L-R: Jimmy Ryan, Melody Rink, Bill Cook, TJ Rink, Butch Lepro
The Syndicate was formed in Warren Ohio by Tom (TJ) Rink in 1964, two days after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Rink contacted his neighbor and very close friend Alex (Butch) Lepro and asked him if he wanted to be in a rock band. Butch said “sure, lets do it”. It didn’t seem to be a problem that neither Rink or Lepro owned or played any instruments, or could read music. Their main concern was finding a few more guys and getting their first gig. TJ contacted another Sophomore Phil Starr from Newton Falls High who played drums and could read music. Phil showed up at the first band meeting and was asked if he knew anyone that could play bass. Starr said he had a guy from school that would probably want to come into the band and called him. About hour later, Bruce Swartzmiller showed up and was brought on as our bass player. We now had our band. TJ and Butch started learning how to play guitar, not by taking lessons, but by learning a new song each day. Butch had a great ear and could note out (tabulate) each lead and rhythm part. TJ would learn the cords and Butch did all the leads. Bruce, Butch, and TJ all tried singing lead, but at that time, playing and singing was hard, and they decided to get a front man. TJ went to his high school choir and found Jimmy Ryan, another classmate of Rink’s. Jimmy took to the band like a duck to water. With some work, the group was showing really good 4 part harmonies, and on certain songs, either Rink, Lepro, or Bruce would sing lead. After about 6 months of work, the band was ready for their first gig. The band had went from an idea to reality in less then 6 months, learning about 10 Top 40 songs, with decent harmony and reasonably good musicality
The Warren/Youngstown area was a hot bed for the gangsters that ran the area. Generally, there was about 1 mob killing per month. The Mafia was real in the Mahoning Valley and Rink believed that a band name that reflected that image was good for business. The Syndicate was born. Less then 6 months after getting together, the Syndicate got its first gig playing at a “Nam Going Away Party”. They earned 25 bucks and played their 10 or 12 songs about 5 times each. But the crowd loved them! There was about 100 people there from all over the Warren area and within 24 hours, they got booked for their second gig, 3 weeks away. Bands in those days usually wore the same clothes, and at that time they weren’t any different. They all went out together and bought matching pants, shirts, etc. and boy did they look cool. That’s what 16 year olds did in those days. They looked cool. At their second gig a promoter was there and after the first set wanted to book them at an 18 and over dance club called the Sugar Shak, located in Howland. The joint was open Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and sold 3.2 beer and most of the patrons were Youngstown State University students. The promoter (forgot his name) said they didn’t need to audition and could start the next week for the Wednesday night crowd. TJ pulled out a contract on the spot and started filling it out, listing the dates and times, and most importantly the fees. The promoter was a little shocked that this 16 year old kid was so well prepared only after 2 gigs under his belt. Rink told the guy that all the members of The Syndicate were members of the Warren Musicians Union and that they only worked for union scale. The promoter said he only paid bands on Wednesday $25 to perform and Rink told him they wouldn’t play for less than $60. Evidently, the promoter wanted The Syndicate, cause he signed the contract. Rink had put down 4 nights at $60 per night with an option to either leave in 2 or get 4 more nights with a raise. The gate on Wednesdays never was more than 35 to 50 people and they charged a cover of .50 cents. Rink told the promoter that if The Syndicate didn’t increase the gate, they would leave in 2 weeks and accept the $25 for their scale. Within the first two weeks, The Syndicate brought the gate up to over 100 and after 4 weeks they had close to the same numbers that the place was getting on the weekends. The promoter rebooked The Syndicate for the weekends, plus playing Wednesdays, all at $85.00 per night. The minimum wage at the time was like .85 cents per hour. You can see that they were making some serious money for 4 hours of playing time. They ended up playing there for almost 3 months, 3 nights a week. All of this with less then 8 months in the business. Their fans spread the word all around YSU and within a very short period they started getting calls for bars near YSU. They got booked for 8 weeks at the Tomb, 3 nights a week and then went over to the Penguins Roost, the University Club and many frat parties.
Six months after putting the band together they got their first gig for a going to Nam party. They got 25 bucks for the gig and there was enough people there that word spread. Within 24 hours they booked their second gig for a couple weeks away, also for 25 bucks. That gig caught the ear of a promoter in Howland who ran a teen dance club caled the Sugar Shak. This place was open Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The Syndicate got booked on the worst night, Wednesday, and was told that the joint only had about 50 college kids coming in. The place sold 3.2 beer (3.2% alcohol beer was the only legal drink for over 18 and under 21 in Ohio at the time - ed.) and most all of the crowd was from Youngstown State University, all over the age of 18. Three weeks later they brought the gate up to over 100 on Wednesdays. The kids that couldn't make it in on that night got the Syndicate booked on Fridays and Saturdays also and they ended up playing 3 nights a week for 8 weeks, earning $85 a night. When you understand the minimum wage was 85 cents per hour, this was some serious money for 4 hours work. The amazing part is that they were only in the band for less than 8 months at this time. These big paydays allowed the band to start gearing up with new equipmenty. Lepro played a Fender Strat, Bruce had a Gibson bass, Cook used Rogers drums and Rink had a Gretsch Country Gentleman. They all had Fender Bandmaster amps, Shure mics, and the best sound system available at the time.
In the summer of 1966, The Syndicate got booked at a college summer retreat called Geneva-on-the-Lake. College kids from all over Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania came there to chill out from their studies. This place only existed for the summer trade, renting cottages on the shores of Lake Erie, providing about 50 bars to hang out in and 100s of guys and girls wanting to hook up. Two bars really stood out at the time, the Cove and the Sunken Bar. They got booked at the Sunken Bar to open for a Pittsburg group called the Jaggers. They did the Saturday and Sunday Jams from 6-8 pm and they would come on and play till closing. This was an over 18 crowd and the place was always packed. They contracted for 8 weeks at around $125 per session. The Jaggers were a super group and were around 5 years older then the guys, but they treated them like their little brothers. They were great guys that taught them so much about harmonies, showmanship, and being on the cutting edge of what was coming.
Influences: “We started out with the Top 40 and it didn’t matter who played it, as long as the fans could dance to it, we did it” They were current with the top 10 weekly, British, Pop, Rock, Soul. When they got with the Jaggers, they suggested that they could be a top show band if they started doing Detroit Sound stuff. They had tight 4 part harmony and started doing the Temptations, Casinos, Five Stair Steps, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Capitols, Ink Spots, Isley Brothers, etc. Most of this stuff was fairly new to the college kids and they ate it up. The band performed Cool Jerk, Have you Heard, My Girl, Twist and Shout, Hold On I’m Coming, Knock on Wood, Midnight Hour, along with Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Who, McCoys, Turtles, Rascals, just to name a few.
Best Gig: ‘‘When we opened for the Jaggers. That was the turning point for The Syndicate, as we went from a fairly good garage band that got people dancing, to a more professional show band that got people to applaud our vocals and music.’’
Gig From Hell: “Actually all of our gigs were great, but one did come out kind of threatening. If you notice in our band photos, there is a girl in the picture, and if you count the guys, you come up with four. We had posters printed up with our picture attached and the venue would put the “Appearing Tonight” poster in the lobby. The poster also showed who did what in the band, name along with instrument etc. We got booked for a place in Cleveland, (I won’t say where or the name) without auditioning. I sent the contract, audio tape, and our “Appearing Tonight” poster and pictures. We got to the gig about 3 hours before show time and already they had a crowd forming at the entrance. We were getting like $500 for this show and thought maybe I should have gotten a cut at the gate. While we were setting up, this bent nose type came to me and said he wanted to meet Jimmy Ryan. I pointed him out and the guy said “No, I want to meet Jimmy Ryan, the singer”. The guy was about 5 times my size, around 45 years old and was definitely connected with forces that I couldn’t handle. He kept pronouncing Ryan as Ran. After a very short discussion it appeared that this guy had thought he hired our group with the lead singer being a female from Toledo named JIMMI RYAN but pronounced RAN. He looked at our band photo and wanted to know “who in the hell is this girl?” I explained that on the day of the photo shoot, Bruce was in Cleveland getting his military physical and never made the shoot. The photographer thought it would be great to show the quality of our equipment and should pose with the guitars. Ryan picked up Bruce’s bass for the shoot and the girl was my girlfriend and was just added cause she had great legs. The personal description of each member showed that all positions were filled by the men and it was just a goof that a female singer from Toledo had a name spelled the same as Jimmy Ryans and because the girl in the photo was the only one not holding an instrument, he assumed she was the singer, Jimmy Ryan. The guy stuck his meaty fingers in my chest a number of times and told me “You better be worth the f@## money we’re paying you!” After doing the final sound check, we went backstage and I told the guys what happened. They all thought it was funnier than hell and I told them that if the crowd was there to see the female singer, Jimmi Ryan, and she wasn’t there, they could demand their money back and we were out of the deal. We weren’t under much pressure. We went on and drove straight through the first break, (we played 30 minutes of each hour) keeping the crowd dancing for 11/2 hours. The crowd responded to us with applause, requests, and they bought a ton of beer. We brought the house down and ended up with a C-note tip.”
The Last Gig: “The last gig we did was the finish of a 26 week engagement (4 nights a week) at the Stables in Painesville. The Syndicate started here in late fall of 1966 and finished in May 67. We started on Wednesdays, moving on to Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This was a lounge off a bowling alley and near the Painesville Armory, where we also played a few times in the past. The Stables showcased many local bands in the Cleveland area, such as The Outsiders, Choir, and Mixed Emotions. They charged a cover of about $2.00, $1.50 for beer, and sold liquor. The place easily held 350 persons, and many times the Fire Marshal would do an inspection for over capacity and would close the doors. The management paid us very well, averaging $1800 per week.”
"Like all new and fresh bands of the 60s we started with junk. Butch and I actually rented our first acoustic guitars. Within the month I bought a used Fender Jaguar and Butch got a club from Sears. I remember I could pass my fingers underneath the strings at the 12 fret on Butches guitar. But boy could he play that mess. As the money started to come in, we started buying the best available, ending up with:"
TJ: Grestch Country Gentleman/Fender Tube Bandmaster Amp with 12”JBL Bass Speakers Installed.
Butch: Fender Stratocaster 1964/Fender Tube Bandmaster Amp.
Bruce: Gibson Solid Body Bass/Fender Tube Bandmaster Amp Bassman Model
Bill: Rogers Drums, Top hat 5 cymbals, double tom toms.
University TL3 Column Speakers, Bogan Amp with mixers, Ampex Tower Speakers, 5 Shur Mics.
Norleco Stereo 8” reel to reel tape recorder.
Rehearsal Space: “Butch was an only child and had a fairly new house with a big basement. The band owned half of it. Butches mom would be our ears, and give us input on our harmonies.”
Band Vehicles: TJ had a 1962 Bel Air Hardtop that he drove and Butch rode. Ryan also had a Chevy that he would take with some equipment. Bill Cook had a car and a trailer that carried all of the drums and sound systems.
Band Fashion Statement: Needless to say, they presented themselves as professionals. Some shows they actually changed during breaks. Most though they wore what their fans expected. They weren’t into the hippy styles but liked a nice, sharp look.
Where are they now?
TJ married the girl in the band photo and will celebrate their 41 anniversary in 2008. He attended the University of Akron, Ohio State University and graduated from the Ohio Fire Academy and Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy. After 23 years TJ retired from the Fire Service holding the rank of District Chief. He relocated to Arizona where he started a second career with the State of Arizona. They have 2 sons and 5 grandkids, all back in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He has two guitars, one electric, one acoustic and plays church services at his church.
Butch attended YSU and retired from an auto assembly plant after 30 years. He is an award winning photographer and is owner of Alexander Photography in Newton Falls. He still has his Fender Strat.
Jimmy was drafted and served in Viet Nam and when discharged, he worked in water sales as a regional representative. He found Jesus and has excelled in Gospel singing appearances.
Bill went into supervision in a local manufacturing plant and has retired. Haven’t seen or spoken to for years.
Bruce also was drafted and when discharged started playing with another local group called Frisco Mint. When they needed a new lead guitar player, he called Butch and he too joined the band. When the band folded, Bruce vaporized.