The Vocal Group Hall of Fame and an Ohio Pep Boys

It’s the autumn of 2008.  I’m on my way to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame induction ceremony and concerts, which were to be held over four consecutive days in Youngstown, Ohio.  My 1991 Pontiac 6000 – the car I hearted before I got my 2005 Saturn Ion) has been checked over and all is fine for the long road trip from Albany to Ohio.  I’m going to spend a few days along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, hobnobbing with doo-wop groups and vocal harmony groups and inductees and past inductees and photographing it all and having a great time.  That’s the most important thing.  Having a great time.  I’ve been part of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame since it opened way back in 1999, and I’ve made many friends in the music industry through contacts there.

Everything started out great.  I had lunches and dinners and get-togethers with people that I hadn’t seen in ages.  And at one point, I’m eating lunch at the hotel, and across the way was Gretchen Christopher.  Gretchen, along with Gary Troxel and Barbara Ellis, were the harmony trio known as the Fleetwoods.

We talked for a while – she told me stories of how the Fleetwoods recorded their biggest hits like “Come Softly To Me” and “Mr. Blue” and “Tragedy” and “Outside My Window,” and it was fantastic.  You don’t get a chance at this kind of oral history.  And I enjoyed every minute of it.

“Oh my,” she said, looking at her watch.  “I have to get to the Chevrolet Center for rehearsals.  When is the shuttle bus scheduled to arrive?”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll give you a lift in my car.”

“Thanks,” she smiled.  “I just need to get my gown for tonight, and I’ll meet you in the lobby in five minutes.”

See, one of the benefits of working with the Vocal Group Hall of Fame is that, when necessary, I’ve shuttled artists from the hotel to the performance venue and back.  Okay, you’re going to say I’m doing grunt work, but you know what – when else are you going to have the opportunity to chauffeur Mary Wilson (Supremes), Martha Reeves (Vandellas), Ross Barbour (Four Freshmen), Duke Fakir (Four Tops), Claudette Robinson (Miracles), Jon “Bowzer” Baumann from Sha Na Na, and members of the Clovers, the Manhattan Transfer and the Harptones?  Yeah, I did.  Not all in one car, the Pontiac wasn’t THAT big.

Back to my story.

Gretchen Christopher brings down this white chiffon evening gown, and I load it carefully into the back seat of the Pontiac.  Then we drive to the Chevrolet Center in Youngstown, Ohio, a few miles from our hotel.

Of course, I’m concentrating on driving, and I absent-mindedly turned on the car radio.  Now bear in mind, my Pontiac 6000 had an aftermarket Alpine car stereo deck, which meant that I could listen to music on my iPod (which was tethered in my glove box) and control the iPod with the car stereo deck.  I was listening to some oldies before I arrived at the Hall, and the next song on the playlist – curiously – was the Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue.”

I’ve often said that whenever I’m singing along with the radio, the only three appreciative audiences I have are the steering wheel, the shower head or the computer monitor.  And as I’m absent-mindedly singing along to one of the oldies on the radio – “I’m Mr. Blue… whoa-a-whoa, when you say you’re sorry…”

“That’s sweet.  You have a great singing voice, Chuck.”

I discovered I had a fourth appreciative audience member.  It was Gretchen Christopher of the Fleetwoods, whose #1 hit I was just singing in the car.  I turned about seven shades of crimson.  Oh my God, this is a professional singer whose career is based on these recordings, and here I am, some vocal hack who couldn’t cut it at a karaoke concert…

It didn’t matter.  I thanked Gretchen for the compliment, and inside I’m thinking oh my God, I never thought this would happen to me…

I dropped Gretchen Christopher off at the Chevrolet Center, and headed back to the hotel.  Oh my God, one of the Fleetwoods thought I had a great voice, oh my God, this is an amazing day –

Then, all of a sudden, the Pontiac 6000 lost power.  I stepped on the  gas.  Nothing.  The car was only moving forward on inertia.

I carefully guided the 6 over to the shoulder of the highway.  I tried starting the car again.  RVV RVV RVV RVV pfft.  RVV RVV RVV RVV pfft.

Nothing.  I was stuck.

A quick call to AAA.  I explained the situation, they sent a tow truck.  The tow truck operator told me that he could take the car back to his shop, but it wouldn’t be repaired until Tuesday – at least five days from now.

“I can’t do that,” I said.  “I’ve got concerts to photograph and I need to be back home in Albany by Sunday night.”

“Well,” the tow truck operator said, “We can take you to Pep Boys instead, they can fix your car.”

And so we did.  The tow truck operator drove me to the Pep Boys in Niles, Ohio.  He told the front desk mechanic what was going on.  Initially they went in the back to find a new alternator.

An hour later, the repairman came back to me.  “It’s not your alternator.”

“Then what is it?”

“We think it might be the computer module. We’ll have to get you a new one.  We also think it might be your plug wires.  You’re not getting a good spark.”

Three DAYS and lots of $$$$$ later, they finally got the car going.  I was still able to photograph the events – essentially I rode on the jitney and shuttle buses with the rest of the inductees, and simply kept my mouth shut about the car trouble.  Only the front desk clerk at the hotel, who arranged for taxi service from the hotel to Pep Boys, and Maxine Porter – she’s the widow of Bill Pinkney, one of the original members of the Drifters – knew of my plight.  And Maxine only knew because she and I rode on one of the shuttle buses from the hotel to the Chevrolet Center, and she could see that I was extremely upset – and, bless her heart, she offered kind words and support.

Saturday night.  Pep Boys calls me.  The 6 is back running again.  It’s got a new computer module and new plug wires and new this and new that.  So I’m ready to drive home from Ohio to Albany.

I start the car.  It goes.  We’re in good shape for now.

I get back on the New York State Thruway.  After a few hours of driving,  I need to pull over.  The gas tank needs refilling, and I need a driving break.  And what better place to take a break than – Turning Stone Casino.

My rule on visiting Turning Stone is – you’re going to spend $30.  If you win $60 or more, stop playing.  If you lose, then just get a sandwich at their little internal restaurants and go home.

I played one of the slot machines for about half an hour, and earned $150.  Swank.

I went back to the car.  Okay, I had $150 in my pocket from a win at Turning Stone, my car’s been repaired, everything’s great.  I got back in the Pontiac, and started it up.


Oh no.


Not again.



Another call to another tow truck.

This time I’m towed to the Pep Boys in New Hartford, New York.  The repairman there says, “It’s got to be your computer module.”

“I just had it replaced in Ohio a day ago.”

“Well, those things are manufactured from refurbished parts in Mexico, perhaps you just got a bad one.  We’ll keep the car here and let you know when it’s fixed.  Where are you staying?”

Staying?  I couldn’t stay anywhere.  I needed to be home that night.

So I called my wife.  Vicki drove the 100 miles from Albany to New Hartford in that piece of crap Hyundai Entourage of hers, picked me up, and took me home.

A few days later, Pep Boys called.  “Your car is fixed.  We’ve got the problem solved.”

“Great.  What was the problem?”

“You have a bad computer module.  We replaced it.”

So a couple of days later, Vicki drove me back to New Hartford.  I picked up the car.  Of course, Vicki wanted to get some food, so I treated her to this restaurant along the New Hartford shopping strip.  They were selling Utica Greens.  We had some.  Very tasty.  Afterward, we drove home in our respective cars.

Halfway home, Vicki calls me on her cell phone.  “I need to make a bathroom break.  Let’s pull in at this rest area.”

Okay fine.  We pull in.

She goes to the bathroom.  I start looking through some of the tourist brochures, scanning for ideas for new articles for my magazine clients.  There’s a few here that look interesting – hmm, the Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, that looks real interesting.

We get back to our cars.  I start mine up.







Again, another tow truck.  Again, another Pep Boys – this time the one on Central Avenue in Albany.  In other words, the car got back to the Capital District, but it took three different tow trucks to get there.

The next morning, I call the Albany Pep Boys.

“Oh, Mr. Miller, we aren’t sure what the problem is.”

“Well, we know it can’t be the computer module, I’ve had that replaced twice on this trip.”

“You had what done?” the mechanic asked.

“I had the computer module changed.  Why?”

“We aren’t supposed to do that, that’s something that’s done at a dealership.  In fact, we’re not sure that was the original problem, you’re going to need to take this car to the dealership where you bought it.”

Okay, do I really want to tell this guy that I bought the car from my grandmother, who bought the car nearly 20 years ago from a Pontiac dealership in Weymouth, Massachusetts?

Nah, why waste the breath.

So I nursed the car over to the one place that I knew I could get some decent support.

I took the car to DePaula Chevrolet.

Dennis Walters, who is the head of one of the repair teams, looked the car over.  “Why did they replace the computer module when your fuel injectors were clogged?”

“My fuel injectors?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” he said.  “Both your fuel injectors were clogged, and once we fix those and put two new fuel injectors in your car, you should be running fine.”

“But why didn’t they check that out?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said.  “We’ll get your car back to normal, Mr. Miller.  Don’t worry about a thing.”  He clapped his hands twice – CLAP CLAP – and his team of repairmen swarmed around my car like Tony Stewart’s pit crew.

And sure enough, Dennis Walters and his team at DePaula Chevrolet got the 6000 back up to speed.  And to his credit, that car lasted another two years after that repair.

As for Pep Boys, I was able to file a claim against them for unnecessary repairs, to the point where they refunded all the money I spent at the three different repair shops.

Don’t get me wrong.  I had a fantastic few days at the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, car repair issues notwithstanding.  And when the next inductions are held, I’ll drive out there in Cardachrome – heck, I’ve taken Cardachrome 14 1/2 hours to Halifax, what’s 8 hours to western Pennsylvania?

And to this day, when it comes to any sort of car repairs, maintenance or service, I operate on this simple formula.

TIRES = Go to Mavis.

FLUIDS = Go to Valvoline.

REPAIRS = Go to DePaula Chevrolet.


But only when they’re on sale.