Gary James' Interview With Dave Somerville Of
In the Fall of 1957, after topping the charts with not one, but eight hit records, Dave Somerville and The Diamonds boarded a Rock 'n' Roll bus with other rising stars, Buddy Holly And The Crickets, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, The Drifters, La Vern Baker, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Knox, Clyde McPhater and Frankie Lymon. For two months they rocked and rolled across America, making it the very first Rock 'n' Roll tour. Here to talk with us about those early days of Rock 'n' Roll is Mr. Diamond - Dave Somerville.
Q - After listening to your CD "On The 1957 Rock And Roll Greyhound Bus", one thing that really stands out is you can still sing! You never lost your voice. It must be that you didn't acquire some of the bad habits of your contemporaries. You didn't smoke.
A - When I was in The Diamonds I smoked, but I haven't smoked for decades.
Q - That's what I thought.
A - But I live up 135 steps. The biggest part of my exercise is I take about a 50 minute strenuous walk up some very steep hills about 5 mornings of the week and stretch and lift some weights. And it keeps you awake. I live in the house of The Fall Guy, you know, the television show The Fall Guy! That was originated by a song I wrote about stuntmen. Then my friend Glen Larson heard me sing it. He's a television producer. He produced Battlestar Galactica, Quincy and McCloud, Magnum P.I., etc. He said "Let's make a TV show out of your tune." And then my house became the set and I've been here 35 years. Fabulous place.
Q - In the beginning you thought Rock 'n' Roll would only last 6 months. And Buddy Holly thought it would only last a year.
A - That's right.
Q - And here we are. Why did you think 6 months?
A - Well, it seemed to be another fad, like Calypso. I would never have guessed that it would supplant Big Band music for instance. That was the most sophisticated presentation of Popular music at the time. It seemed like we had really gone somewhere and landed. But who knew that the musical cultures of Europe and Africa would meet here in America and that that would happen.
Q - On this bus tour of 1957, how was it decided who would close the show?
A - Well, usually Fats Domino. He was the headliner on the tour. Chuck Berry was on there, but he hadn't had as many hits and hadn't been recording as long as Fats. Fats had more number one hits than anybody but Elvis. Fats was definitely the headliner act.
Q - And so everyone had to be on their toes for that tour.
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - You hit that mark and you better be ready to go.
A - Absolutely. We were transported on the buses and it wasn't as if you could have a flat tire with your Ford Thunderbird out there somewhere. We were all delivered in a group except for Fats, who rode in his own Cadillac.
Q - At the time of the tour, you had 6 hits. Were you able to sing all those songs as part of your act?
A - No. There were so many acts. There were actually 13 jukebox giant acts involved here. Most of the acts did 2 or 3 songs. Fats probably did 20 minutes. Chuck Berry did 15 (minutes). Acts like Frankie Lymon and La Vern Baker and Paul Anka and The Everlys, we did 2 or 3 songs.
Q - If you're only doing 2 or 3 songs a night, how can an act develop?
A - Well, what do you mean by develop?
Q - Putting together some kind of nightclub act or concert act. Being able to stretch your material.
A - This was a way of getting a lot of publicity and as far as having an act together at that time, we were certainly a well-seasoned (act). We had appeared on Canadian radio and television in 1954 and '55, '56 and '57 and American television starting in '55. August '55 we were on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. We did a lot of guesting on TV shows. We were around before Rock 'n' Roll started and around when you had to have an act if you wanted to work in a nice nightclub. You better have some kind of presentation and pacing and orchestrations and clothing to match.
Q - What songs were you singing?
A - Well, in '57 we most certainly would have sung "Little Darlin'" and maybe "Ka-Ding-Dung" or "Church Bells May Ring" or "Love, Love, Love" or "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" or some such hit we had previous to that. We were working on "Zip Zip" by that time, which was a hit for us.
Q - What were you doing before The Diamonds?
A - I was a radio operator at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, in the engineering department, starting in '51 or '52...the end of '51. I had been in a quartet in high school. My uncle was my high school music teacher and he did arrangements for the quartet that I was in, in high school. The Four Quarters, which included the first two Black people I ever met. One was a tenor. One was a bass. They were also from Uncle Dick's choir. So, I wanted to be in a quartet again. When I saw these guys lined up in the hallway, I didn't know who they were, but they looked like a quartet. I hadn't sung in a quartet at that point for 2 or 3 years. I inquired if they were and they said they were. About a month later I became the lead singer of that group.
Q - The songs you sing, and I'm talking about The Diamonds' songs, are so universally well-known that there must be a constant demand to see your 'live' act.
A - Currently and for many years I have almost exclusively sung as a single performer. I left The Diamonds in 1961 to do a Folk single. There is still certainly a demand to see The Diamonds and hopefully a demand to see me as well. There's a group out there right now that controls the name and uses it called The Diamonds. At times in history there have been as many as 5 or 6 groups calling themselves The Diamonds. There's a Black group in England right now that calls themselves The Diamonds and they sing our hits.
Q - Now, how can that be? Who owns the name The Diamonds? An agent? A manager?
A - Well, actually the lead singer in the group known as The Diamonds now, a guy named Gary Owens currently controls the name.
Q - And you bill yourself as...
A - Diamond Dave Somerville or Dave Somerville - Original Lead Of The Diamonds.
Q - Did you sell the name The Diamonds?
A - Essentially, yes.
Q - Do you think that maybe that was a mistake?
A - I don't think so. I didn't want to be in The Diamonds after 1961. I'd done 8 years. I was complete with that experience, that 4 years experience twice perhaps, I don't know. I have not at any time wanted to be a member of The Diamonds again. I really enjoy doing what I do as a single. I structure my show around the idea of having been part of Rock 'n' Roll's first major tour. My performance consists in a typical 45 minute or even an hour and 45 minute show, I'll take you down, or stroll you down the aisle of that Greyhound and tell road stories and sing songs from Rock 'n' Roll's first major touring group of artists. I tell a story about Fats. I sing some songs of Fats in a medley form or complete songs.
Q - Where did you first break come from? Was that appearing on the Arthur Godfrey TV show?
A - Well, certainly our first break in the United States was being on Arthur Godfrey. We tied with the girl piano player on Monday night. We did the rest of the week on mornings with Arthur and then he invited us back on 3 separate occasions for entire weeks. We also did his Wednesday night show a couple of times, so he was certainly our first big break in the United States. As far as working in theatres, our first theatre job in the U.S. was working at the Palace Theatre in New York City. Recording wise our first break was meeting Dr. Bill Randle in Cleveland, Ohio. He directed the first half of our recording career. He actually told us what songs to record and we did that and had enormous success. We were the most successful White male pop group of the late '50s.
Q - Was Dr. Randle a real doctor?
A - He had a doctorate in a number of things actually. He had seven degrees. I'm sure he was a doctor of literature and history. He taught college for a period of time. He worked for the C.I.A. for awhile. He predicted trends for Warner Brothers. He would go sit in theatres and see what people responded to. He's the guy who discovered Elvis Presley.
Q - Bill Randle did?
A - Yes.
Q - I never heard that one.
A - Yeah, well, if you've seen The Jimmy Dorsey Show on which Elvis did his first performance, the guy introducing him is Dr. Bill Randle, who also discovered The Everly Brothers essentially and Dizzy Gillespie and The Crew Cuts. He named The Crew Cuts. He was on a 1000 watt radio station in Cleveland and certainly not as well known as Alan Freed, but I would say more influential. Life magazine in 1957 said he was the most important disc jockey in the United States.
Q - And he had the influence to get you a record deal with Mercury Records?
A - Yes, he did.
Q - But he was not a manager, was he?
A - He was not a manager, but Elvis wanted him to be his manager, but he turned him down. Bill liked to occupy himself half the day as a disc jockey and the other half as a lawyer. He had a very successful career. He only passed about 3 years ago (2007), in his 80s, of cancer. Very unfortunate, but we were in touch through the years because I owed him a great gratitude for having gotten me into this business essentially.
Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?
A - I did not. The closest I ever got to Elvis was the fact I have a home recording of him learning "Little Darlin'" from The Diamonds' recording.
Q - That was one of his favorite songs, wasn't it?
A - Yes. He did that third from closing for years as part of his act. And he recorded it himself.
Q - How about recording in those days. Was that a fast process? Would they block off those 3 hour time periods?
A - Yeah. It was generally 3 hours. Sometimes it would be extended to 4. On the night we recorded "Little Darlin'" for Mercury Records, March 5th, 1957, we had a 4 hour session that started at midnight. We only had learned "Little Darlin'" in the afternoon from Maurice Williams And The Gladiolas' recording on Excello. So, we'd forgotten about the song. So at 3:45 AM, after having recorded 4 more songs, the producer said "OK, that's it. Good night everybody. Thanks." The drummer immediately left. One minute later he said "Uh-oh. One more song Remember that tune from this afternoon, Little Darlin'? If you guys can record this in the next 15 minutes, we don't have to pay the band for another session." And so we did it. We did it in one take without a drummer. Recently I saw a year end report of the Top 100 songs from 1957. Elvis was number one with "All Shook Up". Pat Boone was number two with "Love Letters In The Sand" and The Diamonds were number three with "Little Darlin'". So it's certainly been an enormously successful song.
Q - That brings to mind this question: Is it better if a group gets 15 minutes? Or is it better if you're given 3 hours to record a song? Or is it better if you're given 3 months?
A - Well, you know there's no way of kind of nailing down the creative process that specifically. For instance, although "Little Darlin'" was done in one take, our follow-up to it, which was "Words Of Love", by the way Buddy Holly's first hit as a songwriter, we did 76 takes and I think it took 2 sessions to do. It's like golf. You play it as it lays.
Q - Brown And Friedrich's Encyclopedia Of Rock 'n' Roll had this to say about The Diamonds: "Many groups who had a lot of hits aren't' nearly as well remembered as are The Diamonds for their one - "Little Darlin'." Why do you suppose that is, Dave?
A - Well, I think it was a unique piece of material. I think at the time, White stations weren't playing Black music, but because we so admired and emulated Black music, The Diamonds, even before Rock 'n' Roll existed, we were well prepared to sing a song like "Little Darlin'" and get play on White owned stations that weren't playing Black music. The uniqueness of the material can't be ignored either because it had marvelous falsetto stuff going on, the phrases were kind of clipped, which is kind of a Calypso way of approaching it. And it was the first Rock 'n' Roll recording with a Latin beat. So it had all these things going for it, plus Mercury Records had an amazing promotional arm. The fact that we had 4 hits in front of it gave us a lot of profile when it came across the desks of programmers at radio stations.
Q - They go on to say: "The Diamonds did their thing on this record like they'd never done it before and like they were never to do it again." Is that accurate? Do you agree with that?
A - Well, it was certainly our most successful record. In some respects, it may have been our best record. I think we also had some other really good recordings. "The Stroll" for instance has amazing legs. They're still doing it. That's the longest surviving line dance and the biggest recording of a line dance in history. It's the biggest line dance record of all time. There again, we had Fats Domino there. Fats Domino's band backing us up from New Orleans to New York and we had King Curtis playing sax. So both of those were unique recordings. So we had a third million seller, Top Ten recording of a song called "Silhouettes".
Q - The same Herman's Hermits covered?
A - Yes. I think there was another hit on that as well. And also of course The Rays. While The Rays were at number one with their recording of "Silhouettes", we were at number 10. A lot of people think we covered it. We did not. It was a song that came to us from a publisher and when they realized the strength of the song, even though they had given us an exclusive on it, they went ahead just a couple of days ahead of us and released their demo and called the group that had demoed the song for us, The Rays. I think The Diamonds got a bad rap for covering songs because most of the people we covered were Black acts that couldn't get played on White stations. As a matter of fact, you could probably construe what happened there is we uncovered some really good material.
Q - On the night of February 9th, 1964, 70 million Americans were waiting to see The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. There was so much anticipation. At that point, you had already been on the road with so many of the acts that influenced The Beatles, like Buddy Holly. So when The Beatles came on, what did you think of them?
A - Well, I'll tell you truthfully: at that point I had left The Diamonds. So it certainly was a phenomenon which was greatly heralded. We certainly knew The Beatles were coming. I was into my Folk era. I had no inkling that these guys from England would ignite such an amazing effort to essentially knock off the American recording industry. In the mid '60s, nobody was getting played by comparison to The Beatles.
Q - Did The Diamonds tour overseas when you were with them?
A - We actually had several tours of Europe and England, but our manager didn't see fit to make deals there. However, we did go to Australia 3 times. I guess '59, '60, '61 and had a marvelous time every time. We were probably more popular in Australia than we were here in the United States, than Canada or Europe. The first time we went with The Mouseketeers, who the Australian public were watching old video tapes of and they expected to see children get off the plane and instead they were in their mid-teens. (laughs) Very cute. In 10 days with The Mouseketeers we grossed $250,000, which was huge money at that time.
Q - And still is pretty good today.
A - Yeah. (laughs)
Q - So after The Beatles hit, seeing as how you were a Folk singer, your career was unaffected. You got to go on.
A - Yeah. I worked more weeks per year by myself than I had with The Diamonds. I was probably out 45 weeks a year for 6 weeks straight.
Q - Just you and a guitar?
A - That's right. I had orchestrations as well. When I went to Japan, I took orchestrations for 12 or 16. I did standards as well as Folk stuff. Matter of fact, I would bracket. The brackets would be the standards that I'd sit on a stool in the middle of my act and do. But when I was here in the States, I wouldn't do that Bobby Darin(ish) kind of thing. I would just go to the Folk clubs. There were 25 of 'em here in Los Angeles.
Q - Dave, you really were in the right place at the right time, with the right stuff.
A - Well, yes. Absolutely. And connected to the right people. Some of it by design. Some of it by serendipity of course. Rock 'n' Roll was really the cultural event of the last century. It changed everything.