When Larry Chance was 6 years old, living with his family in South Philadelphia, he was cast in a school production called The Baker and the Pie Man.
“I was the baker,” Chance told podcast host Gene DiNapoli in 2020. “I got applause. I decided then that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
For the next three quarters of a century, he did. When Larry Chance died Wednesday at the age of 82, he’d been entertaining people all his life, everywhere from street corners to nightclubs, bars, auditoriums, resorts, arenas and casinos.
He heard lots of applause.
Chance was probably best known as the lead singer of the vocal group The Earls, whose biggest hit was “Remember Then” in 1962, but who became a decades-long institution among rhythm and blues vocal group fans.
The Earls were among the white groups that took what had largely been a black musical form and infused a little more rock ’n’ roll into it.
“I didn’t have the voice of [Crests lead singer Johnny] Maestro or the hits of [Bobby] Rydell,” Chance told DiNapoli. “But my singing was very honest.”
That came across vividly in what Chance called his personal favorite recording, “I Believe.” A №1 hit for Frankie Laine in 1953, “I Believe” was composed by Ervin Drake, Jack Mendelsohn, Irvin Abraham and Al Stillman at the request of TV host Jane Froman when the Korean war was dragging on and she felt the country needed an inspirational song.
Chance and the Earls recorded it in 1965 partly as a tribute to Larry Palumbo, an early member of the group who died in 1959 from a blood clot he sustained while making a jump as an Army paratrooper.
The Earls’s version, released as a B-side, went largely unnoticed. But it gradually became a highlight of Earls shows and in later years became a memorial anthem for rhythm and blues fans, who find solace in its message that after someone is physically gone, parts of their spirit live on.
If Chance never had major recording success, he sustained a career far longer than most of his early contemporaries. He went from low-budget marathon rock ’n’ roll package bus tours to nightclubs to the Catskills to casinos, often working six nights a week. When vocal group harmony was bumped off the pop charts, he briefly changed his band to a nine-piece R&B ensemble called Smokestack that played songs by artists like Sly Stone. He recorded a Christmas album and a country album. He included pop standards in some of his shows.
He also had side gigs like voicing the characters Geraldo Santana Banana and Rainbow Johnson on Don Imus’s WNBC radio show.
“I did that for 10 years,” Chance said. “It was great fun. I’m a frustrated comedian. I also put a lot of humor into Earls shows. I always wanted to be a complete entertainer, not just a singer.”
Chance was born Larry Figueiredo, which probably explains why Hy Weiss, the veteran music mogul who signed the Earls to his Old Town label, told him “Larry Chance” was a better idea. Weiss then put Chance’s name on the label, a trick record companies used to give them the option of potentially breaking the lead singer off as a solo artist.
Chance did some solo work, including shows in the Catskills, but he never gave up the Earls even when he became the last original member.
Since music can be a tough gig in the early years, for a time he also took day jobs with masonry and construction companies — which must have pleased his father.
“When I told my father I wanted a career in music,” Chance recalled, “he told me, ‘Get a man’s job.’ “
When Chance’s family moved to the Bronx around 1957 and he formed the vocal group that became the Earls, they first called themselves the High Hatters, imagining they could go full Fred Astaire with tuxes, canes and top hats. But they couldn’t afford those outfits themselves and when Larry asked his father to help, he said, he got the familiar response: “Get a man’s job.”
So the group became the Earls, taking their inspiration more from favorite vocal groups like the Turbans, Moonglows and Flamingos.
Larry Chance’s career spanned multiple eras of popular music, and he did what was necessary to sustain a career. He recalled how, when “Remember Then” was a contestant on Murray the K’s WINS “Boss Record of the Week” competition, the Earls got all their friends to call in and vote, effectively stuffing the ballot box and guaranteeing the record the airplay that made it a hit.
Some 60 years later, in 2022, he joined his long-time friend Billy Vera for a duet version of “Stand By Me,” which Vera said stemmed from Chance introducing him for a concert at Archbishop Stepinac, Vera’s old high school. They did an impromptu duet of “Stand By Me” for an encore and a month later Chance asked Vera if he’d like to lay down a vocal track for a recorded version.
Vera said he hesitated, because “who needs another version of Ben E. King’s classic,” but then he heard Chance’s tracks for it and was sold: “It was like Count Basie.”
Larry Chance had that kind of versatility, and different people will remember him for different music. They will all agree that 6-year-old Larry Figueiredo nailed his dream.