If you’ve been following the pop, rock and doo wopp circuit for the last 20 years or so, you’ve probably come to accept that David Somerville has always been there. The original lead singer of The Diamonds became a mainstay on multi-act concerts featuring the best artists of the 1950s and 1960s, but he wasn’t always a part of the rock and revival scene.
On June 6, 1993, David Somerville took the stage to embark on what would become the last chapter of his career. After years of acting, songwriting, folk singing and voice-over work, David decided to re-enter the circuit of nostalgia-based concerts featuring the top artists from the golden age of rock and roll. He had spent decades thriving in the entertainment business without trading on the name that launched his career or the songs for which he is best-known. He stepped out on to the stage at Westbury Music Fair on Long Island like he owned it and launched into a 15-minute romp that brought the audience to its feet. It was abundantly apparent that he was immediately comfortable in the role, and in that role he stayed, until his passing in 2015. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave the day after his return to the stage. Enjoy this glimpse into the life and career of a rock and roll icon… – Joe Mirrione
JOE: How did you first become interested in singing and music in general?
DAVID: Music runs deep in my family. My grandfather and his brother were musical and each of them had a son who was musical so they made a quartet in China where my grandfather and my brother were missionaries in the 1920’s. My uncle Dick was my music teacher in high school and I was also part of a choral club that we had after school. That’s how I got into quartet singing.
JOE: Where were you attending school?
DAVID: At a place called Central Tech in Toronto.
JOE: Toronto being so far removed from where most people consider to be the points of origin of this music, what were some of the differences where you came from? Did the music of the time come off of the streets as it did in most of the urban areas in the U.S.?
DAVID: Well, we did our “street corner singing” in the school. When I got into The Diamonds later on, we literally did some street corner singing, but generally speaking, there was certainly a lot of quartet influence in Toronto. That was started by Monsignor Ronan who taught both The Crew Cuts and The Four Lads.
JOE: Was there any neighborhood influence for you, personally, from other singers in your area?
DAVID: This was pre-rock and roll so there wasn’t any of that, but we were doing four-part arrangements of Gilbert and Sullivan. At the time, I was listening to people like Josh White and The Ink Spots and some of the black entertainers of the day who phrased the way I liked it.
JOE: What would you consider to be the first professional group with whom you sang?
DAVID: The first group I made any money with, which is what I guess the definition of “professional” is, was The Diamonds.
JOE: How did they come into being?
DAVID: I was a radio operator at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1953 and I spotted these guys in line waiting to audition for a television show called “Now’s Your Chance”. They just looked like a quartet to me so I went over and introduced myself and, sure enough, they were. About a month later, I was their lead singer, but that was still pre-rock and roll.
JOE: How did that happen?
DAVID: Our first show was singing for a church group at Christmas and the guy who was singing melody was in college and he had an exam the next day. So I filled in for him and I ended up staying.
JOE: Who were the original Diamonds?
DAVID: Phil Leavitt sang baritone, Bill Reed was the bass singer and Ted Kowalski was the tenor.
JOE: What kind of work did The Diamonds do in their early days?
DAVID: Well, we rehearsed for about a year and a half. There were good arrangers around the CBC and there were in-tune pianos and we did most of our rehearsal acappella. When we got started, we did work some supper clubs in Quebec, Three Rivers and Quebec City. Then we came down to New York in the summer of ’55 and we did the Arthur Godfrey Show. We tied with a female pianist for first place and we also worked at a German restaurant in Greenwood Lake that summer.
JOE: How did you hook up with Coral Records?
DAVID: That was through our manager, Nat Goodman. The guy at Coral was named Bob Thiele and he liked us so we did a few sessions with him which weren’t very successful as far as selling records was concerned. Then we heard that a fellow by the name of Bill Randle over in Cleveland had discovered The Crew Cuts and Mantovani and Elvis Presley. So we went to visit with Bill Randle to see if he liked us. He did and he played Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” for us and we went to Chicago to audition for both Dot and Mercury Records. Mercury liked us and signed us. “Why Do Fools…” was our first record. The flip side of that was “You Baby You”.
JOE: Were those two songs the label’s choice or yours?
DAVID: That was Bill Randle’s choice. He suggested both sides of our first four recordings which were all hits, by the way.
JOE: What kind of doors did “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” open up for the group?
DAVID: We did a lot of television shows and Mercury was very supportive of us in that way. We did an enormous amount of promotion. When “Why Do Fools…” came out we got in our car and for 12 weeks, we toured – just shaking hands at radio stations and doing interviews.
JOE: How did you feel about covering a song which had just been released a few months prior by The Teenagers and did you feel, in any way, that your version might surpass theirs simply because The Diamonds were a white pop act and could appeal to a larger audience?
DAVID: I don’t think we had those kind of expectations, but I think maybe the record company did. We were happy to be making records and there were no negative aspects at all in our mind over the fact that it was a cover record.
JOE: How about the records that followed – “Church Bells May Ring”, “Little Girl Of Mine”, “Ka-Ding-Dong”, “Love, Love, Love” and “A Thousand Miles Away” – were those all the label’s choices?
DAVID: Yes. We had nothing to say about what we recorded at that point.
DAVID: Well, after we had four hit, we were very strong about saying we wanted to do original material and on the same session as we recorded “Little Darlin’” in February of 1957, we recorded four original songs that we worked very hard on – medleys from “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!” and spirituals – we happened to have that kind of material. Specifically, because the quartet with which I sang in high school had two black guys in it, I learned to sing in a way that was more compatible with the music that followed.
JOE: What became of those original songs?
DAVID: They may have become B-Sides of records that came later on or they may have come out on some obscure albums.
JOE: How did you come across “Little Darlin’”?
DAVID: “Little Darlin’” was a throw-away fifth tune – a one-taker recorded during a fifteen minute period at the end of that session at four o’clock in the morning. It was our manager who heard the record by The Gladiolas on the afternoon of this session which started at midnight and he thought it was suitable for us and in line with the hits we had had.
JOE: Well, I would say it was in that way, but “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” had been a hit, “Church Bells May Ring” was a hit, “Ka-Ding-Dong” was a hit, “A Thousand Miles Away” was a hit…but “Little Darlin’” was not a hit for The Gladiolas. Their original version has a very esoteric sound
DAVID: That’s right.
JOE: At that point did you think it could be a hit? Did you think you would be able to elevate the sound and feel of the record into something chart-worthy?
DAVID: We listened to it and said, “OK, here’s a piece of material. We can probably clean this up and do it better. We can sing the vocal parts with more accuracy, pick up the tempo a little bit, change the key and give it a shot.” We didn’t think in terms of, “Is this going to be a hit?” I suppose the manager and the record company did. We were centered on singing as well as we could sing.
JOE: It seems as if you looked at everything from a more artistic viewpoint.
DAVID: That’s right. A lot of people thought we were “kidding” with that record, but as we recorded it, we weren’t “kidding”. When we saw that audiences perceived it as “kidding” and we were booked to do the Perry Como Show, we then acquired the services of Fred Kelly, Gene Kelly’s brother, to choreograph it in line with that attitude.
JOE: How did things change after “Little Darlin’”?
DAVID: Well, the touring was the same kind of touring as we had done. We worked supper clubs, we did television, we did some fairs, etcetera, but what happened now was there was more response and the pay was better. We already were well-established doing the kind of work that we ultimately just continued to do.
JOE: After the huge success of “Little Darlin’”, were there any thoughts in the group as far as how you were going to “top it”?
DAVID: Well, what we did immediately following “Little Darlin’” was “Words of Love”, the Buddy Holly song and everybody wanted to be very careful about this shot, particularly the record company. I did 76 takes on “Words of Love” and I don’t know, ultimately, if anybody was happy with it or not, but we gave it our best shot. I’m not sure if the record company did exactly what they should have done.
JOE: What was the purpose of taking such pains with this song in particular?
DAVID: Well, at that point, if a group had three or four major hits in a row – three or four “Little Darlin’”’s in a row – then you would have been talking about a life-changing event for the group and it would have made us into a super-group, which I’m not sure ever happened with The Diamonds.
JOE: What membership changes took place while the group was with Mercury Records?
DAVID: In 1957, after “Little Darlin’”, Phil Leavitt left and Mike Douglas came into the group. Then, in 1959, both Bill Reed and Ted Kowalski left and Evan Fisher came in as the tenor and John Felton came in as the bass singer, but I remained with the group until ’61.
JOE: What was the purpose of your leaving, artistically speaking?
DAVID: I had wanted to do solo work for some time and I also wanted to get involved in folk music. Folk music hadn’t broken yet on a national level.
JOE: What drew you to that?
DAVID: Just my love for the sound of a naked voice and a guitar, which I had always done for my own pleasure since high school. My uncle Dick taught me how to play guitar and I had some folk-singing heroes and I collected folk music. I also just wanted to get out and do it by myself. I got married at that time, which was certainly an element in me leaving The Diamonds at that time. I also wanted to get away from our manager, who I didn’t think was doing the right thing for us.
JOE: Who was managing the group at that time?
DAVID: Nat Goodman managed the group from the beginning.
JOE: What did you do after you left The Diamonds?
DAVID: Well, I did the folk music and stand-up with bands for the next six years. I was managed by Buck Ram for the first three years of my solo career and we made some records, none of which did anything. I worked constantly – I went to Japan and I toured Canada and the United States when folk music became popular about six months after I decided to become a folk singer.
JOE: Do you think that you might have developed some kind of an intuition from your years in the business?
DAVID: I may have. I don’t know. I only knew what I wanted to do artistically.
JOE: What followed the six years of folk music?
DAVID: Then The Four Preps asked me to join them, replacing their original bass singer, Ed Cobb, who left the group in 1967. So I stepped in for him for two years with the rest of the original Four Preps and we toured a lot with Mancini and people like that. We went to the Far East a couple of time and toured Europe. We also made some records for Capitol and I sang lead on one of those records, “Love of the Common People”, which was the first recording of that song which has since become sort of a country standard.
JOE: For you as an artist, did you feel that this was closer to your heart since your roots were in group singing?
DAVID: Well, group singing is in my blood and I like to do that, but I like to sing by myself as well.
JOE: Do you have an artistic preference?
DAVID: I guess I don’t. For instance, I sing with The Four Preps now, but I like what I did last night at Westbury Music Fair just as much as what I do with The Four Preps.
JOE: Was there any reason why you didn’t want a vocal group backing you at Westbury?
DAVID: Well, vocal groups take rehearsal and if you don’t have the time to do that, then it’s better to have it missing. The guys in the band offered to sing, but there’s an enormous amount of material to absorb in a very short period of time in a way that sounds accurate enough to my ear. The band was very good, but they had their hands full reading the charts for the first time. Of course it’s always nice to have voices and if I had a choice, I would have a group there singing with me, of course.
JOE: What did you do throughout the 1970’s?
DAVID: Well, in 1969, Bruce Belland and I left The Four Preps and became an act called “Belland & Somerville”. We toured with Henry Mancini, Johnny Mathis, Brasil 66 and Rowan & Martin and in the first six months we were together, we did about 60 network television shows. We became regulars on a syndicated show called “The Gathering” and we did the Tim Conway variety series for CBS for 13 weeks until it was cancelled. Had it not been cancelled, we would have had our own show on CBS because that’s the way our contract was set up. We also almost had a series with Metromedia. We left our option to do that to go to CBS with Tim. So, Belland & Somerville went on for about four and a half years. After that, I did a lot of voice-overs because I lived in Hollywood as I do now and I also formed a group called W.W. Fancy with a guy named Keith Barbour who had a hit record called “Echo Park” and a lady named Gail Jensen who is now David Carradine’s wife and manager. That was a combination of rock and roll and folk music. It was a trio in the Peter, Paul & Mary tradition, I suppose. We did that for a few years and then Keith went solo and Gail and I worked by ourselves as David & Gail. I had studied acting during the mid-sixties with Leonard Nimoy, so during the 70’s, I did guest shots on a lot of television shows.
JOE: What did you do in the early 80’s?
DAVID: I have always had jobs as a soloist with my guitar. So that, acting and doing voice-overs supported me all through the 80’s. I co-wrote a song called “The Troublemaker” for Willie Nelson that became the title song of his fifty-third album and that went to the number one spot. More notably, I wrote a song that inspired the ABC television series “The Fall Guy” with Lee Majors. That pays me to this day as a matter of fact. The house where I live on the ridge in Hollywood became the house in the television show.
JOE: Speaking of paying the bills, from the early 1950’s up until today, have you ever had a career outside of show business?
DAVID: No. This is my fortieth year as a professional singer and I’ve never done anything else. I also did an enormous number of commercials where I sang on the commercial during the 70’s and 80’s, but what you probably know more of are some of the major voice-overs that I’ve done. I’ve done about fifteen national motel commercials and probably a hundred locals and syndicated.
JOE: When did you hook up with The Four Preps again?
DAVID: Well, in 1987, the original baritone of The Four Preps, Glen Larson, had a fiftieth birthday party with about 300 folks under tents on his tennis courts and a lot of celebrities and people in the record business were there – Roy and Dale, Lee Majors, a couple of the Osmonds were there – and The Four Preps sang at this party. Dick Clark introduced us and after we sang, he pulled us aside and said, “If you want to put this group back together again, I smell money.” Glen couldn’t afford to be back in The Four Preps because he’s a television producer, so we replaced him with another fellow. So our current configuration is Bruce Belland and Ed Cobb, the original lead singer and bass singer of The Four Preps, Jim Yester from The Association and myself.
JOE: Am I correct in recalling that Jim Pike of The Letterman had also been with the group?
DAVID: Yes he was. He just left about three or four months ago.
JOE: What is the real story of what happened with The Diamonds’ name?
DAVID: Up until just recently, there had been two groups for at least the last decade who called themselves The Diamonds. They were distant replacements of replacement groups and I wanted to go back with the original Diamonds. Bob Dunkin’s Diamonds sued me and said you can’t do that.
JOE: That was a bogus group?
DAVID: One of them. Then Glen Stetson sued us also and we lost.
JOE: Did you lose because you had abandoned the name?
DAVID: Exactly. Then Dunkin sued and won the name from Glen Stetson, so Stetson can’t use it. That was about 4 or 5 years ago.
JOE: What are the legalities which come into play in your performances?
DAVID: The original Diamonds can work twice a year calling themselves The Diamonds provided that all four original members do it, but the original baritone singer doesn’t want to do it.
JOE: Do Reed and Kowalski have any desire to do it?
DAVID: Oh, yes. They would certainly be there for events, but Phil Leavitt has no interest in it.
JOE: Last night was your first time performing as “David Somerville, the original lead singer of The Diamonds.” How did it feel to you?
DAVID: Great! This was the first time I’ve done this this way by myself. As a matter fact, I haven’t been in or around New York since The Diamonds’ days. I loved the audience and it’s always amazing to me that people know the history of the group as you do, because I’m always looking at it from the inside out and I forget from day to day that these things happened. They go to the back of your consciousness so when, for instance, I asked [the show’s MC] Bobby Jay if there was anything he wanted to know about me for my introduction and he replied, “I know everything about you.”
JOE: If there was anything that you could go back and change over the past 40 years, what do you think it would be?
DAVID: I suppose I would connect myself more assiduously to the business end of things. Show business is two words – show and business – and I’ve not had much of a head for the business end or paid a whole lot of attention to it. So I would get more aggressive in that area – more pro-active. Other than that, I’ve been having a grand time!
JOE: When all is said and done, for what would you like to be remembered?
DAVID: My motive is to entertain people with in-tune singing and to get the pacing of shows correct so that the feelings that you desire to evoke happen in a clean, theatrical and as-musical-as-possible way. You don’t want people to be distracted by out-of-tune music or because moments are going by when something else should be happening. I just want to do my professional best.
Epitaph: David Somerville continued to perform as the original lead singer of The Diamonds, including a PBS-televised reunion of the original group in 2000. In 2004, Dave was diagnosed with cancer, which – despite several proposed treatment plans from conventional physicians – he decided to treat with an alkalizing diet. He beat the disease (and looked radiant as a result of the nutritional improvement), but it later recurred, claiming his life on July 14, 2015. Dave was 81.