By Dave Price
In 1978, I was playing in a South Jersey band called Time Peace. We were performing classic rock songs, as well as some radio hits of the time. One song that was always well received was “My Angel Baby,” a No. 1 hit by a band called Toby Beau.
Now I hadn’t thought about “My Angel Baby” or Toby Beau for 40 years. But that changed earlier this month when my wife and I boarded The Pride of America for a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands and discovered that Toby Beau was going to be performing two shows on the ship.
In its original format, Toby Beau was a five-piece band out of southern Texas. Today, it’s a duo consisting of Balde Silva, the original singer and co-writer of “My Angel Baby,” and his wife Rennetta Dennet Silva, who has been with Silva since the ‘70s.
During about five hours of informal chatting and formal interviewing over three days, Balde, sometimes joined by the striking and incredibly friendly Rennetta, told me the 40-year story of Toby Beau.
Like so many music lovers who later became musicians, Balde vividly recalls the moment when he realized music could be more than his passion; he wanted it to be his life’s work. “It was seeing the Doors on Ed Sullivan”, Balde says. “You could hear that Vox organ and that guitar. And then there was Jim Morrison.”
Around that time, a couple of Balde’s older cousins formed a rock band and young Balde was given an important job. One of the guitar chords could short out when it was put in an amp, so as the band rehearsed, Balde would hold the chord steady so it wouldn’t wiggle. As the band played, he would sing along. Soon, he found himself fronting the band as lead vocalist.
“The singer they had wasn’t very good and I could sing pretty well. So we switched positions. He started holding the chord and I became the lead singer,” Balde says, chuckling as he recalled his inauspicious introduction to the rock band world.
After playing with several configurations of South Texas musicians, Balde found himself with the four other musicians who would become the first version of Toby Beau. The band was named after one of the last shrimp boats docked in the Gulf Coast community of Port Isabel, Texas.
The group started out performing covers in clubs all over Texas, but eventually began writing songs of their own. One of those songs was “My Angel Baby,” co-written by Balde and now-deceased guitarist and band member Danny McKenna. Soon, the group signed a major three-record deal with RCA and found they were going to be produced by KISS producer Sean Delaney.
Balde said the band’s rise was rapid and eye-opening. “One day we were playing in these greasy bars in San Antonio and the next day we were recording in New York with all these big bands,” Balde noted.
Propelled by the band’s first single “My Angel Baby,” Toby Beau was soon getting airplay all over the country and Canada. The single, with its updated 1950s feel and harmonica solo reminiscent of something like the Rascals might have recorded in their heyday, spent 13 weeks climbing the Billboard charts. It reached No. 1 on the Easy Listening charts, while rising to No. 13 on the pop charts. “My Angel Baby” quickly earned gold for receiving more than a million radio plays.
Suddenly, the band found itself touring with many of the biggest acts of the ‘70s such as the Doobie Brothers, Bob Seger, the Steve Miller Band, Steely Dan, and ZZ Top, all of whom are now enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“That was a wild time,” Rennetta says. “Wild, but fun while you were young”.
But when the band began recording its second album, problems developed. They tried recording in New York City, Miami, and Nashville, but were unable to recapture the magic of “My Angel Baby”. When finally released, the second album did include a cover of “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” written by John D. Loudermilk, who also composed the classic “Tobacco Road”. “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” had previously been the number 6 pop hit for the Casinos in 1967 and a No. 1 on the country charts for Eddy Arnold in 1968. The 1979 version by Toby Beau only reached 57 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and 7 on the Adult Contemporary List.
By the completion of that album, all four of Balde’s fellow band members had left the group. However, he decided to record the third album for RCA on his own, a move which allowed him to retain the rights to use the name Toby Beau.
After that album, Balde and Renetta, accompanied by various musicians, toured as Toby Beau, playing smaller music venues and festivals, clubs, and bars. As the 21 Century dawned, the two – now just a duo – found themselves also working on cruise ships. After 7 years, Balde and Rennetta wanted to forego cruise performance. However, their agent said they should do one more cruise.
“I heard Rennetta holler in the background, ‘See if we can do something in Hawaii. We’ve never been there’. Well that was 12 years ago and since then we have been right here performing on the ship,” Balde explained.
The Pride of America cruises around Hawaii all 52 weeks of the year, so the Toby Beau duo can book work as much as they want. Currently, their contract specifies that they perform two shows, one on Saturday night and one on Sunday night. That means they have the rest of the cruise to do what they want, which often involves exploring the islands. It also means they can have an almost-regular scheduled. For example, Rennetta apologized for cutting our chat short on Sunday night because she and her husband always make that movie date night while the ship is docked overnight in Kawai.
As for the two shows, one a tribute to the Beatles and the other to the Eagles, are unique. Balde and Rennetta play the performance live, but the drums and other backing instruments have been pre-recorded by Balde for live playback.
Actually, the pre-recordings have a live feel, not like many such accompaniments that sound artificial and machine-like. Balde explained there is a simple reason for that fact. “I guess you heard a few mistakes,” he said. “I was going to take them out, but when I listened to them I thought such things occur in live performances so I left them in,” he said.
To enhance the accuracy of the show, Balde employs some the same guitars that George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney used for the Beatles and Glen Fry, Bernie Leadon, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh played for specific Eagles songs.
The show itself is unique for such tribute concerts. Balde has chosen one song from each album of the Beatles and the Eagles that truly captures the sound of the band at the time the LP was released. Balde and Rennetta alternate telling the story of the groups, meaning that their show is not only musically interesting, but a lesson in rock music history and popular culture as well.
From the reaction and applause both nights, the duo’s talents and the shows’ formats are being enthusiastically received by the cruise showroom audiences. One highlight of the Beatles’ night was a show-closing rendition of the classic “Hey Jude,” complete with an audience singalong and in-time, above-the-head hand waving. My personal favorite from the two nights was a spirited “Life in Fast Lane,” while the audience appeared awed at Toby Beau’s close cover version of the Eagles “Hotel California” from the band’s best-selling album by the same name.
The positive reception was demonstrated quite a few times during our interview-chat sessions as cruisers would stop by our table to tell Balde and Rennetta how much they enjoyed the shows and talk music with the pair.
I will be writing much more about Toby Beau in the future (they will play a major role in my third book in what I am calling my Rock of Agers series which looks at how rock & roll evolved into rock, which today continues its popularity as classic rock), but here are the answers to two questions I asked:
The first – are you disappointed that your hits came early and because of changing conditions in the music industry you haven’t been able to replicate that success?
“No,” Balde answers emphatically. “I’ve always enjoyed live performing more than studio work. I love seeing the fans, watching their reactions, and getting a chance to talk to them. And getting to do it with Rennetta makes it that much better”.
And the final – Balde, do you have regrets about spending 40 years in the music businesses with all its inherent ups and downs?
“When I was young, all I wanted to do was sing. And that’s all I’ve ever done. I dreamed of being a rock-and-roller and that’s what I became. My advice now to young people is never give up on your dream and always be ready when the dream comes – for it can come out of nowhere so you have to be ready”.
As an author who writes articles and books about classic rock I have the great opportunity to meet many people in the music business. Some are nice. Some are not. Some are normal. Some are not. But few I have are as engaging and friendly as Balde and Rennetta. I think the fact that they have been together for 40+ years in a business where 40 months in the more the average speaks strongly to their dedication and character. In fact, I’m certain that if they lived next door, you would want them for friends. Plus, the three of us could probably talk for years about the highs and lows of the music business, along with stories of all the fascinating people you run into.
If you do or don’t recall Toby Beau or “My Angel Baby,”, make yourself a note to check them out if you get a chance. You won’t be disappointed. And, if you want, you can tell them Dave sent you.