By the age of 12, he had begun writing his own songs, in addition to performing in local amateur shows alongside his older brother, Norman Jr. The two brothers formed a doo-wop combo named the Starlighters with two friends while in Roosevelt High School. In 1956 they recorded a single entitled, "The Birdland", [1] a novelty dance record. It gained some interest, resulting in a tour with drummer Vi Burnsides. In 1959 the Starlighters produced three singles for End Records that included "I Cried". Marriage and other commitments eventually caused the group to disband during the mid-1950s. Van also sang with a group called the Marylanders.

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