Wallace and Ladmo's Musical Mastermind

Johnny Franklin
Mike Condello (center) and the Salt River Navy Band pose in this undated photo.

A diverse array of celebrities call our state home, from Emma Stone to Alice Cooper. But few ever shined as brightly as Wallace and Ladmo, who spent more than 30 years entertaining children and redefining family-friendly entertainment.

“I’d grown up with things like Soupy Sales, but they didn’t have the cross-generational appeal,” says Mark Myers, president of the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame. Part of that dynamic was the music, Myers says, which remains “fresh and interesting.”

While Wallace (played by Bill Thompson) and Ladmo (Ladimir Kwiatkowski) are the undisputed comedic stars of their universe, there’s another name behind those wacky tunes: Mike Condello.

“This kid was just such a talent,” says Arizona music historian John Dixon. Adds Myers, “They recognized the depths of his talent; Mike was the heart of the music stuff.”

Condello was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1946. His son, Mike Condello Jr., says his father requested a guitar at age 11 and then “that’s all he did.” Condello’s maternal uncle John was in house bands for both The Ed Sullivan Show and MGM Hotel, but Condello Jr. says “those were separate. He did, though, sit in the parking lot of Audio Recorders [studio] and listen to Duane Eddy play.”

After starting a band called King’s Four at North High School, Condello quickly became a featured member in Phoenix’s early ’60s music scene.

“He was too young to drive or drink, and these older band members would come and pick him up,” says Condello Jr. “He played with The Coasters and Chuck Berry — twice.”

From there, Condello started working on KPHO’s Teen Beat. But then Wallace and Ladmo came knocking and asked the teen to sit in before serving as musical director.

“Wallace was looking as for a guitar teacher for his daughter,” says Pat McMahon, who played both Gerald and Hub Kapp on the show. “Wallace just became attracted to his personality and sophisticated sense of humor. He was our first and only musical director.”

Little of the music was rehearsed beforehand, and Condello would have little time to create music for the wide array of characters and skits. Over his 10-plus years with the show, Condello fronted or played in a slew of fictional bands, including Hub Kapp and The Wheels and Commodore Condello’s Salt River Navy Band. He’d return later in the episodes to back up musical guests like Gary Lewis and Andy Robinson.

The Hub Kapp outfit were especially successful, says McMahon, and the group appeared on Tonight Starring Steve Allen and signed with Capitol Records for a few EPs. (They’re also the focus of a Wallace and Ladmo play.) But the Salt River Navy Band proved especially impressive, releasing two four-song EPs of Beatles parodies.

“Mike was a brilliant arranger,” McMahon says. “[Beatles producer] George Martin told me once that it took this combination of four dudes months to write Sgt. Pepper’s. And even though he had the patterns of the songs, Mike re-created those tracks over a weekend.”

Condello’s parody skills were impressive to most of his friends and collaborators. Dixon says that it’s hard enough to “be a good lyricist” or “know how to play” but Condello seemingly mastered both.

“Mike could take something to that other dimension of parody that some just couldn’t take it to,” Dixon adds. “He had a bigger brain than some and could see the other sides of an issue or a joke.” Or, as McMahon describes it, “This marriage happens once in a lifetime in a performer. He was one of the few geniuses I knew. He was the Italian leprechaun.”

There’s no denying the boundless wit in Condello’s sizable catalog of parody songs. Commodore standouts like “Lovely Auntie” and “A Day on the Tube” ride that line between asinine humor and great pop craftsmanship.
Some of it was too perfect.

“Someone from Capitol got a hold of me [regarding the Commodore Condello songs],” says McMahon. “And they said, ‘Before we call the lawyers, I just want to to know how he got hold of the tracks from Abbey Road.’ Even the piano [in one track] echoed perfectly.”

Condello’s parodies came during an international movement in the mid-1960s, with acts like Tom Lehrer and Peter Sellers pushing satirical pop forward. Dixon says Condello was part of a huge musical sea change in many ways. New technology allowed for cheaper, higher-quality recordings just as artists were utilizing parody to “get their point across.”

“Music was becoming food for thought beyond, ‘I love you, you love me,’” Dixon says.

Yet parody perhaps limited Condello’s career options as he expanded his work in the late ’60s. In 1967, he and his band Last Friday’s Fire signed with Lee Hazlewood’s LHI Records to release three singles that earned minimal exposure. The next year, he released a psych-pop album called Phase One that met a similar fate. Finally, he formed a power-pop band in the early ’70s called Elton Duck, which signed to Arista Records.

“But Clive Davis didn’t want to release it, and he wouldn’t let them buy the album back,” says Dixon. Elton Duck’s self-titled LP finally debuted in 2012 via a crowdsourcing campaign.

Condello relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s to produce or perform with a slew of famous acts. Condello Jr. says he’d often visit his dad and make friends with his clients, adding that Dr. John “bought me my first snow cone machine” and he’d often play with a “nice, large black man who turned out to be Barry White.”

Condello Jr. says his dad leaned into studio work as a way to “move on ... and to close that [Arizona] chapter,” and mentioned that some of his career issues likely stemmed from a “corrupt” record industry.

Dixon worked with Condello in the mid-’90s to assemble the Wallace and Ladmo hits collection. Dixon describes Condello’s mood as “really excited,” adding, “I certainly felt he had a sense of his legacy. I never got that gloomy, cloudy feeling, or him saying, ‘John, can you call me tomorrow.’”

Yet all of that made Condello’s 1995 suicide all the more surprising. McMahon says his wife, Duffy, had spoken with Condello about his treatment for clinical depression, but most people remained unaware. Without resorting to armchair diagnosis, Dixon says that Condello’s lack of success may “have weighed on him,” adding, “To hear all that creativity and to know it wasn’t enough, it’s sad.”

But most people adored Condello’s body of work. In 2013, Dixon assembled Condello, an album featuring samplings of his parody and pop output. In the liner notes are artists and friends passionately celebrating his legacy, with praise from Mick Mashbir, Bruce Connole, Dennis Kenmore, and Dr. Demento, who called him among the “best rock parodist of the whole pre-Yankovic era.”

Condello Jr. says that he remembers his dad beyond Wallace and Ladmo and the guitar. He had numerous interests, like he wrote and did photography. When things got slow musically, he was a professional photographer.”

Meanwhile, Myers and other folks say that thanks to Dixon and other archivists, Condello’s legacy remains steadfast.

“Mike’s the host, the MC,” McMahon says of the video accompanying the Wallace and Ladmo play. “He’s standing in the corner, welcoming you into the crazy, wacky world of Wallace and Ladmo. Wherever he is, I hope he’s found peace. And the address for John Lennon and George Harrison.”