Tuesday, July 09, 2013

THE LATE GREAT CORNELIUS HARP: "BLUE MOON" The Marcels

Farewell to Cornelius Harp (September 14, 1939-June 4, 2013).

No wisecracks about him playing a harp now…because the news is still a bit too depressing here in Illville. The Marcels were one of my favorites, thanks mainly to their doo-wop hot-wiring of stalled standards "Blue Moon" and "Heartaches."

Too bad The Marcels couldn't be taken seriously after that. Though a brilliant harmonizing doo-wop group before their Top Ten fame, and more than capable of handling the more romantic Platters-type of material, they lost direction (and their Colpix deal) with too many repeat attempts at goosing older songs ("Melancholy Baby"and "Old Black Magic") or veering into Coasters territory ("Friendly Loan"). They issued only one album and a smattering of singles after that.

I have no idea why Cornelius Harp didn't emerge as a solo act, but perhaps he was busy with a day job, and going on the road when The Marcels were able to be part of some package-revue.

It's possible that his main problem was that as lead singer for The Marcels, his talents were overshadowed by the antics of his three doo-wopping harmonizers and most especially, Fred Johnson's cool and hilarious bass nonsense-words. Imagine if Levi Stubbs of The Tour Tops was stinging out the straining paining lyrics to "Heartaches" while a clowny bunch of doo-wop singers were goofing the melody, and a bass man was swooping in with wurps and dips and bing-a-bopes? Nobody would be talking about him, either.

For Stubbs, his vocals were the focus point with The Four Tops. Harp, like Levi Stubbs, had a strong, direct singing style, but so much is going on in those Top 10 Marcels hits that people don't appreciate it. Listen to "Blue Moon" and "Heartaches" and hear how "Uncle Neeny" (as his relatives called him) propels that melody forward. He's almost like a mad father driving 70 mph down the highway with a fat nagging wife (on bass) and a back seat full of idiot brats (doing wah-wah-wah doo-wop chugs). Cornelius sounds determined, like he's got his eyes on the road and his foot on the pedal and nothing will wreck his concentration. It's a mad, mad ride.

Perhaps idiot savants, The Marcels, if you want to get a little overboard, were doo-wop masters of Comedy and Tragedy, and to borrow a phrase from Kipling, could "treat those two imposters just the same." While the bass made nonsense fun of the melody, the tenor soared along putting everything he had into those lyrics. Ever cry hot tears of rage only to find that they tickle your face?

For me, that's sort of what The Marcels do. You smile at the goofy Fred Johnson bass, you groove to the three guys harmonizing the fast rhythm, but then there's the seriously powerful tenor of Cornelius Harp.

If you check the rather sparse catalog of Marcels material out there, you'll find that Cornelius Harp had a versatile range, able to handle a Platters-type version of "Summertime," romantic ballads as well as hard-charging soulful R&B. It must be admitted that nobody, not Caruso (the first of the full-tilt tenors to bawl at a microphone) not Levi Stubbs, and not Harp, could get anywhere without good material and a little "magic" in the production. Which is why most people only know Caruso from a few arias, and Stubbs for a "greatest hits" of 60's Four Tops hits (and very little of what he and his group did in the decades after). Cornelius Harp? He only had a few years of prime recording, but he did produce some gems.

For most, the diamond is "Blue Moon," and below, you get five versions.

"ZOOM/Blue Moon" is an acapella demo recording The Marcels sent to record companies. It was such a stand-out among the tracks submitted, that producer Stu Phillips, requested that they actually cover "Blue Moon" during their official Colpix studio session.

"Blue Moon" the hit single. Another favorite of the blog, Murray the K, (Murray Kaufman), was legendarily essential to The Marcels' success. One of the nation's most influential disc jockeys, operating out of New York's WINS radio station, Murray played the hell out of his "Blue Moon" demo to the point where record stores were desperate for copies. Break a song in New York, and it will explode all over the country.

"Blue Moon" by Herb Lance and The Classics. Here's proof The Marcels could not be duplicated. Released on the oddly-named "Promo" label, and produced by Roger Sherman (who had signed The Classics to his Dart label a few years earlier), this was rush-released when demand for The Marcels was at its peak. Why Herb Lance needed to be brought in to front The Classics is anyone's guess. It was unfortunately common back then for people to go to a record store, ask for a song by title, and not get the right artist. There might be a file cabinet or a cubby hole with a half-dozen singers doing "Beyond the Sea" or "Hello Dolly." In this case, store clerks disposed of enough Herb Lance singles for a second printing…you can find both a red label and brown label version of his "Blue Moon."

"Blue Moon" by The Promenade Orchestra and Chorus. Promenade was one of those "six songs for a dollar" companies. Their 45 rpm budget EP's gave you three songs on each side. Unknowns with fake names, or given the catch-all name "Promenade Orchestra and Chorus" would try to imitate the originals. You knew you weren't getting the real star when you bought one of these; you were hoping the imitation wasn't too terrible. No, not TOO terrible here. But nobody sounded like Cornelius, Fred, or the under-appreciated rest of the group.

"Blue Moon" by Glen Gray, recorded back in 1934. Just in case you wanted to hear how the song was "supposed" to sound.

.

The Marcels underwent changes between their two (and only) Top 10 hits "Blue Moon" and "Heartaches." When they toured the South, audiences were shocked to see that the Pittsburgh group had two white guys mixed in with the coloreds. Integration? Uh, NO. The white guys were replaced by bass man Fred Johnson's brother and a guy named Walt Maddox.

The all-black Marcels did have a hit with "Heartaches," but they floundered with more attempts at that formula and apparently disc jockeys were even more skeptical if they got hold of a single in which the group tried to sing straight doo-wop. Even an appearance in the film "Twist Around the Clock" failed to enhance their status as a group with potential. Amid the failed singles, and who knows what internal bickering, Walt Maddox replaced Cornelius Harp and The Marcels turned into a foursome. And they turned into a part-time touring group on the oldies circuit and have remained that way.

Once in a blue moon there was a new single under The Marcels name. In 1973, "In The Still of the Night"/"High on a Hill" was released but had neither Maddox nor Harp on it. The group name was used because two vintage members were singing: Bingo Mundy and Richard Knauss along with three imposters. Two years later, Cornelius Harp assembled "The Fabulous Marcels" for a single on the obscure St. Clair label: "That Lucky Old Sun"/Peace of Mind."

Walt Maddox put his version of The Marcels on wax again in 1978 with a disco-styled remake of "Blue Moon," and successfully prevented any further confusion by winning complete legal use of The Marcels name. In 1994 he brought in Jules Hopson as lead singer and for nearly 20 years now, Hopson has been the Harp imposter.

Fortunately when PBS assembled and televised one of their first fund-raising oldies concerts, and wanted The Marcels, they insisted on the REAL deal. Four of the five were alive and ready to kick, including Fred Johnson on bass, and Cornelius singing lead. That's the picture on this page and you can see that performance of "Blue Moon" on YouTube. A year ago, PBS once again brought in The Marcels for yet another oldies show, but Cornelius was missing. The rest of the surviving originals (including Fred Johnson on bass, his hair now cut short) showed up to augment the Maddox imposters.

The Maddox-managed version of The Marcels is still part of oldies packages, and sometimes they get a chance to turn in an hour or so on their own. It happens once in a blue moon. One of their few scheduled starring performances is next month (Friday, August 30, 2013) at the St. Mary's Ukrainian Festival, Corner of Helen and Ella St., McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.

FIVE versions of BLUE MOON

2 comments:

Ordinary Average Guy said...

Someone for his blog please email me at kyleeidson@u.boisestate.edu regarding a post in 2007 you wrote on the musician Kyle and the album TIMES THAT TRY A MAN'S SOUL.

Robbie L. said...

The 'Zoom' recording is a treasure, thanks so much for posting it. Thanks also for the history of The Marcels. Though I grew up hearing (and buying) their hits, I really didn't know anything about them until the more recent PBS shows.

Sorry to hear the news about Cornelius Harp. His stellar vocals didn't go unnoticed by ME. And Fred Johnson, what a great stage persona. He clearly believes he's the focal point of the group...and I suppose that he is.