By ‘Bob The Record Guy’ Paxon
Information on this one is sketchy! Where have we heard that before? The truth is that information on a LOT of these is sketchy. There’s a few reasons. One is that no one cared about them for many years. They were Oldies, old and forgotten. The people involved were long gone, one way or another, and had moved on with their lives. If one could track down the folks involved it meant having to filter information through faulty memories, recollections colored by resentments, the purposeful withholding of info… and record business machinations. It often wasn’t in the best interests of people to out out the full truth then – or now.
Buffalo’s Bobby Fonville and Ralph Hernandez wrote the two songs comprising the first release by local doo-woppers The Vibraharps on Beach Records, 1956. The group included members Danny Cannon (latter to record as Lenny O’Henry), Charles Hargro and Donnie Elbert. The Vibraharps didn’t get a second chance at recording until late 1958. By the time of that Atco Records release Donnie Elbert had already moved on to his successful solo career. The Atco single was only moderately successful and the group found themselves without a record deal.
At that time they returned to a working relationship with Fonville and Hernandez. The songwriting duo had now formed their own label, DAB Records, based in Buffalo. For DAB Records 101 they dug out “Baby Oh Baby”, a song they have stated was written back in 1956 while they were peddling their songs and trying to get a break in New York City.
“Baby Oh Baby” backed with “Over And Over” was issued in 1959. It was credited to just Charles Hargro (real name: Charles Hargrove) but believed by collectors to actually be the Hargro as lead vocal with the Vibraharps backing him. This was confirmed in an interview with Danny Cannon. I personally consider it a Vibraharps release.
Supposedly 16,000 copies of this single were pressed and sold out quickly, almost all locally. The DAB label had the potential to do well locally as it included a good mix of qualities among the partners- two songwriter/ producers, a WKBW deejay, a promoter and a successful businessman – but they had no ability to sell the record outside of the local market. With no distribution, and having turned down offers to sell the record to a national label, that was the end of it.
Here’s where the first mystery comes in. NYC doo-wop group The Shells issued a song called “Baby Oh Baby” on Johnson Records in 1957. It’s so similar to the Fonville/ Hernandez composition that it isn’t likely to be a coincidence. Did the songwriters play their song for someone in NYC who reused it, without their knowledge? Or did they sell the rights to it back then, only to later reuse it themselves? It’s even possible that the Shells release is the actual original, the inspiration for the song the local guys cut with Hargro.
For what it’s worth the Shells version was a minor hit on first release in 1957 but was re-released and entered Billboard’s Top 40 on December 31, 1960. Labels give that songwriting credit to a member of the Shells and two unknown people.
And here’s the second mystery comes in. Elsie Strong was a singer from Virginia. For reasons unknown she cut a record on Hit Time, a local label, or at least one with local connections. According to Bob Skurzewski, Bobby Fonville cut this as a demo of his songs, specifically wanting to hear “Baby Oh Baby” as done by a female. There’s no date on it but my guess is it came out in 1962-3. In that case “Baby Oh Baby” probably already sounded dated, while the new flip, “Satisfied”, sounded ahead of it’s time! “Satisfied” has a Northern Soul (Motown) sound, a sound which was only just beginning at this time.
Rumor has it that the Vibraharps are singing backup on this but it’s unlikely. It is definitely NOT the same backing track. It’s possible that the backing bass vocal is Hargro but Danny Cannon was probably no longer in the Buffalo area at this time. It’s not proven that this record originated from the Buffalo area, but it’s most likely so.
“Satisfied” is credited to Fonville only, while “Baby Oh Baby” carried its original Fonville and Hernandez credit. The producer credit is to J. Lyons. Jimmy Lyons was Buffalo’s first full-time Black disc jockey. He was a mentor to future star DJs Frankie Crocker and Gary Byrd. He started in 1955 on WXRA, then worked at WINE and WWOL. In 1961 WUFO hired him fulltime and he began broadcasting his show “The Lyons Den” on a daily basis.
So once again it looks like the radio business intersected with the music business. Maybe Lyons actually produced it, maybe he merely had his name added for ‘marketing’ reasons and Fonville actually produced it.
Supposedly “Baby Oh Baby” was the first song played on air when the Hound (George Lorenz) activated WBLK. In any case it did receive strong airplay there. Another connection there – former DAB Records partner Stu Levy was also part of the original WBLK investment team. For those not old enough to remember, Levy was also a mayoral candidate in later years.
Elsie Strong appears to have no other connection to Western New York. She did make more records but all seem to be from the Virginia area, including two with Frank Guida (one on his famous Legrand label). I’ve never seen any other Hit Time releases but I’ve been informed there are others and they are in the Country genre. I’d have to see one to figure out if it’s the same label as it seems kind of a likely name for record labels.
So is Hit Time 183 a Buffalo record? Probably! Are the Vibraharps on it? Probably not; not exactly anyway. Will we ever know the whole story behind it? Stay tuned to this station…
Thanks to Bob Skurzewski for first uncovering some of this info!