The Great R & B Duos©1998JCMarion
The classification of the singing duo is a hard one to define in the history of R & B music in general, and vocal group singing in particular. Only Country music seems to give duos their own niche to themselves. They are certainly not solo acts, and the basis of the R & B duos most of the time is harmony singing, so where do we fit them in ? I took it upon myself to give the twosomes their own sub-classification within the doowop world, and took liberty in picking the best of the bunch. So here they are - the great R & B duos.
Shirley & Lee - This New Orleans based duo was long known as the "Sweethearts of the Blues" not for their personal relationship but for the continuing saga of a long line of recordings that reflected a tenuous romantic entanglement of soap opera magnitude. They recorded extensively for the Aladdin label which seemed to battle California rival Imperial in signing talent out of the crescent city. This greatest of duos had one trait common to their recordings-they almost never sang in harmony, let alone together at all. Their style was taking turns on sections of the tunes.The first release was in the Fall of 1952 "I'm Gone" / "Sweethearts". The story continued with "Shirley Come Back To Me" early in 1953. The third release in this series was "Shirley's Back" / "So In Love" later that same year. Next up was what else, "The Proposal"/ "Two Happy People" . By this time late in 1953 the pattern was set by Aladdin records and the story of these two performers on disc was a top selling item in the R & B field. By now fans were attuned to the continuing story of the sweethearts. In 1954 "Lee Goofed" was followed by "Confessin". By now the gimmick had just about played itself out. The failure of " Takes Money" to measure up in sales to prior releases set the stage for Aladdin's top man Eddie Messner to try something new for the duo. In May of 1955 a good medium rocker entitled "Feel So Good" was released. It featured full vocal group backup (reportedly by The Spiders), and its bluesy B side "You'd be Thinking of Me" put the twosome back on the R & B hit charts. Impetus from this recording helped "Lee's Dream" which was certainly not up to the previous release. In early 1956 a great slow blues number called "A Little Word" was released by Alladin. I personally feel that this was the prolific duo's finest ballad release, and it received good airplay but again sales were on the slow side. In mid 1956 Shirley & Lee took one of The Big Easy's most famous refrains and built a rocking tune around it and called it "Let The Good Times Roll". This time they hit paydirt in a big way. The recording was an instant smash and crossed over into the pop field and got substantial airplay. It zoomed up the charts and sold over one million copies. For more than forty years this record has been a staple of oldies stations and any retrospective of music of the nineteen fifties is sure to include their signature tune. At Christmas of 1956 the duo headlined Alan Freed's big bash at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. In early 1957 "When I Saw You" and "That's What I Wanna Do" is released by Aladdin on #3362. That record goes nowhere and so Aladdin comes back two months later with "I Want To Dance" and "Marry Me" on #3369 and that one too does nothing. Another two months pass and Alladin tries with "Rock All Night" and "I Love You" on #3380. This one also follows suit of disappearing almost as soon as it is released. In July Aladdin is back with "The Flirt" and "Rockin' With The Clock" on #3383. This time the duo sees some sales and airplay as both sides have some success. Aladdin Records releases an LP album of Shirley & Lee on their Score label. In early 1958 Aladdin has the twosome record "I'll Thrill You" and "Love No One But You" on #3405 but they could not maintain their momentum from their previous release. In May "Everybody's Rockin" and "Don't Leave Me Here To Cry" is out on Aladdin #3418. The last single of the year is "All I Want To Do Is Cry" and "Come On And Have Your Fun" on #3432. In may of 1959 Shirley & Lee are still at it with "When Day Is Done" and "True Love" on Aladdin #3455. But again success is not to be found for the one time premeir R & B duo. late in the year the pair are on the road with a series of one nighters throughout Florida, Georgia, and over to Louisana. By the dawn of the decade of the sixties Shirley & Lee had seen their day in the sun and the new styles of music were not their mealticket. They played sporadic oldies shows for the next ten years or so and would always be recognized for the tune "Let The Good Times Roll" which became an anthem for the nineteen fifties.
Charlie & Ray - Easily the most unique duo of the nineteen fifties and light years ahead of their time. Charlie and Ray were unabashably Gay and Black, which taken in the context of the first Eisenhower era, made them an act apart in more ways than one. They presented themselves as not drag queens, which was a popular method at the time, but as straight looking singers with a singular delivery. Add to this mix the fact that they could produce some of the hardest rocking tunes of the time and you get an unforgettable pair of performers. I first saw them perform at the old Rockland Palace in Harlem NY in early 1955 and have never forgotten them. At that time Charlie & Ray were riding the crest of a hit record for Herald called "I Love You Madly". I was greatly inquisitive about them because of their gender bending vocal style, but mostly because of the great tune getting so much air play. The band backup sounded like a supersonic banjo fronting a bunch of hard rocking saxes. Great vocal work led to a blistering solo on the baritone sax (always one of my favorite instruments). There were other acts on the bill (I remember Nappy Brown, Buddy Johnson's band, and possibly Carmen Taylor) but I was focused in on C & R. I was a bit taken aback by the hip rolling, pocketbook swinging entrance (being all of 14 years old at the time), but once the music started and the crowd got into it, what a show. I remember writing a letter to Alan Freed and asking a gender oriented question about Charlie & Ray but never receiving an answer-hmmmmmm!. Well those more street wise than I clued me in and after that I just enjoyed the music. I never had a chance to see Charlie & Ray again but there were several more fine recordings to come. The flip side of "I Love You Madly" was a ballad tune called "You're To Blame" that was interesting in its own way. It was duo singing in a vocal group context with the baritone sax playing the supportive bass runs and was a unique concept at the time. While still riding the success of their initial outing (no pun intended) on Herald, a second record was released - "My Lovin` Baby / Take A Look At Me". It was not nearly as popular as their opener. Herald tried again with "Dearest One" and hit paydirt. Another solid up tempo rocker, Dearest had a most interesting instrumental backup (again). This time the horn section consisted of clarinets, and the intro has to be heard-we took it as a musical signal announcing Charlie & Ray's life style. Whether there was in reality any such connection will never be known, but it still brings a smile and some memories. When the vocal shifts to a connecting bridge verse, the horns also quick shift to tenor/baritone saxes blasting out the support. Then it's back to the clarinets again in a rock version of Laurel & Hardy's theme. What an incredible 2 1/2 minutes ! " Oh Gee Ooh Wee" was the next release, and this time the twosome tries a less frenetic shuffle beat. I think it works quite well. The flip ballad side is "Guess I'm Through With Love" another competent vocal performance. What I always liked on the A side was the jump-stop and drop dead "Baby !!" at the end of the tune. Compare that to the squeals and comments in a similar style at the end of "Dearest One". The next side for Herald was the catchy "Little Fool" bw "I Gotta Have You". For some reason 'Fool' did not do as well as would be expected and the twosome next recorded "Closest Thing To An Angel / Mad With You Baby". Both were well done but again, sales and reaction to the sides was disappointing. As with "Little Fool", the A-side "Mad With You Baby" got good airplay from djs in many areas (it was on Jocko's Top Ten survey), but just could not ignite public clamor as earlier sides did. At this time it seemed that Charlie & Ray's time in the spotlight was just about over. They continued to tour on both the big review show circuit, and small clubs from coast to coast. One final Herald single had limited sales and good airplay - "Sweet Thing" backed with a remake of "I Love You Madly" on Herald #503. The pair appeared with Dr. Jive at the Apollo Theater over the July 4th holiday week. They returned to the Apollo in October for a show mc'd by up and coming dj Murray Kaufman (soon to become Murray The K). By now it was 1958 and the rock & roll juggernaut was concerned with the proliferation of rockabilly stars in the wake of Elvis, and performers such as Charlie & Ray were relegated to opening for acts that were short on talent and long on image (sounds a lot like today's music scene !). Charlie & Ray-a most unique duo that left many wonderful musical memories.
Mickey & Sylvia - This duo featured a blending of two Rhythm & Blues talents that had some success on their own. "Little Sylvia" Vanderpool was signed to Savoy records as a 13 year old singer in March of 1951. Six months later her first release called "Little Boy" bw "How Long Must I Be Blue" was out. The label didn't follow up and so Sylvia went to Jubilee and released "I Went To Your Wedding" the R & B version of Patti Page's big pop hit. "I Found Somebody To Love", "Drive Daddy Drive", and "A Million Tears" followed. 1953 opened with a previously unreleased Savoy side "It's A Good Good Morning". and not soon after "The Ring" / "Blue Heaven" on Jubilee. 1954 began with Sylvia (now known as Sylvia Vanderpool) on her third label-the newly formed Atlantic subsidiary Cat Records. They released "Fine Love" / "Speedy Life" as their second outing with Mickey Baker's combo doing instumental backup. Months would pass until the middle of 1955 when Sylvia Vanderpool joined Mickey "Guitar" Baker in one of the great duos of the R & B fifties. McHouston "Mickey" Baker had been around as a session musician and fill in for many R & B recording sessions from the early fifties. His first hit record in the field under his name was the 1952 Savoy release "Mambola". This led to two more sides - "Guitar Mambo" and "Oh Happy Day". By 1954 he had backed up future partner Little Sylvia and was a member of Big Red McHouston's Combo who recorded for RCA's subsidiary label Groove. The following year was a busy one for Baker. He signed with Rainbow records and at the same time became an intregal part of Alan Freed's big Rock & Roll band that appeared on stage and recorded for Coral. Two releases on Rainbow remain two of the greatest ever instrumentals - "Shake Walkin`" and "Rock With A Sock". That label was also the source of the very first Mickey & Sylvia recordings in mid 1955 - "I'm So Glad" followed by "Forever And A Day" / "Rise Sally Rise". The demise of Rainbow Records sent the duo to RCA and their Groove R & B label. "No Good Lover" and "Walking In The Rain" were the first two results. Then came a bit of brilliance - the recording of "Love Is Strange". The two guitar sound (Sylvia proved to be adept at slinging a guitar) heavy on tremelo and reverb with vocals and snappy dialog in the middle was a sensation. It was a multi-million seller and today is still a favorite. Many superb hits followed on the new RCA label called Vik : "Dearest", "Bewildered", the incomparable "Love Will Make You Fail In School", "There Ought To Be A Law", "To The Valley" and "There'll Be No Backing Out". Later releases recorded for various labels were not so well received such as "Because You're So Fine", "This Is My Story", and "Lovedrops". After this partnership was dissolved, Mickey became a musical expatriate and was based in Europe for many years. Sylvia became a record company executive with her All-Platinum label, and had a sensuous hit record called "Pillow Talk". For three years this duo was had a most unique (and well copied) sound that is today still a most unique listening experience.
Marvin & Johnny / Jesse & Marvin - Both of these duos are presented as a single entity because of the similarity of their styles, and the obvious part played by Marvin Phillips as a big part of each. Marvin was a kind of early-mid fifties R & B renaissance man. He of course was part of both of these noted duos, but also performed well as a solo artist and also led a stomping Rhythm & Blues combo that backed up many of the big name performers on the west coast in these years.The first release for Specialty by Jesse & Marvin was "Dream Girl" / "Daddy Loves Baby" in late 1952. Jesse Belvin as a solo act also had "Dream Girl" out on the Recorded in Hollywood label, while Marvin Phillips recorded solo for Specialty at the time. Jesse Belvin was another performer who seemed to have limitless potential in many different fields- as a solo, a member of a popular duo, and as a sort of wandering minstrel with many different vocal groups of the time such as the Feathers, Sheiks, and The Dreamers, and also as a one man multi-dubbed group called The Cliques. (I have since been corrected as to this information by Robin, wife of Eugene Church (now deceased). It was Eugene that was the second voice on recordings by The Cliques for Modern Records in 1956. Eugene Church is best remembered for "Pretty Girls Everywhere" and "Miami".) "Dream Girl" got good air play and sales in California, but Belvin had many other opportunities to expand his talents. This left Marvin Phillips to think about continuing the duo concept. He then hooked up with a budding R & B singer in Johnny Green who had been working as a duo recording as Johnny & Mack for DeLuxe Records. Marvin & Johnny recorded "Baby Doll" / "Im Not Your Fool" for Specialty in the summer of 1953, and the new duo was off to a good start. At the same time Marvin Phillips recorded "Sweetheart Darling" for Swingtime. The next outing for the new twosome of M & J was "Jo Jo" / "How Long She Been Gone" in early 1954. "School of Love" / "Boy Loves Girl" was next, but neither of these releases seemed to follow up on the promise of their initial Specialty pressing. In the summer of 1954 Marvin & Johnny signed on with the Bihari brothers and moved to Modern Records. Their first release for their new label was the monster hit they had been looking for. "Cherry Pie" / "Tick Tock" was a huge two sided hot. The lilting wordless counter melody was infectious and has been used on many group tunes over the years. Another part of the great popularity of the tune was the innocent yet double-entendre lyrics that were so commonplace in the R & B tunes of the early and mid fifties. Riding the tremendous crest of popularity of "Cherry Pie", the duo performed endlessly on many shows and reviews that made the west coast circuit. They were also a big draw in the many clubs that featured R & B performers. As was also prevalent, follow up success was hard to come by in the recording studio. Next was "Day In-Day Out" / "Flip", followed by "Kiss Me "/ "Sugar". Following these releases was "Little Honey" / "Honey Girl". While these recordings adequately showcased the duos talents, they could never come up with the next Cherry Pie. In June of 1955 came "Butterball" / "Sugar Mama", followed by "Then Will You Love Me" /" Sweet Dreams" Next up was "Aint That Right" / "Let Me Know". With continual personal appearances they kept in the public eye, but were still going on the strength of one record. The inevitable breakup was approaching as they each looked to revive their fortunes. Jesse Belvin at this time got his discharge from the army and rejoined Marvin Phillips to keep the Marvin & Johnny name going in a strange set of circumstances. On many personal appearances Jesse sang with Marvin as M & J and also performed under his own name. Marvin & Jesse were to cover Gene & Eunice's "Kokomo" for Modern but that was never released. "Wonderful Wonderful One" / "Yes I Do" was next for the "new/old" duo and it was the last. In July of 1956 the duo broke up with Marvin Phillips going to solo to be known as Long Tall Marvin. An Aladdin release credited to Marvin & Johnny appeared in September called "My Dear My Darling." In May of 1958 another Marvin & Johnny side was pulled off the shelf and released - "Yak Yak" and "Pretty Eyes" on Aladdin #3371. So ended the recording era of Marvin & Johnny. They certainly were on of the most popular duos in the R & B field and with "Cherry Pie", produced one of the defining moments of the music. I have always felt however, that they were so identified with the west coast and the LA scene that they never really caught on in New York. I can never remember their records being played with any regularity on any of the radio shows of the time, and seldom if ever were they part of the personal appearance circuit in the east. This is a shame in a way, because they are certainly a part of the legend of the early days of R & B which set the tone for the musical styles which are still being felt today.
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