Over the Mountain Across the Sea

Zelma Sanders (that's "Zell" to you and me) was a strong-willed woman in a world of male music entrepreneurs. In 1954 she put together a girl group she called The Hearts, that from the beginning featured an ever-changing lineup including, at times, herself. The group's wonderfully raucous 1954 recording of "Lonely Nights" became a top ten rhythm and blues hit on Saul Rabinowitz's New York-based Baton label. Four follow-up singles didn't fare as well (but are notable for giving Justine "Baby" Washington, a delicately durable '60s soul singer, her start in the music biz) as Zell endeavored to compete in the con game of producing and selling records. In the summer of 1956 she made a risky move, one few women even considered attempting in those days: she rented an office in the Bronx and set up her own record label, J&S.

Several hopeful R&B, doo wop and gospel acts had single releases in the early months of the label's existence. Singer, songwriter and pianist Rex Garvin arranged many of those J&S sessions while scouting for fresh talent. Joe Rivers, a Big Apple transplant from Charleston, South Carolina, was one singer he felt had potential and Zell agreed, suggesting Rex team him with her daughter, Johnnie Louise Richardson (born in Montgomery, Alabama while Zell was in her teens), who, having been exposed to all the excitement surrounding her mom's chosen work, was anxious to take a shot at making a record of her own. Johnnie and Joe harmonized together very well, and their first single, "I'll Be Spinning," a melodic ballad written by Garvin and featuring his piano playing, received enough play on local stations in the fall of '56 that Zell cut a deal with Chess Records for national distribution. In January 1957 it spent one week on Billboard's Most Played R&B by Jockeys chart.

As with "Spinning," Johnnie and Joe's "Over the Mountain, Cross the Sea" was first a single on J&S, then picked up for wider release by Chess, its title tweaked to read "Over the Mountain Across the Sea" (despite 'cross' being the word Joe actually sang, only once, at the beginning of the track). The song's dramatic tale of a long distance affair ('Into each dark and starry night...oh what a mystery that's sealed so tight...over the mountain a girl waits for me...') again displayed a nice blend of the duo's voices, though a third singer is obvious (writer Garvin, supplying backup vocals). The song features a spoken passage by Johnnie ("Darling, here I am...'), unusual in that it comes at the end as the song fades. The record connected in a big way, climbing steadily up the pop and R&B charts during the spring of '57 and into the top ten in July. The flip side, "My Baby's Gone, On, On," also received a fair amount of airplay.

Johnnie and Joe never managed another hit, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Releases were steady but inconsistent; some were only on J&S and some were strictly Chess, while others came out on both labels. "Who Do You Love?" was a one-shot on the Gone label (curiously credited to Johnny and Joe) in 1958. ABC-Paramount rolled the dice on two singles in 1960, but with no luck. While these newer efforts disconnected, "Over the Mountain Across the Sea" proved to have staying power when it reappeared on the pop charts for a couple of weeks in the fall of '60 (early in '63 the song further solidified its place in pop culture by way of Bobby Vinton's hit version). Zell Sanders and Leonard Chess resumed the J&S/Chess routine and had the duo record "Across the Sea," a variation of their famous hit with new lyrics set to the same melody.

Joe Rivers, Johnnie Richardson

Garvin, by this time, had embarked on his own separate road to infamy, joining Marie Knight as Marie and Rex with the wildly energetic "I Can't Sit Down," a minor chart entry on the Carlton label in March 1959. Johnnie and Joe, with Sanders still calling the shots, made records for a number of labels apart from and including J&S, which Zell kept going until 1970. The Jaynetts' 1963 smash "Sally, Go 'Round the Roses," a production masterminded by Sanders for the Soultown label (later picked up by Tuff Records, a Chess label), was an extensive studio production featuring an unknown number of vocalists including former members of the Hearts, New York session singers, and who knows who else. According to Johnnie, there might have been as many as 20 girls on the record, which seems a bit extreme. "Dear Abby," a single by the Hearts on Tuff, came next and likely featured some of the Jaynetts singers; the same may be true of some of Zell's later work with The Patty Cakes, The Click-etts and others. It's unsure whether Johnnie ever sang on any of these recordings, but she did join the Jaynetts on tour for awhile. One record by Johnnie and Joe, "Here We Go, Baby," was released on Tuff in 1964.

For most of her life, Zell Sanders thrived on the wheeling and dealing that came with owning an independent record company, discovering, managing and in many ways manipulating her artists, including her own daughter. She was one among few, a woman who rose above expectations in a male-dominated industry. At the time of her death in 1976, Johnnie and Joe had been performing together for nearly two decades. In 1982, they recorded "Kingdom of Love" for the Ambient Sound label. In 1988, Johnnie Louise Richardson suffered a stroke and passed away at 53. Joe Rivers still pops up from time to time with new female partners playing the "Johnnie" role.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Over the Mountain Across the Sea