Album cover

Toni & The Hearts

Camden Calling

Operating out of a living room in the West Oak Lane section on the far north end of Philadelphia, Thomas Shepard’s Path label was one of several hundred upstarts trying to break black records in the City of Brotherly Love in the 1960s. A cop by day, Shepard opened his 6244 Ogantz Avenue home to cast of characters in the evenings, including his uncle and small time arranger Jimmy Wooten, neighbor and songwriter Arnold Flemming, and cousin and singer DeVolia Lasane, the latter of which delivered the first Path 45 in 1963.

The only Path single that could be even marginally identified as a hit came from sisters Toni, Marie, and Janet Hart from nearby Camden, New Jersey, known as Toni & the Hearts. They came into Shepard’s orbit in the summer of 1965 with Toni’s original “Never Change Our Love,” which was paired with Thomas and his son Trevour’s “Back To School.” The single failed to end up in many backpacks that fall, but Shepard had an unwavering belief in the Harts. A mini finishing school was erected in the Shepard living room, where dance moves and etiquette were practiced. A second single was rushed into the market in late ’65, but suffered from poor fidelity. The following spring Path went all in on “Thank You Baby,” a saccharine ballad that showcased Toni’s lilting falsetto. When the first pressing blew out the door following a Hot 100 prediction in Billboard, Shepard beefed up the operation. After partnering with Reading, Pennsylvania’s McKinnon Records for distribution, a promotional blitz followed, including a colorful flyer boasting “100,000 sold in less than two weeks.” Slyly delivered in this braggadocio was a subtle change: the Harts were now the Hearts. Appearances on local television programmes “Hy Lit” and “The Georgie Woods Show” flattered the young trio’s ego, who were keenly aware of their expired Path contract. After exiting Path, the sisters made a play for the national spotlight, demoing their take on Otis Redding’s “Respect” at Impact Sound Studios. Interest was minimal, and the Harts slunk back to Camden and then disappeared.

Path soldiered on for a few more years, moving into a former fishmonger in North Philadelphia when Shepard opened Smiley’s House of Wax at 2111 North 22nd Street. Their proximity to the Raymond Rosen projects brought an unending string of local talent through the door, and singles from the Fugitives, Pattie Ward, and Brenda Devlin were issued throughout the balance of the decade on both Path and its Road subsidiary. Following the closure of Smiley’s in 1973, the entire contents of the Path label were lost in fire. When Thomas Shepard passed in 2010, all knowledge and history of the enterprise went with him.

Track List

  1. Toni & The Hearts Stay In School
  2. Toni & The Hearts Thank You Baby
  3. Toni & The Hearts Never Change Our Love
  4. Toni & The Hearts Come Back Baby
  5. Toni & The Hearts Would You Love Me
  6. Toni & The Hearts Back To School