over coffee, I explained my “radio rediscovery” and we pored over her memories of that musical era so many years ago.
Music came naturally to Jan. “My dad played the guitar and often sang opera around the house,” she said. “I loved joining in, hitting the high notes, and always loved harmony. When my friend Bill Sanders formed the Teen Tones (an early Syracuse doo-wop group) we started an all-girl quartet, the Teen Tonettes.”
Jan eventually became lead singer for the boys, the group first using the name Little Jan and The Orients. “We sang for fun, practiced in a garage, and played local sock hops and clubs,” she said. The members changed – Billy, Tippy, Tommy, Dominick, Carl, Sam. “We were young and unsettled … guys got married, went in the service or moved on to other things.”
The group morphed into Little Jan and The Radiants and went on to make two studio recordings: If You Love Me/Heart and Soul (1959) and Is It True/Now is the Hour (1960). With Jan’s distinctive voice leading the way, both received local and national airplay.
Jan remembers both “good times and bad times, laughter and disagreements.” They traveled and played, meeting a number of popular artists of the day like Frankie Lymon and Frankie Valli along the way. “I had some tempting offers to go with other groups, to expand my career,” Jan said. “But I stayed true to my hometown and the guys. They were always like family.”
Little Jan and The Radiants broke up in 1961. Over the years, Jan worked in nursing and other fields but continued to sing when the opportunity arose, later performing with a group called Vintage (featuring her son Tony as its drummer) into the 1980s. “That group gradually dissolved,” Jan explained. “I spent some years caring for my mom, and never sang again after she died.”
In 1999, Jan was inducted into the Syracuse Music Hall of Fame, created by local music historian Ron Wray. “Most of my memorabilia from those days was lost in a fire” Jan says. “But I have lots of vivid memories, good memories … and every once in a while I still try to hit a high note.”
by James P. Hughes