The front-page headline of the March 7, 1970, edition of the Michigan Chronicle blared the pitiful news: “POPULAR SINGER SHOT TO DEATH.” Two weeks after the murder, the brightest names in soul music gathered on Detroit’s West Side to grieve the death of one of their most respected peers, Darrell Banks.
Cut to 2003: Banks’ unmarked grave sits overgrown by grass and weeds. And, nearly 40 years after its commercial release, Darrell Banks’ hit song “Open the Door to Your Heart” has, in this part of the world anyway, faded into the dustbins of distant memory.
This July — eight days before what would have been Banks’ 63rd birthday — people from around the globe converged upon a cemetery in Warren to honor the sandpapery sweet voice of a transplant Detroiter who won the respect of many, led a dramatic big-screen-worthy existence and, despite a pair of hit singles and a national television appearance, rejected the idea of pop stardom.
“My brother loved to sing,” remembers Darrell’s half-sister Lois Williams, adding that that he also loved “to play pool and gamble.”
Born the illegitimate son of a 27-year-old Kentuckian and a 17-year-old girl from Mansfield, Ohio, Darrell Eubanks — who later became Darrell Banks — was given his mother’s surname. A child herself, mom left the newborn in the care of her parents.
Banks’ childhood home of Mansfield remains a semi-industrial town surrounded by endless acres of farmland dotted with produce stands. Banks grew up under skies darkened by smoke from an area factory. It was here, with the help of a local church chorale, that Banks found his voice.
“We used to go to church at Shiloh Baptist Church and Darrell used to sing in the choir,” recalls Williams.
Far from the perfect Sunday school student, Banks would often skip out of church service, finding sacrament in teen club jukeboxes.
“He was a joker and he could always make you laugh,” continues Williams. “My grandmother would give him $5 to go get milk and he would be gone all day playing pool and when he would come home he wouldn’t have any milk or money.”
A Mansfield teen club called Hoot’s had a copy of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “Annie Had a Baby” on the juke. The doo-woppy song — which eventually became a million-seller despite being banned on radio for its overt sexuality — was, according to Williams, a Banks fave. The tune inspired Banks to sing.
After high school Banks married a white woman named Beverly Kay Simon. An interracial marriage at that time was, of course, socially unacceptable. The nuptials failed family expectations. Ignoring convention and outside pressure, the couple went for it. They had two children, Darrell Jr. and Bamby Lynn Banks, stayed together for several years but eventually split sometime in the mid-’60s. The children stayed with their mom and Banks drifted in and out of their lives.
Banks relocated to Buffalo, N.Y., to be close to his father. Though he was singing in and around Mansfield, it was in Buffalo that the Banks recording legacy begins. While working with Buffalo-based bands and singing groups, Banks met up with a club owner named Doc Watson, who owned a sticky dive called Club Revilot. Doc had Motor City connections and directed Banks there.
Watson introduced Banks to Detroit music biz kingpin/producer Don Davis and his moneyman partner, LeBaron Taylor. The latter two had formed the Detroit-based production company Solid Hitbound Inc. Hitbound managed numerous record companies including Groovesville, Solid Hitbound Records and Revilot. This stable of labels (and its production company) was responsible for the soul sounds of the Parliaments, J.J. Barnes, Edwin Starr and, now, Darrell Banks.
Banks recorded his career-launching debut single “Open the Door to Your Heart” at Detroit’s United Sound Studio. Originally called “Baby Walk Right In,” Banks co-wrote the song in Buffalo with Donnie Elbert. Elbert, an R&B hit-maker in his own right, was nonplussed to discover that he wasn’t credited on original releases of the single. His name did, however, surface on later pressings; though the circumstances are unclear, Elbert eventually received royalties owed him.
The 1966 song is regarded in many circles as one of the finest soul numbers ever put to wax, and it peaked at No. 2 on the R&B charts and No. 27 on the pop charts. The flip side, a killer soul rave-up “Our Love (Is in the Pocket),” was co-written by Funkadelic overlord George Clinton.
Dennis Coffey, one of Motown’s elite Funk Brothers, played guitar on the hit. “We were recording eight or nine songs a day in that time,” Coffey recalls. “We never cut alongside the vocalist, though I did meet Darrell on a few occasions. Usually we would have rhythm charts: some with chords and some with a written melody. ‘Open the Door to Your Heart’ sounds like it was written out but there was some room for interpretation. I always tried to come up with good ideas.” Good ideas blossomed: The guitar track is simple and effective; it serves a stomping yet chiming metronomic role — a driving force of dance floor footsteps.
Williams reminisces about hearing the song on the radio. “I remember Kay [Banks’ wife] called me on the phone and told me to turn on the radio. She said, ‘Do you hear that song?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s a very nice song.’ Kay said, ‘That’s Darrell!’ After the song became a hit, all my girlfriends were a little jealous!”
Ed Wolfrum, chief engineer at United Sound Studio in the soul-deep, halcyon ’60s, remembers cutting tracks with Banks. “He was very much a gentleman and always dressed well. Darrell sort of rejected his star status. He had a great sense of humor and he would tease you a lot. Detroit in those days was a close community and everyone respected each other as a professional. If you had made it to our level, you were good at what you did, plain and simple.”
Wolfrum, who also worked on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album, says that he puts “Darrell, not in terms of stature, but in terms of ability, right in line with Marvin Gaye.”
Revilot Records only released one more Banks 45. The A-side “Somebody (Somewhere Needs You)” reached No. 34 on the R&B charts and No. 55 on the pop charts. Banks gigged regularly on the Midwestern soul circuit, did American Bandstand and supported Jackie Wilson.
The last time Williams saw her brother was at a Columbus club called the Pink Pussy Cat. Banks was sporting a clunky white ankle cast, the result of a stage fall in a previous performance.
Despite the successes, the Revilot deal expired and Banks signed with Atco records. There he released the album Darrell Banks Is Here. Though a few singles were released, the album, which featured a handful of worthy soul sides, tanked. Banks pushed on and was soon back collaborating with his friend Don Davis.
According to Peter Guralnick’s definitive volume, Sweet Soul Music, Davis had been hired by Memphis’ legendary Stax label to produce Detroit-sounding records. Davis produced the Banks album Here to Stay.
Released in 1969, the record blended Stax horns and Detroit groove beautifully, topped with Banks’ C.L. Franklin-meets-Don Covay vocals.
The LP was done at United Sound Studios and the musicians were largely Detroiters. The songs “I Could Never Hate Her,” “Don’t Know What to Do” and “Just Because Your Love Is Gone” evoke the precarious hazy-eyed beauty of a Sunday morning. Despite no radio hits, the disc was masterful, a stunning window into the genre-defining work that Banks was beginning to produce. Sadly, the man’s upward trajectory ended in a flash.
On Feb. 24, 1970, the singer took a bullet through the neck and chest from off-duty Detroit cop Aaron Bullock.
Here’s what happened: One Marjorie Bozeman had been attempting to sever a relationship with Banks and the singer would have none of it. He drove to her house in northwest Detroit and found Bozeman gone. He waited. When Bozeman finally arrived, Bullock was with her. Banks approached Bozeman, grabbed her and — according to a Michigan Chronicle story dated March 7, 1970 — said, “We have to talk.” The story goes on to say that Bullock identified himself as a cop and ordered Banks to let go of the woman. Instead, Banks produced a pistol and pointed it at the cop. Bullock reportedly ducked, drew his gun and fired one shot, which pierced Banks’ neck. The fracas ended almost as soon as it began and Banks would die an hour later at Detroit’s New Grace Hospital. Because Banks drew first no charges were brought against Bullock. The soulful voice of Darrell Banks was hushed forever.
The killing of Banks — by all reports a reserved man with little or no reputation for violence — sent shock waves from Motown to Memphis and beyond.
“I was stunned. It just didn’t seem like him,” says Wolfrum.
Williams recalls, “I remember Kay saying, ‘How am I going to tell Darrell Jr.?’”
Members of the soul music community, which at that point included several multimillion-selling, internationally renowned performers, were taken aback.
Soul music royalty soon gathered for a Banks family benefit at Watts Club Mozambique on Detroit’s West Side. The party was extraordinary, and drew an over-capacity crowd. The venue — today a seedy male strip joint — was a major jazz, R&B and soul singer club. Isaac Hayes, The Spinners and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas all turned out in support of the family. Money raised was donated to a trust fund for Banks’ children.
After the benefit, Detroit’s music world went on, and more soul songs scaled the charts. But Banks was buried in an unmarked grave. “I tried for years to raise a little money for a marker, but I just couldn’t,” says Williams.
In 2003, Scotland’s David Meikle, founder of a worthy Web site dedicated to ’60s Detroit soul music (www.Soulfuldetroit.com), traveled to Detroit and searched old newspapers for information concerning Banks and his death. He was shocked to discover the unmarked burial site. So he and fans from England’s Northern soul music scene — a collection of some of the world’s most obsessed music fans — raised nearly $2,000 to give Banks a solid marble grave marker. Last month some of these fans gathered to honor Banks. They traveled from England, Finland, Scotland, Australia and across the United States to give the singer’s life a physical and lasting punctuation point. They threw a party followed by memorial service the next morning at Detroit Memorial Park in Warren, dedicating the new burial monument.
Banks’ plot is no longer hard to find and passersby can’t help but notice the inscription: “Darrell Eubanks ‘Open The Door To Your Heart.’” It’s an honest monument to a gifted singer and performer, sure, but it is also a monument to a city whose soul set the world and its musical sensibilities twisting during the ’60s.
Though oldies radio stations rarely spin Banks sides, the monument and the tale behind it should secure the man in the Motor City’s long musical heritage.
This story is the ninth part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.Adam Stanfel is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.