Born 28 October 1939, Yuma, Arizona
Curtis Lee is best remembered for his two Phil Spector-produced hits from 1961. Prior to that, he cut three records for small labels while he was still in his teens. In 1959, the year in which Curtis moved to the West Coast from his native Arizona, he had his first release : "Pure Love" on the Warrior label from Hollywood. This was an unashamed Ricky Nelson imitation, which was not unnatural as the song was written by Johnny Burnette (with one Jesse Hodges), who also wrote a lot of songs for Ricky at this time. "Pure Love" was also recorded (on March 3, 1959) by Sonny James ; I'm not sure if this version precedes the more rocking recording by Curtis Lee. Both came out in June 1959, but didn't chart. There is also a very good later version of "Pure Love" by Donnie and Ronnie on Associated Artists (1965), which sold for $ 416 on Ebay recently.
Lee's next release was "I Never Knew What Love Could Do"/"Gotta Have You" (1960) on the tiny Hot label, still in the Ricky Nelson mould and well worth collecting if you can find a copy. Not long thereafter, Curtis was discovered by singer Ray Peterson, who had just formed his own label, Dunes Records, together with his then- manager, Stan Shulman. Dunes was located in New York City and it was there that Curtis recorded all his material for the label, starting in late 1960. By this time he had begun a songwriting partnership with Tommy Boyce, who later would become one half of the successful Tommy Boyce / Bobby Hart songwriting-producing-singing duo. The first three Dunes singles flopped, but then production duties were taken over by Phil Spector, who had already scored a Top 10 hit for Dunes with "Corinna Corinna" by Ray Peterson. Spector was not impressed by Lee's squeaky voice and decided that something extra was needed to pump life into "Pretty Little Angel Eyes", one of the four Lee-Boyce compositions that Curtis had brought to the session (at Mira Sound Studios on West 47th Street). For the background vocals, Spector brought in a black quartet, the Halos, who recorded for Seven Arts Records and were on the verge of scoring their own Top 30 hit with "Nag". Arthur Cryer, the Halos' bass man and leader, recalled : "We came in and Spector gave us the lyric sheets and told us to do what we felt". 1961 was the year of the doo-wop revival and the Halos' vocal riffs came straight out of the 1950s uptempo doo-wop school and made the song infectious. "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" peaked at # 7 on the Billboard charts in mid-1961 and in the UK, where it was released on London HLX 9397, it went to # 47. For the follow-up, Boyce and Lee turned in the jaunty "Under the Moon Of Love", which used less of a doo-wop style, in favour of a thick sax sound and a party atmosphere that was typical of the records by Gary U.S Bonds. This record also sold well (# 46), but it was to be Lee's last chart entry. Phil Spector would soon fall out with Dunes and started his own Philles label. Four more Dunes singles followed for Curtis until late 1963, but they were not up to the same standard as his two hits. By 1967 he had switched to "blue-eyed soul" for singles on Mira and Rojac, but all to no avail. Around 1970 Curtis left the music business, returned to the town where he grew up, Yuma, Arizona, and started a very successful career as a custom homebuilder. "Under the Moon Of Love" was a # 1 hit in the UK in 1976, when it was revived by Showaddywaddy, a high-selling eight-piece group from Leicester that specialized in covers of rock 'n' roll hits from the 50s and early sixties. They were also successful with their versions of two other Curtis Lee numbers, "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" (# 5, 1978) and "A Night At Daddy Gee's" (# 39, 1979).
- CD : Curtis Lee, Pretty Little Angel Eyes (Collectables Col 5706). Released in 1996. 17 Dunes tracks.
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