Friday, July 18, 2008

Everybody Knew the La Rells

la rells 1960
The La Rells, from David Parr's collection

This story begins in 1956, in Homewood, where teens Frankie Flowers (first tenor), David Parr (second tenor and lead), Robert Thompson (second tenor and lead), and Wilton Anderson (baritone and bass) got together. They called themselves the La Rells.

They came up with the name to separate themselves from the then-current rage of "bird" groups, like the Flamingos, Penguins, etc., and they liked the sound of La Rells. First they tried to use the name Laurels, but couldn't get anyone to pronounce it the way they wanted. They solved that by performing as the La Rells. Nothing like spelling it out, hey?

They were inspired by songstress Dakota Staton, who had a string of hits for Capitol Records starting in the mid-1950’s, and like them, was a Westinghouse High grad. Parr was also a fan of Harlem’s Frankie Lymon, who started out with the Teenagers before going solo.

From the very beginning the La Rells were busy gigging at various shows and record hops throughout the area. But like most groups of the era, they had trouble keeping the players in one place.

Get the scorecard ready. First, Frankie Flowers moved to Boston, and then Robert Thompson left the group. (A year later, in 1958, he became a member of the El Moroccos, later famed as The Diadems.) Reuben Taylor became their lead singer and Carole Washington came aboard to sing soprano.

This version of the La Rells remained together for nearly a year. But Carole Washington died and Lafon McKellar, a second tenor, took her place. The La Rells also added Alex Richburg on guitar and Vann Harris, who played drums.

In late 1957, the La Rells appeared on a talent show at Holy Cross Church along with a group from Penn Hills, the Links. The Links featured a silky lead, Frank Avery, and the La Rells sweet talked him into throwing in with them.

He replaced Reuben Taylor, who left the group. Coming over with Avery was Bob Best, the first tenor of the Links.

The new edition of the La Rells featured Frank Avery on lead, Bob Best (first tenor), David Parr (second tenor), Lafon McKellar (second tenor), Wilton Anderson (baritone and bass), Alex Richburg (guitarist) and Vann Harris (drummer). This group formed the classic La Rells line up.

In 1960, KQV DJ Larry Aiken hooked them up with Lennie Martin of Robbee Records. He liked their demo tape, and cut the ballad "Everybody Knew" b/w the up-tempo "Please Be Fair," released as Robbee 109. The song was a big local hit.

Their career took off in the region. They did hops and shows for Clark Race, Larry Aiken, Porky Chadwick, Bill Powell, and Sir Walter at places like the Savoy Ballroom, Diamond Roller Rink, White Elephant and Twin Coaches. Parr joked that their car knew the way to the Twin Coaches without the help of the driver.

In 1960 they won Bill Powell's prestigious "Pittsburgher" Award. And if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, they were flattered to death when another group performed as the La Rell Juniors. No, they never shared a bill, and probably would have met in court in this era, but coexisted just fine back in the day.

In 1961, they cut another record, "Public Transportation" b/w "I Just Can't Understand," released as Robbee 114. The music tracks were laid by the Rock 'N' Bluesmen, the La Rell's choice over Martin's house band.

They were an R&B group originally out of Buffalo, NY, that performed throughout the Pittsburgh area. They recorded a couple of tunes as Rabbit and Geno, and the La Rells repaid the favor by backing them on "Deep In the Night" b/w "Never Before," set up by Pete Tambellini.

"Public Transportation" didn't move for the La Rells. It was the beginning of the Civil Rights era, and the intoned "please move to the rear of the bus" by Dave Parr smacked a bit too much of reality, and made the record too hot to handle for the DJ's of the early 1960's.

Still, it didn't hurt them locally. The La Rells were the first Pittsburgh group to appear on a rock 'n' roll show at the Civic Arena. On October 20, 1961, they were on the same bill with Fats Domino and Brenda Lee.

In fact, they met Lee and her mother at the airport and had lunch with them. Young Parr picked up a life-long habit from her when he noticed her cleaning her silverware with her napkin after each course. He had never seen anyone do that before, and before long, it became ingrained with him, too.

But they soon tired of the peanuts they made playing area shows for the DJ's, and decided to beef up the band with some brass and hit the college circuit. It was a good decision. They were a hit with the students, and actually got to keep a fair portion of the gate they drew.

In 1962, the La Rells signed with Liberty Records and cut "I Guess I'll Never Stop Loving You" b/w "Sneaky Alligator" in the Big Apple (Liberty 55430, reissued as Robbee 120 in 1991.) The Liberty session players backing the band were pretty solid. King Curtis was on the sax, and a young Roberta Flack sat in on piano.

But the disk received little airplay, and signs of dissension and career frustrations started to bubble up within the group.

It didn't help when Bob Best left the band to join the military shortly after the record's release. His place was filled by Ronald Bentley. Then David Parr received his "greetings from Uncle Sam" notice and traded in his microphone for an M-16 in March 1964. His departure was the death knell of the La Rells.

From the very start, the La Rells tried to wrest some artistic and financial control of their group from the suits, but in that era, it was next to impossible.

Their first run-in with the controlling nature of the industry was in 1959, when they cut “One and One Is Two” b/w “Sputnik – Part I.” Their first manager, whom they prefer not to name, wanted them to enter into a contract that was tantamount, in Parr’s words, “to signing our life away. He wanted to own us.”

They didn’t sign, and the record was never released. Even in the Larry Aiken days (whom they still recall warmly) their ability to shape their own future was minimal.

“The first record we released, ‘Everybody Knew,’” Parr recalled, “was arranged by Lennie Martin and Robbee to make us sound like Little Anthony and the Imperials.”

Their next release, the ill-fated “Public Transportation,” tried to cast them in the Coaster’s mold. Imagine how insulting it must have been to hone your craft in countless rehearsals and live shows over the years, and then have a suit try to make you over into the flavor of the month.

Parr ticked off several examples of careers gone astray because of mismanagement, including his first role model. “If Frankie Lymon would have been handled right instead of being abused,” Parr said. “He would have been bigger than Michael Jackson.”

He also pointed out the legal entanglements that left many singers lurching in the wake. “The artists don’t even have a right to their own name,” Parr explained. “How many different versions of the Platters and Drifters are out there performing?”

“Look at the Vogues. One of them has the rights to the group’s name within a 50 mile radius of Pittsburgh, and another group gets to tour the rest of the country as the Vogues.” In fact, until last year, the nationally touring Vogues didn't have a member that recorded any of the Vogue hits.

Chuck Blasco, an original member and leader of the local Vogues, lobbied Congress to make changes in trademark laws to prevent others from misrepresenting themselves as being original artists, and Parr agrees there oughta be a law to protect the groups. What a tangled web we weave...

We won’t even get into the Benjamins. The 66-year old Parr says “I’m at a point of my life where the royalties don’t make any difference.”

But he made it clear that the system back in the day was an inverted pyramid, with the venues, DJ’s and managers getting the gravy while the groups were the bottom feeders of the money machine they fueled.

David Parr's cause celebrite is to get some recognition for the fathers of R&B, the fifties and sixties vocal groups. "Oprah had the Osmonds on, " he said. "Why wouldn't she feature some of the artists of my era?"

As he pointed out, Betty Everett, Bo Diddly, Pookie Hudson, and a host of the old stalwarts are in rock 'n' roll heaven now. He thinks it's time to recognize the real roots of soul, while they're still here to enjoy a moment in the sun again and tell their tales before they're forever forgotten.

There aren't many of the old La Rells left anymore, either. Parr lives with his wife Charlie in Penn Hills, and was a recording engineer. He worked at Steel City Recording in East Liberty with TL back in the day, recording the "Midnight to Daylight" tapes.

He also met the late Phyllis Hyman while producing a tune at Walt Maddox's old Carnegie studio in 1974. She sang backup on the song “Dancing on a Daydream” by Flora Wilson.

The song has an interesting history. It was first penned as "Flower Child" and a demo tape was made by Stevie Sawyer, Billy Eckstine's niece. She shopped it around, even taking it to Nashville, but her voice and the notes didn't quite mesh.

But the Crawley, Greenley and Richburg song was a good tune, and Parr got the instrumental track recorded at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios when he piggybacked some time on Vann Harris' "Stop Your Cryin" session. It was laid down by the Sound of Philadelphia Orchestra.

When he got back to Pittsburgh, he brought in a very pregnant Wilson (she had her baby the next day) to do the song, backed by Hyman and some other girls, and then dubbed the SOP track, with George Green on sax and Gene Ludwig on organ added in.

The instrumental became the flip side, as was common in those days, and the credit was given to the "Soulvation Army Band," the name of the label (Soulvation Army #742).

The song was renamed "Dancing on a Daydream," and though Wilson did a great job on the A side, the instrumental version is what still gets played today.

Frankie Avery makes his home in California, and Vann Harris still lives in the area, and was the driving force behind the 60's group Bobby and the Vanguards. The rest are gone to their reward.

The group has popped up sporadically. Avery is still in the business, and had a minor hit with the NYC group Chocolate Syrup in 1971 with “Stop Your Crying.”

The La Rells had reunion gigs in 1994 at Henry DeLuca's “Roots of Rock and Roll, Vol. 20” concert, and in 1995 and 1997 at the Belle Vernon-based SOC (Society of Oldies Collectors) shows (SOC band bio). The La-Rells appeared in the 2001 PBS program “The Sound of Pittsburgh”.

Also in 2001, Avery and Parr got together to cut a Porky tribute b/w an updated “Tomorrow Will Only Bring Sorrow,” but Avery wouldn’t commit to staying in Pittsburgh – 40 years in the California sun will do that to a man – and that was that.

Now David Parr is the institutional memory of the La Rells, keeping their songs, stories, and good times alive.

They did receive one of Pittsburgh’s greatest honors, along with their earliest inspiration, Dakota Staton. They were selected to Westinghouse High’s renowned “Wall of Fame,” along with all the other storied Bulldog achievers to come from the hard streets of Homewood.

Their work is available on "The Best of Robbee Records," issued by the Dead Dog Records label, which features seven La Rell tracks from Lennie Martin's vaults, as well as on compilation albums like "Pittsburgh's Greatest Hits" from Itzy Records and "Doo Wop Collectors Classics," among others.

And, of course, the original vinyls are selling like hotcakes to collectors on sites like E-Bay, especially overseas.

(Old Mon Music would like to thank David Parr for taking the time to tell the story of the La Rells. It’s a great tale of the 1960’s music industry, and David was most gracious and forthcoming in sharing his memories and insights with us.)

La Rells - "Everybody Knew" 1961


Rev. Christine Glover said...

This is a wonderful site. Thanks for doing it, David Parr.

Mary C said...

The La Rells performed at Shaw Avenue High School in McKeesport, PA in 1961 when I was a freshman. I still remember the amazing dance moves they performed. I had never seen anything like it! Good to hear this wonderful song, "Everybody Knew" again.