When you think of great singers whose lives and careers were cut short when they were on the wrong end of a gun, Sam Cooke is the first name that comes to mind. But there was another great soul singer who lost his life when he was gunned down, and that was Darrell Banks.
He was born in Ohio, but grew up he grew up in Buffalo, New York, singing in church before beginning a career in secular music. One of the Buffalo joints Banks sang in early on was called the Revilot Lounge. He hooked up with a producer named Lebron Taylor whose company was called Solid Hitbound Productions, and Taylor decided to use the name of Banks’ favorite club, the Revilot, as the name of the label which would release the first Banks single.
“Open the Door to Your Heart” was written by Donnie Elbert specifically for his friend Darrell Banks. Elbert was on the road when Taylor recorded the song, which wouldn’t have been a problem except that when the record came out, Banks was credited as a songwriter, the only songwriter. Naturally, Elbert wasn’t too pleased.
A legal battle ensued, which Elbert eventually won, although he remained bitter about the fact that Banks, who wasn’t a songwriter and did very little to improve the record, was the co-owner of a soul classic. While the original single only carries Banks’ name as a songwriter, subsequent releases list Banks and Elbert. Meanwhile, the single shot up the charts, reaching #2 on the R&B chart, and #27 on the Pop chart in 1966.
The follow-up single, “Somebody (Somewhere) Needs You,” did respectable business, reaching #34 R&B and #55 Pop. It was a Motown song, written by Marc Gordon and Frank Wilson, but it was never recorded by a Motown artist. It was Ike and Tina Turner who recorded the original version of the song for Loma Records. But Banks’ version was successful enough to get him regular work on what was then called the “chitlin circuit.”
At that point, Banks’ Revilot moved to the more prominent Atco Records. Two 1967 singles for the Atlantic imprint, “Here Come the Tears, and “Angel Baby (Don’t Ever Leave Me),” failed to find any chart success. Atco, in turn, moved Banks over to another Atlantic subsidiary, Cotillion Records. Banks recorded one more single for the label, “I Wanna Go Home,” and then departed for Memphis, and Stax Records.
In 1969, Banks released two singles for Stax’s Volt imprint. Neither “I’m the Only One Who Loves,” or “Beautiful Feeling” set the charts alight, although they did sell reasonably well.
Sadly, Darrell Banks didn’t live long enough to live up to his full potential. In March 1970, he was shot to death in Detroit by an off-duty cop who was seeing Banks’ girlfriend behind his back. When Banks discovered the betrayal, he pulled a gun. The cop responded with deadly force, limiting Banks’ career to just four years, during which he released seven singles and two albums.
By 2014, what was thought to be the only extant copy of the original recording of “Open the Door to Your Heart” was drawing bids of thousands of pounds in a U.K. auction. Not only had Banks become a hero in England’s Northern Soul scene, it was widely acknowledged that when EMI won the rights to distribute the single, they had destroyed all of the original copies of the single, all but one. Eventually, the record sold for the equivalent of $23,000 American.
Soul aficionados acknowledge Darrell Banks as one of the greatest singers the genre has ever known. Unfortunately what we’ll never know is how great he could have become.