Frankie Smith was worried about his mom. Her health was going down and he didn’t know how long she was going to be able to hold up to the shift work at the commissary of the Philadelphia Naval Hospital where she had worked for years. Of all the times for me to be out of a job, it had to be now, he thought.
Only a few months before things had been going so good. He had earned an office and a placard with his name and his title: Songwriter and Producer, Philadelphia International Records. He was collaborating with Archie Bell and the Drells, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and their sexy, enigmatic singer, Teddy Pendergrass. What’s more, he had the ear and the respect of Kenny Gamble of Gamble and Huff, the songwriting and production team that had founded the label that represented top shelf talent like The O’jays, The Three Degrees, MFSB, Billy Paul and Lou Rawls. Gamble and Huff and their juggernaut record label were the architects of the lush, yet, funky style know as The Philadelphia Sound.
But Gamble and his partner Leon Huff, along with Clive Davis of CBS Records and Davis’ assistant David Wynshaw, among others, were ensnared in a federal payola investigation and Philadelphia International Records was temporarily, as it turned out, forced to shutter it’s doors. Frankie Smith was out on his ear. And the bills were piling up.
Things had gotten so bad that he applied to The Philadelphia Transportation Company as a bus driver, but they hadn’t responded. As he sat in the living room of the tiny house that he had always shared with his mother (except for the few years he had spent at Tennessee State University, trying to earn a bachelors degree in elementary education) he began to circle security guard jobs in the help wanted section of the paper. Through an open window he heard a group of neighborhood girls chanting as they jumped rope in an intricate, athletically rhythmic style. Double dutch, they called it.
The chanting was momentarily interrupted by some guys who we’re trying to clear the street so they could play basketball. The girls weren’t having it.
In Smith’s songwriter’s mind the bickering, the sing-song chanting, the clapping, and syncopated slap of rope against pavement merged with his pending bus driver application and a funked up version of the Pig Latin he mastered as a child. In a moment of serendipity he wrote the lyrics on the back of an over due gas bill.
There’s a double dutch bus coming down the street
Moving pretty fast
So kinda shuffle your feet
Get on the bus and pay your fare
And tell the driver that you’re
Going to a Double Dutch Affair
(Translation: Hi girls, you have to move out the way so the guys can play basketball.)
Say wizzat? Nizzo-izzo wizzay
(Translation: Say what? No way!)
Yizzall bizzetter mizzove
(You all better move.)
Say wizzat? Willzy illzain’t millzovin’
(Say what? We ain’t moving.)
Willze illzare plizzayin’ dizzouble dizzutch! dizzouble dizzutch! dizzouble dizzutch!
(While we’re playin the double dutch! The double dutch! The double dutch!)
Millze cillzan sillzome plilzay dilzzouble dilzutch!
I see somebody’s playin the double dutch!
Suddenly the weight of the world was lifted off Frankie Smith’s shoulders. He had just written a hit! A big glorious hit! And he knew it. This little song–no not his best song, a novelty song, yes, a kid’s song–was the answer to his prayers. If only he could pitch it to Kenny Gamble, but of course he couldn’t and he couldn’t afford to sit on it either.
His best option at that particular moment was WMOT Records. Smith was aware of the labels shady reputation but he had a relationship with a couple of producers who had once offered him a song writing gig there. He was desperate, but he wouldn’t let them know that. The song was solid. It should sell itself.
Dr. Larry Lavin was worried about his cash. He had too much of it. One of the couriers he paid to make runs to various banks, exchanging stacks of it into more manageable hundred dollar bills, had been robbed of a hundred grand. Even though it had happened right outside the student dental clinic where there were lots of witnesses and despite the courier having a nasty gash on her head, his partners were saying that she had set the whole thing up.
It was starting to get to him a bit. Too much drama.
Yes, he was making more money than he ever thought possible. And, yes, he was about to finish up his voluntary year’s residence. Soon he would be able to set up his own dental practice–the perfect front for his real business–but his fiance was getting more and more paranoid. She was starting to see armed robbers in her chicken soup.
A lawyer he knew gave him a piece of paper with a guy’s name and a number on it. A financial adviser/investor. Now that guy sat across from him at his kitchen table. He wore an expensive tailored suit and a tasteful gold necklace. Several chunky gold rings adorned his fingers; his hair was precisely cut, his beard neatly trimmed.
Lavin liked what he saw. The guy’s name was Mark Stewart. He spoke expertly about tax shelters, about converting Lavin’s cash into mortgages and certificates of deposit. He wanted to sell him interest in his properties and businesses and start paying him a salary from a parent company, all tricks of the money laundering trade. One of the companies Stewart had shares in was WMOT Records.
The engineers snickered and rolled their eyes. The song was bad enough, some dance number about jumping on a bus and jumping rope, but that nonsensical gibberish had to go. Sophomoric. Kids stuff.
Frankie Smith wasn’t surprised as he watched their obvious mockery through the recording room window. Go ahead and have your fun, he thought. The hook screamed H.I.T. record. He would have the last laugh–all the way to the bank.
Double Dutch Bus dropped in the fall of 1981. Everyday, for the first few weeks after the release, Smith and his producer, Gene Leone, anxiously went up and down the radio dial listening for the song…Crickets.
While the lack of respect and enthusiasm from the recording crew didn’t surprise Smith, WMOT’s ambivalence toward his project did. The label didn’t lift a finger to promote Double Dutch Bus. What’s more, the whole vibe at the company was haphazard and lackadaisical; it ran nothing like the well oiled hit producing machine that he was accustomed to at Philadelphia International.
Undaunted, Smith took matters into his own hands. He loaded up the trunk of his rickety old Thunderbird with hundreds of copies of Double Dutch Bus and embarked on an East Coast odyssey, from one city to the next, dropping off his song at college radio stations, dance clubs, getting it into the hands of mobile DJ’s, and hitting every commercial radio station that would let him through the door.
Months later when he walked up the steps to his front door–he was then, as he is now, an unassuming, small man with rounded shoulders and a permanent limp–he was tired and a bit weary. His mother met him at the door with a wide beautiful smile. “They’re playing it baby,” she said. “They’re playing your song.”
To be continued…