Delfonics leader William Hart dies; How a whirlwind of history killed his group’s best chance to hit No. 1 in 1968

(July 16, 2022).  William “Poogie” Hart, lead singer of the legendary R&B/soul group the Delfonics, died on July 14 of complications from surgery following a respiratory illness.  He was 77.

William “Poogie” Hart, 1945-2022

Hart was the lead singer and one of the founding members of the Delfonics, initially a quartet under various other names consisting of him, his brother Wilbert, the late Randy Cain, and Ritchie Daniels.  By the time the group settled on the name Delfonics and had its first hit in 1968, the classic lineup consisted of just the two Hart brothers and Cain (who died in 2009).

The Delfonics out of Philly were highly talented and successful in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a success owed primarily to the craftsmanship of William Hart and legendary composer/producer Thom Bell, who with Hart wrote the first ten of the group’s 20 R&B chart hits, including their two biggest: “La-La-Means I Love You” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).”  Hart went on to write most of the group’s other hits after they broke ties with Bell in 1971, but none reached the glory of “La-La” and “Didn’t I.”

And while many of the tributes to the late Hart have paid homage to “Didn’t I”—their only song to win the group a Grammy and the only one to receive an official gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America—it was “La-La-Means I Love You,” their first million-seller and biggest hit, that is perhaps their most beloved song and the one whose story is more compelling.

The label for the 7” vinyl 45rpm single of “La-La-Means I Love You” by The Delfonics

“La-La-Means I Love You,” with the extra hyphen included, was released as a single on Philly Groove Records in January 1968 and made its debut on the Billboard R&B chart just in time for Valentine’s Day.  It featured Hart’s signature tenor/falsetto and lyrics that he articulated with a clarity that made them unforgettable and easy to sing along with on first listen. Who could forget that intro: “many guys have come to you, with a line that wasn’t true, and you passed them by”?

A fast riser, “La La” was in the R&B top ten by March and quickly climbing the pop chart as well.

Newcomers the Delfonics were listed among some of history’s most celebrated soul acts in the R&B top ten during that period, including The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sam & Dave, the Impressions, Ray Charles and James Brown.

But there were two other veteran acts in the top ten whose profiles had risen significantly in the preceding twelve months…two iconic soul legends who combined to prevent the Delfonics from getting their first No. 1 hit.

First was one of the greatest soul singers of all time Otis Redding who, just six weeks before the Delfonics released “La-La,” was killed in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin.

Redding, who was in the prime of his career at the time of his death, had just recorded “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” a melancholic ballad featuring him crooning against a backdrop of seagulls squawking and waves crashing similar to sounds he’d heard while staying at a houseboat in Sausalito, California during a tour with the Bar-Kay’s (members of which were also on that ill-fated flight).

In the wake of Otis’ death, his record sales skyrocketed.  The Stax/Volt label capitalized by releasing “Dock of the Bay” as a single and it quickly became the first-ever posthumous No. 1 song on both the pop and soul charts in March 1968.  It was sitting at No. 1 on the soul chart when the Delfonics’ “La-La” moved from No. 6 to No. 2 looking like a sure bet to replace Redding’s classic in the coming weeks.

The Billboard soul chart of March 23, 1968, where “La-La-Means I Love You” was nestled at No. 2 between hits by Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin

After the songs held their positions for another week, Otis’ record tumbled to No. 5 leaving the door open for “La-La” to take over the top spot.  But another legend of the Memphis Soul variety leapfrogged the Philly trio to get her fifth No. 1 soul chart hit in just over a year, more than anyone had ever amassed on that list in such a short period. 

That legend was Aretha Franklin, whose iconic Lady Soul album had already produced huge hits with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools.”  Its third single, “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” moved from No. 3 to No. 1 on the soul chart dated April 6, relegating “La-La-Means I Love You” to its third and ultimately fourth week in the No. 2 position.

Aretha’s profile couldn’t have been any bigger at that point in her career.  Like Otis Redding, she had major crossover success with a No. 1 pop hit, in her case a little tune the year before ironically written by the late Redding called “Respect.”

Then, during the same week that Aretha’s rousing powerhouse “Since You’ve Been Gone” replaced Redding’s much calmer “Dock of the Bay” at the top came the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4).  Amidst historic riots and calls for peace in cities across the country, it was none other than Queen of Soul Aretha who famously performed at the slain Civil Rights leader’s funeral on April 9, singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and seemingly capturing the anger, despair and hope of a nation (and Black people in particular) in just a few short minutes.

Aretha’s performance at Dr. King’s funeral was transcendent in its ability to bridge all those emotions while soothing the races—if only briefly.  That she happened to also be at the top of the soul chart during that time with the emotionally charged “Since You’ve Been Gone” was a dual fate that no one could’ve imagined only months earlier. No one could’ve toppled her at that point.

Aretha Franklin hopped over the Delfonics on April 6, 1968, to get her fifth No. 1 and preventing the group from getting their first.

Aretha would remain at No. 1 on the Billboard soul list for three weeks, with the Delfonics’ “La-La” stuck at No. 2 for the first two of those.  In that third frame (dated April 20), “La-La” slipped to No. 3 while Franklin retained the top spot.  Eventually, both records’ popularity waned and they made their inevitable exits from the list.

So the Delfonics and their first single ended up settling for runner-up status behind two of the most important figures in soul music history, iconic Memphis Soul singers named Otis and Aretha whose own chart fates were shaped by historical events that made the Philly-based group’s chances of landing their first chart topper even more daunting.  Both Redding and Franklin would eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the two albums from which their blocking No. 1 songs came—Otis’ Dock of the Bay and Re-Re’s Lady Soul—are listed among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

After “La-La-Means I Love You,” the Delfonics would chart 19 more times on the Billboard R&B/Soul chart, with many of their hits crossing over to the pop survey.  But none of them would ever come as close to No. 1 as that first hit, not even “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” which peaked at No. 3 soul and No. 10 pop two years later.

The Delfonics in 1968

“La-La-Means I Love You” remained the group’s biggest hit on both charts with its No. 2 soul peak nearly being matched on the pop chart (No. 5).  The group broke up in 1975 (after the hits had dried up) with the two Hart brothers splitting the Delfonics into two factions. Each brother toured under the group’s name using different lineups throughout the ensuing years and decades before reuniting in the 2000s.

Sole Survivors: Read about these famous groups of three or more who have just one surviving original member.

William Hart’s brother Wilbert is the lone surviving member of the classic lineup of the Delfonics, whose performance of “La-La-Means I Love You” you can see in the video below.

The Delfonics perform “La-La-Means I Love You” in 1968.

R.I.P. William Hart (January 17, 1945 – July 14, 2022).  You will be missed but your legacy will remain with two of the greatest soul songs of all time, including one that just couldn’t overcome the avalanche of history it faced in the early months of 1968 while being relegated to No. 2.

William Hart (center) is flanked by fellow Delfonics Randy Cain (left) and brother Wilbert Hart in 2006

DJRob

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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6 Replies to “Delfonics leader William Hart dies; How a whirlwind of history killed his group’s best chance to hit No. 1 in 1968”

  1. Thanks, DJ Rob. Always loved “La-La-Means I Love You.”

    Tidbit about “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind”: Thom Bell told me he was inspired by, of all things, the shofar — the ram’s horn used during the Jewish High Holy Days — for the French horn that leads off the song. Bell soaked up influences from EVERYWHERE.

    1. Wow! The fact that he “told you” that is awesome. The fact itself is amazing as well! Thanks for sharing. That intro is classic!

  2. Great tribute and recognition. This was one of my dad’s favorite R&B/Soul groups. They just make groups or music like this anymore. Makes you think 🤔

    1. There hasn’t been an R&B group this good in decades. Silk Sonic, who is largely modeled after the Delfonics and others, is the younger generation’s best chance at experiencing groups of this stature, and even they are somewhat of a novelty.

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