Big Four ©1999JCMarion
The Channels consisted of Earl Lewis on lead, Edward Doulphin on baritone, Larry Hampton first tenor, Billy Morris second tenor, and Clifton Wright on bass.. They made their first recording for Bobby Robinson's Whirlin' Disc label in late June of 1956. Although there are about 30 recordings attributed to the Channels plus a number of outtakes and alternate takes available, I am going to concentrate on the four ballad classics recorded by the group and why they are so special.
The Closer You Are (Whirlin' Disc #100) - The immediate departure on this record is apparent within the first five seconds. Instead of the usual lineup for a vocal group recording, the Channels turned that phase inside out. Using three part harmony on the lead (Baritone and first and second tenors), and Earl Lewis on tenor falsetto fills, and a wandering bass, this lends a unique sound to the song. Baritone Doulphin certainly captures the melody of the song as he dominates the lead. Into the bridge an immediate change as now Lewis shows his stuff as a fine lead singer with the three lead voices now sing backup and Wright adds bass accents. The dramatic transition back to the main chorus is a thing of beauty as the three voices go back to the lyric and hit the word "day" as Lewis goes up top on falsetto tenor and Wright bottoms out on the "yeahs" leading into the third chorus. The bridge is repeated and sounds just as good the second time around. Supposedly the Channels took very little rehearsal time or run-throughs to get this tune down. If so, that is amazing because it is a rather difficult passage to sing, and with so little apparent preparation the finished recording is an all time gem.
The Gleam In Your Eyes (Whirlin' Disc #102) - Coming hard on the heels of the first record, the group unleashes another classic. This song reverts back to typical vocal lineup style with Lewis on single lead. One neat touch on this song is when the title comes up in the lyrics (at the start of the first and third chorus) Lewis hits high tenor falsetto to deliver the words. When he sings the second eight bars of the lyric, a high tenor echoes his delivery from the title over his lead. Wright again excels especially on the intro into the bridge, the bridge itself, and the lead into the final chorus. The lyric line of the bridge will remind one of "Closer" ("When I First Saw You, I Did Adore You" and "When I First Met You, Couldn't Forget You") and the dramatics are just as pronounced. Great transition into the final chorus by the harmony and bass lines which leads to a stop ending instead of the usual fadeout. This is a super performance and one of the all time great followups to a hit ever.
That's My Desire (Gone #5012) - This seemed a perfect match-the song that made Frankie Laine an international pop star via his ultra dramatic rendering in 1947, and the Channels, a group capable of vocal dramatics of their own. The dramatics start immediately in the great intro-a monster piano chord giving way to the group in harmony with Earl Lewis over the top in falsetto tenor, and then it is repeated (for emphasis). The Channels reverted to their three part harmony lead that they used to such great success in "The Closer You Are" for this song. Doulphin again manages to "carry" the three part lead and becomes the recognizable part of the Channels sound. The group shows again that it is the master of the transition bridge. Lewis assumes solo lead with harmony backup and bass fills by Wright. that carry to the climactic line "cherie, I love you so" and Wrights emphasis on the "so" are a magnificent jump to the final chorus. (Having seen the original group in person, I can recall with great clarity Wright's body language that accompanied his little segments.) The stop ending holds for a second by Lewis' high tenor falsetto and then the Channels propelled by the piano chords waltz into the fadeout. Not a note is wasted in the entire performance.
My Love Will Never Die (Fury #1021) - The group found itself back under the recording wing of Bobby Robinson (formerly of Red Robin and Whirlin' Disc) with his new label Fury. The group now had only Earl Lewis and Clifton Wright of the original Channels. The new members were John Felix, Alton Thomas, and Bill Montgomery. The tune begins with a walking guitar intro, slightly reminding one of the trademark intros to all the great Inkspots hits of the late 30s and the 40s. Lewis does the solo lead honors this time and the group behind him turns in some nice harmony patterns. The bridge continues with good bottom fills by Wright setting up Earl's dramatic vocal stylings perfectly. The ending to the song is an absolute gem, a vocal stop into a dramatic last line by Lewis that leads into a falsetto tenor ending with the group in perfect harmony and Wright on bass filling out the sound over a guitar coda. Just superb.
These are the Channels "big four". They made some other worthwhile recordings, even a couple of memorable up tempo flip sides : "Now You Know" and especially "Bye Bye Baby" with its classic intro. But it is these four ballads that most will remember and most will cherish as the heart and soul of one of New York's finest vocal groups of the nineteen fifties.
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