1960s Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer Len Barry Dies at 78

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Len Barry. Photo of Len Barry taken in 1990 by Alan White is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Singer Len Barry, the voice behind The Dovells’ hits “You Can’t Sit Down” and “The Bristol Stomp” and solo hits such as “1-2-3,” died Nov. 5 from bone marrow cancer. He was 78.

“He was just an American original,” son Spencer Borisoff said. “He was a pioneer. He was thinking a generation ahead of everyone.”

Born Leonard Borisoff, Barry grew up in West Philadelphia and attended Overbook High School, where he became a part of a doo-wop group called The Brooktones in 1957.
By 1960, the band changed its name to The Dovells and was signed by Parkway Records.
A year later, The Dovells reached the #2 position on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart with “Bristol Stomp,” selling more than a million copies. The tune received a Recording Industry Association of America gold disc.


In 1962, The Dovells placed three more songs in the top 40 and had their second-biggest hit a year later with the South Street-referencing “You Can’t Sit Down,” which reached #3. Several artists have subsequently covered the song, include Bruce Springsteen, who has used it in his encores.

During this time period, The Dovells toured with James Brown and appeared in films including “Don’t Knock the Twist.”

Barry then left The Dovells for a solo career, his biggest success coming in 1965 with the #2 hit “1-2-3” — denied the top spot by The Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” — which was awarded a gold disc. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Contemporary Rock & Roll Male Vocal Performance for the song, which he co-wrote, and made appearances on “Bandstand,” “Shindig” and “Hullabaloo.”

Two more top 40 hits followed in 1966, but his chart success waned after that. Still, he performed regularly, including at prestigious venues like the Apollo Theatre in New York, the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., and The Fox Theatre in Detroit. He toured the United Kingdom as well.

Later, he wrote and produced the 1969 instrumental #16 hit “Keem-O-Sabe” by Electric Indian, which featured a young Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates fame) on keyboards, and co-wrote “Zoom,” the 1982 UK #2 hit for Fat Larry’s Band, and “Love Town,” a #6 hit in the UK in 1983 for Booker Newberry III.

When Hall & Oates was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, Hall gave a shout-out to Barry in his induction speech.

Even after the hits faded, Barry continued to record and produce music, Spencer Borisoff said, including some music still to be released. Even as music styles changed, Barry remained a fan of all kinds of modern music.

Borisoff noted that his father wasn’t one to reminisce and didn’t like working the oldies circuit.

“He didn’t want to rest on past accomplishments,” Borisoff said. “He really considered himself a record maker more than an entertainer.”

Borisoff did recall a few anecdotes.

At the height of his father’s career, during a tour of the UK, Barry did a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II.

“She literally was the only one in the theater,” he said.

And Barry used to fondly recall a 1960s bus tour with James Brown and other Black acts where they’d play a card game called tonk for hours.

Original band member Jerry Gross, who still performs with The Dovells, paid tribute to Barry on the group’s Facebook page.

“We lost one of our original members of the group The DOVELLS. Our lead singer from 1960 thru 1963— Len Barry — has gone on to Rock ‘n’ Roll heaven,” he wrote. “In these trying times that we’re living in, with the politics and the virus, and now one more sad moment.”

In his Facebook post, Gross noted that Barry reunited with the group twice in 1994.
In 2008, Barry published the novel “Black-Like-Me,” which told the tale of white siblings growing up in a mostly Black neighborhood.

Barry is survived by his son, Spencer (Helicia), and daughter Bia (Bob); and two grandchildren.

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