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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Paper, not plastic

This week on Zayde’s Turntable we find a somewhat untraditional type of record. While the song and the performer are not that remarkable I was looking forward to posting about one of the several albums in my collection from the intriguing “Hit of the Week” label.

Examples of “Hit of the Week” label, with the monochrome illustrations on the back of some of the records depicted on the right.

“Hit of the Week” (HOTW) were a very unique series of albums issued in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, which were made – not of the standard shellac – but instead of a patented paper/resin product called Durium. Simply put, HOTW records, first issued in February 1930, were an ultra-cheap record for the impoverished nation. Each week the newest HOTW record appeared in flimsy rice-paper sleeves on newsstands  (not, as with other records, at record stores) for just 15 cents – the cheapest record available at the time. Despite the fact that they were printed on paper stock and not vinyl, HOTW records had remarkably good audio quality, often matching or exceeding the quality of shellac records of the same period. The single-sided records were sometimes issued with liner notes or the featured artist’s picture illustrated on the back (a feature missing from this particular album, however). By the summer of 1930, at its peak, HOTW were selling nearly 500,000 records each week (at 15 cents per record, that makes a weekly gross of $75,000 – or about $970,000 in today’s dollars); however, the continually worsening economy quickly claimed even the super cheap HOTW record company. Sales crashed and in March 1931 the company went into receivership. Two months later they were purchased by an advertising agency that attempted to revive the label, expanding the discs to five minutes in length, with two songs per record – still only on one side, and raising the price to 20 cents. The changes did not work and the final HOTW was produced in June 1932. The advertising industry continued to utilize Durium printed records throughout the decade, primarily as 5” and 3” promotional records. The agencies would even print the mailing address and affix postage directly onto the reverse of the miniature paper records. HOTW records are today relatively popular with collectors – even those with less remarkable songs or singers – largely due to the medium upon which they are pressed. HOTW did publish a number of A-list musicians’ works, however, including Duke Ellington (who appeared on the label as part of the group the “Harlem Hot Chocolates”), Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee, and Gene Austin.

Hit of the Week #1088.

Rear of Hit of the Week #1088, lacking an illustration.

This album is in Very Good condition. It has a small chip at the edge, but it does not intrude on the grooves at all and has no effect on the recorded audio. It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM brownish red Durium paper/resin disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Hit of the Week 1088. The A-side recording features the Vincent Lopez (1895-1975) Orchestra directed by Hymie Wolfson playing the foxtrot “Little White Lies” by Walter Donaldson (1893-1947). The vocalist is Lew Conrad and it runs 2 minutes and 38 seconds. The album was recorded in July 1930 and released by HOTW on September 11, 1930. Les Docks sets the value at $3-$6 and there is one dealer selling it on EBay for $4.

Columbia 45-RPM featuring Eartha Kitt’s 1963 cover of “Little White Lies.”

Donaldson originally wrote the 1930 foxtrot “Little White Lies” for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, who recorded it on July 25, 1930 for Victor, with Clare Hanlon providing the vocals. As this HOTW version attests, several artists ended up recording the popular tune in 1930, including – besides Lopez on HOTW – Ted Wallace on Columbia, Earl Burtnett on Brunswick, Johnny Marvin on Victor, Marion Harris on Brunswick, Lee Morse on Columbia, and Harry Reser and Annette Hanshaw on budget labels like HOTW. Jesse Crawford recorded an instrumental organ cover for Victor in 1930, as well. Ella Fitzgerald recorded a version of it for Decca in 1939 with Chick Webb’s orchestra. The greatest heights that the song achieved on the US charts was when a 1947 recording of the tune by Dick Haymes for Decca lasted 23 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #3 in 1948. Dinah Shore’s 1947 cover of it for Columbia records lasted one week on the charts at #28 and a 1957 version on Bally Records by Betty Johnson lasted one week at #25 in that year. The song was a hit overseas, too, with Ruby Murray recording it for UK Columbia in 1957 and Eartha Kitt doing likewise in 1963 for the same label. According to Paul McCartney the song was a favorite of both him and John Lennon when they were growing up in Liverpool, and likely had some influence on their later output.

This 1930 edition of the sheet music for “Little White Lies” features a photograph of Vincent Lopez. Donaldson’s publishing company simultaneously released versions of the same music with the photographs of a number of other performers who released recordings of the tune, including Ethel Merman, Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and Jesse Crawford.

Songwriter and publisher Walter Donaldson.

Donaldson, the son of a piano teacher, began writing original music for school productions as a young boy, demonstrated sheet music for customers in five-and-dime stores, and accompanied nickelodeon films in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He saw his first published work when he was 22 and continued to perform, even after his enlistment in the Army, when he would entertain troops and play the piano at War Bond rallies. After his service in the Army during World War I Donaldson was picked up by the Irving Berlin Music Company to be one of their stable of in-house songwriters, a gig he kept until 1928 when he set up his own music publishing company. Around the same time he moved from New York to Hollywood, to join many of his fellow Tin Pan Alley songwriters in composing music for the burgeoning film industry; his film music credits include Glorifying the American Girl, Suzi, The Great Ziegfeld, Panama Hattie, Follow the Boys, and Nevada. By the time of his death in 1947 the tremendously prolific Donaldson had penned around 600 original songs, including some major smash hits that are synonymous with Tin Pan Alley and the music of the 1930s to this very day: “My Blue Heaven,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” recorded by John Pizzarelli, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I’ve Had My Moments” made famous by Frank Sinatra, “You’re Driving Me Crazy” rendered by Mel Torme, “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “Love Me or Leave Me” sung by Lena Horne. Remarkably, Donaldson’s publishing company is still in existence to this day and maintains a terrific website with the composer’s complete biography, his catalog with representative recordings (including a 1995 recording of Julie London singing “Little White Lies” for Liberty records), and information about licensing any of the composter’s 600 odd songs.

Bandleader Vincent Lopez.

Lopez, like Donaldson, was a Brooklyn kid. The song of Portuguese immigrants, Lopez was on track to become a priest before he found a new calling in music and formed his own dance orchestra in 1917. With Lopez at the piano, the band played numerous hotel and dance gigs throughout New York City. Lopez’s piano technique has been called “flamboyant and florid” and was a direct influence on later performers on the instrument, including Liberace. Numerous musicians who would later go on to fame in their own right spent some time in Lopez’s band, including Artie Shaw, Xavier Cugat, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Rudy Vallee, and Glenn Miller. In November 1921 the Lopez orchestra became one of the first to broadcast a regular radio program – a 90-minute weekly show on WJZ out of Newark. The notoriety from the show propelled Lopez to the front line of famous bandleaders of the 1940s and secured both his band and himself roles in a number of the hottest musical movies of the 1940s.

Vincent Lopez leads his orchestra in a photograph from the 1920s.

In 1941 Lopez and his band began a long-term residency as the house band of the Hotel Taft in New York City, delighting audiences into the late 1950s with swing, dance tunes, Dixieland jazz, country-western, and even, in the 1950s, with rock and roll songs. The liner notes to a “Best of the Big Bands” CD compilation from the 1990s offers this description of the show at the Taft:

The Lopez band practically defined the style of popular hotel orchestras of the time…Lopez was also an innovator when it came to the audience participation stunts that generated publicity. Wednesdays through Fridays, for instance, Lopez would have everybody in stitches at the Grill Room with his “Shake the Maracas” show, in which people came great distances to demonstrate their personal skill with the maracas and compete for such prizes as miniature piano cigarette lighters and autographed photos of the bandleader. On many an afternoon, tourists (and hooky-playing office workers) would head off to the Taft for an hour-long 1:00 PM dance session, often broadcast as “Luncheon With Lopez” over the Mutual Radio Network. He even sponsored “Fashions in Music,” a weekly afternoon fashion show in which models would display the latest in day and evening wear to the instrumental melodies of the band. Such novelties may have diminished the impact of his music, but it never affected his pocketbook – or his ability to hire the best musicians in town. For many years, a spot in the Lopez band was a real plum for a musician who also desired a stable family life; the show at the Taft always ended at 9:00 PM sharp, giving a sideman ample time to change into street clothes and be home in time to kiss the kids goodnight and watch the eleven o’clock news.

Singer Lew Conrad.

Lew Conrad was, like Donaldson, the son of a musical family, with both parents sharing a background as vocalists. They decided they did not want their son to be a – gasp – singer, so they had him take up the violin instead. Conrad was promoted by his parents as a violin prodigy for the vaudeville circuit, but he really did not enjoy that realm of the entertainment world. After graduating from Tufts Conrad took his violin to the Cleveland Symphony for a year, before landing a singing and violin gig with the Leo Reisman Band. Conrad also did recording sessions with the studio orchestras of Nat Shilkret and Ben Selvin, until, in 1929, he landed an audition for NBC, who offered him a contract. Conrad’s fame peaked between 1931 and 1933, shortly after he recorded this record for HOTW. His musical performances were being heard nationwide nine times a week on NBC network radio and in 1933 his band was featured in an installment of a series of musical film shorts. His fame seemed to have tapered off, for unknown reasons, into the late 1930s, with the last news account of the band performing coming in 1941.

During times of severe economic hardship the American people have gone with less or gone without, but our innate appetite for entertainment seems to persist, albeit in a diminished form. Consider the last twelve years of movie attendance: during the recession in 2008 1.37 billion tickets were sold at cinemas, just about the same as the number sold in 2000, before the recession after 9/11/2001. At the same time, the dollar amount spent on tickets when considering those two years increased by $2.37 billion – or 32%. This means that despite a tremendous jump in ticket prices and the hit to the economy, people were still willing to shell out for a movie ticket. The HOTW story, as a label, illustrates is just how truly awful the Great Depression was for the average American family. Despite our national natural thirst for escapism entertainment even the cheapest record label of the period felt the sting of the economic collapse. And while Americans were turning to new forms of entertainment around the same time – “talkie” film features, for example – the notion that the industry that was then, and is still today, our leading entertainment industry couldn’t cope is a telling piece of evidence of the disruption of the Depression. On a lighter note, I think any record collector with a stack of HOTW albums in their collection would tell you that the audio quality is generally just as good as their vinyl discs. And they’re a hell of a lot easier to move – and less likely to shatter when you drop one by mistake, as you will inevitably do. Perhaps if the Depression had not been as bad as it was Durium records would have replaced shellac more broadly as the preferred material for record albums. Considering the trajectory of recorded music, from 78-RPM to LP to tapes and CDs, it is interesting to imagine what innovations would have happened, not happened, or happened differently, if the principle medium of recording was so changed.