Paging Dr. Doo Wop
Who Was Dave Antrell?
By Philip Auslander
It all started when I was watching an episode of the BBC television series Last Tango in Halifax in which two septuagenarian characters dance in a jitterbug style. The actors, Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi, had lobbied the show’s writers to add such a scene after they discovered they both knew how to jive. But what caught my attention was the song to which they were dancing, buried in the background of the sound mix. It sounded like a ‘50s doo wop number, a twelve-bar blues with a great shuffle rhythm and a funny chorus addressed by the singer to his traveling love: "Express yourself back home/’Cause I can’t make love alone. . . .” Although I do not claim to be an expert on 1950s vocal harmony music, it is a genre I like very much and about which I am fairly knowledgeable. Yet, this song was completely unfamiliar to me.
So, I did what anyone would have done in my position: I used my Shazam app to identify the song. What came up was the name Dave Antrell and a reproduction of the cover of an eponymous album released in 1970 with a young man’s face prominently displayed (see photo above). My curiosity was immediately piqued because there was no title on this album that could be the song I was seeking. So, why did Shazam send Dave Antrell my way? And who is he, anyway?
Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid dance in Last Tango in Halifax. Photo Courtesy of The Telegraph.
It turns out that Dave Antrell is a somewhat elusive figure. Although his album is listed on AllMusic.com, for instance, there is no accompanying artist profile. There are a few tantalizing clues to be discovered online: a photograph of Antrell visiting an LA disc jockey to thank him for playing the album; a reference in Billboard to his working on a second album (that never appeared as far as I know); the fact that the musicians backing Antrell on the album were members of that amorphous aggregation of top LA session players known as the Wrecking Crew. Here’s what I’ve been able to find out. The name Dave Antrell is a music-biz pseudonym for David Harrison Antrobus, who was finishing up his undergraduate studies in pre-med at Stanford University when his album came out on Amaret Records, a short-lived indie company based in Hollywood and created by refugees from both Dot Records and Capitol that was in business from 1968 until 1973. Amaret’s best-known artist probably was Crow, a Midwestern rock band remembered for their 1969 Top 20 hit, “Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games with Me),” covered by Black Sabbath on their first album in 1970.
The few vintage vinyl fanatics who know Antrell’s album classify it as “Sunshine Pop,” a post Beach Boys style prevalent in Southern California in the mid- to late-1960s. From what I’ve been able to hear of the album—only three songs so far-—this is only a partly accurate description; I’d call much of the material soft rock. The song “Lost a Dream” is very reminiscent of Bread but also features production techniques left over from psychedelic rock, such as flanging and the false ending that leads into an extended coda with one repeated line of lyrics that is treated as a separate track on the album. Antrell comes across as a somewhat moody singer-songwriter given to ornate and portentous lyrics, slow tempi, acoustic instrumentation, and lavish orchestration. He was a flexible vocalist with a wide range that includes the somewhat breathy tenor he displays on “Lost a Dream” and a deeper, more robust voice that appears on “For Isaiah 2:4.”
The Sunshine Pop label fits another aspect of Antrell’s production much better. Even before he recorded his album, Antrell had been active as a songwriter. Around 1967 and 1968, presumably while still in college, he worked with (and probably for) the maverick producer Gary S. Paxton (who died on July 22, 2016), famous for having produced both “The Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett in 1962 and the Association’s “Along Comes Mary” in 1965 and "Cherish" in 1966, among many other hits and non-hits. Paxton produced and recorded songs Antrell wrote for artists on his Garpax label, most notably the song “Happy Lovin’ Time,” recorded by two Paxton artists, the Bakersfield Poppy Pickers (the name given to a group of studio musicians) and The Black Box. Antrell also recorded some sides with Paxton. Though they were not released at the time, they are now available on an anthology from Ace Records named for Antrell’s song, Happy Lovin’ Time: Sunshine Pop from the Garpax Vaults. These songs and their arrangements are reminiscent of other artists associated with Sunshine Pop. Antrell’s “You Take Things Lightly, Babe,” for example, could almost be a record by the Grass Roots. The song Antrell performs in the only television clip of his I’ve found, “I’m Taking No Chances,” from his 1970 album, is also very much in the Grass Roots vein. Dressed in a sport jacket and turtleneck with his hair parted and swept across his forehead, in this performance Antrell somewhat resembles the pop singer Bobby Sherman.
David Antrobus graduated from the University of Southern California’s medical school in 1974 and was licensed to practice medicine in 1975. By the mid-1980s, he had his own practice, the Valley Oaks Medical Clinic in Hollywood. When he died in 1995, he was presumably less than fifty years old. In 2001, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), one of the agencies that collects royalties for songwriters, listed three items of unclaimed property (money) in Antrobus’s name with the State of California, items that are still outstanding today. Apparently, no one collected the royalties on his songs after his death.
My original Shazam result prompted me to excavate the story of David Antrobus/Antrell and his life as a musician and physician. However, the attentive reader will have realized that none of this answers my original question: What is the connection between Dave Antrell and the doo wop recording I heard on a British television program? To get that answer, we must go back nearly to the beginning and follow a different path.
It seems that David Antrobus was not just a singer-songwriter and aspiring pop-rock artist; he was also an avid record collector who specialized in finding and collecting rare 45 rpm discs by doo wop performers. His approach, legendary in collectors’ circles, is described by James B. Murphy in his book Becoming the Beach Boys: 1961 – 1963:
He was a highly intelligent, hyper-kinetic man with a keen ability to ferret out rare records. He searched for people who had worked in the record industry as record pressers, distributors, rack jobbers, or in promotion and A&R. These individuals often put aside records for themselves and traded with colleagues at other record companies, distributors, and pressing plants. Most of these folks were now retired and willing to sell their records, which were often in mint condition.
Murphy goes on to tell the story of Antrobus’s discovery of a cache of copies of “Barbie” by Kenny and the Cadets in the Nevada home of the record producer’s widow. He bought all the copies she had and took them back to Los Angeles, where he sold some to other collectors. According to Murphy, Antrobus also figured out, through repeated listening, that the lead singer for Kenny and the Cadets was none other than Brian Wilson. The record, from 1962, is one on which several of the Beach Boys, and Wilson’s mother, performed as session singers before the Beach Boys began to break through as a group.
Norm Katuna, author of Characters in Collecting, an occasional series of posts to a record collectors’ online bulletin board, also recalls Antrobus’s unearthing of Kenny and the Cadets, along with other aspects of his spirit as a collector. Katuna describes Antrobus as “the ultimate hustler” who had a reputation for coming out on top in his record deals. But Katuna also notes his generosity, saying, “with most of his ‘quantity’ finds, he practically gave away copies of his new found non-rarities.” He remarks on Antrobus/Antrell’s enthusiasm for performing, observing that “he was an accomplished musician, especially on the piano, and he seemed to be always entertaining at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Some of us wondered why a successful doctor would be wasting his free time on the weekends earning peanuts compared to a doctor's salary.” Antrell also entertained the record collecting community at swap meets in Southern California.
Katuna’s post is well worth reading in its entirety, but I will include my favorite of his Antrell anecdotes here:
He once let me come over and see his collection when he lived in North Hollywood. Here he had this closet full of 45s and he had this record player changer. He let me go through his records and pull out anything that I wanted to hear. This is where I heard some of my first Chance and Sabre records. Now here is the queasy part. After I pulled out, let's say 8 records, he would take the sleeves off and STACK them on the turntable. I almost died. Here he was, playing records worth hundreds of dollars and he wasn't playing them one at a time, he was stacking them and surely risking scratching them. I asked him why he would do such a thing and he told me that one of the reasons that he collected was to play these. Boy, how many mint minus records became vg [very good, in collector’s parlance] or vg+ records because of this?
Unlike Katuna, whose primary concern was with preserving the records’ value as collectibles, Antrobus/Antrell saw records not just as objects to be collected, traded, and sold—they were music to be listened to and enjoyed.
Katuna also sheds some light on some of the darker corners of Antrobus’s life, including a dispute after his death between the woman he lived with and his family over ownership of his record collection; Katuna believes that the family, spearheaded by Antrobus’s brother, an attorney, prevailed. Katuna also mentions that he had heard rumors that Antrobus was succumbing to substance abuse and comments that the last time he saw him, a year or two before his death, “he didn't look like the Dave Antrell that I knew. He now looked like somebody that was either on drugs or had a drinking problem” (other sources confirm that Antrell’s early death was believed to be due to drug abuse).
That Antrell valued the music on his records over their worth on the collectors’ market speaks to his love of vocal harmony music. However, listening and collecting ultimately were not enough: Antrell also wanted to make this music himself. In 1973, Antrell produced a recording of “Ruby Lee,” a doo wop style song he had written on which he sang all the vocal parts from high tenor down to deep bass, under the name The Five Arcades; the 45 rpm single was initially released on the Sacto Records label, then on Antrell Records. Supposedly, Antrell and a friend passed off this record to collectors as a previously unknown doo wop single, a stash of which they had found in a basement. Whether or not this is true, the record is a brilliant, absolutely convincing pastiche, to the degree that even though its origins are now well-known, it is frequently listed as having been recorded in 1959. I would like to think that the prankster in Antrell would be amused by this perpetuation of his ploy.
On the label of the Sacto release (the name Sacto refers to the city of Sacramento; the label’s motto is “The Capital of Success”) the song is attributed to five authors identified only by last names: Sander-Mims-Valentine-Mims-Williams. No specific music publisher is mentioned, only BMI. The B-side of the single is an instrumental, “Malcolm’s Boogie,” ostensibly by the Malcolm Mims Orchestra, presumably the group accompanying the Five Arcades on the A side, and probably containing the two Mims who helped compose “Ruby Lee.” “Malcolm’s Boogie” is an infectious shuffle that sounds as if it could have been recorded anytime after about 1945. It opens with proficiently played boogie woogie piano and features choruses from both a honking and screeching tenor saxophone and a bluesy electric guitar.
The label of the Antrell Records release gives the game away. This time, the song is credited to D. Antrell, the accompanying group is identified as the Dave Antrell Orch., and the vocal group, now spelled The 5 Arcades, features a singer named “Nelson Pigford.” The B-side is another vocal performance by The 5 Arcades, “Hoping You’ll Fall in Love.” The information on the label bridges Antrobus/Antrell’s twin identities as physician and musician: the music publisher is listed as Stethoscope/BMI and the graphic below the name of the record company resembles the read-out from a heart monitor interspersed with musical notes.
When I began looking for the song I heard on television, I also searched by what I assumed to be the title, “Express Yourself Back Home.” A song of this title came up as being by Rudy West and the Five Keys, which made perfect sense given its style. In fact, this identification and the association of the song with Antrell are the two clues needed to understand its provenance: it is a product of Antrell’s last musical venture.
In the late 1980s, Bruce Patch, a producer and drummer who had been recording and producing music since the mid-1960s, came up with the idea of recruiting aging doo wop singers to make recordings of newly written songs in the singers’ original styles, and founded the label Classic Artists Recordings in Malibu for this purpose. Antrell came on board as songwriter and musician. In a period of roughly five years, they worked with over twenty acts that included the Cleftones, the Dubs, the Skyliners, the Jaguars, the Channels, Margo Sylvia and the Tune Weavers, and the Blossoms, the latter two partaking of a girl group sound. In some cases, these records were made by the existing version of the group, backed by Antrell and a house band. In other cases, only the lead singer of the original group is present, and back-up vocals are provided by the Calvanes, a Los Angeles based doo wop group that originated in the mid-1950s. As he had with The Five Arcades, Antrell proved adept at writing songs in genres of the 1950s and early 1960s that fit seamlessly among these groups’ earlier work. “Express Yourself Back Home” by Rudy West and the Five Keys, a song I first took to be a forgotten classic of the 1950s when I heard it on television, is in fact a song written by Dave Antrell and produced by Bruce Patch for Classic Artists Recordings in 1989.
The records made by Classic Artists, initially issued only as 45 rpm singles, then compiled as Doo Wop Diner, Volumes 1 and 2, first on LP then on CD and subsequently as a three disc CD anthology called Sittin' at the Doo Wop Diner, were warmly received by doo wop fans happy to see some of their favorite veteran artists return to recording. Anthony Gribbin and Matthew Schiff include many Classic Artists releases among the Top 2000 doo wop songs listed in their book Doo Wop Centrism, with this comment: “Calling Antrell a genius may be a stretch, but not by much. His compositions and recordings made many people very happy, in the same way as new Sherlock Holmes stories written by lovers of Conan Doyle, and new James Bond novels and new James Bond novels written by John Gardner have always been eagerly anticipated by fans. These songs are really, really good.” Gribbin and Schiff’s analogy of Antrell’s songs with fan fiction is on the money, but since Antrell had access to many of the artists of whom he was a fan, his work with them would be equivalent to Star Trek fans’ seeing the stories they had written for their favorite characters actually performed by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
The quality of Antrell’s music is not lost on the music supervisors who select existing recordings for the soundtracks of films and television shows. Last Tango in Halifax is far from the only production to use Classic Artists Recordings. To name just a few, The Cool and the Crazy, a 1994 television movie directed by Ralph Bakshi and starring Alicia Silverstone and Jared Leto, incorporated five Antrell compositions into its soundtrack; the Kevin Costner film 3 Days to Kill (2014) and the television series The Flash (2015) both used his songs. A company called Extreme Music, based in London, now licenses these recordings. Their website, on which you can hear the music available through them, is a good place to listen to a collection of Antrell’s work for Classic Artists.
Dave Antrell (at the keyboard) and R&B legend Richard Berry, composer of "Louie Louie." Photo Courtesy of the Doo Wop Society of Southern California.
I am interested in Dave Antrell for a number of reasons that go beyond my chance encounter with his music on television. His experience in the music business was probably shared by many others, yet it was the kind of experience that is seldom acknowledged because it yielded neither hits nor lost masterpieces. From the late 1960s through the early 1990s, he was active as a songwriter, singer, instrumentalist, and producer, but always on the fringes of the industry. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was one step away from mainstream success, writing songs and recording with Gary S. Paxton, an established producer, and recording an album for a company whose business decisions received consistent attention in the pages of Billboard. It’s not that he wrote songs “that voices never share[d]” (as Paul Simon might have it). His songs were recorded, but those records and the songs themselves disappeared into the miasma of all the music being marketed at the time, and are now known only to the most dedicated collectors of obscure vinyl. His second career in music, devoted to the simulation of the music of an earlier time, is at the other end of the spectrum, a quixotic undertaking for which there was no hope of mainstream success but that he pursued anyway, with skill and dedication, presumably out of his love for the music he also collected and the artists who had originally made it, and for the continuing pleasure of a coterie of doo wop loving fans. Even though he was not even a one-hit wonder, David Harrison Antrobus, MD--Dr. Doo Wop--surely merits a page in the annals of popular music.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.