The first artist of note from the second wave of New Orleans rock acts, Larry Darnell wasn’t from New Orleans at all even though he made it his musical home for the majority of his career and came to embody the city over the course of twenty years on the scene.

Born and raised in Ohio as Leo Donald the aspiring singer dropped out of school and joined The Brownskin Models Revue as a dancer in his mid-teens, a common outlet in the 1940’s for young homosexuals seeking to find a degree of social acceptance. He left the tour while they were stopped in New Orleans and took up residency at the famed Dew Drop Inn singing and playing piano where he quickly became a headliner.

A balladeer at heart, Darnell could draw emotion from a stone thanks to a voice that ranged from a tender quaver in his its highest realm to exhibiting surprising power when he dropped lower all of which was delivered with perfect diction and an enviable ability to hold notes for an eternity without losing resonance. When he adapted a routine that injected a melodramatic spoken interlude into a heartfelt standard he brought the house down every night, becoming the hottest draw in the Crescent City and attracting interest from record companies across the country.

Signed to Regal Records in late summer 1949 with Paul Gayten producing his sessions and playing behind him, as well as writing for him, Darnell scored two huge hits before the end of the year including a #1 smash. His chart success continued in 1950 but soon tapered off and he followed Gayten to OKeh Records in 1951 when Regal closed up shop that year. Widely billed as Mr. Heart And Soul for his way with dramatic material he remained reliably popular on a smaller scale, even appearing in a 1955 low budget rock ‘n’ roll film, but never again threatened to be a star.

The mid-to-late 1950’s found him briefly stopping over at a number of impressive labels who hoped he could strike gold again but those records drew little interest as his original fan base were no longer sizable enough to matter and the younger generation were unaware of his past glories. By the 1960’s he had only sporadic releases and was reliant on club appearances to keep his name recognition from fading completely. One final record at the end of the decade in a drastically updated style found no audience though it was widely praised by those who heard it and showed he might’ve been capable of remaining a viable current artist with a strong label pushing him consistently.

Instead he retired from music just past forty years of age and disappeared from public view until he made headlines in 1979 when he was mugged and beaten so badly he nearly died. During surgery to repair the damage doctors found advanced lung cancer and while he hung on for a few years, having one of his lungs removed along the way, he died in 1984 back where he began in Ohio at his mother’s home, just 54 years old.

Darnell’s vocal talents were undeniable and he enjoyed one of the most meteoric rises in rock’s early years. Yet despite a long run of solid records after that for some reason he could never live up to those early expectations and remains known today almost exclusively for the first few sides he released in at the midway point of the Twentieth Century.

LARRY DARNELL DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Regal 3236; October, 1949)
As good of a debut as you’ll find, a dramatic two part record worthy of the stage, sung and recited by Darnell with utter conviction and a killer voice that wrings every drop of emotion from this tawdry tale while the delicate music frames it perfectly. (9)

(Regal 3240; October, 1949)
A fantastic vocal performance in which Darnell brings all of his skills to the forefront, commanding your attention and elevating the rather mundane song and modest backing in the process… his biggest hit but not his best overall record in spite of his own prodigious contributions. (7)

(Regal 3240; October, 1949)
A third hit in three tries for Darnell, but while he is in excellent form vocally the song itself and the arrangement are hardly ambitious as they’re already becoming overly reliant on him to rescue sub-par material, which he just about manages to pull off. (5)

(Regal 3260; February, 1950)
A great thematic change of pace from Darnell whose cold-hearted treatment of his ex who he’s tossing out on the street is pretty chilling, yet the far too-busy, but not powerful enough, backing of the band can’t match his vigorous reading. (6)

(Regal 3274; June, 1950)
A good idea to have Darnell tackle an uptempo song that gets him close to shouting for a change, but while he handles his parts fine, the confused arrangement with a clattering of mismatched horns lets him down. (5)

(Regal 3274; June, 1950)
A clever arrangement with a memorable hook being played by the horns frame Darnell’s typically impressive vocals giving him yet another big hit despite fairly mundane lyrics, making this a case where the execution far outstrips the concept. (7)

(Regal 3298; October, 1950)
It seems an odd choice for a balladeer to cover a boisterous Louis Prima song but after a shaky start Darnell finds his footing and lets his dynamic voice carry the day, meanwhile the Paul Gayten arrangement starts off well before getting carried away making this a mixed-bag. (5)

(Regal 3298; October, 1950)
Though sung well with a few good lines thrown in to give this some color, the gloomy subject and lack of a memorable melody along with the somewhat clunky arrangement means that while this works well enough to be acceptable it’ll never be a holiday standard. (5)

(Regal 3310; January, 1951)
A song that does little more than try and replicate his biggest smash “For You My Love” still sounds good and there’s a few changes such as a slightly faster pace but anything so derivative is totally unnecessary and counterproductive for his career at this point. (5)

(Regal 3315; March, 1951)
Though he finally gets to sing with more energy than usual it winds up being the wrong approach for a song about misery which isn’t helped by the completely outdated arrangement that sounds ten years out of date making this a mismatched song in every conceivable way. (2)

(Regal 3328; July, 1951)
An admirable creative effort finds Darnell and Mary Lou Greene trading lines in an engaging fashion, their personal chemistry helping to sell the rather simple story, while the band gives this a unique rock meets Vegas jazz kind of feel that keeps it interesting. (6)

(OKeh 6848; December, 1951)
Another muddled arrangement featuring ostentatious brassy horns overwhelms Darnell’s solid vocal efforts on a song that should have been a credible candidate for re-establishing him as a rocker… instead arranger Howard Biggs tries to put him on stage at a burlesque show. (4)

(OKeh 6848; December, 1951)
A much more appropriate slimmed down arrangement leaning heavily on the tenor sax to create an anguished and slightly suggestive mood behind Darnell’s emotional reading of a quasi-break up story whose plot takes a back seat to the mood they want to establish. (6)

(OKeh 6869; March, 1952)
Though Darnell handles the vocals well enough despite the repetitive refrains he’s forced to sing, the real stars here are pianist Ellis Larkins and the tenor saxes of Count Hastings and Budd Johnson whose inspired playing gives this rare uptempo cut its energy. (6)

(OKeh 6902; August, 1952)
A soon to be familiar melody and Darnell’s surging vocal technique would have greater impact down the road with other performers, but he does a fine job in laying the groundwork for that approach here on a well-written song by Rudy Toombs. (7)

(OKeh 6902; August, 1952)
Though well played and sung featuring a lower register out of Darnell he’s not given a well-rounded story to take advantage of it, as this takes a good premise and sells it short by not aiming for high enough narrative stakes and settles for broad shallow implications at best. (4)

(OKeh 6916; October, 1952)
Revisiting the structure of his huge hit, I’ll Get Along Somehow (a version of which would be re-released this same month on OKeh_ the spoken interlude which had been innovative in 1949 seems desperate in 1952 and the song is no great shakes anyway. (3)

(OKeh 6916; October, 1952)
Finally getting a song with a brisker pace, Darnell does his job in delivering this with an admirable rhythmic gait, while the band is fine behind him, but Rudy Toombs’s lyrics are so clunky in their rhyme schemes that this still falls short of what it might’ve been. (5)