|Tonight Kathleen||Old Town O.T. 1009 (The Valentines)|
|Summer Love||Old Town O.T. 1009 (The Valentines)|
|Falling For You||Rama RR-171 (The Valentines)|
|The Woo Woo Train||Rama RR-196 (The Valentines)|
|Don't Say Goodnight||Rama RR-228 (The Valentines)|
|Remember Me||MGM K12616|
|Summer's Love||Gone 5060|
|The Snake And The Bookworm||20th Fox 45-150|
|I Am Yours||Seville 104|
|Some Other Guy||Atlantic 45-2512|
The Valentines (l to r): Mickey Francis, Eddie Edgehill, Ronnie Bright, Pops Briggs, Richie Barrett
RICHIE BARRETT: ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #3
THE DOO WOP SPECIAL
Contributor: Dave Stephens
Artists who flickered briefly then disappeared – in most cases, but not this one. One Hit Wonders, the media called them. Part of the fascination of fifties and sixties music.
Confession time. Anyone who’s done a bit of research or has a good memory will know what I’m talking about. Some Other Guy wasn’t a chart hit for Richie Barrett. It wasn’t even a major hit for the Brit cover from the majestically titled, The Big Three – #37 was as high as it got.
But it was a record that seemed to epitomise the Northern Beat scene in Britain in 62/63, that thing the Americans referred to as Merseybeat, displaying an ignorance of UK geography that was almost endearing. And I suspect most of us, self included at the time, just assumed the record was a big US seller from the mysterious Mr Barrett. R&B, wasn’t that what it was? Every band worth its salt wanted to sound like that record.
Two slow bass notes from an electric piano then the band kicks in – the piano sounding rather like Brother Ray on What’d I Say, though when the vocal does eventually start, it’s thicker and more slurry – there’s an urgency and edge not heard hitherto – the horns join in, as do the call & response gals – and then, suddenly, it’s over, and the stylus is lifted, and back to the beginning. That sense of edge was in part caused by the band playing in sevenths, and if that means nothing, check out Chuck Berry’s I’m Talking About You. We’d never heard anything like that vocal before; one that seemed to emerge from the depths of the American big city black ghettoes.
Or was this fantasy? The US single, from Atlantic, had the words “A Leiber-Stoller Production” writ large on it. Those were the clever gents who put together all those mini-operas from the Coasters, informed by drama, humour, and a mighty good idea of what the public might go for. Was this another Leiber/Stoller playlet with Barrett in the leading role? What none of us knew, way back then, was that Richie/Richard had been recording since 1954, and that on not one of his previous records had he sounded like this. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read on.
THE RICHARD/RICHIE/DICKIE BARRETT STORY
That’s not a tasteless crack. He did bill himself Dickie Barrett for his first solo single. However for the sake of consistency I’m going to try to refer to the man as Richard from now on. That was the name used whilst in the Valentines and for most of his solo records.
He was born in Philadelphia in July, 1933. He started group singing during what we in the UK would call his national service. On his return to civvy street he got in with a group called the Royal Angels who were only amateur but did get gigs in the local recreation centre. He also started writing songs. One such was Tonight Kathleen, named after the younger sister of one of the group members. The Royal Angels entered a talent competition in New York in ’54 and won it but, disappointingly, this didn’t lead to the holy grail of a record contract. What it did do though was cause young Richard, plus another group member, to up sticks and move to New York, convinced that the opportunities would be better there.
They weren’t, at least not initially, and Richard had to turn to other employment to keep his head above water. He continued trying to sell his songs though, even knocking on the door of the famed Brill Building. Eventually he bumped into a vocal group called the Dreamers. They were smitten with his Tonight Kathleen and others, and, as a result, Richard joined the group as lead singer and principal songwriter. All sounds too good to be true perhaps, but at that juncture, the Dreamers were excellent harmonisers without a cutting edge lead vocalist and without any songs.
The group changed their name to the Valentines and managed to win a contract with Old Town Records managed by Hy Weiss. Their first record Tonight Kathleen coupled with Summer Love was released in November, 1954.
I’m partial to both sides. Kathleen is a slow lugubrious number with a degree of pleasing raunch, featuring a delightful wandering tenor in the backdrop plus the rest of the group oohing and ahing. It also has a very cheeky falsetto leap from Richard right at the very end. A great start for Richard and the Valentines.
Like the A-side, Summer Love was based on the doo wop progression (which formed the foundation for the vast majority of Richard’s songs), but, with the novelty of our man singing to the sole accompaniment of what I might term a wandering piano for the second verse. As a whole, the arrangement through to the climax showed evidence of a lot of thought having gone in. There was even the first appearance of a bass man about two minutes in. Notwithstanding the ambition, both sides showed a rather pleasing lack of polish, often to be treasured in doo wop.
The contract with Old Town was for one year and, although there was meant to be another record, it didn’t happen. The group successfully auditioned for George Goldner, owner of Rama Records, and more (see Footnotes). They stayed with the label until 1957 when Richard, frustrated at the Valentines lack of breakthrough, decided to go solo. I should add that the group’s reputation has gone up over the years and they are now held in some regard. Indeed, I could have indulged myself and included all the Valentines tracks or at least as many as I could fit in. They are that good. However I’ve compromised and gone for half Valentines and half Richard solo.
If by now you’d come to the conclusion that Richard was single track smoochtime, you’d have been partially right. The next disc however, Lily Maebelle, was upbeat and packed with the usual sort of things you heard in fast doo woppers. The snorting sax came courtesy of Jimmy Wright, leader of the support band:
The Woo Woo Train was even faster, put together with more imagination, and it had a great “All aboard” at the start which might have gotten heard by James Brown, and it had even better sax work which is worth waiting for; it’s blow your head off stuff:
Reportedly the band used to open their stage act with Lily Maebelle and close with The Woo Woo Train.
My last two Valentines selections are both ballads so I guess I’m wearing my preferences on my sleeve, as it were. Falling For You demonstrated that the group, possibly with the help of George Goldner had mastered the knack of creating an arresting introduction. While this one, like most of the Valentines output, relied on that ole doo wop progression, Don’t Say Goodnight, the last Valentines single, harnessed a more complex melody line, possibly coming from Richard’s co-writers. Complete with fuller orchestration than usual, this was probably the most sophisticated and polished of all the Valentines singles. The last minute or so of the number was sung in falsetto. I’m assuming this was Richard but I could be wrong.
Richard’s first solo single was a curious affair. A version of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes that came out nine months before the many more times famous version from the Platters. There was an air of pastiche about the whole thing, opening with a fanfare after which Richard/Dickie and the band commenced to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the song. It won’t supplant Tony Williams and the Platters in my affection but for your interest here are the two versions:
In contrast the flip from Richard/Dickie, Remember Me, worked rather well. The number, one of Richard’s, was slow to medium and the band maintained much the same semi-aggressive stance of the A-side while the backing singers did relatively little, placing all the emphasis on Richard, and by golly, did he deliver. Could be one of his very best vocal performances. It was getting close to soul although unlike some of his contemporaries, Richard never quite made it over that line. Maybe he felt more comfortable in the vocal group environment.
Depending on which discography you believe, there were between six and nine singles between this one and Some Other Guy. None got anywhere chart wise, so it was little surprise that there was hardly anything after that single. The fact that he seemed to be constantly switching labels wouldn’t have helped.
My final three selections come from this period. The one that’s most well known is Summer’s Love which Barrett recorded three times, and, no, it wasn’t the same song that was present on the first Valentines single. This is the cut released on the Gone label with the Chantels backing Rich in May ’59. Sloooow and soulful, with a guitar walking its way through that familiar chord progression. Richard’s way back in an echo chamber but he’s mighty effective nevertheless. He unleashes a falsetto about fifty seconds in and it’s a thing of beauty. One to make the ladies swoon:
The flip is something else. All Is Forgiven, another slowie but with a far more interesting melody line, flattened chords and all that stuff. For me, evocative of some of the sweet soul from places like Philly and Chicago.
The Snake And The Bookworm written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman is a mega contrast. Some readers may know the number if they’re familiar with the Coasters. However the Barrett version of the song has a very recognisable Diddley beat with near reverb guitar. Intriguingly this aspect disappears totally in the arrangement for the later Coasters record.
One single in particular from Barrett, Dream On/I Am Yours had our man taking on a hefty dose of teen orientation. However, both sides were far more attractive than that statement might suggest. Richard was accompanied by male vocal group the Sevilles and the flip side was something of a reminder of the doo wop days even if the frolicking strings were a little distracting.
What won’t have come through from the foregoing is that Richard was pursuing a parallel existence in addition to putting out records himself. He started way back in the Valentines days, doing whatever odd jobs he could to help George Goldner, until the latter started getting him directly involved in the musical activity. He discovered the Teenagers, then called the Ermines, literally singing outside his window at his home in the Washington Heights area of Harlem. He was the one who mentored the group and got them their audition with George Goldner. The young Frankie Lymon joined the group prior to that audition. Richard subsequently got himself more of a formal role talent scouting for Goldner. Later discoveries included Little Anthony and the Imperials plus the Chantels. He managed the last named group and produced their singles. He was also involved in production duties for other artists who recorded for Goldner including the great Flamingos. For a spell he ran his own record label, Princeton Records. Perhaps his biggest success came relatively late on with the Three Degrees, a girl group that he managed, produced and wrote songs for.
Which brings me on to …
RICHARD BARRETT SONGS
Quite apart from the numbers he wrote for the Valentines and himself, Mr Barrett wrote a lot of songs, either solely or jointly, for other artists including some of the biggest names in both female and male vocal group genres. Not too many of these troubled the hit parade but they included some excellent examples of black popular music in the fifties and sixties.
For the Chantels he wrote several numbers including their best selling single Maybe. This was one of the relatively rare Barrett authored songs which did do well. For all the girl group fans out there, here are the splendid Chantels and Maybe:
For Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers he penned the song that appeared on the A-side of the single immediately after Why Do Fools Fall In Love. The song was an up tempo affair entitled I Want You To Be My Girl.
Richard also managed to place a song on the flip side of Frankie Lymon’s first solo single though that was semi-accidental. The song, Creation Of Love, was one that he was hawking around in his early days in New York. He sold it to Morris Levy for 100 dollars and years later it was given to Lymon.
For Little Anthony he wrote several songs including the A-side of his second single, So Much:
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes did his Get Out (And Let Me Cry) and got an R&B Chart hit with it.
The Flamingos recorded his That Love Is You in ’58.
And the same year the Dubs did his Be Sure (My Love.)
In 1970, in what was effectively their second coming, the Three Degrees came out with a version of the Chantels’ Maybe (having first recorded it in 1965), produced by Richard of course. If you’ve never heard it I should warn you that it has one of the longest spoken introductions ever, coming in at over the three minute mark:
Richard Barrett died in August 2006. His funeral was attended by members of doo wop royalty; many of the greatest black groups ever were present including the original Blue Notes, the Tymes, the Chantels, the Imperials (inc. Little Anthony himself), the Valentines, the Orlons, the Three Degrees and more. Doo wop may not have meant a lot to us in the UK but in the US it was part of their musical heritage particularly in the big cities, and Richard Barrett was a major part of it.
Thankfully Richard with his Richie hat on, did mean something to us.
1. Hy Weiss was a Romanian immigrant to the US who had worked his way up in the music industry to establish a jointly owned record label, Parody Records in 1949, and then his own label, Old Town Records in ’53. He specialised in black music, particularly doo wop and R&B. He also functioned as record producer for the label.
2. In the early period in New York, Richard would accompany himself on ukulele while composing songs and demonstrating them.
3. While other accounts state that it was the song Summer Love that was the turn-on which caused the Valentines, originally Dreamers, to take Richard on board, I’ve gone with the version from “The Musical Legacy Of Richard Barrett”, a series of blogs in seven parts, written by Charlie Horner with contributions from Val Shively and Pamela Horner which, to me, seemed to be the most authoritative version of the man’s career. In Part 1, Horner states without equivocation that the song was Tonight Kathleen. That blog was also the source for several nuggets of info in my article (see links below).
4. I made brief mention of the George Goldner career in the Footnotes to the Little Richard Toppermost but I’m expanding that here because of his relevance. He came from a Jewish family and was born and brought up in New York. Starting off in the retail clothing business he switched to running dance halls. That gave him an in to the music industry and from 1948 onwards, he set up and ran a number of record labels. He managed to get in on the craze for mambo music which gave him some early success. He set up the Rama label specifically for music aimed at the black community. In 1953 he produced one of the biggest and earliest successes in the field of doo wop, Gee by the Crows:
Many of the vocal groups named in this article recorded for one of the Goldner labels at some stage in their career, often with Barrett working alongside the owner in the studio. In the sixties George recorded Elvis sound-alike Ral Donner, the Isley Brothers, the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Dixie Cups and others. He died in 1970.
5. As a complete digression from the main topic, it is quite remarkable how many US independent record labels in the fifties were started by first or second generation immigrants – think Atlantic, Chess, Modern, Imperial and more.
6. The Valentines fan club was called the Valenteens. That was something you really needed to know!
7. During his solo period, Richard, backed by the Chantels, recorded a version of the Fleetwoods’ Come Softly To Me. It was rush released in the same month as the original. This was an example of a black artist/group covering a white artist. This practice wasn’t as rare as the reader might have thought. And, with no disrespect to Rich, in this instance the white original was better.
8. By far the best way of buying Richard Barrett is via the Jasmine label album The Richard Barrett Story – Searching For A Hit 1954-1962. To the best of my knowledge it contains both sides of all the Valentines singles and the same for Richard solo. As a bonus, they are almost all in order of release. I would guess that that was the original intention but some gremlins crept in.
9. I’ve casually used the term “doo wop progression” in the main text. It’s a chord progression that was used heavily in doo wop songs plus other material, particularly, but not only, in the fifties and early sixties. In the key of C, the sequence runs C Am F G. If that’s not meaningful think Donna or Teenager In Love (or most of Mr Barrett’s songs).
10. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the doo wop genre but I did make an effort to address some of my ignorance while putting together “RocknRoll”, conscious of the importance of the genre in American popular music. I didn’t come across the Valentines at the time but I guess I was only looking at the tip of a very large iceberg.
11. I am hopeful that the Toppermost Editor will now see fit to include Doo Wop as a heading in the panel on the RHS, and also, that readers are spurred into generating Toppermosts on artists in this fascinating genre from the fifties and sixties (and I wouldn’t even exclude some of the pasticheurs from later decades).
12. Coming right back to the subject of this article, one Richard Barrett of Washington Heights, he was involved in a record called Don’t It Sound Good, Parts 1 & 2, released by Atlantic in 1963. The record was released under the name of Billy Mashburn and it was produced by an outfit called ‘Spectorious Productions’. The composers were listed as Junior/Mashburn. The record consisted of what sounded like a hellfire preacher talking/rapping/semi-singing over a doo wop group happily jamming on the progression named after them, with touches of famous and not so famous records emerging only to be replaced by others. One of the not so famous ones was the Valentines, Tonight Kathleen, which just happened to be the earliest ‘sample’.
The more you look into it, the more the plot thickens. On deeper investigation, Spectorious Productions (also Spectorious Music Corp. And Spectorious Records) turned out to have nothing to do with a certain Phil, but comprised three individuals – Leonard Hodes, Richard Barrett and Bea Junior. In addition, Bea Junior (who would also appear to have co-written the song) was a known alias of one Richard Barrett.
All of which leads me to the conclusion that Barrett was, at the very least, leading the singing combo behind Mashburn or was actually Mashburn himself. Take a listen to his singing style on Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and you might also come to the second conclusion.
Whatever, I think the record makes a pleasing coda to the Barrett/Doo Wop feature, and I must add that all the credit for unearthing the Billy Mashburn disc must go to Our Esteemed Editor.
Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on One Hit Wonders in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.