The Del Vikings
The group was founded by airmen at a Pittsburgh base who recruited Philadelphia-born Norman when their tenor singer became stationed in Germany. Their victories in several talent contests (including the All Air Force competition in New York City) earned them a recording session with Fee Bee Records where “Come Go With Me,” with Norman on lead, was cut in 1956. Originally recorded acapella, the label added instrumentation and it soon became so popular that the master was leased to Dot Records for national distribution, where it reached #4 Pop and #2 R&B the following year. It was the first top ten hit for a racially-mixed group in the U.S. But by the time Dot released “Whispering Bells” (#9 Pop, #5 R&B), Norman and three of the four other group members– who had been underaged when they signed their contracts– had already split for Mercury Records where they competed with their Dot recording with “Cool Shake” (#12 Pop, #9 R&B). For the remainder of 1957, both labels released singles (though Dot added a second “L” to their group’s name) but the confusion led to no more chart recordings– even when Corinthian “Kripp” Johnson was legally able to join the others in 1958. Though the group disbanded in the mid-’60s, it re-formed in 1970 and Norman sang at times with them and with his sons in another incarnation of the group over the next thirty years. Norman and the Del Vikings were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2005.
The Del Vikings were the first successful racially integreated group in rock and roll and one of the few hit makers organized in the U.S Air Force. The group was formed by Clarence Quick at the NCO Service CLub located in Pittsburgh’s airport in 1956. Bass singer Clarence (who had originally sung with his cousin William Blakely in Brooklyn, New York, in a group called the Mellowlarks) joined together with Corinthian “Kripp” Johnson (lead and tenor), Samuel Patterson (lead and tenor), Bernard Robertson (second tenor), and Don Jackson (baritone) to form The Del Vikings. The Vikings was the name of a basketball-playing social club in Brooklyn that Quick belonged to. When he put Del (meaning “the”) in front of Vikings he unintentionally created a redundant moniker – like saying “the The Vikings”. Unbeknownst to most, the five original member were all black.
Their participation in (and winning) the base’s “Tops In Blue” contests earned them a spot in the All Air Force talent show in New York City. where they won again (beating out over 700 worldwide groups) singing a song by Quick title “Come Go With Me”. One of thegroups they beat in the finals that day was the Rocketeers, who went on to become The Pastels of “Been So Long” fame.
After one of their Pittsburgh talent shows the Vikings were approached to record by local disc jockey Barry Kayeand producer Joe Averback. Before the sessions, however, Patterson and Robertson were assigned to an air base in Germany and were replaced by Norman Wright (of Philadelphia) and the group’s first white member, Dave Lerchey of New Albany, Indiana.
The recordings turned out to be a cappella renditions of nine songs, all recorded in Kaye’s tiny basement – so small and ill-equipped, in fact, that several members had to sing from a closet for both space and sound considerations. Averback leased the recordings to Dickie Goodman’s Luniverse label (he of the “Flying Saucer” novelty break-in records) where they were to sit a bit. Then Averback decided to sign the group to his own Fee Bee label and added instrumental backing to a few of the a cappella side at a studio in the Sheraton Hotel in November 1956.
One side was Quick’s “Come Go With Me”, released as Fee Bee 205 in December and immediately leased into national distributor Dot Records.
On February 16, 1957, the record took off like and air force jet, rising on Billboard’s Pop chart to number four (#2 R&B). The simplicity of the song’s swinging verse melody and punchy bridge had everyone within radio range singing along for months to come – it lasted an amazing 31 weeks on the charts and became a million seller.
“Come Go With Me” became the first top 10 hit by a racially mixed rock and roll group, but it wasn’t something the members had thought of when Lerchey joined. Nor was it on their minds when Don Jackson shipped out to Germany and Donald “Gus” Backus of Southhampton, Long Island, another white serviceman took his place.
This was the lineup that sang on the Del Vikings second session, spawning the Kripp Jophnson-led “Whispering Bells”. Originally written and released as a ballad, “Whispering Bells” (another Quick song) became a classic rocker in the studio, filled with the Del Vikings best-ever harmonies.
The release of “Bells” was preceded by a less-than-effective, calypso-tinged tune called “Down In Bermuda” that couldn’t jump-start itself to interest Dot.
Meanwhile, the group’s manager Alan Strauss was negotiating behind the scenes, and before you could say “Come Go”, most of the Del Vikings went to Mercury Records, that is. Apparently, they had been underage when they signed up with Fee Bee; Kripp Johnson, however, had been over 21 and therefore had to stay at Fee Bee/Dot. Before the others left they recorded numerous side, including one backing country vocalist Joey Biscoe in what became Fee Bee’s next single, “What Made Maggie Run”, best described as 50’s cuntry rock blended with doo wop. Dot paired it with a “Ka Ding Dong” (G-Clefs) sounding side, “Little Billy Boy”, and released it in April 1957. Its prompt demise usher in the May release of “Whispering Bells” on Fee Bee. Once again Dot kicked into high gearand “Bells” began ringing all over the country to tune of number nine Pop (#5 R&B) through the Spring and Summer of 1957.
Meanwhile the Del Vikings on Mercury Records (Wright, Lerchey, Backus, Quick, and Quick’s Brooklyn friend William Blakely) began recording, and they released their first single, “Cool Shake”, in May 1957. By mid-July, “Cool Shake” was on the pop charts, one week after “Bells” hit the list.
America’s disc jockeys didn’t know what was going on but they played both records. The Gus Backus-led Mercury recording hedl it’s own, risisng to number 12. Not to be left out in the cold, Kripp Johnson formed a new Del Vikings that included Eddie Everette, Arthur Budd, and Chuck Jackson, along with the newly returned from Germany Don Jackson (no relation). Fee Bee put the new group in the studio; the yield was side like “Willette” and “I Want To Marry You” with Chuck singing lead. The young Winston-Salem, North Carolinian had previously sung with the Rasberry Gospel Singers and had been influenced by Jackie Wilson.
Adding to the confusion, Luniverse records (remember them?) added instruments to their a cappella tracks and in 1957 released eight of them on an LP titled Come Go With the Del Vikings, featuring a picture of the group during that period when “Whispering Bells” was recorded (two whites, three blacks) rather then when their LP’s worht of songs were done (one white, four black). They also released a magnificent ballad version of “Over The Rainbow” which deserved more radio attention than “Cool Shake” received. Of the more than 50 vocal group versions of the Garland standard, the one by the Del Vikings is surely in the top five, quality wise.
To Simplify things (they thought) Dot issued Kripp and company’s next single “When I Come Home” as the Dell-Vikings and Kripp Johnson. The flip “I’m Spinning” was done by the full group, but the label read only “Kripp Johnson lead singer of ‘Whispering Bells'”. But Mercury began legal proceedings against Fee Bee for the use of the group’s name; one “L” or two, they wanted it all.
In August, Mercury issued “Come Along With Me”, a rocker in the style of “Come Go With Me” that lacked the originals magic. Both Fee Bee and Dot released Del Vikings singles through the fall of 1957 but Dot dropped out of the picture after “When I Come Home”. Over the years the Del/Dell Vikings confusion would continue when different or rearranged recordings of the same songs showed up on two or more of the Vikings labels: “When I Come Home” came out on both Dot and Mercury; “I’m Spinning” on Fee Bee, Dor and Mercury; and “Come Go With Me” on Luniverse, Fee Bee and Dot. Not helping matters was the extensive use of a photo showing the Mercury version of the group as the definitive Del Vikingseven though “Come Go With Me” was cut by the four black, one white aggregation that included Johnson an Don Jackson but never Blakely.
In December of 1957 Mercury gained legal authority over the name, and Fee Bee issued it’s remaining Del Vikings sides under the name the Versatiles (and sometimes under Chuck Jackson’s name) after its release of “True Love” at the end of 1957.
Kripp’s contract with Fee Bee terminated in 1958 and he rejoined his original Del Vikings friends at Mercury, thus disbanding the second group. By this time Gus had been sent to Germany compliments of the Air Force.
Chuck Jackson went on to a solo career and in early 1961 had a top five R&B hit “I Don’t Want To Cry”. He went on to have 23 more charters both R&B and Pop including “Any Day Now”.
Kripp sang on the last two Vikings Mercury singles, “You Cheated” and “How Could You”. “You Cheated” interesting in that it had a racially mixed group from Pittsburgh covering a black group from Los Angeles (the Shields) who had covered a white group from Texas (the Slades). Justice was served this time as the Shields’ far superior version beat out both. In 1959, after the group had done their last singles for Mercury. Kripp recorded two 45’s with an anonymous singing group behind him (possibly the Del Vikings).
When the group finally received their individual discharges they were able to take advantage of their name and recognition and tour the length of the country from Las Vegas to Radio City Music Hall, also doing such TV shows as “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “The Tonight Show”, and Dick Clark’s and Alan Freed’s programs. In October 1960, they released a one-shot on Alpine, a harmony-drenched doo wop ballad title “The Sun”. It set much too soon.
They signed with ABC Paramount Records in the Spring of 1961. Their first release, a Latin flavored Drifters-styled rocker called “Bring Back Your Heart”, looked like just the winner to bring them back when New York radio jumped on it. Unfortunately, the national charts didn’t reflect the New York excitement and “Heart” died at number 101, dynamite vocals, kettle drums, Spanish guitars, swirling strings, Chuck Sagle’s arrangement, and all. Several more terrific singles followed including “I Hear Bells” and “Face The Music”, but ABC was too busy with Ray Charles and The Impressions to care.
On March 3, 1962, one of Billboard’s Spotlight Singles picks was “The Big Silence”, about which their reviewer intoned, “The boys may have their first big hit in some time with this showmanly side. The plaintative rock-a-ballad is sung with considerable feeling and sales savvy by the lead warbler, who also contributes a sock narration bit. Watch it.” Del Vikings fans watched it disappear as ABC let it slip away.
During the early and mid 60’s the group worked the southern college circuit and then disbanded. By 1970 they were back again with Johnson, Lerchey, Blakely, Wright, and Quick as the membership.
In November 1972 the quintet recorded a contemporary version of “Come Go With Me” for September. It became their last new single for almost twenty years.
They went international via the London Palladium and England’s “Top of The Pop’s” TV show, then toured the Far East. In 1979 there once again became two Del Vikings groups touring the oldies circuit. Johnson’s group consisted of himself, Lerchey, John Byas (since 1965), and Ritzy Lee. By 1990, the lineup ran those four plus Norman Wright.
On June 22, 1990, 57 year old Kripp Johnson died of cancer.
The second group, formed by Quick, consisted of Herbet McQueen, Lousi Velez, Arthur Martinez, William Blakely, and of course Clarence Quick. Dickie Harmon joined the group as a temp when Frank Ayers got sick. When Frank returned, keep Dickie stayed in the group. Over the years the Quick contingent had Dickie Harmon (“Windsong” on Clifton) replacing McQueen and Frank Ayers taking over for Blakely. The recording with BVM was done in 1990. Quick’s quintet recorded a terrific two-sider in the 50’s style (“My Heart” b/w “Rock and Roll Remembered”) on BVM Records, which oldies stations embraced.
That The Del Vikings eptiomized the sound of mid 50’s rock and roll is evident in the used of their songs and recordings in the 70’s and 80’s. The film American Graffiti (1973) featured their songs as did the 1986 hit Stand By Me. That they had more success on their first few records than most acts have in a lifetime is indicitive of their talent.
The members today are Arthur Martinez, Les Levine, Ron Coleman, Reggie
Walker and Louis Velez and still maintain an interracialy mixed group.
Biography by Louis Velez
Soundtrack – Filmography
- The Opportunists (2000) (performer: “One More River To Cross”)
- Grumpier Old Men (1995) (performer: “I Hear Bells (Wedding Bells)”)
- aka Grumpy Old Men 2
- Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) (performer: “Come Go With Me”)
- Stand by Me (1986) (performer: “Whispering Bells”)
- The Hollywood Knights (1980) (performer: “Come Go With Me”)
- American Hot Wax (1978) (performer: “Come Go With Me”)