Born John Hendry Blair, 2 February 1945, Ochiltree, Scotland
Died 16 March 1993, Nashville, Tennessee

Singer, songwriter, producer.

Johnny Cymbal has two entries in Wayne Jancik’s “Billboard book of one-hit wonders” (1998), one under his own name and one under the pseudonym Derek. He is probably best remembered for his novelty hit “Mr. Bass Man” (1963). Cymbal was a prolific songwriter, with more than 200 songs to his credit, the most famous of which is “Mary in the Morning”.

Scottish-born Johnny Blair adopted the surname of his mother’s second husband (Nick Cymbal) at an early age. In 1952 he and his family moved to Canada (Goderich, Ontario) and in 1960 to Cleveland, Ohio. Johnny started singing at 13 and taught himself to play guitar. MGM Records signed Cymbal when he was 15. They sent him to Nashville, where he cut two singles that flopped, ending the brief association. The first MGM single coupled an uptempo number (the Jerry Lee Lewis B-side “It‘ll Be Me”) with an attractive teen ballad, “Always, Always”. The latter must have been the A-side in the UK, because I remember hearing it on Radio Luxembourg several times in late 1960.

In 1961 Johnny recorded “Bachelor Man” as a demo, which was later (1963) released on the tiny Kedlen label and picked up by Vee-Jay for national release. The next year his manager, Jack Gale, got him signed to Kapp Records in New York City. His first record for the label, released in January 1963, was an immediate success. “Mr. Bass Man”, his own composition, rose to # 16 in the USA and to # 24 in the UK. The record featured bass singer Ronnie Bright as the second voice. Bright had been a member of the Valentines and would go on to be the bass voice of the Coasters for no less than 41 years (1968-2009). “Mr. Bass Man” is often referred to as a tribute to the doowop bass singer, but I’ve always seen it as a parody of the Marcels-styled vocal gimmicks that were so popular in 1961. The Marcels responded to “Mr. Bass Man” with the ironic “I Wanna Be the Leader”, claiming that the bassman was overrated and that it was the lead singer that really mattered.

Cymbal’s follow-up, the morbid death song “Teenage Heaven”, made # 58 in Billboard. I remember the UK release (London HLR 9731) being reviewed in DISC weekly. Reviewer Don Nicholl found it so tasteless that he gave it zero stars, probably the only record to ever receive this "honour”. “Dum Dum Dee Dum”, the third Kapp single, also charted (# 77), but then the hits dried up. At 18, it looked as if Johnny Cymbal was a has-been.

After his Kapp contract ran out, Cymbal recorded for Don Costa’s DCP label (1965), Columbia, Scepter (as The Non-Conformists), Musicor and Buddha without success. By 1966 he was tired of the road and began to concentrate on songwriting and producing. Among the artists he (co-)produced are Gene Pitney, Mae West, the Partridge Family and Terri Gibbs. In 1967 Cymbal wrote the beautiful “Mary in the Morning” with Mike Rashkow (aka Mike Lendell), his most successful composition. Al Martino had the hit version (# 27), but it is probably better known in the version by Elvis Presley, who cut it for his album “That’s the Way It Is” in 1970. Many other artists have recorded “Mary in the Morning” and according to Wikipedia, the song attained BMI’s Two Million Performance status for radio airplay in 2010.

In 1968, Cymbal made a chart comeback with “Cinnamon” (# 11, his biggest hit), on the Bang label. However, it was released under the pseudonym “Derek”, the name of his half-brother, who went on tour to promote the record. Johnny also recorded under various other names (for a full list, see the extensive Wikipedia article). Two other Derek singles on Bang followed, of which ”Back Door Man” peaked at # 59 on the Billboard Hot 100, his last chart entry. Then Cymbal fell in love with Peggy Clinger and started writing and recording with her (as Cymbal and Clinger). They had several releases on the Chelsea label in the early 1970s, but no hits. The Cymbal / Clinger composition “Rock Me Baby” was a # 11 hit for David Cassidy in the UK in 1972. Peggy Clinger died of a drug overdose in 1975, after which Johnny had a few difficult years.

Around 1980 Cymbal moved to Nashville, trying to make it as a country songwriter. His “I’m Drinking Canada Dry” was a # 38 country hit for the Burrito Brothers in 1982 and a smash in Canada. Many of his songs were recorded by well-known country artists. With his good friend Austin Roberts he formed the Cymbal Roberts Band and went back to performing. The band's studio recordings have never been released, though.

Johnny Cymbal died in his sleep of a heart attack on March 16, 1993, at the age of 48. Those who knew him well say that he was highly intelligent, very talented and had an immensely likable personality.

More info :

CD : Mr. Bass Man and Other Classics (Sparkletone 99014). 32 tracks from 1960-1965. Still in print.

Discography :

Acknowledgements : Wikipedia, Wayne Jancik, Andrew Hamilton.

YouTube :
It’ll Be Me :
Always, Always :
Bachelor Man :
Mr. Bass Man :
Marshmallow :
Dum Dum Dee Dum :
Go V.W. Go :
Cinnamon (Derek) :
Mary in the Morning (live) :

Dik, October 2016

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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