45 Friday: DONNIE ELBERT – What Can I Do

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By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

The Vibraharps story continues… Following their breakup Danny Cannon achieved some solo success but it pales beside the quantity and longevity of Donnie Elbert’s solo career.

The group’s first 45 had been Walk Beside Me (Beech Records; 1956 or 1957). At that time Donnie was undoubtedly a member, but did more behind the scenes than out front. He had less involvement as time went on, apparently not making a definite sharp break from the group, but he began his solo career in 1957 and was not on their next release, It Must Be Magic / Nosy Neighbors (Atco Records; 1959).

 

 

Donnie’s first solo effort was started with a demo session (probably cut in Cincinnati) that got him signed to Deluxe Records. Deluxe was a subsidiary of King Records, an ‘indie’ that had worked itself up to major label status by avoiding most of the pop genre the majors were promoting and instead serving up the sounds craved in working class environs – Blues, R&B, Hillbilly and Gospel.

His stay at Deluxe was to be possibly the longest anywhere for this gypsy, who subsequently recorded for more than twenty labels, staying at many for only one or two records. Maybe because the relationship seemed promising right from the start – his first Deluxe effort (What Can I Do?) cracked the R&B Top 20.

The follow-up, Believe It Or Not, didn’t do much but Deluxe stuck with him, and it paid off when his third single (Have I Sinned?) became a huge regional hit, most notably in Pittsburgh.

1958 saw him recording five more singles for Deluxe but none had much commercial impact. An album was also issued – “The Sensational Donnie Elbert Sings” – which I think mostly compiled his singles – but it didn’t sell well either. Donnie was never easy to work with – he had his own vision, which was to both help and hinder his career, but never helped his relations with the label owners and producers in the era where record people made the records and performers performed. If he had been selling at the level of a James Brown maybe thinks would have been different,. but even JB had his similar problems with King Records.

His battles with producers caused him to leave Deluxe in 1959 and he recorded next for Philadelphia’s Red Top Records and then Vee-Jay, both in 1960. Vee-Jay yielded his next regional hit, Will You Ever Be Mine?,” which sold 250,000 copies in the Philadelphia area alone.

Donnie was popular enough to play New York’s Apollo Theater and but wasn’t above working the chitlin circuit. He was performing, recording, always looking for greener pastures; but he took a break for a short spell in the US Army, from which he was discharged in 1961.

Before long he started the next phase of his career- the Northern Soul phase, and his flirtation/ obsession with the Motown Sound. We’ll cover that next week. For now, here’s his first Deluxe single.

What Can I Do shows of his amazing Falsetto style, which was unique at that time. Even the kid singers, like Frankie Lymon, didn’t sound like this! This is the type of ballad that’s especially popular with the East L.A /lowrider set, where it’s iconic. The sax seems to answer his vocal lines like a lover would… making for a very romantic atmosphere.

The song earned a re-do in 1970 by Val Martin on All Platinum. Although the producer credit is to label owner Sylvia (Robinson, of Mickey & Sylvia fame), I have a feeling Donnie actually produced this, as he was on an All Platinum contract.

The B-side to What Can I Do was originally titled Somebody, Somewhere but the record company retitled it Hear My Plea. It also was covered, by Marvin L. Sims on Mellow 1002 (in 1966).

 

 

 

45 Friday: CHARLES HARGRO- Over And Over

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By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

Back in June of last year I was on vacation and Elmer covered for me, choosing Charles Hargro’s “Baby Oh Baby”. That side is a ballad, with the heavy doowop ‘lowrider’ sound that’s especially popular on the West Coast. Today I’m going to feature the flip, “Over And Over”, and fill in some of the details of what happened to the Vibraharps in 1959.

Charles Hargro (real name: Charles Hargrove) was an original member of the Vibraharps right from their 1955 formation. He’d appeared on their two singles, outlasting Donnie Elbert who had quit – at least as a performing member – and was well into his solo career by this time.

The Vibraharps second single, on Atco Records, was released in early 1959 but probably recorded late 1958. It had failed to score with the public at large and they were either released from their contract, or had only had a one-record deal to begin with. At loose ends, they returned to a working relationship with Bobby Fonville and Ralph Hernandez. The songwriting duo who had written both sides of their first (1956) record had now formed their own label, DAB Records, based in Buffalo.

DAB looked like a good bet on paper. Besides the two songwriters, who by now had placed songs with many artists includin Frankie Lymon, the partners included WKBW deejay Russ Syracuse, promoter Tommy Fenno and local businessman Stuart Levy (later to run for mayor of Buffalo).

 

 

Although DAB 101 only credits Hargro on the label, and his bass voice is featured, it’s understood by most local collectors that the backing group is the Vibraharps. The early 1959 session yielded “Baby Oh Baby” as the ballad top side but “Over And Over” is a also nice, a good rocker. Both were written Bobby Fonville and Ralph Hernandez. The label also notes ‘Orchestra & Chorus under the direction of Bob Fonville’.

The single is supposed to have sold 16,000 copies, the great majority locally. Apparently the backers couldn’t take the plunge to contract the record out to a major label so- having no national distribution – the record died. And Vibraharps were no more.

DAB managed two further releases, both by Buffalo’s Fendermen. “Fas-Nacht-Kuechel” was mildly successful, their other record not so much – and DAB Records died a quiet death.

Fonville & Hernandez turned up soon after with another local release on another local label (Monroe Chapman, on Ajar) before returning to the majors with a 1961 single by The Derbys on Savoy. This group seems to be connected with the Vibraharps in several ways – their earlier release on Mercury has two Donnie Elbert-written songs. Perhaps that’s where the other two Vibraharps ended up?

Hargro had one further solo release on Buffalo’s Launch Records (a subsidiary of MoDo) around 1969 or 1970. “Gotta Be Some Changes” / “The Love In My Heart” has the same bass vocal sound which was pretty passe at the time, but would later make a comeback via Barry White! Following that he appears to have left the music business – at least the recording end of it – for the quieter life of a Corrections Officer.

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There is yet one more mystery attached to the Vibraharps, a 1961 release by The Hi-Tones on Seg-Way Records (out of Philadelphia, I think). This is rumored to be the group and is definitely Hargro whose bass voice is instantly recognizeable. I will try to get some more info on this for next week. If not, expect me to take up the post-Vibraharps story with the career of Donnie Elbert.

45 Friday: LENNY O’ HENRY – Across The Street

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By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

With the lack of success of their 1959 records the Vibraharps drifted apart. Donnie Elbert had previously struck out on his own and was finding chart success. Founding Vibraharps member Daniel “Danny” Cannon took his shot and lucked out by hooking up with Bob Crewe right from the start. I previously posted a “Friday 45” with a record from his first solo run, at ABC Paramount. I won’t repeat his whole story here but I’ll give the highlights.

As soon as Danny began his solo career he adopted new stage-name of “Lenny O’Henry” (sometimes “Lenny O. Henry’), calling his backing group The Short Stories. His first two releases were on ABC Paramount in 1961. In 1963 he moved on to Smash Records.


By late 1963 he was on Atco – familiar ground from the previous Vibraharps 45 on Atco. Like his previous records these sides were produced by Bob Crewe and were written by some combination of Crewe, his associates, and Cannon. Crewe at this time was a huge industry power with the success of the Four Seasons. And he pulled out all the stops to repeat that success for Cannon, bringing in the Four Seasons to sing backup on 1963’s Across The Street.

Like the previous Lenny O’Henry records this one had a “Popcorn” sound, as did many of the Four Seasons records. It’s a hard sound to define and it wasn’t called that at the time. The name came later, from the European fans who started a whole dance scene around records like this. Basically a mid-tempo beat with Latin accents, it differs from similar Northern Soul by being slower, with a ‘jerky’ rhythm. Many releases on Atlantic Records of the time- like those of The Drifters and Ben E. King – have the sound.

This music was first adopted by the beach areas of the Carolinas where it was called Beach Music (not to be confused with Surf Music). One dance that was perfect for this beat was The Popcorn. Later on came the dance and the sound became a movement – centered in Belgium – and the genre known as Belgian popcorn!

Anyway, though this is a great record that’s danceable, a fab big production, it achieved only moderate success. Atco released two more on him, one in 1964 and one in 1967. For some reason major labels believed in him, Bob Crewe believed in him, the talent was there, but he just failed to become a star. After cutting multiple records for three major labels he quit the business and details about his subsequent life aren’t even known.

We’re left with just the records, and this is a great one!

45 Friday: Vibraharps – Nosey Neighbors

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By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

Following last week’s post of Cosy With Rosy we continue the Vibraharps story with their second release. It’s hard to pin down the exact date for Cosy With Rosy because little is know about the independent Beech label – it could be from anywhere between 1956 and 1958 – but Atco Records is well-documented so we can establish this as solidly in 1959.

The group here is Danny Cannon on lead vocal and Charles Hargro on bass vocal, with Donald Simmons and Douglas Gibson in the background. Donnie Elbert was completely gone by this time – the date of his departure has been stated pretty authoritatively as 1957. He began his solo career that year at Deluxe with three 1957 releases, followed by FIVE 1958 Deluxe singles!

Donnie was nothing if not prolific – and a wanderer. After Deluxe he moved on to Red Top, Vee-Jay, Jot, Jalynne, P&L, Parkway, Cub, UpState (a local Buffalo label), Checker and Gateway – recording NINETEEN more singles – before ending up in early 1968 on Atco Records with Atco #6550. At that time ex-Vibraharp Danny Cannon had already landed on Atco (as “Lenny O’Henry” – Atco #6525). Looking at today’s record we realize this connection probably started with the parent group’s 1959 Atco deal.

Not only was Donnie not involved with this single, neither were local songwriters Bobby Fonville & Ralph Hernandez. Both sides are credited merely to ‘Hardy’ and there’s no producer or arranger listed. My guess is Hardy is the writer AND producer, maybe a pseudonym for one of the prolific music biz people associated with Atco and Atlantic. Pseudonyms were often used in these situations to spread the royalties around either as a form of payola or to fool the tax man!

1959 also saw the release of a single credited to bass vocalist Charles Hargro which is alleged to include the whole group backing him. This single (on Buffalo’s DAB Records) shows the group still associated with Fonville & Hernandez. A concurrent 1959 release by the Derbys has two Donnie Elbert-written songs and the 1961 Derbys singleĀ  has Fonville & Hernandez credits. Though we’re not sure the Derbys are partly or completely the Vibraharps, it seems likely.

Anyway, It Must Be Magic / Nosey Neighbours (Atco #6134) didn’t trouble the compilers of the hit record charts. It’s just as likely to find on white label promo as stock issue which means- they didn’t sell, folks. Maybe they felt the Vibraharps name had become ‘poison’ to the industry, but they never recorded under it again. Or maybe they became aware of the two competing Vibraharps (or Vibra-Harps), an R&B group on Fury and a White acapella group.

Although they didn’t achieve chart success together the group are highly-regarded by doo wop/ vocal group fans, and launched two careers. Next week we’ll look at the aftermath of the Vibraharps’ break up. For today, we get the uptempo B-side of this fine single. The cool ahead-of-their time sound effects ushers in a Coasters-style story in the lyrics against a hard rocking Little Richard rhythm riff. A fun TGIF track!

45 Friday: Vibraharps – Cosy With Rosy

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By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

Whether you call it Rock’N’Roll, Rhythm & Blues or Doo Wop, the Black vocal group sound is one of signature musics of 1950s pop culture, and Buffalo’s most famous exponent was the Vibraharps. They performed regularly, had a long run of five years, and contained one future legend. Popular locally then, revered today by farflung collectors of the genre, parts of their story are still inexplicably mysterious.

I touched on their story in the past when I posted the two Vibraharps-related records by The Derbys. I’m still waiting for more info on them, still don’t know to what extent they’re related so I can’t expand on that. But I posted those about 9 months ago and I just realized that I never posted anything by the Vibraharps themselves so here ’tis.

This week’s post will be just some background, with more to come next week accompanying something from one of their 1959 efforts (on Atco or DAB). Today’s record is from 1956, Cosy With Rosy backed with Walk Beside Me on New York City’s Beech label.

The Vibraharps were co-founded by Donnie Elbert with Danny Cannon in 1955. Elbert served as songwriter and arranger (and apparently a very directive boss!). But his role on the records was limited to background vocals and possibly guitar. He was the group’s main instrumentalist.

Otherwise the group was Danny Cannon, Donald Simmons, Douglas Gibson, and Charles Hargro. Walk Beside Me is a ballad featuring Charles Hargro unusual bass vocal lead. Cosy With Rosy is an uptempo dancer with roots in lots of similar hits of the day. The lead here is probably Danny Cannon. Both sides were written by Buffalo songwriters Bobby Fonville & Ralph Hernandez.

This was the start of their career. They would follow with a 1959 “Vibraharps” single on Atco and a 1959 “Charles Hargro” single on DAB (which is apparently actually involved the whole group). Around this time, Donnie Elbert continued stepping back from his prominence in the group as his solo career took off – first on Deluxe Records, later on innumerable labels big and small. His exact role if any on the two 1959 records is unknown.

1959 also saw a Donnie Elbert-written release on Mercury by The Derbys, who may or may not be The Vibraharps. 1961’s Derbys single on Savoy was again written by Fonville & Hernandez.

Soon after Danny Cannon began HIS solo career with the new stage name of Lenny O’Henry. He released five singles in the early 1960s, all very good, on the Atco, ABC-Paramount and Smash labels

Charles Hargro even had one further solo release on Buffalo’s Launch Records – a subsidiary of MoDo – circa 1969.

There is yet one more mystery attached to the Vibraharps, a 1961 release by The Hi-Tones on Seg-Way Records (out of Philadelphia, I think). This is rumored to be the Vibraharps. It’s definitely Hargro, whose bass voice is instantly recognizable.

Check back next week for more more Vibraharps and as always, MORE INFO IS ALWAYS WELCOME. Talk to me!