Hello there! Our song this week is Little Darlin’, a doo-wop classic from 1957. The best-known version is by the Canadian pop group The Diamonds. However, the original version was by a group called The Gladiolas. We will review the original Gladiolas’ recording, then that by The Diamonds, and finally a cover by Elvis Presley.
The Gladiolas, Little Darlin’:
The leader of the Gladiolas was Maurice Williams, who was born in 1938 in Lancaster, SC. He became interested in music through participation in his gospel choir, and Maurice and his childhood friend Earl Gainey formed a gospel group called the Junior Harmonizers.
However, their interest shifted from gospel to R&B and doo-wop. In 1953, Williams and Gainey formed a quintet with singers William Massey, Willie Jones and Norman Wade, called the Royal Charms.
In this first year, Williams wrote the two songs that would become his pop legacy: the doo-wop-inspired songs Little Darlin’ and Stay. At the time, Maurice Williams was only 15 years old. And, coincidentally, both Stay and Little Darlin’ were written about the same girl.
In 1956, the Royal Charms were picked up by the small Excello Records label. Williams and his group recorded with that label while Maurice Williams was still in high school.
The Royal Charms failed to have any commercial success, so in 1957 they changed their name to The Gladiolas. Their only hit was Williams’ song Little Darlin’. That song rose to #11 on the R&B charts.
The Gladiolas’ Little Darlin’ managed to make it onto the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, but stalled out at #41. I certainly never heard the original version of this song until a few years ago.
Following that, in 1958 the group once again changed their name to The Excellos, after the name of their record label.
Finally, in 1960 the group changed their name yet again, to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. The group chose its name after that of a British-built Ford automobile. That group eventually scored a #1 Billboard pop hit with the doo-wop song Stay. We reviewed Stay in an earlier blog post.
Here is a photo of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs from around 1960. Maurice Williams is at left in the photo.
Little Darlin’ is a great old doo-wop song. Like so many of those tunes, it has some terrific falsetto lines that are absolutely perfect for singing in the shower.
The singer expresses his love for his lady, and his regret that he attempted to love two people simultaneously.
Oh, little darlin’
Oh, little darlin
Oh-oh-oh where a-are you
I was wrong-a
To love two
A-hoopa, hoopa, hoopa
That my love-a
Wa-as just fo-or you
Little Darlin’ is written in clave style, an Afro-Cuban music that was widespread in the South. In this case, the rhythmic pattern is strongly similar to a calypso beat. You can easily pick out the 3-beat, 2-beat pattern that is so reminiscent of Latin music.
This is emphasized in the opening stanzas of the song. It begins with a flourish of castanets, then wood blocks, both of which feature the 3-beat, 2-beat rhythm. Next, drums and piano kick in.
Here is the audio of The Gladiolas performing Little Darlin’.
The song starts off with a doo-wop falsetto lead, after which the lyrics begin. One of the unique features was a spoken-word interlude in the middle of the song.
Here the lead singer interjects, “My dear, I need you, to call my own and never do wrong. To hold in mine your little hand, I’ll know too soon that our love is grand. Please, hold my hand.”
Apparently Ernie Young, the head of Excello Records and the producer of Little Darlin’, convinced the group to change their arrangement to a calypso style. From the result, this was clearly an inspired suggestion from Young.
Here is video of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs in Nov. 2010. They are appearing live at an “oldies” show in New Bedford, MA.
By this time, Maurice is over 70, and believe it or not he’s been performing for over 55 years. But his voice is still in fine form, and he is clearly enjoying himself. The remaining “Zodiacs” also give a creditable performance here.
Maurice Williams is still alive and is active in the music industry in Charlotte, NC. He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
In 1999, PBS TV station WQED-TV in Pittsburgh produced a special called “Doo-Wop 50,” as part of a pledge drive for that station. The producers located a number of doo-wop performers and filmed their performances before a live audience.
Doo-Wop 50 was a tremendous success; it
became the highest-producing pledge drive special in the history of PBS at that time, garnering more than $20 million for its member stations.
A DVD and CD was produced of this concert. The doo-wop revival show was then followed by several more events.
In these oldies concerts, Maurice Williams would perform his two big hits Stay and Little Darlin’. Keep on rockin’, Maurice!
The Diamonds, Little Darlin’:
In 1957, I was in my last year of middle school in my home town of Niagara Falls, New York. It was an exciting time to be a teenager. Just a year earlier, Elvis Presley had burst on the music scene, causing the girls in my class to shriek with anticipation every time they saw him on TV.
Buddy Holly’s rockabilly songs were also popular, and doo-wop was still in its heyday. I remember vividly Little Darlin’, a catchy doo-wop song performed by a Canadian group, The Diamonds.
The Diamonds were a quartet who began singing in local shows in Toronto. Dave Somerville sang lead, together with tenor Ted Kowalski, baritone Phil Levitt and bass Bill Reed. The group’s fans in Toronto were sufficiently enthusiastic that the group decided to make a serious attempt at a recording career.
They took voice lessons, rehearsed for a year and a half, and then traveled to New York to audition with the TV program Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. After they tied for first place, they were awarded a week of appearances on Godfrey’s show.
That eventually landed the group a recording contract with Mercury Records. The Diamonds’ first hit was a cover of the Frankie Lymon song Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Their version of this song reached #12 on the Billboard pop charts.
In 1957, the Diamonds had two big hits. The first of these was a cover of Little Darlin’, originally recorded by The Gladiolas. Above left is a photo of the record cover for the Mercury Records release Little Darlin’, showing The Diamonds.
The Diamonds’ version of Little Darlin’ made a big impact, as the record shot up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here are the Diamonds “performing” Little Darlin’ on the Dick Clark Beech-Nut Hour in 1957.
In this clip, Dick Clark first runs through the Top 10 on the Beech-Nut Spearmint board. As you can see, this show aired a few months after Little Darlin’ had dropped out of the Top 10. However, Clark introduces The Diamonds to “perform” this tune.
I put “perform” in quotes because, as you can see, The Diamonds are merely lip-synching their song. Furthermore, as you can see, the group treats the song as a parody, hamming it up (in a very un-humorous manner).
Readers of this blog will know that I am extremely ambivalent about Dick Clark. Mr. Clark was a giant in the pop music industry, and genuinely loved rock music. He introduced many black artists to the American public and greatly helped to integrate the rock music scene.
On the other hand, I can never forgive him for allowing artists to lip-synch their records, rather than perform live. The essence of rock music is live performance. When we allow performers to simply lip-synch, we cheapen the entire enterprise.
Having said that, here are The Diamonds in a live performance of Little Darlin’.
This was performed on the Steve Allen TV show. Good for Steve Allen – to the best of my knowledge, all musical groups on his show performed live.
The Diamonds’ version of Little Darlin’ completely eclipsed that of The Gladiolas. As we have seen, rock impresario Dick Clark pushed the Diamonds’ rendition of the song, and this version was also featured in the soundtrack of George Lucas’ 1973 film salute to roots rock music, American Graffiti.
As I mentioned previously, although I have a serious interest in rock music history, until a couple of years ago I did not realize that the Diamonds’ version of Little Darlin’ was simply a cover of the original by The Gladiolas.
So, having heard both versions, which is the superior version of Little Darlin’? Allmusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine argues for The Diamonds. He states
The Diamonds’ take remained the bigger hit, and over the years, the better-known version. Normally, this would have been an outrage, but there’s a reason why the Diamonds’ version has sustained its popularity over the years: it’s a better, fiercer recording.
Well, Mr. Erlewine is a highly respected music critic, but in this case we could not disagree more strongly. It is true that the production values of the Diamonds’ song are far superior: after all, the Mercury recording studios were vastly better equipped than Excello Records.
However, note that the Diamonds’ song is essentially a note-for-note copy of The Gladiolas tune. The rhythm, harmonies and chords from the Gladiolas are simply parroted by the Diamonds.
To make matters worse, The Diamonds are clearly performing Little Darlin’ as a parody, poking fun at the song’s lyrics. Regardless of their fine production values, the Diamonds would be Exhibit A demonstrating a white group that merely copied a tune from more creative and talented black artists.
In the preceding section, we mentioned Ernie Young, the head of Excello Records who produced the original song by The Gladiolas. Young made a decision that had major consequences. Rather than assign the rights for the song to his recording company, as was standard practice in the business, Young left Maurice Williams with full rights to Little Darlin’.
This was quite a rare occurrence in the music business. Often, black groups would find that their pop songs had been sold by their record companies for an incredibly low fee. A white group would then score a gigantic hit with the song, leaving the original artists with next to nothing.
But, although The Diamonds had essentially stolen Williams’ song, because of Mr. Young’s generosity Williams retained the royalties once his song became a pop hit.
In 1957, the Diamonds had one more rock hit with their song The Stroll. This made it to #4 on the Billboard pop charts.
Although the Diamonds scored hits with doo-wop tunes, they still had great affection for old-time pop standards, and the group issued covers of American standard classic tunes.
But by the start of the 1960s, hits were becoming scarce for the Diamonds. In the late 50s, all of the Diamonds except Dave Somerville quit the group, and were replaced. And in 1961, Somerville himself left the group.
The Diamonds persisted with several changes of personnel, but with no further pop hits. This led to a situation in the 1980s where three separate groups claiming to be “The Diamonds” were touring at the same time.
This led to a court case to determine who was allowed to use the name The Diamonds. The decision was a Solomonic one: a group led by Diamonds replacement singer Gary Owens was given trademark rights for the group’s name. However, members of the original Diamonds were allowed to perform under that name “on special occasions.”
As a result, in 2000 the original members of the group re-united to perform in the PBS “oldies” production Doo-Wop 51. These same performers also appeared in the show Magic Memories: The Best of 50s Pop in 2004.
Alas, only one of the original Diamonds, baritone Phil Levitt, is still alive today. But they are remembered for their classic doo-wop hits.
Elvis Presley, Little Darlin’:
Elvis Presley was indeed The King of rock music. First appearing on the public stage in the mid-1950s, he became a rock superstar. Originally, he was the legendary “white artist who could sing black music.” However, Elvis was extremely versatile, and in addition to rock ‘n roll he also excelled in adult contemporary pop and gospel.
Elvis recorded Little Darlin’ in 1977, at a time when he was nearing the end of his career, and also his life. Around this time, Elvis was struggling with severe health problems that were aggravated by a long history of prescription drug abuse.
Here is a photo of Elvis Presley, circa 1977.
As you can see, by this time Elvis had gained a disturbing amount of weight. This would have a significant effect on his career.
The song Little Darlin’ was included in Elvis’ final album, Moody Blue. That album was released in July, 1977, just a month before Elvis’ death.
Moody Blue contained a mix of live and studio performances from The King. RCA Records was unable to obtain enough studio recordings from Elvis to fill an album. So they supplemented what studio cuts they had with three songs that Elvis had performed live in Ann Arbor, Michigan in April of 1977.
The three live songs were heavily overdubbed in the studio. Little Darlin’ was one of those three songs. So, here is a video clip of Elvis “performing” Little Darlin’.
OK, this is not really Elvis “performing” Little Darlin’. It is audio from Elvis singing the tune in his Ann Arbor concert, mashed-up with video clips of live Elvis performances during this period.
But it is still valuable. You can see the dramatic weight gain that Elvis experienced around this time. In his performance, Elvis flubs some of the lines (“to hold in mine, your little foot – uh – hand.”) It’s not clear what was going on here.
By this time, in his live concerts Elvis was beginning to forget the lines to songs. During this period, he would occasionally have to hold sheet music in order to read the lyrics.
On the other hand, it is quite possible that Elvis was just having fun with the hackneyed lyrics in this tune. In any case, I find it both fascinating and distressing to see video of Elvis, near the end of his life.
One feels tremendous sympathy for Elvis Presley. Here was a man who was strongly opposed to drugs. He never took illegal drugs, admonished his fellow musicians to refrain from using them, and only rarely drank liquor. However, he trusted his doctors, and they prescribed for him an ever-increasing number of medications.
Eventually, these “legal” meds would have disastrous consequences for Elvis. As early as 1973, Presley was experiencing serious side effects from the vast array of pills prescribed by his doctors.
Twice during the year he overdosed on barbiturates, spending three days in a coma in his hotel suite after the first incident. Toward the end of 1973, he was hospitalized, semicomatose from the effects of Demerol addiction.
By 1977, Elvis’ health had declined precipitously. Among other things, he was suffering from glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage and an enlarged colon. It is difficult to say whether these conditions were actually caused by his drug dependence, or whether they were aggravated by his meds.
In any case, the results were dramatic. Around this time, concert performances by the “fat Elvis” suffered greatly.
In Alexandria, Louisiana, the singer was on stage for less than an hour and “was impossible to understand”. Presley failed to appear in Baton Rouge; he was unable to get out of his hotel bed, and the rest of the tour was cancelled … In Rapid City, South Dakota, he was so nervous on stage that he could hardly talk … and unable to perform any significant movement.
Elvis’ final performance was in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977. In August of that year he was scheduled to begin another tour. However, on August 16, 1977, Elvis’ girlfriend Ginger Alden found him unresponsive in his bathroom at Graceland. He could not be revived and was pronounced dead.
What a tragedy. An autopsy found fourteen drugs in Elvis’ system, ten in significant quantities, at the time of his death. The coroner’s report gave the cause of death as a heart attack, but the coroner stated that there was “little doubt that polypharmacy contributed significantly to Presley’s premature death.”
Although he died tragically young at the age of 42, Elvis left us a vast legacy of music. To his millions of loyal fans, Elvis will forever remain “The King.”