Sweet Sounds on the South Side
By Billy Ludt
Gary Rhamy walks down the hallway on the second floor of his recording studio. Records are stacked on boxes and artist signed photos reach from the wall molding to the ceiling, from start to end.
Owner and operator Gary Rhamy and Del Sinchak, two time Grammy nominated polka artist, have been with Peppermint Productions since the beginning. Peppermint Productions is at 803 E. Indianola Ave., Youngstown.
Peppermint Productions was established in the summer of 1971. Rhamy and Norm Taylor, his former business partner, acquired space on the bottom floor of a doctor’s office and converted it into a recording space.
The building was previously Channel 45’s television studio. After Channel 45 folded, a doctor owned the building. After that, Rhamy purchased the building.
Rhamy laughed when asked about the origins of Peppermint Productions’ name. He explained that Taylor’s wife participated in transcendental meditation, in the same vein of the late mystic, Edgar Cayce.
Taylor asked his wife about the name, and she told him that she would ask her Indian guide for assistance.
“So, after the meditation, she came back and said, ‘Well guys, it’s got to be a name that has two letters together,’ like peppermint has,” Rhamy said. “She said it had to be productions, too. Not recording studio.”
“I didn’t know that,” Sinchak said.
“We stuck with it,” Rhamy said.
After a year of working together, Taylor left Peppermint Productions.
Rhamy pulled out a flier advertising their recording company. From the center of the page up is a picture of Peppermint Productions’ original interior design — circles and semi-circles working along the walls and into a shag rug of red, blue, orange and yellow; the drummer’s box, also covered in shag, bore the phrase, “Cool Aid.”
There isn’t much shag left in the studio, save for a semi-circle couch, but that is now covered in equipment — several guitars, a mandolin with no strings.
Rhamy worked in radio as a student at Ohio University. He graduated from OU with a degree in broadcasting, but he always wanted to be involved with recording. Rhamy ended up in Youngstown after graduation.
“I could see, man, there was a lot of talent in this town,” he said. “And there always is, there always has been. I thought this would be a great place to be in recording.”
All of this was happening while the U.S. was involved with the Vietnam conflict. When Rhamy’s deferment ran out he was drafted and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, but not before meeting Sinchak.
Rhamy worked for Bill Warner, the owner of WAM [Words and Music] Records, at the time, before being drafted.
Sinchak worked with Rhamy since the late 1960s. He was the original owner of WAM Recording in Youngstown. Sinchak’s career as a musician has spanned six decades, and he has played everything from polka to rock and country.
“Polka’s always been a very good part of our business,” Rhamy said. “Without that, we probably never would have survived. And, of course, the whole thing has changed dramatically in the past few years too.”
Sinchak’s first band played polka. But the emergence of rock music swayed them to switch genres, thus Del Saint and the Devils was born. The group put out a couple 45s through Chess Records and backed The Edsels on their hit single, “Rama Lama Ding Dong.”
After his stint with rock, Sinchak returned to polka. The Del Sinchak Band was nominated twice for “Best Polka Album” at the Grammys.
“Gary put polkas on the map,” Sinchak said. “We have groups literally from all over the country that come here to record.”
“That was one of the things that really helped us with really setting the benchmark in the polka industry like we did,” Rhamy said.
Hanging on the wall, back behind stacks of recording equipment, hangs a golden record, framed in glass.
“That was for this,” Rhamy said.
He held up a light blue record sleeve. On it is an artist’s rendition of a woman in exercise gear striking an aerobic pose and the title, “Carol Hensel’s Exercise & Dance Program.”
“It’s a ‘dancercise’ album,” he said. “We did it back in 1979. I forget about all of these until somebody asks me about them.”
“Carol Hensel’s Exercise & Dance Program” was one of the first dancercise albums ever recorded, well before Jane Fonda ever thought to do it.
An unlikely title from a recording studio whose life blood is mostly polka albums, but the dancercise record went on to go platinum in the United States, Canada and Australia. Peppermint also put out dancercise records with local lightweight boxing champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini titled, “Knockout Bodies.”
Peppermint worked with most of the bands playing in the area in the first couple decades of its existence. Bands like Youngstown’s infamous power rockers Left End and the power pop group Blue Ash.
Rhamy and Sinchak approach polka the same way they approached every other kind of music. One to two hours are spent on each instrument, ensuring that its sound is up-to-par before recording.
“We do a lot of polkas, there’s no doubt about it,” Rhamy said. “But we also do a lot of other stuff too. Usually, the stuff we deal with is acoustic-oriented.”
While Peppermint Productions — like any recording studio — works with a variety of bands, they stand apart from modern studios by catering to artists who prefer vintage equipment and choose to record as a band rather than in parts.
Peppermint works with an inventory of vintage equipment, and the studio is large enough to fit a full band. Their immense stock of functioning vintage gear even piqued the interest of singer-songwriter Lenny Kravitz. All of their amplifiers are tube, and their Telefunken microphones are from the ‘60s and would run for about $14,000 today. In their control room sits large a 2-inch tape recorder that sold for $35,000 in the ‘70s.
“A lot of people look for that whole sound,” Rhamy said. “If some of the guitars get into a drum mic, that’s OK. That’s the way we hear it. We don’t focus in when we go to a concert. You hear the whole thing. The atmosphere of the room allows us to do that … We’ve been one that’s always felt it’s good to have everybody playing together because you’re reacting to each other, you’re inspired by one another. It’s the band.”
“Don’t believe anything you hear these days,” Rhamy said. “There’s nothing like having all the musicians in there, all playing at the same time. I’m kind of a traditionalist that way. There’s nothing like real. What do you think, Del?”