July 6, 2005 – Dennis D’Ell (the Honeycombs) was born Denis James Dalziel on October 14, 1943 in Whitecapel, London, England. His father was the son of a lorry driver, in Stepney, east London and Dennis trained as a signalman for British Railways. He was also a plumber before joining the Sheratons which became later the Honeycombs.
Encouraged by his railroad co-workers he entered and won a talent contest in 1963. A number of news articles imply that the talent contest led directly to Denis joining the Honeycombs, however it was a chance conversation between Martin Murray and a mutual friend which led to them hooking up.
Martin Murray and Alan Ward on guitars, John Lantree on bass, and his sister Anne Lantree on drums had a local semi-pro band called the Sheratons. Shortly afterwards the band auditioned with maverick producer Joe Meek, agreed on a management deal with new songwriters Howard and Blaikley, signed to Pye records, and changed their name to The Honeycombs. As Anne’s nickname was “Honey” and she and Murray were hairdressers (that is, combers), they became “the Honeycombs”, as suggested by Louis Benjamin (1922–1994), Pye’s later chairman, a pun on the drummer’s name and her job as a hairdresser’s assistant.
BBC employees and budding songwriters Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley recorded some demonstration records of their songs, including “Have I the Right?” with the Honeycombs.
Joe Meek offered to record them but went into a tantrum when they arrived late to meet him due to London traffic. Howard and Blaikley won him round and “Have I the Right?” was recorded in three parts – the backing musicians, the vocals and then the stomping on the stairs. While they were jumping up and down, the cleaning lady called and told them to hurry up.
Conspicuous in “Have I the Right?” is the prominence of the drums, whose effect was enhanced by members of the group stamping their feet on the wooden stairs to the studio. Meek recorded the effect with five microphones he had fixed to the banisters with bicycle clips. For the finishing touch someone beat a tambourine directly onto a microphone. The recording was also somewhat sped up.
Leased to Pye Records, “Have I the Right?” was promoted by the pirate station Radio Caroline and the publicity surrounding a group with a girl drummer was enormous. The sales started slowly, but by the end of July the record started to climb in the UK Singles Chart. Honey Lantree’s status as a female drummer in a top band wasn’t just a visual novelty, she genuinely could play drums. At the end of August the record reached No. 1. “Have I the Right?” was also a big success outside the UK, hitting No. 1 in Australia and Canada, No. 3 in Ireland, No. 5 in the US and No. 2 in the Netherlands. Overall sales of the record reached a million.
The group toured Europe, The Far East, Japan and Australia soon after the song had become a hit. They went on tour to the Far East and Australia, and were not able to promote their later records at home. The tour gained them a long-lasting popularity in Japan, however. Especially for the Japanese market the group produced a live album and a single, “Love in Tokyo”. The group also made a lasting impression in Sweden, where they scored two No. 1 singles.
The Honeycombs had further success with “Is It Because?” and made the album It’s the Honeycombs (1964), but D’Ell was uncomfortable with Meek’s speeded-up trickery and criticized him in an interview with New Musical Express. Meek then recorded the Ray Davies song “Something Better Beginning” at standard speed, admittedly with some distortion, but the record only nudged into the Top Forty. When Meek resorted to his regular activities, the Honeycombs had another Top Twenty hit, with “That’s the Way”, and made the album All Systems Go!
In August 1965 the group released, “That’s the Way”, with Honey Lantree sharing vocals with D’Ell (when on tour, Viv Prince of The Pretty Things took over the drumming). This record became their fourth British hit and reached No. 12. Its successor, “This Year Next Year”, again with Lantree and D’Ell sharing vocals, did not reach the UK chart. The group floundered after Meek’s suicide in 1967. They split up and did not reform until 1994.
D’Ell sang and played harmonica on all but the last single the group recorded. “Who Is Sylvia?” was an adaptation of Franz Schubert’s song “An Sylvia”. “It’s So Hard” was also recorded by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich as “Hard to Love You”.
In April 1966 Denis D’Ell, Alan Ward and Peter Pye left the group. D’Ell became a solo singer, usually of soul songs, and his “Better Use Your Head” (1967) became a 1970s favorite on the Northern Soul circuit.
In the early seventies Denis formed a band with Rod Butler called Zarabanda and also fronted the Don Harvey band.
• In 1975 he won a controversial victory in a national talent show.
• In April 1976 he released Home Is Home / Morning Without You
• In the 1980s he was with The Southside Blues Band.
• In 1983 he appeared in an episode of The Time Of Your Life
• In 1994 the MKII version of The Honeycombs reformed for a 30th anniversary gig, and around that time they recorded a cover of “Live And Let Die” for a compilation album Cult Themes from the 70s Volume 2 on Future Legend Records.
• During the nineties and into the new millennium he was with a duo called “The Shuffle Brothers” with Tommy Dunn (who also played with blues band National Gold) and sometimes Andy Robinson Andy Robinson Band who would depp for Tommy.
Andy Robinson, who played with him in later years said “Working with Dennis was a real pleasure and great learning curve. We used to play a pub in Southend on Sea called the “Minerva” on a Sunday, playing sometimes from midday to midnight and I don’t ever think he repeated a song once. His knowledge was enormous as was his talent and sound.
The last time I saw him was at a fundraising gig in Saffron Walden football club, his appearance was heartbreaking, he died soon after.”
On July 6, 2005 he lost his battle with cancer at the age of 61.
What is not so well known is that Denis did not particularly like the music that made him famous. He was critical of Joe Meek’s recording techniques. He said “There was always contention between us and Joe that he never recorded the band the way we sounded. He was fond of speeding us up so that I ended up sounding like Mickey Mouse. He liked to compress everything and put on so much echo ─ we ended up like the Tornados with a singer.”
In an August 1964 NME article, he gives his favourite singers as Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Brook Benton and favourite artists/instrumetalists as Ray Coniff, Floyd Cramer, Chet Atkins, and Bill Black.
In the summer of 1964 Denis saw a band called ‘Dave Dee and the Bostons’ and liked them. He got them a slot supporting The Honeycombs and showed them to managers Howard and Blaikley who took the band on, changing the name to ‘Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Titch’. The deal between The Honeycombs and Howard and Blaikley required that the Honeycombs got first refusal of all new songs written by the pair. If they turned a song down then it would go to Dave Dee.
After Martin Murray left The Honeycombs the mantle of band leader naturally fell to D’Ell. Since Denis preferred blues to pop he turned down a lot of songs. In fact The Honeycombs second album only has three Howard and Blaikley numbers on it compared to the first which only had three songs NOT penned by the pair.
Naturally those songs were offered to Dave Dee. So songs like ‘All I Want’, ‘No Time’, ‘You Make It Move’, 1965; and (among many others) ‘Bend It’ 1966 might have been Honeycombs songs.
Music must have been in Dennis’s blood since not only did he remain in the music business through thick and thin until his untimely death in 2005, but also his brother Laurie still plays bass to this day in various bands, including Medicine Hat.