The Valentines were one of the most popular New York City acts in the mid-50s. We live in an age of homogenized music, but once upon a time, most acts were regional, and only known within the confines of a small area. It's amazing to think that "Lily Maebelle" and "The Woo Woo Train" weren't nationwide smashes, but, in truth, the Valentines never had a national hit.
The story of the Valentines begins in 1952 in Harlem. The street corners around 151 Street and Amsterdam Avenue (about a mile north of where the 5 Crowns, 5 Willows, and Harptones harmonized) rang with the harmonies of Mickey Francis (baritone lead), Raymond "Pop" Briggs (tenor), Carl Hogan (second tenor), and Ronnie Bright (bass). They were called the Mistletoes for a while, but most of the time they were known as the Dreamers.
The name of the game was to impress girls and to show up other groups. So they sang on street corners, in bathrooms, in subway stations, and at parties. It was at one of these parties, recalled Ronnie Bright, that the Dreamers met up with a transplanted Philadelphian named Richard Barrett (former lead singer of a group called the Royal Angels and driver of a pink 1949 Oldsmobile convertible). He liked their sound, and they felt that he "knew his way around." (Carl Hogan, on the other hand, told researcher Phil Groia that the Dreamers first met Barrett in a park, where he tried in vain to interest them in a song he'd written, "Tonight Kathleen." Next time they met, at a club called Bowman's at 155 Street and St. Nicholas Place, they finally got together to perform the song.) Barrett himself told researcher Charlie Horner that it was the Solitaires' Buzzy Willis who told him that the Dreamers were looking for a lead singer and songwriter. However he hooked up with the group, Barrett would write most of their tunes, with Raymond Briggs getting occasional songwriter credit.
Now they were five and they made a new beginning by changing their name. Mickey Francis' favorite song was Tito Puente's rendition of "My Funny Valentine," and "Valentines" they became. To complete the picture, they cut out hearts from red oilcloth and sewed them on the breast pockets of their uniform jackets.
Through the efforts of Raoul Cita, accompanist for the Harptones, the Valentines went to see Monte Bruce. They ended up recording two songs for his Bruce label in 1954: "Summer Love" (another of Barrett's compositions) and "For You." These were never released commercially, but a dub was made of them and DJ Willie Bryant played "Summer Love" for about a month on his radio show, broadcast from his 125 Street club.
However, the guys were getting restless not having a real record out and, since they didn't have a contract with Bruce, they responded to an offer from Hy Weiss of Old Town Records. At this point, Carl Hogan quit after a fight with the rest of the group; he was replaced by second tenor Donald Raysor (sometimes incorrectly seen as Razor), who had been in the Red Robin Velvets. In October 1954, they re-recorded "Summer Love" for Old Town, along with Barrett's "Tonight Kathleen" (which he'd written for the sister of one of the Royal Angels in Philadelphia).
The record was released in early November, and reviewed on November 20 (both sides "fair"). Other reviews that week went to the Drifters' "White Christmas," the 5 Pearls' "Please Let Me Know," Lavern Baker's "Tweedle Dee," the Regals' "Run Pretty Baby," the Chestnuts' "Don't Go," the Hollywood Flames' "Fare Thee Well," and the Clovers' "I Confess."
"Tonight Kathleen" failed to take off, and the Valentines kicked around for about six months waiting for a break. The one they got was one they hadn't expected: Donald Raysor was drafted. Enter Eddie Edgehill.
Baritone Eddie Edgehill was born in New York, but raised in Philadelphia. In the 40s, when he was around 17, Eddie relocated to New York again. Around 1954, he joined the Valtones, a group run by his uncle, Robert Simmons ("He taught me how to sing," said Eddie). [Note, this group doesn't seem to have anything to do with the Valtones on Gee.]
One night, Richard Barrett saw the Valtones perform, and was impressed with Eddie Edgehill's dancing moves. Richard approached him, and soon Eddie was wearing the red oilcloth heart of a Valentine, as Donald Raysor's replacement. However, the Valentines didn't need a baritone, so Barrett taught Eddie how to sing second tenor.
And then they signed with George Goldner. Goldner, owner of Tico, Rama, and Gee Records, was one of the shrewdest judges of R&B talent in New York (just give him credit for the Teenagers and the Cleftones and you don't even have to look much further).
The Valentines auditioned for Goldner with a song that Barrett had written, called "Lily Maebelle." Goldner liked the song and the group, but not the way they sang it. He told them to speed it up a bit and add a catchier beat, like the one the Crows had used in "Gee." Fortunately, they took Goldner's advice and practiced it his way.
In August 1955, the Valentines recorded six songs for Rama: "Lily Maebelle," "Falling For You," "Why," "I Love You Darling," "Nature's Creation" (their first attempt at this tune), and "K-I-S-S Me." As usual for a Goldner session, the Jimmy Wright Orchestra provided the backup. Rama waited until September to announce their signing (making sure there were songs in the can first).
In October 1955, Rama issued the rockin' "Lily Maebelle," backed with "Falling For You." Sometime that month they went back into the studio to record a single tune: the seasonal "Christmas Prayer."
Where did the title "Lily Maebelle" come from? Renée Stewart, of the Delltones, had sung with a group called the 3 Chimes in the Bronx. 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. While there's no evidence that Richard Barrett (the song's writer) actually knew Lillie, there's a chance that he'd heard the name (which sure sounds like a great song title to me). There's also the chance that he polished up a street song put together by kids who did know Lillie. We'll probably never know for sure.
Both sides got good reviews the week of November 5, 1955, along with Fats Domino's "Poor Me," the 5 Keys' "Gee Whittakers," the Pearls' "Shadows Of Love," and the Sensations' "Yes Sir, That's My Baby."
On November 18, the Valentines began a week at the Apollo Theater, along with the Buddy Johnson Orchestra (with Ella Johnson and Floyd Ryland), Arthur Prysock, Chuck Berry, the 4 Fellows, and the Solitaires.
"Lily Maebelle" began making some noise in New York and, on November 19, it was announced that the Valentines would be part of Alan Freed's Christmas Week stage show.
At another session, in November, the Valentines recorded "Hand Me Down Love." Actually, it was a busy day at the studio. The Wrens were scheduled to record a cover version of Sarah Vaughan's recent pop hit of "C'est La Vie" (which had just entered the charts). However, the only Wrens who showed up for the session were Bobby Mansfield and George Magnezid. Goldner quickly drafted the Valentines to provide more voices. The personnel on the Wren's "C'est La Vie" were thus: Bobby Mansfield (lead), George Magnezid (tenor), Richard Barrett (tenor), Raymond "Pop" Briggs (first tenor), Eddie Edgehill (second tenor), Mickey Francis (baritone), and Ronnie Bright (bass). This would become a January 1956 release (with Jimmy Wright's great instrumental version of the tune on the flip).
Also in November, Rama released not one, but two Valentines' records: "I Love You Darling"/"Hand Me Down Love" and "Christmas Prayer"/"K-I-S-S Me." Strangely, neither record was reviewed in the trades. In fact, fully half of their eight releases were never reviewed; probably the highest percentage I've ever encountered for a group on a major independent label.
On December 12, 1955, the Valentines appeared on a show at the Mastbaum Theater in Philadelphia. They shared the stage with the El Dorados, Lavern Baker, Red Prysock, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Bubber Johnson. They were back in New York in time for the December 22 start of the Alan Freed "Holiday Jubilee" Christmas week stage show at the Academy Of Music on 14th Street in Manhattan. Other acts on the bill were the Wrens, the Heartbeats (two more of Goldner's acts), the Cadillacs, the Chuckles, Lillian Briggs, Lavern Baker, Boyd Bennett & the Rockets, and the Count Basie Orchestra, featuring Joe Williams.
On February 4, 1956, the Valentines went back to the studio to record another classic: "The Woo Woo Train." According to Ronnie Bright, the tune was composed by the group and arranged by Jimmy Wright, in 15 minutes, in the men's room of the studio. It was raucous, it was raw, they made it up as they went along, and it was great. They also cut the unreleased "Sweetheart Of Mine" that day.
Later in February, the Valentines became part of two different tours of New Jersey theaters. Kicking off on February 10, the other acts in the "Rock And Roll Bandwagon" included Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the Bonnie Sisters, the Heartbeats, Ann Cole, Ruth McFadden, Jesse Powell, Al Sears, Sam "The Man" Taylor, the Cadillacs, Frank "Floorshow" Culley, and Gloria Mann. The Valentines got plenty of work, but their appearances were limited to the East Coast.
The Valentines were a popular visual act at theaters. Fortunately, Richard Barrett had a good eye for picking up dance steps (mostly from the Cadillacs and Solitaires). The guys worked up a dynamic stage routine, and their red oilcloth hearts stood out from the other acts.
Rama released "The Woo Woo Train"/"Why" in April 1956, to coincide with their appearance on Alan Freed's "Easter Jubilee Of Stars" at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. The Valentines were featured along with the Teenagers, the Platters, the Rover Boys, the Cleftones, the Royaltones, the Jodimars, and Ruth McFadden. "The Woo Woo Train" became a solid New York City turntable hit, in spite of not being reviewed in the trades. (A "turntable hit" was one that you heard on the radio constantly, but never achieved much in the way of sales.)
In May 1956, the Valentines recorded "Twenty Minutes (Before The Hour)" and "I'll Never Let You Go." They also cut a theme song for Boston DJ Joe Smith (WVDA); at the time, "The Woo Woo Train" was #6 on his weekly survey.
On June 8, 1956, the Valentines returned to the Apollo Theater. This time they were part of a show that featured Clyde McPhatter, the Teenagers, the Cleftones, the Pretenders, Mabel King, and the Sil Austin Orchestra. That same month, Rama issued "Twenty Minutes (Before The Hour)"/"I'll Never Let You Go." The disc was reviewed on June 30, along with the Pretenders' "I've Got To Have You Baby," the Cadets' "Stranded In The Jungle," Richard Berry's "Yama Yama Pretty Mama," the Vocaltones' "Darling (You Know I Love You)," the Nitecaps' "Bamboo Rock And Roll," and the Meadowlarks' "Please Love A Fool."
On August 24, 1956, the Valentines headed back to the Apollo Theater as part of a Dr. Jive show. They shared the stage with Bo Diddley, Charlie & Ray, the 5 Satins, Butchie Saunders, the Clovers, the Channels, Big Maybelle, and Claudia Swann. While they were in town, Rama had them cut "My Story Of Love" and the second version of "Nature's Creation," both released in September. Both sides were rated "excellent" on October 6, along with Little Richard's "She's Got It," the Flamingos' "The Vow," the El Venos' "Geraldine," the Royal Jokers' "She's Mine, All Mine," Frankie Marshall's "Every Minute Of The Day," and the Pharaohs' "Watusi."
It didn't take them long to get back to the Apollo: three weeks to be exact. On September 14, they began another week's run, this time along with a bunch of their labelmates: the Teenagers, the Cleftones, the Harptones, the Joytones, Mabel King, Bob Kornegay, and the Jimmy Wright Orchestra.
In late 1956, when Eddie Edgehill's mother became ill, he had to leave the Valentines and return to Philadelphia. The Valentines completed a circle by replacing him with Carl Hogan. Around the same time, Raymond Briggs left, to be replaced by first tenor David Cortez Clowney. Clowney had been an original member of Howard Guyton's Pearls, and, in 1959, would leave his mark on the music world as Dave "Baby" Cortez. Several months earlier, Clowney had joined the Valentines, as their pianist, when the Pearls had gone back to their native Detroit; now, he got to sing, too.
On January 11, 1957, the Valentines were once again at the Apollo, this time with Dinah Washington, Ocie Smith, and Slappy White.
On February 8, the Valentines were part of a show at the Empire Theater in Brooklyn. Other acts were the Heartbeats, the Channels, the Teenchords, and Bull Moose Jackson.
The last Valentines' session took place on March 15, 1957. They recorded the pretty "Don't Say Goodnight," "I Cried Oh, Oh," and the unreleased "If You Love Me Pretty Baby." "Don't Say Goodnight"/"I Cried Oh, Oh" were released in April 1957. Once again, a Valentines' record wasn't sent out for review.
The Valentines' final appearance at the Apollo Theater was during the week of May 3, 1957, as part of a Dr. Jive show. Other acts on the bill were the Paragons, the Dells, the Avons, Charlie & Ray, the Metronomes, Robin Robinson, JoAnn Campbell, and Titus Turner.
Finally, with what the group saw as dismal promotion of their records, the Valentines threw in the towel. Richard Barrett turned to management, taking the Teenagers and Chantels under his wing; in the 70s, he'd manage the Three Degrees. Carl Hogan (who, during his absence from the Valentines had recorded with the Velvets' Charles Sampson as "Charles And Carl" for Red Robin) went on to sing with the Miracles on Fury (along with Raymond Briggs' brother, Leon), Joe Brisbane, Irving Lee Gail, and Jerry Moore. He later went into songwriting and arranging (he and Richard Barrett wrote "Be Sure My Love" for the Dubs and "So Much" for Little Anthony & the Imperials). Ronnie Bright ended up with the Cadillacs for a while and then became a studio vocalist. His most famous role was as "Mr. Bass Man" on the 1963 Johnny Cymbal record of the same name. He went on to sing with the Deep River Boys and Carl Gardner's Coasters. Eddie Edgehill joined the Del-Knights after returning to Philadelphia; they would be together from 1958 until 1966. David Clowney hooked up with the Jesters for a while, before beginning his career as Dave "Baby" Cortez.
On August 3, 2006, Richard Barrett died from prostate cancer. He will be missed.
The Valentines were one of the classic vocal harmony groups of the 50s. Their music was vibrantly energetic (as was most of what came out of George Goldner's studios in those days), and was therefore ideally suited to the era when America's youth assumed control of their own musical tastes.
Discographical info courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez
UNRELEASED Summer Love/For You - recorded 1954
1009 Tonight Kathleen/Summer Love - 11/54
171 Lily Maebelle/Falling For You - 10/55
181 I Love You Darling/Hand Me Down Love - 11/55
186 Christmas Prayer/K-I-S-S Me - 11/55
194 C'est La Vie*/[C'est La Vie - Jimmy Wright] - 1/56
196 The Woo Woo Train/Why - 4/56
201 Twenty Minutes (Before The Hour)/I'll Never Let You Go - 6/56
208 Nature's Creation/My Story Of Love - 9/56
228 Don't Say Goodnight/I Cried Oh, Oh - 4/57
* NOTE: On "C'est La Vie" the Valentines were used to back up Bobby Mansfield and George Magnezid of the Wrens.
It was released as a Wrens record.
137 Lucky Star/One More Chance - ca. 7/55
1003 I Love You So/Your Love - 57