There’s a lot of talk these about returning America to a better, more peaceful and prosperous time. The problem is that not everyone enjoyed those times as much as the people wishing to return to them did. Still, if we’re talking about returning to those days musically, well, that’s really not such a bad idea after all.
The Del-Vikings were serving the nation in the Air Force when they got together in 1955, all stationed in Pittsburgh. The original lineup consisted of Clarence Quick, Kripp Johnson, Don Jackson, Samuel Paterson, Bernard Robertson, and Clarence Harvey Ringo. The problem is that being a group made up exclusively of members of the military, transfers were likely to disrupt the lineup. And that’s exactly what happened when Paterson and Robertson were sent to Germany.
Suitable replacements were found in tenor singer Norman Wright and baritone David Lerchey. It was Lerchey’s inclusion the Del-Vikings that began to make things interesting, because Lerchey, unlike the rest of the group, was white. Remember, this was 1955, that beautiful bygone era when things weren’t so beautiful for everyone.
Just how they got their name is not certain. Clarence Harvey Ringo always insisted that he and Clarence Quick had been at the base library reading about Vikings and that the Del got stuck on the front to provide a little mystery. There are other claims about how the name came to be, but we’ll stick with Ringo’s version for our purposes.
In 1956, the Del-Vikings got a deal with a little label called Fee-Bee, and in December of that year, they released their debut single, “Come Go With Me.” The song was written by Quick, and Wright sang the lead vocal. As often happened in those days, a larger company, in this case Dot Records, noticed the action that the single was getting locally, and made a deal with Fee-Bee to distribute it nationally. The Dot re-release shot the single into Billboard’s Top 10, peaking at #4, and helped the record to become a million-selling gold disc winner.
Soon after that, Jackson left the group and was replaced by Gus Backus, further integrating the lineup. As it turned out, all of the Del-Vikings, except Johnson, had been under 21 when they signed the Fee-Bee contract, which gave them the right to bail on it. They quickly decamped to Mercury Records, leaving Johnson behind as he was still under contract to Fee-Bee. The problem was that Johnson laid claim to the name, and suddenly there were two groups of Del-Vikings.
The original lineup replaced Johnson with William Blakely and released the single “Cool Shake” with Backus singing lead. The single almost reached the Top 10, peaking at #12. Meanwhile, Johnson added Don Jackson, Chuck Jackson (yes, that Chuck Jackson), Arthur Budd, and Ed Everette. That group was cleverly called the Dell Vikings, and they released a single called “I’m Spinning.” Their follow-up single, “Whispering Bells” reached #9 on the Pop chart.
Interestingly, Johnson’s group recorded for Dot, the label that had so much success with the original Del-Vikings lineup. The advantage that Johnson’s group had was that he was no longer in the Air Force and could tour at will, while the original lineup, still in the military, had to get special permission. Eventually, Mercury Records sued Johnson, et. al. over the name, and suddenly the Dell Vikings were forced to become the Versatiles. But the Versatiles didn’t last long, and the Del-Vikings weren’t faring much better. Backus was transferred, leaving them a quartet. They broke up, but Quick put together a new lineup with Pittsburgh guys Billie Woodruff, Willie Green, Douglass White, and Ritzy Lee.
After the Versatiles called it a day, Johnson came back to the Del-Vikings, and the sextet signed to ABC-Paramount Records. Despite having the core of the original group back in the fold, no more chart hits were forthcoming, and by 1965 the Del-Vikings were history, or so it seemed. Five years later, they were back with a lineup that looked very much like the original, with Quick, Johnson, Wright, Lerchey, and Blakely. Their work in that era consisted mainly of re-recording their old hits for Scepter Records, including a new version of “Come Go With Me.”
If you think the story of the Del-Vikings has been complicated to this point, it got even more complicated after that. Members came and went through the ’70s, with Quick being the only original member at one point. In 1980, Johnson even restarted his Dell Vikings again, this time with Lerchey in the lineup. When Johnson died in 1990, Lerchey carried on with Wright, Lee, and John Byas, playing mostly casinos and cruise ships.
Wright eventually left, and Lerchey retired for awhile but put together another Del-Vikings lineup in the mid-’90s, and that lasted until Lerchey died in 2005. If you guessed that there are still Del-Vikings out there touring, you’d be right, but there are no members whose names you would recognize from the group’s earlier history. Louis Velez, who joined the group in the ’80s, and passed away in 2008, was probably the last member who had been associated with anyone from the original lineup.
What is the legacy of the Del-Vikings? Musically they gave us one of the most indelible records in the history of rock and roll, “Come Go With Me,” was well as several other hits. More importantly, they achieved success with an integrated lineup at a time when something like that was far from the norm.