Danny Cannon and the Vibraharps
Danny Cannon and the Vibraharps - Legacy Award
BMHOF Class of 2016
According to many who were there at the time, the Vibraharps were Buffalo’s foremost R&B vocal group in terms of their commercial success, professionalism and quality.
This entry into the Hall of Fame is listed as Danny Cannon & the Vibraharps, but the Vibraharps were their own stand-alone group, of which Danny Cannon was a member. But because of his recording efforts after the Vibraharps, we’ve combined them together as one entry into the Hall.
How important were the Vibraharps? Well, they were immortalized in comic form in Spain Rodriguez’s graphic novel, “Cruisin’ With the Hound.”
Between the group itself and Cannon alone, they recorded more – including major label 45s – than perhaps any other Buffalo performers of their time.
And they were good. Richard Derwald, who recorded as Dixie Dee and with Wade Curtiss & the Rhythm Rockers, recalls that they frequently called him to sing with them – even though he’s quick to admit he was never in their class as a singer.
But in 1950s Buffalo, sometimes it was important for a black vocal group to have a white performer with them if they wanted to get into the clubs.
The story started sometime around 1955, at the very dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, when Danny Cannon and Donnie Elbert put together the group. Elbert never made it onto record with the group (instead going on to put six records into the Billboard Top 100 pop charts over the years on his own).
But Elbert helped shape a group that eventually included Cannon, Donald Simmons, Douglas Gibson and Charles Hargro. Their first record, “Cosy With Rosy”/”Walk Beside Me” on Beech Records, was a collaboration with the young songwriter duo of Ralph Hernandez and Bobby Fonville – and their first record as well.
From there, the group went on to record for Atco (“It Must Be Magic/Nosey Neighbors” and on a Fonville-produced single under bass singer Hargro’s name.
One of the highlights of that era for Cannon was when legendary singer Clyde McPhatter was stationed in the area during his service hitch. Cannon & crew served as McPhatter’s backups for a holiday show in Buffalo as McPhatter kept his public profile alive while doing his time in the military.
As the Vibraharps wound down, Cannon and Simmons started performing as a duo. But the group came back together one more time and, Cannon said, was offered a deal with Motown Records, in 1961.
However, they had signed a deal with ABC-Paramount a week before. Their first record was “Cheated Heart,” written by Cannon. It came out billed as Lenny O’Henry & The Short Stories. Cannon was told he was now going to be the front man, he would be called Lenny O’Henry, and he was asked to sign a separate contract from the rest of the group. He didn’t want to break up the group, but that was the beginning of the end of the Vibraharps and the start of his solo career.
Cannon’s career included singles on Smash, ABC/Paramount and Atco Records, and even one billed as “L.B. Wilson,” on Vivid Records, a Bob Crewe side project.
Crewe, the legendary producer, supplied Cannon with some of his songs, plus the backing vocals of one of his groups that was just about to take off – the Four Seasons. In fact, the Four Seasons later cut their own version of the Cannon record “The Touch of You.”
Through the mist of over 50 years, it’s hard to confirm, but it appears the Four Seasons backed Cannon on just about all of his records. Cannon lived in New York at the time, was a close friend of Crewe and participated in Crewe’s recording projects.
Cannon’s biggest of the records was “Across the Street,” on Atco. It hit No. 98 on the Billboard Pop charts at the end of May 1964. In a 2014 interview, Cannon said he was playing on a bill the Fox Theater in Detroit when it hit the chart. Also on the bill was Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By,” which was heading down the charts.
“Across the Street” got a bit of belated attention decades later when noted rock critic Dave Marsh ranked it at No. 782 in his book “The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.”
That was the highlight of Cannon’s solo career, though. By 1965, he was burned out on the music business and returned to Buffalo.
But it wasn’t the end of the music. Cannon’s solo records, and “Across the Street” in particular, became big in the “Beach Music” scene in the Carolinas (where “Beach Music” is a danceable soul sound, not Beach Boys style music).
The songs started showing up on compilation albums. Record dealers even started creating bootleg versions or reproductions of the originals, including Vibraharps records.
Cannon’s sound caught on with the British “northern soul” scene as well, with “Across the Street” being featured on an Ace/Kent northern soul compilation.
Cannon died of cancer at age 78 on Sept. 27, 2014.
Upon hearing of Cannon’s death, Ady Croasdell of Ace Records wrote of “Across the Street,” it “was one of the foundation stones of the first 6TS nights championed … in London’s mod clubs in the mid ‘60s.”
Croasdell said the it was included in mod Top 100 lists and became a soul anthem on the early ‘80s mod scene in Britain.
“It still exemplifies the ‘cool’ of soul in the ‘60s for me,” said Croasdell. “I got to speak with Danny once and he was a friendly, charming man, though suffering from the late stages of cancer. He was so pleased that ‘Across The Street’ was still alive in Europe.”