Born Ferdinando Dominick Bello, 29 September 1931, South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Died 10 February 2008, Las Vegas, Nevada
In spite of touring Britain, France, Australia, Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong, appearing in the films "Rock Around the Clock" and "Rumble on the Docks", and having an LP released on a major label in the 1950s, Freddie Bell and his group, The Bellboys, never had an entry in the Billboard Top 100. In the UK it was a different story, as we shall see.
Born to Italian parents in Philadelphia, Freddie learned to play bass, trombone and drums to go along with his singing skills. He played in the band of Ernie Ventura before forming his own group, The Bellboys, at the age of 20. They were one of the first white groups to play black music, mainly the R&B hits of the day. The original group - all showmen in their own right - would stay together (with limited changes) some 12 years. They were Jack Kane (saxophone), Frankie Brent (bass), Russ Conti (piano), Chick Keeney (drums) and Jerry Mayo (trumpet). They honed their act in the Midwest before landing a booking at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where they soon became the hot act in town.
Early in 1955, they made their first recordings for Bernie Lowe's Teen label in Philadelphia, resulting in two singles. The first of these was a rewrite of Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog". The original lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were judged a little too raunchy for a white audience. It was in Las Vegas that Elvis Presley heard and saw the group perform this version of "Hound Dog", in April 1956. Presley was impressed and asked Bell if he would mind if he (Elvis) recorded the song himself. Bell told him to go ahead and the rest is history, as they say. In May 1956, two months before Presley, Bell rerecorded the song for Mercury, but they sat on it and it only appeared later hidden away on Bell's album "Rock & Roll ... All Flavors".
The group had been signed to Mercury by A&R executive Bob Shad, at the beginning of 1956. The first single for their new label was the novelty rocker "Giddy Up a Ding Dong", which appeared on Mercury's Wing subsidiary, coupled with "I Said It and I'm Glad". Again, their work in Las Vegas proved valuable, as they were spotted by film producer Sam Katzman, who offered them a part in "Rock Around the Clock", the first rock 'n' roll movie, with of course Bill Haley and his Comets as the headliners. The songs that Freddie Bell and the Bellboys performed in the film were "Giddy Up a Ding Dong" and "Teach You To Rock". The movie was an international success and helped the group obtain bookings all over the world. In May 1957, they were the second US rock 'n' roll act (after Charlie Gracie) to tour the United Kingdom, where "Giddy Up a Ding Dong" had peaked at # 4 on the charts the previous year. This tour was a great success, as were other overseas tours, but it did little to enlarge the popularity of the group at home. Though they continued to do well in Las Vegas, they did not score any hits. Teenagers made hit R&R records and the Bellboys were not reaching that audience in Vegas. Freddie Bell's style of rock 'n' roll (which Charlie Gillett called "Northern band rock 'n' roll") was identified first and foremost with Bill Haley, whose career was already on a downward trend in 1957. Though Mercury released two more 45s and an LP in 1957, it didn't seem to help the group much. Bell wanted to do R&B, but Mercury wanted to move the group in a pop direction. Their contract was not renewed.
During the 1960s Freddie Bell and the Bellboys concentrated on their night club act. They could work steady in Las Vegas, Reno (Nevada) and New York City, thanks to their energetic and professional stage show. There was a third film appearance in 1964 ("Get Yourself A College Girl") and sporadic recording sessions after that. In the 1990s, Bell was still performing in Las Vegas as The Freddie Bell Show. Maybe he's still at it.
CD: Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Rockin' Is Our Business (Bear Family BCD 15901). Released in 1996. 27 tracks. Liner notes by Wayne Russell, on which most of the above is based.
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