Bruce Channel's "Hey! Baby" is a classic one-shot, number-one hit from 1962. By 1961 officially rock was dead. It was “twisting time”; “surfing time”, “mashed potato time” etc... The real joke was that most people, starting with the younger generation, never realized that all this was just the same rock, renewed.
“Hey! Baby” is one of the many records proving that, during a period in which rock has sometimes been characterized near death, the form was continuing to evolve in unexpected and delightful ways. An irresistible mid-tempo shuffle from the first few bars of homespun harmonica (played by Delbert McClinton), it was a seemingly effortless blend of rock, blues, country, and Cajun beats, featuring Channel's lazy, drawling vocals and an instantly catchy tune. It was perhaps too much of a natural; Channel could never recapture the organic spontaneity of the track, failing to re-enter the Top 40 despite many attempts. So, Hey! Baby remained a real one hit wonder. The lyrics are by Bruce Channel McMeans, better known just by his mother’s last name, Channel and the score is by Margaret Cobb. Bruce Channel composed it in 1959 and has been performing the song for two years before recording it.
Bruce Channel grew up in Grapevine, a small city in the area now known as the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. He attended Grapevine High School where he gained popularity as a performer. Around this time, he began writing songs with Margaret Cobb, 10-15 years his senior, from Irving, Texas, about 15 miles from Grapeville. Channel was introduced to Margaret by her brother because she "knew how to write songs" and the young musician wanted to be a songwriter.
Cobb, a singer herself, introduced Channel to country banjo star Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery who was also based in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. This resulted a fruitful contact.
The pair ended up writing many Channel-Cobb songs and led to Channel's first record in 1959 (produced by Montgomery on Fort Worth label Teen Ager) and to the recording two years later of Hey Baby, with Montgomery co-producing
Later Margaret Cobb, with Marvin Montgomery, became Channel's joint manager, and she even organized his fan club. She was also a music publisher, running Marett Music in Irving with Montgomery. Marett Music was associated with Trojan Records, a local label formed in 1963 by Irving singer Don Martin.
Channel says, “I would hear songs that I liked and look up the people who wrote them and learn their songs. I wanted to be a songwriter. I was always more influenced by the writers than the singers. But you have to get out there and play those songs for someone,”
So, Channel put together a band and played local dances and sock hops, eventually performing on the popular Dallas-based radio program The Big D Jamboree. He then landed a six-month regular spot on the Louisiana Hayride. Following that, Channel returned to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Bruce was getting in the swing of writing and wanted to record and by 1961 Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery introduced Channel to Major Bill Smith, a music promoter and longtime character on the Fort Worth music scene who modeled himself after Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Channel was only twenty-one, but he already had experience as a vocalist, along with a growing ambition to become a professional songwriter. Major Bill Smith wasn’t really a record producer. He was a retired major from the Air Force, World War II. He’d gotten bad burns on his hands, and they promoted him to a major when he was discharged. So he was Major Bill... He had all this energy, everything was “It’s going to be a smash!” So he was active in recording people at that time in Fort Worth. He was the only guy that was active.
Major Bill has been spending a lot of time searching for talent in the Dallas - Forth Worth area and he usually hired Delbert and his bar band, The StraitJackets for session musicians every time he needed a backup band.
McClinton was born in Lubbock, Texas but relocated with his family to Fort Worth, Texas, when he was 11 years old. Currently McClinton is a worldwide-recognized blues-rock and electric blues singer-songwriter, guitarist, harmonica player, and pianist. From his first professional stage appearance in 1957 to his most recent national tour in 2018, he has recorded albums for several major record labels and singles that have reached the Billboard Hot 100, Mainstream Rock Tracks, and Hot Country Songs charts. Four of his albums have been number 1 on the U.S. Blues chart, and another reached number 2. He has earned three Grammy awards and has been nominated for seven Grammy Awards as of 2018. He was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in March 2011, along with Lee Roy Parnell, Bruce Channel, Gary Nicholson, and Cindy Walker.
Marvin and Bruce went to see Major Bill and he agreed to work with Bruce, so they went into the studio on West 7th Street in Fort Worth with Marvin as coproducer of the session and Mayor Smith called Delbert to get some guys together to record a few demos on Bruce. That’s where Delbert met Bruce the first time and they became good friends immediately and still remain good friends.
They cut about four sides of Bruce’s songs that day; In the beginning, the A side of one of those records was “Dream Baby” and the “B” side, Hey! Baby”.
Channel remembers the day clearly: “I walked into the studio with Marvin Montgomery and saw a friendly face, Bob Sullivan, who had been the engineer on the Louisiana Hayride. I played through my songs, just me and the guitar, and McClinton’s band, the Straitjackets, listened. Then, just like that, McClinton kicked off “Hey Baby” with his harmonica, with that intro you know so well.
McClinton is just a virtuoso with that thing: all he has to do is hear what you are doing and he will find the key and play it. He just kicked it off with that harmonica and his band jumped in and knew what to do. We recorded it once, twice, and then Marvin came in and put some piano on it the third time and that was history. Delbert’s harmonica intro was so true. It was what identified the song. It was different. Everyone knew the song with that first harmonica lick, and I guess you’d have to agree that little song has stood the test of time.
They did that in two or three takes, and Major Bill still thought the flip side of it, Dream Girl was going to be the hit, which was a song called but Bruce, Marvin and Delbert were all saying, ”Hey! Baby” is the hit! And Major Bill didn’t decide it until producer Huey Meaux, in Houston, offered him $500 for it. And then he decided that he had something. That’s the way life with Major Bill was!
McClinton recalls, “Major Bill had about six labels, but Smash was the offshoot of a major label, Mercury. Major Bill got a deal with Smash and “Hey, Baby” became a world-wide hit. We all made five dollars for that session. We always made five dollars a session; it was just ‘roll and play’ recording — no overdubs, nothing fancy, but I guess that five dollars took me a long way.”
In the spring of 1962, “Hey Baby” became a No. 1 hit in Billboard Magazine, remaining at the top of the charts for three weeks. Soon, Bruce Channel went on a national tour with Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Don and Juan, The Impressions, and The Duke of Earl (Gene Chandler). “We started in New York and went down the East Coast and then across and up to Denver and ended in Houston,” Channel says. “They had a tour band for the whole show, so I went out as a single, and they tried to replicate McClinton’s harmonica part with horns.”
“Hey Baby” soon blasted across the Atlantic, and concert promoters wanted Bruce Channel to perform in England. Channel recalls, “So, they had a British band ready to back me up, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. I told Major Bill that I just could not do it without McClinton. I could not have done it with just that British band, and, boy, he saved our bacon over there. Everyone loved that harmonica. Everybody loved Delbert.”
And because Bruce wanted that harmonica Delbert McClinton traveled with Major Bill Smith to London, arriving the day before Bruce Channel was scheduled to arrive. “We got to the airport, landed in London, got in the cab went to the hotel, and I left my bag of harmonicas in the cab. That was all I was there for, to play harmonica, and I had already lost my tools.”
Fortunately, Smith located a Hohner harmonica factory nearby. As McClinton recalls, he and Smith were preparing to go and buy a new set of harmonicas when the cab driver walked into the hotel and asked if Delbert had left his harmonicas in the car. He returned them.”
It was on this tour that McClinton met a relatively unknown singer and guitarist named John Lennon. Both twenty-two-year old musicians had a lot in common and spent several days hanging out together. McClinton explains:
The Beatles were opening for us on the tour. They would open the show, then I would play three songs or so, and then Bruce would come out and we would do the headliner set. John wanted me to give him some tips on harmonica. The story’s been romanticized. I didn’t really teach him. I showed him what I did. When to suck and when to blow. Nothing really more than that … although it was a great moment in time. I did hang out with John a few nights when we were off. The Beatles were playing regular gigs at the time at The Cavern, an underground old cellar in an old building. The club was pretty empty when we got there, and I sort of looked at John and thought, “what the — ?” Then, in no time, the place filled up, body to body. On one of our nights off, John came by the hotel with a friend of his, and they took me out and showed me things I never imagined. Beatnik joints, beanbag chairs, and people just laying over in the corner having sex, you know? I mean they sure didn’t do that in Fort Worth. It was that European intensity in the ’60s. It was weird but it was something to see.
McClinton continues: It got to be every night on the (six week) tour, somebody from another band would come to the dressing room because there wasn’t that much harmonica going on in anything but blues music. It wasn’t going on in rock and roll. And they wanted me to teach them how I did it. Well, you can’t teach anybody, but you can kind of show them. And that is what I did. And, yeah, one night it was John. He wanted to know how I did that, and we shot the sh@t on that and hung out and then … years later, somewhere along the line he mentioned to some reporter that he was influenced by the harmonica on “Hey Baby,” and it’s become “I’ve taught him everything he knows.” It’s been romanticized a great deal, as those stories are, but that’s exactly what it was. We were both twenty-two. We hung out. We were on common ground. We were just two guys who couldn’t get enough of it. Wanting to learn everything we could about this crazy business.
One of their dates was the English town of Wallasey, just across the Mersey from Liverpool. On June 21, 1962 Bruce and Delbert played the New Brighton Tower Ballroom; their opening act was a popular local band on the brink of superstardom, The Beatles. Backstage, John Lennon asked for a few harmonica tips from Delbert whose “Hey! Baby” sound John really liked, and Delbert was happy to share. Lennon put the lessons to use right away on "Love Me Do" and later "Please Please Me”.
Says Delbert: When we first saw them, their mode of transportation was a British World War II army ambulance, with a hole in the back where you could take a leak. Anyway, I remember on one particular occasion, this young girl comes up to our dressing room, and we were just worn out completely. I had tried that afternoon at the Cavern, the place the Beatles always played, but there was no hot water, but I needed a shave. And it was just awful, trying to shave with no hot water in this dank little bathroom with no hot water, ice cold water. And this girl comes up and says, you've got to come down and hear this group. They're the hottest group in the north of England. They had just gotten back from Hamburg, and it was the Beatles. We saw them and it was obvious they were amazing. I can't say I had any idea they would be what they would become, but they were excellent, and they did what they did.
The photo above was taken at that meeting by Paul’s brother, Mike McCartney:from left to right, Pete Best (who would soon be replaced by Ringo Starr), John Lennon, Delbert McClinton (is he wearing Paul’s jacket?), Bruce Channel, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison.
“Hey Baby” was used in the 1987 hit film Dirty Dancing in the scene where Johnny and Baby dance on top of a log.
Austrian artist DJ Ötzi recorded a cover version titled "Hey Baby (Uhh, Ahh)". It was released in July 2000 as the lead single from his debut solo album, Love, Peace & Vollgas. In 2002, it was re-released when it became the unofficial theme song for the 2002 FIFA World Cup and it reached number-one in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia.
Most recently, in 2017 it was covered by “Lady Antebellum” for the TV film version of Dirty Dancing.