By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon
Summing up the Donnie Elbert story so far:
Donnie left the Vibraharps in the late 1950s and experienced early solo success on Deluxe Records (1957-58) and Vee-Jay (1960). He then moved between a number of labels issuing one or two records on each, without much success. At the end of that time he released “Love Stew” on the small Buffalo label Upstate which was picked up for national release by Cub, but also didn’t click with record buyers. The next phase of his career and his next taste of success wouldn’t happen until he turned up at Gateway Records in Pittsburgh in 1964.
“Love Stew” had been a good record but it was a bit old-fashioned sounding for 1963. It could have been from 1960. Three years doesn’t sound like much (and in today’s Pop world it’s nothing) but in the 1960s Pop music was changing at lightning speed. The Beatles went from Can’t Buy Me Love to Strawberry Fields Forever in just three Sixties years.
In 1963 Motown was what was happening in the USA.
Motown started with a pretty traditional R&B sound. 1960’s bluesy “Shop Around” was their first big chart hit. But by 1963 they were regularly crossing over the Pop Charts and the Motown Sound as we know it had developed – a little bit lighter and more polished. Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”, Martha & The Vandellas’ “Come And Get These Memories” and “Heat Wave” were all Motown hits in 1963.
Donnie became focused on making a hit in the Motown style. Not being able to hire top musicians to equal the Motown session players and not willing to settle for less, he played all the instruments on his Gateway recordings himself. Between 1964 and 1965 he recorded the tracks that in time became classics of what we today we call Northern Soul, including “Run Little Girl” and “Your Red Wagon (You Can Push It Or Pull It)”.
“A Little Piece Of Leather” is a perfect example and it’s today’s featured track. This 1965 release didn’t chart in the U.S. but became a standard in the UK soul clubs, and on rerelease in 1972 it reached #27 on the UK charts.. the POP charts! It remains a favorite to this day in on the Northern Soul club scene.
Apparently Berry Gordy, Jr. was listening too. He offered Donnie a contract but he balked. He believed (probably rightly so) Motown didn’t want to record him, only to get him on tie him up on paper and eliminate him as competition. Donnie was stuck. He was too hard-headed and unwilling to give up control to let a major label run his career. Yet labels like Gateway couldn’t break him beyond a regional level.
Some who knew him remember him as ‘paranoid’. It’s hard to say how much of his attitude was justified by his treatment from the industry, and how much he caused for himself. In any case he made one last bad deal and left for the UK, where he was a hot commodity.
The bad deal was that he wrote a great song titled “Baby Walk Right In” but gave it to fellow Buffalonian Darrell Banks, who made some changes on it, cut it, released it as “Open the Door to Your Heart” and got a Top 40 Pop hit out of it. The composer credits also got garbled which prevented Donnie from receiving royalties on it for a long time.
Landing in the UK in 1966 he cut a track for Atco ( a label that turns up in the Vibraharps legend several times!) and then worked with Polydor, issuing more singles and an album and producing some local UK artists. He also got married there.
His last act there (“Without You”, a 1969 Deram release) jumped on the reggae/rocksteady bandwagon and became a hit in Jamaica.
Back to the States, he next hit on the R&B charts with a Rare Bullet Records release. In 1970 he had a release or two on his own Elbert Records label, which may or may not have been locally-based.
Then it was on to the All-Platinum and Avco labels. He fell into a pattern of re-recording his old hits or recording covers of Motown hits, often with chart success, but sometimes against his will – apparently – leading to clashes with the labels. And yet he seems to have had his own obsession with trying to prove something – that he could beat Motown? That his old songs should have, could have been Number Ones?
He left All-Platinum over a royalties dispute for the massive disco hit “Shame, Shame, Shame” for which he claimed write credit (the court found against him). He continued recording here and there, including a 1975 release on his own A/O Records, which bears a Buffalo address. He eventually retired from performing to work in A&R until a massive stroke on January 31, 1989, ended his life. He was just 53 years old.