It was 1954 and people were afraid. The United States and the
Soviet Union were locked in the "cold war," an arms race that
many believed would ultimately destroy civilization (if not the planet
itself). As a public school student in New York, I was issued
military-style dog tags (so that I could be identified if I were found
wandering around dazed after a sneak attack) and participated in
"duck and cover" drills at school (not realizing that I, the
desk, and the very walls would be vaporized if Russia dropped an atomic
bomb). Air raid drills were held frequently, to clear the streets and
herd everyone into air raid shelters (which were probably just as
bomb-resistant as my desk). Of course, the government didn't bother to
tell us that they'd written off all the big cities in this country. They
hoped that suburbs and rural areas could survive an atomic assault, but
certainly not New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Baltimore, D.C.,
Detroit, Dallas, or any of the other huge population centers (read:
"primary targets"). Tragically, those were also the sites of most of the heavy R&B activity in the country.
In 1954, The Bomb was on everyone's mind. As if the Atomic Bomb weren't enough, the U.S. had detonated the first Hydrogen Bomb at Enewetok Island in late 1952.
[And we didn't always test the bomb in remote locations where only a handful of locals would have to be evacuated. Only 65 miles north of Las Vegas, the U.S. set off close to 1000 nuclear devices. The citizens of LV didn't seem to mind at all. It was little more than a sleepy little town at the start of the 50s, and the detonations caused an explosion (to coin a phrase) in the tourist industry. They even ran tourist buses out to prime lookout sites. By the end of the decade, the population had more than doubled. (And you thought that it was only gambling!) Did the government ever bother to warn anyone about the result of fallout? Nah, let them enjoy themselves. No wonder Las Vegas lights up after dark! For a fascinating look at "Sh-Boom" in the Atomic Age, see "'Sh-Boom' and the Bomb: A Postwar Call and Response", by James M. Salem.]
It's no coincidence that in 1954 the Japanese released a movie called "Gojira," which dealt with a prehistoric monster having been awakened by nuclear testing. When it was released in the U.S. a couple of years later (with Raymond Burr scenes spliced in and the new title of "Godzilla"), it moved to the vanguard of cheesy Science Fiction movies that were proliferating like atomic-age mutants.
In spite of all this, the summer of 1954 was a dynamic time for Rhythm & Blues. The major record companies were beginning to recognize the commercial potential of R&B songs, as more and more of them were being covered by Pop singers.
But it wasn't only covers of R&B songs that were beginning to infiltrate the Pop charts, so were the R&B singers themselves. In fact, "Sh-Boom" was a landmark tune in the popularization of the R&B sound. In the past there had been monster R&B hits that crossed over to the Pop charts (such as "Sixty Minute Man," "Crying In The Chapel," and "Gee"), but up to this point, they had been few and far between. "Sh-Boom," on the other hand, was the beginning of a trend. It hit the R&B charts on July 3, 1954 (just in time to go BOOM on the Fourth of July) and remained for fifteen weeks, peaking at #2 (kept out of the top spot by the Drifters' "Honey Love"). More important, it also reached #5 on the Pop charts. The Chords were, in fact, the first R&B artists of the 1950s to place a song in the Pop Top Ten. (In the 40s, Louis Jordan had had 9 songs in the Pop Top Ten, including "G.I. Jive" [which had reached #1], "Caldonia," "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't Ma Baby," "Open The Door, Richard," and "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens.")
[I'm going to amend the prior paragraph a bit. I was relying on Joel Whitburn's "Top R&B Singles - 1942-1988" for chart positions. However, in 2009, Billboard magazine has been put on the Internet, and I could see chart positions for myself. In the R&B Best Sellers In Stores category, "Sh-Boom" only reached #3 (both "Honey Love" and "Work With Me Annie" were ahead of it), although for a single week it peaked at #2 in the Most Played In Juke Boxes list. The highest it reached in the Best Sellers In Stores category for Pop was #9, but it did reach #5 in the Most Played In Juke Boxes Pop list (which put it ahead of the Crew Cuts version that week). While it's true that both "Honey Love" and "Work With Me Annie" crossed over into the Pop charts, "Sh-Boom" was a much bigger hit there than either of them (and it was a "clean" song on top of that).]
"Sh-Boom" created a sensation at the time (you could say it "dropped a bomb"). However, some Pop DJs (like Peter Potter) and executives of the major record companies, feeling that an unwholesome trend was developing, began a campaign to disparage the R&B sound. They characterized the words as "leer-ics" (in truth, the lyrical content of many R&B songs was rather suggestive for the period) and commented on the poor quality of the performances. Stan Freberg even did a parody of "Sh-Boom," admonishing the singers to "mumble" since he could almost understand the words. ("This is a Rhythm and Blues number. You gotta be careful or someone's liable to understand you." The effect could be helped along if the singers would "stick some old rags" in their mouths.)
Hold on, though. It's true that R&B songs tended to be earthier than Pop tunes, but that doesn't leave Pop music off the hook. When Cole Porter wrote "Birds do it/Bees do it/Even educated fleas do it/Let's do it/Let's fall in love," he certainly wasn't talking about falling in love. Sex was rampant throughout Pop songs, it was just more subtle.
But R&B's time had arrived. Despite the negative campaign, its evolution to Rock and Roll revolutionized the music industry. "Sh-Boom" is held in such high esteem that some music historians call it "the first Rock & Roll record" (an absurd claim for any song, but some people take comfort in putting things into pigeonholes).
But what of the group responsible for this monster hit? Where did
they come from and how did this song (probably the first anthem of Rock
and Roll) get written? The Chords, who hailed from around Boston Road
and Jennings Street in the Morrisania section of New York's South Bronx,
began around 1951 with some local street corner groups
"battling" it out.
The first of these groups, formed in 1949, was the 4 Notes, consisting of Jimmy Keyes, Percy Edwards, Arthur Vernon, and Dimitrios Clare. They were mentioned in a February 1950 blurb with the usual misspellings (they spelled it "Dimitrious Clara"). In September, they were known as Arthur Dixon and the 4 Notes. We'll meet Arthur Dixon again later (when he'll show up as "Vernon 'Arthur' Dicks" and "Arthur Dix"; I have no idea what his real name was), as well as Dimitrios Clare.
Second tenor Floyd "Buddy" McRae and bass William "Ricky" Edwards (both members of a group called the Keynotes) decided to form a group with first tenor Jimmy Keyes (of the 4 Notes). Jimmy, in turn, recommended first tenor Carl Feaster and his brother, baritone Claude Feaster, both of whom were members of the local Tune Toppers. This new aggregation originally used the name "Keynotes," but soon changed it to "Chords" (the name of a group that Ricky had once belonged to). At the time most of the members were in their early 20s. After they'd been together for about two years, says Buddy, "we decided we needed a musician to work with us, and someone recommended [child prodigy pianist] Rupert Branker."
The Chords began writing "Sh-Boom" sometime in 1953, while sitting in a Buick convertible. Buddy McRae said, "When they [the kids on the block] talked to each other, they'd say 'boom.' They'd say 'Hey, man, boom, how ya doin'." According to Jimmy Keyes, "'Boom' was the slang word. If you were standing on this block for five minutes, you'd hear that slang word fifteen times or more. We would take the 'boom' and make it sound like a bomb: 'shhhhhh-BOOM'." (In the setting of the Cold War's arms race, somehow it isn't surprising that "boom" would become a slang word.)
We don't normally think much about where the background to a song comes from, but Jimmy Keyes provided some clues. "'A langala langala lang.' Well, you could hear the church bells over there." Carl Feaster had an uncle "Bip," who lived on the streets, and sometimes, when the Chords practiced in a hallway, Uncle Bip would come in to listen. Said Jimmy, "We could smell Bip as soon as he opened the door." The guys would put their hands over their faces and sing "here comes Bip, a flip a dooba dip." Buddy says, "To be different, we would add 'clang,' 'lang,' anything."
The Chords initially took "Sh-Boom" to Bobby Robinson, owner of Red Robin Records (actually singing it for him when he was sick in bed). Alas, he was so feverish that he told them it "wasn't commercial enough."
In 1954, they were introduced to Oscar Cohen (of Joe Glaser's Associated Booking Corporation), who brought them to the attention of Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records. At the time, Atlantic was searching for a group to cover Patti Page's Pop smash of "Cross Over The Bridge." This was right up the Chords' alley, since they practiced mostly Pop material ("Let's Fall In Love," "Sway," "Blue Moon," etc.) and their favorite groups were the 4 Freshmen and the 5 Keys.
Atlantic was very receptive to the Chords' version of "Cross Over The Bridge," but didn't particularly like their original material (such as "Sh-Boom"). Actually, it was rare for a record company to admit that it didn't like original material. That was the stuff that the company got the publishing rights to and therefore made all the money from.
On March 15, 1954 (not only the Ides of March, but Income Tax Day back then), the Chords recorded four songs for Atlantic: "Cross Over The Bridge" (led by Claude), "Sh-Boom" (led by Carl), "Hold Me, Never Let Me Go" (Carl) and "Little Maiden" (Carl). (As an interesting coincidence, the very next day the news media broke the story that at the beginning of March, the U.S. had tested an enormous 15 megaton Hydrogen Bomb, this time vaporizing Bikini Atoll.)
On April 3, Atlantic announced the formation of Cat Records and the signing of the Chords, a "blues quartet." (In the South, R&B was known as "cat music," so the label name was a natural.) When "Cross Over The Bridge" was released on Cat, "Sh-Boom," by all accounts a throw-away song (with some nice sax work by Sam "The Man" Taylor), was grudgingly put on the record as the "B" side.
The disc was reviewed on April 24, with both sides receiving "good" ratings. Other reviews that week went to the Spiders' "Tears Began To Flow," the Diablos' "Adios My Desert Love," the Charms' "Quiet Please," and Lorraine Ellis & the Crows' "Perfidia."
Of course, Atlantic was pushing "Cross Over The Bridge," but after the record had been out for about a month, rumors began to circulate that a California DJ, Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg (of station KRKD), had flipped it over and flipped out completely (as had his audience). Consequently, there were orders pouring in from all over California and the side they were clamoring for wasn't Atlantic's prized "Cross Over The Bridge," but the barely-tolerated "Sh-Boom." Atlantic management, too shrewd to fight success, stopped pressing "Cross Over The Bridge" in June, and all subsequent issues of "Sh-Boom" had "Little Maiden" as the new flip. While Atlantic said that it was their intent to separate the hits and re-release "Cross Over The Bridge" at a later date, they never did. (Of course, at a "later date" no one would have cared about "Cross Over The Bridge" any more. Equally valid is the fact that it wasn't a "hit" at all, no matter what Atlantic might have dreamed.)
Let's tell the truth here: "Sh-Boom" was so big that it made sense to have songs that Atlantic owned the publishing rights to on both sides of the record. Thus, Atlantic wisely decided to keep the publishing money for themselves instead of sharing it with the publishers of "Cross Over The Bridge." (It didn't matter which side of a record was the hit; as far as publishing royalties are concerned, both sides were treated equally.)
The Chords took all this in stride. After all, they always knew "Sh-Boom" would be a hit. They had been undaunted when Bobby Robinson refused to record it; they simply forged ahead when Atlantic said they didn't like it. By May 15, it was a Tip in Philadelphia; on May 22 it was both a Tip in New York and a Pick Of The Week (it was also reported doing well in Cleveland, St. Louis, and Los Angeles). The trades gushed that it looked like another "Gee."
"Sh-Boom" reached #2 on the Most Played In Juke Boxes R&B charts during its 16-week run (ranking #15 for the year in Billboard's Top R&B sellers). It even spent 16 weeks on the Pop charts, rising to #5 in juke box plays. One interesting by-product: some new words were added, and the Chords used "Sh-Boom" as a promotional song for Robert Wagner's first election campaign for mayor of New York City.
When Atlantic realized just how big "Sh-Boom" was becoming, they made deals with other companies for covers. The song was simply too big for them, so they turned to cover artists in order to milk as much cash as possible from it. While Atlantic had turned out monster R&B hits over the years, they'd been handled by R&B distributors. Their experience in the Pop field was definitely limited, and would have involved different distributors, with which they didn't have a relationship. This was important, simply because distributors didn't pay if they could help it. In a supreme irony, a new company could be bankrupted by having a hit record. They'd press and ship as fast as they could, then wait for the money to come in from the distributors. Many of them are still waiting. Distributors were notorious for waiting to see if there'd be a second hit; if not, they never paid for the first one. (Remember that record companies didn't deal directly with record stores and juke box operators; that was the realm of the distributor. Actually, when a record was recognized as a "hit," it was because a certain number of copies had been ordered by the distributors, not because any consumers had happened to buy it.)
The most successful cover version, of course, belonged to the Crew Cuts on Mercury. (Ironically, this was the company for which Patti Page had recorded "Cross Over The Bridge.") The Crew Cuts' version spent 20 weeks on the Pop charts, giving them their only #1 song (it remained at #1 for 9 weeks). There were also covers by the Billy Williams Quartet, Leon McAuliffe, and Louis Williams, as well as Bobby Williamson's Country & Western version, and the aforementioned parody by Stan Freberg. Possibly the most absurd version appeared on TV's "Your Hit Parade," as sung by Snooky Lansen, dressed as an Indian.
In fact, "Sh-Boom" was such a big hit that it spawned many other R&B nonsense songs. In just the first year after it hit the charts, there was "Oop Shoop" (Shirley Gunter & the Queens and Big John & the Buzzards), "Zippity Zum" (the Chords themselves), "Voo Vee Ah Bee" (the Platters), "Vadunt Un Vada Song" (the Kings), "Du-Bi-A-Bo" (the Falcons), "Oobidee Oobidee Oo" (the Harptones), "Bazoom, I Need Your Lovin'"(Otis Williams & the Charms), "Chop Chop Boom" (the Danderliers), "Shtiggy Boom" (Patty Ann & the Flames, Joe Houston [with the Platters doing vocals], the Bill Johnson Quartet, and the Nuggets), Ko Ko Mo (Gene & Eunice), "Do Bop Sha Bam" (the Spence Sisters), "Oochie Pachie" (Arthur Lee Maye & the Crowns), "Do-Li-Op" (the 4 Kings), "Boom Magazeno Vip Vay" (the Cashmeres), and "Sha-Ba-Da-Ba-Doo" (the Jac-O-Lacs [Flairs]). All of these songs (and plenty of others) probably owed their existence to the Chords and "Sh-Boom." Of course, nonsense songs were nothing new, "Ja-Da (Ja Da, Ja Da, Jing Jing Jing)" had been a tremendous hit back in 1919.
It's interesting to wonder how much of the popularity of the song derived from the omnipresent worry about "The Bomb." Did the song serve to trivialize it a bit and therefore lessen the fear of it? Was it conscious? Subconscious? Did the juxtaposed and upbeat "life is but a dream" lyric help to "defuse" the public's apprehension? It's difficult to determine so many years later, but it bears thinking about. However, before we get too philosophical about it, Buddy says, "It had nothing to do with the A-Bomb particularly. It was just a thing that happened to happen.... Jimmy was a great one for telling stories and he may have embellished it in that direction." And yet, apprehension over The Bomb was quite real.
In the beginning of July, Atlantic announced that Lou Krefetz, manager of the Clovers, would take over that function for the Chords (up until then they hadn't had one). This could have been a golden opportunity for the guys, but it didn't work out that way. Krefetz, whom the Clovers considered a great manager, just didn't have the time to devote to the Chords.
Also in July, all six Chords hopped in their new 1954 DeSoto limousine (with "Chords/Sh-Boom" painted on the front doors) and drove out to California. This was only fitting, since Huggy Boy is credited with breaking "Sh-Boom" to his listeners.
When they were almost at Los Angeles, it was so hot that they decided to stop at a public swimming pool. The kids at the pool refused to believe that these guys actually were the Chords (who were thought to be white), so they had to sing "Sh-Boom" before they were allowed to go swimming! On July 17, they appeared at the Hollywood Shrine as part of Gene Norman's "Fifth Annual Blues Jubilee," sharing the stage with the Clovers, the Robins, and the Hollywood Flames. Then it was on to Bakersfield, San Jose, Pismo Beach, Fresno, Salinas, and back to Hollywood, where they were guests on Huggy Boy's KRKD show.
While they were in California, they met an up-and-coming local group. Says Buddy, "the Platters would come backstage and talk with us." The Platters even asked the Chords for autographs! This is how Rupert Branker met the Platters, and, when they needed an accompanist a couple of years later, he was the one they picked.
Then it was back to New York, where they held their second session on August 15. The three songs recorded were "Zippity Zum," "Hold Me Baby," and "Bless You," all led by Carl Feaster.
Actually, the reason that they were in New York that day is because they'd hit the big time. Through the efforts of Associated Booking, they appeared on the "Colgate Summer Comedy Hour" (with Kaye Ballard, Ronnie Graham, Miriam Stevenson [Miss Universe of 1954, even though the ad said 1955], Peter Graves, and Willie Mays). The show was broadcast live on August 15, 1954 at 8:00 on WNBT, Channel 4. They not only sang "Sh-Boom," but also performed "Say Hey, Willie," with Willie Mays. (Buddy still has the lyrics to the song, which they had to learn for the show.) Said Buddy, "Even the people who used to throw water on us from out their windows [when the group would practice in front of buildings], they were so proud of us." Those people would even brag that they threw water on the Chords before they hit it big! Buddy is proud to say, "We were the first Rock and Roll group on coast-to-coast TV." (This wasn't really true, although the Chords would have been one of the first R&B groups ever seen on network television. Probably the first was Tiger Haynes and the Three Flames, who had their own NBC summer show in 1949.)
Just to show you the mentality of those in charge of the "Colgate Comedy Hour" (which was eerily like that of those in charge of "Your Hit Parade"), the Chords were required to sing "Sh-Boom" dressed as "miners" (helmets and all). "We had nothing to say about it, one way or the other," says Buddy.
Cat issued "Zippity Zum" and "Bless You" in September 1954. They were reviewed (with "Zippity Zum" receiving an "excellent") on September 18. (This doesn't mean that the reviewers necessarily thought it was a better song than "Sh-Boom." The ratings weren't meant for record buyers, but for record distributors, juke box owners, and record store managers. Therefore, not only was the artist's performance rated, but their potential to grab customers' money based on prior performance was also factored in.) Other reviews that week went to the Spiders' "The Real Thing," the Hawks' "Give It Up," Richard Berry & the Dreamers' "At Last," the Heralds' "Eternal Love," the Diablos' "The Wind," the Romeos' "Love Me," the Du Droppers' "Boot 'Em Up," and the Native Boys' "Native Girl." "Zippity Zum" was a Tip in Los Angeles on October 9.
September 10 found the Chords beginning a week at the Apollo Theater. They shared the stage with Tito Rodriguez, Al Hibbler, and Butterbeans & Susie.
However, I'm not sure that Carl Feaster was with them when they played the Apollo. There was a big article in the September 4 New York Age headed "Leader Of 'Chord's [sic] In Second Rap." This detailed how Carl had been arrested on the complaint of statutory rape by the mother of a 16 year old girl with whom he'd spent the night. The article said that there was currently a second rape case pending against him. This is part of the price of fame; many, many singers have told me of the easily availability of adoring female fans. As usual in articles of this type, there was never a follow-up article, so I don't know the disposition of either of the cases.
On October 13, 1954, the guys went back to the studios to record "A Girl To Love" and "Could It Be," both led by Carl. Later that month, the Chords returned to Los Angeles, where they appeared on Peter Potter's "Juke Box Jury" on CBS-TV. Also on the show was Stan Freberg, who attempted to make peace with the Chords, kidding them with "I can put up with Rhythm and Blues music except for two things: my ears!" I've personally never believed the stories that Freberg hated Rock and Roll music. To successfully parody an entire genre, you actually have to like it (or at least have some kind of appreciation for it). If not, you sound bitter, not funny.
Here's how influential the Chords had become: by November 1954, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, there was a women's bowling team called the "Sh-Booms." (OK, they were in last place, but still, an honor is an honor!) By August 1955, there was a Sh-Boom shampoo (manufactured, sadly, by the Quartet Chemical Company, owned by the Crew Cuts!).
And then tragedy struck! Unfortunately, there was another Chords group around (one of Lillian Claiborne's Washington, D.C. roster of artists, who'd released "In The Woods" for the Gem label in August of 1953). The resulting legal actions (which dragged on for months) forced a name change on the Cat group. Atlantic quickly renamed them the "Chordcats," reissuing "Zippity Zum" and "Bless You" with that name in October. It was also the name under which "A Girl To Love" and "Hold Me Baby" were issued in November (and under which "Sh-Boom" was subsequently reissued). (It would be interesting to know if the other Chords group was even still in existence at this time. Certainly it was more of a nuisance legal action than anything else, but one that would have far-reaching consequences.)
In early November it was back to California, where the Chordcats appeared at the Club Oasis in Los Angeles. They played Inglewood, then the Green Mill Ballroom in Ventura, and the Riverside Ranch, back in Los Angeles. After that, it was off to Texas and Oklahoma along with Percy Mayfield.
"A Girl To Love" was reviewed on December 18 (both sides ranked "good"). Other reviews that week were for the Charms' "Ling, Ting, Tong," the Counts' "Let Me Go Lover," the Sly Fox's "Hoo Doo Say," the Rivileers' "For Sentimental Reasons," and Johnny Torrence & the Jewels' "Rosalie."
There was another trip to the Apollo the week of February 18, 1955. This time, they shared the stage with Willie Mae Thornton, Danny Overbea, Charlie & Ray, Buddy Griffin, and Claudia Swann.
Their next session was held on February 23, 1955, at which time they recorded four more songs: "Lu Lu," "Pretty Wild," "Love Oh Love," and "Heartbeat" (all led by Carl). However, it seemed that Atlantic was losing interest in the Chords. Whereas the trades were full of the movements of the Chords/Chordcats throughout 1954, in 1955 they were pretty silent. While the group was touring and appearing all over, the trades weren't bothering to report it. In spite of this, Buddy says they appeared at the Apollo, in Boston, and in Wildwood, New Jersey. In fact, they were full-time singers, all of them having given up other jobs when "Sh-Boom" first hit big.
I can find one more appearance at the Apollo: the week of March 25, 1955, along with Otis Williams & the Charms and Buddy Tate.
Maybe they were already being seen as "one-hit wonders," but as of March 5, 1955, week 7 of the annual Pittsburgh Courier Theatrical Poll, the Chords/Chordcats hadn't received a single vote.
The "Chordcats" may not have been the worst name ever thought up, but the guys didn't like it a bit. (On a June 1955 Wilson Lines Hudson River moonlight cruise, they were billed as the "5 Chords.") Therefore, around September 1955, they changed it again, this time to the "Sh-Booms." This produced something of an identity crisis which wasn't helped by the fact that manager Lou Krefetz always had more time for the Clovers than for them. It's really tough to change your name in mid-stream. As mentioned before, reviewers for the trade papers factored in past performance in rating your current record; if the reviewer didn't know about the name change, the songs might receive a lower rating. Then it needed to be communicated to DJs, as well as fan clubs all over the country. Not an easy task.
Their last record on Cat was issued in October 1955 as by the "Sh-Booms": "Could It Be," coupled with "Pretty Wild." The disc was reviewed (both sides "good") on October 29, along with Shirley & Lee's "Lee's Dream," the Cadillacs' "Speedo," the Turks' "Emily," Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," the Rolling Crew's "Home On Alcatraz," the Orioles' "Please Sing My Blues Tonight," the Diablos' "The Way You Dog Me Around," the Medallions' "My Pretty Baby," and the Meadowlarks' "This Must Be Paradise."
Presumably the record had dismal sales, since, in January 1956, Atlantic sent out a press release that trumpeted: "The Chords Now Sh-Booms". It was printed in the New York Age, and probably many other newspapers, but the results were marginal at best.
In the Spring of 1956, the guys left Atlantic. Says Buddy, "Atlantic wasn't doing anything for us. We should have gone much further than we did. Atlantic didn't give us their best effort." Strangely, with all the arranging help given to the Clovers and Drifters, the Chords were left to do their own arrangements. When they quit Atlantic, they left Lou Krefetz too, going back to doing their own managing. Actually, at the end, they hadn't been working all that much (not a good thing for full-time singers). Not too long after that, three of their members departed. First, Rupert Branker left, to become the pianist for the Platters. Then Buddy McRae and William Edwards quit also.
Buddy moved to Detroit for a few years, where he sang with a group whose name he can no longer remember. They drove to New York to try to get a recording contract, but nothing came of it. By the end of the decade, Buddy would move back to New York.
Buddy was replaced by baritone Vernon "Arthur" Dicks (sometimes seen misspelled as "Dix"; he'd been with Jimmy Keyes' 4 Notes group back in 1950 as both "Arthur Vernon" and "Arthur Dixon"). At the time, Arthur was a soloist, performing in niteclubs. William Edwards' place was taken by Joe "Ditto" Dias, who'd been an on-and-off member of the group previously (before their recording days), and who had also been with Dean Barlow in the Crickets and the Bachelors. (Another singer who hung around with the Chords was Bobby Spencer, but he only appeared with them once, at Chubby's in Camden, New Jersey, replacing Claude for a week.) Thus, the Sh-Booms were now: Carl Feaster (lead tenor), Jimmy Keyes (first tenor), Claude Feaster (baritone), Arthur Dicks (baritone), and Joe Dias (bass).
On December 12, 1956, the Sh-Booms signed a one-year contract with Columbia's Okeh subsidiary, to record four sides between January 15, 1957 and January 14, 1958. However, for whatever reason, they never even made it into the Okeh studios.
Instead, on August 22, 1957, the Sh-Booms recorded three sides for RCA's Vik subsidiary: "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire" (led by Joe Dias), "Lu Lu" (fronted by Carl Feaster), and "Don't Be Mad At My Heart." The first two were issued on Vik in September 1957. Reviewed on September 30, they were both ranked "good" along with Clyde McPhatter's "Rock And Cry," Fats Domino's "Wait And See," Frankie Lymon's "My Girl," and the Spaniels' "You're Gonna Cry."
Sometime after the Vik recordings, the group broke up. In 1959, Carl Feaster recorded six sides for Roulette under the name "Lionel Thorpe," with Jimmy Keyes, Dorian Burton, and someone named Wooten doing background vocals. (Buddy remembers Burton and Wooten as two guys who used to hang around with the Chords.) The sides were: "Lover Lover Lover," "More, More, More," "She Was Love," "Don't Run Away," "Hanging Around," and "My Little Angel." The first two of these were issued on Roulette in March 1959, the second two in January 1960. Where did the name "Lionel Thorpe" come from? Says Buddy, "We used to tease Carl about the 'Lionel Thorpe' name, but he would never explain it."
In 1960 all the original singers got back together again (Carl Feaster, Jimmy Keyes, Buddy McRae, Claude Feaster, and William Edwards) to do a single 3-song session for Atlantic (parent company of the now-defunct Cat Records). On May 26 they recorded "Blue Moon," "Short Skirts," and "Make A Wish." The first two were issued in August; "Make A Wish" remains unreleased. Once again, the record was released under the name "Sh-Booms." In December 1961, Atlantic re-issued "Sh-Boom"/"Little Maiden" on their Atco subsidiary, this time as the "Sh-Booms."
And that was it for the Chords/Chordcats/Sh-Booms. In late 1967, Jimmy Keyes formed the Popular 5: Warren Wilson (lead), Jimmy Keyes (first tenor), Jessie Huddleston (first tenor), Arthur Dicks (baritone) and Dimitrios Clare (bass; he'd been in Jimmy Keys' 4 Notes and then the Continentals on Rama). They even went as far as incorporating (on September 12, 1967, as The Popular Five, Inc.) with Keyes as the president and Clare as the secretary/treasurer. This group cut "Sh Boom" for Rae Cox and also had releases on Minit and Mister Chand. In addition, there were a couple of Shaefer Beer commercials and appearances at the Shaefer Festival in New York's Central Park.
When Buddy McRae came back from Detroit in the late 50s, he opened a bar; Jimmy Keyes ran a boutique; Claude Feaster was a contractor, fixing up apartments. Carl Feaster, Joe Dias and Arthur Dicks never really quit singing, but William Edwards didn't seem to work at all; if he wasn't singing, he "just hung around."
Over the years, Jimmy Keyes kept a Chords group going, with varying membership. In 1979, Carl Feaster, Buddy McRae and Jimmy Keyes appeared at a UGHA show (with Gary Morrison, a fellow Bronxite who'd been in the 5 Chimes and the Mellows). In 1980, Carl and Jimmy were joined by Arthur Dicks and Wes Neal. In 1996, the Chords were inducted into the UGHA Hall Of Fame.
All of the Chords are gone now. Carl Feaster died in 1980 and Jimmy Keyes passed away in 1995. Rupert Branker was murdered in Los Angeles, during a 1961 mugging; he was still with the Platters at the time. (A local newspaper article said that "The body of Branker was found... beaten to death on a deserted road here.") William Edwards passed on in 1964, Claude Feaster died in the early 70s, and Arthur Dicks in 2001. Joe Dias is also gone, probably in the 60s. Buddy McRae, the last survivor, passed away on March 19, 2013.
In an interesting coincidence, 48 years to the day after "Sh-Boom" was recorded (March 15, 2002), I found myself writing about Buddy McRae starting up a new Chords group in order to keep the memory alive. Aside from Buddy (still at second tenor), the other members were: Arthur Crier (newly un-retired veteran of many Bronx groups, bass), Brady Reeves (lead tenor), William "Butch" Harris (first tenor), and Jake Shankel (baritone). Tenors Charles Ball and Jimmy Richardson were substitute singers. (Reeves, Harris, and Shankel had all sung with Jimmy Keyes in various Chords groups that he'd had over the years.)
Were the Chords a "one-hit wonder"? Absolutely. But what a hit! This tune went further than any song before it to popularize R&B. It opened the floodgates wide, but the Chords were unable to profit much from it. (Buddy said that it took them three or four years to get any royalties from having written "Sh-Boom." "We went through a 'thing' with Atlantic. We had lawyers.") Mediocre management and changing names conspired to leave the Chords at the starting gate when masses of R&B acts were about to burst through into stardom.
Special thanks to James M. Salem and Ferdie Gonzalez.
104 Cross Over The Bridge (CLF)/Sh-Boom (CF/WE) (as CHORDS) - 4/54
104 Sh-Boom (CF/WE)/Little Maiden (CF) (as CHORDS) - 6/54
109 Zippity Zum (CF)/Bless You (CF) (as CHORDS) - 9/54
109 Zippity Zum (CF)/Bless You (CF) (as CHORDCATS) - 10/54
112 A Girl To Love (CF)/Hold Me Baby (CF) (as CHORDCATS) - 11/54
117 Could It Be (CF)/Pretty Wild (CF) (as SH-BOOMS) - 10/55
Hold Me, Never Let Me Go (CF)
Lu Lu (CF)
Love Oh Love (CF)
VIK (as SH-BOOMS)
0295 Lu Lu (CF)/I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire (JD) - 9/57
Don't Be Mad At My Heart (??)
ATLANTIC (as SH-BOOMS)
2074 Blue Moon (CF)/Short Skirts (CF/WE) - 8/60
Make A Wish (??)
ATCO (reissues of Chords tunes, as SH-BOOMS)
6213 Sh-Boom (CF)/Little Maiden (CF) - 12/61
CF = Carl Feaster; CLF = Claude Feaster; JD = Joe Dias; WE = William Edwards
4144 More, More, More/Lover Lover Lover - 3/59
4222 Don't Run Away/She Was Love - 1/60
My Little Angel
1001Tomorrow Night/Sh-Boom - 67
32050 I'm A Love Maker/Little Bitty Pretty One - 8/68
32061 Baby I Got It/I Don't Want To Be Without Her - 4/69
8001 Baby, I've Got It/Best Friend - Worst Enemy - 8/70