45 Friday: DONNIE ELBERT – What Can I Do


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).




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