I was sorry to read that Cornelius ‘Nini’ Harp, the lead singer of the original Marcels, died recently in suburban Pittsburgh. Harp’s age wasn’t given in obituaries, but he would have been in his seventies when he died, apparently of natural causes. Although his name might not be a familiar one to some music fans, most will recall his group’s 1961 megahit, “Blue Moon.”
Formed in the late 1950s, the Marcels (a name inspired by Harp’s hairstyle) came together at a Pittsburgh high school during an era that was flooded with doo-wop groups, but it was one of the very few that were multiracial. Harp, Ronald Mundy, and Fred Johnson were all black, while Gene Bricker and Richard Knauss were white. Even though later personnel changes would alter that, the original lineup was unusual for the times.
The group shot to fame in 1961 when it made several demos for Colpix Records in New York, including an old ballad — “Blue Moon” — which they did in a decidedly modern style. So the story goes, the record company was so impressed that they shot a copy over to a local big-name DJ, who also loved it and played it repeatedly. Whatever the case, it rocketed to the top of the charts and stayed there for quite a while.
The Marcels continued to specialize in modernizing old songs, recording a number of familiar tunes from the 1930s and 1940s, and soon had another hit with “Heartaches,” although it wasn’t a chart-topper. Another old song — “My Melancholy Baby — also did well but continued the downward trend, and before too much longer the original Marcels had more or less dissolved. In subsequent years, various combinations of new and old members of the group continued to come together and entertain fans from time to time.