The Marcels were the most successful representatives of the surprising doo-wop revival of 1961. Their current status doesn't seem to be very high, not even (or perhaps especially) among doo-wop fans. Jim Raper did not include a single Marcels record in his list of "The 1,000 Best Doo-Wop Songs" in Now Dig This. One the other hand, Jay Warner* calls them "one of the best vocal groups of all time". I wouldn't go that far, but the group certainly deserves a better fate than being known only for their Bomp baba bomp dang a dang dang "slaughter" of "Blue Moon", the 1934 standard by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The group had a strong, distinctive lead in Cornelius "Nini" Harp and made some worthwhile records.
Though they sound very black, the Marcels were originally a racially mixed group : Richard Knauss (baritone) and Gene Bricker (second tenor) were white, Cornelius Harp (lead singer), Ronald Mundy (first tenor) and Fred Johnson (bass) were black. All five were natives of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The group was formed in 1959 and named after Harp's hairstyle, the marcel. Their repertoire consisted of 1950s R&B songs, several of which were performed on a demo tape that they sent to Colpix Records. Stu Phillips, A&R director for Colpix, liked the tape enough to invite the group to New York, where (at RCA Studios) they had their first session on February 15, 1961 and recorded seven songs. The last one of these - with only eight minutes of studio time left - was "Blue Moon", which was done in two takes, using the same bass intro arrangement of the Cadillacs' "Zoom" that was also on their demo tape. An overzealous promotion man for Colpix heard "Blue Moon" and asked for a copy of the tape, which he gave to Murray the K at WINS, who - according to legend - played it 26 times during his four-hour show. Reaction was so strong that the label rush-released the single in late February.
Even the Colpix people were not prepared for what happened next. In four weeks it was # 1 on both the pop and R&B charts, having pushed no less than Elvis Presley out of the top spot. "Blue Moon" also reached # 1 in the UK, and went Top 10 in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, South Africa, Denmark and Israel. Three weeks after "Blue Moon" was released, the Marcels were brought into the studio again for a let's-get-an-album-out-quick session (six tracks) and on April 11 they were recording yet again. Eighteen songs had been recorded before their second single, "Summertime", was issued, which stalled at # 78. In the summer of 1961, the group appeared in the film "Twist Around the Clock" with Dion and Chubby Checker, and in July, Colpix released an LP called "Blue Moon". However, the group was no longer intact when the LP came out. Knauss and Bricker left the group and were replaced by Allen Johnson (Fred's brother) and Walt Maddox. The now all-black quintet's first session, on September 1, 1961, yielded another big hit (# 7) , a remake of Guy Lombardo's 1931 hit "Heartaches", done in "Blue Moon" style, with its opening nonsense chant and upbeat rendition of the melody. "My Melancholy Baby", recorded in December 1961, was the group's last hit (# 58), in February 1962. By then, Fred Johnson's exaggerated bass had developed into self-parody. Though there were no more hits, the group made some of their best recordings in 1962. My personal favourites are "Friendly Loans", an amusing slice of social criticism, and "I Wanna Be the Leader", an answer to Johnny Cymbal's "Mr. Bass Man", which satirized the Marcels style. Cornelius Harp, the heart of the Marcels, left in 1963. The group then left Colpix and continued to record for Kyra, Queen Bee, St. Clair, Rocky and Monogram with varying lineups until 1975. By then they were working the oldies circuit.
* Jay Warner, The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups" (1992), page 417-419. (For further reading.)
CD : The Marcels, The Complete Colpix Sessions (2 CD-set, issued in 1993). Sequel NED CD 264. 38 tracks.
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