Edna McGriff was a true "one-hit wonder". Although she had a fine voice and made many recordings, she'll always be remembered for "Heavenly Father", a tune she wrote when she was just 16.
Edna McGriff was born on December 16, 1935 in Tampa, Florida to John H. McGriff and Axie Annie Harris. They were married in 1925 and were divorced sometime between the 1940 federal census and the 1945 Florida census (probably in 1941, since John's February 16, 1942 draft registration gives someone else as his next of kin).
Edna had one sister, Irene, and five brothers: John H. McGriff, Jr., Fred McGriff (who was in the 1935 Florida census, but not 1940; he presumably died as a child), Franklin Robert McGriff, James Edward McGriff, and the mysterious Lucius McGriff (who was named as her brother in her obituary; otherwise there's no trace of him).
In late 1941 or early 1942, with her marriage over, Axie McGriff moved to New York City. She took at least Edna with her, although other children might have gone.
There's nothing about Edna until 1951, but a few blurbs told us that she attended Washington Irving High School, near Union Square, in southern Manhattan. Famous alumnae were Claudette Colbert, Gertrude Berg (star of "The Goldbergs"), Caryn Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg to you), Patricia Morrison, and, most famous of all: my mother.
Supposedly, Edna brought some of her own compositions to her neighbor, popular New York deejay Jack Walker, who became her mentor.
Four June 1951 publications (Billboard - June 23; The Baltimore Afro-American - June 23; Cash Box - June 30; and The New York Age - June 30) announced that Edna had been signed by Apollo Records. For example, here's the Cash Box article, titled "15 Year Old Chirp Signs Apollo Pact":
Little Edna McGriff 15 year old thrush, bows into show business this week via a recording contract with Apollo Records. The New York lass is a student at Washington Irving High School.
Little Edna writes much of her own material and scheduled for her first etching session this week are three original tunes entitled "Come Back", "Note Droppin' Papa Blues" and "Rain".
Accompanying her on her first recordings will be Budd Johnson, tenor [sax] playing band leader, who is now organizing his own road unit.
Billboard said virtually the same thing, but added that she was "an accomplished pianist". Of course, the New York Age had to vary it a bit (in their "You're The First To Know" column): "that little Edna McGriff, luscious and petite at 15 years of age (according to Jack Walker), bowed into show business last week via a recording contract with Apollo Records Co. The cute lass has been acclaimed by critics as the 'most promising young blues voice since Bessie Smith was young'." The Baltimore Afro-American added "Budd's arrangements of Edna's compositions make for a boff combination of talent and ability and sure fire record hits."
As I've said over and over, the word "acclaimed" in sentences like that, has no meaning whatever.
The astute among you are already saying "But Edna McGriff recorded for Jubilee, not Apollo. That must have been a mistake in the press release." Y'know, I don't think so. They all specifically called her "Little Edna McGriff" (probably trying to capitalize on Little Esther), and most mentioned Budd Johnson, who wasn't associated with Jubilee at this time. Industry practice was not to mention the signing of an artist until some songs had already been recorded, so there's actually a chance that Edna did record a few sides for Apollo before the deal collapsed for some reason.
Who was the Jack Walker mentioned in the New York Age blurb? At the time, he was a DJ for WHOM (later WOV). He called himself "The Fat Man", "The Big One", and "The Pear-Shaped Talker". He was also a columnist for the New York Age (as "Johnny Gotham"), although I believe that by June 1951, he was no longer writing that column. Therefore, I'm willing to believe that he knew what he was talking about and that she really had signed with Apollo (although any recordings are still problematic). In a few months, Jack Walker, would be named Publicity and Promotion Director for Atlantic Records. You can hear him on Faye Adams' "Sweet Talk" on Atlantic (he'd been dubbed over her original recording before it was released).
But let's leave Apollo Records behind in the dust. In the July 28, 1951 Billboard, Jerry Blaine, of Jubilee Records, announced that he'd be "cutting a series of sides by Sonny Till [sic], lead voice of the Orioles, for his Oriole label [?]. He has also added Edna McGriff, 15-year-old singer." Notice that now she's no longer "Little Edna McGriff".
I have a recording date of June 27, 1951 for Edna's first Jubilee session, but I really couldn't tell you where that came from; Jubilee sessions are notoriously difficult to date. At any rate, when she finally got down to recording, she once again waxed "Come Back" and "Note Droppin' Papa". (She'd later re-cut "Rain" as "It's Raining"). Those two were released in August, but weren't reviewed in the trades. However, by December 1951, Jubilee had an ad for "No Droppin' Poppa" [sic].
But greatness awaited. In February 1952, Jubilee released a song Edna had written: "Heavenly Father". It was paired with "I Love You", which Edna had partially written. On these, she was backed by Buddy Lucas and his Band Of Tomorrow (as she would be for her next several records). The tunes had probably been recorded in late November 1951; the master numbers are contiguous with an Orioles session held on November 28.
Many of her sessions and tours from now on would be with tenor saxman Buddy Lucas. His actual name seems to have been Alonza W. Lucas (born August 1914), but it's usually seen as "Alonzo", including on his World War 2 draft registration. Although born in Alabama, by the year after his birth, his family had moved to Stamford, Connecticut. Jubilee had brought him aboard only a short time before McGriff.
"Heavenly Father" received Cash Box's Jazz 'N Blues Award O' The Week in their March 8, 1952 edition (as did Fluffy Hunter's "Walk Right In, Walk Right Out"). It concluded with "["Heavenly Father"] is loaded with possibilities...."
They were right. By April 5, Cash Box reported that "Heavenly Father" was #1 in Harlem. That same week, it entered the Billboard national charts, rising to #4 in its 13-week run. The popularity of the song can be attributed to the Korean War, which, since President Truman had integrated the armed forces, caused large numbers of black soldiers to be sent overseas.
The song did so well that covers started to appear: Dolores Hawkins & the Four Lads on Okeh, Fran Warren on MGM, and Evelyn Knight on Decca. Later recordings included the Castelles on Grand, Wes Forbes & the Starlarks on Ancho, and the Cleftones on a Gee LP.
The March 22, 1952 New York Age had this: "Luscious 16-year-old Edna McGriff, whose record, 'Heavenly Father,' is paving a pathway for the new singer, will not 'go nuts' and get married as is rumored. She is content with the vocation of carving out a singing career for herself. She is a student at Washington Irving H. S. and her voice is smooth and intriguing. She records for Jubilee." Since this is the second time she was referred to as "luscious", I have to believe that it was a word Jack Walker used a lot. Of course, if there really was a rumor, Walker started it himself so that it could be denied in the press.
Speaking of Jack Walker, there was this in Larry Douglas' syndicated "Theatrically Yours" column of April 18, 1952 (as it appeared in the Arizona Sun): "Edna McGriff, who sings on Jubilee Records, her own songs: 'Heavenly Father,' won't get any of the profits from her song. She sold the song to her manager for twenty-five dollars." A few weeks later, Douglas' May 9 column had this: "Edna McGriff's manager says he didn't buy her song 'Heavenly Father' from her for $25 as reported. The manager [Jack Walker, whom Douglas never names] said, 'I didn't cheat her out of the number.' However, he didn't say whether or not he bought the song from her at all or how much interest she now has in her own song." Seems like Douglas really knew something (even if some of his wording needed serious proofreading). It would take a few more years, but this would play out further.
The first appearance I can find for Edna is when she was part of the show at Philadelphia's Earle Theater, the week of May 2, 1952. Others on the bill were Tiny Grimes and his Rocking Highlanders, the Charioteers, George Kirby, and McHarris & Dolores. The May 3 Philadelphia Inquirer reviewed the show:
The stage show, rather mild as Earle in-person shows go, features George Kirby as a master of ceremonies who comes to life as a sound effects man, imitating musical instruments, movie stars and popular singers. The Charioteers, male quartet with piano, pleased in several songs starring their high tenor [probably Herbert Dickerson].
Lovely Edna McGriff sang "Heavenly Father" and three other numbers. McHarris and Dolores offered a variety of dancing, and the show ended with the Tiny Grimes Orchestra, a quintet of "Rocky Highlanders" [sic] whose music would be disowned by Scotland.
Around June 1952, with "Heavenly Father" fading from the national charts, Jubilee released Edna's next recording: "It's Raining", coupled with "Not Now".
The June 5, 1952 issue of Jet reported that Edna "will be screen tested by MGM for possible movie work". As with most reports of this kind, it's complete fiction. Actually, it was mentioned in two separate blurbs in the same issue. The second one added this: "Still a Washington Irving High School student, she is being hailed by New York disc jockeys as 'singing's greatest find since Ella Fitzgerald.' Edna, who is an accomplished pianist and composer, took her song to Jack Walker of Atlantic records. Impressed with her voice, he coached her for a year, then got her a Jubilee Records session. She proved so sensational that theater bookings promptly began pouring in." Of course, the word "hailed" is as meaningless as "acclaimed".
The June 7, 1952 Billboard said that Alan Freed was going to host three shows in Ohio. His talent included Edna, Buddy Lucas, and the Swallows. They appeared at the Crystal Beach ballroom (Lorraine) on June 19, the Summit Beach Ballroom (Akron) on June 20, and the Avon Oaks Ballroom (Youngstown) on June 21. All of these were broadcast over WJW, where Freed had his nightly show.
On July 3, Edna and Buddy appeared at the Auditorium in Atlanta, as part of a show that starred the Orioles, the Todd Rhodes Orchestra, and Wini Brown. On the 6th, she, the Griffin Brothers (with Margie Day), and Ivory Joe Hunter were at Carr's Beach in Annapolis, Maryland.
Not long after that (July 8), Edna McGriff, along with two performers I never heard of (the Artie Suggs Band and Loretta Mason), entertained on a boat ride around Manhattan. It was hosted by Willie Bryant and Ray Carroll, WHOM disc jockeys.
That same month, Jubilee issued two records featuring Edna McGriff. The first had another pair of solos: "In A Chapel By The Side Of The Road", backed with "Pray For A Better World" (a song which, the July 10 Jet said was written for her brother, who'd been drafted; it didn't say which brother). The other had two songs recorded on June 11 as duets with Sonny Til, lead of the Orioles (and Buddy Lucas leading the band): "Once In A While" (currently a Patti Page hit) and "I Only Have Eyes For You". (I have to admit that I've never liked the Edna-Sonny duets. In my opinion, his voice simply doesn't match hers, and they would have sounded better as Edna McGriff solos.)
"Not Now" / "It's Raining" was Cash Box's Sleeper Of The Week in their July 5 edition. It got a great review, but was never a hit.
The July 12, 1952 Billboard said that Edna, along with Lynn Hope's orchestra and Tab Smith's band were being packaged for 22 one-nighters in the South. However, the only appearance I can find for Lynn Hope is in Atlanta on July 24, but he's with Roy Brown, the 4 Blazes, and the Swallows. I can't find either Edna or Tab Smith appearing anywhere during that period.
Flying in the face of my dislike of the Edna-Sonny duets, Cash Box gave "Once In A While" its Award O' The Week in its July 19 edition. Flying in the face of Cash Box's rave review, the record never went anywhere.
And then, someone at Jubilee had an idea to push Edna in a different direction. In September, they issued "My Baby's Coming Home", backed with "My Favorite Song" in their 6000 Pop series (R&B tunes were in the 5000 series). The backing on these was by the Ben Bennett orchestra, not Buddy Lucas.
It took Billboard until September 6 to review "Pray For A Better World". They gave it a 76 ("Over a pretty ork and chorus backing, Edna McGriff sings this semi-religious item with feeling and sincerity. Thrush doesn't give it the same sock interpretation she gave 'Heavenly Father,' but it is still a good platter.") "In A Chapel By The Side Of The Road" received a 72 ("The singer does an effective job on this pretty, nostalgic item, selling it with a lot of meaning. Organ support gives the disk a fine mood.") Cash Box agreed, rating both sides "B".
Edna's first appearance at the Apollo Theater was the week of September 12, 1952. She shared the stage with the Orioles, the Paul Williams Orchestra (with Danny Cobb), Peg Leg Bates, the Spence Twins, and Pigmeat Markham.
The September 6, Billboard had reported that Edna would spend four days at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, starting September 26. However, on that date she was actually at the Newark Opera House in a show featuring Manhattan Paul (singer and MC), dancer Linda Skanks, the Royal Tones, Dolly Lyon, LeRoy Robinson, and comedian Crackshot Hackley.
"My Favorite Song" and "My Baby's Coming Home" were reviewed in the October 4, 1952 Billboard (in the Pop section). "My Favorite Song" got a 75 ("Edna McGriff, of 'Heavenly Father' fame, bows as a pop artist with a good waxing of the appealing new ballad, now receiving plenty of wax attention. The thrush sings it in sincere style and the ork backing is attractive. If the tune catches, this version should catch some of the action.") "My Baby's Coming Home" received a 71 ("A light delicate tune receives a smooth performance from the singer over a bright, lilting ork arrangement.") There were several versions of "My Favorite Song": Georgia Gibbs, Jan Garber, Ella Fitzgerald, Giselle McKenzie, the Ames Brothers, Marian Caruso, and Lily Ann Carol. It would chart by Marian Caruso, Georgia Gibbs, and the Ames Brothers.
Cash Box, which gave both sides a "B", said in its October 18 issue: "Edna McGriff, the 'Heavenly Father' gal, has something on Jubilee that should serve to establish her as a 'pop' star. Titled 'My Baby's Coming Home' b/w 'My Favorite Song'; Jerry Blaine used lots of plushy fiddles and even French horns for the backing. The chirp has been working with The Orioles and the Paul Williams orchestra. Her recent appearance at NYC's Apollo was her first big city date, tho she is well known around the R&B routes."
Also in October, Jubilee released another two Edna McGriff-Sonny Til duets: "Piccadilly" and "Good". Note that "Piccadilly" is spelled several different ways in Jubilee ads, but as a single, non-hyphenated word on the label.
The October 26 Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph printed a cute (although completely fictitious) story about the genesis of "Heavenly Father". It was part of Guy Lombardo's "Now You Can Sell A Song" column.
The pert, bright-eyed little Negro girl edged her way quakingly into the office of Jerry Blaine, well-known New York record distributor [he was head of Cosnat Record Distributing Corp., as well as Jubilee Records]. She held out a piece of cheap foolscap on which were written the words to a song she had composed.
"I can sing it, too," she explained, shifting from one foot to the other. Blaine dutifully read the lyrics. "Well, now," he said kindly, "you go right ahead and sing."
That was how "Heavenly Father," sung by 16-year-old Edna McGriff came to be recorded. Edna now makes $750 a week for singing engagements when she's not going to high school.
Soon to be a major motion picture.
On October 30, Edna and Buddy Lucas began a three-week tour of the Midwest and South. On October 31, they, and the Checkers, appeared at the Sunset Terrace in Indianapolis, Indiana. Also on the bill were King Johnson ("rhythm on wheels") and Chester Calhoune & His Pals (comedy). On November 3, they were all at the Ritz Theater in Akron, Ohio, the Palace Theater, in Dayton, Ohio, on the 7th, and the Bijou Theater in Nashville on the 11th. These are the only appearances I could find, but there were probably several others.
The November 1, 1952 Cash Box had this, in their Rhythm & Blues Ramblings column: "Jubilee Records have been moving fabulously in the R&B field, and with the issuance of its latest releases, has announced that with eight disks currently so hot, the diskery will issue no other records until after the first of the year. [Make up your mind: is it "have" or "has"?] Jerry Blaine has one in the newest batch that will certainly strengthen his front line of best sellers. The new Edna McGriff-Sonny Til waxing of 'Good' backed with 'Piccadilly' is a double sock that will do much for the reputation of the sixteen-year-old thrush and the lead vocalist of the Orioles. The pair work together like butter and bread."
Elsewhere in that issue, they reviewed the songs, giving both a "B+". "Piccadilly" ("That wonderful blending of talent Edna McGriff and Sonny Til on the vocal and Buddy Lucas with the baton, get together on a medium beat bounce with happy novelty lyrics and the result is a sock side.") "Good" ("The same trio dish up a quick tempo jump in the same grand manner and come up with what might be termed an even better side than the upper deck. McGriff has an amazingly mature style and voice for a sixteen year old. Supplemented by Til and Lucas, this is a sure fire money grabber for the boxes.") Iconoclast that I am, I still don't like them. (I'm not alone; few people bought the record.)
"It ain't so" or words to that effect were uttered last week by the "Heavenly Father Girl," Edna McGriff, who is taking off on a 45-day theater tour of the Midwest. Edna spiked the rumor that she and Floyd Dixon (also a Shaw artist) were heading to the altar. "Why, I never even met him," said the 17-year old composer-singer. (New York Age - November 8, 1952)
Edna McGriff, the "Heavenly Father Girl," who just closed a week's engagement at Pep's Musical Bar in Philadelphia, denied the persistent show business rumor that she'll soon marry Floyd Dixon, the famed blues singer. Edna, who is taking a week off prior to a 45-day theater tour of the mid-west, stated that although the popular blues stylist is making a terrific pitch for her hand in matrimony with an average of three long-distance phone calls per day and in letters and wires, she has never personally met Floyd Dixon. (Cash Box - November 8, 1952)
The November 15 Detroit Tribune pulled it all together: Edna McGriff, the "Heavenly Father Girl," who closed a week's engagement at Pep's Musical Bar in Philadelphia, denied the persistent show-business rumor that she'll soon marry Floyd Dixon, the famed blues singer. Edna, who is taking a week off prior to a 45-day theater tour of the mid-west, stated that although the popular blues stylist is making a terrific pitch for her hand in matrimony with an average of three long distance phone calls per day and in letters and wires, she has personally never met Floyd Dixon. Both Dixon and Miss McGriff are booked by Shaw Artists Corp., but they have never worked the same location simultaneously. The seventeen year old Miss McGriff, whose name has been linked with several other top name acts in marriage rumors, stated that the idea of marriage now is "a little far-fetched."
English translation: a press agent for Shaw Artists Corp made up the rumor so that it could be denied, thus putting two of its artists in the same press release. And who could that press agent be? Gee, I wonder. The November 29, 1952 Cash Box said: "Jack Walker's beaming face showering approving looks on one of his many properties, Edna McGriff, in a national slick. He handles able publicity for Billy Shaw's booking office and Atlantic Records." It's a shame that it didn't name the national slick [magazine] that the referenced photo was in, so I could try and find a copy.
In December, Cash Box printed the results of its yearly "Best Of" poll. "Heavenly Father was #13 in the Best Rhythm And Blues Record Of 1952 category. Not all that much different, Billboard had it as #16 for the year.
Also in December, Edna was one of the singers shown on the cover of Rhythm & Blues magazine (which printed the lyrics to popular songs). Also pictured were Clyde McPhatter & the Dominoes and Nat "King" Cole. It's possible this was the national magazine mentioned above.
Edna had some health problems early in 1953. Keep in mind that all three of these quotes came from January 24, 1953 publications. Pick one you like.
Edna McGriff, the "Heavenly Father Girl", was ordered to bed last week after doctors declared the seventeen year old chirp would seriously endanger her health if she did not cancel all engagements for the next two weeks. Edna was slated for a series of one-nighter appearances with a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music January 22nd and will join Buddy Lucas' band in New Jersey to continue the one-night tour on the following day. [Cash Box]
Edna McGriff, the "Heavenly Father Girl," has resumed her tour with Buddy Lucas and his band after a bout with flu. [Pittsburgh Courier]
Another thrush, Edna McGriff is confined to her bed with a 101 degree fever due to overwork. [New York Age]
Edna's first Jubilee record of 1953, was "Why Oh Why", coupled with "Edna's Blues", released in February. This, to me, is a wonderful two-sided disc. Cash Box agreed, giving the disc its Award O' The Week on February 21.
In March, Edna appeared at Martin's Corner in Chicago (exact dates unknown). This was where the Flamingos had entered their first talent show, about a year before.
There was a small blurb about her in the March 26 Jet: "Probably most intriguing of the newcomers is a shapely New York teen-ager (17) named Edna McGriff. Her unique singing style rocketed her to fame on her first recording [second, but who's counting] and has made her one of the most-discussed new singing personalities. [It's easy to write stuff like that when you aren't required to name the people doing the discussing.] The record, Heavenly Father, has already sold a phenomenal 500,000. [Not a chance. As a really big seller in 1952, it was probably more in the 150,000 range.]"
On April 3, Edna, Joe Loco, Arthur Prysock, Stan Getz, and Sonny Stitt appeared at the Rockland Palace for the 92nd Division Veterans' Club's annual Ball.
In May, Jubilee released "Be Gentle With Me", backed with "Scrap Of Paper". They were reviewed in the May 23 Cash Box. "Be Gentle With Me" got a "C+" ("In her torchy and stylized manner, Edna McGriff leans into a smooth ballad and turns up some pretty listening material. Fine accompaniment by the Buddy Lucas Ork adds to the side.") "Scrap Of Paper" was rated a "B" ("A lovely tune that's been so close to the margin of breaking through and becoming a hit [by Bonnie Lou, on King], is wonderfully offered by Edna. A pretty waltz piece.") The May 30 Billboard ranked them 69 and 71, respectively. It's possible that the "C+" rating for "Be Gentle To Me" was a typo, because the May 30 Cash Box reviewed them again, raising "Be Gentle With Me" to "B+" ("Edna McGriff does a beautiful job on a soft lilt as she caresses the romantic lyrics.")
The May 23 Pittsburgh Courier had an article titled "Blues Stars Moving Into Pop Field". Edna was mentioned, along with Ruth Brown, the Dominoes, Little Sylvia, the 5 Keys, and the Clovers.
June 21 found Edna, along with the Crickets, at a dance at the Bedford YMCA in Brooklyn. There's a photo of Edna with the Crickets, but, considering the personnel, that would have been taken months later. (And yes, I know it doesn't look all that much like Edna, but the photo and personnel ID were provided to me by the man who took it.)
In July, Edna appeared at the Baby Grand. Larry Douglas' syndicated Theatrically Yours column (as it appeared in the August 7 Alabama Tribune), said: "Edna McGriff, who became popular with the waxing of her own composition 'Heavenly Father' is currently headlining the show at Harlem's Baby Grand Cafe. Miss McGriff is a pretty girl with a lot of talent. She has an air of grace and charm. She's too good for the second-rate spots and second rate recording labels [sorry, Jubilee]. So, this writer hopes Miss McGriff gets the 'pop' break she deserves. The kid is high class."
Edna was back at the Apollo Theater the week of September 11, 1953. She shared the stage with the Clovers, Stump & Stumpy, Lucky Millinder's band, and trumpeter Wingy Manone. Larry Douglas talked about the show in his column (as it appeared in the September 25, 1953 Arizona Sun): "Edna McGriff, the gal who did 'Heavenly Father' sang in top fashion . . . The Clovers did not come off too well." Later in the column, he added: "Edna Mc Griff is a pretty thrush with a pretty voice, who should be on a major label [sorry, Jubilee], singing strictly 'pop' material." Aside from being a columnist, Larry Douglas was also a songwriter (for example, he and Ivory Joe Hunter wrote "Laugh", recorded by Hunter, as well as by the Swallows).
The July 25, 1953 New York Age had said: "There's a story going around that Johnny Wallace (Coley's brother) is carrying the torch for curvaceous Edna McGriff, the young chanteuse who made lots of dough out of her recording of 'Heavenly Father'." [Coley Wallace was a boxer and actor, who starred in 1953's "The Joe Louis Story".] The September 19 New York Age continued the saga: "There is a rumor along the Grand Canyon that Johnny Wallace, affable manager of the Club Harlem here, and curvaceous Edna McGriff are serious. They have been dating constantly and insiders say an announcement may be forthcoming any day now." (At least this time Edna didn't deny having met him.)
It took until October 3 for the New York Age to dredge this up again: "Edna McGriff, confirmed our scoop of last week. She said that Johnny Wallace (Coley's brother) actually is shopping for a ring and is also about to purchase a house."
Since Johnny Wallace's name is never again mentioned along with Edna's, we can assume that nothing further occurred with this.
The September 26 New York Age had a photo showing Edna seated behind the wheel of a new Buick convertible. Also in the photo was Rubel Blakey (once a singer with Lionel Hampton, now a Buick salesman) and Jack Walker. The caption read: "No Off Key Here - Attractive singer Edna McGriff gets key to Buick beauty for try-out from Ruble [sic; actually, there's no agreement on how he spelled it] Blakey, salesman, as Jack Walker, radio commentator for WOV, beams in anticipation of going for ride."
Two things: first, it only said "try-out", not purchase or gift; second, and much more confusing, the New York Age ran the same photo, with the same caption, in its May 29, 1954 edition, some eight months later. That must have been one long test drive.
In October, Jubilee released "These Things Shall Be", backed with "I'll Surrender Anytime". On these, Edna finally got to be backed up by Budd Johnson's band. The record (along with the 5 Royales' "I Want To Thank You") was Cash Box's Sleeper Of The Week in its November 7, 1953 edition.
On December 25, 1953, Edna flew to Bermuda, along with mother, Axie. According to the January 7 Jet, she played the Seventh Shed Club in Hamilton for a week. (They'd return on January 3, 1954.) But this was too much for the publicity agent (probably Jack Walker) to let go by. Therefore, this appeared in the February 6 Pittsburgh Courier: "Edna McGriff, the teenager who wrote 'Heavenly Father' and hit high on the juke box list with it, has just returned from an engagement in Bermuda with stars in her eyes. Seems she fell in love with a tall, handsome carpenter and just can't wait to get back!" Ah, Young Love At First Sight.
But Jack Walker was about to change her life. The Pittsburgh Courier of April 10, 1954 reported that: "Jack Walker, who augments his radio disc-jockey activities with personal management, has a new singing discovery, Toni Anthony by name. But he still had time to work out a new recording contract with a larger company for Edna McGriff, the 'Heavenly Father' girl." [Sorry, again, Jubilee.]
That larger company was owned by Arthur Shimkin. It consisted of Bell Records, Favorite Records, and (later on) New Disc Records. (Shimkin also owned Golden Records, which issued platters for children.) Bell records were issued by Pocket Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) and could be purchased in chain stores like Woolworth, Kresge, Whalen Drugs, and Walgreen Drugs (they were also available in some record stores, but rarely, if ever, played on the radio). These companies specialized in covers of popular songs and the results were only occasionally sent to the trades for review. The production standards were high (that is, the voices and orchestrations were pretty good, although the arrangements could be horrible [and I'm being kind]).
Before Edna got a chance to record anything for her new company, Jubilee gave it one more try, issuing "I'll Be Around" and "Ooh, Little Daddy" on their Josie subsidiary in July 1954.
On August 19, Edna, the 5 Keys, and the Paul Williams orchestra appeared at the Bay Shore Auditorium in Newport News.
Time for more silliness from Jet's gossip columnist, Major Robinson. The September 30, 1954 edition had: "Singers Lee Richardson and Edna McGriff are the hottest new woomance in show business. He calls her every time he is near a telephone." (I don't know about you, but I gag every time I see the word "woomance".) Lee Richardson had been with Luis Russell's ork in the mid-40s.
The week of October 22, Edna was back at the Apollo, along with the Clovers, the Paul Williams orchestra, and comedian Spo-Dee-O-Dee.
The October 30 Billboard announced Arthur Shimkin's new label: Favorite Records. It was due to start shipping its first six singles on November 8. The very first Favorite release belonged to Edna: her version of "Sh-Boom" (credited to Edna McGriff and the Tomcats); the flip wasn't by her. "Sh-Boom" (a cover of the Chords' hit) wasn't badly done. However, the Tomcats were ghastly. (You should know by now what I think of the Dread Chorus.) The disc wasn't reviewed.
Probably the same week, Favorite issued another Edna (and the Tomcats) record. This one was a cover of Ruth Brown's "Mambo Baby". The Tomcats were a bit more restrained on this one (although they still should have been taken out and quietly, but firmly, shot).
"Mambo Baby" was reviewed in the November 27, 1954 Cash Box, receiving a "C+": "A good piece of R&B matter that went pop is given an exciting delivery by Edna McGriff and the Tomcats. Rhythm packed side." The review was actually better than the rating. That could mean that they kind of liked it, but knew that it would never be a money generator.
Those were the only Edna McGriff releases on Favorite. Shimkin next put her on New Disc, issuing "Come Back My Love" and "Sad, Sad, Sad" in March 1955 (she was backed up by the Sy Oliver Orchestra on these). "Come Back My Love" is not the Wrens tune; its background is reminiscent of Ravel's "Bolero" and is a very well-done effort. "Sad, Sad, Sad" features the sad, sad, sad Dread Chorus again.
The disc was reviewed in the March 26 Cash Box, with both sides getting a "C+". Since the reviews were really good, the low rating has to indicate what they thought of its sales potential. "Come Back My Love" ("Sy Oliver and the gang set up a dramatic backing for Edna McGriff as she belts out a big bolero production number. Exciting big-voiced offering.") "Sad, Sad, Sad" ("Edna does a complete about face on this side and really lets loose on a driving rock 'n roll type number. Full of punch. Chorus assists." [Oh, is that what they were doing?])
The second New Disc March release was "I Was I Am And Always Will Be", coupled with "A Thousand Burning Bridges", once again with the Sy Oliver Orchestra. They were also reviewed on March 26, this time in Billboard. "I Was I Am And Always Will Be" (which needed some serious punctuation) got a 72 ("Potent rendition of a strong ballad by a talented thrush. Could make noise in both pop and r&b markets, if it can get the exposure. Orking is by Sy Oliver.") They had this to say about "A Thousand Burning Bridges", which got a 70: "Fine tune by Hillard and Fain doesn't have the direct appeal of the flip."
And then, Favorite and New Disc were gone. Over the next three years, Shimkin would only release her on Bell (and she'd only record cover versions).
The first Bell offering was a cover of Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love", backed with a cover of Georgia Gibbs' "Dance With Me Henry" (which also credited the incredibly ghastly Bells). Released in April, it was reviewed in the May 7, 1955 Billboard; both sides received 75. The reviews, which I won't bother with, stressed that it was good because it was cheap (39 cents).
Anyone who knows how I feel about Johnny Ace will understand why I'd like to buy up all existing copies of Edna's "Pledging My Love" and lovingly feed them into a fire.
From the June 30, 1955 Jet: "Because she's having contract troubles, Edna McGriff has stopped singing and is writing songs. Nat (King) Cole will record one of her tunes." There was nothing else reported on this, but it looks like she broke with Jack Walker.
Speaking of marriage, we know she didn't marry Floyd Dixon; we know she didn't marry Johnny Wallace; we know she didn't marry the tall, handsome carpenter from Bermuda; and we know that she didn't marry Lee Richardson. But she did marry (and it was a Dixon). Sometime in 1955 (nothing was more specific), she married Leon Dixon in Manhattan. (The license number was 15570 if anyone wants to try and pinpoint it further.) On April 16, 1956, they had a daughter, Doria Yvonne Dixon.
Although the Jet article said that she would stop singing, Edna did appear at a show at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music on October 15, 1955. Others on the bill were Al Hibbler, Cozy Cole, Etta Jones, and Joe Tex.
Harvey Ray (of the Du Droppers) once told me that, by late '55 or early '56, after the Du Droppers had broken up, he and his brother, Willie Ray, then got together with the Dominoes' Bill Brown, the Drifters' Little David Baughan, and Edna McGriff to form an unnamed group that was, alas, only together for a month. (Both Brown and Baughan had been in the Checkers, a group which, by now, was also history.)
While she continued to record for Bell in 1956, it looks like this was her last appearance for over a year, probably due to pregnancy and motherhood. But from now on, not a single Bell release was reviewed.
In July 1956, there was "The Fool" (a cover of the Sanford Clark hit), backed with a cover of the Chordettes' "Born To Be With You" (it has some nice whistling, but she's mostly leading a chorus).
September's entry was a cover of Johnnie Ray's "Just Walking In The Rain", along with the 4 Spooners (also with some whistling). It was backed with a cover of Al Hibbler's "After The Lights Go Down Low".
The last 1956 release, from October, was "I Can't Love You Enough" (a cover of the Lavern Baker tune). The flip wasn't by her.
Note that Bell recordings were issued under other labels in other countries. For example, Festival in Australia, Varieton in Germany, and Gala in the UK.
As far as I'm concerned, these (and subsequent) Bell releases were mostly a waste of Edna's talent. I'm sure that most people who bought these things were disappointed in them.
1957 started with a cover of Sonny Knight's "Confidential", issued in January; it was paired with Buddy Lucas singing "Since I Met You Baby". However, on the 45 labels (but not the sleeves), the artist names were switched; 78s are correct.
The February 16, 1957 Cleveland Call And Post had an article titled "Edna McGriff Back On Stage". Since it's the first thing that's been written about her in a while, I'll reproduce the whole thing.
When you hear of a performer making a comeback in show business the mind thinks of someone about 50 years old. But singer Edna McGriff first tasted fame and success at 17 and at 21 years old we find her today making a comeback.
Five years ago her star rose with her first song, "Heavenly Father" which she wrote herself. Theater and niteclub owners bid to headline her name and her price was $1800 weekly. She was given a gold record because her hit tune sold a million copies. [Probably nothing in this paragraph is true.]
But two years ago misfortune set in in the form of troubles with her manager who wanted a bigger share of the money than he was entitled to.
So she decided to temporarily quit show business until her contract expired. In the meantime, she married Leon Dixon, a childhood sweetheart [I can neither prove nor disprove that], and began a family.
But the theatrical bug started biting her three months ago and it led to Moe Gale's office. Moe, a theatrical agent, music publisher and personnel [sic; they meant "personal"] manager was starting his Gale record label and needed a name, plus a good voice, to kick it off.
Her first two tunes, "I Get The Feeling" and "I Hurt Too Much To Cry" with the new diskery are due to be in the nation's music stores next week and disc jockeys who've heard advance copies have already started to rave.
Her first comeback appearance will be at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, then Cleveland and at Detroit's Flame Show Bar. Just the thought of booking her has spread joy among cafe and theatre owners who realize the McGriff name means money at the box office.
Gale Records was a deal between Moe Gale and RCA Victor wherein Gale would do all the work and RCA would manufacture and distribute the records. However, there were very few releases on Gale and it looks like Moe sold Edna's masters to Brunswick, a Decca subsidiary, instead of releasing them on Gale. Based on the Brunswick record number, the disc came out in August 1957, not February.
March 2-3, 1957 found Edna as part of the show at the State Theater in Hartford. It starred Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen (with the Rhythm Orchids), Nappy Brown, and the Cleftones. Also present were Sil Austin, Maureen Cannon, Lewis Lymon & the Teenchords, Bobby Charles, and Al Savage.
Edna was back at the Apollo the week of March 15, along with Lloyd Price, the Clovers, Amos Milburn, and Moms Mabley.
There were three Edna McGriff Bell releases in 1957. June saw "Freight Train" (covering Rusty Draper), backed with "Start Movin' (In My Direction)" (covering Sal Mineo). Both of those songs appeared on Bell EP #11, issued in France, which also had "Fabulous" by Artie Malvin and "It's You I Love" by Buddy Lucas. (Unfathomably, the EP cover had a photo of Esther Williams.)
There were two Bell releases in August, but only one side of each had Edna: a cover of the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee" and a cover of Della Reese's "And That Reminds Me".
Another Apollo appearance, this time the week of August 16. The headliner was Clyde McPhatter and the other acts were Buddy Holly & the Crickets, the 5 Keys, Clarence Henry, and Clay Tyson.
As I said before, "I Get The Feeling" and "I Hurt Too Much To Cry" were released on Brunswick in August. Both are actually quite boring and have the Dread Chorus. "I Hurt Too Much To Cry" is very Country.
"I Get The Feeling" (but not the flip) was reviewed in the September 9, 1957 Billboard: "A talented belting thrush makes a very impressive disk debut with this commercial side. The gal has a solid sound and excitement on the slow rock and roller which also accents a strong choral backing. Definitely worth watching." Obviously, the reviewer had never heard of Edna before.
On October 5, Edna was one of the entertainers at Peg Leg Bates' 50th birthday party. Also there were saxophonist Big Al Sears and Jack Walker ("Harlem's leading disk jockey"). I wonder if it was a tearful reunion.
Edna's final two Bell releases were issued around April 1958. Once again, she was only on one side of each: a cover of Laurie London's "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" and a cover of Huey Smith & the Clowns' "Don't You Just Know It" (which I can't even begin to describe as "ghastly"; it's actually painful for me to listen to it). The good news is: these are the last cover records she did. From now on, she'd move more into the popular field. (Interestingly, this is the first article I've ever written that uses the word "ghastly" three times [or is it four, counting this sentence?].)
Her first attempt to move on also came out in April 1958. This one was on Felsted: "Oh Joe! (Rock Me Round)", backed with "How Long Will It Take". "Oh Joe" is not a great song, but it's interesting because it's multi-tracked and she's singing a duet with herself. "How Long Will It Take" is a pretty standard Rock 'n Roll ballad.
Another 1958 release was on Savoy in June. "No Change" and "Ah-Ah-Ah" were duets, credited to "Buddy And Edna (Buddy Lucas & Edna McGriff)". Not reviewed, they sound something like Mickey & Sylvia.
The August 4, 1958 Billboard had a small article about the new Jupiter label, which was "Allied with the American low-priced Bell and Promenade labels...." Two of the artists named were Ike Cole (one of Nat's brothers) and Edna McGriff. There was a Jupiter label around the year before; I don't think they were connected. However, it's a moot point since there were never any Edna McGriff releases on Jupiter.
A new direction for Edna. In 1958, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song" opened on Broadway and was a smash hit. In February 1959, Rondo Records released a Flower Drum Song LP on their Rondo-lette subsidiary. Although uncredited, Edna sang the part of Linda Low on three songs: "I Enjoy Being A Girl", "Grant Avenue", and "Sunday". I've heard the first and it's very well done.
Another Rondo-lette LP from 1959 was called Porgy And Bess Suite / The Flower Drum Song. This had several tunes from each show, including "I Enjoy Being A Girl". (Based on label credits for orchestral direction, this might have been a separate recording from the prior one, since two different orchestras were named. Ira Wright conducted the orchestra and chorus on the full album; Suzanne Auber and the Broadway Orchestra was on the half album.)
The February 7, 1959 Cash Box told us that "Featured in the Flower Drum Song cast is Edna McGriff, Wayne Sherwood, Jean Arnold and Artie Malvin." Since the records themselves don't name the singers, I guess there was some press release that identified them.
The LP was reviewed in the April 13, 1959 Billboard: "This is a first class performance of the music from the current Rodgers and Hammerstein hit show, very ably performed by an unnamed group of artists. They are solid pros, and the album consequently is a real bargain at its budget price."
In the meanwhile, childhood sweetheart or not, Edna and Leon Dixon had gotten divorced somewhere along the line. On March 7, 1959, Edna married Thomas Leroy Minors in Stamford, Connecticut. She had two additional children with him: Roselle and Steven. Since Roselle was born at the end of 1959, Edna took 1960 off. (Actually, while there were still a few recordings in the future, I can find no further appearances at all.)
The August 31, 1961 Jet told us: "Edna McGriff, a teen-age singing sensation seven years ago, is coming out of retirement to make a comeback. She is recording for the Willow label . . . The Sonny Tils are expecting the stork. He was the lead singer with the now-disbanded Orioles quartet. [just thought I'd throw that in]"
Sure enough, Willow released a re-make of "Heavenly Father" that month; the flip was "Oo La La". They were listed, with three stars each, in the September 4 Billboard Moderate Sales Potential column. Willow was owned by Mickey [Baker] and Sylvia [Robinson] and distributed by King.
Here's an odd one. There's a one-sided demo recording of "Been Hearing About You Baby" on the Variety Recording Service label. The typed name "Sweet Tones" is crossed out and "Edna McGriff" hand-printed. There's also the name "Doria D" scrawled across the label, which indicates that this disc was once owned by Edna McGriff's daughter, Doria Dixon. When was this from? The address says "New York 36, NY" (that is, it has a zone number rather than a zip code), which places the record prior to July 1963, when zip codes came in. Variety Recording Service was started in 1961, so that narrows the window down ever further to between May 1961 and June 1963. I'll tentatively place it in 1962. I've never heard it, so I don't know what genre it was in.
Edna's final recordings were made for Capitol Records. It looks like there was a single session that produced at least four songs: "Can't Help Lovin' That Man", "I Want To Be Loved", "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me", and "This Love Of Mine".
The first two were released in September 1964 and reviewed in the October 3 Cash Box. I Want To Be Loved didn't get a rating, possibly because it showed up in the Best Bets column: "Edna McGriff has a good chance of having a hit on her hands with this lush strings-oriented bluesy item about a gal who prays for a little romantic affection. Plenty of Top 40 potential." Can't Help Lovin' That Man was rated "B+": "Impressive blues-styled reading of the 'Show Boat' chestnut." Actually, it was kind of draggy. I haven't heard "I Want To Be Loved", but based on the writer credit, I believe it's the same song that Savannah Churchill had first done back in late 1946.
Capitol released "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me" and "This Love Of Mine" in March 1965. At least "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me" was a soul sound.
And that was it for Edna McGriff. From March of 1965 to April 1980, there are no further recordings nor a single mention.
On March 25, 1980, Edna McGriff Minors died (possibly from lymphoma) in Queens, New York. Her obituary appeared in the April 5 New York Amsterdam News:
Edna McGriff, the composer of "Heavenly Father," one of the hits of the 50's, died March 25 at her home in Jamaica, N.Y., after a brief illness. She was 44 years old.
Writing the song which became so popular during the Korean War years when she was only 16 years old, Miss McGriff, who also sang, became a recording artist for Jubilee and Atlantic Records. ["Heavenly Father" appeared on an Atlantic compilation LP; she never recorded for them.] She performed not only throughout the U.S., but made personal appearances in Bermuda.
Miss McGriff, who was the daughter of Mrs. Axie McGriff and the late John McGriff, was born in Tampa, Fla., but had lived in New York since 1942.
Besides her mother, Miss McGriff is survived by her husband, Leroy Minors; two daughters, Doria and Roselle; a son, Steven; a sister, Irene Foster; and three brothers, James, Lucius and John McGriff.
Confused to the end, I have no idea who her brother Lucius McGriff was; he appears nowhere else but in that obituary. The only Lucius McGriff that ever came from Florida was born in 1921, but not to John and Axie. (Could he have been a cousin, mistakenly called "brother"?)
Edna McGriff had a very nice voice. In the early days, she sounded extremely mature for her age. I guess that all those cover recordings brought in money, but I wish she'd have done more R&B or serious Pop. Actually, now that I think about it, how could she have paid the bills with those Bell recordings? She was probably paid some small amount for the sessions, but I doubt there was ever much in royalties. On top of that, I can't find all that many appearances she made over the years. Just another mystery.
Special thanks to Victor Pearlin. Many label scans were gleefully stolen from the 45cat site.
5062 Come Back / Note Droppin' Papa - 8/51
5073 Heavenly Father / I Love You - 2/52
5087 It's Raining / Not Now - ca. 6/52
5089 In A Chapel By The Side Of The Road / Pray For A Better World - 7/52
5090 Once In A While / I Only Have Eyes For You (Edna McGriff & Sonny Til) - 7/52
6019 My Baby's Coming Home / My Favorite Song - 9/52
5099 Piccadilly / Good (Edna McGriff & Sonny Til) - 10/52
5109 Why Oh Why / Edna's Blues - 2/53
5119 Scrap Of Paper / Be Gentle With Me - 5/53
5129 These Things Shall Be / I'll Surrender Anytime - 10/53
JOSIE (subsidiary of Jubilee)
764 I'll Be Around / Ooh, Little Daddy - 7/54
UNRELEASED JUBILEE (recorded on June 11, 1952)
That's How I Feel Without You (Edna McGriff & Sonny Til)
Lovebirds (Edna McGriff & Sonny Til)
FAVORITE (An Arthur Shimkin label)
21000 Sh-Boom (Edna McGriff & Tomcats) / [Muskrat Ramble - Helen Carrol & Dixieland Five] - 11/54
21004 Mambo Baby (Edna McGriff & Tomcats) / [Shake Rattle And Roll - Tomcats] - 11/54
NEW DISC (An Arthur Shimkin label)
10020 Come Back My Love / Sad, Sad, Sad - 3/55
10023 A Thousand Burning Bridges / I Was I Am And Always Will Be - 3/55
BELL (An Arthur Shimkin label)
1093 Pledging My Love / Dance With Me Henry (Edna McGriff & Bells) - 4/55
4 The Fool / Born To Be With You - ca. 7/56
7 Just Walking In The Rain (Edna McGriff & 4 Spooners) / After The Lights Go Down Low - ca. 9/56
12 I Can't Love You Enough / [Lay Down Your Arms - Bell Chorus] - ca. 10/56
20 Confidential / [Since I Met You Baby - Buddy Lucas] - ca. 1/57
(note - artist names were switched on the 45 label, but not on the sleeve; 78s are correct)
43 Freight Train / Start Movin' (In My Direction) - ca. 6/57
54 Mr. Lee / [Searchin' - Buddy Lucas] - ca. 8/57
55 And That Reminds Me / [An Affair To Remember - Bruce Adams] - ca. 8/57
Note that Bell recordings were issued under other labels in other countries.
For example, Festival in Australia, Varieton in Germany, and Gala in the UK
GALA (UK) Edna McGriff's The Name - late 57
1014 The Fool / And That Reminds Me // Mr. Lee / Born To Be With You
BRUNSWICK (A Decca subsidiary)
55023 I Get The Feeling / I Hurt Too Much To Cry - 8/57
78 He's Got The Whole World In His Hands / [A Wonderful Time Up There - Tony Wilson] - ca. 4/58
79 Don't You Just Know It / [Twilight Time - Barry Frank] - ca. 4/58
8519 Oh Joe! (Rock Me Round) / How Long Will It Take - 4/58
SAVOY (Buddy & Edna - Buddy Lucas & Edna McGriff)
1543 No Change / Ah-Ah-Ah - 6/58
SA 79 The Flower Drum Song - 2/59 (uncredited)
I Enjoy Being A Girl
843 Porgy And Bess Suite / The Flower Drum Song - 59 (uncredited)
I Enjoy Being A Girl
(based on label credits for orchestral direction, this might have been a different recording from the prior one)
23001 Heavenly Father / Oo La La - 8/61
VARIETY RECORDING SERVICE (one sided demo)
Been Hearing About You Baby - ca. 62
5277 Can't Help Lovin' That Man / I Want To Be Loved - 9/64
5382 I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me / This Love Of Mine - 3/65