Lee Andrews, the father of The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and the lead singer of the 1950s doo-wop group Lee Andrews & the Hearts, died Wednesday, March 16, 2016. He was 79.
The Philadelphia-based group specialized in smooth ballads and were influenced by similar vocal acts like The Moonglows, The Orioles, The Drifters, The 5 Royales, The Five Keys, The Midnighters, and The Ravens, while lead vocalist Lee Andrews’ influences were mostly solo artists like Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra, and especially Nat King Cole. These two key influences produced a harmonizing four-part vocal base with a strong — but tender — tenor voice. Leading the way was the foundation of the Hearts’ hard-to-beat sound.
“He certainly was the first superstar, in my opinion, of street corner harmony in Philadelphia, before anybody else,” said legendary radio personality Jerry Blavat. “Before The Intruders, before The Stylistics, before any of them it was Lee Andrews & the Hearts.”
By the time he was a student at John Bartram High School in 1952, Thompson had begun singing with four friends from the neighborhood of 49th Street and Woodland Avenue: Royalston “Roy” Calhoun (first tenor), Thomas “Butch” Curry (second tenor), James “Jimmy” McCalister (baritone), and John Young (bass). The quintet featured Thompson as the group’s leader, so he began shuffling his names around to come up with something he felt would sound better and read better on the labels than Arthur Thompson and the Hearts. He finally settled on calling himself by his two middle names and thus the name Lee Andrews & the Hearts was finally born.
The group scored three charting hits in the span of a single year (1957-1958). Their “Long Lonely Nights” (recorded for the tiny Mainline label) managed to barely beat the former Drifter Clyde McPhatter’s version by a few chart points (number 45 to Clyde’s number 49). It scored even higher on the R&B charts (number 11). At its peak, the group’s next single for Mainline, “Teardrops,” was picked up for wider distribution by Chess. It was their biggest hit, making it to number 20 on the pop charts (on Nov. 25, 1957), and by January 1958, it had jumped over to the R&B charts, where it ended up listing at number four. A third hit, “Try the Impossible” for the United Artists label, charted at number 33 on the pop charts (June 22, 1958). The group continued to tour into the 1960s.
“He was a great inspiration as a group coming up,” said pop and R&B songwriter and record producer Bunny Sigler, 74. “I had a singing group at the time, and he was in one of the classiest groups … I called it ‘Uptown Saturday Night’ singing. Lee was in a class of his own — he was classier than The Platters. He was on a Johnny Mathis-type of tone with the way he sang.” Siglar paused, as though he were hearing Andrews again, before softly saying, “It’s beautiful.”
According to All Music Guide, Arthur Lee Andrew Thompson was born in Goldsboro, NC. Andrews hails from — and contributed to — a storied musical lineage. His father, Beachy Thompson, sang with the pioneering Gospel group, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and moved to Philadelphia when he was two-years-old. In addition to their Grammy-winning son, Thompson and his wife, Jacqui, parented a daughter, the enigmatic vocalist Donn Thompson — known by audiences as Donn T. The oldies circuit revival of the ‘70s provided momentum for Lee to form one more edition of Hearts, only this one a family affair with Lee, his wife and children.
“Music just is for our family, I think,” said Donn Thompson. “People ask sometimes, ‘When was it that I knew I would be in music?’ I didn’t ever not know. It was something that was always there. And, it wasn’t pressure from my parents or grandparents; I never felt like I had to do this because it was a requirement — my home was always very musical and very diverse in that way. My parents were big record collectors with stacks for days. We had everybody on the shelves from Roberta Flack, to Nina Simone, to Phoebe Snow, to Rosemary Clooney; big band stuff, jazz, and Miles Davis and classical because my mom was a classically trained ballet dancer for most of her life.”
When The Roots were inducted into the Philadelphia Music Alliance’s Walk of Fame in October last year, Questlove and Andrews (inducted in 1992) became the first father-and-son duo to be included on the Walk. In an emotional Instagram post, Questlove wrote an appreciation of his father:
“For every backstage experience. For every drum lesson. For giving me your tireless work ethic. For our father & son record binging expeditions. For our arguments over the summer I discovered #ItTakesANationOfMillions. For the look on your face when I told you ‘imma give this rap thing a try’ (I waited til our 2nd album to have this convo btw) For the look on your face 5 years later when I told you ‘you don’t have to work no more.’ For the look on your face when a year later I was like ‘Seriously dad, you don’t have to work anymore!’”
Eventually, Andrews went into semi-retirement and opened a successful dress shop.
“I always remember Lee Andrews as a star,” Blavat added. “Here is another interesting thing about Lee Andrews: he never left Philadelphia. He never left his roots. Other performers moved on to New York City or some other place. He never left Philadelphia. Philadelphia was his town. Listen, when you talk about what I do in the same breath as you say Lee Andrews — Lee Andrews and Jerry Blavat are connected by the spiritual side of music. One day, I’ll be where he is, and I can envision him up there saying, ‘I feel comfortable now, singing again.’”
A memorial to the legendary Lee Andrews will take place on Saturday, April 2, 2016 at Noon at The Clef Club, 738 S Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19146. For more information, call (215) 893-9912.
== Portions of this story originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune ==