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Pie in the Sky

How the rock band Crack the Sky became famous in nowhere but Baltimore and lived to tell about it.

By Joab Jackson

Baltimore City Paper, July 12, 1995

John Palumbo is having trouble with his lawn mower. It is an overcast spring afternoon in the shady Philadelphia suburb where he lives. A white 1975 Porsche and a purple Intrepid sit in the driveway. The mower starts but coughs periodically. He kills the engine.

"You have children?" he asks, putting away the tools. I shake my head.

"Well, they happen," Palumbo sighs jokingly, rolling the recalcitrant machine back to the garage. He has two. Ian's 10 and daughter Ali's 7. Ian already can throw a pitch 54 miles per hour. "He's our ticket out of here," he boasts, grinning. Palumbo coaches Ian's team. The young hotshot has tryouts later this afternoon for the all-star tournament team.

Palumbo proudly shows me around the one-story rancher he and his wife Mary purchased in February. Now 44, Palumbo has navigated middle age well. He is thin--not too thin--and tan. The house is larger than it looks from the outside, buried as it is by shrubbery. The pool is freshly painted but empty. The only signs of his past life are a framed photo of John Lennon in the hallway and a white Stratocaster in Ian's room.

We settle on the cream colored couches in the den. He lights a cigarette and starts to think about his old band, Crack the Sky. "It was a good run," he says.

Palumbo seems content to leave Crack to his past. He's willing to forget he was lead singer of this band, that they were once the next big thing, that he spent much of his life pursuing stardom. All that is behind him. Psychology, not songwriting, pays the mortgage.

He enjoys our ensuing trip down memory lane, but his sense of self is clearly no longer tied up in music. He forgets which songs were on which albums, and grows restless as the time for his son's tryout approaches.

Rock history has long since forgotten Crack the Sky. The first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, published in 1978, compared them to Steely Dan; subsequent editions didn't bother with them at all. Today, you won't find them in any rock encyclopedia.

It wouldn't matter except for the fact the band was hugely popular in Baltimore, Maryland. For Baltimoreans between roughly 30-45, Crack the Sky is indelibly inscribed in their collective unconscious. Crack the Sky's success was so thorough around these parts, many didn't even realize it was a Baltimore-only thing.

My own adolescent peer group grew up on the band. A friend of mine told me that during a trip he took out of the state, he struck up a conversation with someone about music. They both agreed on the bands that made for fruitful listening: Floyd, Stones, Sabbath, Priest. Then he mentioned Crack. You know, Crack the Sky. Never heard of them, the other guy shrugged. My friend was shocked they weren't famous worldwide.

In the late '70s, Crack the Sky did catch on elsewhere: Seattle, New Orleans, Milwaukee. Only in Baltimore, though, do you still hear their songs on rock radio. WGRX music director Lee Geary ranks them up with Areosmith and Led Zeppelin in popularity. Requests still come in. "They test very well," she says, tongue only half in cheek.

Successful regional bands are common enough, but how did a band from Weirton West Virginia become so popular in Baltimore?

Nineteen seventy-five was the Indian summer of progressive rock. Procol Harum and King Crimson released their respective swan songs. ELP, Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis were still popular. Younger art rock upstarts like Kansas, 10CC, Supertramp, and Gentle Giant were weighing in with strong new releases.

Crack the Sky, from a small steel town 30 minutes west of Pittsburgh, was then one of most promising of these young upshots. Rolling Stone just named their album debut of the year. The New York Times praised them. Feeling fame at hand, the five piece toured New England with two roadies, a station wagon, and a van full of gear. So far, they received little reaction.

The requisite Baltimore gig was at The Four Corners club in Phoenix. The area's rock station WKTK was playing the album heavily. Still, the group didn't expect much. From the second they stepped onstage, though, they were dumbfounded. For the first time anywhere, people knew the songs, sang along, and even called out their names.

"They were fanatics," Palumbo recalls. "They knew every move and responded to us. It was one of those magic moments. This is it. This is what is supposed to happen." That week they were known in Baltimore; soon, they knew, they would be everywhere else.

Except it never quite happened that way.

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