Obituary: Harry Douglass
Monday 12 July 1999
Every African-American has his Roots story and Douglass was no exception. His great-grandmother had a large family and she passed one of her many children, Harry's grandfather, to a white couple to raise as their own. Harry's father was in service as a chef and Harry himself was born in Bridgeville, Delaware, in 1916.
In 1934 he began to attend a college in Hampton, Virginia, and, two years later, became part of the Hampton Institute Junior Quartet. He was a light baritone and his fellow students were Vernon Gardner (first tenor), George Lawson (second tenor) and Edward Ware (bass). They won $100 in a radio talent contest and then worked for the Broadway producer Joshua Logan. The institute complained when their name was used for fund-raising concerts for the Democratic Party.
The influential black actor Rex Ingram, who took them on a promotional tour for his film The Green Pastures (1936), renamed them after a song in their repertoire, the spiritual "Deep River". Ironically, Ingram's rival, Paul Robeson, also had "Deep River" as one of his key songs. The Deep River Boys signed with Bluebird Records in 1940, and, with the accompanist Charlie Ford, they arranged and recorded "Cherokee" and "I Wish I Had Died In My Cradle". "My Heart At Thy Sweet Voice" was recorded for a visual jukebox, a forerunner of videos.
Douglass and the Deeps' second arranger, Ray Duran, were drafted in 1943. They organised many shows for servicemen and they rehearsed a choir of 80 for the spiritual "Ezekiel Saw the Light". With the late Fats Waller's manager, Ed Kirkeby, the Deep River Boys continued in their absence and Douglass rejoined in 1946. They had several releases on RCA, notably "Recess In Heaven" which made the US Top Twenty, but they didn't have the success of the Mills Brothers or the Ink Spots.
Coming to Europe in 1949, the Deep River Boys found acclaim in Scandinavia and Britain. They appeared in variety shows at the London Palladium for five consecutive years and took part in the Royal Variety Performance in 1952. In 1953, they had a nine-week season at the Palladium, performing a 12-minute act, which allowed them to make a second appearance each evening, in late-night cabaret at the Colony Restaurant. They also had a long-running weekly series of programmes on Radio Luxembourg.
The Deep River Boys were the only American act to record regularly in Britain in the 1950s. They began with the novelty "Too-Whit! Too-Whoo!" in 1949 and almost had a hit with "Ashes of Love" the following year. Their producer, Wally Ridley, recalls:
We really did get off to a tremendous start with "Ashes of Roses". It was selling furiously but the factory then went on strike and so no more records could be pressed. By the time that we had got the record back on the market, other things had come along and we had lost it. If it had been serviced correctly, "Ashes of Roses" would have been a Top Ten hit.
The Deep River Boys recorded spirituals, blues, ballads and novelties for HMV, and they courted popularity by recording rock 'n' roll songs, admittedly with big band arrangements. Three times they covered Bill Haley's singles - "Shake, Rattle and Roll", "Rock Around the Clock", "Rock A-Beatin Boogie" - and three times they lost. They also sang "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and then, somewhat in desperation, recorded "Never Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll". In truth they were, and even their best rock 'n' roll record, "Itchy Twitchy Feeling" (1958), was outsold by another version from the comedian Charlie Drake.
In December 1956 the Deep River Boys made their only appearance on the UK charts with "That's Right", a novelty given a New Orleans feel by the arranger Sid Phillips from the Ambrose Orchestra. Wally Ridley says:
You have to remember that the Deep River Boys were stage performers rather than studio artists. Harry Douglass never stands still for a second when he's working and so, when you get him in a studio, you have to say, "Harry, don't go off the mike", and you limit his performance. I did my best with him but in those days the mikes were enormously directional and the singer had to be within three inches of the specified place.
Unlike the Treniers, the Deep River Boys could not adapt to more contemporary black music and by 1958 their UK work was reducing because of the demise of variety shows. They returned to the United States, and made an appearance at the White House for President Dwight Eisenhower, but they belonged to the previous generation. Younger, more youth-orientated black groups like the Marcels and the Miracles in the US and the Southlanders in the UK were supplanting them.
Nevertheless, Douglass, reunited with the pianist Ray Duran, continued working with various singers as the Deep River Boys and he appeared in a long-running touring production, The Cotton Club Revue. Only this February, he performed in a doo-wop festival in New York, still giving his all at the age of 82, and sang "Deep River".
Harold Douglass, singer: born Bridgeville, Delaware 6 May 1916; married; died New York 5 June 1999.
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Jack the Ripper: Scientist who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'
- 2 Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake online report claiming artist's identity has been revealed
- 3 Drink alcohol and eat meat to improve male fertility - but cut down on coffee, studies suggest
- 4 Former East 17 frontman Brian Harvey turns up at Downing Street and 'demands to speak to Prime Minister'
- 5 The inventor of the Facebook 'like' button says he never made a 'dislike' button because he feared the 'unfortunate consequences'
Doctor Who, Flatline - review: Clara isn’t half bad as the Time Lord
Downton Abbey review series 5, episode 5: Period drama falls disappointingly flat
Star Wars memorabilia called a 'bit of plastic' on Antiques Roadshow by Fiona Bruce valued at £50,000
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt is intriguing as unsympathetic war hero
Star Wars Episode 7 has almost finished filming
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Lord Freud: Tory welfare minister apologises after saying disabled people are 'not worth’ the minimum wage
Lord Freud hangs on as MPs of all parties 'call for his head' over disability comments