He’s been called the Prince of Rock and Roll. Chuck “Big Wheelie” Vicario’s oldies band, the Hubcaps, recently played a noon concert at One M&T Plaza downtown. It marked the first time that Vicario has taken the stage since a motorcycle accident two years ago left him critically injured and unable to perform.
After 45 years performing as Big Wheelie, Vicario is far from hanging up his leather jacket. He has shared the stage with many star performers, including Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and Little Richard. Prior to the Hubcaps, Vicario sang in local bands Caesar and the Romans and Friendship Train. In 1985, he was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.
Today he is employed full time as a wellness advocate for a local health insurance provider. He and his wife, Candy, live in the Town of Tonawanda. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.
People Talk: What happens when you put your leather jacket on?
Chuck Vicario: My whole personality changes. I become a kid again, and I was a punk. That’s the way it went. Big Wheelie caught on so fast. Our drummer ... thought of the name because I’d do wheelies with my Harley.
PT: Were you a wise guy?
CV: Yeah. I was the typical little wise guy kid who got picked on. I grew up in Kenmore-Riverside. It was a different time, and the people were starting to move to Kenmore from different parts of the city. They weren’t very much wanted. I was one of them. I was Italian. I always wanted to sing.
PT: Isn’t it increasingly difficult to keep the oldies relevant?
CV: I think that now it’s more about the performance you give. It’s not like it was when we started the revolution, so to speak. At least that’s what the guys in Sha Na Na told me we did. They wouldn’t get on stage with us. A couple of them came to see us perform.
PT: Tell me about your first album.
CV: “Solid Grease”? We recorded it in 1972 at the old Three Coins with WKBW DJ Don Burns introducing us. It was my manager’s idea, my lifelong friend, Fred Caserta. He was my best friend ever. We started everything together in the business. He eventually left the business, and was a founder of Kingdom Bound. It became very big.
PT: As entertainers go, who is your idol?
CV: Elvis. I gave him every album we made – hand-delivered to Holmy Hills, L.A.; Memphis a couple of times. One of his guys told me Elvis used to play our album “Solid Grease” at every party he had. I thought that was cool. Elvis knew who people were. He kept track. I wrote a play after he passed away called “Elvis Forever.” We toured with it.
PT: What performer today turns your head?
CV: Bruno Mars. He’s another Jackie Wilson. His voice is incredible. I saw Jackie Wilson once and I wanted to quit. Not only did he sing great but he was a performer – just like Elvis.
PT: When did you move to Florida?
CV: I moved there in the ’80s for five years. I made a Christmas album in Florida. I had a night club called Big Wheelie’s Midnight Sun on the border of Bradenton and Sarasota. It was a very popular place, but I wanted to come home to Buffalo. There’s nothing like Buffalo. In Florida, you don’t know who your friend really is. In Buffalo, if someone don’t like you? You know it. Someone told me my club is a church now.
PT: Didn’t you just write a song about Buffalo?
CV: Yes. It has to do with the comeback of our city, and my personal comeback. I’ll give you the first line. “Gonna rock downtown at One M&T. Hundreds of people just waiting for me. On my way I got hit by a van. The Harley died. I flew like Superman. Comeback. Just like my city. Comeback. Just like me.” I just talked with my keyboard player. We talked about laying something down quickly.
PT: So you came back after two years of not performing?
CV: The absolute worst part was seeing my family over me, looking at me. ... I rode a motorcycle for 45 years. It was part of my punk image. But not anymore. It isn’t worth it. At heart I’m a biker, but I lose my grip sometimes and that would be difficult on a motorcycle. I will never do that to my family again.
PT: How old are you?
CV: I’m 67. I tell people I’m born again. I’m ageless.
PT: You probably don’t think of yourself as a senior.
CV: You’re right. I don’t, but I totally respect what seniors have done by working all their lives. But I’m not there yet. I’m not retired. Age-wise? OK, but like you said I feel like I’m 40 or whatever. I’m ready to go all the time.