Prentiss Barnes

Bass singer with the Moonglows


Prentiss Barnes, singer: born Magnolia, Mississippi 12 April 1925; twice married (two children); died near Magnolia 1 October 2006.

The doo-wop group the Moonglows are best known in Britain for singing "I Knew From the Start" and "Over and Over Again" in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock. Directed by Will Price and starring the teen actress Tuesday Weld in her screen début, the movie gave audiences their first glimpse of Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Johnny Burnette Trio and Alan Freed, the radio disc-jockey who coined the term "rock'n'roll".

Prentiss Barnes sang the distinctive bass parts on "Sincerely" ("Bah, bah-doh, bah-doh"), "See-Saw" and "Ten Commandments of Love", the three Top Thirty hits the Moonglows scored in the United States between 1955 and 1958. Then, during a series of live dates at the Howard Theatre in Washington, Barnes got talking to the teenaged Marvin Gaye and introduced him to Harvey Fuqua, the Moonglows' baritone and nominal leader. In the alleyway behind the theatre, Barnes and Fuqua listened to the sweet harmonies of Gaye's own vocal group, the Marquees. Within weeks, Fuqua had ditched his fellow Moonglows Bobby Lester (lead), Alexander "Pete" Graves (tenor) and Barnes and in 1959 transformed the Marquees into a new incarnation of the group.

Born in 1925, Prentiss Barnes had 13 brothers and sisters and grew up on his parents' farm in Mississippi. He subsequently moved to New Orleans and then Cleveland. By 1952, he had met Fuqua, Graves, Lester and the guitarist Billy Johnson and was singing with them in local churches and clubs, as the Crazy Sounds. When they were brought to the attention of Alan Freed, known on air as "Moondog", he renamed them the Moonglows.

Freed formed the Champagne label to release their first single, the bluesy "I Just Can't Tell No Lie", which sold 10,000 copies thanks to repeated plays by the DJ, who also booked them on his package shows. The Moonglows hit their stride at the end of 1954 with the ballad "Sincerely", which topped the R&B charts and crossed over to the pop listings, eventually reaching No 20 in March 1955. A cover version by the McGuire Sisters charted on both sides of the Atlantic.

In order not to compete with their own "Sincerely", the Moonglows literally moonlighted, as Bobby Lester and the Moonlighters, issuing the uptempo "Shoo Doo Be Doo" and "Hug and a Kiss" on Checker, the Chess sister label, before resuming normal proceedings with "Most of All", featuring a trademark bass intro - "Doe doe doe" - from Barnes.

The group released 20 singles on Chess but, while "We Go Together" and "When I'm With You" made the R&B charts in 1956, only "See-Saw" reached the pop charts. By 1958, the Moonglows were in a state of flux: Bobby Lester left; "Ten Commandments of Love", their last hit, was credited to Harvey and the Moonglows; and Barnes was soon out of the picture too.

In the late Sixties, he tried to launch a solo career and was travelling through Texas on his way to California when a train struck his car. His left arm was amputated and a shattered hip meant he underwent a series of 10 operations and emerged after two years in hospital with a shorter right leg. He came back to Mississippi and hid. "I didn't want people to see me in my cond- ition. I had started with nothing and now I had nothing again," said Barnes. He turned to drink and survived on social security.

Learning of his plight in a newspaper article in 1981, Bill Morris, an insurance executive and a fan of doo-wop, set up the Magic Moment Preservation Trust Fund and helped Barnes recover some of the royalties he had been denied over the years.

Pierre Perrone

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