Small gamble pays off for accomplished local songwriters
By Jane Miller
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013, 9:06 p.m.
Updated: Monday, February 4, 2013
The presence of a pretty girl and the flip of a coin helped bring a hit song to life for Aliquippa twin brothers Melvin and Mervin Steals.
“Could It Be I'm Falling in Love,” landed on the Billboard charts 40 years ago. The Spinners' classic love song climbed quickly to the No. 4 spot. Since then, the Solid Gold record has had more than 4 million radio spins.
Melvin credits the memory of meeting that pretty girl as the inspiration for the lyrics.
As high school juniors, the brothers took a bus to a Westinghouse High School football game on the promise of a friend that they would meet girls. They didn't have any luck, so the friend called a girl he knew — Adrena. Since there were two of them and only one girl, the twins flipped a coin. Melvin won the toss.
“I was suspicious,” says Adrena, who eventually married her young suitor. “But I'm so glad I took the chance.”
Collectively, the Steals brothers wrote more than 100 songs immediately after their college years in the late 1960s. More than 60 were recorded. Some, including “Could It Be I'm Falling in Love,” were composed at the Green Street house in Aliquippa where they were born and raised by their widowed mother, Leola.
That's where the song-writing dream began.
“We were poor,” says Melvin, a retired middle-school principal who lives in Baden with his wife of 44 years. “A lot of good people in the community and church touched our lives, especially through the singing at church. People walking by the house could hear us harmonizing to the Everly Brothers.”
They didn't have a piano. “When Dad died, we were 5 and had no piano then. I always wanted to play one, but I never could until I went to college,” says Mervin, who lives in the Poconos.
As 18-year-olds in 1964, the brothers enrolled in Cheyney State College in Philadelphia. They were both English majors. Eddie Holman, who recorded the 1970s hit “Hey There Lonely Girl,” was enrolled as a student, too. Luck and some ingenuity brought them together.
“I found out his schedule and when he went to the snack bar, I hung out there every day until he tripped over me, but I became his friend,” says Mervin. “What he knew at the piano, he taught me. I practiced 14 hours a day. No tape recorder — we couldn't afford it — just played the songs over and over so I could remember them.”
Holman introduced the brothers to his producers. Later, they met Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Tom Bell, who liked their work. They collaborated with “Brother” Matt Ledbetter, who would become a famed WAMO disc jockey, to write Gloria Gaynor's hit “Honey Bee,” an early disco song.
Although their songs were played on the radio, they received little financial rewards. Mervin dropped out of college to become a steel worker at the J&L mill in Aliquippa. Melvin returned to teach English in the Aliquippa School District. He married Adrena.
Then, in 1968, the brothers were asked to write a duet for Peaches & Herb. Mervin composed a melody on the piano Melvin bought from the school district.
“I was inspired by the music of Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini, who was also from Aliquippa. I always loved ‘Moon River, ' ” says Mervin.
When he played the melody for Melvin, it brought back the memory of the coin flip.
“It took me back to the moment when I first saw Adrena,” Melvin says. “She was so beautiful. I thought I had met an angel. That's where the words, ‘Heaven made you specially,' come from.”
Originally, the song had a much faster beat, and was written as a duet to be sung by Peaches & Herb, but they rejected it. Four years later, Thom Bell presented the song to The Spinners, who agreed to record it.
It brought fame and financial success, but it wasn't lasting.
“At the time, I was working on my master's degree at Slippery Rock University,” Melvin says. “I lost my motivation. When you have a success of that magnitude, you lose all perspective of everything.”
Both brothers dealt with failure.
Mervin left Aliquippa to became a carpenter in New Jersey. “I pounded out my frustrations on nails,” he says.
Melvin recalls how the angel in his life kept his family, including three children, going. Eventually, he returned to school and earn his doctorate in education from Duquesne University.
“During that time, Adrena would assemble our kids in the living room of our old house, and they would have a Bible study,” he says. “I was too proud to join them, and one Sunday, I rejoined the circle. The following week, I got a check in the mail for $1,000 for Gloria Gaynor's song. God made it possible for us to pay our bills, and we eventually climbed out of the hole I had dug my family into.”
“Could It Be I'm Falling in Love” and “Honey Bee” are both listed in the book, “Heart of Rock and Soul: 1001 Greatest Singles.”
“If there is anyone deserving of an award from this area for their contribution to music, it is these two,” says Jack Hunt, better know as “Johnny Angel.” “They are such great behind-the-scenes guys who made great hits for an incredible list of musicians.”
The brothers hope the song's legacy can help raise money to feed people, as well as fuel the dreams of talented youth, through an August Wilson Center concert. Coming in November, Johnny Angel & The Halos will perform, along with Eddie Holman and other Philadelphia Sound musicians, to benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and the North Side's Urban Impact. Talented youth will be recognized at the event.
“We want to give back. We want kids to know that they can follow their dreams and be successful,” says Melvin.
The Nov. 9 concert is the weekend following Melvin and Adrena's 45th wedding anniversary.
“I want kids to know that they can love one person — and it can be for a lifetime,” he says.
Jane Miller is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.
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