Although most of us list the aggregations with dozens of records to their credit as being our favorite groups, a large percentage of our favorite songs are by groups with only a modest output. The Delcos' "Arabia" is a case in point. An extremely well-executed arrangement, it found its way onto a 70s bootleg album that contained, among other tunes, "A Fool Such As I" (the Robins), "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night" (the Mello-Moods), and "God Only Knows" (the Crystals). Not bad for a 1962 record. This is the story of the Delcos; short, but sweet.
The Delcos were from South Bend, Indiana (home of the Studebaker) and had attended South Bend Central High (although they'd all graduated by the time the group formed in 1961). The original members were: Peter Woodard (first and second tenor), Pike Miller (first tenor), Richard Greene (second tenor, baritone), and Otis Smith (bass). A sometime fifth member was tenor/guitarist James Thomas. Ralph Woods says that he didn't come to rehearsals much; Glenn Madison knew him, but never saw him with the group at all! (Both Ralph and Glenn were later members of the group.)
The unnamed group started singing on the street corners of South Bend and, from there, graduated to house parties, talent shows, and some appearances at Central High and Washington High. There were also some bigger gigs: Cherry Hall, the Elks Club, and the Morris Civic Center. They admired the Dells, the Spaniels, the Moonglows, the 5 Satins - actually anyone who could sing a simpler form of group harmony than was being practiced in 1961. They had arrangements of the Dells' "Oh What A Nite" and "Why Do You Have To Go," the Spaniels' "Stormy Weather," the Moonglows' "Sincerely," the 5 Satins' "In The Still Of The Night," and the Jacks' "Why Don't You Write Me."
At some point, they were heard and encouraged by Juanita Henson, who became their manager. One of their favorite songs was "Arabia," a tune that Peter Woodard had been singing from his days in the Army. (This was, of course, prior to Peter O'Toole's blockbuster movie "Lawrence Of Arabia," released in 1962.) The guys worked out the arrangement, and they knew they had a winner. (Sadly, it's Juanita's name that appears as songwriter.).
After only a few months, however, they decided that Pike Miller wasn't fitting in and he was asked to leave. [Miller then joined the Army, where he developed leukemia, from which he subsequently passed away.] Pike was replaced by his brother Gilbert, also a tenor. But they weren't destined to have a Miller in the group: Gilbert didn't work out either.
Enter first tenor Glenn Madison. Recently discharged from the Navy at 23, Glenn knew the others from Central High, and had even come to their practice sessions, just to listen and enjoy. His singing experience went back to 1955, when he'd sung with Junior Walker's band for a while (Walker lived just down the street in those days). Let's see, he knows everyone, he's a first tenor, he's familiar with all the arrangements; hmmm, sounds like a match to me.
Then there was James Thomas. It finally got to the point that they realized he had no real interest in being a part of the group. To replace him, they got baritone/bass Ralph Woods. Ralph hailed from Knoxville, Tennessee, and, as he says: "My career started in Knoxville with an Austin High School friend, Calvin Cuberson. We skipped school for two weeks to perform with the 5 Pennies/Bingos at the El Morocco Club in Greensboro, North Carolina, promoting their popular hit song "Money, Money, Money." The threat of juvenile detention brought us home." This would have been in the Spring of 1956.
Then there was a real tragedy: Juanita Henson's husband didn't want her managing a group (especially a black group). By the time Glenn joined, her husband had left her.
When Glenn and Ralph came in, the group decided to buckle down (and at least get a name). They wanted something to remind them of their heroes, the Dells. So when they rode down a street and saw a Sears sign for Delco batteries, it was a natural. "We were hot," says Glenn, "and we named ourselves after this hot battery." Says Ralph, "We struggled to find a name that expressed our concept. One day while driving from rehearsal sandwiched in Juanita's car, we passed a Delco parts garage. The lights went on! We became "The Delcos." Re-energized, we rehearsed at every opportunity, often for hours without eating or resting."
According to Glenn, whoever sang lead on a song usually composed its melody, while all the guys worked on the background.
In October 1962, the Delcos recorded "Arabia" and "These Three Little Words" at the fairly primitive studio of radio station WSBT. They were released, that same month, on Juanita Henson's new Ebony Records. The orchestration was done by the Buddy Kay Band, featuring a drummer named Clyde, who played like he had four hands. The record began to take off in a few areas, and Juanita realized that she could never handle the distribution of a hit.
She also realized that the production values at WSBT were meager, at best. Acting quickly, she struck up a deal with Monument Records. "Juanita remained hopeful and confident in our eventual success," says Ralph. "She reached out to Monument Records to secure a more substantial effort in our promotion. It could have been a case of expecting too much too soon, as we were one of the earliest, if not the first, black vocal groups signed to Monument Records. Monument had little experience in promoting black acts."
The Delcos traveled to Nashville (in a 1960 Pontiac with "Delcos" banners), where the sides were re-cut. This time, they were backed by the Boots Randolph Orchestra (which also included Bill Justis). On hearing the original recording, the musicians couldn't believe that only one drummer was used on "Arabia." While the overall sound of the record (eventually released on Monument's Showcase subsidiary) was better, Randolph's drummer never could capture the original sound. The Showcase disc was released in February 1963, and "These Three Little Words" magically became "Those Three Little Words."
"Arabia" eventually reached #1 in Pittsburgh (where veteran DJ Porky Chedwick broke the tune), #3 in Washington D.C., and #5 in Detroit before dying down. (It even made the national charts, although only for two weeks, peaking at #111.) With "Arabia" hot, they played the Twenty Grand in Detroit.
Says Ralph: "Porky Chedwick broke our original recording of "Arabia" on Pittsburgh's KQV in 1963. "Arabia" climbed the charts and reached #1, where it remained for several weeks, eventually becoming one of KQV's most popular hits that year. Monument Records held their release of our re-recording in an effort not to interfere with sales. This was probably a prudent economic decision on the part of Monument, when faced with the decision of investing in an unproven act. In retrospect, I wish Monument had pulled the original recording and actively marketed our new sound. In my opinion, that would have propelled us into the national arena." [Note: Porky Chedwick was actually on WAMO at the time.]
Ralph remembers other engagements: "KDKA-TV [Pittsburgh], with Brenda Lee and Patti Duke; with Lou Christie, Ben E. King, and Bobby Vinton on WOOK, in Washington, D.C.; the Pink Elephant nightclub in Pittsburgh; the Fat Daddy Show in Philadelphia; the Buddy Dean show in Baltimore; a hop at Bangor High School in Bangor, Michigan; Detroit's 20-Grand with the Drifters and the Royalettes; CoBo Hall and the University of Detroit, where screaming fans lifted me from the stage and shuttled me over their heads to the back of the auditorium, returning me unharmed at the end of 'Arabia'. An audience in Youngstown, Ohio convinced us to sing a cappella. They wanted proof that our voices matched those on our record. Our tour ended in Chicago. We sang at an exclusive hotel lounge and were backed by the Ventures."
At least they got gigs out of the record, remembers Ralph: "Monument sent us on a promotion tour of the East Coast. I remember squeezing into small cars, speeding through the hills of Pennsylvania to meet our scheduled hops in schools, nightclubs, radio and TV studios. Our tenure with Monument was fast-paced and eventful, from recording in Nashville with their studio band of Boots Randolph, Bill Justis, and Al Hirt; meeting Roy Orbison, but not realizing how iconic he would become; and a 'Meet the Delcos' talk show at KQV in Pittsburgh."
Shortly after this, there was a second Delcos record on Ebony: "When You Dance" (the Turbans classic), backed with "Why Do You Have To Go" (their tribute to the Dells). Although only Glenn Madison's name is on the label (as "Glen Madison"), the whole group is present. "She was trying to make me a single," says Glenn.
The final Delcos release was on Sound Stage 7, another Monument subsidiary: "Still Miss You So"/"Just Ask," issued in November 1963. These tunes were also recorded at Monument with the Boots Randolph Orchestra. [Note: some discographies show "Arabia" and "Those Three Little Words" to have also been issued on Sound Stage 7 #2501. However, as far as I can determine, this record never existed.]
There were four records and one semi-hit, but the Delcos got little out of it. "She [Juanita] wasn't giving us any money," says Glenn. "She gave her home to her daughter and moved to a ritzy area." (Glenn describes her as having been pretty poor when he first met her.) However, I heard from Juanita's granddaughter, Mariann, who said that Juanita sold the house to her daughter and son-in-law and moved into a detached garage on the property that had been converted into an apartment. This way, Juanita could continue her songwriting and daughter Ida had a space to raise her four teenaged children. ("One slight change I might suggest for your article is that Grandma never gave a house to her daughter Ida. We had to convert a garage into a makeshift apartment on the same lot so she could keep writing and Ida could continue to raise 4 teenagers. Not a big thing but Bill her son in law had a great factory job and kept us all going.")
Ralph remembers: "We invested hours, emotions, and funds in this venture. Unfortunately, we emerged on the scene in the middle of the payola era. Money dictated which songs got airtime. In short, 'no pay, no play.' Juanita's resources were quickly exhausted. Subsequently, we waited for the break we believed we had earned." Discouraged, the Delcos broke up sometime in 1964.
According to Ralph, he was the main cause of the breakup: "Unfortunately, fate intervened as the war in Viet Nam unfolded. I was drafted into the United States Armed Forces in December of 1963. The Delcos disbanded shortly after my induction."
In 1991, all the Delcos material that could be scraped together was issued on a CD. While you'd think the guys would be proud of this, they're not. Not only haven't they received a penny for it, but most of the tunes were crudely-recorded practice runs, not polished performances that they would have been proud of. Most of the songs were recorded on an open reel tape recorder, while they were sitting around on the porch of Juanita's house. The sound quality isn't good and the harmonies hadn't progressed to the point where they were finished products. They're actually embarrassed by some of the tracks.
"Arabia" is a great record; I'm sorry I never got to hear it in the 60s. It had a lot of potential, but Monument seemed to be content to sit back and let it sell itself.
At least the story ended well for Glenn Madison: In 1966 he ended up as a singer with Don Johnson's Orchestra (Johnson was a former trumpet player for Johnny Otis). While in Los Angeles, he met Walter Saulsberry, who was just starting out with Cleve Duncan's Penguins. They hit it off, and Walter spent a couple of years pestering Glenn to join. He only held back because the band had a lot of work. Finally, in 1970, Glenn joined the Penguins; he's still with them in 2005. (Amazingly, he was also the lead singer for Zola Taylor's Platters from 1995 to 1997. Luckily, Penguins and Platters appearances never overlapped.)
For the past 30 years, Ralph has been an educator.
All the members of the Delcos, other than Richard Greene, are still alive in 2005 and are starting to talk about getting back together again. As Ralph says, "Presently, Glenn, Pete, Otis, and I are eagerly anticipating our first reunion in South Bend in August of 2005." Who knows, maybe the "hot group" from South Bend will finally realize its potential.
Special thanks to Val Shively and Bruce Dixon.
EBONY (as the "Delco's" [sic])
01/02 Arabia (PW)/These Three Little Words (GM) - 10/62
2501 Arabia (PW)/Those Three Little Words (GM) - 2/63
EBONY (label only credits "Glen Madison" [sic])
105 When You Dance (GM)/Why Do You Have To Go (GM) - 63
SOUND STAGE 7
2515 Still Miss You So (RG)/Just Ask (RW) - 11/63
UNRELEASED EBONY (mostly practice sessions)
Recorded prior to Glenn Madison joining:
Sunday Kind Of Love (PW)
Si, Si, Pedro (ALL)
Peace Of Mind(RG)
Lucky Old Sun (PW)
Just A Memory (RW)
Give Me A Chance (RG)
Crazy Baby (OS)
Come On Back(ALL)
Broken Heart (PW)
Recorded with Glenn Madison:
My Guardian Angel (GM)
Diddy Bop (GM)
PW = Peter Woodard; GM = Glenn Madison; RG = Richard Greene;
RW = Ralph Woods; OS = Otis Smith