A dozen (or so) questions for
Larry Chance of The Earls
with Ray D'Ariano
There's a lot of perfect doo wop records from the 50's, The Flamingos, "Golden Teardrops," "Ten Commandments Of Love" by The Moonglows, or the up-tempo, "Speedo" by The Cadillacs for example. One of the first perfect doo wop records of the 60's was "Remember Then" from The Earls. It contained the classic doo wop riff .. WOP WOP PATTY PATTY BOP BOP SHOE BOP DE BOP BOP OWOOOOOOO, and the amazing lead vocals of Larry Chance.
Larry has been the leader and vocalist with The Earls for over 5 decades, and has one of the great voices not only in doo wop, but in the history of rock and roll. We recently crossed paths, in of all places, on the site of the original Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, New York. A few days later he graciously participated in this interview.
RD: You were born in South Philly&.a lot of talented people who hit it big grew up in your neighborhood&Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon&. did you know any of these guys before you got into the biz?
LC: I sat behind Chubby in elementary school... I knew him as Ernest Evans... I'd see Frankie Avalon around the neighborhood once in a while. I remember him carrying around a trumpet case. So many great artists came from Philadelphia. Not just groups like the Danny & the Juniors, Dovells, Blue Notes, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, the Stylistics but pop singers, Jimmy Darren, Fabian, Dee Dee Sharp& Operatic singers, Mario Lanza, comics, Joey Bishop, David Brenner& Jazz greats like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie& Soul artists like the O'Jays, Solomon Burke, etc.
RD: Who were your musical influences as a kid?
LC: I had so many... I've always had a very wide spectrum of musical taste... I loved Hank Ballard, the Ravens, Flamingos, Perry Como, Delta Rhythm Boys, Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Ray, Swan Silvertones, Eddie Arnold, Buddy Johnson Band, Count Basie Band, Billy Ward & the Dominos. I could go on for hours. I found so much to love in all genres... Loved R & B, Blues, Big Band music, Gospel, Country, Jazz. I guess Ray Charles said it best, only two kinds of music, good & bad. I lived near a Baptist church and often I would go there on Sunday mornings & listen to them sing. I also recall a place called Pep's Musical Show Bar. I think it was on Broad Street. I would stand outside & listen to acts like the Blue Notes, Big Maybelle, and Jimmy Reed.
RD: That's great. I grew up in New Rochelle and Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals was from Pelham. He used to hang out outside a R&B club in New Rochelle called the Three Fours and listen to this Hammond organ soul group, The Mighty Cravers, I think. Anyway, your family moved to the Bronx and you formed a vocal group. How'd all that go down?
LC: I started singing on the street corners in Philadelphia. When my family moved to the Bronx it just seemed so natural to me. Music was always my greatest love. We'd sing in school, (Evander Childs High School) on park benches, on the corner. Anywhere & everywhere!! I remember us taking the subway down to 149th Street. That's where the old 3rd Ave. El went underground. We'd get off & sing there for hours. The tiles made us sound like we were in a recording studio. At least, that's what we thought a studio would sound like.
RD: Looking for an echo, right? So your group was called the High Hatters. Where did you perform and what were the songs you guys were singing?
LC: I remember our first appearances were at the Moose Lodge on 216th Street in the Bronx and at Teen Town in Mt. Vernon, NY. We sang all the standard street songs, "Zoom, Zoom, Zoom," "I'm So Happy," "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," "Thousand Miles Away," etc.
RD: Great stuff, "I'm So Happy," wow, what a tune. How did the High Haters become The Earls?
LC: Our intention was to wear tails, spats, top hats, white gloves & canes. Of course, that cost money, which we didn't have much of at that time. That's why we became the Earls, no cost, (laughs) I chose the name Earls by sticking my finger in a dictionary. It landed on Earl (nobleman of high rank) so we then became the Earls. I found out in later years that Lionel Richie also stuck his finger in a dictionary to name the Commodores. I've always been amused by the fact that had I placed my finger just a little higher we might have been named the "Ears," and the same situation by Lionel might have resulted in the Commodores being the "Commodes." (laughs)
RD: From 62-64 The Earls had their greatest string of hits&"Remember Then," "Never," "Eyes," "Cry Cry Cry," "I Believe." Must have been a heady time for you.
LC: It was wonderful. I got to meet all of the performers I idolized. I was meeting the DJ's I listened to for so many years, Jocko Henderson, Hy Litt, Bruce Morrow, etc. I remember having my ear glued to the radio every Monday evening when Peter Tripp, I think he was known as the curly haired kid in the third row, would present the Top 40 records of the week. I would listen intently to see if my tunes were still climbing the charts or on the way down. More importantly, those recordings gave me an audience. The joy I still get from performing for them is the greatest high possible. It's an unexplainable experience.
RD: Aside from recording, what did the group do to promote the records?
LC: We did record hops for DJ's (Murray the K, Bruce Morrow, Scott Muni, Hal Jackson, etc.) We did the Christmas show at the Brooklyn Fox for 10 days with Murray the K. It was incredible& Lines around the block for every show& Jackie Wilson, Little Anthony & the Imperials, the Crests, the Drifters. I was with musical royalty. Needless to say, I was intimidated, yet proud to be among them. Here I was, a street kid from the Bronx, by way of South Philly, sharing the stage with some of the greatest performers of all time, whew!!! I remember that show being the 1st big show for Dionne Warwick. She was fabulous. I knew she'd be a huge star!! We did many local TV shows, Clay Cole Show, Connecticut Bandstand, Bruce Morrow's Go Go show. The most exciting for me personally was doing the American Bandstand show in Philadelphia. I remember dancing there a few times & vowed that one day I'd be there as a performer. I was able to fulfill a dream I'd had as a teen. That was soooo very special.
RD: '64&The Beatles broke&the British Invasion hit and the American recording acts took a hit. Radio just about abandoned all of you. Your thoughts?
LC: I felt that there was room for all of us. British, Motown, Doo Wop, etc. It seemed that if you weren't British or Motown at that time you weren't played. One or two American acts were played such as the Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Jay & the Americans. However, Doo Wop become a forgotten art form until Gus Gossert, Don K. Reed, Hy Litt, Jerry Blavat, and a few others across the country refused to accept its demise. They showed the industry that there was a market for the old harmony sounds. Richard Nader took it to Madison Square Garden and other major venues. Sold-out performances helped create a demand for the music once again and helped create oldies stations such as WCBS-FM to garner high ratings playing the Drifters, Coasters, Duprees, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, etc.
RD: You made some terrific records during the so-called British invasion& "Ask Anybody," "Remember Me Baby" (B side: "Amore"). How did you deal with hearing inferior stuff on the radio while your great recordings were being ignored?
LC: It was disappointing to say the least. But I'd learned that show biz was a combination of talent & luck. The most talented didn't always get the success that some lesser acts did with lots of hype. My attitude became kind of like, oh well, Ces't La Vie...
RD: I was working at a club in Mt. Vernon in the late 60's called The World and a favorite soulful-horn band we booked was called Smokestack. Any recollections of that group?
LC: Ah yes, I remember it well. I was on the bill with the Rascals, if my memory serves me correctly. That was my first gig with them. Oldies bands were not getting work at that time. Clubs weren't hiring any "Doo Woppers." So we added three horns to the act, changed the name to "Smokestack" & became a very in-demand show, dance band in the NY, NJ area. We did covers and some original material that we recorded for the Daisy label which was distributed by the Decca label.
RD: So our paths crossed for the first time at The World, but we didn't realize it. We met formally in the 80's at WNBC when you were doing comedy on Imus In The Morning, and me the same on the show after you guys. How'd you hook up with Imus?
LC: Don was doing comedy records back then that were being produced by my pal Paul DeFranco. Paul & I were doing some recording projects together at that time. Don's brother, Fred was a songwriter but he couldn't sing very well. He needed someone to sing his originals so that he could shop them. Paul put me in contact with Don & Fred. I did demos of Fred's songs for him and while working with Fred became friendly with Don. I'd often do wacky things in the studio, comedy, dialects, etc, So, when Don came back to New York to work for WNBC radio he put me to work as his crazy editorial manager, Geraldo Santana Banana & the streetwise entrepreneur Rainbow Johnson.
RD: I need to jump back to the 70's for a second. The disco fever had swept the nation and you did a version of "Tonight Could Be The Night" where you combined disco and doo wop. That is one of the greatest recordings I ever heard. I was working at Casablanca at the time and I was sure it was going to hit number one. Your comments.
LC: It was one of my most disappointing studio endeavors!! I remember some of the reviews:
Cashbox: Pick of the Week
Billboard: Spotlight Single
California Disco Association: Hottest record of the month, blows my hat off.
When I read those reviews, I felt, wow, I'm gonna have me a smash!! Sold maybe 10 copies, and I think my mom bought 6 of those. (laughs)
RD: Today vocal group harmony is called doo wop and there is a great catalogue of songs from the golden era much like the great American song book from another time there aren't a lot of groups performing or recording this material. Is it over? Or how does this music get preserved?
LC: I don't think it's over yet. The series of Doo Wop specials done by PBS-TV earned them their greatest ratings ever and made them more money then the Three Tenors, Sinatra, Liza, etc. I still record and have doo wop tunes on each album I do. Recently I did an album called "Back On the Streets of the Bronx" which even had a couple of A Cappella tunes on it. I still put some Doo Wop tunes on every CD I do with the Earls, both original & some of the standard tunes. I also record some Jazz & Big Band tunes as a single artist. As I mentioned previously, my musical taste is vast.
RD: Larry Chance and The Earls today have a super live show. You've got The Earls hits of course, your amazing vocals on jazz and standards like "At Last" or "I'll Be Seeing You," plus a lot of comedy. How can a club, school or individual book you guys for a gig?
LC: They can contact us at our web site: www.larrychanceandtheearls.com or my email address: [email protected]
RD: Thanks for taking the time Larry. Any last thoughts?
LC: Thanks for the interview. It made me recall many long ago moments which I seldom think of any more. It was nice to reminisce. Regarding any last thoughts, I guess it would be how very fortunate I am to still be doing this 53 years after forming the Earls and making a living doing what I so love and live to do. To still be active and take the stage having overcome throat cancer is overwhelming at times. I'm so fortunate to have the greatest fans on this earth. They are the reason I'm able to still be a performer after all these years. I'm so appreciative of their love and continued support. Very humbling indeed. Stay well my friend.
RD: Right back at you. Rock on.