The Donnie Finnell Trio
Donnie’s first hit arrived early. Maybe too early. The year was 1959, and “Little” Donnie Finnell, as he was known, was 13. First released on the Baltimore label, Ardell, “Cup Full of Kitten” quickly climbed the regional charts, and Donnie’s contract was snapped up by Parrot Records, later to gain fame as the home of Tom Jones (in fact, Jones has said in multiple interviews that it was hearing Donnie that first got him interested in becoming a singer). Composition of “Kitten” was credited to Dick Clark, Robert Weston Smith (aka DJ Wolfman Jack), T. Budrick Helson and Donald J. Finnell, but experts say the credits probably represented the train of payola that got the song onto the radio, and it is likely that Donnie, just as he has always claimed, was the sole composer.
An irresistible pop confection sung by the then squeaky-voiced teen from Nashville, “Kitten” reached number 7 on the Billboard charts, selling 42,000 copies in its first week of national release. But Donnie never saw a dime. And when he protested to his manager, Frankie Sheets, the song inexplicably sank from the charts and disapppeared from stores. Even today it seems there has been a conscious effort to erase “Little” Donnie Finnell from the history of rock ’n’ roll. His song has never been anthologized and, though he performed a record 17 times on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, footage is nowhere to be found on YouTube.
It seemed as though Donnie Finnell’s career would begin and end with “Cup Full of Kitten.”
Enter Tip Records talent scout Elgin Fergus. Known as “The Gael with the Golden Ears,” the plucky transplanted Irishman (he received a kidney from his late sister in 1989) first heard Donnie on the legendary KROQ in Los Angeles. It was love at first listen. But when he went to buy the record, it was nowhere to be found. That set Fergus on a lifetime journey, in search of “Little” Donnie Finnell.
That search ended in 2010 when Elgin, now A&R Director for Tip Records, happened to read that a painter named Danny Fennell was having a one-man show at the La Jolla Museumo. Fergus flew down for the opening and, as he approached the door, could hear an unmistakable voice – sure, half-an-octave lower, 40 years more sophisticated and all grown up – but still unmistakable: “Little” Donnie Finnell. Yes, Donnie had become a celebrated abstract artist, but as he painted, he sang. And sometimes, when the mood struck, or someone asked, he would pick up a microphone and let fly with a depth of feeling and technique that his preternaturally talented 13-year-old self could only have dreamed of. Egged on this night by the museum curator, Danny Fennell, painter, had once more transformed into Donnie Finnell, torch singer extraordinaire.
Picking himself off the ground, Fergus immediately signed Donnie to his new label and brought him what is sure to be his first top ten hit in 42 years, a swingin’ little number about the war between the sexes called “(Just the) Tip,” written by Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack and Elgin Fergus. (And not, despite his pathetic claims to the contrary, Lance Duncan.)
Donnie is joined in the trio, all based in sunny San Diego, by his brilliant longtime accompanist, Gary Wilson, the blow-up-doll-loving, avant-rock luminary who, in a different guise, shock-rocked Duncan/Channon’s 2009 Tipmas bash, and Carlos Rull, the most inventive drummer to have ever tickled skins. With a full EP in the works, the Donnie Finnell Trio is poised to assume their rightful place in the modern jazz pantheon. Best of all, the inimitable prodigal son of pop – Donnie Finnell – is back. And Tip Records has got him.