Brooklyn Dreams 2.0: A Conversation with Bruce Sudano and Joe “Bean” Esposito

Nostrand Avenue (Brooklyn, NY) and Sunset Boulevard (Los Angeles, CA) could not be more geographically incongruous, yet the members of Brooklyn Dreams know both streets intimately. Over a four-year period in the mid-1970s, Brooklyn-born and bred Bruce Sudano, Joe “Bean” Esposito, and Eddie Hokenson recorded for a label that virtually defined the colorful characters that resided along the Sunset Strip.

Their street-corner harmonies landed on Casablanca Records, home to P-Funk, Village People, and a Viking-outfitted Cher. Brooklyn Dreams was something of an anomaly on the roster, with New York-centric lyrics and doo-wop and rock and roll-influenced melodies dressing their songs. After a one-album stint produced by Skip Konte (Three Dog Night) on Jimmy Ienner’s Millennium, which Casablanca distributed, Brooklyn Dreams was matched with a pair of unlikely producers — Bob Esty, who produced numerous disco acts on Casablanca (Roberta Kelly, Paul Jabara, and D.C. LaRue), and Juergen Koppers, best known as engineer for Giorgio Moroder. The gambit to sell Brooklyn Dreams as a disco-pop act worked for a moment when the group appeared with Donna Summer on “Heaven Knows” from her Live and More (1978) album, which earned them a Top 5 gold single. The group also co-wrote “Bad Girls” with Summer, which became the most commercially successful single of her career.

At their core, Brooklyn Dreams was not a disco act, and a faithful return to their influences on Won’t Let Go (1980) made little movement in the marketplace. Concurrent with the shift in style, Casablanca encountered seismic executive changes when company founder Neil Bogart sold the company to PolyGram and many artists either left or were released from the label. Caught in the shuffle, Brooklyn Dreams disbanded shortly thereafter. Eddie Hokenson returned to New York while Bruce Sudano recorded a solo album back on Millennium, Fugitive Kind (1981), and co-wrote a number one country hit for Dolly Parton, “Starting Over Again” with Summer. Joe “Bean” Esposito worked extensively with Giorgio Moroder, including the Flashdance (1983) soundtrack and the duo’s full-length Solitary Men (1983) collaboration, and became something of a cult figure when his recording of “You’re the Best” from The Karate Kid (1984) was adopted by the athletic world.

To this day, the members of Brooklyn Dreams remain close friends and are planning to write new songs later in 2009. Meanwhile, their music continues to be found in the most unpredictable of places, most recently when Snoop Dogg sampled the group’s theme to the film Hollywood Knights (1980) on “Deez Hollywood Nights” (2008). Esposito, who regularly performs in Las Vegas and is recording a new album, and Nashville-based Sudano, who released his third album (Life and the Romantic) earlier this year on his Purple Heart label, both recently revisited their time together as a group, a time when the dreams of three guys from Flatbush crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and onto the airwaves.

(Note: additional portions of the interviews with Bruce Sudano and Joe “Bean” Esposito will appear in PopMatters’ forthcoming retrospective celebrating the 35th anniversary of Casablanca Records.)

Take me back to Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Bruce Sudano: Obviously I love Brooklyn. It was the name of my group. It’s the name of my daughter. I just love being from Brooklyn and all the things that Brooklyn represents in terms of just a basic real, honest, straightforward kind of person. Not pretentious yet artistic and wise and soulful all at the same time. Those are the kinds of things that have stayed with me throughout my whole life. My musical beginnings were from ages four through eight, playing the accordion while everybody else was outside. I absolutely hated it. When I was twelve, someone called me and asked me to play a sweet 16. When I realized I could make $25 for playing the accordion, I was in!

Joe: “Bean” Esposito: I always loved music from the time I was a little kid. When Elvis Presley came out, I tried to comb my hair like him. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but my hair wasn’t as thick as his so I could never get it right. I was always singing in the mirror with a guitar or trying to emulate Elvis.

When did each of you meet Eddie?

Esposito: When I was around 14-years old and I went to junior high school, I met Eddie. I remember the first day I met Eddie. We were in our opening period class and I was standing there talking to him and there was this girl that walked by that was one of the hottest girls in the school. I said, “Ed, who’s that?” He said, “You like that?” I said, “Yeah“. He said, “That’s my girlfriend”. I was like, “I’m hanging out with this guy”. Then I heard Eddie had a singing group. He had a couple of guys that he used to sing with. When I heard them sing, I was like, “That’s it, I’m in”. That’s basically how I started singing. Growing up in Brooklyn, and I’m sure everywhere around the United States, there were so many great singers on street corners, but from my area where I came from, there were a lot of great singing groups. That’s how we started singing. We formed a band and we played in this place called the Flatbush Terrace. That’s where all the musicians would go on the weekends to play. We didn’t make any money but we were able to showcase who we were.

Sudano: I didn’t know Eddie and Joe until I was probably about 16. Eddie’s mom had a candy store on Nostrand Avenue. The singer in my band knew them and one day I went over to the candy store and met them. I kind of became the musician behind the singing at that point. Recently, Eddie’s brother passed away. He was also in the singing group that Eddie was in back in the day. At his wake, somebody gave me a picture of my band from 1965 and this was the band before Alive ‘N Kicking. It was called the Silent Souls. At that point, I was the bass guitarist in the band and I was probably 16 years old. When I told my daughter Brooklyn, I said, “Wow, I just saw this picture of myself at 16 in the band” and she said, “I didn’t even know you had a band before Alive ‘N Kickin’!”

So you were still based in Brooklyn in the early-’70s. At what point did you decide to move to Los Angeles?

Sudano: I left Alive ‘N Kickin’ in ’72. I went out to LA by myself in ’72/’73 and was just trippin’ around being a folk singer, playing here and there by myself and writing songs. I came back to New York after about a year and that’s kind of when I started playing a little bit with Joe, Eddie, and Eddie’s brother who just passed away, Louis Hokenson. They had a trio and, by then, Eddie was playing drums, Joe was playing guitar and Louis was playing bass. When I came back from LA, they were doing the club circuit and I just hooked up with them and started playing keyboards with them. Then, I would leave and come back. It was kind of like the joke, “Okay Bruce is leaving again”. Then they’d have a big meeting when I came back and would say, “We’re going to take you back in again? Okay, you’re in again”.

Esposito: We were knocking around in New York City. We couldn’t get arrested. We would make a record here or try to do something there but nothing was happening. One day, I met this guy named Vini Poncia, a big time producer. He had a small label in New York called MAP City Records, along with Frankie Mell, and there was another partner there. It never really got off the ground but they were part of De-Lite Records, which had Kool & the Gang. I was an artist on the label and he decided once that label didn’t make it, he’d go to California. He said, “Come to California. Maybe I can help you”. Eddie’s brother didn’t want to go because he thought we could work our regular jobs and work clubs on the weekends. I said Look, “If I don’t leave now, I’m never going to leave and I could always come back to this”. Eddie and I wanted to take a shot. We didn’t know what we were going to do but we decided we were going. Eddie and myself got into a VW and drove out to California.

Sudano: Joe and Eddie drove with the passenger seat out. One of them would drive and one of them would sleep. The joke is that when Joe would go to sleep, Eddie would get in the driver’s seat and he would push the clock ahead so that his two-hour stint of driving would only be an hour. They left in May of ’76. I was still in Brooklyn, May/June. 4 July, the Bicentennial Weekend, I got held up at gunpoint coming from by girlfriend’s house at four o’clock in the morning. I gave them the three bucks I had in my pocket. Basically, the next week I drove out to Los Angles and so that’s how the three of us wound up in LA at the same time.

When exactly did you reunite in Los Angeles?

Sudano: We reunited right away but we weren’t a group. We were just singing background sessions and writing songs for other people, being together but not really a group.

Esposito: I was going to go try to get something with Vini Poncia. He calls me one day and says, “I got a session. Do you want to sing some background?” I go with him. He doesn’t tell me who it is. I walk in and I see Arif Mardin. As soon as I saw him I was like, “Oh my God. It’s Arif”. In walks Ringo Starr. Then who walks in unannounced? Paul McCartney. Now I’m with two of The Beatles for ten hours and I’m like, “This is unbelievable. I’m never leaving”. I’m 26, 27 years old. I wind up singing on the Ringo’s Rotogravure (1976) album. From there we get to meet Bobby Womack. We stick out like a sore thumb because we’re three New York guys who all of a sudden are like a hot item because we could sing, we could write.

What was the inception for Brooklyn Dreams? How did you three decide to form the group?

Sudano: It wasn’t until Susan Munao, who’s another girl we knew from the neighborhood who was VP of Publicity at Casablanca, said to us you guys should be a group because it will be easier as a unit than all three of you trying to do it individually. I had a bunch of songs written. We wrote some other songs together, started rehearsing in Susan’s condo during the day, and those became the songs for the first Brooklyn Dreams album.

What’s the story behind the name “Brooklyn Dreams”?

Esposito: We were in Bruce’s apartment on Laurel Avenue. We had just finished our tape. Danny Peck was there. I don’t know if Susan Munao was there. There were a couple of people there. Somebody says well how about Airborne? How about something-Dreams? Danny Peck says, “Brooklyn Dreams”. He wrote the name Brooklyn Dreams down and that’s how we became Brooklyn Dreams. The logo was like the New York City subway token. Instead of NYC, with the Y in the middle, it was BYD.

When did you get signed to Millennium?

Esposito: Basically, we got together and did what we’d been doing for years, wrote a couple of songs, and made a demo. Susan shopped it around. Jimmy Ienner, who at the time was forming Millennium Records, loved it but he was back in New York.

Sudano: I had a one-room apartment on Laurel and Sunset. I had a little upright piano in there and my guitar and a bed. Once we had moved out of rehearsing in Susan’s condo, we’d rehearse there. Jimmy Ienner, who was the President of Millennium, came out to LA. We played him a bunch of songs in that little room. Then he hooked us up with Snuffy Walden who became our lead guitarist. We did a demo with Snuffy and from that demo Jimmy signed us. I think we were the first act signed to that label.

Esposito: Jimmy worked out a deal with Neil Bogart to get distributed through Casablanca. That’s basically how it all came to be. In the mean time, we meet Donna Summer and Bruce starts to kind of have a relationship with Donna.

Sudano: I met Donna on 13 March 1977 so by then we were already signed to Millennium. We were already preparing to do the first album before I even met Donna.

Esposito: We started doing our album. Skip Konte was great. He was very thoughtful, everything was pretty much thought out and structured the way we were going to record, from the basic tracks to the overdubs. Jimmy had his hands in there too making sure we didn’t go over budget, bringing in the right musicians. There was a lot of tender care there. It was just a great time because things were really happening back then. Casablanca was going through the roof. They had KISS and Village People and Donna Summer, Chocolate City Records. There was so much going on. The first album was a great album. I think it’s one of our best albums, to tell you the truth.

You were also in the movie American Hot Wax (1978) around this time too.

Esposito: While we were doing our album, Vini Poncia gives me a call and says, “Listen, I got this guy. They need a singing group. Would you shave your moustache for $1,000?” I said, “I’ll shave my balls for $1,000 at this point”. We were struggling, so Eddie, myself, and Bruce meet Kenny Vance who’s going to be the music supervisor of the movie and he’s got this group called Professor LaPlano and Planotones. The movie’s called American Hot Wax. Floyd Mutrux is the director. Through Vini Poncia, we go down and audition. We do this baseball routine and we sing, “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”. We do splits and they freak out. Everybody’s like, “Unbelievable. You’re in the movie”. That’s how we got the movie. That’s also how we met Brenda Russell. (Esposito would later sing on Russell’s “Piano in the Dark”.) She was the lead singer in a group called The Delights. From there we struck up a relationship. We met Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and there were some other great singers there that lived in LA that were in the movie. We wound up not making $1,000 but quite a bit of money. We were on the movie for like ten weeks. We were supposed to be there for a week. We shaved our moustaches, Eddie put a wig on, and we did it.

I saw a clip where you were promoting the movie on American Bandstand while also promoting the first album. How was Brooklyn Dreams received by the press?

Sudano: The album was, as they say, “critically acclaimed”. They worked it pretty hard. In terms of the promotion, we did a bunch of TV shows and we did a radio tour. It was as much as you could do at that time “On the Corner” was getting played on the rock stations. The first single was “Sad Eyes”. I wrote “Street Dance”. That song, in a sense, was the precursor to “Bad Girls”. What I was always trying to do was combine genres, which in a sense, is not a good thing to do. You end up in no-man’s land, which is where a lot of my groups always ended up. We weren’t really a rock band, we weren’t really an R&B band, we weren’t really a pop band. We got a legitimate shot to crack at. I’ve never really been like the ultimate pop hit songwriter, so I think because I was the main songwriter, and we didn’t have that one obvious all-out smash, that was probably the missing ingredient in that whole scenario. My songwriting is just not the “I love you” kind of pop song. I just was never good that.

Esposito: We got enough of a push on the first album but the second album (Sleepless Nights) would have been very, very important. In business, like anything else, things happen. Everything has to fall into place otherwise if something breaks down, the whole thing breaks down.

Sudano: I think because of the relationship with Donna, the tie-in with “Heaven Knows”, singing background on her record, and eventually going on tour together, that Millennium kind of saw us going in a direction that they wouldn’t have wanted us to go.

Millennium changed distribution to RCA and your contracted shifted directly to Casablanca. It seems like they were trying to work you more as a disco-oriented act because Bob Esty produced Sleepless Nights, which, on the whole, was definitely a different sound than the first album.

Esposito: The only thing that I remember was I wasn’t comfortable with, and none of us were, was the disco thing. Even though we were lumped in with that, we weren’t really a disco band. Neil Bogart wanted to push us more towards the disco side because that’s what he knew. We were more R&B. Jimmy Ienner was more along those lines too. Hall and Oates, Three Dog Night — everybody was comparing us to those type of bands.

Then Juergen Koppers ended up producing the third album, Joy Ride (1979)…

Esposito: Juergen was a good guy but he wasn’t a producer. He was an engineer who was trying to be a producer. We did the album in two weeks. It was very quick. It was like driving on the Autobahn, the car was very smooth, it was nice, but it was quick. We had a couple of good songs on there. It was more disco. Nothing ever happened with that, although I like the album cover. I think there a couple of songs on there that I liked. There was a song called “Daigo” that I liked a lot, and “Love Love’s Desire” I thought was a good song but some of it was like…I remember we had a meeting with Frankie Crocker one day and he said, “What are you guys doing? What is this?” That was near the end. We did one more album after that that we tried to do on our own, which is Won’t Let Go (1980).

Won’t Let Go was the last album. Why did the group break up?

Sudano: It was a combination of things. Eddie’s mother passed away. He had to go back to New York and he was dealing with that. He was a bit disillusioned, I think, with the whole situation. I was wrapped up with Donna at that point so my focus was not what it was. I got married, I was becoming a father. It kind of just disappeared, just a confluence of things that happened.

Esposito: I stayed in California. I was doing some writing. I was doing a lot of work for Giorgio Moroder. He’d call me up and I’d sing songs, I’d do backgrounds.

Sudano: I did the first solo album, Fugitive Kind (1981), and was back on Millennium. I’m always writing songs so I just kept writing. Probably what happened is Jimmy Ienner called me up and said, “Are you writing? Do you have any stuff?”

Esposito: One day, Giorgio called and said he’s got this movie Flashdance (1983). I was going to sing this song, “What a Feeling”. If Irene Cara and her manager didn’t make a decision by 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, I was doing the song. I did the original version for the movie trailer. At the last minute they made a deal with Irene. I did get a song on the album – “Lady, Lady, Lady”. In the meantime, I’m working with Sylvester Stallone on Staying Alive (1983) and I got four songs in there. He had made his brother Frank get in touch with me and I wrote some songs. I’m thinking that’s going to be the movie. You never know what’s going to be the hit. You think, “Oh this is the song” and it winds up being something else. Flashdance goes through the roof and then the next thing I know, I’m nominated for “Album of the Year”. Of course, Thriller (1983) was up that year. I was just happy to go to the Grammy’s. “Lady Lady Lady” was a great song. It was a hit all over the world except the U.S. There were only two hits off that album. “Lady Lady Lady” was supposed to be the third but because Giorgio Moroder had worldwide distribution, PolyGram wouldn’t let him doing anything with the rights in the U.S. so it held it up and it never happened. I didn’t really have any management. I was getting all these things on my own from the people I knew. I’ve kind of had an odd career. Everybody goes, “You’re the guy that sang that? Oh yeah, yeah”.

What Brooklyn Dreams songs still resonate with you?

Esposito: “Music, Harmony, and Rhythm”, “Sad Eyes”, “On the Corner”, “Street Dance”, “I Never Dreamed”. I guess that’s about it. “Old Fashioned Girl”– Eddie sings it beautifully.

Sudano: I would say in one sense “On the Corner” but that’s probably more personal. I think generally, “Music, Harmony, and Rhythm”. There’s still a message in that song – “When the day to day gets me down/I go off into my world and escape into the sound” – I think that was true for the three of us and I think that’s still true. I think maybe, in essence, that song captured the essence of who we were in terms of trying to write a song with a good lyric and a good melody. It had the blend of the harmonies and it still had the power of Joe’s voice.

It’s really so wonderful that through the group broke up, you remained friends.

Sudano: We never got to a place, the three of us, where we were angry or had a disagreement or anything like that. We’re still very close friends and we’ve remained that way and it’s always been that way. We’ve never really had arguments.

Esposito: Bruce and I did an album in 1985 or ’86 with Michael Omartian called Joe, Bruce, and Second Avenue. Eddie was in New York. It was on Capitol. We did the album. The day we did the video, the guy that signed us was fired. We finished the video and the next day we didn’t have a record deal. The very next day we were done. Now I’m out of work. I get a call from my friend, who’s a bass player with Billy Vera, and he goes, “Hey Joe, listen. I’m working with Billy but I’m also a painter. I paint houses. I got a job for you, if you want to work. It pays $17.50 an hour”. I said, “Where is it”. He said, Capitol Records. I said, “Are you kidding me? I said I was signed there. Well, I could use the money”. So now I walk in and we’re painting the eleventh floor and I got the mask on and people are walking by looking at me like, “Where do I know you from? “I’m painting the floor where I was signed as an artist the month before. I also got nominated for a Grammy with Brenda Russell for “Piano in the Dark”. The day of the Grammy’s, I’m scraping the wallpaper off the wall and that night I go to the Grammy’s. Whatever doesn’t kill you my friend, makes you stronger.

That’s really a great perspective to have.

Esposito: I’m playing in lounges out here because I don’t want to stop doing what I’m doing. I do six nights a week. I always say, Someday you play for kings and queens and then the next day you’re in Queens. I try to find the humor in it, be light about it, not be too heavy, and just keep doing what I’m doing. If I look back, I wish we would have had a little more success but I think we did more than most. If you talk about the Brooklyn Dreams and what it means, we were just some kids from Brooklyn who had a dream and we stepped out and did something.

Any chance of Brooklyn Dreams coming back together to do a hometown gig in New York?

Esposito: We’re going to try and get together. Now with computers, I can send a track or a guitar part to Bruce, he could put a vocal on in Nashville, send it back to me, and have Eddie go meet somebody in the studio in New York and put a part on. Maybe in September, we’re going to go down to Florida for a week and write and try to do something. Bruce is the writer, I’m the singer, Eddie is the glue. That’s why it worked and that’s why we’re still friends. I love these guys so much.