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Mike Douglas was at home on Ed Sullivan's stage, and later at the flea market

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Published Jul. 16, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Mike Douglas, the tall baritone in the singing group the Diamonds, might have been the hardest voice to pick out by ear.

He wasn't the lead falsetto in Little Darlin and other hits.He wasn't playing the oom-pah anchor or the soaring tenor.

During the Diamonds' peak years of 1957 to 1961, during which the group racked up 16 Billboard hits and three gold records, Mr. Douglas seemed to find his greatest pride in blending in.

The Diamonds, who originated in Toronto, performed their brand of doo-wop on The Ed Sullivan Show and Tonight Starring Steve Allen, and performed on Dick Clark's American Bandstand nearly a dozen times. As other members dropped out of the group or died, Mr. Douglas stayed on, becoming the longest-standing member dating back to the group's early years with Mercury Records.

Though residual checks continued to trickle in, he never received a paycheck that reflected his group's sales of millions of records. A resident of Pinellas County for at least four decades, Mr. Douglas worked a variety of jobs after he quit performing, including in the meat department of a grocery store and selling CDs at a flea market.

On July 2, Mr. Douglas died in a car crash on Roosevelt Boulevard. He was 78.

"Audiences just loved them," said drummer Hal Blaine, 83, who played behind the Diamonds and many of the most famous musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, including Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys.

Friends describe Mr. Douglas as a quiet man who opened up once he developed a relationship with people. Then he became talkative, especially about music.

"I think my dad loved the challenge," said daughter Lisa Landers. "And he appreciated the talent, the hard work and the ear that was necessary for all of those things to come together."

Mr. Douglas joined the Diamonds, a few months after the group recorded Little Darlin, which ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in 1957.

Their sound was not easy to classify, said Ric Tester, 54, of Syndey, Australia, a musician who was collaborating with Mr. Douglas on a history of the group. It performed revised covers of songs recorded by African-American groups and dabbled in traditional barbershop, Western songs, Broadway and jazz.

"They assimilated so many musical styles that they really did build a bridge between the early '50s pop and the slick rock 'n' roll," said Tester. "If there ever was a glue that glued musical cultures together, it was certainly the Diamonds who did that."

Michael Dlugosz was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, the son of Polish immigrants, and grew up in Toronto. He discovered quartet singing in 1953 and later changed his name to Douglas.

In 1957, Mr. Douglas stepped in for a baritone who was leaving the Diamonds. In future years, the Diamonds performed around the world, had spaghetti dinners at Frank Sinatra's house and enjoyed soaring popularity.

But eventually, the hits faded into the past, as did the popularity of doo-wop groups.

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Mr. Douglas stayed on until 1972, though a contract dispute colored his view of the group. By then he was living in the St. Petersburg area. In 1978 Mr. Douglas was married for the second time, to Carolyn Harbin.

He rejoined the Diamonds in 1987, but by then another group was performing under the name. Through a complex legal tangle, the earliest Diamonds lost the right to perform under the name they made famous.

Mr. Douglas watched for years as another group — none of them original band members — played his group's old hits and called themselves the Diamonds.

"It certainly upset him," said Tester. "When you bake the cake, and then somebody else comes along and eats it, that goes down very hard. Especially at the moment when you still have your bills to pay."

Mr. Douglas stopped performing with his own group of Diamonds in 1997. He enjoyed working a booth at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market, where he sold CDs.

He also enjoyed cooking, and was known to spend hours preparing a meal. That's what he was doing the day he died.

On July 2, Mr. Douglas made a trip to a nearby Publix, where he bought ground beef, chili seasonings and an apple pie.

On the way home, he left the shopping center by crossing Roosevelt Boulevard, despite a sign prohibiting left turns there. Another driver hit him. He died two hours later at Bayfront Medical Center.

Landers, his daughter, has been going through his belongings, calling musicians he had played with and breaking down his booth at the Wagon Wheel.

Among the gold records, studio photos and 50-year-old song sheets, she found many spiral notebooks filled with Bible verses and his reflections.

During an interview for this story, Landers gripped the notebook with both hands and read a recent entry.

"For many, death is a darkened door at the end of our lives," the entry reads. "A passageway to an unknown and feared destiny. But for God's people, death is a bright doorway to a new and better life."

The notebooks have given her comfort, coming from a man who had seen the ups and downs of fame but cherished his friendships and his music.