|LEON PEELS (1936-1999)|
On April 10, 1999, the Doo-Wop Society lost a good friend, a kind man, and a fine vocalist, Leon Peels, leader of The Blue Jays, whose 1961 recording of "Lover's Island" was a pop hit. Leon was 62, a victim of cancer.
Born in Newport, Arkansas, in 1936, Leon grew up in Venice, California, where he was a track star in high school. Because he married early and began having children, he chose to work full-time as a cook rather than pursue his musical dreams. But in the late 1950s he began to harmonize with a group of friends at Oakwood Park in Venice where he played basketball. He and 2nd tenor Alex Manigo, baritone Van Earl Richardson and bass Leonard Davidson eventually became The Blue Jays. In 1961 they were spotted by ex-rockabilly singer Werly Fairburn, whose record label, Milestone, was already having pop success with another black vocal group, The Paradons ("Diamonds and Pearls"). Fairburn took the quartet into a Hollywood studio to record a song that Peels and Manigo had written under the Venice pier. It was called "Lover's Island." As a kind of follow-up to The Paradons' hit, The Blue Jays' single got plenty of airplay from Los Angeles disc jockeys and gradually became popular around the country.
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But Fairburn was constanly undercapitalized, and the demands of having another hit single nearly depleted him. Milestone faltered and The Blue Jays broke up. But when Fairburn found a new business partner, Madelon Baker, and launched a new label called Whirlybird, he called Leon Peels and matched him up with one of Baker's groups, The Hi Tensions (Bobby Parker, David Cook, Jack Johnson, Roy Haggins and Sonny Allen), which had recorded a couple of singles on the Audio and Milestone labels. Despite Leon Peels' superior performance and the Hi Tensions' solid backing on the melodic "A Casual Kiss," the record never broke out beyond Southern California. After a final session with a trio called Lolly Vegas, Leon Peels and Werly Fairburn parted company for the last time.
In late 1963 or early '64, Leon recorded a couple of tracks with a Herb Alpert group called The Producers, but they apparently remained unreleased. Leon Peels wouldn't record again until 1990, when producer Dave Antrell recorded him for the Classic Artists label.
Leon performed several times for the Doo-Wop Society, oftentimes backed by The Calvanes. He also traveled back east with The Calvanes in 1997 to perform in Pittsburgh and in the New York area.
Everyone remembers Leon Peels as a laughing and easy-going man, but rather shy and private. He seemed happy working as a cook and taking care of his mother, who died only a year or so before he did. It wasn't until Leon's funeral that we discovered that he had a family: an ex-wife and five kids, including a son who once played professional football in the Canadian Football League. One of his daughters, Patty, looks so much like him that it's almost eerie. She also has his same smile, with the same front-tooth gap and easy laugh.
Like Richard Berry, Leon Peels will very much be missed by those of us who knew him.
SINGLES As by The Blue Jays Milestone 2008 Lover's Island*/You're Gonna Cry 1961 Milestone 2009 Tears Are Falling/Tree Tall Len** 1961 Milestone 2010 Let's Make Love/Rock, Rock, Rock 1961 Milestone 2012 The Right to Love/Rock, Rock, Rock 1962 Milestone 2014 Venus My Love/Tree Tall Len** 1962 As by Leon Peels+ Whirlybird 2002 A Casual Kiss/Cottonhead Joe 196x As by Leon Peels & The Hi Tensions Whirlybird 2008 A Magic Island/Darlene 196x As by Leon Peels & The Blue Jays++ Classic Artists 111 Once Upon a Love/Alice From Above 1990 LPs As by The Blue Jays Featuring Leon Peels Relic 5064 Lovers Island*+ 1988 CDs Relic 7014 Lovers Island (same as LP)*+ 1990s
*Entered Billboard's Top 40 on September 4, 1961, and stayed for four weeks, topping out at #31.
**Vocal by Alex Manigo.
+Though unnamed on the label, the group backing Leon is The Hi Tensions.
++The Blue Jays on this single were Dave Antrell, Arthur Lee Maye and one other vocalist.
*+Both the LP and CD contain all of Leon Peels' Milestone and Whirlybird tracks with The Blue Jays and The Hi Tensions, plus two of his unreleased tracks with The Hi Tensions and two unreleased tracks with Lolly Vegas.
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