More than a decade after releasing his debut single, "Let's Play House," on the small New York-based independent label Musicor, smooth-voiced Tony Drake (born Samuel Garner) found stardom as a songwriter. While he rarely recorded, in the 1970s his songs seemed to have lives of their own. Slated to be covered by Barbara Acklin, his tune "Living in the Footsteps of Another Man" was covered instead by the Chi-Lites, who included it on their million-selling album A Lonely Man in 1972. The tune went on to be covered by more than two dozen artists, including Jamaican reggae singer Delroy Wilson and British dance band the Pasadenas. "Let's Play House" provided Drake with a second hit when it was included on a multi-artist album, Soul of a Man, compiled by East Coast promoter/DJ Mike Boone in 1984. An international hit, the song was subsequently translated into Italian and recorded by La Pina e Soul Kingdom.
A native of Philadelphia, Drake grew up on his great grandmother's farm in rural Virginia. Inspired by the doo wop vocalists of the late '50s, he dreamed of becoming a star. Returning to Philadelphia at the age of 15, he started his apprenticeship as valet for doo wop group the Cruisers. Determined to make it on his own, Drake moved to New York and signed with a manager, Bunny Jones, who touted him as a "Tom Jones type" of pop singer. The hype backfired when a $10,000-a-week engagement in Las Vegas was canceled when the agent discovered that Drake was African-American.
Chicago-based doo-wop group the Flamingos had a major influence on Drake, who temporarily assumed the name Tony Hunt, the younger brother of Flamingos vocalist Tommy Hunt. Although he was rejected when he auditioned for the group, vocalist Terry Johnson took him under his wing and "taught" him to sing. Drake successful auditioned for the group in 1963. Drake seemed to be on the verge of realizing his dreams. His first single, "Let's Play House," was included in Billboard's "special merit spotlight," but Musicor failed to promote it and it disappeared from the charts.
Encouraged by R&B vocalist Jackie Wilson, Drake recorded a second single, "Suddenly" b/w "It Hurts Me More," with the Chi-Lites providing background harmonies, for the Chicago-based Brunswick label. Brunswick, however, did no more promotion than its predecessor, and the single failed to stir much attention. Meanwhile, another song, "The Sly, the Slick and the Wicked," recorded during time left over from Drake's session by Brunswick promotion director Gus Redman's "favorite" new signing, the Lost Generation, became a major hit.
Forced to take a job as a salesman with a clothing manufacturer, Drake didn't return to the recording studio until 1982, 12 years later. Although he released a single, "Human" b/w "Think About It," his bad luck continued as the Rissa-Chrissa label was dissolved shortly after the single's release. Tapes of his collaborations with influential Hammond B-3 organ player Jimmy Smith remain unreleased. ~ Craig Harris, Rovi