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The Original Blue Notes Story
In Tribute to our friends
Roosevelt Brodie & Franklin Peaker

by Charlie Horner


Roosevelt Brodie, second tenor and founding member of the original Blue Notes died Tuesday, July 13, 2010, at the age of 75.  His close friend Franklin "Brother" Peaker Jr., the Blue Notes' original lead, died November 2006 at the age of 71.  While most people attribute the name Blue Notes to the 1970's group of Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass, it was Roosevelt Brodie, Franklin Peaker, Bernard Williams, Jesse Gillis, and Sam Salley (or Sally) that first formed the group back in the mid 1950's and made some of its most memorable recordings.  As I first interviewed and got to know the original Blue Notes almost thirty years ago, it's time that I told their story.

The Blue Notes started as a street corner group around 23rd & Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia around 1954.  They'd hang out and sing at the Morlan Recreation Center, home also to the Royal Angels the group that Richard Barrett started with.  The group was originally called the Teardrops.  The Teardrops originally consisted of Franklin Peaker (tenor lead), Bernard Williams (tenor), Roosevelt Brodie (baritone), Samuel Sally (second tenor) and Jesse Gillis (bass).  Tom Gibson was also an early member.  Tommy Floyd was the group's first guitarist but he left prior to the group's recording and was replaced by Albert "Sonny" Forrest.

A major source of inspiration for black youth in Philadelphia in the late 1940's and early 1950's was a radio program on WPEN-AM called the Parisian Tailor Kiddie Hour.  Kiddie Hour was an on air amateur contest that gave rise to many Philly R&B groups.  Franklin Peaker performed on the Kiddie Hour as a duet with his sister.  Though the Kiddie Hour went off the air in 1952, there have always been persistent rumors that the Blue Notes evolved out of a Parisian Tailor Kiddie Hour group called Robert Reed and the Orients.  "That's not true," Franklin Peaker once told Charlie Horner.  "But our guitarist, Tommy Floyd had been with Robert Reed & the Orients, so I guess that's where the rumor started."

     By 1956, the group had changed its name to the Blue Notes, taken from the old Blue Note Lounge on Ridge Avenue.  The group traveled to New York City and entered the Apollo Theater's weekly Wednesday night amateur contest, winning five straight times.  In the audience at the Apollo was Benny Burleigh, a songwriter and manager who had the Blue Notes sign a management contract with them.  Burleigh also signed up another Apollo amateur night performer, fifteen-year-old Annie Alford (also called Ann Ford), who is believed to be the sister of Four Knights' lead Gene Alford.


The Blue Notes, ca. 1956
(Photo courtesy of Roosevelt Brodie)
 

Burleigh got the Blue Notes a contract with Josie Records, a subsidiary of JubileeJubilee already had the Cadillacs who were selling well and was looking for more vocal groups.  The Blue Notes recall Burleigh taking them to Bell Sound for their first recordings.

Josie released "If You Love Me" b/w "There's Something In Your Eyes Eloise" (a Benny Burleigh composition) in September 1956.  "If You Love Me" featured the soaring tenor lead of Franklin Peaker.  "If You Love Me" was originally based on the French song "Hymne a l'amour" by Edith Piaf but was first done by Vera Lynn in 1952 and later by Kay Starr in 1954.  The Blue Notes' version sold well on the East Coast, particularly in New York and Philadelphia, but it did not chart nationally.  Signing with the Shaw Agency, the Blue Notes began touring constantly.  They sang up and down the East Coast with occasional gigs in Canada and Bermuda.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)



The Blue Notes' next session took place in 1957.  The group recorded "Retribution Blues" backed with the Ravens-influenced "Wagon Wheels" (led by bass, Jesse Gillis).  Also recorded was a fabulous Franklin Peaker led ballad written by Bennie Burleigh called "If It's Our Destiny."  The song was not released until years later on a CD.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)



Bennie Burleigh also had the Blue Notes back other artists on their recordings.  Todd Randall seems to have been a country influenced singer doing rock & roll for Josie.  Vocal harmony fans would not have an interest in "With This Pen" (released in early 1957) had it not been for the unbelievable background supplied by the Blue Notes.  Franklin Peaker's supportive tenor is clearly one of the highlights of the recording.  Todd is probably the same Todd Randall that recorded for the Glory label in 1959.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)


Since Benny Burleigh also managed Annie Alford, it was only natural that he used the Blue Notes to back her on recordings.  The Blue Notes recalled backing Annie Alford on record but were less clear on which recordings.  Annie's first recording was "It's Heavenly" on the Groove label in October 1956.  "It's Heavenly" was first written and copyrighted by Benny Burleigh back in 1944.  To our ears, we believe we can hear Franklin Peaker's tenor and Jesse Gillis' bass among the strong vocal group backup.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)


When RCA Victor discontinued the Groove label in January 1957, they moved Annie Alford to the Vik label.  "Temporarily Blue" also has a strong uncredited vocal group that is probably the Blue Notes, but we can't be sure.  In addition, Annie Alford recorded the Bennie Burleigh composition, "The Fool" for Apollo in early 1959.  This record also has strong vocal group background that may or may not be the Blue Notes.  By that time Bennie Burleigh had founded the Eagle label to record a singer he also discovered at the Apollo amateur hour, Sy Palmer.  He also recorded on Eagle, acts he was managing, like Bill Harris and the Continentals.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)



Here's a Youtube of Ann Ford's "The Fool."  See if you think the Blue Notes are doing the background.



By December 1957, the Blue Notes were back at the Apollo Theater on a show billed as presenting past amateur show winners.  The show was headlined by the Cadillacs.


(Courtesy of Bernard Williams)

 

Throughout 1958, the Blue Notes worked regularly but did not record.  Sometime in 1958, Roosevelt Brodie was drafted.  Bernard Williams brought a young Harold Melvin into the group.  Bernard was younger than the other Blue Notes and had attended Simon Gratz High School with Melvin.  Harold had been singing with a vocal group called the Charmagnes while in school.

 “The decision to leave my school buddies and join the Blue Notes was a big one, but it paid off,” Harold Melvin told Frederick Douglas Murphy of Black Stars magazine.  “The Blue Notes taught me everything about harmonizing and professionalism on stage.”

Early in 1960, the Blue Notes signed with Phil Passon as a manager.  Passon owned a sandwich shop at 1753 North 21st Street in North Philadelphia.  He bought the Blue Notes new uniforms and got the gigs.


(Courtesy of Bernard Williams)


(Courtesy of Bernard Williams)
 

Passon recorded one record by the Blue Notes, released on his own Lost label.  The song was another masterpiece, “She Is Mine,” which had been written sometime earlier by Bernard Williams in about thirty minutes.  Again, “Brother” Peaker did a superb job on the high tenor lead.  We've included a YouTube below.



 

“She Is Mine” on the Lost label wasn’t given much promotion and failed to sell.  It sold a little better in 1963, when it was purchased and reissued on the Instant Action label.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

Later in 1960’ Roosevelt Brodie returned from the service and rejoined the Blue Notes.  Harold Melvin stayed and the Blue Notes became a five man group.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

While singing at Philly’s famed Uptown Theater, the Blue Notes were introduced to bandleader Doc Bagby.  Bagby was no stranger to the Philadelphia music scene.  He’d been performing and recording as an organist and bandleader for years.  In addition Doc Bagby had at one time been head of A&R for Gotham Records.  He wrote the song “Rock The Joint” for Jimmy Preston, one of the songs that inspired “Rock Around The Clock.”  Bagby was also part owner of Red Top records.

Doc Bagby signed the Blue Notes to a recording contract with Val-Ue Records.  Val-Ue was a joint venture between Felix Valdera, Doc Bagby and Eddie Hart.  It was operated out of Felix’s Paramount Record Store at1519 South Street, across the street from the Royal Theater.

In September 1960, Val-Ue released the Blue Notes’ My Hero.”  “My Hero” was adapted from the 1908 operetta, “The Chocolate Soldier”.  By November 1960, “My Hero” was #19 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles list.  Not only did “My Hero” quickly become the Blue Notes’ first national chart record, Franklin Peaker’s tenor lead became a yardstick by which other groups with tenor leads came to measure their vocal abilities.  The flip was an up tempo tune written by Bernard Williams called “A Good Woman.”


Blue Notes Bio
(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)



 

By the end of 1960, Val-Ue released the Blue Notes’ versions of Christmas songs, “O Holy Night” (Frank Peaker lead) and “Winter Wonderland.”


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

(Courtesy of Bernard Williams)
 

Early in 1961, the Blue Notes recorded “Blue Star,” “Devoted To You,” “Pucker Your Lips” and “Is There A Doctor In the House.”  None were released by Val-Ue at the time since the label was having financial issues and soon shut down.

“Blue Star” was leased or sold to Gotham records who added strings to it and released it on their Twentieth Century subsidiary in April of 1961.  The remaining Blue Notes Val-Ue sides were transferred to Doc Bagby’s Red Top label who would later reissue “My Hero” on Red Top and Jalynne.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)



 

By the Fall of 1961, Jesse Gillis left the group.  He began singing bass for the Fortune Tellers who recorded for Sheryl (“School Prom”) and Atlantic (“Marry Her Joe”) in 1962.  The remaining Blue Notes initially tried to add a new fifth member.  Alphonso Howell of the Sensations recalled one show at the Uptown Theater in late 1961 that had former Turbans' lead Al Banks singing with the Blue Notes.  For a short time, Billy Paul (who’d later reach fame with “Me And Mrs. Jones”) sang with the Blue Notes.  Others recall Bunny Sigler singing with them.  Eventually, the Blue Notes continued as a quartet.  Doc Bagby and Eddie Hart (minus Felix Valdera) recorded the four Blue Notes (Williams, Peaker, Brodie, Melvin) for their new label, Gamut.  Four sides were recorded but only “Shrimp Boats” b/w “My Heart Cries For You” were released.  The record did not sell well.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

The same four Blue Notes (Peaker, Williams, Brodie and Melvin) recorded “WPLJ” backed with the Bernard Williams composition “While I’m Away” for the 3 Sons label in 1962.


 (From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

Throughout the early 1960’s the Blue Notes continued performing but did not record as a group.  Harold Melvin left the group and the group then became a trio. 


(Photo courtesy of Bernard Williams)
 

Franklin Peaker did some overdubbing work for Cameo-Parkway.  His voice was added to recordings by Chubby Checker, the Orlons, Johnny Maestro and the Tymes.  His is the high tenor voice heard on Johnny Greco’s “Rocket Ride” (Pageant label).

When things slowed up and no gigs were in sight in 1965, Harold Melvin asked for and was given permission to keep singing under the Blue notes’ name.  Melvin assembled a new “Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes” group, consisting of himself and former members of the group, the Chordsteppers, John Adkins, Larry Parks and Bernard Wilson.  Richard Barrett recorded this group on the Landa label (“Get Out” b/w “You May Not Love Me” in 1965.

Meanwhile, Franklin Peaker and Bernard Williams were doing background recordings for Weldon McDougal, Johnny Styles and Luther Randolph’s Harthon label when the three decided to reactivated the original Blue Notes.  “Needless To Say” on Harthon was listed as by Bernard Williams and the Original Blue Notes.  The voices on the record are actually, Bernard Williams, Franklin Peaker, Roosevelt Brodie, Weldon McDougal and Weldon’s wife, Vivian McDougal.  “Needless To Say” is now a “Northern Soul” classic.  This same group also backed Eddie Holman on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” b/w “Never Let Me Go” (Parkway) and other recordings.

The original Blue Notes continued singing until about 1971.  Throughout most of that time there were a trio (Bernard Williams, Franklin Peaker, Roosevelt Brodie).


Forefront left to right:  Franklin Peaker and Roosevelt Brodie
Photo taken at private party by Charlie Horner, 1981


Roosevelt Brodie (middle) and Franklin Peaker (right)
Photo taken at private party by Charlie Horner, 1981
 

Of course, by the 1970’s Harold Melvin and his Blue Notes (including Teddy Pendergrass) found fame with Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, but we’ll hold that for a later article.

The last time any of the original Blue Notes sang in public was at Richard Barrett’s memorial service in September of 2006.  At that time they backed Bunny Sigler in an acappella rendition of “My Hero.”


Original Blue Notes surround Bunny Sigler (center) to sing
"My Hero" at Richard Barrett's memorial service.
(Photo taken by Pamela Horner)
 

Of the early Blue Notes, Jesse Gillis passed away in the early 1970’s.  Franklin “Brother” Peaker was struck by an automobile while walking home from Roosevelt Brodie’s home one rainy evening.  He died a few days later on November 15, 2006.  Roosevelt Brodie passed away from complications of diabetes on July 13, 2010.  Harold Melvin died of a stroke on March 24, 1997.

Such is the story of the original Blue Notes.  The story lives on through songs like "My Hero," "If You Love Me," and "She Is Mine."

 

Blue Notes 45 RPM Discography

As the Blue Notes

Josie 800                 If You Love Me
                             There’s Something In Your Eyes Eloise

Josie 823                 Retribution Blues
                             Wagon Wheels 

As Todd Randall & the Blue Notes

Josie 814                 With This Pen
                             Letters 

As Annie Alford (uncreditted backup)

Groove 0172            It’s Heavenly
                             Give Up And Tell 

Vik 0288                 Temporarily Blue
                             Easy Easy Baby

As Ann Ford (possibly the Blue Notes uncredited backup)

Apollo 532               The Fool
                             Can’t You Tell 

As the Blue Notes

Lost 104                  She Is Mine
                             The Letter 

Val-Ue 213              My Hero
                             A Good Woman 

Val-Ue 215              O Holy Night
                             Winter Wonderland 

20th Century 1213    Blue Star
                             Pucker Your Lips 

Gamut 100              My Heart Cries For You
                             Shrimp Boats 

3 Sons 103              While I’m Away
                             WPLJ 

As Bernard Williams & the Original Blue Notes

Harthon 136             Needless To Say
                             Focused On You 

Uncreditted Backup (Overdubbing) by Franklin Peaker
Johnny Greco
 

Pageant 602            Rocket Ride
                             Why Don’t Y’ Love Me 

Chubby Checker, the Orlons, the Tymes and Johnny Maestro

Unknown titles on Cameo-Parkway labels

Uncreditted Backup at Harthon records
Eddie Holman 

Parkway 157            Why Do Fools fall In Love
                             Never Let Me Go 

Eddie Holman and Other Harthon Artists

Unknown titles

Later issuing of earlier material on 45

Red Top 132            Blue Star (without strings)
                             Is There A Doctor In The House

 

Copyright © Classic Urban Harmony LLC, 2010.  All Rights Reserved.