By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon
The Vibraharps / Donnie Elbert story continues…
After Donnie’s early success on Deluxe (1957-58) and Vee-Jay (1960) he stalled a bit and took a break for a short spell in the US Army. It didn’t last long and before 1961 was over he had resumed one of his favorite activities: recording. And he developed a new favorite activity: jumping from one label to another!
In the 1961-63 period he put out one or two records each on Red Top, Jot, Jalynne, P&L, Parkway, and Checker. He couldn’t find the formula for a hit and was spinning his wheels, as many in the R&B world were doing in this period. The old-style R&B was dying out but Soul wasn’t completely born. The modern Soul Music as we know it would soon exploded onto AM Radio, in particular the sound that would later come to be known as Northern Soul. At the time it was simply ‘Soul music that could cross over to the Pop charts’. All of which is another way of saying MOTOWN. And when Donnie heard Motown, he saw the future, and knew what he wanted to do.
But before that happened, sometime in 1963, he recorded some tracks in Buffalo. “Love Stew” b/w “Don’t Cry My Love” was issued on the Upstate label, later home of The Rising Sons (who became Raven). It’s assumed that Donnie’s tracks were cut at the Poultney Street studio run by Tommy Calandra and Gary Mallaber where most of the records issued on Upstate and GJM were recorded.
“Love Stew” was picked up for national release by Cub Records, a division of MGM. (Like their Lion label, it was named for MGM’s roaring lion logo). It failed to become a hit and Donnie was soon off in search of that elusive smash hit. He turned up at Gateway Records in Pittsburgh soon after, developed a full-blown Motown Sound, and between 1964 and 1965 recorded the songs that are today considered classics to aficionados of Northern Soul: “Run Little Girl”, “A Little Piece Of Leather”, “Your Red Wagon (You Can Push It Or Pull It)”.
It’s maybe not surprising that “Love Stew” didn’t hit. Like many of his recordings it’s quirky and unusual which can be bad or good but overall it probably sounded a little dated in 1963. Jimmy Jones had the same sound on “Handy Man” – also on Cub Records – but that was a hit in 1960, a world away in terms of the fast-changing music trends of the 1960s.
Cub 9125 is not a common record but the original version on UpState 829 is indeed a rare record and I don’t own a copy – yet! Because I don’t have one for reference I can’t be sure that this UpState label is the same UpState as the Rising Sons record. It seems logical that it is but they were issued about three years apart so there’s room for doubt. Nothing on the Cub label info shows a Buffalo connection. Anyone with info – or a copy to examine – please raise your hand.