Rhamy makes sweet music at Peppermint

Staff photo / Andy Gray Gary Rhamy talks about his work as an engineer on Grammy Award-winning polka albums.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com.

YOUNGSTOWN — Gary Rhamy played piano and tuba growing up, but he doesn’t consider himself a musician.

“I know what side of the glass I belong on,” he said.

The glass he’s talking about is the window that separates the control booth from the recording studio. On the control side, he’s made quite a name for himself.

Rhamy, 75, recorded and engineered five Grammy-winning polka albums in his career, including the Frankie Yankovic album that won the very first best polka album Grammy. Dozens of other other polka albums he worked on received Grammy nominations. There were some years where four of the five nominees in the polka category were recorded by Rhamy, either at his Peppermint Recording Studio in Youngstown or on location.

His bio says he’s produced more than “500 albums for more than 175 polka artists.” He can’t get more specific than that.

“I was so busy doing the work that I was really miserable at keeping records,” Rhamy said.

Instead of a straight path like a 2 / 4 polka beat, Rhamy’s course to his life’s work was more circuitous.

He grew up in Wooster and left there to study broadcasting at Ohio University. There he hosted a radio show called “Campus Jazz” that ran on the college station as well as WLW-AM, a 50,000-watt, clear-channel station in Cincinnati. He ultimately became student program director of the college station, where he had a friendly rivalry with the editor of the college newspaper — Joe Eszterhas, who became a screenwriter best known for such films as “Flashdance,” “Jagged Edge” and “Basic Instinct.”

“We used to have battles,” Rhamy said. “I did a late night show and would pick on him, and he would pick on me (in print). It was all in fun.”

After graduating from OU, he moved to Youngstown in 1967, where he got a job working for WBBW-AM alongside longtime Mahoning Valley radio personality Dan Ryan and future WKBN news anchor Tom Holden.

But with his college deferment over, Rhamy knew the draft was looming. Before we was drafted, he went to the local recruiting office to see what his options might be. One of the possible job assignments was an audio specialist.

When he got drafted in 1968, he remembered the code number for that job and said that’s what he’d like to be considered for during his basic training interview.

“I was put in radio operators’ school,” he said. “This wasn’t time, temperature, weather. This is, ‘What’s going on at the front lines.'”

However, the class was overcrowded and with Rhamy’s broadcasting experience, he ended up getting switched to the television division.

“I spent two years with Uncle Sam making training films,” he said. “I taught people everything from the venomous snakes of Vietnam to how to build door frames if you were building barracks. It worked out really good.”

He also got experience working with audio equipment, recording on two-inch tape and other skills that would come in handy when he returned to Youngstown in 1970 and decided to open a recording studio.

“One of the reasons I wanted to start a studio was the abundance of musical talent in this area,” he said. “I was amazed at the number of quality musicians.”

Peppermint opened in 1971 on Indianola Avenue in a building that previously housed United Media. Several local acts that went on to major labels did their early recordings there — Blue Ash before signing with Mercury Records, Left End before signing with Polydor, Maureen McGovern before “The Morning After” and Bob DiPiero before he became a top songwriter in Nashville.

Rhamy grew up watching “The Lawrence Welk Show” and “Polka Varieties” out of Cleveland, but polka music wasn’t his passion initially.

“We were focusing on whatever we could do to keep the doors open,” he said.

He credited local polka legends like Bob Turcola and Joe Fedorchak with helping to develop his interest and knowledge of Slovenian-style (or Cleveland-style) polka. Fedorchak brought in a stack of polka albums the first time he recorded at Peppermint and played some things he liked and some things he wanted to avoid, Rhamy said. Fedorchak didn’t want Rhamy to copy the things he liked, but it gave him some parameters to guide him. Rhamy also drew on his experience recording contemporary artists.

“I think the thing that really helped us with polkas was doing so much rock and pop music at the time,” Rhamy said. “I took the techniques I was using in rock — multiple mic-ing of drums, multitracking of instruments — and brought that over and put it toward polka music. Instead of just setting up a couple of microphones in the room and the whole band playing, we separated everything.”

Rhamy, who still has one of those perfect, radio-ready baritone voices, puts his broadcast training to use, hosting a polka show from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays on WRQX (600 AM). And after Kuzman’s in Girard closed in 2017 and polka fans lost one of their primary outlets for live music, Rhamy started promoting polka shows featuring local Grammy-nominated artist Del Sinchak along with national polka acts.

And in recent years, Peppermint has been rediscovered by a younger generation of music fans. Youngstown’s Anthony LaMarca, a member of the Grammy-winning band The War on Drugs, recorded his album “Petra” there under the band name The Building. Columbus-based Red Wanting Blue’s just-released “The Peppermint Sessions” features five tracks recorded at Peppermint, and Youngstown band The Super Babes recorded its debut EP there.

“It’s wonderful that they recognize that all this time we’ve been trying to be a quality studio,” Rhamy said. “You’re always going to end up with something you can use. It may be different than you thought it would be, but it’s going to be good.”


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