The original Vee-Jay (sorry, MTV): a doo-wop classic

Jumping 42 years ahead from the last post, this installment of Zayde’s Turntable gives us one of the classic doo-wop groups singing the song that made them famous. Vee-Jay Records 147 is a must-own for anyone serious about ‘50s doo-wop, rock, or R&B and it takes us from the last post, with one of the earlier 78s of the 20th century, to one of the last batch of 78s released before the onslaught of the 45RPM and the LP (33-1/3RPM).

The Vee-Jay label was founded in 1953 by the husband and wife team of Vivian Carter (“Vee”) and James Bracken (“Jay”) and was the first major record company to be owned and operated by African-Americans. Vee-Jay was a R&B powerhouse – their very first song made it onto the Top Ten of the national R&B charts. While they stayed fairly consistent with R&B and blues artists throughout the 1950s the company branched into soul in the 1960s and was the first to nationally release a recording by The Pips (later Gladys Knight and the Pips). After soul the label added on rock and roll acts, which is where some of their most famous talent would end up performing: The Four Seasons (Vee-Jay’s first non-black artists) and The Beatles. Down the road they added Little Richard and even an album with Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston in 1965. The label started dabbling in other genres, including a small jazz line, some gospel albums, and even (on 33-1/3PM LP) some comedy records.

Vee-Jay only issued only style of label on their 78s (left) before changing exclusively to LP and 45-RPM records.

Vee-Jay was at its commercial peak from 1962 to 1964 thanks to The Four Seasons and their distribution of early Beatles albums (tracks included “Love Me Do,” “P.S. I Love You,” and “Twist and Shout” among several others). Beatles record sales exploded for Vee-Jay in 1964 after the British Invasion and the company’s high-water mark was the sale of 2.6 million Beatles singles in just one month.

This album is in fair condition. It has moderate wear and scratches on both sides, with the expected impact on the quality of the recorded audio (pops, hisses, etc.; the audio of my versions, linked to below, is not ideal and I strongly encourage you to search elsewhere on YouTube for better quality audio of these two great tracks). The B-side has two dried paint drops on it, which cause the disk to skip briefly at each point. It is an electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The label is not paper glued onto the vinyl, as was common on most 78s, but is, instead, painted directly onto the vinyl. The record catalog number is Vee-Jay 147. The A-side recording features the El Dorados singing their chart-topping hit “At My Front Door” by John Moore (?) and Ewart Abner (1923-1997); the master number is 55-257 and it was recorded on April 24, 1955. It runs 2 minutes and 32 seconds and was produced by Tollie Music.

The B-side recording also features the El Dorados singing “What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” by Bob Drews and Riley Hampton (1918-2006); the master number is 55-274 and it was recorded on June 8, 1955. It runs 2 minutes and 19 seconds and was also produced by Tollie Music. Les Docks sets the value at $7-$10. To my surprise, I was not able to find any other copy of the 78RPM version of this album for sale online; there were fully 18 people selling the 45RPM version of the album (many calling it “rare”), for between $4 and $65, with an average asking price of $25. Given that the album is not terribly scarce and the quality of my copy of it is only fair, I would set the value of my Vee-Jay 147 closer to $4-$7.

The El Dorados, 1954

In Chicago in 1952 Pirkle Lee Moses pulled together a doo-wop vocal group that called themselves “Pirkle Lee and the Five Stars.” The other members included tenors Louis Bradley and Arthur Bassett, second tenor and baritone Jewel Jones, and baritone/bass singers James Maddox and Richard Nickens. Pirkle left the group briefly to serve in the Air Force and when he returned in 1954 they changed the group’s name to “The El Dorados.” Carter, from Vee-Jay, heard them sing in Chicago in 1954 and signed the group to the label. Their first three Vee-Jay albums were flops commercially but, in 1955, they released their fourth Vee-Jay record, number 147. It was a smash hit, quickly rising to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and #17 on the pop chart. Their next album with Vee-Jay, number 165, also placed in the R&B top ten in 1956. That year Basset and Nickens left the group and The El Dorados tried to make a go as a quartet. It didn’t work out, though, and the group went their separate ways in 1957: Pirkle, still in Chicago, reformed the group with all new members and Bradley, Jones, and Maddox moved to California and formed a new group called The Tempos. Pirkle’s new group wasn’t to Vee-Jay’s liking and the label dropped them in 1958, after releasing a total of just eleven El Dorado singles from 1954-1958.

“At My Front Door,” also called “Crazy Little Mama,” was a smash hit and propelled the El Dorados to significant fame in the 1950s. It was covered by Pat Boone (in a version that was panned by some critics), Myron and the Van Dells, and Ringo Starr, among many, many others over the years. As a doo-wop/motown classic it is a standard for countless contemporary groups that perform the style (search YouTube for either version of the song’s title and you’ll see). In 1955 the wildly prolific piano roll artist J. Lawrence Cook (1899-1976) made the piano roll version under the pseudonym Pep Doyle. It was such a hit that Vee-Jay made it the title track on their first ever LP: “Crazy Little Mama” in 1957.

The cover of the LP (VJLP-1001), with the title track “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)” by the 1955 El Dorados. Click to hear the original 78-RPM version from the album in my collection.

Ewart Abner, around the time Vee-Jay 147 was made.

Ewart Abner, credited on “At My Front Door,” joined the label in 1955, first as manager, then as vice president, and ultimately, as president from 1961 to 1963, when it was the most successful black-owned record company in the world. It was under Abner’s leadership that the label got The Beatles first U.S. albums – as a “throw in” in a deal with Trans-Global/EMI for the artist they really wanted, Frank Ifield. Cash flow problems caused by Ewart Abner’s tapping the company treasury to cover personal gambling debts led to the company’s active demise. He also kept many of the company’s books, not on paper, but in his head. When Beatlemania, and the ensuing blizzard of lawsuits, descended, Vee-Jay was overwhelmed and forced to temporarily cease operations in the second half of 1963, leading to royalty disputes with the Four Seasons and, of course, EMI. The Four Seasons then left Vee-Jay for Philips Records, and EMI’s Capitol Records picked up the U.S. rights for both the Beatles and Frank Ifield. Abner went on to become a key executive, and eventually president, of Motown Records, and principal of Chicago-based Constellation Records.

As for Abner’s partner on the hit, composer John C. Moore, I could find very little in my research outside of a connection to several other Motown and doo-wop records from artists such as Pat Boone, Dee Clark, and the Righteous Brothers. His most common reference, however, is in connection with the El Dorados “At My Front Door.”

“What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” is the doo-wop song on the flip side of the album. It’s not a bad tune, but didn’t make the cut for the LP version of “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)”. In fact, Vee-Jay and its affiliates did not place this track on any of their reissues on 45RPM or 33-1/3PM. It wouldn’t appear again on an album until the Collectables CD #7245 from October 2000 “The Very Best of the El Dorados.”

Bob Drews in 1961.

Bob Drews, who composed the song, was a moderately well-known radio personality of the period who ricocheted around radio stations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. A Billboard magazine ad placed by Vee-Jay in 1955 to promote the album touts him as “Dee-Jay Bob Drews”; interestingly the ad suggests that Drews composed both “What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” and “At My Front Door,” though he is not credited with the latter track on the album itself. In 1955 Drews could be heard on WAAF in Chicago, before making the move to WRIT in Milwaukee in March of 1956. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of December 5, 1958 puts Drews in the Keystone State that year with this little dig: “Good Old Bob Drews, formerly of WAMP, will take over the 7 to 10 wake-up show on WMCK come Monday. Drews plans a give-away contest to get his program off to a good start. First prize will be a strait jacket [sic]. This is very appropriate, as listener [sic] to the ‘New Good Old Bob Drews Show’ will quickly discover.” By April of 1960 Drews was spinning a weekend show on WCAE out of Philadelphia and a regular program over WEEP in Pittsburgh. In 1961 Drews was on the move again; a Billboard Music Week column refers to him as host of the “Good Old Bob Drews Show” on WWL-TV in New Orleans. The column posed the question “Which recording artist would you like to interview the most and why?” to a series of DJs; Drews picked Annette Funicello to be on his show, but “for an off-the-record interview give me Julie London.”

Julie London, perhaps placing a call for an off-the-record interview with Bob Drews. But probably not.

Riley Hampton (on alto sax, the second musician from the right in the front row of the band) playing with the Red Saunders band. The dancers in front of the band were “The Hambone Kids.” Search YouTube for “Red Saunders Hambone Kids” to hear the band, including Hampton, playing.

Riley Hampton was an important, yet sadly unknown Chicago-based arranger who has been behind some of the most significant doo-wop, Motown, and R&B hits ever written. Hampton, originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, was playing with a band in Detroit in the early 1940s when he left the group to take a spot in the Jimmy Murray band in Pittsburgh. In 1942 the band was taken over by Fletcher Henderson and the following year Hampton was drafted into the Army. Upon his return in 1946 he returned to the Henderson Band, then playing at the Club DeLisa in Chicago. He played under a variety of directors at the club, finally finding a regular seat in the Red Saunders band at the same venue in 1952. Within a few years the musically talented Hampton was finding more work as a composer and arranger than as a performer.

Etta James found fame with “At Last,” arranged by Riley Hampton.

By 1955 he was a regular arranger for Vee-Jay, working on a number of songs – including “What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” – before hanging up his sax for good around 1959 and being named the house bandleader for Chess Records. It was with Chess and a handful of other labels throughout the 1960s that Hampton was part of some of the recordings that made him famous, including Etta James smash hit “At Last.” James gospel style blues singing found a striking balance with Hampton’s pop-like string and horn-focused arrangements. The mixture was magical, producing most of James’ Top Ten R&B hits and launching her career as a major soul singer. Hampton went on to arrange for Walter Jackson (on Okeh), Curtis Mayfield, Ramsey Lewis, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Dee Clark, Eddie Holland, Barbara Lewis, Billy Eckstine, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, Billy Butler and the Enchanters, the Impressions, and the Supremes.

Unlike many of the records in my collection and on this blog, the story of Vee-Jay 147 persists into the present time. After a few decades of fits and starts, Vee-Jay today operates as “The Vee-Jay Limited Partnership” under the management of Michele Tayler. The Connecticut company primarily overseeing the licensing and republication of Vee-Jay songs. The most recent I could find, from twelve years ago, was remastered and released by Collectables Records on CD, including a “Best of Vee-Jay” box set and individual “Best of the Vee-Jay Years” CDs.

As for the El Dorados, in 1969 Pirkle revived the group, with new members. Simultaneously the singer Johnny Carter, formerly of the Tempos, formed his own vocal group also called the El Dorados. After several years of competition, the two groups merged in the 1970s. The combined group toured and made records for many, many years and, when Pirkle died in 2000, the group renamed itself “Pirkle Lee Moses Jr’s El Dorados” in his honor. The group, under that name, continued to tour until 2009. After discovering the group persisted, in some fashion, until close to today, I went online to see if I could find out more about the group today – where are they performing, how to contact them, what they are singing in concert these days. Unfortunately, I could not find anything. I’d like to think that 2009 wasn’t their last live gig and if anyone reading this can tell me whether or not that was their last song, I would love to find out.

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The masters’ voices

This week on Zayde’s Turntable I’ve decided to feature one of the few non-musical records in my collection. While most of my spoken word albums are comic monologues, this one is a notable exception. It is also one of a handful of records I own that were originally from overseas – in this case, from England.

The label is “His Master’s Voice,” the more famous brand name of what was originally called simply the Gramophone Company, a British manufacturer of phonographs. The iconic image was based on an 1899 painting by English artist Francis Barraud.

Nipper listening to a recording of his late master, Mark Barraud.

When Barraud’s brother Mark died, the artist inherited his dog, Nipper. In the original painting, Barraud captured Nipper listening intensely to the sound of Mark’s recorded voice playing from a cylinder phonograph trumpet. Barraud marketed the image hopefully to numerous phonograph manufacturers and finally found a buyer in the Gramophone Company, who first required the artist to change the painting to depict one of their disc playing phonographs in place of the cylinder machine. Barraud assented and the image became the company’s logo in 1900. In 1902 the Gramophone Company’s American sister corporation, the Victor Talking Machine Company, also acquired the rights to the image and deployed it more aggressively. The image became so broadly associated with the companies that in 1908 the Gramophone Company changed its name entirely to “His Master’s Voice” (HMV). The subsequent history of the HMV trademark and brand is one of countless corporate consolidations and mergers, far too convoluted to get into here.

The many types of HMV labels. Good boy, Nipper.

His Master's Voice B.8883

This album is in Good condition, with some minor wear to the label and the vinyl, but nothing that impacts its playability or sound significantly. It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is His Master’s Voice B.8883 and the master number is OEA.75730/OEA.75740. The A-side recording features Part 1 of an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest,” in which Lady Bracknell interviews John Worthing; it runs 3 minutes and 2 seconds. The B-side recording features Part 2 of the same scene; it runs 3 minutes and 13 seconds. The role of Lady Bracknell is performed by Dame Edith Evans (1888-1976) and the role of John Worthing is performed by Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000).

A spoken record, capturing a bit of one of the most legendary performances in 20th century theater.

Edith Evans (standing) as Lady Bracknell and John Gielgud as John Worthing.

Roger Wilmut dates the record as being from 1938 in his podcast, but according to WorldCat the only existing copy in an academic collection, at Stanford, is dated from 1939. I believe 1939 is correct, as the renowned production itself took place in London that year and it is unlikely that HMV would wish to make a recording of a theatrical production before it opened. Furthermore the 1939 issue of Peter Hugh Reed’s “The American Music Lover: the record connoisseur’s magazine” lists it among the newly released albums for that year. Finally, also endorsing the 1939 year of issue is volume 22 of the “London Mercury,” published that year, which also first lists the record as newly released – and also includes the original selling price (3 shillings). Les Docks does not include it in his catalog of record valuations and it is not listed for sale by any dealer anywhere that I could find, making it impossible to say how much the record is worth today.

CD artwork for EMI's re-release of the Evans/Gielgud recordings.

EMI, one of the long line of companies to own some piece of the HMV trademark, released a CD some time ago with this scene and more from the recordings of Gielgud and Evans’ performances from 1939, suggesting this record was one of a set released around the time of the production.

The play is widely regarded as Wilde’s crowning achievement and is, at the very least, his most enduring theatrical work. It premiered in London in 1895 and has been staged countless times around the world, including three film adaptations (the first, in 1952, featured Dame Evans in the role of Lady Bracknell, where she had won acclaim following the 1939 production). A witty satire of Victorian conventions and attitudes the play won early praise from the start (though a few critics, wary of theater that seemed to lack a meaningful social message, were less than pleased by it, calling it even into the 1930s no more than a “trivial comedy” that lacked “realistic accessories”) and had it not been for Wilde’s own ignominious demise it would have doubtless had a longer original run than its brief 86 performances. It was a popular and enjoyable bit of theatrical fare for the late 19th century stage.

Dame Evans as Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version.

I will leave it to the reader to discover the plot of the play elsewhere – or, and I highly recommend it, you can simply get the play script from your library and enjoy it yourself. There are also numerous outlets to get video or DVD both online and off of stellar performances (and a few subpar ones) of this play, including a 2002 film version with Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Dame Judi Dench, and Tom Wilkinson. If you are not familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to take an afternoon and read it or watch it; it is a classic, an enjoyable and witty piece of work, and, if you get the right performance, an amazing vehicle for some of theater’s most brilliant comic and satirical performances.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in a photograph from May 23, 1889.

This disc, most fortunately, captures the vocal performances of two of the actors who are most indelibly associated with Wilde’s play. Gielgud and Evans first appeared in a staging of the play at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in 1930, but they are most fondly remember for the London 1939 revival of the play at the Globe Theater (not that Globe, a different one) which opened on August 16th of that year. While the duration of the clip that I can share here is somewhat abbreviated, there are still other sources where you can access more of their performances (including at Roger Wilmut’s podcast, linked above, which also includes a wonderful performance by John Barrymore in a scene from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, part 3” recorded in 1928). In this scene the young John Worthing is being interrogated by Lady Bracknell, whose daughter he is courting. As she discovers the young gentleman’s provenance (it involves Victoria’s Station and a handbag) her modest approval of him quickly reverses. The entire scene runs just over six minutes and is worth a listen via one of the above links.

Caricatures of the 1939 cast, by Stanley Parker of 'The Sketch' magazine. The image features (clockwise from top) John Gielgud as John Worthing, Peggy Ashcroft as Cecily Cardew, Jack Hawkins as Algernon Moncrieff and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Gwendolen Fairfax, with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in the center.

Unfortunately the outbreak of war in Europe meant that the curtain fell on the play (and all others on stage in London at the time) almost immediately after it opened. Gielgud kept busy by giving a series of afternoon lectures on “Shakespearean Peace and War” at the Globe Theater that raised 500 Pounds for the Polish Relief Fund (Gielgud’s father was of Polish descent). A revival finally happened in 1946/1947, with Evans replaced by Margaret Rutherford.

Gielgud in costume for the 1947 revival.

Gielgud (on right) in the 1947 revival.

Another shot from the 1947 production, with Gielgud kneeling.

Samantha Ellis’ write-up of Dame Evans for The Guardian in 2003 is worth a read for a concise background on this remarkable actor, if you are not already familiar with her work. Evans not only appeared on stage in countless productions – largely, though not exclusively, portraying haughty aristocratic women – but she also did some film work, receiving three Oscar nominations, a BAFTA award, and a Golden Globe. Her performance as Lady Bracknell, both in 1939 and in the 1952 film, however, was likely the single most recognizable and infamous role of her life. Her delivery of Lady Bracknell’s simple line “A handbag?” has become the stuff of theatrical legend. In her 60 year career Evans portrayed over 150 different roles and appeared in works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, Congreve, Wycherley, Bagnold, Fry, and Coward. In addition to Bracknell and originating six of Shaw’s most famous characters, Evans’ portrayal of Rosalind in “As You Like It” in 1926 and 1936 and the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” in 1932, 1934, 1935, and 1961 were both considered definitive performances that shaped how many future actors approached their own interpretations of those characters.

Sir John Gielgud in 1973.

John Gielgud well might be one of the most famous actors of the 20th century, as well as one of the most talented.  He is one of only ten artists who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award in competitive categories. His first major success was his acclaimed 1937 Broadway performance of Hamlet, which broke box office records, however he had been appearing on stage in England as early as 1929, including a previous performance of the broody Dane, and his first appearance as John Worthing in 1930. Gielgud would make Hamlet part of his artistic life for the duration of his career however, taking the performance to the original Elsinore Castle in Denmark, reviving it in 1944, touring a production he directed in 1945 to the Far East, and, in later years, taking the role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, first opposite Richard Burton, then Richard Chamberlain, and lastly in a radio production with his protégé Kenneth Branagh. Also among his early Shakespeare successes was a 1935 “Romeo and Juliet” in which he famously both directed and alternated the roles of Mercutio and Romeo with Laurence Olivier (the young Olivier’s first Shakespeare leading role). The gig with Olivier went sour, however (it’s said that Olivier resented the older actor’s direction).

Gielgud as Richard II in 1936.

The full list of this master’s performances is far too long and too complicated to detail here. Full books can and have been written about his life and his contributions to the theater, both as an actor and as one of the finest directors of the era. He played Hamlet, alone, over 500 times in six productions. He has appeared in most of Shakespeare’s plays, in most of the classics of western theater. He has appeared on most London stages and many of New York’s, opposite (though mostly leading) some of the biggest names in show business in the 20th century. His original “Ages of Man” – a one-man performance of Shakespearean experts – earned him a Tony, a Grammy (for the recording), and an Emmy for the producer when it was broadcast on television. Gielgud’s final on stage Shakespearean performance was his 1977 Julius Caesar at the Royal National Theater.

Gielgud, again in 1973.

In his later years Gielgud moved away from the classics and embraced newer playwrights, including Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, with his final stage performance coming in 1988. Tangential with his acting career was his directing career, including a Tony Award for “Big Fish, Little Fish” in 1961, though most critics believed his most powerful and lasting works were the Shakespeare productions he both directed and performed in. Gielgud did not limit his performances to the stage or screen, however, as his prolific recordings of radio dramas for the BBC attest (including a 1950s series with Gielgud as Sherlock Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Watson, Gielgud’s brother Val as Mycroft, and Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty…I know, awesome, right?). His final radio production was in the lead role of “King Lear” in 1994, staged to celebrate his 90th birthday, with a cast including Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, and Simon Russell Beale.

Gielgud as Pope Pius V in "Elizabeth" (1998), his final speaking role in a film.

Gielgud’s film career was slow to start, but began as early as 1924. It did not truly pick up speed in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s Gielgud famously renounced his aversion to film as an art and quickly appeared in so many films and television productions, of numerous variety, that it was jokingly said he was “prepared to do almost anything for his art.” Surprisingly, despite the vast number of films in which he appeared, very few were of poor quality, and many won awards – an Oscar, New York Film Critics Circle, BAFTA, etc. His final television appearance was in “Merlin” in 1998 and his final speaking film role was as Pope Pius V in “Elizabeth,” also in 1998.

There are interesting parallels in the story behind this record. In 1895 the original run of “The Importance of Being Earnest” came to an abrupt end, as did the 1939 production captured on this album, though in 1895 it was due to the playwright’s fall from grace and in 1940 it was due to the outbreak of war. Indeed, even Wilde’s fall into disrepute is somewhat mirrored by Gielgud’s own struggle with negative attention, in his case following his 1953 conviction for attempting to pick up a man in a public lavatory. Whereas Wilde’s troubles ended up spurring a downward spiral of depression and sickness that culminated in his early death, however, Gielgud followed a different path: with the encouragement of friends and colleagues he stood strong, stayed in the theater (and even moved boldly into film work) and is now largely credited for being a leading figure in the movement that resulted in the decriminalization of homosexuality in England.

A closing observation: I titled this week’s entry “the masters’ voices,” referring to both Evans and Gielgud as masters of their craft. Naturally this recording is not entirely identical to their performances on stage in 1939, but, for that era, this is the closest we can come to capturing, reliving, and experiencing those performances. Many who follow the theater, as I do, read numerous accounts of these groundbreaking, and often character-defining, performances, but the most we can hope to experience them today is through static photographs and less than objective critical reviews. Of course, we lose a fundamental part of the performance when we cannot see the action, too; but, in a sense, as the voice is the instrument of a master actor, we have in this recording (and others like it from the period) a perfect vehicle to convey the power of live theater: a medium that combines just a bit of the actor’s magic, through their voice, and just a bit of our own imagination. And our own imagination is, after all, the most important ingredient in theatre.

What to do with old records?

This week’s entry is coming soon, but I thought I’d share this interesting column from Gramophone writer Jeremy Nichols. I especially like this observation:

The era of the commercial shellac disc lasted roughly from 1890 to 1960 (the last remaining 78s in EMI’s British catalogues were finally withdrawn on March 31,1962). That’s 70 years, far longer than the LP or CD eras, let alone that of any of the new digital formats.