The Velvet Angels

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It's with groups like the Velvet Angels that doo wop music gets really interesting, as well as frustrating. The very fact that they left behind at least 19 first-rate songs puts them in the front ranks…
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It's with groups like the Velvet Angels that doo wop music gets really interesting, as well as frustrating. The very fact that they left behind at least 19 first-rate songs puts them in the front ranks of early-'60s singing groups. On the other hand, the reality that they never charted a record nationally, coupled with the fact that nobody seems to know precisely what finally happened to them, indicates just how ephemeral even the best doo wop music could be, outside of the ranks of the most fanatical hardcore collectors.

The Velvet Angels -- Robert Calhoun, Willie Hunter, Jay Johnson, and Cy Iverson -- first got together in Detroit. Somehow, despite being a startlingly talented group in a city with an alert, watchful label like Motown, they never caught the notice of Berry Gordy and company. Instead, they struggled for recognition for a year or two before deciding that the East Coast was more inviting. They made a name for themselves in and around Jersey City, NJ, performing at local clubs, where their a cappella singing -- mixing gospel, doo-wop, and early soul -- and very lively stage act quickly caught on.

The group's first recordings, cut at a time when Detroit-based tenor/falsetto Nolan Strong was probably in their ranks, came about when an admirer taped them performing in a hotel room. He brought the results to record store owner and doo wop fanatic Eddie Gries, who promptly purchased the rights to their tapes for release on his Medieval Records label. "I'm in Love" b/w "Let Me Come Back" was their first release and a local hit, selling very well, and was followed by their versions of "Blue Moon" and "Fools Rush In," which were issued as singles (and also appeared later on one of the first serious collectors doo wop showcase LPs ever assembled, The Best of A Cappella). The group also made a number of informal studio recordings during this period in association with their then-manager.

The group itself scarcely survived long enough to avail themselves of the beginning of a recording career -- they broke up sometime around 1964, with two members heading back to Detroit. Around this same time, Fortune Records, a Detroit-based label which had Nolan Strong under contract, claimed ownership of all Velvet Angels masters, and began threatening Medieval with legal action, none of which was ever forthcoming. To add to the confusion, additional tapes surfaced, and others were thought to have existed in the hands of their one-time manager and his family, although many were destroyed in the course of time as the interest and value of such music waned in the late '60s, even in the local doo wop haunts of North Jersey.

By that time, all whereabouts of the Velvet Angels' members had disappeared from the music business. All that was left began surfacing in the 1970s on various doo wop compilations and a group retrospective album.