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Earl Lewis and the Channels


Earl Lewis and the Channels

Paying Tribute to Earl Lewis and the Channels

0n the east Coast in the 1950s there were certain vocal groups that managed to become immensely popular without having national record sales success. The two groups that best fit into that category were the immortal HARPTONES and the incomparable Channels.

Late 1955 New York City was the setting for the latter's formation. Larry Hampden (first tenor), Billy Morris (second tenor), and Edward Doulphin (baritone) started a quintet they called the Channels, from 115th Street and 116th Street, along with two other long since forgotten part-timers. When 'the shorttermers made their final exit, the remaining Channels went looking for a lead and bass. It so happened that a talent show was being held in February 1956 at the community center at 101st Street between Columbus and Amsterdam in Harlem, and appearing along with new recording sensation FRANKIE LYMON AND THE TEENAGERS was a group dubbed the Lotharios.

By the time of the next talent show, the Channels had absorbed Lotharios' lead and bass, Earl Michael Lewis and Clifton Wright. With only a few days of rehearsal the Channels won that show at P.S. 113 singing THE FLAMINGOS' ballad "I'll Be Home." A week later, they graced the stage of the famed Apollo Theatre and won second place in an amateur night contest with THE PLATTERS' recent hit "The Magic Touch."

In spring 1956, one of three scenarios took place, depending on which bit of folklore you ac-cept: (1) the group was heard by Bobby Robinson (owner of Red Robin Records and his own record store) at their Apollo performance and were asked to audition; (2) the Channels were in a studio doing demos and Robinson heard them, offering the quintet a contract on the spot; or (3) they walked into his store, played him several demos, and set up an audition. Whichever is the case, they did sign a two-year contract with his new Whirling Disc company. On their first session for Robinson (June 29, 1956) it took them only two run-throughs to produce the beautiful ballad "The Closer You Are," written by the 15-year-old Earl Lewis.

Up to that time, all vocal group arrangements had certain similarities. The lead singer would solo on the verses opening the song, with the remaining members "oohing" or "aahing" in the background. The chorus or bridge might continue that approach or feature the group together in four or five part harmony, but for the most part harmony remained separate and in the background. The Channels created a different sound by opening with the verse sung in full five-part harmony, often with the first tenor, second tenor, and baritone slightly louder than the bass and falsetto lead. Then Lewis would take over traditional lead in the bridge. This distinct type of arrangement made the Channels instantly recognizable from the very first notes of their recordings.

"The Closer You Are" became an instant suc-cess on the nation's air-waves in August, but since it was Whirling Disc's debut disc, its disjointed airplay and sales never gelled enough to land it on the national charts. It did have wide appeal up and down the East Coast and even in the far West, though it was very much a New York street-corner record.

Their next single was "The Gleam in Your Eye" (October 1956), a ballad written by Earl Lewis when he was 10 years old. The harmony laden love song gave new indication of Earl's exceptional vocal ability. The record boosted the group's popularity and they began a career of live performances that would take them through such venues as the Howard Theatre in Washington, the Royal in Baltimore, and of course the Apollo for over 35 years.

It was late spring of 1957 when the Channels' fourth (and last) Whirling Disc single was re-leased. "Flames in My Heart" was another first-rate Earl Lewis ballad that could have been performed better if they had more than 20 minutes in which to record it. It saw less activity than any of the others, so it came as no surprise when Robinson told the group he was closing down the label.

More than four months passed before the Channels, armed with new originals by Earl, auditioned for George Goldner's recently formed Gone Records. He liked the group but asked for different material. Their next audition produced several newer songs including "The Girl Next Door' and "All Alone." Still not convinced they had a hit, Goldner recorded them doing bandleader Sammy Kaye's 1947 number two hit "That's My Desire." (One-and-a-half years later, DION AND THE BELMONTS would lift the Channels' beautiful arrangement for their own B side of the number three hit "Where or When.") "Thats My Desire" was the Channels' first recording since the unreleased demo song "Gloria" that Lewis didn't write and arrange, though Earl reportedly felt it was the group's best recording.

Their first single on Gone (both sides arranged by former Valentine and Goldner house A&R man, Richard Barrett) was issued in late summer 1957 and brought the group back into the spotlight with air and jukebox play all over the country. "Altar of Love" was their next single, but its lack of audience response hastened the quintets departure from Gone. Clifton Wright had already left,after "Thaf s My Desire" and only the remaining four were heard on "Altar."

By early 1959 the Channels, with only two fifths of the original cast, were back with Robinson on his new Fury label. The group had had a falling out about realigning with Robinson and his robber baron ethics, but Lewis and Wright wanted to keep the act active so they joined forces with three replacements, John Felix, Alton Thomas, and Billy Montgomery (recently of the CELLOS on Apollo). They then recorded two terrific Lewis compositions, "My Love Will Never Die" and "Bye Bye Baby." This time Lewis didn't have to worry about writer credit since Robinson outdid himself by not crediting anyone. "My Love Will Never Die," however, turned out to be one of their more successful records. (It might have done even better had Fury not focused all its efforts on pushing the Wilbert Harrison record, "Kansas City.") Two of the origi-nal Channels who had foregone the Fury sessions, Larry Hampden and Billy Morris, relented and rejoined Lewis, Alton Campbell (also of the Cellos), and Billy Montgomery in the fall of 1959 to record two songs that George Goldner had passed on two years earlier, "The Girl Next Door" and "My Heart Is Sad." The group shifted to Fury's Fire subsidiary.

The three replacements on the Fury sessions joined forces with lead singer Jackie Rue and became the Starlites, who in 1960 recorded "Valerie," one of the great lead singer "crying" songs of all time. (Singers would literally cry while talk-singing a bridge or verse.) Another fine Lewis and company recording, "The Girl Next Door," was notable as the first Channels release that read Earl Lewis and the Channels.

By late 1959 the group had disbanded. Two years later, the Jubilee Records Port subsidiary started releasing the Whirling Disc sides in the same order as originally released, just as if they were new records. By 1961 the East Coast was ablaze with '50s vocal group mania, and the Channels became highly revered. In January 1963 Hit Records issued the first new Channels record in over three years. Although first tenor Larry Hampden was the only original group member, the sound was vintage Channels (spelled Channells on the label). The other members, Tony Williams (lead-not the Platters vocalist), Gene Williams (second tenor), and Revo Hodge (bass), got into the spirit of things with a striking ballad performance of the group written effort "You Hurt Me." Hampden's group reverted to the original spelling for a Channels group's one and only backup performance.

Earl himself kept a low profile until the rock revival days of the late '60s when he formed the Earl Jades. In 1971 after an Academy of Music show as the Channels, the new group (first tenor Henry Fernandez, second tenor Jack Brown, bass Felix, and Earl) signed with another George Goldner associated label, Rarebird Records, and released a single of the Neil Sedaka Oldie "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do."

Having had enough of other people's labels, Earl started Channel Records later in 1971, and along with Billy Vera's band began recording new songs and favorites (like "Gloria," "We Belong Together," and "A Thousand Miles Away") as singles for his fans. They recorded six singles and an LP between 1971 and 1974. By the mid'70s the Channels were actually Earl Lewis and four members of Dino and the Heartspinners (minus Dino): Joe Odom, Cecil Wiley, Butch Phillips, and Bernard Jones. By the '80s, Jones had joined THE DRIFTERS and Phillips THE DEL-VIKINGS. Wes Neil came aboard in Phillips's place, and that lineup stayed in place into the '90s while the Channels continued to delight East Coast audiences just as Earl had done more than 35 years before. In 1987 Earl Lewis and Channel's came full circle as they recorded "The Closer You Are" in a contemporary vein for Soul Jam Records. This song had been their first recording.

Though never as well-known as the Moonglows, the Teenagers, the Flamingos, or some other great R&B groups of the '50s, the Channels are considered among the period's 10 to 15 most revered groups.

"For more in-depth information on this and other great vocal groups see the "Da Capo book of: "American Singing Groups (A History 1940-1990)" by Jay Warner available at all major book stores or on-line at Amazon .com."

Web Authors Note

Earl Lewis is still performing and his trademark falsetto hasn't lost a decibel.

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