Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The most valuable Rock n' Roll group

The original Diamonds: Phil Levitt, Ted Kowalski, Dave Somerville and Bill Reed.

When somebody talks about Canada, naturally, the first things that comes to mind are maple syrup, hockey, and its natural beauties. Who would've thought that one of the most famous Rock n' Roll groups of the 50's would've come from Canada! 

In 1953, Ted Kowalski and Mike Douglas formed a quartet, along with the deep voice of Bill Reed and Bob Danko. This formation didn't last long, and while in college, Ted met colleagues Phil Levitt and Stan Fisher, who also had a passion for singing. Bill Reed joined the group and they started to rehearse. At the end of that year, they were about to participate in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Now's Your Chance, when they caught the attention of Dave Somerville (who worked at CBC). He offered to coach the group, but eventually became their lead singer. Stan, who was busy with university exams, had left the ensemble. On their way to their first gig, a Christmas show in the basement of a local church, Ted came up with a name for the group, The Four Diamonds. 

By 1956, the quartet's name was already The Diamonds, and they had started to record for Mercury in Chicago. They recorded a few covers, such as Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Church Bells May Ring and A Thousand Miles Away. But it wasn't until a midnight session in February of 1957, that they would become a household name. After recording four pre-scheduled original songs, they were asked to do Maurice Williams' Little Darlin'. At the time, Williams was part of The Gladiolas, and they had released their own version two weeks before. It was in the middle of the night when they had finished the four songs, and the producers, forgetting that Little Darlin' was still on their to do list, let the musicians go. Some of them had already left when they remembered about the song. You'll notice that the original version does not have any drums on the track. Little Darlin' was The Diamonds' biggest hit, staying 8 weeks as #2 on the charts, second only to Elvis' All Shook Up

The Diamonds went on to record many hits, but no other song became such an influence to a dance craze like The Stroll. The dance of the same name, which was basically a row of men facing a row of women, with a couple "strolling" and dancing down the line, had been introduced with other theme songs. But as The Stroll became a success on American Bandstand, the song was a must in parties and dance halls all over the US.

From late 1957 on, the group's success started diminishing. By 1958, all original members were replaced, with the exception of Dave Somerville, who was replaced by Jim Malone in 1961. Fortunately, PBS got them together again for the Doo Wop 51 show in 2000. Although aged, the group still maintained the original sound that made them famous and gave a spectacular performance. Below, you'll see The Diamonds in that PBS special with Maurice Williams and a new formation of The Zodiacs. 

Sadly, Ted Kowalski and Bill Reed have passed away. Phil Levitt and Dave Somverville are the only original Diamonds left. It's only fair that, Dave, the soul of The Diamonds' sound, would be the one to keep it alive. I visited his webpage and found out that he autographs photos for fans for $10 each plus shipping. More than fair, for a personalized photo of a legend! He was very kind to sign one for me and one for my son.

Friday, October 12, 2012

One of my favorites: The Heartbeats

From the left: Robbie Tatum, Wally Roker, James Sheppard, Vernon Sievers, and Albert Crump.

When you talk about the most famous groups from the 50s/60s, it’s very hard for The Heartbeats to come up on someone’s list. I started listening to Doo Wop groups when I was a kid, but only later did I recognize who The Heartbeats were. After all, they did chart a Billboard #5 R&B hit, which still earns them respect and admiration up to this day. That hit is A Thousand Miles Away.

The group first started out as The Hearts, made up by teens from two different high schools in Queens, NY. Albert Crump, Vernon Seavers, and Wally Roker, who went to Woodrow Wilson High School, while Robbie Tatum went to Andrew Jackson High School. Robbie invited them to rehearse at his house, which prompted the formation of the group. In what used to be a common practice at the time, the quartet would “battle” against other groups at St. Albans Park, Queens. In one of the battles, they faced James Sheppard’s group, and won. That was when Sheppard was invited to join The Hearts, becoming their lead singer and songwriter.

In 1955, DJ Alan Freed played a song called Lonely Nights, by the girl group The Hearts. They heard the song and decided to change the group’s name to The Heartbeats. They would go on to perform locally, until Roker met jazz musician Illinois Jacquet. It was Jacquet’s brother, Russell, who first recorded the group with none other than Oscar Peterson on piano and King Curtis on the saxophone. Tormented and After Everybody’s Gone were released on a small label called Network.

But it was not until they were introduced to Bea Caslon, owner of Hull Records, that they recorded noteworthy songs. From that moment on, The Heartbeats became known for their slow ballads, like Crazy For You, Your Way, and People Are Talking. They did come across a road bump, however. Someone at Hull had the idea of turning them into an uptempo group, such as The Cadillacs. Fortunately for them, the fans didn’t like the change, and started asking radio DJs to play A Thousand Miles Away. The song became such a success that the both the song and the group were sold to Rama Records in 1957, since Hull wasn’t financially able to promote the hit.

In 1958, Rama became Roulette Records, and The Heartbeats started turning out more soulful songs, such as Down On My Knees and Sometimes I Wonder. It was also during that time that they recorded one of my favorite songs. I Found a Job was an “answer” song to The Silhouettes’ Get a Job, and both were riding on a common theme at the time, economic recession. 

Guyden Records was the group’s last label switch, in 1959. That marked a return to their original slow, smooth style of singing. But it also became the start of the group’s end. Sheppard and the rest of the group were arguing over musical taste and responsibilities. His disrespect for the group went as far as falling asleep during a performance in Philadelphia. In 1960, he called upon two old friends from St. Albans Park to form Shep & The Limelites. Their career started with Daddy’s Home, their spin on A Thousand Miles Away, and that marked the end of The Heartbeats’ recording career.

Below, you will see the original Heartbeats singing their most famous song during a PBS concert in 2003. Walter Crump replaces Shep, who died in 1970. While Crump may not have Shep’s original voice, both he and the group make a memorable performance. (It was taken from the Rock and Roll at 50 DVD. A great DVD I will review later on.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Doo Wop A Cappella

Clockwise from the top: Royce, John, Mando, and Phil Gold.

When I think of A Cappella, I usually imagine myself in the 50’s, listening to a group of teenagers singing at a street corner. I guess a lot of people think the same way, so it’s only natural that most modern day A Cappella groups have, at one time or another, sung at least one 50’s or 60’s song. The Alley Cats are no different. Better yet, they are different. That’s because they are an A Cappella group that sing exclusively 50’s/60’s songs. 

Royce Reynolds and Mando Fonseca met each other in choir, while at Fullerton College (1987), during a Doo Wop revival program. They are the two founding members of The Alley Cats, and continue singing to this day. The other two members that joined the group to form a quartet, were Todd Dixon and Andre Peek. Since then, the lineup has changed quite a bit, but one other member that has been with them for quite a while is baritone John O’Campo. Today, according to their site, they have different formations, in order to be at different venues at the same time.

Since their start, they have certainly been the most accomplished Doo Wop A Cappella group that I know of. They have performed at the White House, on Disney’s Hercules, on many TV shows, and have opened for Jay Leno, Chubby Checker, The Tokens, Sha Na Na, and Bill Medley.

You can check out their songs out by finding these CDs online: A Christmas Long Time Ago, The Doo Wop Drive-In Live, Strike 3!, Cruisin’, and The Cat’s Meow.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Electro-Voice Slimair 636

Chuck Berry

One of the most common vintage microphones on Ebay is the Electro-Voice Slimair 636. You can usually get it for less than $100, which is a good bargain for those starting a collection. My guess is that since there’s quite a few being sold out there and it doesn’t quite have the 50’s look, people don’t really pay much attention to it. The EV 636 actually has the slim design that became so popular in the 60’s, and is still being used today.

I’m kind of a kid when I buy vintage microphones. I like to open them and look at all the parts inside. So when a mic offers such an easy access to the element, you can bet that I’m going to check it out. Compared to other vintage microphones, the element is pretty small. And it does look like it’s quite fragile. But it has a nice, crisp sound to it. I’d also have to guess that it’s pretty reliable, since all the EV 636’s I have, work. Besides, if the likes of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Billie Holiday used this model in the past, it certainly can’t be a bad mic.

Gene Vincent
You can download the spec sheet for the EV 636 here.

The D.S. rarity scale: 7/10.


Scene from That Thing You Do!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

One Hit Wonders: Bobby Pickett

It’s hard to imagine a 60’s hit starting out with “I was working in my lab, late one night…”. Let alone a song that sounded like it was made for a Halloween party. But then again, when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out, I don’t think many people could imagine themselves dancing to it. All that would come to your mind was the music video and Vincent Price’s laughter at the end. Nevertheless, just like Thriller, Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash had what it took to make kids of all ages dance to it.

The year was 1962. Bobby Pickett, who wanted to be an actor, ended up in a vocal group called The Cordials. They would sing hits like Little Darlin’, with Bobby exercising his acting abilities by emulating Boris Karloff’s voice (a famous horror movie actor) during the monologue in the middle of the song. At the time, The Twist and the Mashed Potato Time were hot tunes on the radio, and they wanted something that would fit right in. One day, with fellow group member Leonard Capizzi at the piano, they started talking about how audiences loved Bobby’s rendition of Karloff. It was Leonard who suggested, “maybe the Frankenstein monster should start a dance craze”.

You’d think it would be all downhill from there, but they had some trouble releasing it. No record label wanted it. It was not until they showed it to Gary Paxton, who changed the group name to Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, that it really started getting noticed. Paxton produced the song and distributed about 1,000 singles to radio stations. Monster Mash (name inspired by Dee Dee Sharp’s hit) got on the fast track to becoming a #1 Billboard hit.
Bobby Pickett and The Beach Boys
Some people say that Monster Mash ruined Bobby’s life, since everything he did after that was somehow related to the song. But what if they had never written Monster Mash? Would The Cordials launch themselves to stardom in another way? Or would their biggest achievement have been being heard in a small town radio station? Having a song that’s still a hit 50 years later, even though it was called by Elvis himself the dumbest thing he ever heard, is not something anyone can imagine having on their life’s resumé. I’m glad Bobby and Leonard came up with that song. It’s something that amuses me ever since I was a kid. I think it just might have enough gas to go on for another 50 years.

Just for fun, I found the video below on YouTube, of a family that puts on a light show every Halloween. I’d like to see it as an extremely well done tribute to Bobby.