Not the first female R&B group, the Enchanters were still one of the first in the 1950s, paving the way for the Hearts, the Bobbettes, the Chantels and the Shirelles.
The story of the Enchanters goes back to around 1950, when Della Simpson and Frances Kelley, who worked together in a factory that manufactured shoulder pads, decided to form a singing group. Della brought in her girlhood friend, Pearl Brice and then they approached Rachel Gist, a Harlem club soloist, whom they convinced to join. To round out the group, they asked a friend of theirs, Chris Townes, to be their instructor, pianist, arranger, and songwriter; thus, the group was pretty much self-contained.
The girls were around 17 years old at the time (with Rachel being the youngest), and were influenced by the 4 Buddies and the Wanderers (later by the 4 Freshmen and Sonny Til's second Orioles). Della (whose personal influence was Billie Holiday) sang lead, Rachel was soprano, Pearl was alto, and Frances was "bass."
They practiced for about a year, playing small clubs whenever they could, mostly singing original songs that Chris Townes wrote. Finally, in November 1951, Della got it into her head to call Jerry Blaine, owner of Jubilee Records, and invite him up to Harlem to hear them perform. Blaine was intrigued at the thought of a female group, and made an appointment to see them.
At the time, they were appearing at a club called Showman's (on 125th Street, next door to the Apollo). It was also a place they practiced at, since it had a piano. They sang "I've Lost" for Blaine and he was impressed enough to ask them to come down the next day to sign a contract. He then set up a recording session for the very next week.
The first song they did was "Today Is Your Birthday," a tune given to them by Blaine. It was something that had been released a couple of months previously by the Sugar Tones (on the Onyx label). Other songs recorded that day were "How Could You Break My Heart," "I've Lost," "Housewife Blues," and "You Know I'm Not In Love With You." Della sang lead on all of them, and the male voice doing the recitation on "Today Is Your Birthday" belonged to bandleader Buddy Lucas.
Jubilee never seemed to have any rhyme or reason for the way it assigned master numbers. On November 28, 1951 the Orioles recorded four sides: "How Blind Can You Be" (28013), "When You're Not Around" (28014), "Waiting" (28023), and "My Loved One" (28024). The Enchanters' tunes fit nicely into this pattern (28015, 28016, 28021, and 28022), so it's reasonable (as far as anything is reasonable with Jubilee) to assume they were all recorded on this same date. Both Della and Frances remember only one session.
With some songs safely in the can, Blaine felt confident enough to include the Enchanters' name in his 1951 Christmas ad in the trade papers. They were mentioned along with the Orioles, Sonny Til, Edna McGriff, and Buddy Lucas. This must have led people to wonder just who the Enchanters actually were, since Blaine didn't announce their signing until January. They were billed, in the ad, as "Something New & Different!"
In January 1952, Jubilee released "Today Is Your Birthday" and "How Could You Break My Heart." There doesn't seem to have been a review of the record, but it was released around the time of the Swallows' "Tell Me Why," the Majors' "Laughing On The Outside, Crying On The Inside," the Larks' "My Lost Love," the Jive Bombers' "Brown Boy," the 5 Keys' "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," the Cardinals' "Wheel Of Fortune," and the Marshall Brothers' "Why Make A Fool Out Of Me."
In March 1952, the Enchanters were signed by Billy Shaw's Shaw Artists Corporation, at the same time as Lil Green, Sarah McLawler, and Big Jay McNeely.
In April 1952, Jubilee released the Enchanters' second record: "I've Lost," backed with "Housewife Blues." It was reviewed the week of April 26, along with Mabel Scott's "Yes," Helen Humes' "Loud Talkin' Woman," Tiny Bradshaw's "Mailman's Sack," Roy Milton's "So Tired," Preston Love's "Wango Blues," Billy Bunn & Buddies' "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," Lloyd Price's "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy," Fats Domino's "Goin' Home," the Blenders' "I'd Be A Fool Again," and the 4 Clefs' "Dig These Blues."
And they started to tour: there was a 43-day jaunt around the country with Jimmy Forrest, who was riding high with "Night Train" (in fact it was called the "Night Train Tour"). There was also a dance troupe called the Kangaroos, but the Enchanters were the only singers present. The Enchanters also did the usual theater circuit: the Apollo, the Howard, the Royal, as well as appearing in New Orleans, Little Rock, Mobile, Lexington (Kentucky), Toronto, and Quebec City.
The last mention of the Enchanters came in December 1952, when (on the 12th), they appeared at the Apollo as part of the Amsterdam News' 15th Annual Midnight Benefit Show (for the Amsterdam News Welfare Fund). The Enchanters shared the stage with Milton Berle, Ella Fitzgerald, Red Buttons, Sunny Gale, Duke Ellington, the Ink Spots, Arnett Cobb, Bette McLaurin, Billy Eckstine, and Vic Damone.
After this, things started to fall apart for the girls. Rachel was married, with a couple of kids. This, plus the fact that she was having problems with her husband led her to quit the group. Another defection was Pearl, who was also married and decided to stay home and be a housewife.
Della and Frances were determined to carry on with singing. There was another female group around, called the Dorsey sisters (Gloria Alleyne, Sherry Gary, Donna Gara, Gloria Rivera, and Gloria Hearn; don't ask me why they were called the "Dorsey Sisters"). They had only been together for a short while, and the Enchanters raided them for some new members. Gloria Alleyne replaced Rachel, and Sherry Gary was recruited to take Pearl's place. As long as there were new members, they also took on a new name, the "Dell Tones" (after Della). The Dell Tones were thus initially Della Simpson, Frances Kelley, Gloria Alleyne, Sherry Gary, and Chris Townes.
Through Della's husband, Jimmy Simpson, who was managing them at the time, they got a recording deal with Coral's Brunswick subsidiary. There, on June 3, 1953, they recorded "Yours Alone" (led by Gloria) and "My Heart's On Fire" (fronted by Della, with Gloria doing the second lead). The record was released in July, around the same time as the Crickets' "When I Met You," the 5 Royales' "Laundromat Blues," the Flamingos' "That's My Desire," the Prisonaires' "Just Walkin' In The Rain," the Diamonds' "Two Loves Have I," and the Charms' "Heaven Only Knows."
In December 1953, the Dell Tones got a week's booking into Harlem's Baby Grand (at 125th Street and 8th Avenue, right near the Apollo and next to the famous Frank's Steak House). While there, they worked with comedian Nipsey Russell, "The Playboy Of Harlem," who was a resident act at the Baby Grand.
In early 1954, when nothing happened with Brunswick, the Dell Tones went over to Eddie Heller's Rainbow Records. Backed up by the Kelly Owens Orchestra, they recorded "Little Short Daddy" and "I'm Not In Love With You," with Della doing lead on both sides. The record (released as by the "Delltones") was reviewed the week of April 10, 1954, along with the Dominoes' "Tenderly," the Lamplighters "Tell Me You Care," the Harptones' "My Memories Of You," the Quails' "I Know She's Gone," Lowell Fulson's "You've Gotta Reap," and the Jesse Stone Orchestra's "Runaway." The territorial tip that week in Cincinnati was the Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie."
Note that the spelling of the group's name went from "Dell Tones" to "Delltones" and eventually "Dell-Tones" (this last variant was on one of their late publicity photos).
Sometime during the summer of 1954, Gloria decided to leave. In September, there was a mention in the trades that she had signed a management contract with DJ Stan Pat (WTTM in Trenton). That same month, she recorded "When Did I Say My Prayer" for Josie. She would eventually record for Ember, Central, Premium, and Everest, among others, as a jazz-pop singer, using the names "Gloria Alleyne," "Gloria Lynne," and "Gloria Lynn" over the years. She had some jazz-oriented hits in the early- and mid-60s, the biggest of which was 1964's "I Wish You Love," which rose to #28. Gloria's replacement in the Delltones was Shirley "Bunny" Foy.
Soon after Gloria departed, Sherry Gary left too, to be replaced by Renée Stewart (Renée remembers that Bunny was a new member the day she joined). Therefore, the Dell Tones were now Della Simpson, Frances Kelley, Bunny Foy, Renée Stewart, and Chris Townes.
Renée had been a gospel singer since the age of five. While attending PS 99 in the Bronx, she sang with a group called the 3 Chimes. The other girls in the group were her sister Beverly (who married Arthur Crier, of the 5 Chimes and the Mellows) and Lillie Mae Bell (for whom a certain Valentines song was written). Renée actually joined the Delltones by accident; she accompanied her friend Vicki Burgess to the audition, auditioned herself, and got the job!
Another casualty was Frances Kelley, who left sometime in 1955, after five years with the group; she was replaced by Algie Willie.
In July 1955, the trades mentioned that Della Simpson, a vocalist for Baton Records, had formed her own group, rather than continue on as a soloist. This comes as news to Della, who was never a soloist for Baton. All this while, the Delltones (Della, Algie, Bunny, Renée, and Chris) were still together.
The Delltones did a single session for Sol Rabinowitz's Baton label, at which they recorded "Don't Be Long," "Baby Say You Love Me," "My Special Love," and "Believe It." All songs were led by Della, with Maurice Simon doing tenor sax work on the session. The first two tunes were released in July 1955, to be reviewed the week of August 27, along with the Clovers' "Nip Sip," the Dominoes' "Take Me Back To Heaven," the Gypsies' I'm Good To You Baby," Richard Berry's "Together," Chris Powell's "Wiffenpoof Song" (done as a mambo!!!), the Pyramids' "And I Need You," and the Sheppards' "Love."
In August, the Delltones travelled to Philadelphia to do a TV show, on which they were supposed to lip-synch "Baby Say You Love Me." However, the engineer played "Don't Be Long" and the girls, being surprised, didn't remember all the words. Live TV could be a lot of fun!
In December 1955, the Delltones were signed by Stan Pat (Gloria Alleyne's manager), who brought them back to the Shaw Artists Corporation for bookings. On December 30, they opened for a week at the Apollo, with Sonny Til and his New Orioles, Arnett Cobb, Warren Berry and Clay Tyson.
The week beginning February 3, 1956 found the Delltones at Baltimore's Royal Theater, along with saxist Illinois Jacquet, the Spiders, Mickey & Sylvia, and Screaming Jay Hawkins.
In March 1956, Baton released the other two sides that had been recorded the previous July: "My Special Love" and "Believe It." They were reviewed the week of March 31, along with Fats Domino's "I'm In Love Again," Joe Turner's "Corrine, Corinna," the Moonglows' "We Go Together," the 5 Dollars' "So Strange," the Cadillacs' "Zoom," the Hearts' "Going Home To Stay," the Premiers' "Baby," the Fi-Tones' "I Call To You," the Cadets' "Church Bells May Ring," and the Chromatics' "Devil Blues."
With "Believe It" doing well in Philadelphia and Virginia, the Delltones did a tour of Canada in April, the highlights of which were playing the Flamingo Club in Hamilton, Ontario and the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal. For the tour, a sixth member, saxophonist Frank Henderson, was added to the group. (With Della on the drums and Chris on piano, they were truly a self-contained unit.)
Even Chris sang during this period; he would lead some songs during appearances (but never sang background). He did both standards and his own compositions.
Normally, however, Della was the only lead. As she puts it, "The others were lazy.... When I got sick before an appearance and couldn't sing, no one else would do it. We had to come home without appearing."
On May 16, 1956, the Delltones opened the new Club Basin Street, in Miami's Hotel Sir John. For this four-week engagement, they lost Frank Henderson, but added Gloria Bell as a bassist. (In 1953, Gloria had been part of Myrtle Young & Her Rays, a vocal/instrumental combo that, without Myrtle Young, had become the 4 Jewels in 1954.) The ad for their appearance billed them as "the female Treniers". (Also on the show were Bill Robinson and the Quails, of whom it was written: "these cats whale" [sic].) Then, without Gloria Bell, they were booked into Atlantic City's Club Harlem for 11 weeks during the summer.
Soon after this, the Delltones got into a bit of trouble. On June 16, Della Simpson and Algie Willie (identified as "Wilkie") were arrested for receiving stolen goods. It was claimed that they were going into a recording studio on West 51 Street in Manhattan, when a woman told police that they were wearing clothing that was part of $5000 worth stolen from her station wagon two months before. The singers pleaded that they'd purchased the clothes from an unidentified "salesman"; they were a "bargain." They must have sounded sincere, because the District Attorney allowed them to leave the country to perform in Montreal. As usual in these things, there was no follow up article.
In the meanwhile, Della had met and befriended the Orioles. In fact, she ended up marrying Paul Griffin, their pianist. (In the late 70s, Sonny Til lived in Della's house for the last two years of his life.) Since the Orioles were into modern harmony, they hit it off with the Delltones. The two groups combined to record "Voices Of Love" and "I'm So Lonely," for Danny Robinson's Everlast label, as the Kings And Queens. Released around June 1957, the personnel consisted of: Sonny Til, Diz Russell, Jerry Holeman, Tex Cornelius, Billy Adams, Della Simpson (who leads both sides), Bunny Foy, Renée Stewart, and Algie Willie (who doesn't appear in the only photo taken of them). This group appeared a couple of times at some New York clubs.
Later in 1957, Renée left. She says: "My goals sort of changed." At this point all she wanted was to get married and settle down. She was replaced briefly by someone recalled only as "Snapshot" (Renée remembers going to see them at the Apollo). However, this group broke up soon after, with Chris going on to produce some Broadway plays..
The last gasp of the Delltones was around late 1957, when Della, her husband Paul Griffin, Aaron "Tex" Cornelius (both alumni of the Vee-Jay Orioles), and another, unremembered, girl formed a modern harmony group, also called the "Delltones.".
After that, the Delltones drifted apart, with Della taking up pop and jazz solo work, which she's been doing ever since. (For example, in early 1958, she released "Time And Time Again"/"Don't Be Late" on Benny Burleigh's Eagle label. The top side is a duet between Della and Frank (Fat Man) Humphries, while the flip is by Della Simpson and the Rhythmites [a band, not a vocal group].)
Special thanks to Don Wiur and Andy Bohan. Ads are, as usual, from Galen Gart's First Pressings series. Photos are courtesy of Frances Kelley, Della Griffin and Renée Stewart.
5072 Today Is Your Birthday (DS)/How Could You Break My Heart (DS) - 1/52
5080 I've Lost (DS)/Housewife Blues (DS) - 4/52
You Know I'm Not In Love With You (DS)
Boogie Woogie Daddy
BRUNSWICK (the "Dell Tones")
84015 Yours Alone (GA)/My Heart's On Fire (DS/GA) - 7/53
Why Make A Fool Out Of Me
After All I've Been To You
RAINBOW (the "Delltones")
244 Little Short Daddy (DS)/I'm Not In Love With You (DS) - 4/54
BATON (the "Delltones")
212 Don't Be Long (DS)/Baby Say You Love Me (DS) - 7/55
223 My Special Love (DS)/Believe It (DS) - 3/56
EVERLAST (the Kings And Queens [combined Orioles and Delltones])
5003 Voices Of Love (DS)/I'm So Lonely (DS) - 6/57
LEADS: DS = Della Simpson; GA = Gloria Alleyne