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Len Barry, 1960s rock 'n roll recording star and lead voice of the Dovells, dies at 78

Len Barry was a Philly product but his recorded hits went viral. He's remembered for “The Bristol Stomp," "You Can't Sit Down," and "1-2-3." Teenyboppers from the 1960s still sing them.

Len Barry performing in the early 1960s.
Len Barry performing in the early 1960s.Read moreCourtesy of the Barry Family Archives

If you were a Philly teenybopper in the 1960s, chances are you turned up the volume when one of Len Barry’s rock 'n roll hits came over the airwaves.

Born in West Philly as Leonard Borisoff, Mr. Barry was a homegrown product. He graduated from Overbrook High School and broke into the music business as the lead singer of Philly’s Dovells in 1961. The group’s “The Bristol Stomp” hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts, earning a gold record.

Mr. Barry quickly followed that with another hit record, “You Can’t Sit Down,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Both hits were popular dance songs for teens, here and across the nation.

The noted singer, songwriter, and record producer died Thursday, Nov. 5, of myelodysplasia, a cancer of the bone marrow, at Nazareth Hospital. He was 78 and lived in Northeast Philadelphia.

His death was announced by his longtime friend and publicist, Alan White. “The world has lost a lot of love today,” said John Luongo, Mr. Barry’s business manager.

At age 17, Mr. Barry toured as a Dovell with vocalist James Brown. wowing audiences with his Philly soul sound. Later, Mr. Barry made an appearance in the 1962 movie Don’t Knock the Twist with Philadelphia song and dance legend Chubby Checker.

After leaving the Dovells, Mr. Barry recorded on his own. His 1965 song “1-2-3,” which he also wrote, hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 3 in the United Kingdom, earning him another gold disc and a Grammy nomination for best contemporary rock male vocal performance of the year.

“Len Barry was one of the best singers in the 60′s and at every disco I went to, I always asked the DJ to play 1-2-3,” fan Julie Huggins posted online. “I loved that song then and love it now.”

Mr. Barry became a singing sensation in the United Kingdom, touring with the Motown Revue. He also performed solo at the London Palladium and Royal Albert Hall.

“He told me he had a command performance for the queen,” said his son, Spencer Borisoff. “In his day and age, for a white guy to have that music style, he was a pioneer, an American original.”

Mr. Barry appeared on Top of the Pops, a weekly BBC TV music show broadcast from Britain starting in 1964. In the United States, he made guest appearances on Dick Clark’s Bandstand as well as the TV shows Shindig and Hullabaloo.

Mr. Barry was also a prolific songwriter and record producer. He wrote the hit singles “Zoom” for Philadelphia’s Fat Larry’s Band and “Love Town” for vocalist and keyboardist Booker Newberry III.

Mr. Barry produced hits with the R&B group Blue Magic, recording artist Brandi Wells, the soul group Damon Harris & Impact, and Newberry. “Zoom” and a disco instrumental called “Space Bass” were released abroad but not in the United States. He also produced albums with Las Vegas performer Lola Falana, and Isis, the New York all-female rock band.

In 2008, Mr. Barry released his first novel, Black-Like-Me, published by Bank House Books, England. His new book, Prose & Cons, published by Blue Room Books of Decatur, Ga., is targeted for release later this year. At the time of his death, he was working on a new single, “Poetry.” A documentary about his life is in the works, his friends and business partner said.

Mr. Barry never owned a computer or cell phone. “My dad was really someone who did not think much of falling in with the norm,” his son said. "He was so creative, people sometimes underestimated his intellect. He followed his own path. His mind went places most people never thought to go. He was funny, witty, and always ahead of his time.”

Mr. Barry married Elaine Uniman. They had two children before divorcing. She survives.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Bia Gerngross, and two grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private.