Bobby Mitchell & the Toppers were part of the wave of New Orleans rock & rollers who followed in the wake of Fats Domino and Lloyd Price. Although the group had limited success (their best known song, "Try Rock 'n Roll," climbed into the R&B Top 20 nationally, and "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" was a smash in numerous localities without ever charting nationally) and broke up in 1954, Mitchell remained a popular figure in New Orleans R&B for 35 years.
Bobby Mitchell (August 16, 1935-March 17, 1989) was born in Algiers, LA, the second oldest of what were eventually 17 children in a family that made its living fishing the Mississippi River — Mitchell himself contributed to the family's well-being by cutting and selling wood. When he was ten years old, Mitchell got a job after school making deliveries for a liquor store, and it was while hanging around the store that he started singing — he was good enough then that people gave him nickels and dimes for his performances.
Mitchell played football in school until an injury sidelined him permanently, after which he joined the school chorus. By the time he was done with school, the music teacher was giving him solos on numbers such as "Ol' Man River" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." At age 17, he was in his first singing group, the Louisiana Groovers. By that time, Mitchell was falling firmly under the influence of R&B, most especially the sound of Roy Brown.
Mitchell wrote his first original song, "One Friday Morning," a doo wop-style ballad, which he cut as a demo with help from a teacher with a tape recorder (still a relative rarity in 1952). That tape got auditioned at a local radio station, and this led to the formation of a backing group called the Toppers, consisting of Lloyd Bellaire (tenor), Joseph Butler (tenor), Willie Bridges (baritone), Frank Bocage (bass), and Gabriel Fleming (piano). Vocally, they were influenced by acts such as Clyde McPhatter and the Dominoes, although they also listened to the records of Roy Hamilton and Nat King Cole. One factor that prevented them from coming up with a firmer direction of their own at the time was their youth — Mitchell was barely 17 at the time.
Eventually, they hooked up with producer Dave Bartholomew, and at his urging they cut some demos for Imperial Records. The group did as asked, but at the time it seemed as though it wasn't going to work out too well. The six of them were walking eight miles each day to the studio to practice with Bartholomew, and in the end Imperial only wanted Mitchell, until the singer insisted that it was all of them or nothing. Bartholomew relented, and in the meantime, the group had its first original song, "Rack 'Em Back," written by Joe Butler in response to the clowning on those long walks.
This became the B-side of their debut single, while a Lloyd Bellaire original, "I'm Crying," was the A-side. Released in May of 1953, it didn't sell well, although it was a beginning — Mitchell's voice was powerful and extremely expressive but quirkily uneven in the beginning, which made recording him tricky; the Toppers' singing was smooth, and the backing, by Lee Allen on tenor sax, Earl Palmer on drums, and Red Taylor on baritone sax (with Bartholomew on trumpet), was as solid as any rock & roll cut in New Orleans during that era. On stage in those early days, however, the group's instrumental backing was Gabriel Fleming's piano.
"I'm Crying" sold well in places like Cincinnati and Houston, but Mitchell and his group were unable to appear there to push the record any further, largely because of their ages and the fact that they were still required to attend school. Additionally, they weren't able to play any nightclubs even locally because they were underage, so they played high school dances, parties, weddings, and events at places like the American Legion Hall. Their recording career continued with more sessions resulting in classics such as "4x11 Equals 44," a rock tune built around a set of popular lottery numbers.
Mitchell had trouble juggling the requirements of a career with school, and the Toppers endured until early 1954, when they finally split up after a session that included two hot songs, the raucous "School Boy Blues," with its killer guitar intro by Justin Adams, and "Sister Lucy," the latter highlighted by a Lee Allen solo. "Sister Lucy" ended up as the B-side of a local double-sided hit with Bellaire's "My Baby's Gone"; "Sister Lucy" pulled in white listeners, while Bellaire's song reached the black stations and clubs.
The Toppers' breakup came about because of the military draft, which claimed the members as they turned 18. Lloyd Bellaire joined the Army, while Frank Bocage joined the Navy, and Joseph Butler and Willie Bridges joined the Air Force. They did cut one more session late in the year but essentially ceased to exist in the spring of 1954. Ironically, just at that moment "My Baby's Gone" and "Sister Lucy" became local hits. Mitchell and the Toppers were suddenly in serious demand, and with Gabriel Fleming he organized a new group called the King Toppers.
The local success of "My Baby's Gone" was never repeated nationally, and his next record, "Nothing Sweet As You"/"I Wish I Knew," failed to chart. Mitchell was inactive in the studio for 1955. He returned to recording early in 1956 with a song tailor-made for the period, "Try Rock 'n Roll," one of those tunes meant to exploit the now-popular music style and name. That record made it to number 14 on the Billboard R&B chart, although it did far better than that in certain cities, and Mitchell was now getting booked onto all-star shows as far away as New York and Los Angeles.
In 1957 Bartholomew received a song by a Cajun writer named Roy Hayes called "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" and gave it to Mitchell to record. It became a hit locally in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Kansas City, among other places, and got Mitchell a spot on American Bandstand. Mitchell also proved something of a surprise to promoters and disc jockeys in those cities where he'd never played before, because they assumed, on the basis of that record, that he was white.
Mitchell's sporadic success on Imperial ended in 1958, as the label dropped most of its New Orleans acts except for Fats Domino. He continued performing and recording, now trying to support a wife and her three children by a previous marriage. He signed with a succession of smaller labels in the early '60s, along the way working with Dr. John. By the mid-'60s, the couple had eight children and Mitchell's career had stalled. He still played shows in Houston and Mobile, but his records weren't selling — he was back with Imperial Records very briefly, and then returned to Rip Records, where he'd previously cut a couple of singles. Those sides for Rip and Sho-Biz were among the finest songs that Mitchell ever recorded, but were largely unheard.
A heart attack in the early '60s brought an end to his career on the road. Mitchell continued performing in New Orleans, where he remained a music celebrity for the next 29 years, performing regularly and eventually finding new recognition. Toward the end of his life, he also saw the first money from his original Imperial recordings with the release of a reissue LP, I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday. Mitchell became one of New Orleans' most visible and forthcoming '50s veterans. He passed away in 1989 after years of worsening illnesses, including diabetes, kidney failure, and two further heart attacks.
Many of Mitchell's early recordings were influenced by the dominant musical personalities of his day, including Roy Brown, Roy Hamilton, and, especially, Fats Domino, which was understandable since he shared the same producer and was on the same label. His voice had a distinct quality all its own, however, which became recognizable once he became comfortable in the studio. The Toppers, who ceased working with Mitchell after mid-1954, were a somewhat unpredictable group musically, mostly owing to their ages, and their sound was consciously derivative of numerous vocal groups of the period, especially the early Drifters. With Bartholomew's top session men backing them up, however, their records were solid New Orleans R&B at its best, and many of the records are classics of the sound from that era, if not on a par with those of Fats Domino then certainly residing on the level just below his and Lloyd Price's. ~ Bruce Eder