The Fi-Tones are not easy to classify. They seemed to be somewhere halfway between R&B and Pop, with a sound that isn't readily identifiable from one song to another. They never made a splash across the country, although their songs did well in New York, New Jersey, and (of all places) Kansas City.
The beginnings of the Fi-Tones can be traced back to early 1952, and the Cavaliers, from the Fort Greene Projects in Brooklyn, New York. Although somewhat fluid at the beginning, the group settled down to Leroy Randolph (lead), Ron Mosely (tenor), Cecil Holmes (second tenor and baritone), and Johnny McGhee (bass). The fifth Cavalier was pianist Lester Gardner (he was also a tenor who occasionally sang with the group). Lester was so shy that he's usually not in any photos.
After a while, Ron Anderson, another bass, was added to make it a sextet. However, the group really didn't need two basses and soon Johnny McGhee dropped out. First tenor Marlowe "Lowe" Murray was added to make it a sextet again, but when Ron Mosely was drafted in 1953, he wasn't replaced, finally leaving the Cavaliers as a quintet.
The Cavaliers entertained at house parties and, at one of these, heard a couple of the Chords sing. They were so impressed that they decided to devote themselves to singing. They practiced a bit more and went to audition for Hy and Sam Weiss at Old Town Records. The Weiss brothers couldn't stop laughing, insisting that the performance was a joke set up by some guys down the hall. When you're singing your heart out, the last thing you need to hear is "You don't really think you're singers, do you?"
So back home they went and practiced a lot more. Then Cecil got Tommy Robinson, owner of Atlas Records in Harlem (at 271 West 125 Street) interested in hearing them. Robinson came to a rehearsal and not only gave them a contract, but also became their manager. Ron thinks that Robinson was impressed that they were clean-cut kids and not members of any gangs.
The Cavaliers ended up recording "You Thrill Me So" (led by the usually non-singing Lester Gardner) and "Dynaflow" (fronted by Cecil Holmes) for Atlas on June 20, 1953. On the same day, they also backed up soloist Roscoe Thorne (whom they had never heard of until the rehearsals) on "Dolores" and "Peddler Of Dreams."
In October of that year, they appeared at the Hunts Point Palace (in the Bronx) with Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, Ruth Brown, and Eduardo's Latin Orchestra. Another Hunts Point Palace appearance (billed as the "Cavaliars") was with the Harptones, Edna McGriff, the Diamonds, the 5 Willows, and the Eddie Bonnemere mambo band. A magazine article from the period mentions "You Thrill Me So" and "Don't You Know," but also indicates that their "latest releases" are "Girl Of My Dreams" and "Don't You Know" (neither of which Cecil remembers). It's possible that these were recorded but never released. It's also possible that "Don't You Know" was later resurrected as the Fi-Tones "Love You Baby." Other appearances that the Cavaliers made were at the Club Tip Top, the Chateau Gardens, Club 845, and the Rockland Palace.
After the less than overwhelming response to the Cavaliers' recordings (which wasn't helped by Atlas not sending the disc out for review and by spelling their name "Caverliers"), the group decided, in 1954, to really try to get a better sound. To this end, they got rid of Leroy Randolph and replaced him with Lloyd Davis (baritone and guitar). To round out the group, they added first tenor/pianist Gene Redd, Jr. (formerly of the 5 Chimes, and son of Gene Redd, Sr., a session sax player, who would spend some time with the Red Caps in the mid-50s), because somewhere along the way, tenor/pianist Lester Gardner had left. To end all association with the past, they renamed themselves the Fi-Tones. What was the meaning of this name? Ron says it was because of "Hi-Fi," which had recently been introduced. During their early days, Monteith "Monte" Owens, guitarist for the Solitaires, helped them out musically (since Lloyd was only just beginning to study the guitar).
The Fi-Tones decided to stick with Tommy Robinson, and started off by recording "Foolish Dreams" (led by Lloyd) and "Let's Fall In Love" (Gene and Ron). The record, released in September 1955, failed to take off (like all their discs; the Fi-Tones never had a national chart hit). Note that Atlas didn't use meaningful master numbers, so there's no way to know when any particular song was recorded.
The record was reviewed on September 17 (with both sides receiving "good" ratings). Other reviews that week went to the Charms' "One Fine Day," the Voices' "Hey Now," the Cashmeres' "There's A Rumor," and the Colts' "Adorable."
Around the same time, the Fi-Tones backed up a jazz soloist named Al Jackson on "I'll Be Around" and "The Last One To Know," which were scheduled for release around December 1955, but were held back at the last minute. (This is not the same singer who was part of "Al Jackson and His Fat Men.")
A few months later, in December, their second effort was released: "It Wasn't A Lie" (Lloyd), paired with "Lots And Lots Of Love" (Gene and Lloyd).
It was reviewed (both sides good) on January 14, 1956, along with the Flamingos' "I'll Be Home," the Clovers' "Devil Or Angel," the Midnighters' "Partners For Life," Richard Berry's "I Am Bewildered," the Mello-Harps' "I Love Only You," the Hurricanes' "Maybe It's All For The Best," and the Teen Queens' "Eddie My Love."
In March 1956, when "It Wasn't A Lie" failed to chart, Atlas issued "I Call To You" (Gene and Lowe in a duet lead)/"Love You Baby" (Gene & Ron). "I Call To You" had been written for them by Reneé Stewart of the Delltones.
On March 30, the Fi-Tones began a week at the Apollo Theater as part of a Dr. Jive show. Others on the bill were Bo Diddley, the Moonglows, Charlie & Ray, the Solitaires, Dean Barlow, Brook Benton, the Schoolboys, the Teen Queens, Sugar & Spice, and the Buddy Griffin Orchestra, with Claudia Swann.
"I Call To You" was rated "fair" on March 31, 1956 (with the flip receiving a "good"). Other reviews that week went to Fats Domino's "I'm In Love Again," Joe Turner's "Corrine Corrina," the Moonglows' "We Go Together," the 5 Dollars' "So Strange," The Cadillacs' "Zoom," the Hearts' "Disappointed Bride," and the Cadets' "Church Bells May Ring."
In spite of having nothing but regional hits, the Fi-Tones got a lot of work, playing small venues such as the Rockland Palace, the Hunts Point Palace, the Elks Hall, and the Audubon Ballroom. They appeared at the Apollo Theater at least three times: the week of November 11, 1955 (with Alfredito, the La Playa Sextette, Roy Hamilton, Dean Barlow, and Gene & Eunice); the two weeks beginning March 30, 1956 (as part of a Dr. Jive show, which also featured Bo Diddley, the Moonglows, the Buddy Griffin Orchestra (with Claudia Swann), Charlie & Ray, the Solitaires, Dean Barlow, Brook Benton, the Schoolboys, the Teen Queens, and Sugar & Spice); and the week of November 28, 1958 (another Dr. Jive show, with Lavern Baker, Jackie Wilson, Bobby Day, the Emersons, Lee Andrews & the Hearts, Nappy Brown, the 5 Chanels, and the Reuben Phillips Orchestra). As well as the Apollo, they played the Howard, the Royal, the Regal, and the Uptown.
In early May 1956, the Fi-Tones played a week at the Celebrity Club in Providence, Rhode Island. In June, they were booked into the New Sundown Club in Hartford, Connecticut.
Atlas issued "I Belong To You" (Lowe)/"Silly And Sappy" (Gene) in June 1956. They were reviewed (both "good") on July 14, 1956, along with Fats Domino's "When My Dreamboat Comes Home," the G-Clefs' "Ka-Ding-Dong," and the Mint Juleps' "Bells Of Love."
The Fi-Tones' last Atlas record came out in November 1956: "Waiting For Your Call" (Lloyd)/"My Tired Feet" (Lowe).
The disc was reviewed on December 8, 1956, with "Call" rated "fair" and "Feet" receiving a "poor." Other reviews that week went to the Moonglows' "Over And Over Again," the Schoolboys' "Please Say You Want Me," the Clovers' "A Lonely Fool," the Flamingos' "Would I Be Crying," the Copesetics' "Believe In Me," the Jaguars' "The Way You Look Tonight," and the Baltineers' "Moments Like This."
But after a year, it was plain that the Fi-Tones weren't going to tear up the charts, and Tommy Robinson seemingly lost interest in them to concentrate on the Parakeets. (This in spite of the fact that "I Belong To You" reached #7 on Jimmie Jones' show over KRPS in Kansas City.)
Sometime in late 1956 or early 1957, the Fi-Tones added high tenor Reggie Barnes as a sixth member. However, since Lloyd Davis had very bad asthma, it was rare for all six of them to be around when a photo session was scheduled. Most photos have five members, but there's even one showing only four. Ron strongly asserts, however, that the Fi-Tones always had five members, up until the time Reggie was added, and from that point on, they always had six.
On February 2, 1957 (to celebrate Groundhog's Day), the Fi-Tones were part of a show put on by the Police Athletic League at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The Fi-Tones shared the stage with the Bop Chords, the Chips, the Hearts, the Channels, Johnnie & Joe, the Cootie Williams Orchestra, and the legendary Willie "The Lion" Smith, master of the stride piano.
There was a session for Atlas at which they supposedly backed up a singer whose name wasn't recorded on the tape box; the unreleased tunes were "Y-O-U" and "No Wedding Today." After listening to them, however, Ron says that what we've actually got here is Al Jackson, backed up by the Parakeets. Another two unreleased tunes feature Vic Donna, backed up by the Fi-Tones: "The Pair Of Heart And Soul" and "My Life Is In Your Hands."
The Fi-Tones felt they weren't getting all the money from Atlas that they were entitled to. However, when Ron Anderson thinks about it now, he can see it from a different perspective: Tommy Robinson was their manager and went on the road with them. He bought them uniforms and instruments and paid for choreography lessons. All these expenses were (rightly) charged against their royalties. There was never a falling out with Robinson; they knew that he'd done a lot for them. Lloyd and Gene even received royalties for writing several of the songs.
In the summer of 1957, their two-year contract with Atlas over, the Fi-Tones switched to Hy Weiss' Old Town Records. Their only Old Town session produced "My Faith" (Lloyd) and "My Heart" (Lowe), which were paired for an August 1957 release. It looks as if the Weiss brothers didn't really think much more of the Fi-Tones in 1957 than they had of the Caverliers in 1953. While they did record them this time, the session only produced two masters, and the disc wasn't even sent out for review.
With treatment like that, it's not surprising that nothing happened with the record, and the guys got fewer and fewer bookings as time went on. By early 1959, the group was pretty much history. However, remember when Monte Owens of the Solitaires helped them out at the start of their career? Now, in early 1959, when two of the Solitaires (Buzzy Willis and Bobby Baylor) were drafted, Monte turned to the Fi-Tones and brought in Cecil Holmes and Reggie Barnes (who could both sing tenor and baritone) as replacements.
In spite of the fact that the Fi-Tones had left him, Tommy Robinson continued to release their records on his new Angle Tone label. In May 1958 there was "You'll Be The Last" (Lloyd)/"Wake Up" (Reggie).
The disc was reviewed on May 19, 1958 (both sides "fair"), along with the Drifters' "Drip Drop," the Magnificents' "Don't Leave Me," and the Impressions' "For Your Precious Love." Think about it: Old Town doesn't send out a current artist's record for review, but Atlas/Angle Tone sends one out for a group that had left it a year before. Which company had the greater integrity?
In November 1958, Angle Tone reissued "It Wasn't A Lie"; this time it was paired with the previously-unreleased "What Am I Goin' To Do" (led by Lowe). "What" was rated "fair" and "Lie" was rated "poor" on November 24, along with the Fiestas' "So Fine," the Emersons' "Hungry," the Pyramids' "Ankle Bracelet," and the 5 Keys' "One Great Love." This shows the pitfall involved in reissuing a record: once, "It Wasn't A Lie" had been rated "good," now the three-year-old sound was ranked "poor." Was it just a different reviewer? Was the sound deemed too "ancient" to sell? We'll probably never know.
Angle Tone released the final Fi-Tones record in July 1959: the years-old "Deep In My Heart" (Lowe)/"Minnie" (Reggie and Gene). For the first time, Tommy Robinson didn't send a Fi-Tones' record out for review.
Reggie and Cecil remained with the Solitaires until sometime in 1964, at which time the Fi-Tones re-formed with Ron Anderson (bass and bassist), Lloyd Davis (baritone and guitar), Reggie Barnes (tenor and drums), Gene Redd (tenor and organ), and Willie Bridges (sax); they were now both a vocal and instrumental group. They even played the Peppermint Lounge during the dance craze period of the mid-60s. The group remained together throughout the 60s, although when they became the house band for the Blue Morocco Lounge in the Bronx, they changed their name to the Lloyd Davis Orchestra. In the 70s, Ron Anderson began his own band, the Versatiles.
Many of the Fi-Tones remained in the music business. Gene Redd, Jr. became a producer for Kool and the Gang. Cecil Holmes worked for Buddah Records as a "record man" (the guy who visits DJs all over the country to push the company's records); then, in the 70s, he formed Casablanca Records (along with Neil Bogart). Reggie Barnes joined the Cadillacs after leaving the Solitaires, and then worked as a drummer with Jimmy Castor, the Shirelles, and the Chantels. Lowe Murray, who subsequently became a part of the Harptones for 30 years, died in December 2008. Ron Anderson still has the Versatiles band. (One of the singers with the Versatiles was Billy Clark, of the Strangers, who sang with the band for about five years, until his death in 1996.) Gene Redd, Lloyd Davis, and Ron Mosley have all passed on, but Monte Owens is still alive. The whereabouts of Lester Gardner have been unknown for about 45 years.
The Ink Spots have been downrated because most of their songs were carbon copies of each other; but at least you could recognize an Ink Spots song. The 5 Keys had three different leads, but managed to hang on to a sound that could be easily identified. The Fi-Tones were almost determined not to have a recognizable sound. Using three different leads, as well as unison singing, there wasn't much for their fans to latch on to. If they turned out a great ballad this time, you could bet that their next record would sound completely different. The talent was there, but the coherence in sound and style was missing. Still and all, when they were good, they were very, very good; sometimes they were even terrific.
Special thanks to Ronnie Italiano and Ferdie Gonzalez. Ads are, as usual, from various issues of Galen Gart's First Pressings series.
1031 You Thrill Me So (LG)/Dynaflow (CH) - 8/53
1033 Dolores (RT)/Peddler Of Dreams (RT) - 9/53
1050 Foolish Dreams (LD)/Let's Fall In Love (GR & RA) - 9/55
1051 It Wasn't A Lie (LD)/Lots And Lots Of Love (GR & LD) - 12/55
1052 I Call To You (GR/LM)/Love You Baby (GR & RA) - 3/56
1055 I Belong To You (LM)/Silly & Sappy (GR) - 5/56
1056 Waiting For Your Call (LD)/My Tired Feet (LM) - 11/56
I'll Be Around (backing Al Jackson)
The Last One To Know (backing Al Jackson)
Let's Talk It Over (LD & LM)
You're Spinning (LM)
My Life Is In Your Hands (backing Vic Donna)
The Pair Of Heart And Soul (backing Vic Donna)
UNRELEASED ATLAS On a CD, these were attributed to the Fi-Tones (they're actually by Al Jackson, backed by the Parakeets)
Y-O-U (Al Jackson & Parakeets)
No Wedding Today (Al Jackson & Parakeets)
1042 My Faith (LD)/My Heart (LM) - 8/57
ANGLE TONE (subsidiary of Atlas - all old Atlas masters)
525 You'll Be The Last (LD)/ Wake Up (RB) - 5/58
530 It Wasn't A Lie (LD)/What Am I Goin' To Do (LM) - 11/58
536 Deep In My Heart (LM)/Minnie (RB & GR) - 7/59
LEADS: CH = Cecil Holmes; RT = Roscoe Thorne, backed by the Caverliers;
GR = Gene Redd; LD = Lloyd Davis; LM = Lowe Murray; RB = Reggie Barnes;
LG = Lester Gardner; RA = Ron Anderson