Saturday, February 21, 2009

Leon Daniels and the El Venos

The El Venos from Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebook (photo provided by Carl Janusek)

The El Venos began in the summer of 1955, in Penn Township, now Penn Hills. There, five 15-year olds hooked up to harmonize: Leon Daniels was lead tenor, backed up by first tenor Danny Jackson, second tenor Leon Taylor, baritone Joey Daniels (Leon's brother), and bass Bernard Palmer.

The Daniels were originally from Duquesne, and after the group formed, the family moved back. Leon and Joey ended up taking three trolley rides to get to the Penn Hills' practices, transferring at Squirrel Hill and East Liberty. Ah, the sacrifices one makes for one's art.

They decided, being teens, that they'd name themselves after something wine-related, and came up with the Grapevines. Tapping into the 50's rage to give groups an exotic Spanish-sounding moniker, they morphed the Grapevines into the El Vinos.

However, that was too close to “winos” for their taste; they wanted to be sophisticated, not Bowery Bums. So they changed the spelling to match the pronunciation and ended up with “El Venos.” It was a bit convoluted, but they liked it.

Covering tunes by the Heartbeats, Harptones, Cadillacs, Moonglows, Spaniels, Turbans, and Drifters, they started to become regulars on the local hop circuit. The DJ's hosted them, too: Porky Chedwick (WHOD), Bill Powell (WILY), and Jay Michael (WCAE) all had them on-air at some time or another.

They hit gold when they got the soprano Anna Mae Jackson, Danny's sister, to share leads with Daniels. It was all thanks to the Wilkens Amateur Hour.

In early 1956, the El Venos were selected to be on the weekly TV show, aired on WDTV, sponsored, of course, by the Wilkens Jewelry Store. The acts did their thing, and the winner was picked by tallying the votes of the TV audience, sent in by post card. The prize was $500, big money at the time (and not too shabby even today).

They wanted to sing the year's boffo hit, the Teenagers, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” But no one had a voice that could crack crystal like Frankie Lymon's could.

The answer to their conundrum? They got Danny's sister, Anna Mae Jackson, to sing the lead. It worked; Anna Mae was great - they added her to the group after the show - and those post cards rolled in for them. The El Venos took top honors that week.

DJ Bill Powell of WILY introduced them to Bob Rolontz, A&R man for RCA's Groove subsidiary. He had the El Venos send him a demo tape of some of their original material, mailed them a one year contract, and set up a taping session with Groove.

After surviving several family hassles, (they were all too young to sign a contract, and needed their parents' John Hancock to seal the deal, and none of them were too enthralled with the thought of their children singing for their supper) they sent the paperwork back.

The recording date was finally set for August 27, 1956, and the El Venos were off to RCA's New York City studios. Jackson borrowed his dad's 1953 Buick Roadmaster, stuffed the group in, and motored to the Big Apple. They were all of 16.

The El Venos sang the three songs from their demo tape: “Geraldine,” featuring Daniels, “Are You An Angel?,” with Daniels and Danny Jackson on lead, and “Now We're Together," fronted by Daniels and Anna Mae Jackson .

A month later, Groove issued “Geraldine,” b/w “Now We're Together” (#4G-0170). It never became a national hit, but it was big in Pittsburgh. Who can forget the "dooley-paddy-wah" line? The El Venos also got some eastern seaboard love, but not enough for it to break out.

After “Geraldine” was recorded, Leon Taylor's mother, Johnnie Mae, agreed to become the El Venos' house mom/manager. She drove them around, acted as a chaperone, and even let them rehearse at her house. Mrs. Taylor was a busy woman, running a beauty shop out of her home and studying to become a nurse.

As a result, most of their bookings came through Bill Powell. He was the group's contact guy, and would call Johnnie Mae when a gig popped up. They weren't exactly beating the bushes for appearances.

Not that booking shows was a problem. The El Venos never left the area, because their parents disapproved. Dick Clark wanted them on his Bandstand TV show, even booking a date through Powell, after he saw the Philly response to “Geraldine” .

But the gang's parents wouldn't let them go to Philadelphia, and the group couldn't raise the needed loot themselves. It's tough to make a name for yourself when you can't get out of your own backyard.

The El Venos' only big-time appearance took place when “Geraldine” hit #3 locally. They played a show at the Leona Theater in Homestead, with Johnnie & Joe, Chuck Willis, the Cadillacs, Bo Diddley, Johnny Burnette, the Del Vikings, Dakota Station, Otis Williams & the Charms, and the Heartbeats as the local rep on the national traveling bill.

RCA renewed the contract. Their second studio session was held on July 9, 1957. This time there was no problem getting to New York: Johnnie Mae Taylor piled them into her new 1957 Plymouth and drove them there herself.

All four songs they recorded that day were led by Anna Mae Jackson and Leon Daniels: “My Heart Beats Faster,” “You Must Be True” (a label misprint; it should have been “You Won't Be True”), “You're Gonna Be My Girl,” and “Oui, Monsieur.”

Groove Records was defunct by now, and they switched over to RCA's Vik subsidiary, along with the other label acts like Mickey and Sylvia. Vik released “My Heart Beats Faster” b/w “You Must Be True” (#4X-0305) in November.

That was it for the RCA years. After the second contract was fulfilled, Bill Powell got them a session with Bill Lasley's Amp-3 Records (distributed by Mercury) in the summer of 1958.

Joey Daniels got married and moved away to New York. He was replaced by baritone Jimmy Wright of the local Echoes. Amp-3 recorded “Pretty Knees," featuring Daniels, and “(I Am Just A) Lonely Girl” led by Anna Mae Jackson. It was never released.

The group lost another member when Bill Powell sweet-talked Anna Mae Jackson into going solo. He had her record another side called “Lover's Prayer,” backed by George Benson and the Altairs. In July 1959, “(I Am Just A) Lonely Girl” b/w “Lover's Prayer” was released on Memo (#M-3), another Bill Lasley label, under the name Anne Keith.

The five guys weren't done, though. They hooked up with Calico Records. Talent scout Ed Townsend had come to Pittsburgh to check out the scene, and the two groups he liked were the Skyliners and the El Venos. He opted to push the Skyliners, but kept the El Venos on his rolodex.

In 1960, they recorded “Stereophonic,” featuring Danny Jackson and “It's The Little Things,” lead by Leon Daniels, for Calico at Bell Sound in Queens, New York.

They even had a plan to combine the local talents. After the record was released, the El Venos would go on tour as the opening act for the Skyliners. But as Scot poet Robert Burns noted, "The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft astray."

And the El Veno's, this close to grabbing the golden ring, saw their plans go way astray.

Bill Powell told Calico that he wanted 10% of the record or he wouldn't play it on WILY. That was a minor setback, and pretty common back in the day. The label could work around Powell's open palm.

Calico wanted to push “Stereophonic,” but before the record could be released, Danny Jackson left the group to sing in his church, a complete bolt from the blue, and that became the deal-breaker.

The label decided not to issue the record, because they felt that no one else in the group could sing it like Jackson. That was the coffin nail, and sounded the last hurrah of the El Venos.

Leon Daniels became a manager in the meat department of the Giant Eagle supermarket chain, not singing again for over 35 years.

Leon Taylor has passed on, Danny Jackson eventually joined the service, Joey Daniels lives in NYC, and Anna Mae Jackson moved to New Jersey. We believe that Bernard Palmer still lives in the area.

Over the years, the El Venos have earned Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Society of Oldies Collectors and the Pittsburgh Oldies Record Collectors Club.

In January 1964, catering to a newly revived oldies market, RCA reissued “My Heart Beats Faster”/“You Won't Be True” (#47-8303). While the El Venos no longer existed, they'd finally scored some wax on the vaunted RCA label. But Leon Daniels took care of that, when in 1998, he put together a new El Venos group.

The members now are Ronnie Williams (baritone, bass; former lead of the Orlandos), Wayne Zollinger (baritone), Chuck Townsend (second tenor), and Gwen Davis (first tenor and alto). They have their own 5-piece band that appears with them: Jimmy Britton (keyboards), Jimmy Mendys (saxophone), Billy Smith (guitar), Jeff Ingersoll (bass), and Brandon Barnes (drums).

The new El Venos have released two CDs, “Vintage Veno” (Cestra Productions #155595) and “Vintage Collection” (Bonedog #327587). Their original stuff is carried on several compilation records, like the "Pittsburgh's Greatest Hits" series on the Itzy label.

They appear as Leon Daniels and the El Venos, and they've performed at nearly every venue in the area: the Giant Eagle Parking Lot, Keystone Commons, East Pittsburgh Community Center, the Latrobe Festival at Latrobe Legion Park, the Yukon Slovenian Hall, Etna Elks, the Holiday Inn, Italian Club, and at virtually every doo-wop concert held in the city.

(Old Mon again has to give thanks to that great ol' R&B historian, Marv Goldberg, and his R&B Notebook, the Who's Who of Doo Wop)

"My Heart Beats Faster" - The El Venos (1957)


christine042 said...

As a "True Pittsburgh Oldies" lover, and an "oldie" myself, I was priveleged to meet Leon Daniels last week and really enjoyed talking to him. What a gentleman and nice, nice guy. He has such great stories about the Pittsburgh oldies community from back in the day till now. What a pleasant experience. Rock on, Leon!

Ron Ieraci said...

Thanks, Christine, for the story. That just reinforces what I've heard about Leon being a great ambassador for the old R&B scene in the City.

Thomas Jackson said...

As the son of the original group member(Daniel Jackson), i would like to reunite my father with Leon Daniels some day soon hopefully. He still talks very highly of his old group and is eager to see his old group memeber. so if anyone knows of any way to get in contact with him please feel free to contact me (Thomas Jackson)

Ron Ieraci said...

Thomas - I've had no luck running him down. If anyone has Leon's e-mail, let us know.

Anonymous said...

I just heard on the WLSW Georgio's Doo Wop Cafe That Leon Daniels is in the hospital and quit ill for several months. Georgio can be reached through WLSW Cannellsville, PA

Ron Ieraci said...

Thanks for the update on Leon. Let's pray that he pulls through.

Anonymous said...

Leon Passed Away Sunday March 13th. the obit from the Pgh. Tribune-Review.
Leon D. Daniels
Penn Hills

Leon D. Daniels, 72, of Penn Hills, passed away peacefully Sunday, March 18, 2012. He was the son of the late Wade Jones and Julia Daniels Jackson; beloved husband of Fayette Sandidge Daniels whom he was married to for 52 wonderful years; loving father of Wadina (Preston) Thompson, Leaetta Daniels, Leon J. Daniels and Marc (Hillary) Daniels; devoted grandfather of Tiye' Kenneth Thompson-Taylor, Kindalyn Thompson, Preston Corey Thompson and Marc S. Daniels Jr.; stepgrandfather of Nicholas Daniels; brother of Catherine Foster, of Clifton, Md.; nephew of Clarence Daniels, of McKeesport, Charles Daniels, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Joseph (Judith) Daniels, of Port St. Lucie, Fla.; brother-in-law of Phyllis (Ishmael) Johnson, John (Jean) Sandidge and DeWayne (Regina) Sandidge and the late Laverne Sandidge Jeffries; also survived by a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. Leon loved singing with the El Venos and later was with the Laurels. Leon will be sadly missed by his family, friends and fans. Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at RAPP FUNERAL HOME, 10940 Frankstown Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15235, 412-241-5415, where services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday.

Anonymous said...

Oops my date was wrong the 18th is correct.

christine042 said...

I am so sad to hear this. Another of the great ones is gone. Rock on in that heavenly band, Leon. RIP.

Jackie King said...

I will forever miss a wonderful friend & musician in Leon Daniels, he was a kind & loving person. He always said I was his #! fan! I always will be. Hope someday we will meet again where I know he is singing with his beautiful voice with the angels. I loved you dearly Leon.
Jackie King