DEAN BARLOW & THE CRICKETS (By Steve Walker)
Grover "Dean" Barlow (lead tenor) (born 1935)
Rhythm & blues group harmony abounds with smooth lead tenors. Somehow the very essence of doowop is the contrast between the sweet lead and the more bluesy gospel-informed phrasing and harmonising in the background.
To a stellar roster which contains Pookie Hudson of the Spaniels, Rudy West of the Five Keys, Nolan Strong of the Diablos, Bobby Lester of the Moonglows, James Sheppard of the Heartbeats, Fred Parris of the Five Satins, Sonny Til of the Orioles, Lee Andrews of the Hearts, Johnny Maestro of the Crests, Clyde McPhatter and Johnny Moore of the Drifters, Nate Nelson of the Flamingos and Willie Winfield of the Harptones (pause for breath), we should add the sensual tones of Grover "Dean" Barlow, lead singer of New York's Crickets.
The group that was to become the Crickets were from the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Harold Johnson (tenor and guitar), Eugene Stapleton (tenor), Leon Carter (baritone) and Rodney Jackson (bass) began singing at the Forest House Community Centre around 1951.
Grover Barlow (the "Dean" would come later) was originally from Detroit, where he belonged to a group that entertained fellow classmates over the high school public address system before classes started. When he moved to the Bronx in 1951, he made friends through his favourite sport, stickball. Some of his new-found friends were already singing together and he was asked to join as lead.
Grover was the youngest (at about 16) and Harold the oldest (at about 21). Before recording, their appearances were limited to community centres, with one important exception: when the group had been together for a short while, Rodney Jackson was hospitalised for about six months. Every Sunday the rest of the group would come to the hospital, wheel Rodney around in his bed, and sing for the other patients. In this way, the group managed to stay intact and practice without having to recruit a new member. After a further six-month convalescence, Rodney rejoined the group on a full-time basis and they began to actively pursue a career.
To practice, the group sang both old standards mixed with original songs written by Harold Johnson. Although they enjoyed the works of the Orioles, Swallows and Four Buddies, their repertoire consisted mostly of standards in the style of the Ravens.
They had an agent named Cliff Martinez, who would, over the course of his career, manage the Crows, Sparks of Rhythm, Pretenders and Mello-Tones (Decca). He was the one who introduced the group to Joe Davis of Beacon, Jay-Dee and Davis label fame. In addition to his own labels, Joe Davis had a link to MGM Records and it was Joe who came up with the name of the Crickets for the group. In doing so, he signed the group name over to his own company, thus retaining total rights to the name, regardless of who might constitute the membership. In this respect, Joe Davis pre-empted George Treadwell with the Drifters and Buck Ram with the Platters.
I have read that shortly before Buddy Holly died, Joe Davis supposedly won a large cash settlement from the Brunswick Crickets group for using the name that he owned, but I've never been able to put any flesh on those bare bones, apart from reading a rebuttal by Carl Bunch. Any additional information from the numerous Holly-philes on this list would be most welcome.
Drawing on his recording experience (he had previously produced the Deep River Boys), Joe Davis decided to cut the Crickets himself. On 2 December, 1952 the Crickets recorded "You're Mine", "Milk And Gin", "For You I Have Eyes", and "I'll Cry No More" and Davis then promptly leased the masters to MGM, at the same time negotiating a job for himself as an A&R man for the record company.
In February 1953, MGM released "You're Mine" c/w "Milk And Gin" (MGM 11428). "You're Mine" is a beautiful ballad with Grover Barlow sounding as much like Sonny Til as the great man himself. Bass Rodney Jackson is also much to the forefront with the remainder of the boys harmonizing and also singing in old-style ensemble fashion. In the style of the time, the flip, "Milk And Gin" is a mid-tempo Clovers-style boozing song. "You're Mine" hit the local New York R&B charts and crept into the national R&B charts for a single week at #10. It also showed strong regional sales in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Buffalo and Cincinnati. "You're Mine" reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies in the north-east States - no small beer for an R&B record.
Right after "You're Mine" was released, the Crickets were off on a promotional tour. They played the Apollo (on 3 July, 1953) with Ruth Brown, Moms Mabley, Sonny Stitt and comic Spo-Dee-Odee. They played the Royal Theatre in Baltimore and while there, reportedly, slept on the floor in the home of the Orioles' George Nelson. They appeared in a barn in Virginia. They were stranded in Petersburg, Virginia when Fats Domino walked out on the tour after a fight with his band. They played the Baby Grand when Nipsey Russell was the master of ceremonies there and also the Carnegie Club in Clevela (where they met the Spaniels). As you might expect, the only money the group ever received was for appearances, and most of that disappeared before it ever reached them.
In time, the Crickets became one of the best-dressed groups around. Whereas many groups had only one outfit, and the lucky ones had two or three, the Crickets had eight. This came in handy when they broke up - none of them had to buy clothes for a long time!
When the Crickets returned from their tour, Davis took them back into the studio for a marathon session. Held on April 24, 1953, at least seven songs were recorded: "I'm Going To Live My Life Alone" (a song Joe Davis had written), "The Man From The Moon" (a street song also done by the Five Crowns), "When I Met You", "Dreams And Wishes", "I'm Not The One You Love", "Fine As Wine" and "Be Faithful". These were done, once again, as an independent session, and were not offered to MGM. Some, but not all, of these recordings feature Cozy Cole on drums and Sam Taylor on tenor sax.
In June 1953, MGM issued the second Crickets record: "For You I Have Eyes" c/w "I'll Cry No More" (MGM 11507). "For You I Have Eyes" is a pretty ballad in the style of the Larks, and "I'll Cry No More" is more of a traditional slow ballad. The disc sold well without disturbing the charts, and further enhanced the groups growing reputation as balladeers of the highest order.
With the success the Crickets were having, Joe Davis left MGM, after only a few months, to reactivate his own Jay-Dee label. He not only took the Crickets away from MGM, but, at the same time, the Blenders and Paula Watson - all artists in which Davis had a management interest.
The Crickets had the honour of having the first release on Jay-Dee - number 777, issued in July 1953, was "When I Met You" c/w "Dreams And Wishes", a pair of typically lazy, dreamy items. (Note that this was only a month after MGM had issued the second Crickets record. Obviously Davis had been planning this for a while).
In September, Davis released "I'm Not The One You Love", coupled with the more up-tempo "Fine As Wine" (Jay-Dee 781), wherein our cheeky boys declare:
She gave me some lip I gave her some sass She turned right around And gave me some [saxophone squeal]
By the time of this latest release, the original Crickets were in the process of breaking up. Joe Davis was encouraging Grover Barlow to go out as a solo act, and Harold Johnson was on his way to further fame with Lillian Leach & the Mellows. The remainder of the original group never sang professionally again.
Despite the attempts to get Grover Barlow launched as a solo artist, Joe Davis arranged to form a second Crickets group, consisting of Barlow, Robert Bynum (1st tenor), William Lindsay (2nd tenor) and Joe "Ditto" Dias from the Chords as bass.
Sometime in November or December 1953, this second group recorded four songs: "Your Love", "Changing Partners", "My Little Baby's Shoes", and "Just You". The first two were released in December (Jay-Dee 785). "Your Love" has that latino groove so popular at the time, with the new group doop-dooping and wah-wahing away in fine form. "Changing Partners" is a cover of the big Patti Page/Bing Crosby hit.
The other two songs from that session were released very shortly afterwards as Jay-Dee 786. "Just You" has shades of "Crying In The Chapel", a mega-hit for the Orioles a few months earlier, especially in the bridge. "My Little Baby's Shoes" is a curiously old-fashioned sounding song which doesn't quite come off to my ears.
However, the second Crickets group was a dismal failure. They did a few engagements but never wanted to practice. After their single session, Bynum and Dias left. Bill Lindsay stuck around, however, and was joined by Bobby Spencer (baritone) and Freddy Barksdale (bass) to complete the third Crickets group. Both Spencer and Barksdale had been in a non-recording group called the Velvetones, with tenors Dave McPhatter, and J.R. Bailey (Barksdale's half-brother). Grover's father had a fish store, and this Crickets group practiced in a room in the back of it. J.R. Bailey was an occasional member of the group.
The third Crickets group also did a single session, in January 1954, which resulted in two songs: "Are You Looking For A Sweetheart" and "Never Give Up Hope". These tunes were released in early February on Jay-Dee 789. "Are You Looking For A Sweetheart" fits into the "dreamy ballad" category. "Never Give Up Hope" sounds like a recruitment song for the Salvation Army - fine Jubilee singing.
In October 1954, Beacon 795 was released - "I'm Going to Live My Life Alone" c/w "Man from the Moon". Both songs were by the original group from the April 1953 session. "I'm Going To Live My Life Alone" is a plaintive ballad in which Grover Barlow declares he's going to live on top of a mountain because he can't find the right girl to love. "Man From The Moon" is a fun novelty jump tune featuring Rodney Jackson on lead:
Here comes a flying saucer Flying out of the moon Here comes a flying saucer Well, Jack, we all are doomed
My, you better run, son It's the man from the moon You better jack, Jack It's the man from the moon You better blow, Joe It's the man from the moon You better run It's the man from the moon
Well, well, we were walking down the street Something shabby and pale Good thing we had our sneakers on Yeah, they really got out of there
You better run, son It's the man from the moon (etc)
Well, look to a building Not much time to spare Whatever it is that's chasing us Came whirling through the air
You better run, son It's the man from the moon (etc)
Well, look out my window See if it was clear Slammed and locked my window Never had a tree out there
You better run, son It's the man from the moon (etc)
Look out, Jack It might be The Thing*
[* a reference to Phil Harris' 1950 hit "The Thing" or possibly the film of the same name that followed the year after].
In November 1954, Joe Davis decided to reactivate his Beacon label (which he'd had in the 40s), and, once again, the first release was by the Crickets - in fact the label credit was "Dean Barlow & The Crickets" (Davis, still looking toward a solo career for Barlow, didn't think that "Grover" was a saleable name; Grover's mother's maiden name, "Dean" was selected). "Be Faithful" (Beacon 104) was the remaining unissued song from the April 1953 session by the original group and is another dreamy ballad with the usual high-quality lead from Dean Barlow. Presumably because there was nothing else in the can by the Crickets, Joe Davis dipped into his vaults and re-released the Deep River Boys' December 1951 sentimental recording of "Sleepy Little Cowboy" as the flip. "Be Faithful" got extensive airplay on New York radio from Alan Freed and Doctor Jive, and the record became the biggest selling record in the entire existence of the Crickets.
The third Crickets group stayed together for about a year, until a February 1955 performance in either Baltimore or Washington D.C. After the Crickets did their numbers, Grover Barlow was introduced as "Dean Barlow". He announced and sang his new solo recording ("I'll String Along With You"), which the group didn't even know existed. In spite of this, they did a few more shows together before breaking up.
Freddy Barksdale then re-united with J.R. Bailey in a group called the New Yorkers 5, with Johnny Darren (2nd tenor), Shelly Dupont (baritone), and Rocky Smith (lead). They recorded "Gloria My Darling" for the Danice label later in 1955. After that, Freddy replaced original bass Pat Gaston in the Solitaires.
William Lindsay eventually re-joined Dean Barlow in the Bachelors on Earl. In 1956, the Bachelors released two records on the tiny Earl label (owned by Tommy "Dr. Jive" Smalls and Sammy Lowe). The first was "I Want To Know About Love" (led by Dean) c/w "Dolores". The second was "Baby" c/w "Tell Me Now" (both led by Dean). The Bachelors made no appearances at all, and eventually changed their name to the Montereys, recording four songs for Jerry Winston's Onyx label in early 1957.
Their only Onyx release was "Dearest One" (a duet lead by Dean Barlow and Bill Lindsay), backed with "Through The Years" (fronted by Sonny Jordan) in August 1957 (Onyx 513). "Dearest One" became a regional hit in New York. There was supposed to be a second Montereys record: "Angel" (led by Bill Lindsay), backed with "Tell Me Why" (led by Dean). It was slated to be released as Onyx 517, but for some reason was never issued. These were Dean's last group records.
In 1959, Joe Davis released some old Dean Barlow sides on his Beacon label, possibly to compete with Dean's current solo remake of "You're Mine" (on the U.T. label; on it he's backed up by Arthur Crier's Halos). Dean said that this was the finest record he ever did, although the heavily-stringed arrangement was such that it was hard to dance to and teens didn't like it. Joe Davis, who owned the publishing rights, got an injunction against it. More successful in terms of airplay was "Third Window From The Right" on Lescay. There were also further solo releases on 7 Arts and Rust.
Joe Davis released the last Crickets record in 1963: musically overdubbed versions of "Be Faithful" and "I'm Not The One You Love".
In 1967, Drifters' manager George Treadwell formed a group which included Dean and Vocaleers' lead Joe Duncan. The group was practicing in a Drifters' vein, since Treadwell was tiring of the real Drifters. However, Treadwell died before anything could be done with the group.
The various members of the Crickets went on to do a lot of great New York R&B singing. Harold Johnson sang with the Mellows and Halos; Bobby Spencer was with the 5 Chimes, Cadillacs, Harptones, Pearls, Chords and Crystals (on Gone); Freddy Barksdale was with the New Yorkers 5, Solitaires, Cadillacs and Crystals (on Gone); William Lindsay was with the Cadillacs, Starlings and Twilighters (on MGM); and "Ditto" Dias was with the Chords. Rodney Jackson died in the late '70s; Harold Jackson has also passed away.
In the 90s, Dean Barlow hooked up with former Morrisania singers Lillian Leach, Waldo "Champ" Champen, Bobby Mansfield, Arthur Crier, Sammy Fain, and Eugene Tompkins, to form the "Morrisania Revue." In 1994, they released a CD called "Voices." Finally, in 1999, the Crickets were inducted into the UGHA Hall Of Fame.
The Crickets were probably the finest group that emerged from the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Although their output is relatively small, their ballads rank among the best in R&B.
With thanks to Ken Hochman and Tony Wilkinson.
Websites: Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks: http://home.att.net/~marvy42/Crickets/crickets.html
J.C. Marion's Doowop Nation: http://home.earthlink.net/~jaymar41/crickets.html
CD's: "Dreams And Wishes" - Relic CD7022, 1992 (US) (the photo on the cover was taken at Harold Johnson's house - see Harold's cat at the lower left of the photo) "Never Give Up Hope" - ABMMCD 1096, 2000 (UK) (these CD's both contain the same 17 tracks but in differing orders. This is the entire known output of Dean Barlow's Crickets)
"Dean Barlow - The Solo Sides" - Lescay 3004
Reading: "Billboard Book of American Singing Groups", Jay Warner (Billboard Books, 1992), p. 133-135.
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