ROCK OF AGES – 1955-1963 – THE DELLTONES

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Gee (W Davis/V Watkins) 1959 and Passion Flower (Botkin/Garfield/Murtagh) 1960 and You’re the Limit (L Stallman/J Shapiro) 1961 and Get A Little Dirt on Your Hands (B Anderson) and Come A Little Bit Closer (J Leiber/M Stoller) – Delltones 1963

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The Delltones – L-R above at back Noel Weiderberg, Ian Wilson, and front L-R Warren Lucas and Brian Perkins, originally coalesced around the Bronte surf club (Syd), the original members Ian “Pee Wee” Wilson, and Noel Weiderberg were keen surfers and practiced singing two-part harmonies until they recruited Warren Lucas, who was the tenor with the Sapphires, another aspiring Sydney group. Warren subsequently introduced Brian Perkins to the rest of the group and the original “Dellies” lineup was completed in 1958. Wilson recalls the first time that they realized their four-part harmonies were special “…we went into the Bronte shower room, opened our mouths and sang a forgettable song…what was unforgettable was the sound of four voices harmonizing in an acoustic environment with natural reverberation…it was a profound experience.” (Come a Little Bit Closer – Ian Wilson 2013)

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The four would become the classic doo wop group discovery by harmonizing under street lights to a King’s Cross restaurant owner and getting their first professional gig, original members were 20-year-old Noel Weiderberg (lead vocals, piano, harmony arrangement), 18-year-old Ian “Pee Wee” Wilson (bass vocals), 21-year-old Brian Perkins (baritone vocals, drums) and 20-year-old Warren Lucas (tenor vocals), who also invented their name, the Delltones. The group quickly grew in popularity and successfully bridged the gap between a teenage audience and appearances at such Sydney nightclubs as the Folies Bergere, The Foxhole, Les Girls, The Latin quarter, and the Coogee Bay Hotel. Below L-R – The Diamonds, The Platters, The Coasters.

Popular music charts at the time were dominated by American performers like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, Buddy Holly, Connie Francis and Duane Eddy. Vocal groups were also popular and included such imports as the Drifters, the Del Vikings, the Coasters, the Platters, and the Diamonds, upon whom the Delltones modelled their sound and performance style.

Sydney DJ Bob Rogers helped the group get their first spot on a Lee Gordon Big Show in Sydney backing American heartthrob Tab Hunter and Johnny O’Keefe at the Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay. The Delltones debut record was a cover of the original recording of Gee by the Crows, it was a famous record made in 1953, written by Viola Watkins and Bill Davis, which has been credited as the first rock and roll hit by a rock group. In 1954 it climbed to #2 on the US R&B chart and #14 on the pop chart after it crossed over, so beating Bill Haley’s Shake Rattle and Roll to the title as the first hit of its kind. It was also the first doo wop record to sell over one million copies, and signaled the movement of black music into the predominantly white record-buying market for the first time.

Gee originally featured vocal harmonies and nonsense syllables, very typical of doo wop songs, and it was originally accompanied by a modified jump blues backing, with a catchy melody, and guitar solo at the bridge. When JOK produced the record for the Delltones however he gave the song a heavier off-beat and more pronounced guitar, but he forgot to include the guitar solo in the middle, so that the record came in at 1.25 minutes! Popular records at the time were often quite short, but this was a model of brevity, given that the Crows original version was only 2.20 minutes, it struggled to get airplay, and peaked at #31 in July 1959.

The group would back JOK on such iconic records as Why Do They Doubt Our Love and Shout, and continued to tour on Lee Gordon’s Big Show circuit up and down the east coast of the country; other doo wop/harmony groups also emerged at this time, such as Sydney’s the Graduates, the Fauns, the Crescents and out of Melbourne the Slim Men.

A live performance by Johnny O’Keefe backed by the Delltones performing Shout at a Lee Gordon Big Show at the Sydney Stadium in 1959 was hands down the most dynamic footage from the early days of Australian rock and roll, a pulsating, carnal, frenzied performance that defined an era. The clip is shot from below which emphasized the dominance of the singer and the Delltones in close support, all the men are tightly bunched together on stage like a coiled spring, with first O’Keefe shaking and thrusting his hips, and raising his arm in the air, whipping the audience into a frenzy, while the Delltones are swaying and leaning into a shared microphone, in vocal support of the Wild One.

The audience is shamelessly and euphorically manipulated by the rise and fall of the volume and the stop and go intensity of the song, and the sexual urgency of the performance was unmistakable, O’Keefe and the Delltones delivered a wall of sound, and the innuendoes came thick and fast “Don’t forget to say you will/ Don’t forget to say, yeah/ Say it right now baby…/ Say that you love me/ Say that you need me / Say you wanna please me/ Come on now…”.

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An early recording of a Bandstand performance of the brief but engaging Passion Flower in 1960 was quite memorable, it was 1.46 min in length and musically based on Beethoven’s composition Fur Elise, the original recording was by the American Fraternity Brothers with Gil Fields in 1957. Bunny Botkin, Gil Garfield and Pat Murtagh developed the lyrics and it was subsequently recorded by the Diamonds, and of course the Delltones (featuring Noel Weiderberg on lead vocals), who had a lot of fun with their schmaltzy doo wop rendition of the tune.

The Delltones became regulars on Bandstand and Six O’Clock Rock, and provided backing vocals on recordings by Johnny Rebb, Slim Dusty, Reg Lindsey, and Lionel Long, but they needed to revive their own chart fortunes. Successive releases in 1959/60 on the Leedon and Coronet labels including Every Little Thing I Do, Yes Indeed, and Little Miss Heartbreak, all failed to make the top 40, until a Lou Stallman/Joe Shapiro song, You’re the Limit, previously recorded by the Diamonds as an album track, took the Delltones into the top 20 for the first time in 1961. It was a simple doo wop song with a clip clop beat, pleasant harmonies, a Pee Wee Wilson bass solo in the middle, and despite the title of the song, the boys sang it as “you are” not “you’re”, the clip from Bandstand was in brutal black and white with few props or backdrop, and the choreography was wooden, but Noel Weiderberg’s lead vocals were assured. 

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In 1962 the group would have their biggest hit to that time with the country-pop, rites of passage story/song Get a Little Dirt on Your Hands, written by US country singer Bill Anderson, it was their first top ten hit. The song was about crime, punishment, innocence lost and retribution, the vocal harmonizing was impeccable, and rock steady session percussion plus Brian Perkins harmonica added dramatic and engaging flourishes to the record. This song would play out over the credits of the last episode of the first season of Mr. In-Between in 2018, the quirky black dramedy about local hitman Ray Shoesmith as played by his creator, actor/writer Scott Ryan.   

First big hit for the original Delltones.

Composer Bill Anderson also became a popular US country and Western singer and wrote and recorded such songs as Still, Tips of My Fingers and Mama Sang A Song. Lead singer Noel Weiderberg sadly died in a car accident at Brighton-Le-Sands (Sydney), as this record charted #7 nationally in 1962, the three surviving Delltones and JOK were among the pall bearers at his funeral.

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Following the death of Noel Weiderberg the Delltones took several months to mourn his loss and recruit his replacement, Warren Lucas recommended Colin Loughnan of the Crescents, apparently no one else was auditioned for the spot and he became their replacement lead singer, while Pee Wee Wilson assumed the role of spokesperson for the group. Loughnan was a tenor vocalist whose voice was similar to Dave Somerville, the lead singer of The Diamonds, but quite different in tone and style to the late Weiderberg, which changed the hamonic balance within the group, so the band members had to adjust their harmonies to coalesce around their new lead singer.

Performing their biggest hit, Come A Little Bit Closer at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, 1963.

The group produced their biggest hit with Leiber/Stoller’s Come A Little Bit Closer, it was a bright, engaging production and featured great vocal harmonies, a lively harmonica refrain and resonant bass vocal inserts from Ian” Pee Wee” Wilson.

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The original version of the song was by US duo Willy and Ruth in 1954, it was the first release on the Leiber and Stoller Spark label, subsequent versions by Sue Thompson and Hank Penny (1954) and the Four Coins who were part of Bobby Vinton’s backing group (1962), were eclipsed by the Delltones version.

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This song is not to be confused with a song of the same name by Jay and the Americans, which charted in 1964 and was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. The Delltones would have more hits and numerous lineup changes over the coming years but the quality of their contribution to the success of the rock and roll era in Australia is undisputed, thus far they have been overlooked for induction into the ARIA Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but hopefully this oversight will be corrected in the future.

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