Billy Ford was in his thirties and already a veteran of the music business as a trumpeter and singer when he teamed up with teenager Lillie Bryant in the late 1950s. He’d had a couple of underwhelming records of his own, but when he latched onto young Lillie it turned out to be a good move. In fact, the duo’s 1957 million-seller “La Dee Dah” impressed Dick Clark so much that he not only featured it on American Bandstand, but also encouraged the song’s writers to compose a follow-up that became the pair’s next hit.
Both performers were from the New York area — Lillie from nearby Newburg and Billy from New Jersey — and they found their hit song in the big city when record producers Bob Crewe and Frank Slay teamed up to cobble together “La Dee Dah.” Both would write a lot of other hit songs for various stars, but it was this song that seemed to really click for Billy and Lillie.
After “La Dee Dah” became a big hit and was featured on American Bandstand, Dick Clark was so enthusiastic about it that he urged Crewe and Slay to work up another good song for the duo. The result was “Lucky Ladybug,” a bouncy little tune that did very well, although it fell a little short of the twosome’s first hit. The Four Seasons would later do a version of the song, and its composers would work with that group often in coming years, but Billy and Lillie sort of wound down after that.
There’s not a lot of information around about Billy’s activities in later years, but he was a talented guy and probably worked in and around music. He died at age 59 in 1985. As for Lillie, she has spent many years as an activist in a number of worthy causes and even ran for mayor of her home town at one point. At last word she was also entertaining fans from time to time.
It’s been a while since our last Fantastic Foursome, so I’ll remind everybody how it works. I pick a classic song and tell you a little about it, and I usually include the definitive version of the song. Then I present four alternative performances and give you the opportunity to vote for your favorite.
Today’s song is one that has actually had a couple of different lives. Originally showing up in the early 1930s, “Try a Little Tenderness” was a song meant for sweet bands and crooners. In fact, it was first recorded in 1932 by Ray Noble and his orchestra, with vocal by Val Rosing. Just about everybody got around to making a record of it in subsequent years, including singers like Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Perry Como. (But apparently not Steve Lawrence, who I was going to include below in honor of his long-time wife Edie Gorme’s recent death.)
But a very different take on the song arrived in the 1960s when R&B legend Otis Redding turned it into a soul classic. His style inspired countless others in later years, including Percy Sledge, Three Dog Night, and the amazing 16 year-old Andrew Strong in the 1991 film, The Commitments. Even country blues singer Charlie Rich took a shot at it, and a pretty good one at that.
Take a listen, then vote at the bottom — entirely optional. :)
Charlie Rich - Commitments - Perry Como - Ray Noble Orchestra
In an earlier post about the Bonnie Sisters, I mentioned that they’d been helped along by Mickey Baker, a talented guitarist who would later be part of the R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia. But even though he and his performing partner struck gold in 1957 with “Love Is Strange,” Mickey Baker might have been a bigger star if he hadn’t spent the last several decades of his life bouncing around Europe.
Born MacHouston Baker in Louisville, he had a troubled childhood that included an unknown father and a very young mother who was unable to care for her son and eventually gave him up to an orphanage. While still in his early teens he ran away and was on his own, eventually living on the streets in New York all through the war years while surviving on odd jobs and pool hustling.
As a young adult in the post-war years Baker was ready to try something else, so he turned to music. While continuing to pay the bills with any kind of work he could find, he managed to get himself a guitar and learned to play from a variety of sources. It was an inspired choice, because within a few years he’d turned himself into an amazingly skilled guitarist who was at home with everything from jazz to calypso.
During the 1950s Baker seemed to be everywhere, working with stars like the Drifters, Joe Turner, and others, but also making his own breakout when he matched up musically when a lady he had taught to play guitar. MacHouston Baker and Sylvia Robinson became famous as Mickey and Sylvia, but even though they made several good records then and later, “Love Is Strange” would be their only big hit.
But Baker had a lot of other irons in the fire, including working with Tina Turner and other stars, and he also made a number of outstanding guitar solo records, both before and after his move to France in the early 1960s. He never really said why he stayed in Europe for the many years he had left, but he did become a part of the the French jazz scene and played with many that country’s established stars before finally slowing down. It was there that he died at age 87 in 2012.
*1/15/14 - Lillie from 'Billy & Lillie' visits GMC! See HERE*9/25/13 - Dick Stabile's grandson checks in. See HERE.*9/14/13 - New special feature: Diamonds In The Rough*9/9/13 - Thanks to Mikelj3, who inspired the Billy & Lillie post.*8/23/13 - Jimmy Clanton visits GMC! -- see HERE
Anatomy of a Song Country Catalyst Diamonds In Rough
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