Soul Serenade - Bobby MarchanI have this friend named Billy. The world at-large knows him as the Reverend Billy Wirtz. If you saw him, with his long hair and copious tattoos you would think he’s some wild rockabilly madman, and that is exactly what he wants you to think … when he’s on stage. Off stage he’s one of the most gentle and kind people I know, and he is a walking encyclopedia of popular culture.

Although I haven’t seen Billy for a long time, I retain fond memories of the times I’ve seen him play. He is road dog, and he tours non-stop, mostly in the south. So if you hear that he’s coming to your town, make it a point to be there. I guarantee you a great evening of music, along with a lot of laughs.

So why do I mention Billy? It’s because he was the first one I ever heard play this week’s featured song, “There’s Something on Your Mind.” It was while he was a member of a long gone band called the Charlottesville All-Stars, at a place in the woods of New Jersey called the Stanhope House. That night Billy turned Big Jay McNeely’s song into an uproarious ten-minute tale of adultery and murder that left the audience doubled over with laughter despite the pain and violence inherent in the song’s lyrics.

While McNeely wrote the song, and was the first to perform it, it is Bobby Marchan’s cover version that most people remember. Marchan was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1930. His given name was Oscar James Gibson, and young Oscar came at show business in a somewhat unusual way, especially for the time he lived in. As a child, Marchan was attracted to female impersonators, and by the time he was a teenager, he was singing and doing comedy in drag. By 1953 he had his own drag troupe, The Powder Box Revue.

The Revue got a gig at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, and Marchan fell in love with the city. When he was offered a job as the MC at the Club Tijuana in the Crescent City, he took it. It was while performing there that he was discovered by Eddie Meisner, who was the head of Aladdin Records. Marchand’s first single for the label was “Have Mercy.” It was produced by the legendary Cosimo Matassa, but when the single failed to do much business, Aladdin dropped Marchan from their roster.

After a short stay at Dot Records, Marchan moved on to the Ace label. He was signed to the label because Johnny Vincent, who ran Ace, saw Marchan’s drag show, and thought he was a woman. Marchan had a regional hit for Ace called “Chickee Wah-Wah.” Fate came calling in 1957 when Huey “Piano” Smith appointed Marchan the first lead singer in his band, the Clowns. It was in that role that Marchan sang the smash hits “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu,” “Don’t You Just Know It,” and “You Don’t Know Yockomo.” He also helped to popularize a song that Smith had written called “Sea Cruise,” which later became a huge hit for Frankie Ford.

By 1959 Marchan was out of the Clowns, and pursuing his solo career with his final single for Ace, “Rockin’ Behind the Iron Curtain.” He also resumed his drag career, and signed with Fire Records. His first release there was “Snoopin’ and Accusin’.” Marchan still hadn’t had a hit on his own though, that is until 1960, when he released his two-part version of “There’s Something on Your Mind” for Fire Records. It was Part 2 that reached the top of the R&B chart, and crossed over to #31 on the Billboard Hot 100.

McNeely was credited as the writer of the original song, which was called “There is Something on Your Mind,” but he didn’t actually write it. He admitted freely that he had purchased the song from Sonny Harris, a member of the Rivingtons. Harris himself had lifted it from a Highway QCs gospel song called “Something on My Mind.”

Marchan followed up his hit with Fire singles like “Booty Green,” “All in My Mind,” “What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You,” and “Yes, It’s Written All Over Your Face,” but none of them matched the success of “There’s Something on Your Mind.”

Otis Redding was a fan of Marchan, and on his recommendation Stax Records signed him in 1963. His debut single for the label was “What Can You Do,” but a year later Marchan moved on to the Dial label, where he released “Get Down With It.” The label shuffle continued when Marchan moved to Cameo Records in the middle of the decade, and released “There’s Something About You Baby” in 1966. His follow up for the label, “Shake Your Tambourine,” finally brought him back to the Top 20 on the R&B chart.

Once again, follow-up singles like “Meet Me in Church” and “You Better Hold On” failed to find an audience. Marchan tried one more single, a one-off for Gamble Records called “(Ain’t No Reason) For Girls to Be Lonely,” and then headed back to his drag career. For a decade he was without a label, until he reappeared on Mercury Records with the 1977 release “I Wanna Bump With the Big Fat Woman,” and followed it up with the novelty record “Disco Rabbit.” Ten years later, he released his final single, an update of his hit “There’s Something on Your Mind.”

Bobby Marchan was 69 years-old when he died of cancer in 1999.