How to explain why hearing that Lee Andrews had passed away gave me such a rush of sadness, why I was so moved by his son Questlove’s tribute to him? To most people, I suspect, reading Questlove’s online post was the first time they’d heard the name Lee Andrews, and they might well have wondered what #leeandrewsandthehearts referred to. But I’ve been immersed in the world of doo wop for a long time, and recently on a more intense level, so to me, knowing Lee Andrews was gone was yet another reminder that there is a generation of singers that is vanishing, and with them, all the links to a nearly forgotten street in the city of popular music of the 20th century. Most of those singers weren’t stars; there are only a handful in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But they were in the air. They were the air. Their songs were a wellspring of emotion, and in their quiet way they made history. Vocal harmony in the 1950’s changed the world in ways small and grand, and anyone who relegates that sound to mere nostalgia, to malt shop memories, is a fool. The Moonglows, The Heartbeats, The Flamingos, Little Anthony and The Imperials, Dion and The Belmonts, The 5 Royales, The Harptones, Lee Andrews and The Hearts and countless others were the sound of a young America, its sentimentality, its impetuousness, its belief in the possibility of love, its magnification of every heartbreak. Lee Andrews and The Hearts from Philadelphia sang “Long Lonely Nights,” a song that needs to be heard on a transistor radio at 2 am, a song that can wreck you. It’s not that the singer misses his girlfriend, he’s haunted by her, and the void she’s left behind is limitless.
As I go along my lonely way I visualize your face
When I pass through my doorway
What’s left for me to face?
“What’s left for me to face?” A lot of people don’t realize how filled with existential dread so much doo wop is, how the loss of love becomes the loss of self, how deep singers like Lee Andrews had to dig to transcend the elementary poetry, simple enough for any fourteen-year-old listening to Alan Freed on WINS to grasp and take to heart. Think of “Tear Drops” from 1957, the biggest national hit Lee Andrews and The Hearts ever had. One note is plunked on the piano, like: “now,” and the vocal begins, “I sit in my room looking out at the rain/My tears are like crystals, they cover my windowpane.” Then the rest of the group comes in, and the mea culpa continues: “I know you’ll never forgive me dear for running out on you/I was wrong to take a chance on somebody new.” By the time the song hits the 1:30 mark, you’re thinking, 1) how did he screw this relationship up so terribly?, and 2) why is this song called “Tear Drops”? In that second line, he mentions those windowpane-covering tears (how does that work, exactly?), and if the song has a chorus (it doesn’t, really), it feels as though it should be “oh, if we only could start over again.” But then The Hearts chant “Tear Drops” a few times, almost as taunting counterpoint, or a bridge, and although the song is about asking forgiveness, and hoping for another chance, it seems futile. What the song is really about is despair.
Lee Andrews and The Hearts had only one more Billboard chart single, 1958’s “Try The Impossible,” but that wasn’t the end of his story. He jumped around from label to label for quite a while, doing time at two of the most significant pop labels in Philadelphia, Swan (a nice version of the standard “P.S. I Love You” is in that catalog, and “I Miss You So”) and Parkway (highlights: “I’m Sorry Pillow” and “Gee, But I’m Lonesome”) and briefly on UA and RCA (“Quiet As It’s Kept,” a Northern Soul thing), and there are some fine later records on Crimson (the Motownish “Never The Less”). You have to assemble all this on your own since, sadly, there is no one source that gathers together all of Lee Andrews’s discography and puts it in perspective, the early work with The Hearts, the later solo singles. He was one of those singers who snuck away, name-checked by any doo wop aficionado who knows anything, but whose importance can’t be measured by chart singles or industry awards. In mourning Lee Andrews, we mourn so many of his fellow singers, voices that stopped us in our tracks when we heard the original records on Gus Gossert’s radio show and made us hunt everything down. They made records that were heart-wrenching but also hopeful. “Try The Impossible” goes, “Tell me you want me, and our love will conquer all,” and that was the flip side of doo wop, the belief that, in love, you have to take a leap of faith:
“Make the impossible, the incredible
And all of my dreams come true”