Reliving golden age of 'rock'

Fans of RI's Probers bring group together for documentary

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Editor’s note: Cindy Fera, a member of the Probers, and Tabitha Pereira, a recent graduate from the University of Rhode Island with degrees in journalism and marketing, collaborated on this story.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s the RI rock music scene was really taking off.

Disco music was still popular but there was also a resurgence of local rock music. It was a different kind of rock from the golden age music of the 60’s and 70’s. There was hard rock, glam rock, punk rock, new wave and heavy metal. Nationally music like Devo and David Bowie rocked the air waves. In RI, clubs like The Living Room, Lupo’s, Simons, Brothers and Sisters and His and Hers offered a place for local bands, jumping on these new genres, to showcase their talent. CCRI, RI College, URI and Bryant regularly featured concerts headlined by local bands. Every weekend you could find any genre of music you liked. It was a rocking time in the Ocean State!

Now the Probers are back together again.

It all started when David John Ricci and Michael Deusch, fans of the group, reached out to members of the group with the suggestion of a documentary. Their initial contact sparked a series of meetings and the discovery of recordings, pictures and stories that had been dormant for years.

In the late 70s and early 80s the Probers took the Rhode Island rock scene by storm. They were unlike any other local rock band. Their sound was a mix of rock, punk and new wave. The songs were meticulously crafted and told a relatable story. The band was not only recognized for their talent as musicians, but for their unique physical appearance that differed from other bands at the time. They had a real stage show complete with dancing girls, make-up, clothes changes, choreography, incredible lighting and sometimes smoke machines. Musicians in the band executed each song with a vengeance and when you left a Prober gig, your heart was pounding, your spirit lifted and your dancing feet tired!

This came about when Rick Mendes founder and front man for the band was looking for something to really draw attention the band. They had already been playing out but Rick felt they lacked that something special. Something that would set them aside from the growing numbers of emerging bands in the area. They went underground for a few months in late 1979, and wrote some new music. Rick wanted their comeback to be unforgettable.

He met Cindy Sommerio through a mutual friend. She went to a rehearsal and fell in love with the music. A long time disco dancer she saw a vision for the band that included a lot of changes. Within weeks the band was sporting blond mohawks and wearing spandex. She was a dancer in the band and played a major part in creating the bands iconic image. Hours were spent learning dance routines and what started out as great music turned into a great musical show.

What emerged was a musically tight band with an equally tight visual show.

Now, after seeing the Probers not only were all the catchy lyrics spinning around in your head so were Cindy’s dance moves!

Manny Vincente, Rick Mendes’ friend from childhood and a songwriter singer and harmonica player for the band, remembers the changes well.
“My scalp was burning when we bleached our hair and I had never worn spandex, but the success that came with the changes were undeniable!” said Manny in a recent interview.

The rest of the original line up of the band was JD Porro, lead guitar, Michael Cronan, rhythm guitar, Jim Michel bass guitar and Timmy Bays on drums. The original dancers were Cindy Sommerio and Kristin Verdeaux. Each member of the Probers brought a unique stage presence and talent.

Of course, none of this could have been done without an incredible stage crew. Over the years they had Billy Goyette, Tommy Woodcock and Paul Levesque behind the sound board. Creating the light show was John Goyette Frank Almonte, Dave Motley, Michael Furtado and Brian DiRobio. Other crew members were Mike Wateman, Steve Scarpaci and Erick Gaulin.

The Probers, created by Rick Mendes in 1979, were tracking for success. Within a couple of years, they played at some of the largest concert venues like the “Ocean State Theatre”, now PPAC, the Providence Civic Center, the former Center Stage in East Providence, The main Event, the Cape Cod Coliseum in Massachusetts and the Capitol Theatre in New Hampshire.
They toured with The Tubes and opened for such national acts like, Alice Cooper, Cyndi Lauper’s band Blue Angel, the Psyschedelic Furs and Tommy Tutone.

By the early 80’s The Probers were on the top of their game and on fire! Their music topped the alternative charts at Thayer Street Records and Comics, a local barometer for the hottest music in the state. They were featured on TV programs such as “PM Magazine” with Matt Lauer and Sheila Martines and on “Off the Record”. Rick and his bandmates were regularly interviewed on all the local rock radio stations like WBRU and WHJY. You couldn’t listen to local radio station without hearing their songs playing over the airwaves. They headlined at a concert at Roger Williams Park Coliseum and came on stage to the screaming applause of over 10,000 adoring fans! They were on the cover of local magazines and newspapers and caught the interest of producers from as far away as New York and Boston.

Cindy and Rick became the “rock and roll couple” of RI and the birth of their daughter Samantha in 1982 was featured in newspapers. Shortly after her birth a fundraiser was held at the Living room, attended by close to 1,000 adoring fans, ready to help with the cost of her early arrival.

With success comes change, and the second lineup of the Probers was just as successful as the first. After some further tweaking the final line-up included Steve "The Kid" Sherman on drums, Jay Fernandes on keyboards, James "Boney" Beaupre, guitar player, and Billy Kramer on bass guitar. Jay and Boney, formerly of “The Mints,” added a whole dimension of song writing crafting softer, melodic tunes that soon became some of the favorites of the Prober fans!

Alas, also with success comes temptations and unscrupulous people. Eventually the Probers ended their rein at the top of the RI rock scene. Over the years several members have succumbed to illnesses and sadly the band lost Rick Mendes, Steve Sherman and JD Porro.

Ricci, a longtime fan of the band felt that the Prober story needed to be told.

“It’s not only a story of the American Dream, it’s a story of vision. It has it all…love, failure, heartbreak but through it all, perseverance and success,” he said.

“They were like real rock stars” said Ricci, a musician and now in music production. “Their show was a total build. They wouldn’t mill about the club before the performance. They would come out on stage, fire off an incredible set and disappear. There was a mystery about them.”

Ricci feels that the band had a big influence on his career and his life. He was impressed with Rick Mendes who not only sang most of the Prober’s hit songs but also played a major role in marketing the band to different media outlets.

“In those days marketing was not something that many local bands did,” says Ricci.

“Not only did I want to copy Rick’s onstage persona, his 'guttural' voice but I also wanted to tap into his offstage business tactics and marketing techniques.”

He first heard about the band from his friend Jim Beaupre who ironically went on to be a member of the Probers. Earlier this year, together Dave with his friend Deusch, who spent many nights following the Probers and attending all their gigs, decided to find the members of the band and see if they had any interest in taking part in the documentary.

They were met with a resounding "yes," and so it began. Throughout the years, since he height of the Prober fame, Deusch had kept a large collection of keepsakes such as photos, news articles, memorabilia, and radio recordings. He shared this with former members of the band through Facebook and created “The Probers” Facebook page. Now the page has close to 500 members and serves as a platform where fans and former members can interact daily and share their memories.

Duesch and Ricci along with the remaining former members of The Probers are currently compiling various items for the documentary and they are looking for any with pictures, articles, stories or other band-related items that they can include in the documentary.

“We see this going big!” says Ricci. We anticipate re-releases of songs, t-shirts with perhaps a movie in the future. Our goal is to bring back that feel good when you could identify with the lyrics of songs and felt like it was telling your life.

If you are interested in learning more check out their Facebook page “The Probers”. Contact Cindy at 401-497-5656 if you have anything you think may be of interest.

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