Len Barry, by the Numbers

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(Pictured: the Dovells, with Len Barry on the far left.)

Len Barry came out of Philadelphia at the turn of the 60s, out of Overbrook High School (alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and other pro sports stars, along with rapper/actor Will Smith and members of the Delfonics) and the Coast Guard, at a time when when record moguls tried to make stars out of any young man who could carry a tune. He joined the Dovells, a vocal group that scored a handful of hits between 1961 and 1963, most famously “You Can’t Sit Down,” “The Bristol Stomp,” and “Bristol Twistin’ Annie.”

In 1965, Barry hit under his own name with “1-2-3,” which was a smash, going to #1 in Cash Box and #2 on the Hot 100. Thanks to oldies radio, it was once one of those records everybody knew, at least until oldies stations stopped playing 60s music. Among the musicians and singers backing Barry on “1-2-3” were guitarist Bobby Eli, a childhood friend and longtime collaborator of Barry’s who became one of Philadelphia’s major studio stars, especially with the group MFSB; keyboard player Leon Huff, future architect of the Philly soul sound; trumpeter Lee Morgan, famed jazz player pickin’ up a check one year removed from his hit “The Sidewinder;” Valerie Simpson, future Motown songwriter; and members of the Tymes, who had hit in 1963 with “So Much in Love.”

Barry continued to chart after “1-2-3,” but nothing broke as big. In 2011, I told the story of what happened next—one of the great moments in record marketing, a speculation on my part that nevertheless has the ring of truth:

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. Len Barry, three years removed from his biggest hit, is on a new label, and the new label is looking for a score. The thought process is easy to follow: Len Barry is best known for “1-2-3.” Ergo, if we want to get radio stations to notice his new release, shouldn’t it be called “4-5-6”?

Not an unprecedented thought in the entertainment biz then or now—if people like something once, make it a second time and they’ll probably like it again. But there was a flaw in the plan: Somebody would have to write a song called “4-5-6.” What in the hell would a song called “4-5-6” be about? A house number? An area code? A batting average?

It was at this moment some anonymous record executive was seized with a stroke of brilliance worthy of an era 40 years in the future, when no promotional gimmick is too shameless and people will fall for anything. Barry had recorded a song called “Now I’m Alone,” a weeper about a man who has lost his wife and family. In June 1968, that song was released under the title “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone).”

Never mind that the numerals 4, 5, and 6 do not appear anywhere in it—a radio programmer who remembered “1-2-3” might be persuaded to give it a listen when it crossed his desk, just because of the title on the label.

As it turned out, “4-5-6” didn’t become a hit, although a few stations picked it up. At WRIT in Milwaukee, it rose as high as #14 in August 1968.

A more successful Barry project was the 1969 instrumental hit “Keem-o-Sabe” by the Electric Indian. He originally produced it for his label, Marmaduke, which he co-owned with Philadelphia DJ Hy Lit, although it didn’t become a national hit until after United Artists picked it up. Although Barry likely wrote “Keem-o-Sabe” (and recorded a vocal version of it), it’s credited to Bernice Borisoff, Barry’s mother, and another Philadelphia record mogul, Bernie Binnick. The musicians are all Philadelphia studio cats including Eli, Vince Montana, and other future members of MFSB. Wikipedia claims Daryl Hall is on it too.

From the 70s to the new millennium Barry stayed in the entertainment biz, producing and performing, and he even wrote a novel about growing up in Philadelphia. He died in his home town last week at the age of 79. There’s more about his life and career here.

One More Thing: I was on the air Saturday when the major news organizations called the presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, so I got to tell the people about it. I even broke the format to do it—on the country station, talk breaks have been severely curtailed for a couple of months now—but old radio dogs know when to bark, and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission anyway. Reading that bulletin was one of the highlights of my radio career.

6 thoughts on “Len Barry, by the Numbers

  1. Wesley

    Nice that you can still have a moment on the radio like you did to do what the medium should be doing at its best – communicating with listeners about what they want and need to here. I’ll tell you one thing, it was one incredible day of celebration in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina (I had lunch in the latter downtown and had friends go to the former one – I was too worn out from volunteering to paint a fence at a community farm from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.)

  2. Leo Edelstein

    Driving cross the USA Saturday when my wife’s text burst out “yea!” Another text of joy followed. I clung to the steering wheel and tuned to KFAB (?) to hear hear! Jim, so sweet your prediction went south.

  3. Tim M

    Great job breaking format, you “old radio dog!” That certainly was a time to bark, and I’m glad to hear that you did.

    Many centuries ago on that same station, I got a tongue-lashing from a former PD (of very short tenure) for walking down the hallway and delivering some breaking news at the end of the song that was playing. Under the former (highly successful, now deceased) PD, the policy was that the news person on duty would decide when to break in with important news. (Let the record show that I first went to Magic to break in, and after Q, to the JJO studio to tell Johnnie so he could deliver it.

    After chewing me out for “breaking format,” and telling me that “news belongs in a newscast, and nowhere else,” the aggrieved Q PD apparently felt compelled to vent his frustration with recalcitrant newsmen to the VP/GM, who then summoned me to his office. The VP/GM explained that my judgment in these matters – when to break format with breaking news – superseded the PD’s new rule about where news belongs. The VP/GM then also opined that my judgment in these matters was also better than his judgment as to what did and didn’t constitute “breaking news.” (A very much appreciated compliment.)

    This, by the way, was the selfsame short-tenured Q PD who informed me that giving a Packers story on more than one newscast during morning drive was poor judgment. This advice was given during the NFL season. His remarks also included wisdom that “people don’t care as much about the Packers as you do,” and his thesis was supported by a comment regarding newcast content that “we have a lot of popular songs on our playlist, but we never play them more than once in morning drive.”

    As we’ve both observed, if you last long enough in the biz, you get to work with a lot of “interesting” people.

  4. porky

    Just putting this out there but Len’s second solo single on Cameo was “Hearts Are Trump” b/w “Little White House.”

    I’m not an expert on Northern Soul but I believe “1-2-3” is a prime example of it but is not obscure enough for that crowd to embrace. One of his singles got a re-release in the UK in the early 70’s so it (“Now I’m Alone”) probably makes the grade.

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