(The DeVaurs) (1958-61)
Madelyn 'Baby Jane' Moore
The lives and loves of many a teenager were the subjects of countless songs written during the 1950s and 60s, with few variations. Soon new angles were needed to maintain the record buying public's interest in an ever-growing and more lucrative enterprise. One popular theme was based on nursery rhymes or children's songs, which young people were already familiar. This is the story of one group's success with that theme.
The evolution of the group that became Baby Jane & The Rockabyes started in The Bronx, New York in 1958, when school chums Estelle McEwan, Yvonne DeMunn, Paula Hutchinson and Brenda Carrow decided to form a group in their Morrisania neighborhood. At this time in New York, The Chantels were the reigning princesses of Rock & Roll. They were the group to emulate. The Chantels enjoyed four chart hits between the fall of 1957 and the spring of 1958, including the inimitable top twenty hit, 'Maybe'. Estelle and Yvonne wanted a group like that so they could use their beautiful voices and hone their songwriting skills. Estelle came from a musical family. All of her brothers were musicians. Yvonne had been singing ever since she can remember, inheriting her love of music from her mother.
"My mother played piano and sang classical music. As a youngster, I sang at the Apollo amateur hour, singing 'Glory Of Love'. I came in second. I also sang at a wedding on Prospect Ave. Someone asked me 'where did I learn about love?'"
All the girls were sophomores at the now historic Morris High School. Estelle and Yvonne became friends after Yvonne's family had moved to The Bronx from Queens. Estelle brought Paula into the group and Brenda came because she was friendly with Paula. The quartet called themselves The DeVaurs, part of the name coming from Yvonne's last name. The group began singing locally, and it wasn't long before they caught the attention of their classmates at Morris High. Yvonne recalls the reaction of her peers and the suggestion that started them on the road to the entertainment field.
"I remember singing on the corner of Boston Road and E. 166th St. Someone said there was going to be a talent show and that we sounded nice and they told us to go down. The audition was held on 125th St. We won first prize, singing 'Maybe'. Paula sang lead."
The DeVaurs' prize was a recording contract with D-Tone Records, a small, independent label out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The maiden session for the young quartet was held in Manhattan. Cliff Driver, a blind piano player, conducted the session. Driver had an association in the music business with Hy Weiss, owner of Old Town Records. The DeVaurs' recorded one of Estelle's songs, a beautiful, heartfelt ballad entitled 'Baby Doll', with Paula on lead. For the flip, the girls were supplied with the aptly titled 'Teenager', cowritten by Stewart/Stone/Cash, the former possibly being singer/songwriter Randy Stewart, who also had an association with Hy Weiss. Hearing 'Baby Doll' on the radio was exciting for the group. Their efforts were supported by disc jockey Hal Jackson who interviewed the group on his show. Yvonne could not make the interview because she was sick. Despite the support and the favorable onset, 'Baby Doll' failed to make any impact on local radio and eventually disappeared. The group, however, was determined.
The DeVaurs kept up their local live appearances, continually winning kudos from their fans. In 1959, the group recorded for producer Donald Shaw's Moon label of New Jersey. It was here that they recorded the tender 'Where Are You'. Although Chantels-like in overall execution, the production adds some unique touches, particularly the feature of Paula's lead for the verses and Yvonne's lead for the bridge. Both of the smooth, adult-sounding voices countered each other in sound, yet meshed in their deliveries. It's rocking flip 'Boy In Mexico' features Brenda's sassy lead. Tunes like 'Boy In Mexico' were written during one of the many impromptu writing sessions between Yvonne and Estelle, who were as close as sisters.
"I was raised around a piano, so Estelle and I would sit around the piano, making jokes. That's how we came up with our songs."
Since the Garden State was home to the group's label and distribution, the record was pushed heavily in that area. More popular than its predecessor, it featured in the top 20 on WNJR in the New York/New Jersey area in 1959. Donald Shaw, whose nickname was Benny Fowler, thought enough of the talents of the group to feature their backing vocals on a recently acquired soloist, the emergent Justine 'Baby' Washington. The DeVaurs can be heard on Washington's 'The Bells', 'Workout' and the weepy 'Nobody Cares', released during 1960 and 1961. Yvonne explains that the group had free rein with arrangements.
"They would give us the tapes and we put our own background to the music, what we felt it should be. If they liked it, we kept it. If they didn't like it, we'd change it, but we made up the backgrounds."
By the start of the new decade, the members of The DeVaurs were married and working day jobs in addition to singing. Brenda's interest in the group had waned and she left the group in 1961. Madelyn Moore, another friend from the neighborhood was asked to join the fold. Madelyn possessed a powerful voice with a five-octave range. Changes continued with the departure of Paula, who moved to Brooklyn. Despite the loss of group members, The DeVaurs continued singing as a trio for a short time. During the early 1960s, many local musicians found work in the New York music business. One lucky recipient of the need for quality vocalists was fellow Morrisania native Arthur Crier. Arthur had been a member of The Five Chimes and The Mellows during the 1950s. Arthur now sang bass in The Halos (also known as The Craftys) who had scored big with their fun-loving backing of Curtis Lee on 'Pretty Little Angel Eyes'. In addition to singing, Arthur was also writing songs and recording demos. He took note of the group's talent and asked The DeVaurs if they were interested in cutting demos for songwriters and singing backup at recording sessions. It was through this association that the group met singer Yolanda Robinson. She was added to The DeVaurs, once again forming a quartet. In addition to Arthur and songwriter Carl Spencer, The DeVaurs worked for some of the most influential music men in the business, namely Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Teacho Wiltshire and Bert Berns at Trio Music. All of these men had made names for themselves in the world of Rock & Roll. They always had their fingers on the pulse of what was happening in popular music. The DeVaurs would soon figure into the beat of that pulse.
In 1962, Phil Spector had success recording a version of the Disney classic 'Zip-A-Dee Doo-Da' in a bump-and-grind style with a lowdown twangy guitar break. This almost unrecognizable rendition by Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans burned up the airwaves, making it into the top 10. Convinced that this was a mine for a potential hit, Leiber and Stoller copied the style for a version of the Patti Page chart topper, 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window'. When the song was presented to the DeVaurs, they were aghast at being asked to record this pre-teen ditty. However, the group dutifully recorded the song with the simplistic vocal arrangement, augmented with Carl Spencer's bass on the bridge. ' Doggie' was slated for release on United Artist Records, then the home of Leiber and Stoller's independent productions, after their falling out with the powers that be at Atlantic Records. When the records were pressed, The DeVaurs were shocked to find that they had a new name. Supposedly, the name of Baby Jane & The Rockabyes grew out of the popularity of the Joan Crawford/Bette Davis film blockbuster, 'Whatever Happened To Baby Jane'. Shortly after its release, 'Doggie' climbed to the middle of the Top 100, stalling at #69, but making a respectable showing in several local markets. The group was now in possession of a hit single. This was certainly no problem. Promo photos were taken and the group was on its way. As Yvonne tells it, the girls eventually found that they could do much with the song during live performances.
"There was a lot to be done in the way of a stage show using 'Doggie'. We had a mechanical dog that we used to walk across the stage, in time to the music."
Since Leiber and Stoller smelled success, they decided to try again, this time with a Drifterish sounding ballad, with tempo changes for the choruses. 'All I Want To Do Is Run' was a more daring attempt at another pop hit, so maybe that's why Leiber and Stoller elected to release this single under a new name, the Elektras. At the session, Trio Music's production team was in on the fun. Bert Berns directed and co-wrote the song (as Bert Russell with Carl Spencer) and Teacho Wiltshire arranged. There is also the presence of male vocalists in the background, most likely Arthur Crier's Halos, creating the sound of a mixed group. Madelyn's animated soprano is given more free movement on this waxing, likewise for the flip, 'It Ain't Easy'. The single made noise in New York, but nothing more than that. Of course, the next logical step was to reprise a similar sound as 'Doggie'.
Leiber and Stoller's new proteges, Ellie Greenwich and her husband Jeff Barry, penned a rhythmic tune culled from the title of another nursery rhyme, 'Hickory Dickory Dock'. The more interesting flip, Carl Spencer's 'Half-Deserted Street' was initially pushed as the A-side. This single was released on the small Spokane Records, then distributed by Florence Greenberg's Scepter complex. Although this single didn't chart, 'Hickory Dickery Dock'/'Half Deserted Street' made local play lists around the New York/New Jersey area. Madelyn's voice soars to new heights on 'Half Deserted Street', as she discovers her boyfriend with another girl while she was out walking one night. This song also takes cues from Drifters singles, with its Latin-flavored beat. Backing harmonies sound clean and full, as on 'All I Want To Do Is Run'. Yvonne, Estelle and Yolanda invoke the blend the group used so effectively on the mellifluous ballads they sang as The DeVaurs.
'Half Deserted Street' reappeared as the flip of the group's second Spokane single, 'Get Me To The Church On Time', a novel take on the hit from 'My Fair Lady', with a pulsing organ similar to the one in The Jaynetts' 'Sally, Go 'Round The Roses'. Vocals were sung mostly in unison, as on 'Doggie'. Other songs cut by the group exhibit more group harmony, as on a wonderful demo of 'Happy Birthday (Wherever You Are)', and 'Silly Little Teardrop', the latter released only in Europe on an EP. On tour, the quartet showcased their versatility by singing standards in more traditional fashion, in particular, a rousing version of 'Over The Rainbow', for which they received standing ovations. Touring also involved lots of fun with co-stars Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, B.B. King, The Exciters, The Shirelles and The Supremes.
With no true success for their follow-up singles, Leiber and Stoller eventually parted ways with Baby Jane & The Rockabyes. In the middle of all this, Yolanda had agreed to record a series of singles with songwriter/producer Ed Silvers. She hadn't informed her group mates, which caused quite a stir, since they were now obligated to sing under yet another name, Henrietta and The Hairdooz. Under this moniker, the group released three singles placed with Liberty Records in late 1963 and early '64. Yolanda's lead is featured on the exciting 'Penn Station', the story of a budding romance unfolding right in the middle of the bustling terminal. She is also featured on the romantic 'It Might As Well Be Me' and the pop-blues tune, 'You Got A Lot To Learn'. Madelyn takes a lead on the zany 'Slow Motion'. The last single, 'I Love Him'/'We'll Work It Out' is credited only to Henrietta, because the girls, protesting another change of their identity on vinyl, said, ". . . enough of this foolishness".
Arthur Crier had been managing The Rockabyes, as well as a few other acts like Barbara English, Savannah Smith and his sister Shirley's group, The Darlettes. Arthur decided to add the role of producer for The Rockabyes as well. The group recorded for two of Arthur's associates, Gene Redd, a former singer with The Fi-Tones Quintet and singer/songwriter Sammy Fain. Gene produced two mild soul songs for the group in late 1964, billing them as The Lullabyes and placing them with Dimension Records, now a few months beyond its prime, having been sold by Don Kirshner. Unfortunately, 'My Heart Cries For You'/'You Touch Me', did not add any depth to Dimension's increasingly shrinking presence as a hit-making label.
The last bright spot in the career of Baby Jane & The Rockabyes came in 1966, when Arthur and his production partner, Al Cleveland, produced the group for the Jubilee subsidiary, Port Records, home to several veteran artists who started in the 1950s, like The Harptones, now recording as The Soothers, Curtis Blandon (Mr. Soul) and The Gees, a group that Savannah Smith was fronting. Port was also responsible for the reissue of several vintage recordings by The Channels, The Continentals and The Sedates. The style that Arthur and Al had chosen for Baby Jane & The Rockabyes was a solid dance groove made popular by Motown Records. 'Dance Till My Feet Get Tired' inspires dancers to do just that. Madelyn's reliable soprano ascends with every verse, exciting listeners and compelling them to do what the title implies. There is more of a showcase for the group on the flip, 'Heartbreak Shop', with its call and response backdrop. Although the dance tune didn't take off, it marked Arthur and Al's introduction to Motown's Berry Gordy, who hired them as staff writers and producers. Also, Madelyn was married and pregnant and not able to make personal appearances. Savannah Smith took her place at shows. Yolanda also left the group in 1967. The remaining ladies changed the group's image by adding singer Billy Guy to the lineup. This configuration continued to make public appearances for about a year before breaking up in 1968.
Yvonne and Billy came together to resume their singing careers during the 1970s, forming The Starr-Blair Affair. In addition, Yvonne and Billy joined in marriage. Their versatile band performed in numerous clubs in the New York area, singing everything from pop to Rhythm & Blues to standards. The successful live act prospered throughout the late 1970s, until Billy's untimely death, after which Yvonne decided to give up performing and concentrate on her family.
After giving up singing, Madelyn Moore settled into domestic life in The
Bronx. Sadly, Estelle McEwan passed away in the 1970s. Savannah Smith,
whose real name is Arnetta Livingston, has kept up with her singing, joining
a revived configuration of The Darlettes in 1999. The whereabouts of Yolanda,
Paula and Brenda are unknown. Today, with her children grown and her singing
days behind her, Yvonne works for the New York Housing Authority. Even
though she decided to retire from singing, Yvonne has nothing but fond
memories of making a living with her passion for writing and singing songs.
Although their career as hit makers was brief and money not always forthcoming, like so many other young people in the music business in New York during the 50s and 60s, Baby Jane and The Rockabyes had their shot at stardom and had fun doing it in the process. This is no tall tale, but a true telling of how penetrable the Rock & Roll music industry was in its infancy.
John Clemente 2002
|Where Are You/Boy In Mexico
|Baby Jane & The Rockabyes
|How Much Is That Doggie In The Window/My Boy John
|United Artists 560
|Hickory Dickery Dock/Half Deserted Street
|Get Me To The Church On Time/Half Deserted Street
|Heartbreak Shop/Dance Till My Feet Get Tired
|All I Want To Do Is Run/It Ain't Easy
|United Artists 594
|Henrietta & The Hairdooz
|Slow Motion/You Got A Lot To Learn
|It Might As Well Be Me/Penn Station
|I Love Him*/We'll Work It Out*
|(*billed as Henrietta)
|My Heart Cries For You/You Touch Me
|The Bells/Why Did My Baby Put Me Down
|Work Out/Let's Love In The Moonlight
|Medicine Man/Tears Fall
|Nobody Cares/Money's Funny
|Baby Jane & The Rockabyes
|How Much Is That Doggie In The Window/My Boy John
|Happy Birthday (Wherever You Are)*
recorded 1963, issued on Ace compilation
"Where The Girls Are Vol.2"
|All I Want To Do Is Run/It Ain't Easy
Baby Jane & The Rockabyes
|Half Deserted Street/Get Me To The Church On Time/Silly Little Teardrop/Hickory Dickery Dock
|Henrietta & The Hairdooz
|Slow Motion/Penn Station/You Got A Lot To Learn/It Might As Well Be Me
|Liberty EP 2105