Introduction to Donnie Elbert



Donnie Elbert (born in 1936 – died in 1989) was an American R&B and soul singer known for his Top 20 hit “Where Did Our Love Go” during the 70s music scene. Elbert was previously a lead vocalist/songwriter/arranger/guitarist for the doo-wop group The Vibraharps in the mid-1950s. After that he went solo. Since then he had jumped to many labels including De Luxe, Red Top Records, Vee-Jay Records, Parkway, Cub and Checker, but all of his releases there received little nationwide success although many of them were regional hits. “A Little Piece of Leather” also failed to chart in his native country, but it was a #27 hit over in the UK in 1965; the following year he relocated to there, and signed to London’s Polydor label. He recorded a lot of songs, including his cover of the Supremes’ hit tune “Where Did Our Love Go?”, and an tribute album for Otis Redding. In 1969 he returned to the US, and in 1971 he finally had a major hit in with “Where Did Our Love Go” which became a top 20 pop hit and top 10 R&B hit and is now an oldies music favorite. After this he recorded songs that became minor hits, although his material has remained popular in the UK’s Northern Soul circuit. Retiring from recording during the 1980s, he became an A&R director for Polygram’s Canadian arm. He died in 1989 from a massive stroke; he was only 52.

Early years 

American soul singer and songwriter Donnie Elbert was born on May 25, 1936 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His family later moved to Buffalo, New York when he was three years old. While  growing up, he learned how to play and piano. He formed a doo-wop group in 1955 called the Vibraharps where he was also the guitarist, songwriter, arranger and background vocalist. After releasing their debut single “Walk Beside Me,” Elbert subsequently departed from the group in 1957 to pursue a solo career. He sent a demo record on King Label (DeLuxe subsidiary imprint) which fortunately earned him a recording contract. He debuted with the single, “What Can I Do?” which made at #12 on the U.S. R&B chart. Later it was followed by a couple of unsuccessful singles “Believe It or Not” and “Have I Sinned.” However, the latter became   favorite in Pittsburgh.

Even though Elbert already performed in the famous Apollo Theater in New York City and to the “chitlin’ circuit” of African-American owned nightclubs, his follow up singles on DeLuxe (“Let’s Do the Stroll,” “My Confession of Love,” “I Want to Be Loved But Only by You,” “I Want to Be Near You,” and “Just a Little Bit of Lovin'”) failed to sell. In 1959, after completing his full-length album on DeLuxe (The Sensational Donnie Elbert), he eventually left DeLuxe due to growing  disagreements between him and the producers. Elbert moved to the independent label Red Top where he recorded “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” in 1960. Subsequently, he was signed to Vee-Jay where he gained another regional hit with “Will You Ever Be Mine?” The single sold over to 250,000 copies in Philadelphia but unfortunately, it tanked in the nationwide marketplace. Later, Elbert entered the US Army which interrupted his recording career for a while. After being discharged in 1961, he continued to release singles for a variety of labels which, again, never made any commercial impact.

Peak of Donnie Elbert’s career

In spite of his singles having similar fates, Elbert never stopped releasing his material. He switched to a new sound which deeply impressed him — Motown. In 1965, he issued “A Little Piece of Leather” on Gateway label. The song didn’t make to the charts. On the other hand, it was a big hit in the UK where the single peaked at #27 on the national chart in 1972.

In 1966, Elbert moved to the UK in 1966. There, recorded “In Between The Heartaches” in 1968 for Polydor, a cover version of the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” and an Otis Redding cover versions LP entitled Tribute to a King. Elbert was also caught in a dispute over the authorship of Darrel Banks‘ R&B pop hit “Open Your Door to Your Heart.” Elbert wrote the song, whose original title was “Baby Walk Right In,”specifically for Banks; however, Elbert was not credited as the songwriter. In the end, BMI resolved this matter, granting joint authorship of the song to both Banks and Elbert.

Later that same year, Elbert came back to the US where he finally scored a hit via the single  “Can’t Get Over Losing You,” which was released on Rare Bullet label. It peaked at #26 on the Billboard R&B chart. The self-penned track and its B-side “Got To Get Myself Together” were  issued multiple times in the following years. His biggest hit came in 1972 when he transferred to All Platinum and remade the Supremes’ 1964 hit “Where Did Our Love Go?” which made to #15 on the Billboard pop chart, #6 on the R&B chart and #8 in the UK. In later that year, the follow-up “Sweet Baby” peaked at #30 on the R&B chart. Also on All Platinum, he also recorded several of his early tracks which included “A Little Piece of Leather.”

Subsequently, Elbert was signed to Avco-Embassy where he teamed up with the production outfit of the hit-makers Hugo & Luigi. There, he did a remake of the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” which made to #14 on the Billboard R&B chart but it rose to #2 on the alternative Cashbox R&B chart.

Elbert moved back to All Platinum and issued several R&B hits but quickly left due to another songwriting controversy of the R&B chart topper “Shame, Shame, Shame” of Shirley & Company. Instead, the song was credited to the label owner Sylvia Robinson.

In 1975, Elbert formed his own label, A/O where he recorded his self-penned final recordings including  “You Keep Me Crying (With Your Lying)” and “I Got to Get Myself Together.” During the mid-1980’s , he was completely inactive from performing and became a director of A&R Polygram’s Canadian distribution. On January 26, 1989, Elbert passed away after suffering from a massive stroke in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was 52 years old.

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