Don Rondo

Born Donald Theodore Rondeau, (January 5,1930-January 27, 2011) Don grew up in Palmer Massachusetts on his father’s dairy farm, the youngest of 9 kids, and performed the tasks that one would expect on a dairy farm. What he loved most about the farm was singing in the concrete barn which made for a natural echo chamber. One day, in his teens, he was singing into a pitchfork as if it were a microphone and one of the farm’s suppliers heard him, thought that he had a great voice and convinced him to enter a Lions Club talent show in Ware, Massachusetts. Don came in second! This began a 50 year career in entertainment.

From that Lions Club event Don started singing in local minstrel shows. In the audience one night was the program director for WACE radio in Chicopee, Massachusetts. He asked Don if he would be interested in doing a weekly 15-minute show on the station. Don said yes as long as it didn’t interfere with his morning milk deliveries. Not long after,  Don was asked by CBS affiliate WMAS in Springfield to do a show for them. Momentum was building. From there he was asked to sing with a 14 piece band in the Springfield/Hartford area on Friday and Saturday nights.

At the time, there were, as Don would say “a gazillion nightclubs” in the Chicopee and Springfield area and they all did live music. Oftentimes these clubs had talent shows where Don would show up, sing a couple of songs, and regularly, after the show, was asked to sit in with the bands. After a while, he got so busy with his music that he left the family farm business because it was interfering with his daily chores, so he got a part-time plumber’s helper job.

In 1956, while in New York City renting a rehearsal studio space, he was noticed by a singer/actress named Fay DeWitt who asked Don if he would sing for her manager, Lester Shirr. Lester Shirr became the only manager that Don would ever have. Lester told Don that he needed to come up with $2,000 to produce a record (the equivalent of almost $20,000 today). The money was raised by Don’s brother-in-law who collected it from friends. Lester wanted Don to record a song called “Two Different Worlds,” which would become Don’s first million-seller for Jubilee Records, the same label as Della Reese, and The Cadillacs. A few days later,  Don was in his car listening to WNEW and heard his song on the air for the first time. He pulled to the side of the road and cried tears of disbelief and joy. 

Soon after, Don was on a plumbing job when his sister came to the work site and told him that Lester had called and said that he needed Don to go to Philadelphia to do the popular local television show, Bandstand. Bandstand was on WFIL-TV and was hosted by Bob Horne. Don arrived at the station, only to be informed that the show had been canceled for the day and that the host had been fired for drunk driving and (alleged) statutory rape. He was then told that they had a Bandstand radio show in the same building and to go up to the station. He got to the station and, as soon as the studio light went off, Don knocked on the door and walked in. Sitting there, spinning records was Dick Clark. Don didn’t know him. Don told him what had happened and that he had a copy of his record. Clark asked “Is it clean?” Don said “yes.” The studio then went live and Dick Clark said “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got a record here and the artist is standing right behind me!” and played “Two Different Worlds.”  From that day forward, Dick Clark became the host of Bandstand, which became American Bandstand and the rest, as they say, is history. Don did American Bandstand with Dick Clark a number of times and forged a friendship with him. “Two Different Worlds” went to #11 on the Billboard Top 40 in November 1956.

10 months after “Two Different Worlds” Don released his 2nd million seller and biggest hit “White Silver Sands” which went to #7 on the Billboard charts in July 1957.

Besides American Bandstand, Don played all of the Big Show’s including multiple appearances on Ed Sullivan, Soupy Sales, Patti Page, Steve Allen and many more. 

For the next few years Don earned his living playing popular nightclubs all around the country and the world including a USO type tour for our troops. But, as rock ‘n’ roll became more popular, Don’s crooner style of music became less popular and there were fewer nightclub jobs available. Around 1963 Don’s agent/manager, Lester Shirr, passed away. When Don lost Lester’s guidance, he was dejected and decided to pack it in. But then, he met Artie Fields. 

Artie convinced Don to try doing commercials. Don was not crazy about the idea but did a commercial for Frankenmuth Beer. He had to sing the jingle in multiple languages. Don found this difficult and didn’t like doing it. He and his wife, Ida Mae, had purchased a farm in Bethel, Connecticut. One day while working with the cattle, Ida Mae brought him an envelope full of royalty checks from the commercial. Don immediately called Artie and asked “You got any more of these?” 

Don recorded many commercials including Stroh’s Beer, Chevrolet Trucks, Dodge, Alcoa, and more, but the best known of his commercials was one of the most famous commercials of all time.  If you remember hearing “Wherever wheels are turning, no matter what the load, the name that’s known is Firestone, where the rubber meets the road,” that was Don Rondo. The commercial played for 7 years during NFL games.

Later, Don did a commercial for Ziebart Rustproofing. In his negotiations with Ziebart, he told them that Rusty Jones rustproofing also wanted to use him for a commercial. But, Ziebart wanted an exclusive arrangement with Don. Through this negotiation, Don asked for and got an exclusive Ziebart franchise in New Hampshire. Don was a Ziebart dealer for 27 years. 

Don then negotiated an advertising arrangement with New Hampshire’s ABC affiliate WMUR in Manchester where he did Ziebart commercials that included other Ziebart dealers in the region. Through that relationship with WMUR, Don became friends and would regularly fraternize with Station Manager, Larry Gilpin. They would often talk about the politics of the day. Because of Don’s colorful style, Larry asked Don if he would be interested in doing a political talk show on the station. Don said yes and did “The Bottom Line with Don Rondo” which became a  staple on WMUR every Sunday morning. 

 Don passed away in 2011 shortly after his 81st birthday from lung cancer as a result of smoking for over 65 years. A great voice was silenced, but not forgotten.

(by Fred Bramante, Gary Reynolds, Gary Rondeau)

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