The world of R&B (and my world) became a lot poorer on July 22, 2004, when bass singer Arthur Crier passed away at the age of 69. A beloved figure in the R&B world, he was directly responsible for the "Doo-Wop In D.C." tribute ceremonies held only a month earlier and the "Great Day In Harlem" ceremonies in 1999. Unlike most singers, he not only remembered his roots, he promoted the study and understanding of R&B. He will be sorely missed. This article originally appeared in the December 1977 issue of Yesterday's Memories and is reproduced here almost verbatim. There are a few cosmetic changes and some errors were corrected.
By way of introduction, Arthur Crier was born in Manhattan, on April 1, 1935. By the time he was two, his family had moved to the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Arthur's father, a reporter, sang in a barbershop quartet that appeared on radio. He was briefly in the Marines in the early 50s, until, fortunately for the music world, an injury brought about his discharge.
In terms of vocal groups, what Harlem was to Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant was to Brooklyn, Morrisania was to the Bronx. During the 50s, you could walk the streets of Morrisania and find guys harmonizing on many street corners - groups such as the Chords, Crickets, Mellows, Cadillacs, Wrens. Carnations, and Diamonds. With the words "let's start a group" half-jokingly said by Gene Redd, Jr., yet another Morrisania vocal group was born.
John Murray (1st tenor, 2nd tenor, and baritone), Gary Morrison (2nd tenor, baritone, and bass) and Gene Redd Jr. (lead and baritone) were neighbors. Gary brought his friend, Arthur Crier (baritone and bass) into the group and the Gay Tones were in business. Unlike most other groups of that era, the Gay Tones had their own musical accompaniment, with Rupert Branker (future pianist for the Chords and the Platters) on string bass, Gene Redd on piano, and Al Cross on guitar.
"We would rehearse from sun-up until we were just too tired to sing any more, and it was a labor of love," said Gary. "After a while, when our parents found out that we were serious, we would take our little money and chip in to buy food, which was cooked by one of the mothers, usually Gene's. After eating, we'd go back and rehearse some more. At that time, everybody stood on corners and sang, looking for the approval of their peer group. I can remember when two or three of us would be walking through the neighborhood, harmonizing. Then we'd meet another guy who was also just walking along. He'd join us and then we'd sing on the street for two or three hours. In the beginning, I don't think anyone ever thought that we were going to be stars. We just enjoyed singing."
Said Arthur, "You can't sing together for as long as we did - on an everyday kind of basis - and not get to where a guy takes a breath, you breathe with him. He takes a deep breath and you're right there with him. It got to a point where somebody would hear something a little different after singing the same thing a thousand times - a minor inflection in what he was singing, and when it came time to do that part again, without one word being said, the entire group would sing that new little thing, it was just beautiful."
Parties were the big thing in those days and many of the aforementioned groups would congregate and sing for each other - with members of one group often interchanging with others. "Everybody was easily able to do each other's material. In fact, for one recording session, the Crickets needed a man and someone at one of the parties filled in because he knew the song," said Gary.
Practice sessions included many Christmas carols and what Arthur and Gary said was the original group version of "Over The Rainbow" (actually the Phil Moore Four had done it in 1946). "We once had a 'sing out' against the Wrens at Community Center 99," said Arthur. "The bass of the Wrens challenged the Gay Tones and we told 'Satch,' the emcee to put them on right after us on the show. Our outfits consisted of army khakis with patch pockets and matching ties." Arthur, who had been wearing a suit, took off his jacket, pulled his shirt out of his pants and the group was outfitted and ready to go. "We stole the show," remembered Gary. "The Wrens came on right after us and couldn't get in tune. They kept stopping, and from then on, they didn't like us! At that show we did "Gloria," knowing that it had been recorded years ago by the Mills Brothers."
Buddy McRae (of the Chords) had a club on Jackson Avenue where the groups would always go to sing. The Key Tones, a local group that did not record, used to sing there and they used to tear the place apart. "They always wiped us out," said Arthur. "For two weeks we crammed rehearsals so as to be ready for the next sing and this time we had our thing together. We were ready for them and blew them out. Not only did we blow them out, but we stole their girls from them." The girls were then known as the Key Hearts and after that night, they became known as the Gay Hearts. "Those girls, they really could sing." The Gay Hearts were Lily Mae, Renee, and Baby. Word spread fast throughout other neighborhoods about the singing of the girls and they were always being asked to sing for other groups. One guy who really liked them was Richard Barrett (of the Valentines) who immortalized one of the girls (Lillie Mae Bell) with his song, "Lily Maebelle."
It was at this time that the Gay Tones first heard that the word "gay" meant a little more than having a good time and quickly set about changing the name of the group. They came up with the name "the Chimes."
Gene Redd, Sr. was a saxophone and vibes player of some note - he would join the Red Caps in the mid-50s and knew many people in the music industry. He took the group to Teddy Reig, who owned Royal Roost Records with Jack Hook. The group was only together about two months before they went into the studio to record. Although the Chimes would have preferred cutting "Gloria," they instead did "Dearest Darling," a tune that Gene sang lead on, and one which the other members of the group did not particularly like. All of their songs were done at one session and it was unusual in that the charts were written (by Gene Redd, Senior [who also played vibes on "Dearest Darling"]) rather than being the standard head arrangements which were common in those days. Two of their songs were released on Royal Roost ("Dearest Darling" and "A Fool Was I") and the other two were issued on its Betta subsidiary ("Rosemarie" and "Never Love Another"). (Strangely, this record listed them as "the 5 Chimes," even though there were only four singers. They were never given an explanation for this.) All were led by Gene, except for "Never Love Another," fronted by Gary.
"One of our problems was that we were always told we were too good," said Gary. "The Hi-Los were our group. The kind of things that they did vocally were fantastic. They would do peal-offs and break into harmony two octaves above where they started. They really turned us on. We tried to incorporate a lot of their things in our singing, we always considered Rock and Roll to be Alan Freed's phrase, sort of like Bill Haley & the Comets. We didn't relate to that type of music and liked Rhythm and Blues. We were listening to the Orioles. Ravens, and Swallows. We preferred the Mills Brothers over the Ink Spots because they had tighter harmony. I loved the Ravens - they were inventive, having their own sound, good harmony and the high tenor of Maithe Marshall. They had good solid harmony. The by-play between the bass and the high tenor was what I loved. They made beautiful changes."
Their first gig was at the Rockland Palace, with the Solitaires, Velvets, Diamonds, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young. Other appearances included the Hunts Point Palace, the Audubon Ballroom and other New York spots. They also did the rounds of the amateur shows - P.S. 99, P.S. 120, etc. and had the distinction of never having lost a talent show.
After the recordings, John Murray died [of spinal meningitis, at age 16] and was replaced by Bobby Spencer. The group went to see Jerry Blaine at Jubilee and were told that the label had too many groups. But after they sang "Over The Rainbow," Blaine went crazy and wanted them to come back the next day. Since Gary was seeing a girl in New Jersey and didn't have a car, he never made it to the studio and the group wasn't asked to come back again. Bobby Spencer was soon replaced by Jimmy Keyes (during a lull in the activities of the Chords) and finally by Waldo "Champ" Champen. The group stayed together for about two years after Murray died, "but it wasn't the same feeling," said Arthur, and in 1955 they drifted apart. Gene Redd went to the Fi-Tones and Arthur and Gary joined a group called the Hummers.
The Hummers consisted of Buddy McRae (just out of the Chords), Bobby Spencer, Harold Johnson, Al Springer, Arthur Crier, and Gary Morrison. "We did some real pretty things harmony-wise," said Gary. Harold had liked the Chimes' sound and had wanted to join them even while singing with the Crickets. Later on, after the first Crickets group had disbanded, Harold joined the Hummers. This group was started in a single day. By a fluke, all six guys were sitting in Gary's kitchen one morning about 9 A.M. and as was the case with the Chimes, one of the guys said "let's start a group." Bobby Spencer wrote a song on the spot, called "Gee What A Girl," and the group started harmonizing. Within three hours, the guys had four songs down pat. Full of confidence, the Hummers went to audition for Apollo Records, where they were told they were too good!
Eventually the group recorded "Gee What A Girl" for Hy Weiss' Old Town label, but it was never released. They also waxed "Do You Know What I Mean" and "So Strange." These songs were recorded at the same session at which the Royaltones did "Crazy Love." "Gee What A Girl" was eventually given to the Joytones, who recorded it as "Gee What A Boy."
The group broke up in 1956, when Arthur, Gary, and Harold got together with Lillian Leach and first tenor John Wilson to become the second Mellows group.
This Mellows group was managed by David Levitt who owned the Celeste label. "Levitt really loved the group and tried hard for the Mellows, but unfortunately nothing much came of it. He was the type of guy who would take money out of his pocket and give it to us. If the group had made it, we would have gotten every penny we were entitled to. He was an honest guy," said Arthur. By 1957 they felt that although they liked Levitt, they'd never get anywhere with him. So they switched management to Sammy Lowe and Otis Pollard, who had the Candlelight label. Here they backed up Carl Spencer (Bobby's brother), who was also managed by Pollard. One of their favorite songs was the beautiful "When The Lights Go On Again," which they generally sang in the dark. One of the most unusual things they recorded was "I'm Gonna Pick Your Teeth With An Ice Pick." Gary had a thing for doing accents and was clowning around doing "Ice Pick" with a West Indian accent. They decided to record it.
The Mellows did shows on the East Coast, but Arthur still found time to make appearances with the new Cadillacs, Pearls, and Chords. The final Mellows session took place, in 1958, for Apollo Records, but the two songs they recorded ("So Strange" and "Be Mine") were never released. The Mellows broke up because Lillian was married and didn't want to travel any more; also, Arthur and Harold were heavily into songwriting.
In 1960. Arthur Crier and Carl Spencer did a version of "Alley Oop" on the Edsel label, owned by Skip and Flip [Clyde Battin and Gary Paxton, who both did background vocals on the record]. Calling themselves the Pre-Historics, they were touted by booking agent Paul Levert, as appearing in bearskins and carrying clubs. The duo was booked into the Club Paddock in Yonkers, New York, but a hassle ensued when they found out how they were to be dressed. The Club Paddock became their only engagement. At any rate, according to Arthur, they bombed badly.
Shortly after, Arthur formed another group, called the Halos. The original group consisted of J. R. Bailey (1st tenor), Harold Johnson (2nd tenor), Al Cleveland (baritone), and Arthur Crier (bass). Al Cleveland was from Pittsburgh and was in New York trying to make it as a singer. As fate would have it, he had been having absolutely no luck and was standing on Broadway waiting to catch a bus to go back home. Arthur and Carl Spencer had been doing some demo work and needed a third voice. As they left the Brill Building, they saw Cleveland and asked him if he could sing!
This Halos group recorded "Nag" [with J.R. Bailey doing the "nagging sounds"]. The flip, "Copy Cat," was actually a previously-recorded duet between Arthur and Carl, which had been done for Morty Craft.
J.R. Bailey decided that he didn't want to travel and was replaced by Phil Johnson, former lead of the Duvals on Kelit and Club. The Halos, besides doing their own material, became a very prolific backup group, interchanging members from session to session. The group often included Carl Spencer, Bobby Spencer, J.R. Bailey, and Gary Morrison. Some of their background work included Curtis Lee ("Pretty Little Angel Eyes"). Barry Mann ("Who Put The Bomp"), Ben E. King ("Don't Play That Song"), Connie Francis, Tommy Hunt, Bobby Vinton, the Coasters, Brian Hyland, Johnny Nash, Dion, Little Eva, Gene Pitney ("Every Breath I Take"), Shirley and Lee, Johnny Mathis, and many others.
While the Halos were riding on the charts with "Nag," Morty Craft decided to release two sides that the group had cut at the same session. "L-O-V-E" and "Heartbreaking World." However, since the group already had a record going for them, Craft decided to call them the Craftys
In 1961, Arthur Crier's sister, Shirley. was part of a group called the Rosettes. The other two members were Diane Christian and Gail Noble. They recorded one record for the Herald label ("You Broke My Heart"/"It Must Be Love"), which was produced by Arthur. Morrisania may be a small community, but in terms of pure talent, it ranks right up there.
Arthur Crier has had a career in every facet of the music industry - producing, writing, performing, and arranging. At the present time [this was in mid-1977], he is working with and performing in a group called Split Image.
Others who worked with Arthur Crier remained in the entertainment business. Carl Spencer, who also recorded as a solo artist, wrote "Let The Little Girl Dance" for Billy Bland. J. R. Bailey was in the New Yorkers Five ("Gloria My Darling" on Danice) after being in the Crickets and prior to his joining the Cadillacs. He later went on to become one of the foremost background singers in the music industry. His was the lead voice heard on "Rainy Day Bells" by the "Globetrotters." For the past few years, he has made a name for himself as a solo performer and top notch producer ("Everybody Plays The Fool" by the Main Ingredient). Buddy McRae, after leaving the Chords, went on to become a producer/songwriter. Al Cleveland, who luckily never made it back to Pittsburgh remained in the music industry. For five years he was associated with Motown Records, where he co-produced the Miracles with Smokey Robinson [and wrote "I Second That Emotion"]. He has written tunes for motion pictures and has been nominated for the Grammy award on a few occasions.
Since this article was printed, I've discovered that Arthur Crier, Buddy McRae, and Carl Spencer were part of the Star Steppers (as studio background singers). Arthur was in Little Guy & the Giants on Lawn (Arthur Crier, Harold Johnson, Carl Spencer, and Al Cleveland), the Twisters on Capitol (Arthur Crier, Harold Johnson, Buddy McRae, Carl Spencer), the Cognacs on Roulette (same group as the Twisters, except that it was Bobby Spencer instead of Carl), Barbara English and the Fashions (as a studio background singer), and the Gees (Arthur Crier, Gloria Douglas, Sandra James, Arnetta Livingston [aka Savannah Smith], and Al Springer).
In 1968, Arthur followed Al Cleveland out to Detroit and, from 1968 to 1972, he was a songwriter/background singer/producer for Motown. In the 80s and 90s, he was part (with long-time friend and colleague Eugene Tompkins, of the Limelighters) of a series of TV shows, called "Doo-Wop Is Alive," broadcast on public access stations. During this time, he also appeared, on stage, as part of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' backup group.
In 1985, Arthur, Eugene Tompkins, Lillian Leach, and Gary Morrison coordinated the production of the "Don't Let Them Starve" recording (featuring dozens of R&B singers) to raise funds for famine victims in Ethiopia; Arthur was the song's author. In 1992, Arthur, Lillian Leach, Eugene Tompkins, and Sammy Fain recorded tracks as the Mellows; they were released on a Tri-Track CD in 2003.
In the 90s, Arthur was part of the Morrisania Revue, along with fellow Bronxites Lillian Leach, Eugene Tompkins, Dean Barlow, Waldo Champen, Bobby Mansfield, Sammy Fain, and Hal Keshner. Most recently, Arthur joined long-time friend Floyd "Buddy" McRae as part of his Chords group.
BETTA (5 Chimes)
2011 Rosemarie/Never Love Another - 53
ROYAL ROOST (Chimes)
577 A Fool Was I/Dearest Darling - 10/53
OLD TOWN (the Hummers - all unreleased; recorded 1/3/56)
Do You Know What I Mean
Gee, What A Girl
CELESTE (the Mellows)
3002 Lucky Guy/My Darling - 56
3004 I'm Yours/Sweet Lorraine - 56
UNRELEASED CELESTE (all recorded 1956)
Ain't She Got Nerve
When The Lights Go On Again
I'm Gonna Pick Your Teeth With An Ice Pick
I Call To You
CANDLELIGHT (the Mellows)
1011 You've Gone/Moon Of Silver - 12/56
CANDLELIGHT (Carl Spencer, backed by the Mellows)
1012 Farewell, Farewell, Farewell/No More Loneliness - 56
779 Alley Oop - Cha - Cha - Cha/Oh Blues - 60
AMY (the Star Steppers)
801 The First Sign Of Love/You're Gone [Arthur isn't on this side] - 5/60
LAWN (Little Guy and the Giants)
103 So Young/It's You - 9/60
CAPITOL (the Twisters)
4451 Turn The Page/Dancing Little Clown - 10/60
ROULETTE (the Cognacs)
4340 Charlena/Heaven Only Knows - 12/60
7 ARTS (the Craftys)
708 L-O-V-E/Heartbreaking World - 61
("L-O-V-E" was also released on Lois 5000, with the Candysticks' "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby" as the flip)
7 ARTS (the Halos)
709 Nag/Copy Cat - 6/61
720 Come On/What'd I Say - 61
WARWICK 2046 - The Halos - 61
Your Precious Love
I Went To A Party
If I Had Known
What'd I Say
Mean Old World
Down The Road
Oh What A Night
ELMOR (Cammy Carol & Halos)
302 Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind/Until The Day I Die - mid-61
ELMOR (the Craftys)
310 I Went To A Party/Zoom Zoom Zoom - 3/62
TRANS-ATLAS (the Halos)
690 Mean Old World/Village Of Love - 3/62
ROULETTE (Barbara English & Fashions)
4428 La-Ta-Tee-Ta-Ta/We Need Them [Arthur isn't on this side] - 5/62
DUNES (the Darlettes - a group with Arthur's sister, Shirley)
2016 The Wobble/Just You [Arthur isn't on this side] - 7/62
BELTONE (the Jive Five)
2030 Lily Marlene/Johnny Never Knew [Arthur isn't on this side] - 63
PORT (the Gees)
3011 Love Is A Beautiful Thing/It's All Over - 11/65
SPLIT IMAGE (Split Image)
555 Fool Of The Year/[Fool Of The Year - instrumental] - 78
VINTAGE ROCKER 101 - Voices: The Morrisania Revue) - 1994
If I Didn't Care
Come Back My Love
Fine Brown Frame
C'est La Vie
White Cliffs Of Dover
How Sentimental Can I Be?
(Please Be) My Girlfriend
I Will Wait
Where Are You?
TRI-TRACK TT-00001 - The Mellows: Live In Concert - 2003 (all tracks recorded 1992)
I Still Care
When The Lights Go On Again
I Wanna Be Loved
Moon Of Silver
I Was A Fool To Let You Go
Pretty Baby, What's Your Name
How Sentimental Can I Be
Old Man River
Nothin' To Do
Smoke From Your Cigarette
If I Didn't Care