Pretty Little Angel Eyes

After a few summers spent picking berries under the scorching hot Yuma, Arizona sun, Curtis Lee decided not to wait for his impending 18th birthday to get away. He slipped over the border; not into Mexico, but through the California desert to a place about 250 miles away where he had hopes of becoming a singing star. Turns out Los Angeles wasn't that place, but how could Curtis have known he would have to travel a lot further in the other direction to realize his dream? Still, it didn't take long for him to get noticed that summer of 1959, what with so many independent record labels on the lookout for teen idol types!

He made a record almost immediately: "With All My Heart (I Love You)," a folksy-teen Ricky Nelson imitation, was waxed for the struggling Warrior label. Flip side "Pure Love" (written by Jesse Hodges and the hitless-but-not-for-long Johnny Burnette) had a Buddy Knox-ish feel. Not surprisingly, the record didn't click; Curtis sorely needed to find his own voice. Were there perhaps some talented folks who might one day make up for any shortcomings he had? All he needed to do was hang in there for a couple of years!

His persistence resulted in another 45 on the ultra-small Hot label; two-sider "I Never Knew What Love Could Do" and "Gotta Have You," both songs sounding almost identical but rocking considerably harder than the first disc, also failed to get off the ground. He met Tommy Boyce (future partner of Bobby Hart and major player in the '66 Monkees takeover whose big break had come in the fall of '59 as cowriter of Fats Domino's hit "Be My Guest") and they wrote a few songs together. Curtis, in search of fresh opportunities, trekked across the country to New York City, where he auditioned for Ray Peterson and Stan Shulman, on the verge of starting their own company, Dunes Records, with money Peterson had made from his RCA Victor hit "Tell Laura I Love Her." They liked him enough to launch the new venture with a single by Lee, "Special Love" (which Boyce had written with John Marascalco, his composing crony on the Fats tune), a Robert Mersey-arranged ballad sounding like an off-key Jimmy Clanton with a B side, "D - In Love," coming off as a less energetic Freddy Cannon. Sheesh! Curtis needed a style adjustment!

A second Dunes disc sought to revive Ramona Redd's romantic ballad "Pledge of Love," already the object of a cover battle in the spring of 1957 with Ken Copeland and Mitchell Torok having the most popular versions among many. The flip side, at least, couldn't be easily compared to another artist's sound; "Then I'll Know," a bouncy teen track written with Shulman, was the first of Curtis's compositions to make it to vinyl. Still, no dice. Peterson, meanwhile, was poppin' in the top ten with "Corinna, Corinna," a teenish remake of Joe Turner's R&B gem from '56 thanks to Phil Spector's canny production efforts; Spector had become a suddenly-hot producer in early '61, also formulating first-time hits for newly-solo Drifters singer Ben E. King ("Spanish Harlem") and the long-suffering Paris Sisters ("Be My Boy"). The skilled Phil was set loose in the studio with a new project: produce a hit single for Curtis Lee!

Spector wasn't too keen on Lee as a singer, so he convinced Shulman to let him hire The Halos (alternately called The Craftys) for the session at a budget-busting outlay of one thousand dollars. The black quartet, consisting of Al Cleveland, Harold Johnson, big booming bass Arthur Crier and lead singer J.R. Bailey (former Cadillac, future Jive Fiver), had a solid reputation in New York as session singers and had just been signed to 7 Arts Records; Spector was on a doo wop kick at the time (also working with white Jersey doo woppers The Ducanes on the almost-hit "I'm So Happy (Tra-La-La)" for the Goldisc label). Phil tackled the project with his usual total-control attitude!

Curtis Lee

What resulted was an infectious master take of a tune written by Lee and Boyce: "Pretty Little Angel Eyes," recorded at the moldy, rat-inhabited Mira Sound Studio (an optimal environment for acoustically dynamic record-making, as Spector discovered). The uncomplicated song came alive with an agile arrangement, heavy on the backbeat with precise and well-timed harmonies by the Halos (who weren't credited on the label). Lee's lead vocal was also nicely done, a step up from earlier efforts. It couldn't miss. Hitting the charts in July '61, it was top ten throughout most of August into early September. The Halos weren't entirely overlooked either; their 7 Arts single "Nag," an amusingly animated protest of alleged wedded bliss, hit the charts at the same time, crossing paths with "Angel Eyes" in the top 30 during September while two other Halos backing assignments, Barry Mann's "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)" and Gene Pitney's mini-epic Spector exercise "Every Breath I Take," were casting their glow over the top 50. The Halos never again equaled their peak of that summer and fall...but what a time it was!

Another Boyce-Lee (credit order reversed) tune, "Under the Moon of Love," also produced by Spector in a purposely non-doo wop way (with a Philly-style arrangement utilizing Lee's inadvertent Freddy Cannon imitation), had a mid-chart run in the fall. Curtis stayed with Dunes for two more years, taking a different approach with just about every release. Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Just Another Fool" had a slightly more mature feel. "Does He Mean That Much to You" was an attempt at straight country but couldn't compare to Eddy Arnold's heartfelt '62 hit version; B side "The Wobble" (written by Crier and Cleveland of the Halos) attempted to rekindle some "Pretty Little" magic. Other songs walked a line between teen and country styles and one final Dunes 45, "Calif. GL-903" chased the 1964 hot rod craze. Nice go!

After a few years in sonic limbo, Lee reemerged in Los Angeles with "Is She In Your Town," a song he'd written, produced for him with a southwestern-style flair by Sonny Knight and Rod Krohn and released on Mirwood. Around this time soul singer Curtis Braxton confused matters with his release of "Get in My Bag" as Curtis Lee and the KCP's on the Rojac label (Braxton later found regional fame as a popular Memphis radio personality). Former hitmaker Curtis Lee reached the end his rope at the close of the decade, moved back to Yuma and got into the construction business. Meanwhile, U.K. band Showaddywaddy fixated on his music. Their passable remake of "Under the Moon of Love" reached number one in Britain (the group's biggest hit) in December 1976; two years later they went top ten with a caricaturish "Pretty Little Angel Eyes," hit the British charts in '79 with yet another of Lee's Dunes tunes, "A Night at Daddy Gee's," and even took on the Barry Mann/Halos classic "Who Put the Bomp" in '82, wrapping an eight-year run of smash U.K. hits. As for Curtis Lee, decades later he was still building houses in the Arizona desert!

- Michael Jack Kirby


Pretty Little Angel Eyes