by Gary E. Myers
"It’s funny when someone requests something like ‘Sway and Move With The Beat,’ and I have to stop and think how it went. Then when I listen to it, I think, did I do that?” Donnie Brooks joked when I asked him about some of his early records in our 1977 interview. He had many releases and used four different names on record.
Born John Dee Abohosh in Dallas on February 6, he became John Faircloth early in life when his stepfather adopted him. The family moved to San Diego where he sang soprano lead in the grammar school choir. Another move took him to Ojai, California, where he graduated from high school in 1954. He studied music, light opera, and opera there. “When my voice changed it was heartbreaking. I’d go to hit a note and my voice would crack and I would not know why. I didn’t like my new voice, and still don’t. I like my first soprano voice better.”
After winning first prize in a talent contest at Ventura Junior College, Donnie got his own fifteen-minute radio show Sunday mornings on KBBC. His first club gig was weekends at the Crow’s Nest in Oxnard, singing with a trio for $14 a night. This began his transition to pop music, as he had to learn two current hits each week, and it taught him a how to work with an audience. The next step was to study with Al Berkman in Los Angeles to develop his presentation. He began singing demo records for publishers and this resulted in his first two records on Fable under the name of Johnny Faire. These were pressed in very limited quantities (possibly only 100 copies).
Next came a move to Surf Records with “Bertha Lou,” and a story of interest to many collectors:
“Dorsey Burnette had cut the record and it got pick hits,” recalled Donnie. “Dick Clark started to play it, but then Dorsey told them he was still under contract to Coral. So, they pulled his voice off and put me on. I just did what Dorsey did, sang exactly like him. By that time Clint Miller had covered it, but we did pretty well on sales. The other side was a very Memphis-type sound, which I was not used to. They didn’t have his voice on a separate track, so I had to sing over him and phrase exactly like him and it was really difficult. It took two takes to do ‘Bertha Lou’ and two hours to do the other side because of his southern accent, his meter and things like that.”
By this time Donnie was working in a variety of musical settings, from El Monte Legion Stadium with rhythm and blues artists to country-western gigs including TV shows Town Hall Party and Rockin’ Rhythm Ball. A one-shot deal with Era Records came out under the name Dick Bush, a name that came from a high school joke. Then came another label change and another name change to Johnny Jordan on Jolt. The final name change came when he went back to Era with “Li’l Sweetheart,” written by Dave Taxe. “Dave asked me if I knew what a donnybrook was. I said no and he said, ‘It’s a riotous occasion.’ I said, ‘But the song is a ballad.’ He thought it would be a great name for me. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be getting into fights every night.’ But I figured any name was okay. After I had the hit, it stuck with me, so I had it legally changed.”
The next release, “White Orchid”, sold well on the West Coast and Donnie started doing El Monte Legion Stadium more steadily with artists such as Johnny Otis, the Coasters, Drifters, Penguins, and Don Julian and the Meadowlarks.
Songwriter William Michael brought a tune called “Wishing Well” in to publisher Jesse Hodges, with whom Donnie was working. Jesse saw some possibilities but thought it needed work. He rewrote parts of it, changing it to “Mission Bell.” Dorsey Burnette, who had “Tall Oak Tree” at the time, contributed the line, “taller than the tallest tree.” Donnie did the demo and they took it to Dave Burgess and Jimmie Rodgers. “I really liked the tune and I wanted to do it, but nobody wanted me to do it. Jesse said it was a folk song and I wasn’t a folk singer. Dave Burgess said it needed a bridge, so Scotty Turnbull, who was playing guitar with Guy Mitchell, wrote a bridge. He was about to leave for Australia on tour, so he sold his share to John Marascalco (writer of “Bertha Lou” as well as “Rip It Up” and many other rock hits) for $200. I finally got Era to do it; it was out about four weeks, got a lot of picks, but nothing happened for a while. Finally it started breaking very slowly. It was one of those records that got a lot of play.” The song remained on Billboard’s Hot 100 for twenty weeks, reaching #7. Donnie brought Jayne Mansfield’s Cadillac and began working Tahoe, Reno and Las Vegas.
According to Donnie, Jesse Hodges originally had 25% of the publishing for the song, but Era wanted all of it, so the writer, William Michael, gave Hodges 25% of the writing, as long as he could keep his name on it. However, because of the deal with Scotty Turnbull, John Marascalco demanded 25% of the song. Hodges had to give up his share to Marascalco, so he ended up with nothing. Despite that scenario, in 2011 the BMI website shows the writers as Jesse D. Hodges and William Michael.
Reminiscing about some of his other releases, Donnie said, “I liked ‘Doll House’ and I liked ‘Memphis’,” “I did one song called ‘He Stole Flo’ that I hated. People come up and request it now and I think they’re kidding, but they’re serious. On the other hand, when I get a request for ‘Penny the Poo’ (from A Swingin’ Summer), I really feel proud that I wrote it, even though it’s got to be one of the worst songs in the world.”
One of the interesting non-hits on Era is a semi-novelty called “Up To My Ears (In Tears)”, which mentions other songs and artists in the same vein as Bob Luman’s “Let’s Think About Living.”
After Era, Donnie did three records with Jimmy Bowen for Reprise, one on his own label, and then four sides for Jerry Fuller on Challenge. Next came a move back to Era for one record, followed by three on the Yardbird label.
“Then I went to Capitol with Al De Lory,” he said, “and did some really beautiful things, some Jim Webb tunes, but he was just too busy with people like Glen Campbell and Al Martino. I waited for a year and never got a final mix down.” He got his release from Capitol and went with producer Ray Ruff to Happy Tiger. Donnie did the voice of Jesus on Ruff’s “Truth of Truths” album, a great album which got much airplay on religious stations. Unfortunately it came out about the same time as “Jesus Christ Superstar”, although the project had been conceived long before. The material was performed live for Easter Sunrise Services at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater. A follow-up album, “Revelation,” was recorded but not released.
Donnie released an album on his own Wishbone label to sell on gigs, and then worked with Ray Ruff again on a bicentennial album. They did a double album, but were unable to sell it to a label at first. Mike Curb suggested putting bigger name artists on it, so they re-recorded much of it using artists from Curb’s roster. “We finally sold it to 20th Century, who bought it for a big price,” said Donnie. “I ended up being one of the original artists left on there with the title song, ‘Happy Birthday U.S.A.’ They did a beautiful package on it, got the National Educational Seal, the Bicentennial Seal, they had Senator Kennedy, Barry Goldwater and Senator Hollings doing the Gettysburg Address with Baptist Choir in the background; then there was no promotion on it nothing. They were too busy with Barry White. It’s very depressing when you’re involved in big projects like that and nothing happens with it.”
Donnie was in three movies: Go Get Yourself A College Girl, A Swingin’ Summer and Love In. He wrote songs for two of them, as well as appearing as a guest on another soundtrack album from the movie Legend of Frank Wood. He appeared on many TV shows with stars such as Dick Clark, Roy Orbison, Jan & Dean, and many others. He worked shows throughout the United States with the likes of Connie Francis, Ritchie Valens, Sam Cooke, Jesse Belvin, Bobby Darin, as well as appearing in Australia and Guatemala. He also sang the themes for the television cartoons Super Chicken, George Of The Jungle, and Tom Slick. In the summer of 1977 he appeared in an oldies revue at the Las Vegas Tropicana with the Coasters, Drifters, Freddie Cannon, Rivingtons, Joe Houston and Ron Holden.
“I’ve done things where I’d be at the Long Beach Arena one night with 7,000 people,” he said, “JoAnne Worley, six dancers, a comedian, and a juggling act; then the next night I’d be at the Robin’s Nest in San Bernardino with a trio for 75 people. Things like that are really funny, but music is a great life.”
Donnie produced other artists, had his own publishing company, and eventually helped put together and book oldies tours, but he remained first and foremost a performer. His voice remained strong in his later years, and he possessed a commanding stage presence. At the time of our interview he lived in a beautiful home in the hills of North Hollywood with his wife Penny (a former Mouseketeer) and two children. He joked, “out of all these artists I know who sold more records than me, it seems like I’m the only one who still has a house and a wife left!”
He and Penny later moved to Burbank and Donnie died of a heart attack on February 23, 2007. This writer attended his memorial in Burbank on March 26.
Thanks to Donnie Brooks, Jon Travers, Red Lathrop, Kenny Babcock, Discontinued Records, and Jody Trujillo. Originally published in Record Exchanger, 1979.
 Teddy Wilson, 1935
2 American Quartet, 1912
 Beatles, Second Album, 1964
© 1973 & 2011 by Gary E.
Myers/MusicGem, PO Box 4777, Downey, CA 90241-1777