[AUTHOR'S NOTE: I interviewed Marvin Williams on several occasions, but there was much about the group he simply didn't remember. Unfortunately, after a while, he simply stopped trying. There came a time, after over a year of trying to get answers, when I had to apply advanced logic to decide whether to print what I had (so the knowledge would be available) or just drop the whole thing (and leave you in the dark). The coin landed on the side of printing, but this article is, by necessity, very short.]
Richmond, Virginia isn't thought of as being a hotbed of R&B activity. But it did produce Marvin and the Chirps.
The Chirps began their career in early 1951, after meeting at Richmond's Maggie L. Walker High School. Way back at the very beginning, the members were: Marvin Williams (lead), Charles "Dice" Lewis (tenor), Graham Johnson (baritone), and Ellis Johnson (bass). Ellis was the one with the strong musical heritage: he was the son of Tommy Johnson, tenor of the famed Harmonizing Four gospel group.
One night, the Chirps were at the Club Ebony, when Graham Johnson didn't show up. Fortunately, Vernon Jackson (who attended Armstrong High) was there that night. Someone in the group knew him (and that he was a baritone). He substituted for Graham that night and then became the Chirps' regular baritone.
While it seemed like the Chirps were on their way, Uncle Sam stepped in and Marvin Williams was drafted in the Fall of 1951 (by which time the Korean War was in full bloom). His place was taken by Willie Harris and the Chirps continued on without him. By one of those strange quirks of fate, when Marvin was discharged in 1953 and ready to re-join the group, Willie received his draft notice, so it was an even swap.
As you might expect, the influences on the Chirps include some familiar names: the Ink Spots, Clyde McPhatter, the Orioles, the 5 Royales, and the Midnighters.
All through 1954, the Chirps kept singing around town (at clubs, school functions, and pool parties) while practicing for their big break. (Note that somewhere along the way, the "Chirps" had become "Marvin and the Chirps.") The only appearance I could find for them was at Spring Lake Park, in Petersburg, Virginia (on August 12, 1955). Also appearing were the local 5 Roses and the Joe Perkins Band, both of whom would go on to record for Nu Kat.
One place that they practiced was at Archie Elkin's record shop, and, in November 1955, Elkin suggested that the group record "Sixteen Tons," a tune that was currently breaking big in a version by Tennessee Ernie Ford (although it had been written by Merle Travis back in 1947). Since Ernie Ford was a bass and Ellis Johnson's bass voice was quite good, Elkin figured it was a natural.
Elkin got them a recording date with Tip Top Records (a local company, headquartered at 3409 West Leigh Street). Marvin believes that Elkin was a part owner of the company (at least he was in charge of the session); others involved with Tip Top were Joe and Milt Sinsheimer (the two brothers who owned it), and Pat Cohen (who was Elkin's brother-in-law). It wasn't related to the New York label of the same name (owned by Leo Rogers and Sid Arky), nor to Charles Klemer's Tip Top records in California, which existed at the exact same time.
The Chirps knew what they were going to record for the "A" side, but they had nothing to sing on the flip. It was the Christmas season, so, says Marvin, "I sat down and wrote 'I'll Miss You This Xmas' in about ten minutes." It turned out to be a pleasant ballad, with a really nice sax break in it. Note that Joe Sinsheimer managed to take partial credit for composing the tune. Also, the publisher of the tune is listed as "Allen Music," which means there's probably some tie-in with 1949's Allen label (also out of Richmond, Virginia), which featured Jimmy Sweeney and the 4 Jacks. [Just as an aside, it seems strange to me that a group which had been around for several years couldn't think of anything to put on the flip side of their first record. They must have been singing something all those years. It's almost like the thought of recording took them completely by surprise.]
Tip Top issued the two sides in early November 1955, and they were reviewed on November 26 (just a week after Tennessee Ernie's version hit the national charts). "Sixteen Tons" received a "good" rating; the flip only got a "fair." Other reviews that week went to the Midnighters' "Rock And Roll Wedding," the Hearts' "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," Nappy Brown's "Doodle I Love You," the Sunbeams' "Come Back Baby," Jimmy Jones & the Sparks of Rhythm's "Stars Are In The Sky," the Cadets' "If It Is Wrong," the Saigons' "You're Heavenly," Marvin & Johnny's "Will You Love Me," the Hepsters' "I Had To Let You Go," the Coronets' "Don't Deprive Me," and the Squires' "Heavenly Angel."
Unfortunately, although it got a decent rating, Billboard said: "While the performance is a good one, it is not significantly different from the original to step out on its own."
Each of the guys in the group got a copy of the record, and that was it! They never heard it on the radio or on any jukeboxes. Considering that "Sixteen Tons" received a "good" review in the trades, there seems to have been no promotion of the disc whatsoever (it's amazing that Tip Top even bothered to send it out for review). As far as I can tell, the Chirps didn't even bother to use the record as leverage to get better gigs. They were only weekend entertainers anyway, so nothing much changed for them after the record was released.
The Chirps might have stumbled along with their minimalist career for many more years, but in 1958, Tommy Johnson recruited his son Ellis as bass for the Harmonizing Four. At that point, the others simply gave it up.
Ellis Johnson died around 1997. Marvin Williams passed away March 13, 2006. While the Chirps were capable of turning out some pretty good tunes, it's fair to say that they had absolutely no impact on the music business whatsoever.
Label photos courtesy of George Moonoogian.
TIP TOP (Marvin & the Chirps)
202 Sixteen Tons (EJ)/I'll Miss You This Xmas (MW) - 11/55
LEADS: EJ = Ellis Johnson; MW = Marvin Williams