Dreaming with the Bel-Larks by Steven Kahn

The years were 1956 through 1958.  The place was the Dunbar community center in the heart of the 15th Ward neighborhood in Syracuse, New York.  Appearing onstage were local groups such as the Quintones, Rhythm Cadets, Eldaros and Diplomats.  In the audience were four awestruck friends, all members of the Bethany Baptist Church Junior Usher Board, who were so excited at what they saw onstage that they started to dream of forming their own vocal group … and this is their story.

This group formed in 1958 and consisted of Robert Reese – primary lead, first tenor (age 15), Eric Simmons, Jr. – alternate lead, first and second tenor (age 14), Frederick Simmons – baritone (age 13, Eric’s brother) and Robert Baggett – alternate lead, bass (age 14). Aside from what they saw at the Dunbar, they were influenced by vocal group recordings heard on broadcasts from out of town as well as on Syracuse University’s radio station and groups such as the Platters, Moonglows, Drifters, Coasters, Little Anthony/Imperials and the Miracles. Robert Reese and Freddie were students at Roosevelt Junior High School, Eric attended Syracuse Central Technical High School and Robert Baggett attended Vocational Junior and Senior High School.  They decided to call themselves the “Bell Larks” (later shortened to “Bel-Larks”), imagining ringing chimes and singing birds.

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The Bel-Larks in 1958 (L to R: Eric Simmons, Robert Baggett, Robert Reese, Fred Simmons)

The Bel-Larks practiced in the basement of the Simmons’ home singing songs such as “Only You,” “Book Of Love,” “Come Go With Me,” “White Christmas,” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” “I Wonder Why” and “Get A Job.”  They also sang a few original tunes, including “Bobby” (Eric on lead) and “Dinner At Baggett’s” (Robert Baggett on lead).  As the group became more polished, they started performing at local high school dances, parties and neighborhood nursing homes.  They also performed at venues including the Syracuse Boys Club, Corinthian Club, Jewish Home For The Aged, Teen Canteen (in nearby Baldwinsville) and at their original inspiration … the Dunbar Center!  When the Ted Mack Amateur Hour held auditions in Syracuse they tried out but were not successful.

Robert Reese recalls that the group’s aspirations at this time did not necessarily include becoming famous – “we just wanted to have fun with singing!”  He also explained that the group was “built on our sound and others appreciated the harmony that we had as young fellows.”  Although Freddie played saxophone and Eric played trumpet, instrumentation was not used until later on.

The Bel-Larks started to develop a laid-back mellow sound and with the Platters and Miracles serving as inspiration decided to add a female to the group.  In the summer of 1959 they asked Roselind Allen (age 15), who they heard sing in church and was also a member of the Bethany Baptist Church’s Junior Usher Board, to join the group as the second lead and soprano.  Roselind’s parents were good friends with Eric and Freddie’s parents, so permission was instantly given.  Roselind had been singing since the age of four or five and at thirteen she formed the Blendtones with fellow Madison Junior High classmates Marie Smith and Geruleve Outley.  The Blendtones enjoyed performing at school assembly and at these appearances they often sang an original song, written by Roselind Allen and Marie Smith, entitled “A Million And One Dreams.”  Roselind also served as the lead female soloist of Bethany’s Young Adult Choir, renowned for their gospel performances at churches throughout New York State and Washington, D.C.

In August of 1960 Robert Reese joined the Navy and with this development the group now consisted of:  Roselind Allen – lead and soprano, Eric Simmons, Jr. – first and second tenor, Frederick Simmons – baritone and Robert Baggett – bass.  Most of the group’s rehearsals now centered around the piano at Roselind’s parents’ home and it was here that she introduced the group to “A Million And One Dreams.”  Performing this song live, “A Million And One Dreams” quickly became a crowd favorite at local venues and also at events sponsored by the Syracuse Celebrators Club.  The Bel-Larks also incorporated some Mary Wells tunes (which Roselind particularly liked) into their performances as well as original compositions “You’re Mine,” “Get Married In June,” “I Believe,” and “It Hurts To Be In Love” (the last two songs are not to be confused with the hit songs of the same titles).  When Ted Mack, once again, brought his Amateur Hour auditions to Syracuse, the Bel-Larks singing “A Million And One Dreams” made it to the final round but were quite disappointed upon being eliminated.

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The Bel-Larks circa 1960 (L to R: Robert Baggett, Fred Simmons, Roselind Allen, Robert Reese, Eric Simmons)

In 1962 the Bel-Larks hooked up with David Ransom, an aspiring music entrepreneur – who some of the Bel-Larks knew from the neighborhood, and he became their manager.  Ransom introduced the group to independent record producer Scott Hilton and together they booked a recording session for the Bel-Larks at Riposo Studios on Warren Street in Syracuse, New York.  There the group, backed up by Freddie Simmons’s four-piece band the Eternals, recorded “A Million And One Dreams” and “You’re Mine.”  These two sides were intended to be the first release on Ransom Records.

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Review of The Bel-Larks’ single in Dec. 22, 1962 issue of Billboard

Shortly after the recording session, Ransom and Hilton decided that “Satisfied,” a song written by W. King and E. Kelly and earlier recorded by Windsor King’s Cashmeres, would be a better fit than “You’re Mine.”  A second recording session was set up at Riposo Studios and the Bel-Larks recorded “Satisfied” along with their original tune “Get Married In June,” with the Eternals again providing musical accompaniment.  This session was produced by Mike Riposo of Riposo Studios and at yet a third session, the Bel-Larks recorded their other original tunes “I Believe” and “It Hurts To Be In Love.”

“A Million And One Dreams” b/w “Satisfied” was released on Ransom Records towards the latter part of 1962 and received airplay on local radio station WNDR.  In the December 22nd, 1962 “Spotlight Singles of the Week” in Billboard Magazine, “A Million And One Dreams” received four stars and “Satisfied” received three.

Record Scan 1

Label scan courtesy of Bobby Diskin

Unfortunately, nothing much happened after the release of “A Million And One Dreams,” but the Bel-Larks continued to perform in the Syracuse area and also appeared at the Three Rivers Inn in Phoenix, NY.  Tragically, on July 29, 1963, 21-year-old David Ransom was in a car accident that led to his death on August 7th.  The Bel-Larks believe Ransom, had he lived, would have released “Get Married In June” b/w “You’re Mine” as the second Bel-Larks’ release on Ransom Records.  Shortly after Ransom’s passing, the Bel-Larks called it quits.

Roselind Allen continued singing solo at various local events and in late 1964 she became the lead voice in the Hi-Fi’s, a local band which formed in 1958.  They performed at local clubs, weddings, fraternity gigs and were the house band at the Intrigue Room, a nightclub in downtown Syracuse.  Roselind left the group in 1965.  Additionally, back in 1962 while still in the Bel-Larks, she recorded a duet of the Ray Charles hit “Unchain My Heart” with Gary Kemp, of the local band Gary and the Invaders, but to her knowledge it was never released. 

Inexplicably, towards the latter part of 1963, “A Million And One Dreams,” this time backed with “Get Married In June,” was released by Vinny Catalano on Hammer Records.  In 1964, Catalano released the two songs again as part of a Hammer LP titled “Jocko Presents Two Dozen Oldies.”  The members of the Bel-Larks were not aware of this release until many years later and thought that maybe the Ransom family sold the masters to Vinny Catalano.  When recently contacted, Catalano stated that he didn’t know David Ransom and that someone, who he can’t remember, gave the masters to him (he registered them under his own music publishing company “Coney Island Music”).  He further stated that he met Jocko in a supermarket and paid him two hundred dollars to lend his name to the Hammer album release.

Record Scan 2

Label scan courtesy of Bobby Diskin

Exactly who gave the masters to Vinny Catalano is an enduring mystery.  If it wasn’t through the Ransom family, possibly it was Mike Riposo, the producer of the Bel-Larks’ second recording session, who got the masters to Vinny Catalano after David Ransom’s tragic death.

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Circa 1999 (L to R: Eric Simmons, Robert Baggett, Robert Reese, Fred Simmons)

Where They Are Today:

Roselind Allen Height is retired, following a successful career with a major energy corporation and resides near Dallas, Texas.

Eric Simmons resides in Liverpool, New York and is employed in the trucking industry.

Freddie Simmons lives in Vestal, New York and is the owner and distributor of a printing and promotional products company.

Robert Baggett passed away in October of 2001.

Robert Reese is retired and still lives in Syracuse where he is the head deacon at his church.

The members of the Bel-Larks continue to be active in church-related activities, a habit they are happy to acknowledge.  They thank God and take great pride in being a part of the rhythm and blues vocal group harmony scene in Syracuse, New York from 1958 through 1963. 

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Left to Right: Fred Simmons, Roselind Allen, Eric Simmons

The author extends his sincere thanks to the members of the Bel-Larks as well as Bobby Diskin for their help with this article.

Additional Information

Prior to the being the lead guitarist in the Hi-Fi’s, Bobby Green sang in the Five Points, Four and a Half Notes, Harmonettes (all unreleased) and the Eldaros (Vesta Records).  In 1959, at a studio in Rome, New York, the Hi-Fi’s were the backing band to Jimmy Singleton and the Royal Satins on “Each Passing Day” and “Sally,” which were released on both Devere Records and Mark Records.  Jimmy Singleton was previously in the Five Points and Eldaros as well as being the brother of George ‘Bebo’ Singleton of the Rhythm Cadets.  The Royal Satins were a vocal group from the 15th Ward neighborhood in Syracuse (thanks to Bobby Green for this information).

The Bel-Larks’ manager David Ransom also managed the Del Supremes and the Delvons, who were both without 45 releases (thanks to Jan Reichard, Chuck Roberts and David Martin for this information).  

To read more about the vocal group harmony scene in Syracuse, New York, see Echoes of the Past  issue #75 “Syracuse, NY: The Old School” by Alan Seifer.  Also noteworthy are the “History Of Syracuse Music” series of LP’s and CD’s.

Discography

Bel-Larks

A Million And One Dreams / Satisfied – Ransom 5001                                     1962

A Million And One Dreams / Get Married In June – Hammer 6313               1963

A Million And One Dreams & Get Married In June – Hammer LP 5007       1964

Bel-Larks – Unreleased

You’re Mine                                                                                                               1962

I Believe                                                                                                                     1962

It Hurts To Be In Love                                                                                             1962

Roselind Allen and Gary Kemp – Unreleased

Unchain My Heart                                                                                                    1962

Steven Kahn, October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

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