There were two heydays for groups named "Angels." In 1954-1956 there were three of them, and in 1960-1964 there were another several. This story is about the one that had a single record for the Gee label in 1956.
"Our" Angels came from the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey (while the more well-known Sonny Gordon and the Angels came from Philadelphia). Lead tenor Bernard Lynn, first tenor Nelson Martin, baritone Bill Wright, and bass Melvin Maxwell first got together in 1955. They sang in playgrounds, in hallways, in the yard of the Hawkins Street Junior High School, and in the Hawkins Street Community Center. At the time, Nelson was around 16 and in high school, but the others were older and already out of school.
They called themselves the Angels for an unusual reason. Says Nelson: "We were pretty rowdy and we tried to think of a name that wasn't so hard." They admired the Harptones, the Flamingos, the Teenagers and the Cleftones, as well as another group that no one's ever mentioned before: the Hi-Fives (the ones who made "Hong Kong" on the Flair-X label). "We sang everybody's songs," says Nelson; songs like "Crazy For You,' "Crying In The Chapel," and "The Wind."
One day in 1956, Herbert A. Meyers, director of the Hawkins Street Community Center, heard them singing and decided to help them out. He gave them a room in the center in which they could practice, and also became their manager.
They didn't know how he did it, but one day Herbert Meyers told them that he'd gotten them a recording session with George Goldner's Gee Records, no audition necessary. This was no mean feat. At the time, Gee was one of the hottest labels in the country, having had tremendous hits by the Cleftones and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers.
In early October 1956, the Angels showed up to record two songs. The first was the old standard "The Glory Of Love," which had been written by Billy Hill back in 1936, when it had become a #1 hit for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. (This is such a nice song that I can't think of a single version of it that I don't like: versions by the 5 Keys, Velvetones, Platters, 4 Knights, and Hollywood 4 Flames are all excellent.) The other tune, also a ballad, was one that had been written by the guys in the group: "It's You I Love Best." (Note that the label only credits Bernard Lynn and Jackie Meyers, presumably a relative of Herbert Meyers.) Bernard sang lead on both sides, with a vibrato in his voice reminiscent of Feathers' lead Johnny Staton.
As the Angels arrived at the studio, the Teenagers were leaving. They didn't actually meet, but it was a thrill to be in the same studio that the Teenagers had just used (to record "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent," "Baby Baby," "Paper Castles," and "Teenage Love.")
The session went quickly. They rehearsed the songs with the 3-piece band that Goldner had provided (saxman Jimmy Wright and two other musicians, billed on the label as "Jimmy Wright and His Orchestra"), and the songs were done in about three takes each.
Gee released "The Glory Of Love" in October 1956, and it was reviewed the week of October 20. Other reviews that week went to Ann Cole's "In The Chapel," James Brown's "Chonnie On Chon," the Keystoners' "The Magic Kiss," the Parakeets' "Yvonne," the Cubs' "Why Do You Make Me Cry," the Meadowlarks' "Boogie Woogie Teenage," the Youngsters' "You're An Angel," the Romancers' "This Is Goodbye," and Boogaloo & His Gallant Crew's "Cops & Robbers." Interestingly, a female Angels group (presumably from the West Coast) released a record on Hollywood's Irma label in the same month.
On the strength of the record, the Angels were booked into the Apollo Theater, with an Alan Freed show, for the week beginning November 23, 1956. Also on the bill were several other acts on Goldner's labels: the Harptones, the Cleftones, the Pretenders, the Lanes, the Rhythm Jesters, and the Joytones. The non-Goldner acts that week were the Moonglows, Eddie Cooley and the Dimples, Sonny Knight, and Billy Mason. Although he wasn't appearing there, Sammy Davis, Jr. walked across the stage and waved to the crowd. While we tend to think of the phrase "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" as something from the 60s, Nelson says "In one week at the Apollo, I grew up about ten years. Until then I was pretty square."
All of the Angels' appearances were limited to Manhattan and New Jersey: Count's Place (owned by Count Basie), the Club Baby Grand, local Newark clubs and a lot of house parties. Well, actually there was one other appearance: Meyers got them booked into Door's Inn in Las Vegas for three nights (not only that, but they got to fly there and back!) One suspects that Meyers had a lot of friends in the right places.
They even auditioned to be a back-up group for Nat "King" Cole, but nothing ever came of it.
The end of the Angels came in 1958 with two occurrences: Nelson Martin got married and couldn't devote as much time to the group, and Herbert Meyers was "locked up for embezzlement."
Nelson went on to take up weight-lifting, competing in the same body-building contests as Arnold Schwartzenegger (although for different titles; they both trained together). While he still sings at parties and weddings, most of Nelson's time is taken up by the gym that he owns in Long Island, New York. All the other members of the Angels are deceased, but not forgotten: "I sure miss those guys, whenever I think of them," says Nelson.
Special thanks to Frank Gengaro. Label photo courtesy of Nikki Gustafson.
GEE (leads by Bernard Lynn)
1024 The Glory Of Love/It's You I Love Best - 10/56