Larry Darnell was born Leo Edward Donald in Columbus, OH, on December 21, 1928, and achieved local fame as a gospel singer at the tender age of 11. When he was 15 he left home to tour as a dancer with a burlesque road show, Irwin C. Miller's Brownskin Models. Underpaid and even underfed when company funds were low, Donald did not hesitate when offered a steady gig in New Orleans as a singer at the famous Dew Drop Inn, a feature spot for Afro-American entertainment. He stayed on for several years, changing his name to Larry Darnell and gradually developing a persona that began to attract quite a following.
The handsome young vocalist was most often accompanied by the Dew Drop's house band, Edgar Blanchard's Gondoliers. One night in 1949 Darnell's act was caught by Fred Mendelsohn, co-founder and A&R director for the Regal record label, an enterprise based in New Jersey. Mendelsohn, who was in town scouting for new talent, later recalled: "Darnell was doing a song called 'I'll Get Along Somehow' originally popularized by Andy Kirk. He added a recitation that sent the dames screaming and hollering." Darnell was hired on the spot and whisked up to Newark where three titles were cut in early September 1949 and issued on 78-rpm records bearing the Regal label. Presented in two parts, "I'll Get Along Somehow" made it to number two on the Billboard R&B chart not long after "For You My Love" hit number one, staying up there for eight weeks. Other hit titles were "I Love My Baby," "Lost My Baby," and even a rendition of Louis Prima's "Oh Babe!" Backed by excellent musicians, some of them quite famous in the world of jazz, Darnell's powerful and passionate voice caused a sensation and contributed to the development of a trend in popular music soon marketed nationwide as rock & roll.
When Regal bellied up in 1951, Darnell crossed over to OKeh and made more records backed by the Howard Biggs and Leroy Kirkland bands. Now popularly known as "Mr. Heart & Soul," he appeared in the 1955 motion picture Harlem Rock & Roll Revue and spent the rest of the decade label-hopping from Savoy in 1955 to Deluxe in 1957 to Warwick in 1959 and Argo in 1960. Legend has it he made a small number of recordings -- apparently now lost -- for Motown while living in Detroit during the early '60s. In 1968 Darnell performed at a benefit for ailing vocalist Roy Hamilton and in 1969 made what is believed to have been his final recording, for the Instant label in New Orleans.
Receding from professional activity, he continued to sing in church and at charitable events. In April 1979 he was en route to sing at a funeral in Akron, OH, when he was mugged by a gang of thugs and beaten within an inch of his life. After coming out of a five-day coma he was informed that while performing emergency surgery the doctors had uncovered unmistakable evidence of lung cancer. Although one lung was removed in 1980, he managed to fulfill a request while dining at a nightclub in 1981 and sang for the public one last time. When he passed away at his mother's home in Columbus on July 3, 1984, Larry Darnell was only 54 years old. ~ arwulf arwulf