In my 45-year career, I've written about many groups that could be considered legends. This is the first time I'm writing about a record that's become a legend itself.
First, a definition: A legend is a story that's essentially true, but with embellishments and possible controversy brought about by the passage of time. A myth, on the other hand, usually has a small core of truth, but has mostly been constructed over the years. The story of "Stormy Weather" by the 5 Sharps probably falls somewhere in the middle.
Let's begin with the story behind the song. In late 1961, the first "golden age" of collecting, the place to be in New York City was Times Square Records, run by Irving "Slim" Rose. While Slim was a one-of-a-kind character, this really doesn't deal with him much. It's the record. The record created the story. The record drove the story.
One day, collector Billy Pensabene found a 78 rpm copy of a record he'd never heard of: "Stormy Weather"/"Sleepy Cowboy" by the 5 Sharps on Jubilee #5104 (possibly the only record number I ever knew by heart!). He either found it on his own or on a record-hunting trip sanctioned by Slim. It was found in New Jersey or possibly Brooklyn. (The inconsistencies have already started!) Anyway, in January 1962, Billy brought the record to Slim, who played it in his store and liked the thunder-and-rain sounds at the beginning of "Stormy Weather." Slim borrowed the record to play on his "Sink Or Swim With Swingin' Slim" radio show on WBNX ("Brand-New and Excellent"). He may have played "Sleepy Cowboy" that week (or not; as usual, accounts differ), but not, for whatever reason, "Stormy Weather."
And then the record struck! As Slim admitted in June of 1965, on the way home from the studio, "it broke under my arm." However, it didn't take too long for the blame to be passed on to Slim's pet raccoon, Teddy, who supposedly "sat" on the disc (sure, blame the guy who can't fight back!). Just for the "record," if it had been placed on a flat surface, it wouldn't have broken even if Teddy had sat on it.
At any rate, Slim owed Billy a copy of the record and he had not one, but two forums: his store and his show. The next week (January 22, 1962) there was a plea for the record: bring it in and get $5 in credit (for a 78) or $10 credit (for a 45); of course, some sources give different amounts for this first attempt. No one came forward. Week after week, the ante was raised: $25, $50, $100, $200 (on his September 1962 "Top 150 In Sales" list, Slim was offering $200 cash for a 45; $100 cash for a 78), $250, $500. Still there were no takers. (Collector Bob Galgano once speculated that Slim made this all up in order to get collectors to go rummaging through garages and basements in order to bring in other discs to replenish the supply at Times Square Records; while this probably was a by-product of the search, the "facts" are real, if garbled.) It's even possible that a collector paid Slim $20 for the label of the broken copy (which was of the blue top/pink bottom variety of Jubilee 78).
Finally, sensing that he'd accidentally created a demand for the disc ("sight unheard," so to speak), Slim went to see Jerry Blaine, owner of Jubilee Records, to get him to reissue the original. And then the record struck again: Blaine told him that there was a batch of 80 masters that had perished in a fire; guess which was among them! (Later, Blaine changed his story: the masters were destroyed by water damage, not fire.)
However, it was probably true that the masters had been destroyed, since Jubilee went to the trouble and expense of getting a contemporary black group (which they called the "5 Sharps") to record "Stormy Weather" along the lines of the original. With "Mammy Jammy" on the flip, this bogus recording was released as Jubilee #5478 in May 1964.
But by that time, Slim had beaten Blaine to the draw. In April, he'd released a different bogus version of "Stormy Weather," on his own Times Square label. This was by a white group called the Florals, cleverly disguised behind the name "5 Sharks." The flip was "If You Love Me."
Neither release lived up to the hype of the original (which, don't forget, only a handful of people had heard since the record had been released in 1952, at which time only a [different] handful of people had heard it); both sank into richly-deserved obscurity.
And then the magic began. In 1968, John Dunn, a Brooklyn collector found a second copy on 78; however, it had a crack from the center hole to the edge. He took it to a recording studio, where the crack was effectively edited out and an acetate copy made. Still, few people got to hear the resulting tape. Then, in March of 1972, collectors' magazine Bim Bam Boom purchased the record from Dunn. They brought it to another studio and had a recording engineer (Ralph Berliner, the grandson of Emile Berliner, who had developed the flat record) spend around 50 hours editing out almost 200 non-musical sounds. In some cases, parts of the song had to be cut from other sections and grafted into a damaged location. Later in 1972, the original "Stormy Weather"/"Sleepy Cowboy" was issued on the Bim Bam Boom label. Finally, the world could hear what this elusive prize sounded like.
It's hard to remember, after all these years, the hoopla surrounding the Bim Bam Boom release, but this is what I can reconstruct: checking back over my magazines, the Bim Bam Boom label was announced in April of 1972. However, the first several releases didn't include "Stormy Weather" (its number, 103, was missing from the list of available titles). In fact, number 103 remained missing in all the ads up to September of that year, when it was, almost quietly, advertised as costing $2.00 (double the price of other BBB releases; plus 50¢ postage). There's a chance that a more dramatic announcement was included with the magazine on a flyer; I can't remember.
The next piece of the legend played out in August 1977, when a third, intact, copy of "Stormy Weather" (again on a 78) was auctioned off in Record Exchanger and purchased, jointly, by two coin collectors (Gordon Wrubel and David Hall, who now run the Good Rockin' Tonight auction house) as an investment. They shelled out $3866, which, according to Gordon, was the highest price ever paid for a single record up to that time. (Not quite. I recently learned that in 1974, a record called "Zulu's Ball," a jazz record from the 1920s by King Oliver on the Gennett label, had sold for $4000.) The same auction listed a fourth copy, which had a chip in the edge. Presumably it too sold.
Was "Stormy Weather" ever pressed up on a 45? Collector/dealer Val Shively has had several leads to 45 rpm copies over the years, all of which failed to pan out. I doubt that anyone but the most unrealistically optimistic of collectors still believes that there's a 45 out there to be found. However, both a respected researcher and a collector who were allowed access to the Jubilee files found the evidence of a 45 pressing; there really was one.
Here's the story about "Stormy Weather" on 45 rpm. Let's start with a quote from that incredible, amazing, inimitable book on the Ink Spots, More Than Words Can Say: The Ink Spots And Their Music, by that up and coming R&B writer, Marv Goldberg. This is from the chapter on 1950:
A new decade, a new war. This time in Korea. Remember what happened to the record industry last time? Well hang on tight, here we go again! This time there was plenty of shellac, but the manufacturers were trying to kill the 78 anyway. Now it was feared that there would be a shortage of vinyl resins needed to make 45s and LPs. As of early August  there was no problem, but the most important ingredient in vinyl is acetylene, which was, of course, an "essential war product." Naturally, to compound matters, there was a strike against the manufacturers of chlorine and chlorides, also vital ingredients in vinyl manufacture. The Bakelite Company, which shipped most of the vinyl to record manufacturers, was worried; if they were worried, the record companies were worried.
Since the Bakelite Company cut back vinyl allotments to record manufacturers, there was a distinct possibility that 45s would have to be made with fillers and vinyl, instead of pure vinyl. Therefore, when Jubilee saw how well the 78s were moving (that is, not at all), they recalled the 45s and recycled them. So take heart, some of those Orioles records in your collection were probably made from vinyl reclaimed from those unsold 5 Sharps 45s. Did Jubilee get them all? It's doubtful; there were probably some that were sold. Will those ever turn up? Beats me; you guys are the record collectors, not me.
And the legend rolls on! On October 31, 2003, Nauck's Vintage Records, a Texas-based company, offered a copy for sale on eBay, the Internet auction house. It was (of course) a 78 (the fifth known copy), having a crack across the radius of the record (although it was claimed that the sound quality wasn't affected). After being listed for only three days (and getting a high bid of $19,990.00), eBay pulled the ad because the sellers violated eBay posting rules (they included a direct link to their home page and said they'd consider a trade if the minimum bid wasn't met). These problems were fixed and the record reappeared on November 6. However, there were no bids when the disc was re-listed! A collector from New Jersey then contacted Nauck and purchased the platter for the bargain price of $19,000. He claims that the hairline crack is "barely noticeable and it does not affect play."
Then, in June 2008 a sixth copy surfaced. Purchased by a resident of Harlem in 1952 at the Blue Note Record Shop and kept all these years, it was put up for sale at the famous Christie's auction house in New York. While it was expected to bring in between $20,000 and $30,000, no one even bid the minimum of $20,000. It therefore remains unsold. While I'm not a record collector, the photo that Christie's ran with the auction displayed a somewhat less than pristine copy. Actually, this was probably the wrong place to try to sell it, because it received minimal publicity in the community of those who would actually have been interested in it.
And it gets even better. In August 2008, another copy went on sale, this time as an eBay auction. Someone wrote me about it, asking if it was the same record whose label accompanies this article. I took a look at both and concluded that, while a large scuff looked the same in both photos, there were enough differences to conclude that it was a different copy. When I saw the site, the bidding had closed and the record had been sold for the bargain-basement price of $5200. Amazingly, it turned out that the record was a fake. The seller had taken a label (possibly from my site), modified it to look somewhat different, and pasted it on some non-5 Sharps 78. Fortunately, the buyer was warned off just in time and cancelled the transaction.
Well, that's the legend. Now it's time to delve into the history of the 5 Sharps themselves. We'll set the scene in the South Jamaica Projects, home of the Rivileers, the Cleftones, the Cellos, and the Deltairs. The Rivileers that I interviewed told me that they loved to sing on benches in the neighborhood. I didn't think about it at the time, but if you're going to sing on a bench, there are going to be people hanging around listening.
Among those enjoying the sounds of the Rivileers in 1952 were a group of younger school kids who also sang. Pete Le Monier was the lead (he'd eventually take over Gene Pearson's lead spot in the Rivileers), Billy Boatswain was first tenor, Bobby Ward was a second tenor, as was Wilbur "Buzzy" Brown, and Robert Brown was the bass. Since they spent so much time at the benches listening to the Rivileers, they called themselves, informally, the "Bencholeers." Eventually this was changed to the Love Larks, and, according to Bobby Ward, the Rivileers started listening to them! (I've spoken to three members of the Love-Larks at this point, and they all assure me that this was not the Love Larks group that recorded "Diddle-Le-Bom" for the Masons label.)
Bobby Ward wasn't content to be with only one group, however, also singing with another aggregation, called the 5 Sharps. This group featured Ronald Cuffey on lead, Clarence Bassett (first tenor), Bobby Ward (second tenor), Mickey Owens (Ronald's cousin; bass), and Tommy Duckett (baritone, piano and arranger). According to Bobby, Tommy was a full-fledged singing member of the group, so there were always five voices. Bobby was the baby of the group, although Ronald was around the same age. Both Tommy and Clarence were a year older and Mickey had already been in the military.
Why the "5 Sharps"? There were two derivations of the name. The first, of course, was musical, which pleased Tommy Duckett. The second came from their sartorial splendor. Says Bobby, "Everywhere we went, we did more dressing than singing." In other words, they were sharp!
The 5 Sharps were basically ballad singers, admiring the Orioles, the Dominoes, the Larks, and the Royals (later on, the Moonglows and Solitaires). They had arrangements for "Moonrise," "Every Beat Of My Heart," and "Hopefully Yours."
[A NOTE ON THE PHOTO: Tommy Duckett is seated at the piano, which isn't in the picture. He did sing with the group while playing.]
One night they were performing in the Villa Grove (in Flushing, north of Jamaica). After they'd sung their version of "My Mother's Eyes," a woman in the audience asked them to sing it again. That woman was Billie Holiday (who was nearing the end of her career at that point). Also in the audience was Oscar Porter, who was impressed enough with that request to offer to manage them.
Porter somehow got them a recording session with Jubilee Records (home of their idols, the Orioles). He must have gone straight to owner Jerry Blaine, since there was no audition involved. However, the guys did get contracts to sign. Bobby's father had to sign his (which he did reluctantly).
They worked on two songs. The first was "Stormy Weather," which Ronald Cuffey picked out, since he favored older songs. ("I didn't like it," says Bobby.) The tune had been written, with Cab Calloway in mind, by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen back in 1933. They threw it together at a party, but when it was finished, they decided it would sound better sung by a woman. It was thus given to Ethel Waters to be introduced in a revue at Harlem's Cotton Club. However, by the time the revue opened, Harold Arlen himself had sung the song on a recording made with Leo Reisman's Orchestra (so much for his idea that it should be sung by a woman!). The tune went to number 1 (although rankings from that era must remain suspect), so it was already a big hit by the time Ethel introduced it in the show (standing under a stage lamppost with a log cabin in the background [do log cabins really come with lampposts?]). She also recorded it that year, and it, too, reached number 1. Other 1933 versions, all in the top ten, were by Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, and Ted Lewis. Ethel Waters said of the song: ..". I sang 'Stormy Weather' from the depths of my private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated." With passion like that poured into a song, it had to become a hit. But the singer most associated with "Stormy Weather" was, of course, Lena Horne, who had a minor hit with it in 1943 (#21), the year she introduced it, as a big production number, in the film of the same name.
The more mundane story of the other tune, "Sleepy Cowboy," is this: It was written by Ronald Cuffey and Bobby Ward, in Ronald's garage. (It owes something of its theme, but not its lyrics, to the Deep River Boys' "Sleepy Little Cowboy," which was originally issued in May of 1952.) By the time it reached record, however, the only name on it (surprise, surprise) was that of Oscar Porter. The other tune that Ronald and Bobby had worked on in the garage that day was "Duck-Butt Dottie," a song which shows promise, at least in the title.
One evening in mid-October 1952, the 5 Sharps showed up at the studio (which Bobby remembers being in Sugar Hill) around 6 PM. With Tommy Duckett's piano as their only accompaniment (remember, he sang too!), they started in on "Stormy Weather" (the studio put in the rain and thunder effects later on). It took over four hours for the 5 Sharps to lay down the two tracks. They were told to do it over, and over, and over. "We were starving," remembers Bobby, "they gave us franks and sodas." Ronald Cuffey led both sides, with Mickey Owens' prominent bass behind him.
It was after 10 PM when the session ended, and nearly 2 AM by the time they got home to Jamaica. Needless to say, Bobby's father was not pleased.
Considering the lack of distribution the record suffered from, it should come as no surprise that review copies weren't sent out after the disc's December 1952 release. Its competition at the time was the Orioles' "You Belong To Me," the Checkers' "Night's Curtains," Linda Hayes' "Big City," Little Esther & Little Willie Littlefield's "Last Laugh Blues," and Little Richard's "Please Have Mercy On Me."
Hal Jackson, of WLIB, spun the record a couple of times over the airwaves, but probably not more than half a dozen. It's fairly certain that the switchboard didn't light up.
What did Bobby Ward think of the 5 Sharps' recordings? "I thought they stunk! I still do." Evidently, everyone else thought the same, since almost no one actually bought the record. My feeling is that, because the 5 Sharps went straight into the studio without having auditioned for Jubilee, the company, either just to be nice to Oscar Porter or to try to recoup the expenses of the session, released a minimum amount of 78s. Although we know from the company files that 45s were pressed, based on the almost non-existent sales of the 78s, they were quickly recalled (if they'd actually been shipped at all).
"Stormy Weather" was handled by two local stores in Jamaica: Triboro and Green Line. Someone who worked in Triboro told them "If you guys don't sell some of these things, I'm gonna throw them out." Presumably he did. Each of the guys had a copy, although Bobby doesn't remember if Jubilee gave them out or if they had to buy their own. Bobby's copy went to a girl he was dating at the time. (Miss, if you read this, give me a call!)
There weren't many appearances for the 5 Sharps (who were all still in school). They performed at schools and a couple of small local clubs, including Copa City. "We were supposed to do a gig at the Baby Grand, but they found out how young I was," says Bobby (who was in his second year of high school). Probably their biggest performance had occurred in the summer of 1952, when they appeared on the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night show. Singing a Larks song (either "Hopefully Yours" or "In My Lonely Room"), they came in third (first place that week went to the 5 Crowns, singing "You're My Inspiration").
The 5 Sharps stumbled along for a few more months, and then it was all over. By the fall of 1953, Ronald Cuffey had joined the army and Bobby Ward was busy with high school. "I always wanted to be an entertainer," he says, "but school was more important and I just let it go." Tommy Duckett then joined the Rivileers as accompanist/arranger.
When Ronald got out of the army, he reunited with Clarence Bassett to form the Videos. The other members were Charles Baskerville (second tenor), Ronnie Woodhall (lead tenor), and Johnny Jackson (baritone). (Note that Clarence was both a first tenor and a bass.) After the Videos, Clarence and Charles, of course, went on to become the Limelites behind James "Shep" Sheppard.
In 1974, Bobby was listening to The Time Capsule Show on WFUV from Fordham University in the Bronx, New York (which gave your author the best grounding in R&B he'd received since listening to Alan Freed in 1955). All of a sudden, he heard "Stormy Weather" (played off the Bim Bam Boom release). His wife, Bernice, called the studio and told them that her husband was a member of the 5 Sharps. At first they didn't believe it, but finally Bobby convinced them, and a meeting was arranged with the staff of Bim Bam Boom (which Tommy Duckett also attended).
As a result of this, Bobby and Tommy re-formed the 5 Sharps around 1976. Actually, it's closer to say that they re-formed the Love Larks, since the others were Pete Le Monier (lead), Wilbur "Buzzy" Brown (second tenor) and Robert Brown (bass). (Clarence Basset wasn't initially available, since he was singing with the Flamingos at the time.) They appeared, to rave reviews, at a couple of Gus Gossert shows, as well as one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They were also on the "Good Day" TV show on Boston's WCVB (by which time Clarence had returned, replacing Buzzy). Although this new-found fame didn't last too long, Bobby was happier the second time around: "This time it was about having fun," he says.
Ronald Cuffey passed away from leukemia around 1970. Tommy Duckett had several strokes and left us in May 1996. It's rumored that Mickey Owens has died too, but Bobby can't confirm it. Clarence Bassett passed away in January 2005. Both Buzzy Brown and Robert Brown are deceased too. Pete LeMonier has retired to Arizona and is still singing. When I spoke to Bobby Ward in February 2010, he could still say, "I hated that recording of 'Stormy Weather'; I couldn't stand it."
Special thanks to Val Shively, Gordon Wrubel, Victor Pearlin, Nauck's Vintage Records, Lou Alfano, and Mike Rosen.
JUBILEE (5 Sharps - original group; leads by Ronald Cuffey)
5104 Stormy Weather/Sleepy Cowboy - 12/52
NOTE: per the Jubilee files, 45s were pressed (probably destroyed by the company); only 78s are known.
BIM BAM BOOM (5 Sharps - reissue of original)
103 Stormy Weather/Sleepy Cowboy - 1972
JUBILEE (5 Sharps - a counterfeit record)
5104 Stormy Weather/Sleepy Cowboy - 1972
This 45 disc was created from a tape of the Bim Bam Boom release, with counterfeited Jubilee labels, and the
Jubilee master numbers entered in the dead wax. The bootlegger claimed to have a letter from Jerry Blaine,
former owner of Jubilee (he'd sold out to Roulette by that time), giving him permission to create the labels,
however, that defies belief. These records were not, as I had previously stated, the Bim Bam Boom records with
counterfeit labels pasted on.
TIMES SQUARE (5 Sharks a white group originally called the Florals)
35 Stormy Weather/If You Love Me - 4/64
JUBILEE (5 Sharps - unknown black group)
5478 Stormy Weather/Mammy Jammy - 5/64