Each month in “The Story Behind,” I’ll explore the history of a well-known Top 40 hit based on interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who performed some of the most familiar pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. This month, I’ll look at Shades of Blue’s “Oh How Happy.”
Shades of Blue was a Detroit-area group that got its start in high school as the Domingos and consisted of Dan Guise, Bob Kerr, Ernie Dernai, and Nick Marinelli. The group played mainly local gigs, singing doo-wop and R&B songs and hoping to land a recording contract.
Soon after high school, Guise decided to leave the group, but fortunately, a replacement was at hand. “We’d been at various clubs at the time while we were out there banging around, and Linda showed some interest in singing,” Marinelli said. “She started dating Bobby, and one thing led to another. She was singing in the choir at church, had a good voice, knew music, so it just kind of fell into place.”
With new member Linda Allen, the Domingos continued to search for that elusive recording contract. Fortunately, they were friends with some members of the Reflections, who had gone to #6 on the charts with 1964’s “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” on the Golden World label.
“They lived just a few blocks from us and led us over to Golden World to do a few demos,” Marinelli noted. The Reflections recommended them to Golden World owner Ed Wingate, and though he liked their sound, he didn’t sign them because he told them he didn’t want to sign another white vocal group.
Fortunately, their recordings caught the ear of John Rhys, “an independent producer working out of Golden World who’d been a producer in New York and was working at Motown some, and who had also worked with the Newbeats [of ‘Bread and Butter’ fame].”
Rhys took an interest in the group, but, “He said the name of the group wasn’t going to cut it, that it sounded too much like Dominoes. So we all hashed out possible names, and being that we were a blue-eyed soul group, we wanted ‘blues’ in our name, so we settled on Shades of Blue.”
With a new name, they needed a new song, and fate smiled on them again when they crossed paths with a songwriter and performer who would help them get their first big hit. “While we were working doing backup vocals and demos at Golden World, Edwin Starr was there,” Marinelli said. “He heard us sing and liked our sound. Well, he had an idea for a song he hadn’t finished called ‘Oh How Happy.’ We all sat down together and finished it, and we even contributed some of the wording and the chorus.”
Unfortunately, at the time, they didn’t know what many contributing songwriters have learned over the years: the big, long-term money is in songwriting, not singing. “We never got co-writing credit because, at the time, we were young and stupid and didn’t know that we could have and should have.” As a result, Starr is listed as the sole songwriter, and he (and later his estate) reaped all the residuals from the song.
Despite the fact that they didn’t get the writing co-credit, they had the sound down just right, and after they recorded the song in the late fall of 1965, Rhys took the record to Harry Balk at Impact Records, who signed the group to a contract.
The record’s release and success took the group by surprise. “We had a lot of songs we had recorded already in the can. You never know what the record company is going to release at a certain time, so we kind of went on about our business. We were still in college at the time.
“We were out one evening with some girls, and ‘Oh How Happy’ came on the radio on a local station. We’re in the car, and we said, ‘That’s our song!’ We were surprised, so we called the record company, who said they had released it and were starting to push on it. Everything just took off.”
In fact, the record was released in March 1966 and almost immediately shot to #1 in several local markets and would eventually ascend the national charts as well, going to #12 on the pop charts and #7 on the R&B charts. Predictably, the group’s fortunes changed overnight.
“We wanted to at least finish that year of college,” says Marinelli, “but as soon as we were out of school, we hit the road. We were out on the road for about a year; we hardly had a chance to take a breath.” The group went on a national tour and appeared on Where the Action Is and several other television shows. Expectations were high for their follow-up single.
That’s where things started to go wrong. “We had a battle as to what we wanted to release as our second song, and the biggest problem was that ‘Lonely Summer’ was released late in August, but it should have been released in June right as ‘Oh How Happy’ was starting to move back down the charts,” Marinelli told me. “I think it was a bad decision to release it so late, but like a lot of groups, we didn’t have much input back then.”
“Lonely Summer,” also written by Starr, lacked the cohesive sound of “Oh How Happy” and peaked at #72. Another release, 1966’s “Happiness,” peaked at #78, but even though these songs didn’t do as well as “Oh How Happy,” they all charted, and considering that they released an album in September, 1966 had been a very successful year.
But as the group came to learn, success wasn’t taking quite the tangible form that it should have. “At Impact, we were the big moneymaker in the company at the time, and of course, they started seeing residuals coming in. But we were out on the Dick Clark tour, and we were hearing the other artists talking about the royalty checks they were getting, and we’re going, ‘Wait a second, we haven’t gotten any royalty checks.’
“Though we were making money on the road, the company was sucking up our royalties and using them to promote other Impact artists like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and the Volumes — they were using our income to produce them.”
That didn’t make for a good marriage between the group and the label, and after a couple more singles that weren’t well-promoted, the group sensed that their careers were at a standstill. When Motown bought up Impact and its catalog and didn’t seem interested in giving them new songs or promoting them, they decided it was time to leave Impact.
“But music was changing too,” Marinelli told me. Indeed, by the late ’60s, the great harmonizing and vocals that were a mainstay of the group’s repertoire were not as fashionable as they once had been. As a result, they called it quits as performers about 1970. They reunited for a while in the mid-’70s and recorded some new songs that have never been released.
“We cut a few things, but the others, their hearts weren’t in it,” Marinelli said. “It wasn’t meant to be.” The group broke up again, and the other original members got out of show business while Marinelli shifted to television production work.
Marinelli eventually went back into the music and “hooked up with a group called the Valadiers. They’d lost their lead singer to the Reflections and were looking for another. They brought me in, and we did a show in Wilmington, Delaware, and I sang ‘Oh How Happy.’ Five thousand people stood up on their feet.
“Afterwards, the guys said, ‘You know what, you’ve obviously got a lot bigger hit than we do. How about if we work with you as Shades of Blue?’ We did, and I worked with them for six years before deciding to go out on my own.” Marinelli is still in the business “working on a new record and writing some new songs.”