Kenny And The Romeos

Ain't It Baby- Kenny Gamble & The Romeos

Down By The Sea Shore – Arctic USA 1964
Ain’t It Baby

Kenny and The Romeos Doo Wop group that became a soul group – Down By The Sea Shore

Kenny Gamble, Thom Bell, then Lamont Dozier – Two sets of Romeos !

Best to leave it to the experts …

THE ROMEOS (on Fox) -article by Marv Goldberg
Based on an interview with Don Davenport

The Romeos were a group that seemed to be doomed from the start, breaking up almost as soon as they’d recorded.

Their story begins in 1955, in the Northwest section of Detroit, when Bobby Alexander and Don Davenport were hanging around the McKenzie High schoolyard (that was Bobby’s school; Don went to Cody High). They passed the time by singing, and soon Bobby had gotten a couple of his friends to join in: Eugene Dyer (who attended Northwestern) and Kenny Johnson (from Chadsey High).

After practicing for a while, they decided that they would make a good group, and called themselves the Counts. Bobby was first tenor, Eugene was second, Kenny was baritone, and Don was bass. There was only one problem: Don was white. “It was very unusual for a white guy to sing with a black group in those days,” says Don. This was to haunt the guys for years.

Sometime in 1956, the Counts were hanging out at a record shop on St. Antoine and Farnsworth when they met Lamont Dozier and Ty Hunter (both baritones/second tenors; Ty was the younger brother of Hershel Hunter, lead of the 4 Clippers). Some singing ensued and pretty soon Lamont and Ty were in and Bobby Alexander was out (“He couldn’t sing anyway,” remembers Don). They dropped the name “Counts,” and began calling themselves the “Romeos,” a name thought up by Lamont and Gene.

Their idols were Chicago‘s Magnificents, as well as Detroit’s Diablos, Midnighters, and 5 Jets. Don credits Sonny Woods of the Midnighters and Gerald Gregory of the Spaniels with giving him tips on how to sing bass.

All of the Romeos were from low-income families, and had no money to do much travelling for appearances. Add to this that few places wanted to book an integrated group, and you had the formula for disaster. Don remembers his mother scraping together enough money to get them “uniforms” (brown suits from J.C. Penney), and the guys ended up wearing them to church on Sundays, since they didn’t have any other suits.

They practiced when and where they could. Don remembers: “I had a job driving a bakery van in those days. I would go and get the guys and they would help me deliver. Then we would rehearse in the van (a 19-footer). There was a great echo in there.”

In 1957, Don decided to take matters into his own hands. He knew a guy named George Braxton, who owned a real estate agency and was also a director of a local magazine for kids, called Teen Life. Don brought the group down to audition and convinced Braxton to record them. As a result, George Braxton started the Fox label. At this time, the Romeos were all teenagers: Gene was the youngest (16), then came Lamont (17), Ty and Kenny (18), and Don (the old man at 19).

Braxton was a guy, says Don, who “wanted to get into the business. He thought he could sing (and even attempted to cut a record on Brax called ‘Hey Ellen’). George also liked getting into anything where he thought there was money.”

On June 10, 1957, they put their signatures to a contract with Braxton/Fox. Since they were minors by Michigan law, Don’s father also signed. Not that it makes much difference, in light of record sales, but they were contracted to a royalty rate of 5%, quite high for the time.

Braxton, of course, had no studios; recordings were made at United Sound and the records were pressed up by Capitol. Seeking more involvement, Don even helped design the Fox label (he drew the fox). The company was called “Fox” because, says Don, “George always made jokes about being sly as a fox. So he came up with the name, and I drew the label pic.” The label was headquartered at 15836 Plymouth Road in Detroit, which just happened to be the address of the real estate agency.

The first session, held a few weeks after signing (probably in early July) produced “Let’s Be Partners” (led by Lamont Dozier and Eugene Dyer) and “Gone Gone Get Away” (fronted by Lamont). Don had an abscessed tooth at the session, and his whole jaw was swollen, although he somehow managed to get out the bass notes. For backup, they used Hal Gordon’s Combo, which was the band on Soupy Sales’ nighttime show on WXYZ (by the time the record came out, however, the combo had been magically transformed into “the band of George Braxton”). Note that Lamont Dozier was the main writer of all the Romeos’ songs, but all the guys contributed something to them.

For some reason, no one initially thought to put record numbers on the Fox label. Therefore, all we have to work with is the “custom pressing” numbers assigned by Capitol’s custom pressing plant in Pennsylvania. “Gone Gone Get Away” was number GB?748, and “Let’s Be Partners” was GB-749.

The record was released in July of 1957 and promptly went nowhere. Braxton didn’t bother to send review copies to the trades (and probably didn’t even know that he should, since, according to Don “he knew nothing about recording”), so it got no push. [In spite of this, Braxton persevered, setting up several subsidiaries: Brax, Dial, Chant, and Teen Life. In 1959, Fox actually had a national hit with Danny Zella’s “Wicked Ruby” (by which time someone had told Braxton to put record numbers on the labels).]

At the second session (held in early August), the Romeos recorded two more songs: “Fine Fine Baby” (GB-845; a “Cha-Lypso” beat sound fronted by Lamont and Eugene again) and “Moments To Remember” (GB-846; led by Ty Hunter). On this session, they were backed up by Lucky Lee, who was at United Sound to record his Country & Western group. This time the band got label credit, probably because they band ended up with some releases on Fox. The tunes were issued that same month.

[When I looked at the master numbers for the Laredos (another Fox act, whom we’ll meet in a moment), I knew  something was wrong (or complicated). Those were 962 and 963, with a verified release date of September, 1957. (The 4 Clippers, who recorded on the same day as the Laredos, had numbers 960 and 961.) How could a tiny company like Fox record almost 200 masters inside of a couple of months? Well, they couldn’t. The simplest explanation I could think of is that Braxton just used the numbers assigned by United Sound Studios. Even so, it’s hard to imagine that they would have been able to record 200 masters in this short period. Fortunately, collector Tom Trabosci pointed out to me that these numbers were the ones assigned by Capitol’s custom pressing plant. The “G” in the number stood for 1957; the “B” was a constant (and may have stood for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania); and the digits themselves were just a serial number, assigned at pressing time by the plant. Braxton used these numbers since he probably hadn’t assigned any himself.]

While the second Romeos record wasn’t sent in for review either, Braxton at least started sending it to local DJs. It was played by “Frantic Ernie” Durham on WJLB (Detroit), Mickey Shore on WXYZ (Detroit), Johnny Osborne on WBRB (Mt. Clemens, Michigan), “Joltin’ Joe” Howard and Larry Dean on WCHB (Inkster, Michigan), and Robin Seymour on CKLW (Windsor, Ontario – on his “Bobbin’ With Robin” Show). Note that, at least by the time of “Fine Fine Baby,” an ad said that Fox was being distributed by Cosnat (owned by Jubilee’s Jerry Blaine).

“Fine Fine Baby” started making some noise, and the Romeos were booked on the Bud Davies “Saturday Dance Party” TV show (on CKLW, Channel 9, in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit). This should have been the high point of their career to date, but it just served to illustrate the problems they’d been having. The Romeos were invited on to sing “Fine Fine Baby,” but when Davies saw that they were an integrated group, he kept them standing around for most of the program. Finally, another guest, Bobby Lewis (who’d had a local hit with “Mumbles Blues” the prior year and who would go on to have a national smash with “Tossin’ And Turnin'”) approached Davies and berated him into letting them on.

Even though the Romeos had a fan club (“Call YE-6-2103” said a Fox ad), they very rarely appeared anywhere, mostly local teen clubs, but also the Madison Ballroom and the Graystone Ballroom. One of their biggest jobs was with DJ Johnny Osborn (WBRB) at the Mt. Clemens Jewel Theater; the headliner was Della Reese. Since they got almost no gigs from the release of two records, the Romeos started to fall apart, less than two months after their first session.

When the Romeos had done a show at the Lincoln Park Roller Rink, they’d met the Laredos, an all-white local group. It turned out that the Laredos bass wasn’t there that night, and they asked Don Davenport to fill in for them. Thus, when it was clear that the Romeos weren’t going anyplace, Don opted to join the Laredos, at the beginning of September. At the time, the others were: Bob Broderick, Tom Hust, Ron Morris, and Bernie Turnbull.

Almost immediately (on September 17), the Laredos went to United Sound and recorded “Bad Bad Guitar Man” and “Now The Parting Begins” for Fox (the same day the 4 Clippers cut “Rain”); the record was issued later that month. It did well locally, and on the strength of it, they ventured to New York to seek their fortune. They auditioned for the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show, but were told that there were so many applicants that it could be a year before they were called to appear. They also went up to the Apollo Theater, but were told, by owner Frank Schiffman himself, that they were “not the right color” to appear there. (While white acts did routinely play the Apollo during this period, they tended to be established artists, not those unknown to New York audiences.)

Meanwhile, the Romeos’ “Fine Fine Baby” was still being played in Detroit (in October it was #3 on “Ernie’s Picks To Be Clicks”; right behind Edna McGriff’s “I Hurt Too Much To Cry” and the Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz”), and George Braxton somehow managed to interest Atlantic records in acquiring it. In October 1957, they purchased the masters for their Atco subsidiary, which wrote to the Romeos, requesting any photos they might have. Willing to give it one more chance, the guys (including Don) sent them all of their publicity photos; they never heard from Atco again (of course they never got their photos back either). Some things never change: when I contacted Atlantic to see if the photos still existed, no one would even bother to look.

Atco released “Fine Fine Baby”/”Moments To Remember You By” (note the change in the title) in November, and it was reviewed the week of November 18 (with “Fine” rated “good” and “Moments” rated “poor”). Other reviews that week went to Frankie Lymon‘s “It’s Christmas Once Again,” Champion Jack Dupree‘s “Shake, Baby, Shake,” the Guytones’ “She’s Mine,” the Superiors’ “Lost Love,” the Jayhawks’ “Everyone Should Know,” James Brown‘s “Baby Cries Over The Ocean,” the El Venos’ “My Heart Beats Faster,” and Smiley Lewis’ “School Days Are Back Again.”

Don stayed with the Laredos until 1960, by which time he was married; he then quit the music business completely. Lamont Dozier went on to become a superstar songwriter with Motown. Teaming up with Brian and Eddie Holland, he would write all or part of “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Stop In The Name Of Love,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” “Jimmy Mack,” “How Sweet It Is,” “Back In My Arms Again,” “Quicksand,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” “Heat Wave,” “My World Is Empty Without You,” and dozens of others.

Ty Hunter joined the Voice Masters (for their final two records on Anna). They then changed their name to the Originals, and he was in and out of that group for years. He passed away from cancer a few years ago. Eugene Dyer was shot down in his helicopter in Vietnam, and has remained paralyzed on one side. Ken Johnson stayed in the business, and is now singing with a Platters group.

The world was almost ready to accept integrated groups. The Romeos were just a little early.