Born Robert Jones Mitchell, 16 August 1935, Algiers, Louisiana
Bobby Mitchell was an R&B singer with a powerful tenor-baritone voice and a style somewhere between his labelmates Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis. Considering the high quality of the material he recorded during the 1950s and early 1960s, one questions just why he didn't have more success. His records proved to be steady rhythm and blues sellers, but Bobby managed only one minor national hit, with "Try Rock and Roll", in 1956. Many of his early recordings were influenced by the dominant musical personalities of his day, including Roy Brown, Clyde McPhatter, Roy Hamilton, and especially Fats Domino.
Mitchell was born in a taxicab, next to the Ferry in Algiers, Louisiana, as the second oldest of a family of eventually seventeen children. Like his birth, his childhood was not easy. "Fishing was our living and I helped out with that. I used to cut wood and sold it before school. Being the second oldest, I had to be one of the supporters" he told Jeff Hannusch. In high school Bobby played football until he got his knee "busted", after which he joined the school chorus. His music teacher, Margie Dickerson, was duly impressed with his stentorian vocals and had him singing solos on the show-stoppers "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Ol' Man River".
During the summer vacation of 1950, five boys from the school choir got together and formed a group, the Toppers : Bobby Mitchell, Lloyd Bellaire, Frank Bocage, Willie Bridges and Joseph Butler. "We were all singing, but I guess I was the leader." Gabriel Fleming joined them as their pianist. (For Fleming's very special piano style, listen to "You Are An Angel" in the YouTube section.)
In late 1952 the Toppers auditioned for Dave Barthlomew at Imperial. Dave was interested in just Bobby and not the group, but Mitchell insisted that it was all of them or nothing. Bartholomew relented and Bobby Mitchell and the Toppers were all signed to Imperial in early 1953. The songs on their first single were both penned by group members. The blues ballad "I'm Crying" (written by Lloyd Bellaire) became the A-side, with the rousing "Rack 'em Back" (Joe Butler) on the flip. Being still in school, the group was unable to give the record much promotion. On his Imperial recordings Bobby was backed by members of Cosimo Matassa's studio band, people like Lee Allen, Alvin Tyler, Justin Adams, Frank Fields and Earl Palmer.
It was Mitchell's third release, "Baby's Gone", another blues ballad in the style of "I'm Crying", that made the New Orleans charts and went a long way to establish his name as a strong regional artist. The Toppers split up in 1954, as no less than four members were drafted. Bobby and the only other remaining member, Gabriel Fleming, formed the nucleus of a new group, the King Toppers. For some time this band included future star Clarence Henry (then still without the 'Frogman' moniker), who had also played trombone on the first Mitchell session in February 1953. Bobby did not record in 1955. At the first session without the Toppers, in January 1956, Dave Bartholomew decided to try Mitchell on some rock 'n' roll- oriented material, which resulted in his only chart entry, "Try Rock And Roll" (# 14 R&B).
Mitchell was now a solo artist. In September 1957 he recorded the song that would most often be associated with him, "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" (later recorded by Fats Domino and others). The song was brought to Bartholomew by its writer, Roy Hayes, a Cajun from Baton Rouge. Hayes recorded the song himself in May 1957 (along with three other songs from his pen), but Imperial never released it, "because the singing is not professional", as Imperial boss Lew Chudd put it politely in a letter to Hayes, dated July 22, 1957. "However, we plan to use the tunes with another artist in the very near future." Though Bobby's version never cracked the Hot 100, it was big enough to earn him a spot on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Mitchell proved something of a surprise to promoters and deejays in cities where he had never played before, because they assumed that he was white, on the basis of "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday", which had a strong country feel.
Imperial let his contract expire in 1958 (the label dropped most of its New Orleans acts and concentrated more on white rock n roll), after which Bobby cut a handful of singles for two small New Orleans labels, Sho-biz and Ron. A heart attack in the early 1960s brought an end to his career on the road, but he continued to perform in New Orleans where he has always been very popular. He entered Tulane University in 1962 and would later work as a medical school pathologist.
In 1963, Imperial became interested in him again, releasing four sides. He bowed out as a recording artist later that year with an Eddie Bo-produced single for Rip. After that Bobby concentrated on raising his family of eight children and furthering his career in the field of medicine. He died of kidney failure in 1989 at the age of 53.
Though Mitchell couldn't get a hit on Imperial, in terms of numbers, his seventeen single releases rank him behind only Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis among New Orleans' numerous Imperial artists. None of these 17 singles was issued in the UK. It wasn't until the release of the 16-track LP "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" on the Swedish Mr. R&B label in 1979 that Bobby Mitchell was finally discovered in Europe. It was the only record that he made money on.
More info : http://www.allmusic.com/artist/bobby-mitchell-mn0000088497
Further reading : Bobby Mitchell : I'm gonna be a wheel someday. In : Jeff Hannusch, I hear you knockin' : The sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues (Swallow Publications 1985), page 281-288.
Acknowledgements : Rick Coleman, Jeff Hannusch. Bruce Eder.
Dik, January 2013
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