The story of Don & Juan is an interesting tale. Before being a Top Ten R & B singing duo, “Juan” (Claude Johnson) was originally in a group called The Genies with a #71 minor hit, “Who’s That Knockin’” on Shad Records in the fall of 1958.
The original Genies included Claude Johnson, Fred Jones, Alexander Faison, Bill Gains, and Roy Hammond. Johnson and Jones were the writers in the group. Shortly after the release of “Who’s That Knockin’,” Bill Gains left the group for Canada, and the group carried on as a quartet for their follow-up single “No More Knockin’” on Hollywood Records in 1959, a label that included the Eternals.
After a failed sophomore single, the group luckily struck a deal with Morty Craft at Warwick Records where they waxed three singles between ’60 and ’61. While a good effort, no hits came about, and Fred Jones decided to leave the group and move back to Brooklyn to find steady work.
With the group on the verge of breaking up, Claude Johnson ran into a man named Roland Trone early one morning at a coffee shop in Long Beach. They became fast friends and started painting apartment buildings together to make ends meet. As the legend goes, a tenant heard the two singing one day while painting an apartment, and put them in touch with Peter Paul who had a music management company in the area. Johnson left the Genies, leaving the group to Roy Hammond who recorded a single on Forum in ’61 and then became Roy C and enjoyed a career in his own respect.
Peter Paul brought Johnson and Trone to the Brill Building to shop them to the various labels that worked out of the building. Starting with the penthouse on the top floor, Peter Paul walked into Hill & Range Publishing, ran by brothers Jean and Julian Aberbach, and whose nephew, Johnny Bienstock, headed their Bigtop Records label. Paul and the Aberbachs inked a deal, signing Johnson and Trone to their publishing arm, with Paul and Johnson getting a 50% cut under Nancoz Music. In the hallway, they came across Doc Pomus and Harry Balk having a conversation over a couple of cigars. Balk recognized Claude Johnson from a run-in at Warwick. Balk and Paul retreated to a room in the Bigtop offices where they agreed upon a producing contract and scribbled their John Hancocks.
Balk asked what they had as far as original material. Trone was a great pianist, but wasn’t really a songwriter. Johnson however had several songs in the hat, one of which was “Chicken Necks,” a song that Balk was really struck by. “I really, really liked ‘Chicken Necks’,” Balk recalled in a 2008 interview, “Claude played a Genies demo of that song that they had already recorded, and I loved it! But I didn’t own the master. So we recorded it and I seem to remember I built it in somewhere at the end of a Johnny & The Hurricanes session. But we still needed a B-side. Well, Claude went to work and wrote the B-side, ‘What’s Your Name’.”
In June of ’61, producer Harry Balk booked a split session at Bell Sound studios in New York. Johnson and Trone came in as the newly christened “Don & Juan,” and recorded two sides, “What’s Your Name” and “What Would You Do,” the latter was never released. The session also included organist Johnny Gibson, who recorded his first single “Midnight” and “Love Lace”, the latter a song that would later be re-titled as “Chuck-A-Luck” and appear as the bottom side. “Chicken Necks” b/w “What’s Your Name” was released in early ’62.
“Here’s where it got crazy,” explained Balk, “I was raving about this great novelty record we had in ‘Chicken Necks,’ and I spent money advertising ‘Chicken Necks’ in all the music magazines as the plug side. Well wouldn’t you know it, a deejay in Philadelphia flips the disk over, and spins ‘What’s Your Name.’ Well, I didn’t know this yet, but soon our distributors were calling in from Pittsburgh and Philly, and they’re reordering thousands more of this single. So I said, ‘What’s going on in P-A?’ and I called the distributors and radio stations out there to see what in fact was going on. They were playing the B-side and it was really taking off. So I told Johnny Bienstock at Bigtop, and we changed our advertising strategy in Billboard and Cashbox, and pushed ‘What’s Your Name’ instead. Boom! It was a smash! Top Ten record across the nation.”
“What’s Your Name” peaked at #7 on the national charts, and Balk asked his good friend Doc Pomus to help out in penning the follow-up. Pomus and Johnson wrote “Two Fools Are We” and the dynamic team of Pomus and Shuman wrote the flipside “Pot Luck.” Although “Two Fools Are We” missed the charts, it definitely had the Don & Juan signature sound they were looking to cultivate, and Johnson wrote “Magic Wand” as the third single on Bigtop, which barely scraped into the Top 100. The B-side “What I Really Meant To Say” was co-written by their arranger, Bill Ramal, and Wilbur “Sol” Meshel.
Harry Balk smelled another hit in Don & Juan’s signature sound, so he called upon Hal David and Burt Bacharach, who donated “True Love Never Runs Smooth” in early ’63. This was a mighty ballad that should have been a smash, but the cards weren’t in their favor, and Gene Pitney would go on to have the big hit with this same composition that summer. The flipside was “Is It Alright If I Love You,” written by Johnson and originally copyrighted under the title “Some Day, Some Way.” Balk explained, “In those days, white acts would cover the black R & B stuff, and it was like a pre-cursor to the British Invasion, where the Brits covered all the American hits.”
Conflicts between Balk and his partner Irving Micahnik, surrounding unpaid session bills to studios, amongst other things, caused friction at Bigtop, and Bienstock cut them loose. Balk and Micahnik struck a deal with Larry Uttal at Bell Records, who also owned subsidiaries Mala and Amy Records. Uttal had just achieved a Top Ten hit with Joey Powers “Midnight Mary,” and handshakes were exchanged due mostly in part to Balk and Micahnik having a rich stable of artists to include chart-toppers Del Shannon and Johnny & the Hurricanes, among others.
Don & Juan were licensed out to Mala Records where they would go on to record five more singles, none of which would make the charts unfortunately but nevertheless the vocal duo continued to slick some great sides while staying true to their classy sound. Besides original Claude Johnson compositions, a few re-workings were added, including Don Robey and Fats Washington’s “Pledging My Love” and Harvey Fuqua’s “Sincerely,” previously recorded by Harvey Fuqua & The Moonglows, and a hit by The McGuire Sisters. The flipside, “Mary Ann Cherie” was a fun up-tempo tune by Johnson with all of the old catchy hooks and arrangements found in their earlier works. The fourth Mala single had some promise, with the Maron McKenzie / Duke Browner co-write “All That’s Missing Is You.” Although a bottom side, this later became a cult favorite with soul collectors, partly because of the Duke Browner connection, but also due to the Detroit-like soulful sound, even though Don & Juan hailed from New York.
“The Heartbreaking Truth” b/w “Thank Goodness” became the fifth Mala release by Don & Juan. Neither were Johnson compositions and the single lacked the spirit that Don & Juan were known for. This single, however, remains one of the toughest to find in the Don & Juan catalog.
As 1965 drew to a close, business partners Micahnik and Balk split company, Balk forming a new label Impact, and selling his share of Twirl Records and Vicki Music (their publishing arm) to Micahnik. Irving relocated from Detroit to New York City, and released one last single with Don & Juan, this time under the Twirl banner, with production by African-American trumpet player, Mel Lastie, instead of Harry Balk. The single was good: “Because I Love You” b/w “Are You Putting Me On the Shelf” was issued in early ’66 and proved better than their final Mala sides, but again nothing came about, and by 1967 Don & Juan threw in the towel and called it quits.
In the 70’s and early 80’s, Trone and Johnson sporadically toured as Don & Juan along the east coast for oldies shows and reunion concerts. In 1983, Trone died, and Johnson then teamed up with Alexander Faison (from the Genies), who became the new “Don.” They played oldies shows into the late 80’s and 90’s, including some PBS Doo-Wop specials, until Johnson finally passed away in 2004.
-Author: Brian C. Young for Twirl Records, April 2009
Bigtop #3106 – Two Fools Are We / Pot Luck – 1962
Bigtop #3121 – Magic Wand / What I Really Meant To Say – 1962
Bigtop #3145 – True Love Never Runs Smooth / Is It All Right If I Love You – 1963
Mala #469 – Lonely Man / Could This Be Love – 1963
Mala #479 – Pledging My Love / Molinda – 1964
Mala #484 – Sincerely / Mary Ann Cherie – 1964
Mala #494 –All That’s Missing Is You / I Can’t Help Myself – 1964
Mala #509 – The Heartbreaking Truth / Thank Goodness – 1965
Twirl #2021 – Because I Love You / Are You Putting Me On The Shelf – 1966
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