Lillian Leach

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Lillian Leach sounds like the name of a fictitious character, maybe a femme fatale from a comic book or a relative of the Munsters. She is a real person, however, the lead singer of a vocal group that…
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Lillian Leach sounds like the name of a fictitious character, maybe a femme fatale from a comic book or a relative of the Munsters. She is a real person, however, the lead singer of a vocal group that scored several hits despite only being active "for a minute" -- in the parlance of the beatniks whose mellow scene included digging the Mellows. While nobody seems to have thought of using "Smoke from Your Cigarette" as a theme for passive smoke bans in nightclubs, the loyal doo wop audience remains fond of the combo and its lead singer. The Mellows are yet another in an influx of similarly motivated harmonizers hailing from Morrisania, which sounds like a South Pacific island but is really a neighborhood in the Bronx, the same one from which originated the Chords, the Crickets, the Wrens, the Limelighters, and the Five Chimes. In an environment such as that, it is no surprise that Leach recalled feeling like she was being pushed into a singing career by both her mother and grandmother, in contrast to the normal state of affairs concerning children with aspirations to entertain. She sang in church and at talent shows, and in 1954 met three guys at a party with whom she wound up forming a group. Harold Johnson was the one with the most to offer. A singer and guitarist, he was not only one of the original members of the Crickets but had written many of the songs the group chirped.

Leach and company followed the trail of the latter group to Jay-Dee Records, signing with the label in the summer of the same year they had met and recording a batch of sides, including the flirtatious "Pretty Baby What's Your Name" and the shiftless "Nothin' to Do." Having recordings out meant Leach was now singing in a club in Harlem, although gigs in community centers and schools were still accepted. Production of these Mellows records was first-class, involving top-flight session players: tenor saxophonist Sam "The Man" Taylor, guitarist Mickey Baker, and bassist Milt Hinton all played on these tracks. The aforementioned cigarette ditty did well, nibbling on the bottom end of the Top Ten. Leach is said to have begun wondering about the fairness of record business accounting when her first royalty check showed up and was only for 50 bucks. She also had publishing and writing royalties to worry about, having come up with a song entitled "I Still Care," not to be confused with the Tin Pan Alley standard of the same name. It turned out to be her sole effort as a songwriter. "It was a feeling of accomplishment to know that I did write a song, but I didn't really feel that I wanted to write any more songs after that," she told writer Marv Goldberg.

In 1955 a shake-up took place, Johnson moving over to the Hummers, another vocal group and not a preposterously oversize utility vehicle. By the following year he was back, the Mellows had a new manager, and still nothing much was happening in terms of popularity. Two singles were released by the Celeste label, and subsequent sessions in the fall of the year yielded some interesting changes in pace. "I'm Gonna Pick Your Teeth with an Ice Pick" is one of those song titles that no possible set of lyrics or performance can live up to; still, this is a rare example of this group clowning around, even uncorking cheesy West Indian accents. Perhaps as a result of this track, the group decided to change managers and labels again, winding up by the end of 1956 on Ron Zinzer's Candlelight label with what appeared to be a new female singer -- the credits, reading "Lillian Lee & the Mellows," were perhaps proofread by candlelight. The label merged with another one called Bullseye, neither side of the enlarged firm apparently considering the Mellows to be on target. Final sides in the group's first period of recording were done in 1958 when the weird "So Strange" and possessive "Be Mine" emerged on Apollo, or rather didn't emerge since no official release ever took place.

Up through 1983, Leach dropped out of performing and concentrated on her family. At a Bronx neighborhood function that year, two Mellows bumped into the man Leach had married and the following conversation is reported as having taken place: "Why don't you let Lillian sing anymore?" asked Gary Morrison. One of the former Hummers, he was a performer whose surname should have moved him to the top of the pecking order in Morrisania. "I don't care if she sings," the husband said. Morrison's next move was to call Leach and the group was re-formed by the afternoon's end. In 1984 the group held forth at Radio City Music Hall and in the following year produced a recording for charity, "Don't Let Them Starve" -- a sensible title for someone with the surname of Leach. Bandmate Morrison died in 1988, one year after the Mellows performed at the Apollo in Harlem. He was replaced with Sammy Fain and the group continued until the mid-'90s. New tracks, recorded in 1992, were not released until a decade later in an enjoyable CD set that also includes bonus songs from earlier periods. While the Mellows themselves are no longer active, Leach continues to perform numbers from the group's repertoire, in 2006 accompanied by the Cliftonaires.