Obituary: Harry Douglass

"HARRY DOUGLASS was the Deep River Boys," says Douglass's British record producer, Wally Ridley. "The other members came and went but Harry was always out front. He had the most wonderful hand and body movements and he knew how to use his eyes. He was also a very genuine person and you don't get many of them in this business."

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.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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