DAVE "BABY" CORTEZ
Born David Cortez Clowney, 13 August 1938, Detroit, Michigan
Pianist / organist / vocalist / songwriter.
Nowadays, Dave "Baby" Cortez (Clowney) is almost solely remembered for his # 1 record "The Happy Organ" (1959), but he had a long and, at times, successful recording career both before and after this hit. Growing up in Detroit, Dave showed musical aptitude at an early age and was guided toward the piano by his father, who also played the instrument. His musical career took off when he joined the Five Pearls in 1954 as second tenor and pianist, and he moved with them to New York the next year. The group, which became better known as the Pearls, recorded for Aladdin, Atco and Onyx. Clowney then had a short tenure with the group The Valentines, led by Richard Barrett, and recorded two singles with them for Rama. In the autumn of 1956 he recorded two piano instrumentals, "Movin' 'n' Groovin'" and "Soft Lights" (Ember 1010), which were credited to The David Clowney Band and got a good review in Billboard. This was followed by another great unknown R&B instrumental single, "Hoot Owl"/"Shakin'" (Paris 513) in early 1958, with King Curtis on tenor sax, Jimmy Spruill on guitar and Dave himself on pounding piano. A few months later, he cut a Little Richard-styled vocal single, "Honey Baby" and "You Give Me Heebie Jeebies" (Okeh 7102) as Baby Cortez. None of these records registered, good was they were. Meanwhile he did work as a session musician behind such artists as The Chantels, The Isley Brothers, The Aquatones ("She's the One For Me") and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
In 1958, his previous association with Ember Records brought Dave to Clock Records, a brand new label, which was run by veteran English-born EMI record man Wally Moody and his son Doug, and initially distributed by Ember. Now billed as Dave "Baby" Cortez, the young pianist/singer had his first Clock single released in August 1958, "You're the Girl"/"Eenie Meeny Miny Mo", which did nothing at all. But then came "The Happy Organ".
It was a Saturday morning in the fall of 1958 at Allegro Recording Studio in the basement of 1650 Broadway in New York City. Dave was supposed to cut a few vocal numbers, but he lost his voice during the session and said, "Let me try an instrumental". They had a huge Hammond B-3 organ in the corner, and though Dave had never played the organ before, he started doing a tune based on "Shortnin' Bread". The backing musicians (who included Jimmy Spruill on guitar, Buddy Lucas on sax and Panama Francis on drums) started picking up the rhythm. The end of the take was rough, it went on and on and was full of wrong notes, reason why it was faded out on the record after 1:58. The resulting single was called "The Happy Organ", a # 1 pop smash in the spring of 1959 (also # 5 R&B). It did much to popularise the Hammond organ amongst the huge teen market and soon Johnny and the Hurricanes and Bill Black's Combo would score chart hits with organ-led instrumentals.
The follow-up, "The Whistling Organ" was a poor record by comparison and went only to # 61. No further hits on Clock followed, despite strong 45s such as "Piano Shuffle", "Cat Nip" and "Dave's Special". After Clock's distribution deal with Ember ended, RCA Victor stepped in and the album "Dave 'Baby' Cortez And His Happy Organ" came out on RCA in September 1959. Clock later issued the LP on its own label, but not before RCA sold thousands of copies. In 1962, Dave was back in the Top 10 with "Rinky Dink" on Chess (picked up from Julia Records, which was probably Dave's own label), followed by some minor hits on Chess. The mid-sixties saw him recording for the Roulette label and, keeping in tune with the times, Cortez soon moved into funky soul music. In 1973, he had his last chart entry with "Someone Has Taken Your Place" on All Platinum (# 45 R&B). His final single was also released in that year, "Hell Street Junction", which was an imitation of Sly and the Family Stone's "Life". By the 1980s he had turned his back on the music business and was living in Jamaica, New York, with a day-time job. Since then he has always refused to be interviewed about his career as a musician.
CD: Dave 'Baby' Cortez, Happy Organs, Wild Guitars and Piano Shuffles (Ace 386, released in 1993). 25 Clock tracks. The Ace CD booklet by John Broven is very interesting, especially the lenghty discussion on "breaking records" on the radio by Clock promo man Doug Moody. This section was republished in Broven's book "Record Makers And Breakers" (University of Illinois Press, 2009), page 364-367.
Further acknowledgements : Lee Cotten, Reelin' and rockin' : The golden age of American rock 'n' roll, Vol. 2 : 1956-1959" (Ann Arbor, MI : Popular Culture Ink., 1995), page 384-388.
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