Been So Long : The Pastels and Dee Irwin©2004JCMarion


At one of the most unlikely of venues imaginable, Greenland, came the formation of a short lived but talented vocal group. The original members were James Willingham, Richard Travis, Tony Thomas, and Gerald Craig, all members of the U.S. Air Force. They spent their off hours in the isolated all winter all the time (almost) land by harmonizing on some tunes. Soon a new member of the base named DiFosco Irvin began to show his talent on the piano and vocalizing which led the guys to ask him to become part of their singing group. None of the members had previous experience although Willingham had a family connection to both The Cadillacs and The Hearts ( from the Baton label). After a series of tranfers out of Greenland to Andrews AF Base in the Washington D.C. area, the boys got back together and christened themselves The Rocketeers. Gerald Craig left the group at this time and so the quartet began to play some engagements in the local area. They entered talent shows within the Air Force and supposedly crossed paths with that other USAF vocal group of note - The Del-Vikings.

The Rocketeers by this time figured they were ready for a try at recording and the group headed for the Big Apple and wound up at the offices of Hull Records. Management at the record company saw the potential of the four voices and so were soon talking contract. Label owner Bea Kaslin felt the name Rocketeers was not a good fit for the group and soon settled on The Pastels as their new name. Bebop and R & B session man Teacho Wiltshire was the musical director for the session that produced the classic song "Been So Long" in the studio. If The Pastels had the idea that Hull Records would soon release the new side they were mistaken. Hull kept the record on the shelf for a number of months and only then made a half hearted push for the record by releasing it on Mascot records, a little known subsidiary of Hull.

By the time the song finally became a national hit, the guys were discharged from the service. Now as the group became a household word among R & B fans, quality dates began to come their way. They made the rounds of the main Black theater circuit including the Howard in D.C., Apollo in New York, and The Royal in Baltimore. In December of 1957 "Been So Long" on the Mascot label ( #123) begins to get noticed. Radio play starts out along the eastern seaboard from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia. The flip side is "My One And Only Dream". In January Argo takes over the Pastels master from Mascot (Argo #5287) and the new national distribution gives the record a big push. In January disc jockey George Woods on WDAS in Philadelphia plays the tune six or seven times in a row which lights up the switchboard at the station and really creates a buzz for the tune. In February of 1958 The Pastels sign on for the touring "Big Beat Show" for Alan Freed. The killer lineup includes Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Chuck Berry, The Diamonds, Chantels, Cauals, Dickey Doo & The Don'ts, Billy & Lillie, Larry Williams, JoAnn Campbell, Frankie Lymon, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Sam Taylor's big band. The tour will kick off in late March at the Brooklyn Paramount.

Before departing with the big touring show The Pastels did a week at the Apollo with Little Willie John and Bill Doggett & his combo, and moved down to Philly at the Uptown Theater with George Woods. Also on that bill was The Chantels, Dells, Little Joe & The Thrillers, Heartbeats, Hollywood Flames, Chuck Berry, and Doc Bagby & his band. In May the new side on Argo by The Pastels is released. The songs are "You Don't Love Me Anymore" and "Let's Go To The Rock & Roll Ball" on #5297. In September the group appears with dj Zeke Manners in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also on the bill are Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & The Comets, Dave "Baby" Cortez, LaVern Baker, Bobby Freeman, The Moonglows, Gladiolas, and Lee Allen and his band. In October "So Far Away" and "Don't Knock" were released on Argo #5314. But, like their previous release, nothing much became of the newest effort by the group. Because of their lack of success and other factors relating to the music business, The Pastels called it quits in 1959.

Lead singer DiFosco Irvin decided to go out on his own as a performer and writer. Using the name Dee Irwin, and then Big Dee Irwin, he recorded for a number of labels in the early sixties such as Hull, Bliss, and Dimension. He finally found the big time once again in 1963 with one of the more infectious records of the era, his version of the Bing Crosby hit standard of the 1940s "Swinging On A Star" with Little Eva ( "Locomotion" ) on backing vocals. The mid tempo rocking take of Bing's Oscar winning song from "Going My Way" originally recorded with the Williams Brothers (including future star Andy) was a big seller in the pre-Beatle sixties. This hit led to a number of later records for Dimension, Rotate, Roulette, Astra, and Phil-LA-Of-Soul. None did very much on the charts and Irwin remained in the business with writing, producing, and publishing for many years. He passed away in 1995.

But when all is said and done, it was that one beautiful and haunting song that will always be remembered for Dee Irwin and The Pastels. It is a nice and lasting memory.

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