Don French

TrackSingle (US/UK)
Lonely Saturday NightLancer 104 A / London 8884 A
GoldilocksLancer 104 B / London 8884 B
Little Blonde GirlLancer 105 A / London 8989 A
I Look Into My HeartLancer 105 B / London 8989 B

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Don French photo

Don French scores with his first waxing for Lancer Records (1959)

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Stuff all that “leave the best till last” I’m going to start with Lonely Saturday Night. Which was definitely the best. And it was first.

Don French has one of those discographies which could be termed small but beautifully formed. My Toppermost consists of the two sides of the two singles issued under the name of Don French on George Goldner’s Lancer Records in the US (and London Records in the UK) in 1959. Lonely Saturday Night was a minor hit in the US peaking at No.72 on the Billboard chart but did zilch in the UK. His other single, Little Blonde Girl b/w I Look Into My Heart, released later that year went nowhere.

The issue of Billboard for 15th June 1959 contained the following:

“Don French is now attending the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he is a member of Sigma Nu. The 19-year-old hails from Pennslyvania. The Lancer Records artist learned to play guitar by ear when he was 10. While at Radnor High School in Wayne, Pa., French and four other boys organized a combo known as “The Falcons” and the lad earned enough to buy himself a second-hand convertible which he still drives. French has been on the charts with his first recording, Lonely Saturday Night.”

Confession time. I did not pick up on Don’s single when it came out – I’ve no memory of any radio plays or write-ups in the NME (and I devoured every last word in it in those days). I only came across the record when I was putting out the tweets that later formed “London Rocks”. These were my posts at the time:

“This next record got me more than a bit excited – I had no knowledge of it before stumbling over it on this exercise.”

“The vocalist is a gent called Don French. His A-side is a rockaballad not unlike the one last night from Gary Stites.”

“Lonely Saturday Night starts off with some Twin Peaks reverb guitar, then we hear Don and, WOW, what a voice.”

If you look below that clip on YouTube you’ll find some interesting comments, including mention of the road French lived on in Wayne, Pa. A little further down you’ll see a reference to John Peel. Odd?

Well, when I made those Twitter postings above I received feedback from more than one individual stating that Peel had had a thing about this single which I reflected in a subsequent post. This is confirmed in the Wiki entry on John Robert Parker Ravenscroft OBE (John Peel to you and me).

“His favourite single is widely known to have been Teenage Kicks by The Undertones; in an interview in 2001 he stated ‘There’s nothing you could add to it or subtract from it that would improve it.’ In the same 2001 interview, he also listed No More Ghettos In America by Stanley Winston, There Must Be Thousands by The Quads and Lonely Saturday Night by Don French as being among his all-time favourites.”

Check out the record. I referred to it as being “not unlike the big impassioned ballads that guys like Conway Twitty and Ral Donner put out in this era only with added steroids.” (Must stop using that last phrase – it’s horribly repetitive). Twitty had a hit in a big way with It’s Only Make Believe in late ’58/early ’59 so record label owners would have been on the search for a Twitty clone, notwithstanding the fact that Twitty was something of an Elvis clone in the first place. But calling Don French some form of clone is unfair to him. That is one monumental voice he has which goes places most singers don’t even dream about.

The flip side to this little stunner, Goldilocks, starts off like a moody rocker but Don slightly ruins the effect by breaking into a demented near falsetto at the end of the first chorus. Typical male machismo stuff for the period but if it had been the A-side you’d have sat up and taken notice. The French voice/brain combination seemed just as well suited to rock material.

Well I heard a lot of talk down by the docks
New chick in town called Goldilocks

Single #2 reverses the approach to A- & B-sides. This time the A-side, Little Blonde Girl, is the rocker and it’s another toughie but just gets better and better as it proceeds. Some fabulous guitar work competing with our Don who’s getting more & more frantic.

The flipside, I Look Into My Heart, is the slowie this time. I’m slightly reminded of Eddie Cochran’s breathy ballads though there’s a “huh-huh-huh” which could have come straight from El or the great Twittyman. This one comes with added crackles to give it a touch of authenticity:

So what happened to Don French?

If you Google him – and make sure you enter “Don French singer” or you’ll get a certain ample English comedienne and/or Monty Don the gardening man – you’ll find an interesting review of the first single on a blog called Locus St..

Following the review there’s a comment from a lady called Margo French which I have copied in part below:

“Obviously you have not done your homework regarding the history of the recording artist, Don French. He was a rising star in the late 50s who was exceptionally talented. His career was impacted by the payola scandal, when the disc jockeys were demanding payoffs to play the records of new artists. When the scandal erupted, new recording artists had to resort to going on tour constantly, something that was difficult for young artists who were in college, like Don French. He could not go on tour without giving up his college education. He attempted to tour while continuing his studies, which proved to be impossible.”

So, Don gave up a possible career in pop music and continued with his education. I’ve also found a Margo French on Facebook and, judging by her age and the fact that she went to Radnor High School, Wayne, Pa., she would appear to be (or have been) Don’s wife.

Further digging revealed the fact that Margo and Don had divorced so Margo was actually Don’s ex-wife. Don himself had subsequently married again and would appear to still be living in Pennsylvania.

As a coda to all the above, when I searched YouTube for Don French entries I also found a record called Get Out (and that was the only other thing listed against French apart from his two singles):

The track is contained on a 3 volume set called Rock-A-Socka Hop (with arbitrary hyphens). The volumes are sold separately and Don – if it’s him? – is on Volume 2. I’d add that it’s a rock cum teeny pop track which certainly has a ’59-ish air about it. And the voice could be Don’s. The singer lets rip with a few improvised bits of semi-melisma which do sound a bit Don-ish. If anyone knows more about this one I’d be pleased to hear. Volume 2 doesn’t appear to be on Amazon at the moment (though the others are) but I’m not too tempted to buy since I suspect the sleeve notes will be minimal if not non-existent.

 

Last words on Don?

He was just one of those shooting stars that burned ever so brightly for a few all-too-brief seconds and left a long lasting effect on the retina. A few more words from Margo French on the Locust St. site:

“He also didn’t disappear into obscurity, as you have indicated, for his popularity continued on for years in Europe without him ever performing on stage there. His records continue to be sold on-line. His songs speak for themselves.”

 

Footnotes

George Goldner is a name that is relatively little known in pop music history other than to real fans (particularly of doo wop). He was one of those all round music entrepreneurs who made it happen; his roles included production, management, promotion and record label ownership. He was closely involved with Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and Little Anthony & the Imperials, and here’s a brief bio.

The composer of Goldilocks and Little Blonde Girl is listed as (Don) French. Reportedly, he wrote these songs for, and dedicated them to, his then-sweetheart Margo, who he subsequently married.

Anoraks out there will have spotted a reference to Gary Stites, and could be wondering who he is or was. Well, he was another one-hit-wonder; there were several follow-ups but the public lost interest. The hit was Lonely For You issued on London in June 1959 i.e. shortly before the release of Lonely Saturday Night. It was also a rockaballad modelled very clearly on It’s Only Make Believe, but Gary was easy listening vocally compared with Don (or Conway).

I have to register a big vote of thanks to our esteemed editor for the research he conducted on the rather mysterious Mr French. One gem he came up with is that the Lonely Saturday Night single was reviewed in the NME (by their regular reviews man Keith Fordyce) on 14th August 1959. That one slipped through my memory banks. The only other title I recognise from the discs covered that week was Jerry Keller’s Here Comes Summer. And the other touch which might have rung bells was the cover featuring Frankie Vaughan at the London Palladium. And these were rock’n’roll’s golden years!

The editor of this site also dug out the following:

Lonely Saturday Night was written by Leonard “Chick” Barr (music) and Ron Bloomberg (words). It may have been their only release although they did write a few more songs together (see Catalog of Copyright Entries).

The Itch For Scratch, the theme song for the 1960 movie, “Gangster Story” (starring and directed by Walter Matthau), was performed by Ted Stanford with lyrics by Ronald Bloomberg and music by Leonard Barr, who was Dean Martin’s uncle.

I Look Into Your Heart was written by S. Bickley “Bix” Reichner, a longtime crime reporter who also penned lyrics for a string of popular songs recorded by such performers as Elvis Presley (I Need Your Love Tonight), Gloria Mann (A Teenage Prayer), Mambo Rock (Bill Haley).

After his university education, Donald W. French had a career in the finance advisory business, working as a stockbroker for many years.

 

Don French page on 45cat

Don French on Rockin’ Country Style

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #553

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 18, 2016

    Must say my first reaction to this piece was ‘Don Who?’. As I read on, though, it became both intriguing and increasingly interesting. He had a very good voice and his records have some fascinating echoes of other artists (thought I almost heard a bit of Roy Orbison there at times). Another superb Toppermost – thanks…

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 18, 2016

      Thanks Andrew. I was deliberately trying to get away from the long intense ones like my Buddy Holly and a couple yet to come. However this one, which started out almost as a bit of fun, got more interesting as I got into it. Even what both I and Our Esteemed Editor found out didn’t seem to answer all the questions. And you have a point re Orby. Don could have been a major artist with a good manager directing him.

      • Don French
        May 1, 2017

        Never heard of Millie Jackson.

        • Bob Bradley
          May 24, 2017

          Don: How many songs did you record? I know of the two Lancer 45s and CD track “Get Out,” but did you record anything else in the late ’50s/early ’60s? Your records were truly outstanding !!!

  2. Dave Stephens
    May 2, 2017

    Good to hear from you Don. Apologies for the inaccurate statement. I’ve asked the Editor to delete that paragraph. Is there anything else amiss in the document?

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