In 1964, Lenny Welch had one of the biggest selling records on the year. It was called "Since I Fell For You". That record went on to sell over a million copies. He had other hits as well, including "You Don't Know Me", "Ebb Tide" and "Two Different Worlds". He's worked Trump Castle in Atlantic City, New York's Radio City Music Hall, The Apollo Theatre, Nassau Coliseum, The Meadowlands in New Jersey, Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, The Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin, Nevada and on major cruise lines. He's appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and TNN (The Nashville Network).
Lenny Welch talked to us about his life in music.
Q - Lenny, according to Norman Nite, author of the book Rock On, you went to New York City in 1958 and met attorney Shelly Kravitz and D.J. Gordie Baker, who signed you to a personal management contract. Is that accurate?
A - Well, I moved to New York in 1957, but I guess I probably met Gordie and Shelly about 1958. I met them through Coley Wallace, who was at one time a professional fighter and played Joe Louis in The Joe Louis Story. So, he was an actor. He became my manager first and introduced me to Gordie Baker and Shelly Kravitz. He really became my father. I was just a kid and he's been a father to me all these years. He passed away a few years ago. Coley Wallace is really the person responsible for getting the ball rolling for me. Shelly Kravitz was a lawyer, Gordie Baker was a disc jockey. Gordie Baker introduced me to Archie Bleyer. Gordie being a D.J., I think it was up in Massachusetts, Archie used to send records up there for him to play, The Everly Brothers, the acts that he had on his label. So that's how Gordie knew Archie Bleyer and he decided to take me to Archie Bleyer for the first place to record. But actually the first time I ever recorded was with Decca Records. Coley Wallace took me there to audition. I was not actually interested in auditioning. He had a group and a girl singer on the label and he wanted me to go along just to see what the process was like, doing an audition because I actually wanted to sing with a singing group. I didn't want to be a single act. I was looking for a group to sing with. It just so happened that while I was there watching the process of the auditions going on, a woman came up and asked me what my name was. I told her, but originally my name was Leon Welch. She made a mistake and wrote Lenny and that's how I became Lenny. It's been that since 1957. (laughs)
Q - It's served you well so far.
A - Yeah. She came back and I heard somebody saying "Lenny Welch" and I'm saying "Wow! Somebody here's with my last name." A guy looked at me and said "You. I want you to sing." I wasn't interested in singing, but the group that I knew that Coley managed, I had sung with them in the past. They let me do a few songs with them. One of the songs was "Stardust". The guys said, "C'mon, we'll back you up on the song." So I got up and I sang "Stardust" and didn't realize I was auditioning. When I finished, the producer motioned to me and said "Lenny Welch." I said "My name is Leon." He said "Well, I think Lenny sounds better." I said "I don't care, as long as you make me a star." (laughs) He said "We're going to sign you to a contract." My first record deal was with Decca Records. The records I made for Decca were two records. The first was called "Rocket To The Moon" and the flip side was "My One Sincere". The other 45, I don't recall what it was, but a producer decided to take me out of a Rock 'n' Roll feel and put me into a feel that was comparable to Johnny Mathis. He said "We're gonna record you with strings because I think you have that type of voice." So, I recorded one 45 with a big orchestra. Gordie Baker took that up to Archie Bleyer and that's how I got to meet Archie Bleyer and audition for him. He took me over to the piano and asked me to sing the song "You Don't Know Me". I sang it. He said "This will be your first recording. We're gonna record next week." "You Don't Know Me" went up the charts. That was my first hit.
Q - Was that the same "You Don't Know Me" that Ray Charles recorded?
A - Yeah. I did it in 1959. That was my first release for (the) Cadence label. I think Ray did it in about 1960, 1961.
Q - Gordie Baker was a famous D.J.?
A - Well, I don't know if he was famous, but he was a D.J. in, I think it was Springfield, Massachusetts. Then he moved to New York and I think he was on WINS. He was a freelance D.J. So, I used to hear him on the air once in awhile. He would fill in for different D.J.s. I haven't heard from Gordie in, I don't even want to say in how many years. (laughs) It's been a long, long time.
Q - He's still around then?
A - I don't know. I spoke with Shelly Kravitz maybe thirteen, fourteen years ago. I was in New York. I did a show in Long Island. I don't remember the name of the venue. It was a big, big venue. Mary Wilson was on the show, Pookie Hudson of The Spaniels. It was a big, big show. Gordie Baker was there and that was the last time I saw him.
Q - And Gordie Baker did serve as you manager for a time?
A - Yeah. Gordie Baker and Shelly Kravitz. The lawyer was Shelly Kravitz. The D.J. was Gordie Baker.
Q - Did Gordie manage other people before you?
A - I don't think so.
Q - So, what did he know about personal management?
A - He knew the business. He knew Archie Bleyer. He got my first nightclub act. He knew I had to have an act before I could go out on the road. He knew about the agents, the big agencies. The first agency I signed with was William Morris. I guess I was about 18 years old.
Q - Did William Morris do a good job for you?
A - No, no. (laughs)
Q - I didn't think so. Not in those days.
A - They didn't do anything. Then I signed with GAC. (General Artists Corporation) and there was a woman there by the name of Roz Ross and she was the head of it.
Q - She was the head of GAC?
A - Well, I wouldn't say she was the head, but she was in charge of me.
Q - That's a very famous agency.
A - Yeah, GAC, but they became something else. They're still around today, but they changed their name. It's a big agency now, but it's not GAC. There was a guy, I wish I could remember his name. He was there with GAC at the time. He's the one that brought The Beatles to this country. I can't think of his name, but he was trying to get me to re-sign with GAC. After I had "You Don't Know Me", I left GAC 'cause there was nothing going on. They weren't booking me. But then I came out with "Since I Fell For You" and this guy wanted to sign me up again with GAC, but I didn't do it. I went with Agency For The Performing Arts (APA).
Q - They book a lot of stand-up comics and a lot of TV personalities.
A - Yeah.
Q - Did APA do right by you? Did they do a good job for you?
A - Somewhat. Not really. But they had Harry Belefonte. The head man there, his name was Dave Baumgarden and I auditioned for him before I came out with "Since I Fell For You". He was very friendly and a very kind man. When I recorded "Since I Fell For You", one of his agents was there. The agent had a feeling it was gonna be a hit. So, when it came out and started climbing the charts, I decided to go with APA. They really didn't do anything, to tell you the truth. Most of work came from elsewhere.
Q - Maybe Premier Talent would've done a better job for you.
A - I don't know. I think Premier booked me a few times.
Q - They had all the British Invasion groups, which meant they probably had all the "hot" tours.
A - I didn't know that.
Q - Frank Barsalona and Premier Talent.
A - You remember a guy by the name of Joe Glazer?
Q - I think I met that guy back in 1975 at the Hotel Syracuse. He was an older guy.
A - Yeah, he was an old man. Joe had a very big agency. I can't think of the name of the agency. He had Louis Armstrong and some big acts. He was the man that handled everything. Matter of fact, my managers got him to come to an audition at a rehearsal when I was getting my nightclub act together. He walked in and after about three songs he said "OK, stop." Then he turned to my managers and said "Look, I can make him a star. First of all I'll send him to England and put him on Toast Of The Town, a big show. Then I'll bring him back to the States and I'll put him on The Ed Sullivan Show. But first he has to go to England and get a name for himself. I know you're talking to William Morris, but they're not going to do anything for him." He took a fistful of bills and threw them on the table and said "If they do anything, you can have that!" (laughs) He was right, but I think my managers were afraid he would get involved with me and push them out of the picture. I think if I had gone with him, I would've really hit it big.
Q - As I recall, that guy was kind of sarcastic.
A - Yeah. He always had a big cigar on the side of his mouth...big stomach.
Q - I don't remember him having a big stomach.
A - Well, I met him in '58, so he may have lost weight. He was a rough character, let's put it that way. But he had a lot of big acts. He said he came up in Chicago and he made his money in Chicago. I won't go into how he said he made it, but I guess you'll get the idea.
Q - Back to Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records. You're not the first person to mention his name to me. Andy Williams was also on his label. What kind of guy was Archie Bleyer.
A - Fabulous. He was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man. He knew the business. When I met him he was in his 50s or 60s. He used to go to the gym before he would come to the office. He owned Cadence Records. He was the arranger, the producer. He did everything. He mixed everything. He did everything himself. In my case, I was just a kid. I never had any experience traveling on the road. So he went out on the road with me. He was the conductor for The Arthur Godfrey Show. He was the musical conductor. When the show ended, he left and started his own record company. He married one of the Chordettes. He recorded them. "Mr. Sandman" was a big hit for them on his label. Then he had Julius La Rosa, Andy Williams. Many of Andy's big hits were with him. And he discovered The Everly Brothers. All of their big hits were with him. When they left him, they didn't really have any big hits like when they were with him. He also had Johnny Tillotson. Johnny and I are good friends today. Johnny thinks the world of Archie Bleyer and so do I.
Q - How did you end up recording "Since I Fell For You"?
A - When I first started singing, it was in Asbury Park, New Jersey. That's where I grew up. I wasn't born there. I was born in New York City. I came up in Asbury Park. When I was, I guess about 14 or 15, I started singing with a group, three other guys, which I wasn't interested in doing. There was a fella that wanted to start a group. I didn't know him at the time. He used to see me walk down the main street there. One day he stopped me and said "Hey, I'm gonna start a singing group. I want you to be in it." I said "Yeah." I didn't tell him I'm not into it. I thought is he crazy? How does he even know that I can even sing? I never sang anywhere. The only thing I can think of is maybe he heard me singing by myself walking down the street and figured I could sing. I used to hide from him. Every time I'd see him come up the street, I'd duck behind a building 'cause I knew he was gonna ask me to sing and I wasn't interested. But when I got to high school, I went to the same high school where he went to. I heard him singing one day in the gymnasium. I went over and there was a crowd around. He looked up and saw me and motioned for me to join in and that's how it started. So, when I was singing with this group, we used to do songs by Willie Winfield And The Harptones and The Clovers, The Coasters, The Drifters. We did all of those songs and I was the lead singer. One song that we did was "Since I Fell For You". The first time I ever heard it, it was done by Willie Winfield And The Harptones. When I moved to New York City and I met Archie, he would ask me "Do you have any songs that you really like that mean something to you? Something that you did with the group back in Asbury Park?" Yeah. "Since I Fell For You". I don't think he was familiar with it. He said "I'll get the sheet music," and he did. He went over to the piano and started playing. The first part, I wasn't aware of. I'm saying to myself, that's not "Since I Fell For You". Not 'til later on did I recognize the song I was familiar with. I told him that's not the way we did it. He said "Well, learn it this way." So, I learned it with the first part. The way he was playing it, it was more on the style of a Johnny Mathis, real lush, pretty thing. I'd never done it that way, but I went along with it and fell into it. It really touched me. He said "Look, we gotta do this song. We're definitely gonna do this song." That's how that came about.
Q - That song was released in 1964?
A - I believe it was released in the latter part of 1963. I'm not exactly sure.
Q - It was '64, that meant you were competing with The British Invasion acts.
A - Yeah.
Q - That had to have been tough.
A - Definitely. First time I ever heard The Beatles name was from Archie Bleyer. He said "Have you ever heard of The Beatles?" I said no. He said "You will, because they're going to be very big." He knew the business. He knew what was going on at the time. And sure enough, (laughs) here they come.
Q - How far up the charts did "Since I Fell For You" climb?
A - On Billboard I think it got to number four or number five.
Q - What was number one at the time? Do you remember?*
A - I'm not sure.
Q - Since we're talking about The Beatles, did you ever get the chance to meet them?
A - No, I never met The Beatles, but I went to England in the '70s and I was working with a piano player who lived there. I was traveling all over the country. This piano player was teaching Paul McCartney's wife how to play piano. This is the wife that passed away.
Q - Right. Linda Eastman McCartney.
A - OK, So, one day I was talking to the piano player and he said "You know, I went up to Paul's house. He asked me what I was doing these days. I said I'm working with this singer by the name of Lenny Welch. He's from the U.S." Paul said "Oh, we know who he is. At least I know who he is. We recorded a song because we heard his version of it." The song was "A Taste Of Honey". I recorded it for Archie on an album. That's a big ego trip for me that they liked what I did.
Q - What did "Since I Fell For You" do for your career?
A - I was working. The agency wanted to put me on a tour with some other acts. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to work in nightclubs. So, I got some nightclub work. On top of that, I went into the service, but I was able to go into the Reserves and I got deferred. I went before the Draft Board. I told 'em "look, I got a hit record. I want to serve my country, but can I stay here? Can I get deferred for six months so I can make some money from the hit I have? If I go in the service right now, I come out, the hit is dead and I'm still in the same shape I was in before." So, they said "we'll give you a deferent of six months." One of the guys said "if you want, what you can do is during that time you're deferred you can apply to go into the Reserves. That way you go away for six months for basic training. Then you have to report once a week." I was in the National Guard. Every Monday night I had to go and play soldier. Then in the summer I would go away for two weeks for training. And this lasted for six years. So I really wasn't able to travel that much because I had to stay close to home, which was in New York City.
Q - Had you been drafted, your military duty would have been over in two years, but where would you have been sent? Vietnam?
A - Well, this was before Vietnam. Vietnam hadn't exploded yet. So if I had gone in, I probably would've gotten out before the action had really started over there.
Q - What did you follow "Since I Fell For You" up with?
A - I followed that up with "Ebb Tide" and the reason for that was, I came out with the "Since I Fell For You" album. It consisted of songs that I recorded before "Since I Fell For You" and "Ebb Tide" was one of them. A woman, a program director in Hartford, Connecticut started playing "Ebb Tide" and it started getting a great response. Archie Bleyer said "Look, this is proven that it can make it, so we're going to release "Ebb Tide" as your next single. It's climbing up the charts in Hartford." So that was it. That was my next release.
Q - You're also an actor?
A - Well, I went to school for two years and had extensive training in acting. I guess it was '92. I came out to California for those auditions. I stayed out here for about two weeks and I was able to get on General Hospital. So I did for a few things on there. And that was it. I went back to New York City. My agent wanted me to move to California. He said "Look, you can live in New York and run out there every now and then. You don't have to live in California." I waited until my wife retired from her job. She was in education for over thirty-some years. Then we sold our house and moved out here. That was '97. I came out, got with an agency. Running out on auditions, but it's not easy at all. I started getting work on cruise ships. They pay very well. I couldn't stay home that much because I had to travel. I was traveling all over the world and I loved it. It's fantastic because I only work one night a week. I've been to places like Russia, Germany, Sweden, Poland, England. And my wife goes with me. So it's been beautiful.
Q - I've interviewed singers who were doing eight cruises a year. Were you working that much?
A - Well, I was doing ten, fifteen and twenty. Now with the economy the way it is, it's like cut in half. It's really slowed up, but it's OK. I'm enjoying myself being home. Taking it easy. Right now I go to school, keep myself busy. Takin' courses in college. Trying to learn how to play the piano, which I should've done years ago. Now that have the time to do it, I'm just relaxing and enjoying life.
Q - Besides the cruise ships, where else do you perform?
A - I do the oldies shows and I've worked Vegas. I did a show with Mel Carter. The two of us did a show in Vegas a few years ago and we sold the place out. The place was packed. He did an hour and I did an hour. Then we did some things together. It was fabulous.
When "Since I Fell For You" peaked at #4 on January 4th, 1964, Billboard's number one was "There! I've Said It Again" by Bobby Vinton, followed by The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" and "Dominique" by The Singing Nun. "Forget Him" by Bobby Rydell was #5.