You’d think the Del-Vikings would be pretty simple to research. The popular doo-wop group, formed in 1955, had a few hits over ten years. What could possibly be complicated? As it turns out, everything.
Let’s start with the name. Were they the Del-Vikings, the Dell Vikings, the Del Vikings, or the Dell-Vikings? Yes! At one time or another, every one of those versions was used to promote them. And as for their discography, well, that’s a mess of a whole other level. I’ve relied on several sources here, including liner notes, books, and blog posts by Marv Goldberg, Thomas Holzhacker, and Carl E. Janusek to untangle the situation. But really, it’s all about the music itself, and nobody can question that.
Also beyond scrutiny is how the Del-Vikings started. Tenor Corinthian “Kripp” Johnson, tenor Samuel Patterson, baritone Don Jackson, and bass Clarence Quick were all in the US Air Force when they started singing together, calling themselves the 4 Deuces. They won an Air Force talent contest, which eventually landed them on The Ed Sullivan Show. After they added a fifth member, David Lerchey (bari-tenor), they changed their name to the Del-Vikings.
Lerchey’s presence was important beyond his musical contribution. He was, at first, the only white member of the otherwise Black group. Integrated pop groups were nearly unheard of at the time. Meanwhile, Norman Wright replaced Patterson and Joe Lopes joined as guitarist (adding another racial aspect to the mix).
In 1956 they recorded a few songs in the basement of DJ Barry Kaye. The singles went nowhere, but Kaye did introduce the group to the founder of Fee Bee records, who signed them for their first professional recordings. More personnel changes (possibly because of Air Force postings) happened around this time, including bari-tenor Gus Backus, who sang lead for their first hit, “Come Go with Me.”
Or did he? According to many listeners, yes, it was Backus. According to others, no, it was Norman Wright. Even Wright’s son recently told a reporter that his dad sang that song. Of course, Backus’ son has made the same claim about his own dad. Like I said, it’s complicated.
By 1957 there were Del-Vikings singles available on Fee Bee Records and Dot Records. Somehow both companies were able to offer “What Made Maggie Run,” written by country singer Joey Biscoe and featuring his lead vocals. (That same recording was put out twice more by Dot and again by Fee Bee in 1966; none of those releases make it clear that the track is not new.)
That same year they signed with a third company, Mercury. One of their first songs under that contract was “Jitterbug Mary.” Gus Backus sang lead (an uncontested fact, apparently). The frenetic energy, slapping bass, rhythm guitar, and simple drum backbeat made this adored dance music for the time. They had also added a saxophone to riff between verses. The twangy guitar lick at the end is a precursor to the Memphis soul sound of groups like Booker T & the M.G.’s.
The confusion about Del vs. Dell and the presence or absence of a hyphen pales in comparison with what happened to the group’s name at this point. Much of the blame for this confusion goes to Joe Averbach, founder of Fee Bee Records, who was determined to hide the fact that he was flooding the market with Del-Vikings.
As just one example, Averbach released some DV tracks on a new label, Petite, but he called them the Versatiles. Chuck Jackson sang lead on those songs. But a close look at the catalog shows that some of the same tunes were released on Bim Bam Records as “Dell Vikings featuring Chuck Jackson.” One such number is the rockabilly “Cold Feet.”
In the early 1960s, Lopes went to pursue other guitar opportunities, and several of the band’s singers had been deployed by the Air Force. Some of the originals joined up occasionally to perform as the Del-Vikings, but not in a consistent way. Averbach went ahead and re-invented the group. It was Johnson and Kripp, plus Willie Glenn, Ritzy Lee, and Doug White. They signed with both Columbia and Criterion. One of their singles was “Pistol-Packin’ Mama,” with Glenn and Lee on lead. On this track, the doo-wop style is pushed out by the novelty folk sound.
What I’ve described is a mere taste of the confusion. Dedicated music historians like Marv Goldberg have untangled this spaghetti-knot of names. It should also be noted that researchers’ job got even trickier thanks to the massive fire at Universal Studios in 2008. At first it was reported that the fire destroyed almost 50,000 pieces of film. That’s tragic enough. But the powers that be hid the fact that upwards of 150,000 sound files from Universal Music Group were also destroyed (a reporter for The New York Times uncovered that). The Del-Vikings was one of the groups that lost original material.
As previous tracks have shown, the Del-Vikings made some effort to move stylistically with the times. Maybe the most extreme example is the 1969 song “Keep on Walkin’,” which takes advantage of the growing popularity of funk. The label, Jo Jo Records, calls the group the Del-Vikings, but the only veteran DV is Kripp Johnson. Still, it’s interesting to hear this genre associated with a name synonymous with doo-wop. There’s also a Black-identity/civil rights element to the lyrics that fits with the funk but is surprising under the Del-Vikings name.
A more traditional Del-Vikings regrouped in 1970 for a successful few years on stage and in the studio. They managed to come close to the original line-up, with Quick, Wright, Johnson, Lerchey, and William Blakely, one of Quick’s cousins who had joined in 1957. The new version of the group signed with Scepter Records, allowing them to record new arrangements of some of their hits.
They re-recorded “Come Go With Me,” which did pretty well on the Easy Listening charts in 1973. This time it was definitely sung by Wright.
And they had more new material in them. Back again with Fee Bee Records (whose label design had not changed in 20 years), they recorded “Hollywood and Vine” in 1977. Johnson, Wright, and Quick were joined by Chuck Corby, who sang lead.
If you watch PBS, you’ve probably run into their doo-wop retrospectives during pledge drives. The Del-Vikings have been involved in those since 2000. That first year, Wright and his two sons joined David Lerchey as the line-up. Lerchey and Wright have since died.
In fact, almost all the original Del-Vikings have passed on. The exceptions are Chuck Jackson and guitarist Joe Lopez. The most recent 1950s member to leave us was Gus Backus, who in 2019 took with him to his grave the secret of whether he sang lead on the original “Come Go With Me.” But it doesn’t really matter. It’s a jumping tune no matter who’s singing. Thanks, Del-Vikings, for giving us a reason to boogie.
Header image: the Del-Vikings, 1957. Courtesy of Wikipedia/public domain.