Bobby Mitchell

Rack 'Em BackImperial X5236
Try Rock 'N' RollImperial X5378
I Try So HardImperial X5392
I've Got My Fingers CrossedImperial X5412
I'm Gonna Be A Wheel SomedayImperial X5475
Well I Done Got Over ItSho-Biz 1005
Send Me Your PictureRon 337
Mama Don't AllowRon 342
My Southern BelleImperial 5882
Walking In CirclesRip 576

Bobby Mitchell photo 1

Bobby Mitchell & The Toppers



Bobby Mitchell playlist





Contributors: Dave Stephens … with assistance from Cal Taylor

“Bobby Mitchell, who’s he?” I hear you say. Well, for Elvis Presley there were loads of Sonny Burgesses, and in New Orleans, for Fats Domino there were folk like Bobby Mitchell, artists who never seemed to get the breaks in spite of the quality of their records.

He was born on 16th August 1935 in the Algiers section of New Orleans. As the second oldest in a family of seventeen, young Bobby was expected to do his share of support. When he was ten years old he got a job after school, delivering for a liquor store. And, in his own words as they appeared in the first edition of Wavelength, New Orleans’ first music magazine, in November 1980 (which featured a photo of Bobby on its cover):

“I used to sing around the liquor store and a lot of people give me nickels and dimes. Well, a lot of people said ‘Bobby, you great, why don’t you try and do something?’”

He got more into music at Landry High School where he took it on as a subject after injuring himself playing football, his first choice. Membership of the school choir gravitated to the formation of a vocal group which, in time, picked up the name of the Toppers with Bobby on lead. The other members were Lloyd Bellaire, Frank Bocage, Willie Bridges and Joseph Butler plus Gabriel Fleming on piano (and occasional trumpet). The latter role, that of having one member play an instrument, more typically a guitar, for accompaniment was an oft-used feature in vocal groups at the time. For a spell between 1952 and 1955, another attendee at Landry High School, Clarence Henry, who was proficient on both trombone and piano, also joined the group.

The school history teacher got the boys an introduction to Dave Bartholomew who, in addition to being a band leader plus producer, arranger and co-composer with Fats Domino, was A&R Man for Lew Chudd’s Imperial Records. They passed the audition with demos cut at Cosimo Matassa’s famous Rampart St. studio, but Chudd was more keen on Bobby as vocalist than the group. Bobby stood his ground insisting it was all or no one and won his case. He would have had backing from Bartholomew who saw a gap in the market in New Orleans for black vocal groups just at a time when white audiences were becoming aware of their existence – The Dominoes with Clyde McPhatter on lead had crossed into the national pop chart in the previous year with Sixty Minute Man.

Record #1, I’m Crying / Rack ’Em Back, followed in early ’53. The usual crew were in support including Alvin Tyler and Lee Allen on saxes plus Earl Palmer on drums but they were supplemented by Gabriel Fleming on piano and Clarence Henry on trombone. The track pairing followed the time-honoured tradition of a slowie coupled with a jumper (or vice versa) which you could have guessed from the titles. The A-side written by group member Lloyd Bellaire was, of course, the slow, doleful one with Bobby doing the emoting complemented by Lee Allen’s crying tenor and the oohs and ahs from the boys over a two-chord backing which didn’t quite topple over into a doo wop progression.

I’m Crying was to be the forerunner of a host of similar agonised ballads, the best of which, for me, was Send Me Your Picture, a track that was cut during Bobby’s brief stay at Ron Records in 1961. Even more than its predecessor, this one had soul ballad writ large right through it, with Bobby repeating phrases but still just about keeping control and the backing sparser and only marginally less evocative of the Crescent City than the Imperial records.

Back to that first single though. Rack ’Em Back was apparently something the group had worked up during their seven miles plus walk and ferry ride to the studio each day for practice. According to them, the title was merely an expression for having fun along the lines of “let the bon temps rouler”. The decision to give the whole thing a rhumba rhythm, à la certain tracks from Fats and several from Professor Longhair, conjured up a vision of the boys dancing their way along those streets and raised the whole thing from something that could have been just another 12 bar throwaway to something a bit magical.

Bobby stayed with Imperial, on and off as I’ve indicated, ’til 1963 but the Toppers didn’t last the course. Depending on who or what you read, they either got drafted or fed up with that long walk circa 1954/55. Truth be told though, the Toppers’ contribution on several of their singles tended towards the minimal unlike most other vocal groups of the period.

Try Rock And Roll, the first solo offering from Bobby released in February 1956, was an attempt to cash in on what Dave Bartholomew perceived as the latest musical craze. And it kind of worked. It got Bobby his only chart placement, number 17 in the R&B Chart, but disappointingly it didn’t cross over to the pop world. Perhaps even more disappointing, for us anyway, it didn’t see release over here. None of Bobby’s singles were released here. That has to be put down to an oversight by London Records. In their defence though, I should state that they only started operating as importer of US records from independent American labels to the UK in 1954 and it would have taken years to achieve a real understanding of the US indie market and to then start separating the wheat from the chaff (and they didn’t have an unlimited budget of course).

The record. Okay, it wasn’t a masterpiece but you could probably slot it alongside a minor Berry (though “a minor Berry” is still praise from me). Gabriel Fleming’s piano – he’d stayed with Bobby – and the New Orleans chugging beat gave it plenty of differentiation from most of the records out there. And you know what? Dave Bartholomew probably got it right. Records like Danny And The Juniors’ Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay were a couple of years down the line and most of those records on this theme were distinctly inferior to the Mitchell platter (just like this one):

Yes, rock and roll has got a beat
Clap your hands and stomp your feet
Oh gee, what a thrill
Know you can’t stand still

Try Rock And Roll gave Bobby his only glimpse of fame and, yes, he did get on TV and go on tours with the big names. But it was fleeting and only on one more occasion did he threaten to break through again. The record was I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday and the year was 1957. The song came from the pen of amateur Cajun songwriter Roy Hayes and had a kind of folkie singalong quality to it:

The single was different enough to get noticed locally but it didn’t get further in spite of an appearance on American Bandstand. Dave, however, was sufficiently encouraged to have another go at the number but this time with his main man Fats Domino up front. This was what emerged from a ’59 session and this one did make the R&B Chart. And, much as I’d like to say that the Domino version was inferior, it wasn’t. Bobby may have got closer to the meaning of Roy Hayes’ words but Domino had the bounce.

And the rest? Let’s take the rockers first and they were in the minority. Well I Done Got Over It from that short period (1960/61) when Bobby took a break from Imperial, was cut for the Sho-Biz label, a small indie which was registered in Atlanta but focussed on New Orleans. It was run by a guy called Jim Stewart who was not the Jim Stewart who co-founded Satellite/Stax. The song, however, was the same one which had been written and recorded by Guitar Slim in one of his rare excursions away from the extremities of agony for which he was known. The Mitchell version removed the bubbliness from the horns which had provided the icing to Slim’s otherwise rather gloomy tale but replaced that by a solid dance-floor approach, which wasn’t a million miles from the sort of thing that would start appearing from Stax. Add in a semi-a cappella intro from Bobby that captured the attention and you had quite a record and one that sounded two or three years ahead of its time. According to contributor Laviolet on 45cat, the track was produced by one Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John, but I haven’t seen that confirmed elsewhere.

My other up-tempo selection from Bobby has a source that dates back even earlier than the last. According to SecondHandSongs the song Mama Don’t Allow was first cut by Cow Cow Davenport in 1929 as a piano solo only but titled Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Here and Tampa Red came up with a vocal version that same year. However, further research, mainly from Cal, told us that the song’s roots went back even further – see footnotes.

Regardless of the song’s roots, other versions of it often with word changes, continued to appear. One of the closest, date-wise to Bobby’s cut was probably the one from Frankie Lymon minus Teenagers in 1958. Considering that date, it won’t come as any surprise that the opening line on the Lymon record was “Mama don’t allow no rock and rolling here”. It won’t come as a surprise either that the Bobby Mitchell production took that line and expanded on it:

Mama don’t allow no shucking and jiving in here
Mama don’t allow no slipping and sliding in here
I don’t care what Mama say
I’m gonna chicken and bop all night and day
Mama don’t allow no rocking and rolling in here

(And if “chicken and bop” doesn’t mean anything to you, I’d recommend a visit to the Topper for another fine New Orleans artist, Lloyd Price. And also, SecondHandSongs didn’t include Bobby’s Mama Don’t Allow in its list so they’re a little way from perfection on this song.)

Bobby’s record was funkier too, courtesy of an arrangement from Mac Rebennack (credited on the disc so there’s no doubt) and production from Mac plus Jim Stewart. Listen out for the brass on the break.

Straightforward slow blues was a relative rarity in the Bobby Mitchell oeuvre but I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed, an A-side in ’56 was one such, even if it was of the more melodic variety. It was written by Dave Bartholomew and it had that lilt that you sometimes found in Domino tracks, often just before the turnaround:

I said that Bobby+blues was a rarity; that didn’t mean that there was one only. Back in ’54, in the “And The Toppers” days, there was another, and it too was on an A-side. Couple the title, The Wedding Bells Are Ringing, with the information that it’s a blues, and it’s a pretty safe bet that she’s marrying another man so our Bobby is far from cheerful; he’s telling his story to Lee Allen’s lugubrious sax with little more than Gabe Fleming’s sympathetic piano in the background. It’s fully self-written too, suggesting that this is the Bobby Mitchell view of the blues rather than the Dave Bartholomew one.

On to ballads which I feel were Bobby’s strongest suit. Baby’s Gone, which saw release back in ’54, could be described as a blues ballad or a ballad with a beat; on release it got a great reaction in the New Orleans area but did zilch outside. The later I Try So Hard, (follow-up to Try Rock And Roll but there’s no relation between the tracks), was a ballad with such a strong beat that it could equally well be viewed as a slow rocker. It suited Bobby’s strengths; you could feel the gospel oozing out in the stop time bars. I’ve selected a clip which also contains the B-side of the original platter, a jumper entitled Goin’ Round In Circles which Bobby tried hard to sell by the interjection of squeals possibly after prodding by producer Dave (who was also writer of both sides). The track is saved from ignominy by a hard driving break from the ubiquitous Lee Allen.

In total contrast to both sides of that last single were several of the tracks from Bobby (still with Dave) after the return from that brief sojourn with Sho-Biz and Ron. Best of these (for me) was My Southern Belle in 1962, which was written and of course produced by Dave but was totally lacking the forceful approach taken on the last pair of sides discussed. Was he (Dave) attempting to write in the style of Bobby Charles one wonders. The latter had provided several songs for Fats on records that Dave produced; a good example is It Keeps Rainin’ from May 1961, a similar timeframe. My Southern Belle might not have had quite the subtlety of the rhythm pattern used on that record but otherwise there were similarities:

Lew Chudd sold Imperial to Liberty in 1963 and a number of artists were released including Bobby; Fats had already jumped ship and gone to ABC-Paramount earlier that same year. Bobby would record one more single only and it was released on Rip Records which was founded by a man called Rip Roberts (who was operating as Bobby’s manager) and only lasted from ’62 to ’64. The disc coupled Walking In Circles with You Got The Nerve. Both numbers were written (and the session arranged and produced) by Eddie Bo, who was Bobby’s cousin and also grew up in Algiers. The A-side is a splendid soul ballad on which Bobby adopts a softer tone than on most of his Imperial records but breaks out testifying round about the 1:20 mark. Eddie’s in there too on slow boogie piano – this was still New Orleans remember – and there are backing vocals from some ladies who called themselves the “Southern Belles” which I thought was a neat touch (with that last piece of information courtesy of Cal via his copy of “Blues Records 1943-70” by Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven).

The record closes with Bobby and the Southern Belles chanting “Walk on” and disappearing into the sunset which is a fitting metaphor for the end of Bobby’s recording career. In the early sixties – this account has it as 1962 – Bobby suffered a heart attack which inevitably caused him to cut back on live appearances. However, judging by the fact that he’d continued at school while making his early Imperial records, he was always conscious of the need for a back-up career. He states in that Wavelength interview that he initially wanted to be a radio engineer and studied at Tulane University but then decided to switch to medicine.

“Right now I’m at the L.S.U. Medical School. I’m over there as a medical researcher. I’m in charge of the first and second year pathology students. This year we’ve got about 260 students.”

He continued to have health issues but didn’t totally give up on music, appearing whenever possible at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and, in later years, as a DJ on community radio station WWOZ. According to the Wavelength interview, he would have been delighted to have been invited to record again and quite why one of the Rounders or Alligators didn’t bash his front door down and give him that invitation, I just don’t know. New Orleans artists like Irma Thomas and Johnny Adams had rewarding second careers on such labels.

Bobby died on 17th March 1989. He was 53. While there was a degree of sound-alikeness about much of his music in relation to other New Orleans artists, which was caused in the main by working with Dave Bartholomew, his voice was distinctive in its own right and usually cut through on such records. In my opinion, that voice and the way he used it made him more suited than most of his New Orleans peers to the forms of music we labelled as soul which emerged from places like Memphis, Detroit and others in the early/mid sixties. Unfortunately, the timing was off due to his health problems and forced semi-retirement hitting at just the wrong time, so we’ll never know what might have been. None of which detracts from a fairly small but very well-formed legacy which we can enjoy.



1. My thanks to Cal Taylor for his assistance in the production of this essay. The copies of Wavelength (about which I had no prior information) are his. The second of the two articles on Bobby Mitchell was dated 1990 and was effectively an obituary for the man.

2. To continue my digression into London Records, the first release on the label (and hence in the UK) of a black artist on Imperial Records came in 1955, and that artist was Fats Domino. In “London Rocks”, I greeted it with the statement: “The first real recognition of rock’n’roll (outside of doo wop) came in February ’55”. (And I meant recognition by London Records.) But records from Fats had been appearing in the US since January 1950. Bear in mind, too, that Fats was a major artist; the situation was worse for others (like Bobby Mitchell). The point can’t be overstated: the UK, and other countries outside the US, really missed out on a terrific amount of great music, particularly black music, in the early part of the rock and roll (and soul) revolution.

3. Regarding the song, Mama Don’t Allow:

Firstly to say that Cal dug out an earlier version of the song – it’s a variation of it – on YouTube which was titled Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have It Here) from Papa Charlie Johnson dated 1925. This confirmed that variants of the song were around before the Cow Cow Davenport and Tampa Red recordings.

Secondly, he investigated the Mudcat discussion site on the origins of the song and found this, timed & dated: 04 Mar 11, 01:54 from contributor “Richie”:

“Originally WC Handy 1909 “Memphis Blues” was titled “Mr. Crump” which was a version of “Mama Don’t Allow” which would date the song back to circa 1907.”

Richie then supplied the lyrics wherein “Mama” was replaced by “Mr. Crump”.

I then found an expansion of that information on a Norwegian site called Musikkhylla which analysed the recording of the song with the abbreviated title Mama Don’t by J.J. Cale. Having introduced Cale, the writer then moved on to the song and started by saying that its origins were extremely hard to track down. He mentions Cow Cow Davenport but then introduces the mysterious “Mr. Crump”:

“References to ‘Mr Crump’ refer to Memphis, Tennessee politician Edward H ‘Boss’ Crump who was mayor of Memphis from 1910–1915 and a major figure in Memphis politics for over 40 years. It seems that ‘Mama Don’t’ was used as a campaign song for Crump in 1909 when the legendary W. C. Handy re-wrote it as, ‘Mr Crump Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Here’, to the tune of his later, famous ‘Memphis Blues’. If ‘Mama Don’t’ in one form or another was around in 1909 it is therefore not unreasonable to assume that it could be a traditional folk song dating back to the previous century.”

4. The group name, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, is one that’s of far greater significance to readers who were alive and conscious of pop music at the time – mid fifties – than those who didn’t experience their records in real time. That’s even more true in the UK and, I suspect, in most countries outside the US, since doo wop was originally a purely black phenomenon which gradually started to get some recognition outside the ghettoes in the big cities via a limited number of records achieving crossover to the pop charts. Narrowing things down again, only a limited number of those records saw release in other countries. I’ve commented already on London, our biggest importer by far of American records with other labels lagging way behind them. But, and it was a big but, Frankie and the Teenagers had a big novelty factor going for them: while they were all teenagers, lead singer Lymon was only just in his teens; he was thirteen when their debut disc, Why Do Fools Fall In Love was released. That, plus the fact that the record hit the #6 spot in the Billboard Hot 100, caused Columbia over here to pick up the single and group for UK release. The label was rewarded with a number one NME Chart position – and that was the chart regarded as the UK chart at the time – on 20th July 1956, a position it occupied for three weeks. If you put that in the context of the preceding sentences, this was the first time the vast bulk of UK buyers had ever heard doo wop so this was an added attraction of Why Do Fools Fall In Love. (There was another novelty factor in the make-up of the group in that it comprised three black and two Puerto Rican members but the mixed-race aspect wasn’t commented upon at the time.)

Since this post is about Bobby Mitchell, I should say no more about Frankie Lymon other than the fact that the group split in 1957 with Frankie going solo. There is what, at first glance, looks like a perfectly good Wiki article on Frankie both with and without Teenagers, and he is under consideration as a future Toppermost subject.

5. Many of the songs that Dave Bartholomew wrote from 1956 onwards were written in association with a P. King according to the credits. That lady was Pearl King and she was Dave’s wife. Whether she actually assisted Dave in the writing of these songs or whether her appearance in the credits was just a device used by Dave to ensure he got all (or most) of the royalties I don’t know but would guess the latter.

6. Something I rather glossed over in the main text was Bobby’s departure from and return to Imperial. In fact, the label shed most of its New Orleans artists other than Domino in 1958 in order to focus more on its white rock and roll artists like Ricky Nelson. Bobby was part of that exodus. I haven’t seen anything solid on the rationale for his return to the label other than, “In 1963, Imperial became interested in him again, releasing four sides” from Dik de Heer in his TIMS article on Bobby – TIMS used to be known as Blackcat Rockabilly Europe.

7. Something that I didn’t mention in the main section was that Bobby recorded the Mills Brothers oldie, You Always Hurt The One You Love in 1957, that’s four years before Clarence Henry got his hands on the song (though one would guess that the Mitchell record might have popped into Clarence’s mind when he was thinking of a follow-up to But I Do). I always see this record as Bobby’s attempt at lounge (or an entertaining pastiche of the style).




Bobby Mitchell Wavelength

Bobby Mitchell (1935–1989)


Bobby Mitchell Discography at 45cat

Bobby Mitchell & The Toppers at Bear Family Records

Bobby Mitchell biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis, #11 Professor Longhair, #12 Shirley & Lee, #13 Lloyd Price, #14 Dr. John, #15 Huey “Piano” Smith, #16 Roy Brown, #17 Johnny Adams, #18 Eddie Bo, #19 Guitar Slim, #20 Clarence “Frogman” Henry, #21 Bobby Mitchell


Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Ray Charles, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker.

TopperPost #1,039


  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 23, 2022

    Dave and Cal, thanks for another excellent Toppermost. And you will be unsurprised to hear that you sent me down several enjoyable rabbit holes with the footnote on ‘Mama Don’t Allow’.

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 24, 2022

      We try to give value in footnotes

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