Gary James' Interview With Mark Stevens of
The Dovells are perhaps best-known for a song they recorded in 1961, called "The Bristol Stomp".
That song went all the way to number one on Cashbox and number two on Billboard. It also reached number seven on the R&B charts.
The Dovells performed with such notables of the day as Ray Charles, Gloria Lynne, Timi Yuro, Fabian and James Brown. The group recorded other material along the way,* including "Do The New Continental", "Bristol Twistin' Annie", "Hully Gully Baby", "The Jitterbug" and "You Can't Sit Down".
Still around today, The Dovells bill themselves as a musical comedy act.
Mark Stevens talks about The Dovells.
Q - Mark, let me read you what Brown and Friedrich, authors of the Encyclopaedia Of Rock 'n Roll had to say about The Dovells: "The group never went in for ballads, seemingly more secure in raucous rock which could cover up any flaws that their singing contained." Is that true? What flaws would they be referring to?
A - I don't know. That's just someone's opinion. I actually thought that we were pretty unique. We had a very R&B sound. We were a white group with a black sound and that's what got The Dovells signed to Cameo / Parkway. That's what they were looking for. There's no doubt about that. And Len Barry, the original lead singer of The Dovells, had that black, rhythm and blues thing going on. We all did. We all went to a very black high school. We were all rhythm and blues oriented.
Q - You're an original then?
A - Yeah
Q - How'd you get the Cameo / Parkway record deal?
A - Auditioned
Q - How'd that come about?
A - We were just kids and somebody's father knew somebody. This was back in the early days of the 1960s, so it wasn't that hard to get in the door, because there wasn't a million acts trying to get in the door.
Q How fortunate you were.
A - Yeah. This was back in the infancy of rock and roll. Again, they were looking for a white group that had a black sound. There were two different groups that merged together. There was Jerry Gross, my partner as we speak, and myself, and Mike Freda and two other guys who never really stayed in show business...we were in one group. Len Barry and Arnie Silver, who remained as Dovells, were in another group with a couple of people and those two groups merged into what became The Dovells.
Q - "The Bristol Stomp" would be the song that put you over the top then?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - Did you write that song?
A - No. Kal Mann and Dave Appell wrote all The Dovell's hits per se, along with Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, The Orlons, The Tymes, Dee Dee Sharp. All those hits from the Cameo / Parkway days were, for the most part, written by Kal Mann and Dave Appell.
Q - They were like the Motown staff writers.
A - Make no mistake about it, they were stealing melodies and ideas. "Bristol Stomp" was the same four chords you find in a lot of songs. The beat and the content of some of the songs came from other songs back then..."Pretty Little Angel Eyes", "Every Day Of The Week" by The Students... two prime examples of how "The Bristol Stomp" got started.
Q - Did you go on the road with Dick Clark?
A - Yeah.
Q - Did you go overseas?
A - Not with Dick. We still do dates with Dick. He would do about three or four tours a year. They would be anywhere from forty to fifty days at a time. To tell you the truth, you didn't know where you were after the third day. There was another guy who continued with that whole feeling in '68...Richard Nader. He was the guy that really started the rock 'n roll revival. Not since Dick Clark and until Richard started it back in '68, doing those kinds of tours, has anybody done that kind of extensive one-night touring. That's a gruelling pace. You think you got it all together, but...(laughs)
Q - You'd actually be in a bus after the gig, driving hundreds of miles to the next gig, wouldn't you?
A - You would drive hundreds of miles. If you had half a brain, which Jerry and I did, and Arnie Silver, who was still there at the time, we'd jump on a plane for the really long ones, like Miami to Chicago or let's say the tour was starting up in Nova Scotia, and came down all the way to Miami, then it would move over to the left a little bit and then work its way up the country again.
A - Did Dick Clark ride the bus a lot or did he fly?
Q - He rode on the bus a lot. Dick was a younger guy then. He really taught a lot of the acts how to exist in this business called show business. Here was a guy that was a promoter, a host and had a heck of a production company going on. Here's a guy that had some years under his belt already and he had something to teach everyone. Besides being the icon he was, he was a teacher.
Q - How many songs a night would you do on his tours?
A - Three or four songs. When you have more than five or six acts on the show, you're doing your hits and that's it. The smaller shows, where there's maybe three or four acts on the show, you're doing half an hour. So, you're doing your hits, an opener, a closer and in the middle your doing some shtick and your hits. When you go to Madison Square Garden, and we've worked everyplace like Madison Square Garden in this country, you can't go into Madison Square Garden with four acts 'cause it isn't going to sell enough tickets. So, you go in with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, The Coasters, The Shirelles, The Drifters, and the list goes on of the artists that made up the rest of the roster...and you're doing your hits. All of this traveling. All of this preparation and you're spending all of this time away from home to sing three songs. It's amazing! It was incomprehensible at times.
Q - How then, did you break in new material if all you're doing is the hits?
A - Len Barry left in 1963. When he left, it was really because he wanted to be a Rhythm and Blues singer. I had even left for a couple of years because I wasn't happy anymore. I came back in the mid-60s, forever. Jerry and I decided if we're going to be in this business for the rest of our lives, we gotta go to Reno and Tahoe. We have to be the comedic rock 'n roll act that we knew we were years ago, when we were kids. And, that's what we did. Lenny didn't want any part of it. So, we went on to be comedic performers and work Vegas and developed one step beyond the oldies act.
Q - And Len Barry?
A - He was working until about six or seven months ago, I believe. He was being managed by the same person who was managing Little Eva and Dee Dee Sharp. Small time stuff. Lenny was never going to go any further than being an oldies act with "1-2-3", because Lenny was just not smart enough to be quiet when he was supposed to be quiet and not be so opinionated. He was a real character and the character I'm talking about, I'm saying from a personal standpoint. He was a real Damon Runyan character. Truly, one of the true Damon Runyan characters of the world. But, as a business person? Forget about it! (laughs)
Q - Who are some of the acts you've worked with over the years?
A - Dale and Grace. Joey Dee, Fabian, The Shirelles, The Drifters, The Coasters, Danny and The Juniors. Some went on for years and years and some made it over the hump...like Del Shannon. He denied the public that constant access and he became one of the top ten semi-headliners, as opposed to the blue collar workers of rock 'n roll like The Drifters, The Coasters, The Shirelles. There was this semi-icon kind of thing, like a Fabian, as opposed to the last of the five remaining superstars of rock 'n roll, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison...when he was alive. Those were the last of the true superstars of rock 'n roll. Then came the Ricky Nelsons. But, you see where I'm going. There's like a level. Chubby Checker was a headliner, but, he was not one of the superstars of rock 'n roll like Chuck Berry!
Q - Try telling him that! Where do you perform these days?
A - We do Atlantic City. We do Vegas, Tahoe, some of the outlying Indian casinos, but very few of them. Either they're buying oldies or their not. You're just not gonna pop in as one of the usual suspects. I don't care who you are. You're not gonna pop into Reno, Vegas, Tahoe, the Islands, or any casino unless they are running oldies at that time. You ain't gonna work. So, the buyers at all of these places are young guys now. They don't even know who we are. They have a problem and we have a problem with that. For years we worked Vegas and all of a sudden, Atlantic City came along, and we wondered why aren't we working as much as we thought we would be in Atlantic City? My God, Jerry and I have the longest running commercial in Philadelphia television as The Dovells, twenty-five years. We're more known for our commercials than our hits. But, the buyers in Atlantic City don't get it. So, if they're not deciding to do a thematic thing in those casinos all across the country, more than likely, you're not going in.
Q - How many dates a year are you working?
A - 50 - 60.
Q - That's pretty good.
A - Yeah, well, seven, eight years ago, we were still doing over 100 dates. In our prime, I think we were doing about 180 dates a year. But, we don't to go on the road like that. We have lives. You know, we have our women. Our women folk wouldn't dig it. (laughs)
The Dovells Top 40 hits on the Billboard chart were:
"The Bristol Stomp" (#2 in 1961), "The New Continental" (#37 in 1962), "Bristol Twistin' Annie" (#27 in 1962), "Hully Gully Baby" (#25 in 1962) and "You Can't Sit Down" (#3 in 1963)*