Jackie and the Starlites– Cry Baby Killers
The crying record was a great tradition in the golden age of rhythm and blues, perhaps kicked off by the Griffin Brothers’ Weepin’ & Cryin Blues with vocal by the Tommy Brown (Dot), which went to #1 R&B in December of ’51 (a great interview with Tommy Brown by Dick Blackburn and Angel Baby can be found here). Brown’s tune, a yammering lament of sniveling majesty, allowed him to leave the Griffin Brothers and kick off a solo career that carries on to this day. Of course Johnnie Ray was tearing up the pop charts sobbin’ all over the place around the same time (see my post on Johnnie Ray here), and there were plenty of other similar discs (the Diablos’ I Want To Know on Fortune and Roy Brown’s Laughin’ But Cryin’ on King, being my favorites). The early pinnacle of the style may have very well been the Dominoes doom laden snuff ballad The Bells (Federal, #3 R&B , January 1953) on which Clyde McPhatter seems to be wrenching up his entire digestive system all over the studio floor.
Fast forward to September of 1960. New York City was in the midst of a doo wop revival.
What rockabilly is to Memphis and the rolling second line beat of Fats Domino is to New Orleans, vocal group harmony is to New York City. It’s still not unusual on a winter’s night to find a bunch of winos gathered around a flaming garbage can harmonizing on Life Is A But A Dream or That’s My Desire (Hispanics call it “throwin’ doo-wops”). Just the other day four guys came strolling through the E train, baseball caps out to collect change while they belted out At My Front Door, too bad most of the riders were wearing Ipods and couldn’t hear ’em, they were pretty good. In September of 1960, one of the greatest, and certainly the most over the top of all doo wop crying records – Valerie b/w Way Up In The Sky (Fury) by the Starlites was unleashed on the world. While Valerie didn’t make the national charts, it was a good size hit in New York and other east coast cities, and it obviously made a big impression on those who heard it as it would eventually be covered by Frank Zappa & the Mothers, played on the radio by Lou Reed (when he guest DJ’s on WPIX-FM in 1979), and became the favorite record of punk haberdasher Malcom McClaren who had it on the jukebox at Let It Rock (the King’s Row shop that eventually became Sex, the store where the Sex Pistols were formed). Lead singer Jackie Rue’s (nee’ LaRue, formerly of the 5 Wings) tortured vocal delivery, in which he breaks down into a hysterical, wailing, sobbing, grieving, fit, delivers the ultimate in teenage pathos. When they appeared at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia later that year, Jackie and the Starlites went from being the opening act on the first night to headliners by the second, elevated to the top billed over such hard workin’, crowd pleasing, hit makers as Ike & Tina Turner and James Brown & his Famous Flames. It has been said that Jackie and the Starlites were the only act James Brown ever refused to follow.
Fury Records was run by Harlem record store owner/producer/hustler Bobby Robinson (who also ran Fire, Red Robin, Enjoy, Everlast and a few other labels, why isn’t he in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame? Oh, right, it’s run by morons…), a guy who produced more good records than any other New Yorker, including classics by Wilbert Harrison, Lee Dorsey, Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tarheel Slim, Wild Jimmy Spruill and dozens of fine vocal groups (the Rainbows, the Teenchords, the Kodaks, the Channels, the Charts, et al). The Starlites, re-christened Jackie and the Starlites as Valerie picked up momentum, recorded three more singles for Fury– Ain’t Cha Ever Comin’ Home b/w Silver Lining, I Found Out Too Late b/w I’m Comin’ Home, both pretty much in the style of Valerie, and their final disc under Robinson’s tutelage, which may be the most unhinged of all– They Laughed At Me b/w You Put One Over On Me. They Laughed At Me, issued as Fire & Fury 1000, was released as Robinson was experiencing financial difficulties (both labels would go into receivership soon after They Laughed At Me was released) and is extremely rare. But oh, what a majestic and unique performance. This time, Jackie Rue laughs his way through his tale of rejection, cackling like a constipated hyena on methadrine, Jackie sounds like his esophagus is turning inside out. It ranks close to the top of the pantheon of sides as Phil Schaap might say if we were talkin’ jazz. There is no other record quite like it, and I think we can safely say at this point in time, there never will be*.
After Fury went bust, Jackie and the Starlites signed with Hull where they cut a few more discs in the same style, the best being I Cried My Heart Out, then were moved to Hull subsidiary Mascot for a few attempts to merge their unique style with the Latin-esqe
sound that the Drifters were milking all the way to the bank around the same time. None of these discs sold squat and by 1963 they had disbanded.
Our story does not end here however. On Monday, May 29, 1961– UPI (United Press International), a now nearly defunct press wire service, sent out a story headlined Rock ‘N Roll Stars Held For Murder, dateline New York: Two singers identified as J. Carl Moody and Henry John Hicks had stabbed one Emil Markussen, age 73, in the hallway of his apartment building on the upper West Side, killing him. It was a mugging gone wrong. The story identifies both as members of the “Starlights” (sic) and names their hits Valerie and Ain’t She Come Home (sic). Hicks is quoted as saying that the Doctor made a feeble attempt to fight back– “Then I had to kill him” he told the cops. Moody and Hicks were not on Valerie, the line up on the Starlites recording debut was Jackie Rue –lead singer, Alton Jones– tenor, George Lassu– second tenor, John Felix– baritone and Billy Montgomery– bass. Vocal groups, however, are like baseball teams, with members coming and going with bewildering regularity, so perhaps Moody and Hicks are on some of the Jackie and the Starlites recordings, if they are, I don’t know which ones. There was no follow up story from UPI and I don’t know what happened in court, or what ever became of the two. No doubt they did some time, New York was sending perps to the electric chair until 1963– they may have even been executed. Now they really had something to cry about. Lead singer, the caterwauling Jackie Rue is said to have died of a heroin overdose sometime in the late 60’s.
In 1991 Relic Records issued the first ever LP of Jackie and the Starlites material, it is well worth searching out, even buying, Norton Records mail order carries it. Rockabilly Ranch blog, has a Jackie and the Starlites versus the Bop-Chords on the ultra cheesy Collectibles label available for free download here. It is missing They Laughed At Me however. Much thanks to Jeff Roth for help with research.
* The laughing record itself has a long history, going back to the 1920’s when Okeh had a hit with the Okeh Laughing Record, which consisted of three minutes of somebody chuckling, but They Laughed At Me takes the concept to a whole new level.