Is it possible for a really sad song to make you laugh? You should probably listen to the song before I tell you anything about it. Here’s Valerie by The Starlites on Fury 1034 from 1960:
The Starlites were from New York City, where this song became a regional hit. It did not make the national charts, however. Lead singer Jackie Rue is backed up by Alton Jones (first tenor), George Lassu (second tenor), John Felix (baritone), and Billy Montgomery (bass). Of course, like most harmony groups, the membership probably changed a bit through the years. These guys regularly moved from one group to another. As they say, they were looking for an echo. Most of these guys started out standing around a flaming garbage can, drinking cheap wine, and trying to harmonize with each other. The better ones ended up with recording deals. Record companies sent people out to prowl the streets and parks looking for fresh talent all the time. Doo-Wop was hot, and the public just couldn’t get enough of it. That sells records. Unfortunately, most of the money made from those records never made it back to the artists. A lot of them lived their entire life just above the poverty line. Still, it was better than having no job at all.
Fury Records was owned by a Harlem hustler named Bobby Robinson who owned a record store. Back then, it was fairly common for record store owners to get into the recording business. Street harmony groups would stand outside the shop and sing, hoping to bust into the recording business and make a little cash. Bobby Robinson also ran many other labels, including Fire, Everlast, Enjoy, and Red Robin. He probably produced more group harmony classics than anyone else in New York City. He worked with a ton of groups with names like The Teenchords, The Channels, The Charts, The Kodaks and The Rainbows. If you can think of a one-word name for a group, there probably was one using that name somewhere! You may need to tack on the number of guys in the group, however, making names like The Four Coins, or The Five Pennies. You get the idea. Bobby also worked with many well-known solo artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, Tarheel Slim, Lee Dorsey, and Wilbert Harrison.
The Starlights added the lead singer’s name shortly after making Valerie, becoming Jackie And The Starlites. They cut a few more records on Bobby’s Fury label before that company went bankrupt. In fact, They Laughed At Me, the last record they cut on Fury, also issued on Fire, featured Jackie Rue laughing hysterically instead of crying! The guys then moved to the Hull label where they tried to emulate the Latino groups that were really hot at the time, like The Drifters. They didn’t have much success after that.
The earliest record I have by The Starlites is on Peak 5000 from 1957. It’s not a “crying” record like Valerie, but it’s really good. Check out Missing You by The Starlites:
Somewhere in the middle of all this, a couple of guys were arrested for murdering a 73 year old man named Emil Markussen in an Upper West Side apartment. The two young men were identified as J. Carl Moody and Henry John Hicks, and both were said to be members of The Starlites. If they did work on some of the Starlites records, I don’t know which ones. Information about who sang on which records was not very well maintained and most of the people involved in making these records are now dead. But we keep trying to dig up new details anyway!
I’ve heard that Jackie Rue never lived to see the 1970’s. He died of a heroin overdose.
Now the good part. Valerie was really big in New York City and it had an impact on many people. Lou Reed played the song when he sat in as a guest DJ on WPIX-FM in 1979. It was played very often on the jukebox at a shop called Let It Rock on King’s Road. That shop was owned by Malcolm McClaren, who eventually changed the name to Sex. It’s the place where The Sex Pistols came together for the first time! Frank Zappa loved the song so much he did a cover version of it on his 1970 album, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, but he toned down the crying bit considerably on his version.
Jackie And The Starlites performed around New York City, and the surrounding area, like in the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia. They actually took top billing over Ike And Tina Turner! The venue wanted to bill them above James Brown and His Famous Flames, but James Brown didn’t like the idea at all.
There are a whole bunch more “crying” and “laughing” records out there. You’ll hear them all on MusicMaster Oldies if you listen long enough. But when you’re playing a quarter million records, some of them don’t come around very often. I think you’d have to listen continuously for over a year to hear them all. Can you stay awake for 8,760 hours?
I’ve been trying to post a new song every day on here. It reminds me of the days in my record shop when we’d play cool records for the folks who hung around there all the time and became our good friends. Maybe I can open a new shop here in San Diego and get back to doing fun stuff like that!