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Len Barry, 78, dies; Soulful voice of 'Bristol Stomp' and '1-2-3'
The singer Len Barry had Top 10 hits in the 1960s as a member of the Dovells and as a solo artist.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Len Barry, the lead singer of the Dovells on their danceable early-1960s hits “Bristol Stomp” and “You Can’t Sit Down” and later a solo artist whose career peaked with his infectious love song “1-2-3,” died Nov. 5 in a hospital in Philadelphia. He was 78.

His son Spencer Borisoff said the cause was myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disease.

The Dovells were a doo-wop group whose members had all sung lead at various times. When the group auditioned for Cameo-Parkway Records in Philadelphia in late 1960, Barry sang lead on “No, No, No,” a song he had written. They got the deal, and his strong, soulful voice secured his role with the group.

“Lenny had a great voice,” Jerry Gross, one of the Dovells, said in a phone interview. “He had the sound they wanted.”

The back cover of the group’s first album, “Bristol Stomp,” featured brief biographies of each singer. Barry’s said, “His hobbies include rock an’ roll, basketball and, naturally, girls.”

“Bristol Stomp” — about teenagers dancing a new step in Bristol, Pennsylvania — rose to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1961. The group performed the song in the 1962 film “Don’t Knock the Twist,” with Barry displaying a commanding stage presence.

After several modest hits (including “Bristol Twistin’ Annie” and “The Jitterbug”), the Dovells returned to the Top 10 in 1963 with the infectious “You Can’t Sit Down,” which peaked at No. 3.

Later that year, Barry left the group in a dispute over its direction. He wanted the Dovells to move further into rhythm and blues, Gross said, but the others wanted to become a nightclub act.

“Lenny came over and he said: ‘I’m free. I want to be a solo artist,’” John Madara, a producer and songwriter, said in an interview in 2014 on the online series “Tom TV.”

Madara and his partner, David White, an original member of the group Danny and the Juniors, began producing songs for Barry at Decca Records, including “At the Hop ’65” and “Lip Sync (to the Tongue Twisters).”

“1-2-3” — written by Madara and White, with lyrics in the bridge contributed by Barry — rose to No. 2 on the Billboard chart in 1965. Barry never had a bigger hit.

Madara said he had the idea for “1-2-3,” but Barry said he did. He told The Albany Herald in 2012 that he had been inspired by the Marvelettes’ song “Beachwood 4-5789,” and by his interracial relationship with one of the group’s members, to which her family objected.

“The song really was about interracial relations that were as easy as ‘1-2-3,’” he said.

Leonard Warren Borisoff was born June 12, 1942, in Philadelphia. His mother, Bernice (Goldsmith) Borisoff, sold men’s clothing. His father, Joe, managed a bar.

A passionate and talented basketball player, Len was on the Overbrook High School team that won the Philadelphia city title in 1959. His teammates included two future NBA players, Walt Hazzard and Wally Jones.

While in high school he also sang with a doo-wop group, the Brooktones, some of whose members were later in the Dovells. He would continue to perform with the Dovells and on his own through the early 1970s — but only occasionally afterward.

Barry was a reluctant performer who disliked being onstage. He also disliked being called a “blue-eyed soul singer,” a term he considered an insult.

“He boisterously objected to the term,” Borisoff said of his father. “He felt it was racist, like people were saying, ‘Oh, for a white guy that’s good soul.’”

Singing gave way to writing, co-writing and producing songs in various genres for Fat Larry’s Band (“Zoom”), Blue Magic (“Freak-n-Stein”), Brandi Wells (“S”), Sylvester (“Someone Like You”), Slick (“Space Bass”) and Booker Newberry III (“Love Town”).

He still sang occasionally, but he spurned Gross’ requests to reunite with the other Dovells until the opportunity presented itself in 1994. Barry was booked on an oldies tour separately from the Dovells (who by then were down to two members, Gross and Mark Stevens, who still perform together).

“I saw Len in Syracuse and said, ‘Come out and do the “Bristol Stomp” with us,’” Gross said. “I said, ‘We’ll share the lead, we’ll do whatever you want.’” Barry agreed, somewhat reluctantly. “We had a lot of fun,” Gross said, and they got together again to sing “Bristol Stomp” at the next tour stop, in Hartford, Connecticut. But it was their last time together.

In addition to his son, Barry is survived by his daughter, Bia Gerngross, and two grandchildren. His marriage to Elaine Uniman ended in divorce.

In 2008, Barry shifted to writing fiction. He collaborated with his son on “Black-Like-Me,” about two white youths growing up in a Black neighborhood. The novel was a reflection of Barry’s experiences attending an integrated high school, performing on the same bill with Black artists and having a voice that was sometimes mistaken for a Black singer’s.

“I was always very grateful for the life that music gave me,” Barry said in a promotional video for the book. “And if my later life can be rewarded to me by the literary industry, that would be magnificent.” With a smile, he added, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life if you don’t like my writing.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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