The Equadors aren't exactly a group everyone knows, but the same five guys managed to go from a local Philly R&B group to the heights of supper club entertaining by the simple expedient of changing their name!
The Equadors began life on the streets of North Philadelphia, around 1955. There, a group of neighborhood friends, all of high school age, started singing together: Al Turner (lead), Oscar Drummond (first tenor), Rilly Foreman (second tenor), Lynn Thomas (baritone), and Reginald Grant (bass). In addition, they had two musicians: Mitchell Robinson (guitar) and Billy Davis (drums).
Originally calling themselves the Chants, they sang at both churches and dances. They were influenced by the Flamingos, the Moonglows, the Cadillacs, the Dells, and, in time, James Brown. A hotbed of R&B, Philly had plenty of radio stations and plenty of DJs. As a result, the Chants soaked up all the Top Ten hits of the day, and used them to practice.
The Chants hooked up with Larry Kerrin, a neighborhood real-estate man, who also dabbled in managing groups. One of the groups he had at the time was the Thunderbirds, who would soon change their name to the Silhouettes. Kerrin got the Chants some gigs in Lawnside, New Jersey (with Ray Charles and Pigmeat Markham), as well as several local gigs. The Chants recorded a tune called "Linda," backed with "Daddy Rock," as a demo record to promote themselves, but it was never commercially released.
Around a year later, they decided to change the name of the group. The name they chose was "The Equadors" (although Al doesn't remember why). Then they met up with a WHAT DJ named Lloyd "Fatman" Smith (who made a great record called "Where You Been?" on Okeh in 1956). (WHAT was the home of some of the most famous Philadelphia DJs: Kae Williams, Hy Lit, and Georgie Woods.) Soon they had replaced Larry Kerrin with Lloyd "Fatman" (as he billed himself).
In the beginning, they mostly sang at recreation centers, but then they hooked up with the Jolly Joyce Booking Agency. This was one of the larger agencies, on a par with Gale, Associated Booking, and Universal. By the time the Equadors joined the talent roster there, Jolly had retired and his son, Norman Joyce, was in charge. Thanks to Joyce, they spent the summer of 1957 appearing at Wildwood (New Jersey). Later that year they played the Dixie Pig, in Bladensburg, Maryland, where Joyce had arranged for a talent scout from RCA Victor Records to come down and see them.
They made a favorable impression on the talent scout, and ended up with a recording contract. This resulted in four songs (all led by Al), recorded in New York at two sessions, six days apart. The first session was held on February 18, 1958, at which time the Equadors recorded "Sputnik Dance" and "A Vision." On the former song, King Curtis does his thing on the sax break; on the latter tune, they were backed up by a trio of femme singers (the RCA session sheets say it was the Miller Sisters, although there were usually five of them). On February 24, they recorded "Stay A Little Longer" and "I'll Be The One." All the songs except "Stay A Little Longer" were written by the group. Before the session, producer Leroy Kirkland introduced them to Kelly Owens, one of the writers of "Stay A Little Longer," so that they could practice the song. (Owens also wrote Elvis' "I Beg Of You.")
Strangely, all four songs were issued on a single EP, which was released on March 25, 1958 and doesn't seem to have been reviewed. The competition at the time was from: Chuck Willis' "What Am I Living For?," Lee Andrews & the Hearts' "Try The Impossible," the Versatones' "Tight Skirt And Sweater," the Maharajahs' "I Do Believe," the Cellos' "What's The Matter For You," Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," the Gladiolas' "Shoop Shoop," the Moonglows' "Soda Pop" (showing how far a top R&B group can fall in pandering to teenage tastes), the Ladders' "Counting The Stars," the Gaylarks' "Somewhere In This World," the Ospreys' "Do You Wanna Jump Children," the Chanters' "My My Darling," the Turks' "Father Time," Frankie Lymon's "Portable On My Shoulder," and Sugar Ray Robinson's "Knock Him Down Whiskey."
According to Al, DJs didn't like playing the Equadors EP because they couldn't just throw it on a turntable and forget about it. If they played the first song on a side, they had to remember to stop the turntable before the second song started; if they played the second song, they had to cue it up somewhere in the middle of the record, not at the edge. In fact, EPs were generally not issued at all, except for established artists (e.g., Fats Domino only had one chart tune that came from an EP: "The Rooster Song") To address this problem, RCA released "Sputnik Dance" and "A Vision" as a regular single, but with the same EP number.
Either way, the session produced no hits. However, thanks to the efforts of Lloyd "Fatman," they did get to perform "Sputnik Dance" on American Bandstand (at the studio at 46th and Market Street) and then went on an East Coast tour with Frankie Lymon, Paul Anka, and the Monotones.
The Equadors struggled on through 1959, and then Norman Joyce had a brilliant idea. He wanted them to become more commercial, in order to be able to perform at white clubs which were not only much more prestigious, but paid more money. (This was almost a necessity, since there were seven members to be paid.) To attain this goal, Joyce simply had the Equadors change their name to the Modern Ink Spots! Actually, the ploy worked. Starting in 1960, they made many appearances at the Topaz Club in Scranton (Pennsylvania), as well as Philadelphia's Peppermint Lounge, and better clubs up and down the East Coast. They never again appeared as the Equadors. (The Equadors on Miracle were a different group.)
In order to prepare for their role as the successors to the Ink Spots, they bought a Flamingos album, Flamingo Serenade, which contained all old standards. They played it and played it and practiced and practiced until they had all the lyrics and arrangements down pat. They threw in some famous Ink Spots tunes, and they were ready to go!
They kept this up for about a year, and then they started sneaking in their old R&B material. Each time they played a club again, more and more of the tunes they sang were non-standards (and non-Ink Spots), until, around 1962, they were singing mostly non-standards. Of course, there was the obligatory "If I Didn't Care," but not much else. However, speaking of the standards, Al says, "We ended up liking them ourselves."
In 1962 they added an eighth member: Gary Evans, a bassist who could also sing baritone and second tenor. He performed lead vocals when the Modern Ink Spots did James Brown numbers. Also, drummer Billy Davis left, and was replaced by Claude Higgs.
The Modern Ink Spots issued their only record (if only that could be said of the dozens of other Ink Spots groups around!) on the Rust label in 1962: "Spotlight Dance" (led by Gary), backed with "Together (In Your Arms)" (fronted by Al). The latter song (written by Al Turner, Kenny Gamble and Jerry Ross) was also done by the Dreamlovers; it is not the same "Together" that was done by the Intruders (a #9 R&B hit in 1967), although Kenny Gamble wrote that one also. (The Modern Ink Spots on Demand Artists and Kay Bee are a different group.)
In 1963, they were booked into a club in Quebec, but Norman Joyce found out there was another "Modern Ink Spots" group performing in Canada. He once again had them change their name (temporarily, this time) to the Cardinals. Before they left on tour, he got them a quick session with Al Browne's Rose Records, for whom they recorded two (definitely) non-Ink Spots tunes: "Why Don't You Write Me" and "Sh-Boom." The record was sent on ahead to Quebec as a kind of advertisement for the Cardinals. Once they returned from the gig, they went back to being the Modern Ink Spots.
Bass Reginald Grant had left the group for a while in 1962, but returned again the following year; he was, however, on all the recordings. When he left, he wasn't replaced. Instead, they picked up sax player Charlie Gilbert.
The Equadors/Modern Ink Spots/Cardinals continued on until 1965, when Al Turner decided to become a Philadelphia policeman (he's currently a sergeant). The group broke up for a while, and then some of them got back together with a couple of new members. However, after about a year, they broke up for good.
So here's a group that most collectors would think made a single record and called it quits. Instead, they had a pretty distinguished career, going through three different names and lasting for ten years.
Special thanks to Greg Centamore and Val Shively.
EPA 4286 - 3/58
Sputnik Dance (AT)
I'll Be The One (AT)
A Vision (AT)
Stay A Little Longer (AT)
EPA 4286 Sputnik Dance (AT)/A Vision (AT) - 3/58
(See text for explanation)
5052 Spotlight Dance (GE)/Together (In Your Arms) (AT) - 62
835 Why Don't You Write Me (AT)/Sh-Boom (AT) - 63
LEADS: AT = Al Turner; GE = Gary Evans