One of the best vocal groups of all time, the Marcels produced more good recordings in heir tragically short career than many groups did in their long careers.
Their tale starts in 1959 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where baritone Richard F. Knauss of local unnamed ensemble conceived the idea of putting together a Pittsburgh supergroup when he heard bass Fred Johnson sing. They added second tenor Gene J. Bricker from a third group and soon found their first tenor, Ron “Bingo” Mundy. The toughest part was finding an exciting lead, but when they heard Cornelius Harp they knew they had something special.
They practiced on Woodstrun Avenue on Pittsburgh’s north side while attending Oliver Allegheny High School. Sometime during their formation Dick Knauss auditioned for another group, the Dynamics (“Don’t Leave Me,” Dynamic, 1959), but wound up telling their manager Jules Kruspir about n even more exciting quintet he was working with.
Jules went to hear the mixed fivesome (Knauss and Bricker were whit; Harp, Johnson, and Mundy black) at Johnson’s house and liked what he heard. At this time the group decided to call themselves the Marcels after a popular hairstyle of the day that Cornelius wore.
The Marcels practiced songs by many of the ‘50s best R&B acts, including such influences as THE HARPTONES, THE SPANIELS, THE CADILLACS, LITTLE ANTHONY AND THE IMPERIALS, and THE DELVIKINGS. Several of these numbers wound up on a demo tape that Jules sent to Colpix Records, a division of Columbia Pictures. They had no original songs, so the purpose of the tape was strictly to showcase their singing ability. Little did they know that the vocal arrangements on the Cadillacs’ “Zoom” from that 1960 tape would help give them immortality.
Stu Phillips, A&R director for Colpix, liked the demo enough to bring the group to New York. Though he was under orders to concentrate solely on another Colpix act, he liked the Marcels so much he snuck them into the studio after the other artist’s session. They began recording several oldies at RCA Studios on February 15, 1961. Stu asked them to do “Heart and Soul” but no one knew the song, so they opted for an evergreen called “Blue Moon” that had been a 1935 number one hit for alto sax man Glen Gray. Apparently the bass intro arrangement from the demo tape of “Zoom” was still buzzing around in Phillips’s head since he had Johnson apply the now-famous intro note-for-note to the Rogers and Hart standard. That intro went something like “Bomp baba bomp, ba bomp ba bomp bomp, bbaba bomp baba bomp, da dang da dang dang, da ding and dong ding.” Sound familiar?
The recording was done in two takes, which was lucky for the Marcels since they only had eight minutes left in the studio. An overzealous promo man for Colpix heard the Marcels master and played it for WINS disc jockey Murray the K. The soon-to-be “fifth Beatle” was so knocked out by it he reportedly played “Blue Moon” 26 times during his four-hour show. (He never did that with a Beatles song. Perhaps they should have named him he sixth Marcel.) Reaction was so terrific that Colpix rush-released the single in February. Billboard’s February 20th reviewer wrote, “Here’s a wild and woolly old time rock & roll treatment of the well-known standard. There’s a great deal happening on this arrangement and the side figures to have a strong chance.”
Even the label wasn’t prepared for what happened next. In four weeks it was number one on both the Pop and R&B charts, having pushed no less than Elvis Presley out of the top spot. It took Del Shannon’s historic “Runaway” to displace the Marcels on April 24th. “Blue Moon” didn’t stop there. It reached number one in England, number four in Australia, number seven in Holland, number seven in Sweden, number six in French Belgium, number five in Denmark, number two in New Zealand, and went top 10 in such locales as Israel, Norway, Spain, South Africa, and France.
Not only had half the world gotten a healthy dose of American doo wop, but America itself had a rekindling of interest in a bass vocal tradition that had been slowly disappearing from U.S. recordings since the mid-‘50s.
On March 16th, a month and a day after their first session, the Marcels recorded six more gems that included “Over the Rainbow,” “Two People in the World,” “Sweet Was the Wine,” and “Teeter Totter Love.” On April 11th they recorded five more sides, coming up with their well-timed second single, the Porgy and Bess classic, “Summertime.”
Its “ba-oo” bass intro, Cornelius’s velvety baritone lead, and a solid wall of Marcels vocals made this the best group version of the Gershwin classic ever recorded, but it only reached number 78 Pop and number 46 in the U.K.
During that summer the Marcels appeared in a rock and roll movie for Columbia titled Twist Around the Clock with Dion and Chubby Checker. In the film they sang “Blue Moon” and a number called “Merry Twistmas.”
In July the LP Blue Moon was issued containing all the sides from the March 16th session, their hit and its flip, a strong version of THE CHANTELS’ “Goodbye to Love,” and some doo wop and R&B standards cut at the first session including “Peace of Mind” (the Spaniels), “I’ll Be Forever Loving You” (THE EL DORADOS), “Most of All” (THE MOONGLOWS), and Sunday Kind of Love (the Harptones). In all, the LP was a strong showcase for the Marcels’ vocal talents.
Unfortunately, the 18 recordings made at those three sessions were the sum total of the original group’s output. Some mysterious goings on between Jules Kruspir and Richard Knauss caused the latter to leave with Gene Bricker in August. They were replaced by Alan Johnson (baritone, Fred’’ brother) and Walt Maddox (second tenor).
The now all-black quintet’s first session, on September 1, 1961, yielded their fourth, a remake of the 1931 Guy Lombardo number 12 hit “heartaches.” By November 27th it ranked seventh in the nation on the Pop chart (#19 R&B).
1962 opened with their self-parody, “My Melancholy Baby.” Although a Billboard reviewer enthused, “The great standard is wrapped up in their amusing bomb de bomp styled delivery and a rockin’ beat. Watch it,” “Melancholy Baby” only reached number 58 Pop in March 1962, becoming their last Top 100 chart 45.
By the end of 1961 Mundy had left and their February 1962 release, “Twistin’ Fever,” had stalled at number 103. Colpix continued to issue older secondary sides through 1963, of which “That Old Black Magic” and “One Last Kiss” were strong cuts.
Cornelius Harp, the heart of the Marcels, left at the end of 1962. The group then left Colpix, picking up a few singles between Kyra and 888, two Pittsburgh labels, in 1964. Then Alan Johnson dropped out, leaving acting leader Fred Johnson to add William Herndon and Richard Harris (formerly of THE ALTAIRS).
Te quartet now included Walt Maddox (lead), Richard Harris (baritone), William Herndon (first tenor), and Fred Johnson (bass).
The Marcels recorded again in 1973, but without Harp’s strong lead they turned in a mediocre traditional ballad performance of “In the Still of the Night” (Queen Bee).
In 1975 the Marcels shined once again with their formula sound on “Lucky Old Sun,” with Harp back on lead and Johnson on bass, but the Pittsburgh-based St. Clair label had no marketing capability and the record faded into collectors’ dreamland.
That same year Val Shively issued three great sides for the collectors’ market from the group’s first LP. But by now the Marcels were working the oldies circuit even though they were capable of a contemporary R&B hit in the SPINNERS of O’JAYS mode.
On January 14, 1973, the original members help a reunion at an oldies club called the Villa Madrid in Pittsburgh. Ron Mundy and Dick Knauss continued singing there in a group called the Memories. Ironically, the hit Marcels lasted only a few years while the Maddox, Harris, Herndon, and Fred Johnson grouping lasted on and off for over two decades.
In the early ‘90s Cornelius Harp was living in Pittsburgh. Ron Mundy worked for Pittsburgh’s Port Authority as a bus driver. Dick Knauss was a school janitor. Gene Bricker died in the ‘80s. Walt Maddox continued to perform in nightclubs, doing a musical tribute to nat King Cole. Alan Johnson was working or the University of Pittsburgh. Fred Johnson continued leading modern-day Marcels through their bomp baba bomps.
– Jay Warner