I only really know Donnie Elbert for his trio of hits in 1972, when he hit the UK charts with versions of Where Did Our Love Go, I Can’t Help Myself and the Northern Soul classic A Little Piece Of Leather. This slow-burning soul number from way back in 1960 is a very different affair – though Donnie’s remarkable falsetto remains in place.
Donnie was born way down in New Orleans way back in 1935 but grew up on the East coast in Buffalo, NY, where he learned the guitar and piano, and founded a doo wop group called The Vibraharps.
Oddly, he remained in the background, writing and arranging the songs and playing the guitar, but restricting himself to backing vocals on their debut single Walk Beside Me – and then leaving the group to go solo in the late 1950s.
He had a minor hit with his debut, What Can I Do? and although his second single, Believe It Or Not, went nowhere, he bounced back with the haunting Have I Sinned? showcasing that powerful falsetto.
Although he played New York City’s Apollo Theater and toured the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” of African-American-owned and operated nightclubs, Elbert’s career failed to take off until he left his label, Deluxe.
Passing swiftly through Red Top Records, for whom he cut Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You) in 1960, he struck gold – at least in the Philly area – when he moved to Vee-Jay to release this single, which supposedly sold more than 250,000 copies but failed to reach the national charts.
Throughout the early 1960s, Elbert jumped from label to label until the emergence of Motown, after which he closely modelled his sound on theirs, recreating the magic of The Funk Brothers on his own by playing all the instruments on his recordings himself.
He also wrote the stone-cold classic Open The Door To Your Heart (under the original title Baby Walk Right In) and gave it to his fellow Buffalo singer Darrell Banks, who had a Top 40 hit with it… and failed to credit the songwriter.
In 1966 Elbert moved to the UK in 1966 where he recorded In Between Heartaches and, jumping labels once again, the rocksteady-flavoured Without You, which sounded so authentically Jamaican that it topped the charts there in 1969.
It was while in England that he covered The Supremes’ song Where Did Our Love Go, before re-recording A Little Piece Of Leather and signing for yet another label, covering The Four Tops’ hit I Can’t Help Myself.
He became embroiled in another songwriting controversy when he claimed authorship of labelmates Shirley & Company’s 1975 hit Shame, Shame, Shame – credited to label owner Sylvia Robinson – but unlike his claim against Banks, he lost the legal battle.
After retiring in the mid-1980s, he ended his days as head of A&R for Polygram’s Canadian division but died of a massive stroke in 1989 at the age of just 53