Not many groups from Providence, Rhode Island ever made it to record. A few were the 5 Dukes/Rockin' Townies; the Videls on Rhody, JDS, and Kapp; and Chubby & the Turnpikes (who became "Tavares"). Another was the Castaleers.
The members of the Castaleers were from the East Side, West End, and South Side of Providence, where the city had set up after-school recreation programs. Here, kids could gather to play basketball and board games, watch movies, and start singing groups. Singers would meet, form themselves into various aggregations, and end up singing on street corners, record hops, and local social events.
Around late 1952 a group that called itself the Parakeets was formed. The members were: Richard Jones (baritone/tenor lead), Ron Henrries (tenor), Herman Bergson (tenor), George T. Smith, Jr. (baritone), and Dell Padgett (bass). They rehearsed both at the rec center and at members' homes. Most had attended Hope High School, although Richard went to Central High.
They admired the 5 Keys, the Clovers, the Cadillacs, and (reaching back in time) the Swallows. It wasn't easy hearing their songs in Providence since there was no station that played R&B on a full-time basis. But a few daring DJs had shows that would spin these platters (like WRIB's Dick Merritt and Carl Henry, owner of the Carl's Diggins record store), and Chuck Stevens on WPAW. George also remembers listening to WBAL in Baltimore late at night when AM radios could pick up far-off stations.
A year later, baritone Boaventura "Benny" Barros replaced Herman Bergson and the group decided to change its name. George came up with "Castaleers," based on "castle."
George often frequented Muffett's Music Store on Empire Street to purchase all the new R&B hits. It was run by two brothers, Ray and Myron Muffs. George kept telling them about his group until, sometime in 1957, they agreed to listen. Once they did, they were hooked and agreed to manage the Castaleers.
First thing they did was to secure a rehearsal hall (in a dance studio in the Conrad Building, at 375 Westminster Street). Since Myron was a pianist, they had a ready-made accompanist. It also didn't hurt that the Muffs were songwriters (they wrote "(My) Hi Fi Baby").
Finally, the Muffs booked some studio time in Boston and the Castaleers recorded four songs: "Come Back," "(My) Hi Fi Baby," "Lonely Boy," and "My Bull Fightin' Baby." All were led by Richard Jones, except for "My Bull Fightin' Baby," which was fronted by George Smith.
Somehow, the Muffs made a deal with Walt McGuire's Felsted Records (a division of London Records), and "Come Back"/"My Bull Fightin' Baby" were released in December 1957. Billboard gave both sides "poor" reviews on January 13, 1958, at the same time that they reviewed Clyde McPhatter's "No Love Like Her Love," Don & Dewey's "When The Sun Has Begun To Shine," the Penguins' "That's How Much I Need You," the 5 Royales' "Dedicated To The One I Love," Marvin & Johnny's "Smack Smack," the Pastels' "Been So Long," the Penguins' "Sweet Love," the Orbits' "Mr. Hard Luck," and the Rajahs' "Shifting Sands."
Most of the Castaleers appearances were limited to weekends, since they all had "real" jobs. George remembers that the Shaw Agency had set up a two-week appearance for them in Montreal, but when they looked at the contract, they turned it down: the deal just wasn't good enough for them to give up their paying jobs. Their gigs were mostly amusement parks and dances all over Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. They also appeared (along with Neil Sedaka) on Bob Clayton's Boston Ballroom on WHDH-TV (Saturdays from 8-9 PM), singing "Come Back."
In February 1958, Felsted released "Lonely Boy"/"My Bull Fightin' Baby." These weren't reviewed until June 9, when both sides were ranked "good." Other reviews that week went to Bobby Hendricks' "Itchy Twitchy Feeling," the Shirelles' "My Love Is A Charm," Otis Williams & the Charms' "Burnin' Lips," the Edsels' "Lama Rama Ding Dong," the Cavaliers' "Dance, Dance, Dance," Sonny Til's "First Blush," the Chandeliers' "Dolly," and the Falcons' "This Heart Of Mine."
It was a while before the Castaleers' next session, which was held in Felsted's New York studios. This time, they only recorded two songs: "You're My Dream" and "I'll Be Around." These were released in June 1959 and reviewed on August 24 (with "I'll Be Around" rated "good"). Other reviews that week were for Jackie Wilson's "You Better Know It," the Hollywood Flames' "Much Too Much," Hank Ballad & the Midnighters' "House With No Windows," Bo Diddley's "Say Man," the Blenders' "Old MacDonald," the 5 Knights' "Miracle," and Cleve Duncan & the Radiants' "To Keep Our Love."
September 11, 1959 found the Castaleers appearing as part of a "beatnick dance" at the Aquidneck Hut, along with Dick Domaine and the Rockin' Blue Jays, the Videls, and the Cameos. Local DJ Chuck Stevens was the MC.
When nothing big happened with any of their Felsted recordings, Ron Henrries decided to leave. Benny Barros suggested a baritone named Joe Hill, who had been a member of the 5 Dukes. The 5 Dukes and the Castaleers had been intertwined over the years: George Smith and Ron Henrries lived on the same block as Bennie Woods, and Dell Padgett sang in church with Sonny Washburn and his sister.
Joe Hill auditioned and was accepted. The group started practicing a couple of songs that Joe had written: "That's Why I Cry" and "My Baby's All Right."
On September 11, 1959, the Castaleers were part of a dance sponsored by the Newport Men's Democratic Club. Put together by DJ Chuck Stevens, there'd be prize for the best beatnik costume.
In the meantime, the Muffs brothers decided to start their own label, Planet Records (headquartered in the same Conrad Building that the Castaleers used for practicing). In the summer of 1960, the guys went down to New York to record both of Joe's songs (with Joe in the lead).
The Castaleers were the first act on the label (which lasted until around 1964). The original Planet release (in October 1960) didn't have a record number. It was quickly re-issued (in November) as #44 (and as "Joe Hill and the Castaleers"). While there was no chart action (presumably there was extremely poor distribution), the Muffs managed to interest Bob Keene's Donna Records in it. The masters were sold and Donna released them in August 1961, however, neither the Planet nor the Donna record was sent out for review. The Planet release would have been competing with the Marcels' "Merry Twist-Mas," the Drifters' "Room Full Of Tears," the Midnighters' "I'm Gonna Miss You," the Carnations' "Long Tall Girl," the Kodoks' "Mr. Magoo," the Rays' "An Angel Cried," and Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart."
The Castaleers were part of the second annual Top Teen Show at Freebody Park in Newport (on July 7, 1961). They shared the stage with Dion, Morton Downey, Jr., and lots of acts I never heard of.
And then, it was pretty much over. There was no income coming in from performing, the usual discouragement set in, and the group drifted apart. The only one who continued singing was Ron Henrries, who joined Dipsy and the Doodles (the other members were Danny Jett [formerly of the 5 Dukes], Everett "Grumpy" Mitchell, and Ralph Johnson). They had a single release on the May label in February 1963: "(Archibald II) The Duke Of Nothin'"/"Jolly Cholly."
Since then, George Smith became part of the Board of Canvassers for the city of Providence, Dell Padgett became a photographer, Benny Barros became an artist, Ron Henrries retired from being a Providence City Councilman, and Joe Hill retired from a career at Pitney Bowes. Original lead Richard Jones passed away in the 70s and Joe Hill died in April 2011; all the others are still alive in early 2010.
Special thanks to Jim Scott.
8504 Come Back (RJ)/(My) Hi Fi Baby (RJ) - 12/57
8512 Lonely Boy (RJ)/My Bull Fightin' Baby (GS) - 2/58
8585 You're My Dream (RJ)/I'll Be Around (RJ) - 6/59
## That's Why I Cry (JH)/My Baby's All Right (JH) - 10/60
44 That's Why I Cry (JH)/My Baby's All Right (JH) - 11/60
1349 That's Why I Cry (JH)/My Baby's All Right (JH) - 8/61
## = no record number on the label
LEADS: RJ = Richard Jones; JH = Joe Hill; GS = George Smith
134 (Archibald II) The Duke Of Nothin'/Jolly Cholly - 2/63