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The No. 1 Song in Heaven

How a Cleveland-born doo-wop song invented — and sustained — American R&B

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Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

A man with great power approaches a man with enormous talent. Give me some credit and some money for your talent, the powerful man says, and I will give you some of this power.

This is a parable about the history of entertainment in America — those with access to a wider world entice those with access to a deeper inspiration. Participate in this barter system, and join the fray. Get rich, so we all can. This story is about Alan Freed, a rising 32-year-old Cleveland disc jockey, and Harvey Fuqua, a preternaturally gifted 24-year-old doo-wop singer from Louisville, Kentucky. They are different, but they needed each other. Together, they made something that goes on.

Freed, for his part, is elemental to the history of popular music. He is called “the father of rock ’n’ roll” by some, though few have ever heard him perform a musical act that extends beyond placing a needle on a record. Nevertheless, he was a curator — a tastemaker — before there was such a thing.

Freed was born in Pennsylvania, but spent his adolescence in suburban Ohio. After serving in World War II and picking up a knack over the service airwaves for spinning “hot jazz” — a frantic Dixieland style driven by tempo — Freed returned to Akron, Ohio, and took up a career as a disc jockey. Like the music he favored, Freed was energetic, a barker — there was no detached cool in his version of rock ’n’ roll. He went by “Moondog,” named for the oddball instrumental “Moondog’s Symphony” — it became his theme, a kind of clarion call for listeners seeking something different.

Freed took to calling his listeners “daddy.” He affected a hepcat persona. He sought a kind of white affirmation decades before such a thing would matter. Within five years, he settled in Cleveland, a racially diverse city with a postwar youth clamoring for entertainment — he became an evangelist who’d found an eager-to-convert population. Within another five, he’d be off again, to WINS in New York City. But before then he accomplished a lot, including helping to forge an unspoken cultural integration, playing records by artists like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino for white teenagers, and with the local record impresario Leo Mintz launching the Moondog Coronation Ball — essentially the first mass-market rock concert. Along the way, he unlocked the complex arrangement in American art that has come to be known as “artist relations.” Freed is the link in the chain between American vocal jazz pop and rock music, and also one of the most celebrated, vilified, and influential connectors of the 20th century. But in Cleveland, the most important thing Alan Freed did is meet Harvey Fuqua.

Harvey Fuqua and Bobby Lester sang together in their driveways, in pool halls, and in dance clubs in Louisville. Fuqua, a gamboling tenor whose uncle was a member of the Indianapolis vocal group the Ink Spots, had his heart set on a life in music. Along with Louisville pals Prentiss Barnes and Pete Graves, they formed the Crazy Sounds, and in 1952, the group moved to Cleveland. They sang doo-wop. Lester was the lead in the early days — he had a wailing sadness in his voice — and anytime you hear an artist moan “Never, never, never” in a chorus, you can thank Lester. But Fuqua — who was tall and powerful, with chiseled features born for a statue — was the leader. Graves provided a hooting kind of tenor backup. Barnes, blessed with a voice like a tugboat, sang baritone — he could ba-doh with the best of them. Fuqua, a baritone who occasionally grabbed lead, had an unfussy power — more Howlin’ Wolf than Little Richard. Together, they made music with familiar form but new feeling. They weren’t antic, they were romantic.

After the Crazy Sounds established themselves in Cleveland, they soon encountered Freed, the jockey who hung around record stores and bargained with label owners for the latest sensation to play for his hopped-up fans. He loved to seek out what Billboard still called “race records” — black music that drove white kids nuts. As the story goes, after a friend played him a song over the phone, Freed took an interest in the Crazy Sounds immediately. (Sound familiar?) He soon became their manager and rechristened the group the Moonglows, a nod to his own nom de DJ. (Imagine if Lou Pearlman had named the Backstreet Boys “Pearl’s Boys.”)

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This was 1953, when the record industry was unbidden and unbound. The Moonglows quickly released a single, “I Just Can’t Tell No Lie,” on Freed’s Champagne label. Then five more on Chance Records, based in Chicago. None stuck. Then they climbed the ladder, to a label called Chess, also out of the Windy City. It’s here where history flowers.

Chess Records was known for mining the Mississippi blues — Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Later it was the home of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Masculine solo stars, often clutching guitars by their necks. This was rarely the place for strolling doo-wop. The Chords, the Penguins, and early innovators like the Crows were signed to doo-wop-centric boutique labels like Rama. Freed bringing the Moonglows to a blues-based label like Chess may not seem cataclysmic, but it is an anomaly that clarified a generation of music — a genre-buster.

Chess guessed right on the Moonglows. “Sincerely” — which Fuqua wrote in 1954 and on which Lester sang his keenest lead — is the group’s signature song. It’s also the peak of their commercial success, reaching no. 20 on the Billboard pop charts. One could make the case that it is the most important non-canonical song in pop music history. But more than that, it is pure intoxication. The song is called “Sincerely” and it is literally just that — a paean to straight-faced declaration of feeling. Lester sings: “Sincerely, oh sincerely / ’cause I love you so dearly / please say you’ll be mine.” And then later: “Oh you know how I love you / I’ll do anything for you.” There are no metaphors or puns, none of the po-faced mentions of “honey” or “rockin’ and rollin’” or fast cars that marked so many songs of the ’50s, bound by inhabitants of a conservative world grappling with how to express themselves physically. “Sincerely” is a gentle ballad you’ve heard in the movies — it’s about a simpler time, made in not so simple times. It’s delivered in their singular “blow note” style.

Fuqua wrote it, but his wasn’t the only name on the blue-and-white Chess disc label that was applied to every 45. It reads “Fuqua and Freed.” Freed, of course, was not a songwriter. He was a manager and a carnival barker and a tastemaker. But he didn’t write songs. He did, however, convince Fuqua to give him a writing credit, in exchange for several thousand spins across America’s airwaves. Not just on Freed’s Ohio-based show; by thrusting it into the spiderweb of radio programmers and record store owners Freed knew how to navigate — a modest mafia of the entertainment industry — “Sincerely” could become a national hit. Which of course it did.

This was de rigeur for Freed, who was later felled by a “payola” scandal — the pay-for-play phenomenon in the radio industry that is as old as radios. “Sincerely” isn’t the only writing credit Freed nabbed along the way. The same is true of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” a song that is canonical. On the upside, we now have Chuck Berry, National Musical Icon. On the downside, Berry was robbed of a percentage of what was owed him for crafting the most memorable guitar lick of the 1950s. (Berry’s sole writing credit was restored in full in 1986.)

This was a different time, when Freed could be both civil rights hero and corporate crook in equal measure. In 1954, when “Sincerely” charted, only one song from the year’s final Billboard pop top 30 was a song recorded by a black artist: Nat King Cole’s “Answer Me, My Love.” Seven months after the Moonglows’ song scraped the top 20, in the early winter of ’55, the McGuire Sisters landed a no. 1 hit with a cover of “Sincerely.” It’s an inoffensive, effective song — sweet and a little ungainly, like an oversize lollipop. It’s nothing compared to the original, but no matter, it standardized the composition and got Fuqua paid.

Harvey Fuqua’s career after “Sincerely” is a testament to right place, right time, right talent. The Moonglows had a few more minor hits and even appeared in a couple of “rock” movies; they sang backup on Berry’s “Almost Grown.” Fuqua worked closely with the first lady of Chess, Etta James, joining her for a handful of duets on her breakthrough album, At Last. (They also dated for a time.) The lineup of the Moonglows started to rotate. Fuqua developed a reputation as a drill sergeant and a penny-pincher. He’d promise some members of his groups more money than their counterparts, and then fed the others the same line. After a stint where he wrested control of the Moonglows from Lester and relaunched the group as Harvey and the New Moonglows, he came face-to-face with the struggles of sustained public success. Doo-wop faded. Fuqua could not be the face of the operation anymore.

There are no Moonglows songs that matter half as much as “Sincerely.” (Though I ride for “Most of All” and “See Saw.”) By 1960, Fuqua left Cleveland for Detroit. But before he did, he hired a young kid from Washington, D.C., who’d been washing dishes after flaming out with a group called the Marquees. He saw something in the kid, a beanpole with a voice like a yo-yo — it rolled down, and then right back up, on a string. The kid, hired to sing backup in Harvey and the New Moonglows, was named Marvin Gaye.

“Harvey saw Marvin’s genius, I believe, before Marvin did,” former New Moonglows member Chuck Barksdale said in David Ritz’s essential Gaye biography Divided Soul.

Fuqua’s life henceforth is a staggering sequence of R&B connectivity: he launched two standalone record labels on his own, including Tri-Phi, which Gaye signed to. Fuqua established himself, before 1960, as an African American entrepreneur and artistic seer. Soon, Fuqua landed in the Motor City and became romantically involved with a songwriter named Gwen Gordy, the founder of Anna Records, for whom Harvey worked. (They were introduced by his former label boss, Leonard Chess. Whoops.) Gwen, of course, is the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, one of the key record men in history. Berry watched Gaye perform, and bought him out of Fuqua’s Tri-Phi record contract. Harvey also introduced Gaye to the woman who would become his wife, Berry’s sister Anna Gordy. (The label where they all worked was named for her. Gaye would later record the agonizing 1978 breakup classic Here, My Dear about Anna.) The Fuqua-Gordy-Gaye alliance is the unheralded Camelot of American popular music.

In their time together in Detroit, Fuqua produced songs by Gaye and his partner Tammi Terrell. He wrote classics for the Spinners, Jr. Walker and the All Stars, David Ruffin, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. He traded craft secrets with Lamont Dozier. He sat in on Smokey Robinson sessions.

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He watched Stevie Wonder grow up. He divorced Gwen, but she kept the last name Fuqua. Without Harvey Fuqua, there is literally no “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

And Fuqua didn’t unravel the way so many of his ’60s contemporaries did. He’s credited with launching the disco titan Sylvester and with shepherding the funk troupe New Birth. He rebooted the Moonglows, reuniting with Lester to perform a kind of slinked-up JBs-style version of their doo-wop halcyon days. He produced Sylvester’s pioneering, enduring “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” He was an active, essential participant in doo-wop, soul, funk, and disco. Is there another figure in American music with that malleability and sustainability? Sincerely.

A few years later, in 1982, with his life coming unstitched, Gaye called on his old mentor to help him with a comeback, on what would be his final album, Midnight Love. Gaye couldn’t crack the recording of a song. He needed a sage. Nearly 30 years after moving to Cleveland and penning one of the most plaintive ballads of the century, Harvey Fuqua traveled to Belgium and assisted Marvin Gaye in the recording of “Sexual Healing.” He’s credited as a “production adviser” on the song. Gaye told David Ritz, “Harvey saved my life.” Gaye was shot and killed by his father less than two years later.

As Fuqua emerged as a majordomo of the soul music that would conquer America in the post-’50s rock ’n’ roll era, Alan Freed was struck by payola scandals. He bounced around New York in the early part of the 1960s, agreeing to all sorts of contracts dictating what he would and would not accept as a disc jockey. He became a pariah. Within two years, he left for Palm Springs. By 1965, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis brought on by excessive alcohol consumption. He died that year. He never got to hear “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Fuqua lived until 2010, and performed with the Moonglows through the 1990s. In the interim, “Sincerely” was discovered by a generation that has been watching Goodfellas on cable for decades. It can be heard during the cookout at Paulie’s house (“For a guy who moved all day long, Paulie didn’t talk to six people”) and appears second on the soundtrack album, right after Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches.” (More movie connections: Fuqua’s nephew is the film director Antoine Fuqua, who made Training Day and the forthcoming Magnificent Seven remake.)

For those who know about Harvey Fuqua, he was an architect. For those who know about Freed, he was a hustler. Freed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1986, the inaugural class. Fuqua and the Moonglows joined him in the Hall 14 years later.