The Three Friends were formed in 1954 at a time when rock & roll was in its infancy. The group came together while all three members were attending New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, NY. The Three Friends were comprised of Tony Grochowski, Frank Stropoli, and Joe Villa. Stropoli and Grochowski had previously been in a group called the Heartbeats that recorded one record for Jubilee in 1955 (finally backed with "Boil & Bubble"). After the record's release, the Heartbeats went through some personnel changes, and Joe Villa was recruited in to their ranks. Originally, the guys were intent upon developing a pop-oriented vocal/comedy act, and had started to have some success performing in that vein. But the birth of rock & roll, and a song about a girl named Blanche would thrust them in a different direction. Before the end of 1955, a record called "Crazy for You" was getting a lot of New York City action thanks to deejay Alan Freed. That record was also by another "Heartbeats" group, the one that is familiar to most doo wop lovers. To avoid confusion, our guys decided that they needed a new name for their group. About this time, they had begun to collaborate with Teddy Randazzo of the Three Chuckles. Joe Villa credits Randazzo as the one who suggested the group's new name, the Three Friends.
"Blanche" was an original song penned by the group, and inspired by a young lady who had attended their high school. The group came to the attention of Leo Rogers, who had them record the tune on his newly formed Lido label. The dreamy teen ballad was released in September of 1956 with the midtempo "Baby I'll Cry" on the backside. The record was reviewed in Billboard the week of October 27, and received three stars -- a "very good" rating. Alan Freed liked the record, which meant it got excellent exposure on his New York City radio show, and almost immediately put the Three Friends on the map. "Blanche" became an East coast hit and landed the guys some excellent performing venues. Freed booked the group for his 1956 blockbuster Christmas show at the Brooklyn Paramount. The Three Friends shared the bill on that show with Shirley & Lee, the Moonglows, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the Dells, Jesse Belvin, the G-Clefs, and the Heartbeats. They also appeared at the prestigious Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
The group had an interesting episode in the "Blanche" saga on a trip to Philadelphia in November of 1956 to promote the record, with deejay Hy Litt on WHAT radio. When neither Litt nor the group could find a copy of the platter, to the delight of the radio audience, they gave a live performance of "Blanche" and several other tunes. Riding high on the success of "Blanche," the Three Friends took almost a year to release some follow-up discs. The first, issued as Lido 502 in October 1957 was "I'm Only a Boy (To Her)," a teen coming of age ballad backed with "Jinx" a midtempo pop number. Lido 504 was also released about the same time with a pairing of two ballads, "Now That You're Gone" covered with "Chinese Tea Room." The groups polished pop sound may have been too "adult" sounding for teen audiences, and the records failed to chart. Brunswick reissued "Jinx" paired with "Chinese Tea Room" in 1957, but didn't fare much better than Lido had with the tunes. Although the group were fine singers, they could not recapture their initial success with "Blanche."
The Three Friends also used their polished harmonies to back up other artists. They can be heard (although un-credited) behind Eddie Robbins on his 1958 Power release of "Dear Parents" backed with "A Girl Like You." They also provided backup vocals to Eddie Reardon on his 1958 Brunswick recording of "Who Is Eddie" and "Just Trying."
Following his tenure with the Three Friends, Joe Villa would go on to front a combo called the Royal Teens, who had a big success in 1958 with the novelty rocker "Short Shorts," originally released on Power and later picked up by ABC Paramount. And on some of the Royal Teens' later recordings such as "Believe Me," it's none other than the Three Friends providing the vocal harmonies. After leaving the Royal Teens, Joe Villa worked as solo artist, recording for a variety of labels including Dee-Lite, issuing an LP as well as several singles. He would reprise "Blanche" on two occasions, in 1963 on the Chevron label with a nice female RnB backup group, and later in the '80s, when Teddy Randazzo joined him on background vocals and production. Joe Villa continues to perform regularly as a solo artist, and also with a Three Friends group on '50s shows. Much of the Three Friends recorded output is currently available on several various-artist compilation CDs. ~ Jim Dunn