To say that Donnie Elbert isn’t a household name is an understatement. If you do know who he is, I’m guessing you’re either someone who has a very deep understanding of ’60s and ’70s American R&B music, or you’re a fan of what’s known in England as Northern Soul. Elbert wrote and sang some pretty good songs during his largely unheralded musical career, which was so fraught with disappointment that he eventually threw up his metaphorical hands and just walked away from performing.
Last year, I interviewed Ron Dante. He passed along this thought regarding a disappointment or two he had along the way. “There’s an old saying that, ‘The music business is full of crooks and thieves and people who’d stab their mothers for a dollar. And then there’s the downside!’” It appears that Donnie Elbert encountered more than his share of these people in his career, and perhaps his story serves as a cautionary tale for those who think the business is all about glamor and fame.
Donnie Elbert’s path to semi-stardom was as unusual as his subsequent career. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, a place to which many musicians usually headed. Instead, his family moved to Buffalo, New York, when he was three — a city not normally considered a jumping-off point for musical success.
Elbert rose above the odds, however, and by the time he was a teenager, he was already involved in music. He co-founded the Vibra-Harps in 1955, and along with Danny Cannon (who would later record the low-charting single “Across the Street” as Lenny O’Henry on Atco), Charles Hargro, Donald Simmons, and perhaps Douglas Gibson, the group recorded their first single, “Walk Beside Me,” for the New York-based Beech label.
However, the group had a disagreement right before they recorded the song, and for reasons that have never really been clear, Elbert opted not to sing on the record that should have been the most significant moment of his budding professional career.
Elbert left the group, and his first solo single, 1957’s “What Can I Do,” would make the lower reaches of the pop charts at #61. Over the next decade-plus, he would record nearly three dozen singles for a number of labels including Deluxe, Vee Jay, Red Top, Jot, Jalynne, P&L, Parkway, Cub, Up State, and Checker, but none would make the American charts.
He signed with the small, Pittsburgh-based Gateway Records in 1964 and wrote a song called “Run Little Girl” that captured the attention of famed writers and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Apparently, they offered Elbert $10,000 dollars for the rights to the song, but Gateway convinced Elbert to turn them down because he could make even more money if he retained ownership and Gateway released the record.
He kept the rights, but Gateway’s promises were empty and they failed to follow through. Not long afterward, Elbert wrote a song called “A Little Piece of Leather,” which caught the interest of Berry Gordy who reportedly wanted Elbert to record the song for Motown. Again, Elbert listened to the wrong advisors. Gateway released it and it flopped. It would become a big Northern Soul hit in England, however, and would break the UK Top 30 in 1965.
While he was trying to break through as a singles artist, Elbert was also writing music, including one song for his friend Darrell Banks called “Baby Walk Right In.” Unbeknownst to Elbert, Banks would take the song, rename it, and record it as “Open the Door to Your Heart.” The song would be huge for Banks, reaching #27 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But when the record came out, Elbert noticed that Banks, and not he, was credited with writing it. Elbert initially assumed that it was due to a clerical error by the record company but was shocked to learn that Banks had claimed sole credit for having written the song.
After a protracted legal battle, Elbert was at last able to get himself listed as no better than co-writer due to the fact that Banks had made some minor changes like speeding up the tempo and changing the song’s name. Elbert’s claims were validated by his actions: while Elbert would go on to write more than a hundred songs, Banks would never again receive a songwriting credit. Sadly, it would not be Elbert’s last experience with the deceit and ruthlessness of the music business.
In late 1966, Elbert moved to England where he’d had his only chart success of late, and after a couple of singles (1969’s reggae hit “Without You” actually went to #1 in Jamaica), he moved back to the US in 1970. His first successful single stateside was 1970’s “I Can’t Get Over Losing You,” which reached #98 on the pop charts and #26 on the R&B charts, giving him his first American chart record in 13 years.
After two more releases that didn’t chart, he released a version of the Supremes’ 1964 #1 hit “Where Did Our Love Go” that he had recorded in England in 1969. He offered it to a couple of American labels who declined it before he made a deal with the London label for release in the UK. After the song hit #8 in England, however, All Platinum agreed to release it for American distribution. The song went to #15 on the American pop charts and sold a million and a half records. Its success allowed Elbert to sign with Avco Embassy Records.
To follow his previous hit, label execs urged him do another Motown cover, a version of the Four Tops’ #1 hit “I Can’t Help Myself.” It too charted, going to #22 on the pop charts and to #11 in England. The flip side, a cover of the Supreme’s “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone,” may be one of the finest records he ever recorded, and in fact, the 45 probably sold well on the basis of the recordings on both sides.
Nineteen seventy-two also saw Elbert record his own version of another Supremes’ hit, “Come See About Me.” The song was not supposed to be released as a 45, but some copies were accidentally pressed and labeled as “Ooo Baby Baby,” which was another Motown cover, this time of a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song.
Elbert had not approved the release of either song, and he was angry that he was being asked to do Motown covers almost exclusively by this point. Things reached a crisis point when he gave the label an ultimatum: if they wanted more cover versions, he wanted more money. The label refused, dropped him from their roster, and sold the unreleased songs he’d already recorded to Trip Records. Elbert went back to All Platinum.
Sadly, returning to All Platinum would not signal the end of his problems either, and he would once again become embroiled in a songwriting credit controversy in 1975. He was apparently shopping around a song he had written called “Shame, Shame, Shame” while at All Platinum. Without asking, the label gave the song to a new group they had signed called Shirley and Company, featuring Shirley Goodman, formerly one half of the duo Shirley and Lee who had charted with 1957’s “Let the Good Times Roll.”
“Shame, Shame Shame” was released by Shirley and Company crediting All Platinum label co-owner Sylvia Robinson as the writer — but not Elbert — and the song went to #12 on the pop charts, #1 on the soul charts, and #1 on the dance charts.
Once again, Elbert claimed he had been denied the credit he deserved, but unlike the contention surrounding “Open the Door to Your Heart,” Elbert was never legally recognized as the writer of “Shame, Shame Shame.” In what was perhaps another Karmic reckoning, just as Darrell Banks never had another hit after “Open the Door to Your Heart,” Shirley & Company would never reach the Top 40 again either.
He left All Platinum, but by this point, Elbert was apparently fed up with the music business. After a few more releases, Elbert moved to the administrative side of the music industry as a director of A&R for Polygram’s Canadian division. He would remain in that position just a few years, dying in 1989 after a stroke at the age of 53.
While today his legacy largely lives on through Northern Soul and the Carolina Beach Music scene, sadly, Donnie Elbert probably deserves a lot more credit as a singer/songwriter than he is ever likely to get.