One of my favorite groups from the Chicago area is the Gems. Wonderfully smooth harmonies and minimal instrumentation allow the group to shine. It's a shame the record-buying public never really thought so.
The Gems began around 1952, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois. The five neighborhood friends, in their early twenties, were: Ray Pettis (tenor lead), Bobby "Pee Wee" Robinson (first tenor and guitar), David "Moose" Taylor (second tenor), Wilson James (baritone and bass), and Rip Reed (bass).
Singing the hits of the day (such as the Moonglows' "I Was Wrong" and the Orioles' "Crying In The Chapel"), the Gems began by playing dances and clubs in the Chicago area. Once their records were released... well, it was just more of the same, since the record company never pushed their discs.
After a couple of years of practice, they met up with Paul King, one of the owners of Drexel records (at 7319 South Vernon Street). Another partner was Les Caldwell, but there seemed to be a third party, hidden in the shadows. Even Drexel itself was shadowy. The Gems never saw the company's headquarters (the address seems to have been that of Paul King), rehearsing at a friend's house and laying down the tracks at Universal Recording Studios.
Considering that Drexel was a small label, it's difficult to tell if songs were recorded at the same session based on the master numbers. Their first four songs have consecutive numbers, so it's possible that they were recorded on the same day. (It's just as possible that they were recorded at two different sessions). At any rate, the tunes were: "Deed I Do," "You're Tired Of Love," "Talk About The Weather," and "Ol' Man River." All four were led by Ray Pettis.
There was a blurb in the trades, dated June 5, 1954 announcing the formation of Drexel. Of course, in true music business style, they also announced that two releases were already on the market. President Paul King was described as a "Chicago businessman" and Les Caldwell (general manager and head of A&R) was "a former salesman for King."
The Gems were actually on both of the releases mentioned in the item: "Talk About The Weather"/"Deed I Do" (under their own name) and "Since I Fell For You," on which they backed up thrush Dorothy Logan (they weren't on the flip). "Talk About The Weather" is my personal favorite; an incredibly sad song about a guy who's in love, but is too shy to talk about anything except the weather.
Although Drexel management ran to the trades to proudly talk up the label, it looks like no one thought to send "Talk About The Weather" out for review. At least they submitted "Since I Fell For You," which got a mediocre review on August 28, along with the Midnighters' "Annie Had A Baby," the Lamplighters' "You Hear," the Strangers' "Hoping You'll Understand," the Piccadilly Pipers' "Since You're Gone," and the Cherokees' "Please Tell Me So."
Although "Talk About The Weather" got some local airplay, it didn't set the world on fire and, in January 1955, Drexel issued "I Thought You'd Care"/"Kitty From New York City," two tunes that had been recorded sometime in the summer of 1954. The disc was reviewed on February 5, along with the 5 Keys' "Close Your Eyes," the Charms' "Ko Ko Mo," the Flamingos' "Ko Ko Mo," the Orioles' "I Love You Mostly," the Cadillacs' "No Chance," the Strangers' "Dreams Came True," the 4 Jacks' "Tired Of Your Sexy Ways," the 5 Royales' "You Didn't Learn It At Home," and the Thunderbirds' "Baby Let's Play House." This was destined to be the only Gems record sent for review.
In June 1955, Drexel released the other two songs that may have been recorded at the Gems' first session: "You're Tired Of Love"/"Ol' Man River." With no promotion once again, sales were minimal.
While the Gems saved a few bucks by not having a manager, it conceivably cost them in the long run. Since a group doesn't make any money from royalties (especially from a penny-ante operation like Drexel), the only possible source of revenue is appearances. The Gems seemed to be spectacularly bad at getting themselves good bookings.
At a 1955 session, Ray Pettis recorded a couple of solos: "Please Tell Me When" and "Ow, You're So Fine." Drexel being the leisurely organization it was, these weren't released until around August 1956. Note that these solos were bootlegged in the 1980s, with a group overdubbed, and issued as by the Gems on "Drexel 900" (a number which had never existed. For some reason, "Please Tell Me When" had been retitled "I Can't Believe". On top of that, they made the comma in "Ow," into an apostrophe, and then, for good measure, they pasted the labels on the wrong sides!.
This was followed, in October, by the Gems' "The Darkest Night"/"One Woman Man." This one made some noise locally, rising to #17 on the WGES Top 40 Survey. Because of this, the money started rolling in: Paul King actually gave them a $5 advance (each!) on their next release.
Actually, that advance was probably what sparked the Gems to throw in the towel. After four years, they really had nothing to show for being together. Guys started leaving and before you knew it, the Gems were only a memory.
Talk about leisurely. Sometime in the fall of 1954, Ray Pettis had recorded two Christmas songs: "Does It Have To Be Christmas" and "Christmas Here, Christmas There." Drexel waited for the holiday mood to strike them before releasing them - in November 1956!
The final Gems record was released around June 1957. These were two masters that had been recorded back in 1955: "Till The Day I Die" and "Monkey Face Baby." For a change, Drexel actually advertised it in the trades. However, in a way, it's good that the platter didn't sell, because by then the Gems had ceased to exist.
There was another group around the neighborhood that called themselves the Foster Brothers. Since they all hung around Lindsay Langston's house, calling his mother "mama," they decided that they were like foster brothers. The group consisted of Lavern Gales (lead), Donald Clay (first tenor), Lindsay Langston (second tenor), and George Lattimore (bass). Sometime in 1957, Ray Pettis joined, replacing Lavern Gales as lead. The Foster Brothers, who recorded six singles for as many labels in as many years, seemed to be singing early 50s pop in the late 50s. It's hard to imagine that there was much of an audience for their sound.
Ray never mentioned his subsequent solo career to me, so I've had to piece it together. This is the background: Tenor/guitarist Bobby Robinson, from the Gems, abandoned singing for guitar playing and session producing. He joined with organist David Rockingham and drummer Chante Hamilton to form the David Rockingham Trio and he also joined with Donald Clay (formerly of the Foster Brothers) to set up Boss Records.
In March 1962, Boss released "Power Of Love"/"Joining The Crowd" by Ray Pettis (since Robinson and Clay were new in the business, there was no record number on the label). 1963 saw "One Look," by Ric & Ray on Boss (that's Ric Lee and Ray Pettis). The flip, "Till The Day I Die" was a Ric Lee solo. ("Till The Day I Die," written by Bobby Robinson, was the same song that the Gems had previously recorded.) The Boss sessions were produced by Bobby Robinson, as were all subsequent Ray Pettis recordings.
Later in 1963, Robinson set up Dee Dee Records; it's unclear if Donald Clay was part of this. (An October 1963 Billboard blurb called Dee Dee "a division of Boss.") Whatever the ownership, what we got was "That's All" by the David Rockingham Trio (with vocal by Raymond Pettis). Ray wasn't a member of the group (basically a jazz instrumental unit) and wasn't on the flip, "Dawn." Released around July 1963, the sides were leased to Josie the following month and "Dawn" became a minor national hit.
Ray's next outing was on Salem in 1965 (probably another Robinson label). "Question And Answer" has Ray backed up by the Fabulettes; "If I Found Love" finds the Rubies in the background. The Fabulettes were a local trio from Evanston: Linda, Lynn, and Barb (they were not the group on Monument and Sound Stage 7); I'm not sure if the Rubies were the Vee-Jay group from 1964. The record was reissued on David O'Kelly's Teako Records that same year.
In 1966, there was "Don't Use Me"/"2 Step" on Exodus (owned by Jimmy Bracken and Vivian Carter; it arose out of the bankruptcy of Vee Jay Records). These songs were produced by Bobby Robinson and William "Bunky" Sheppard. Since other Exodus artists had been with Vee-Jay, it's probable that Pettis had originally been signed to Vee-Jay at just the wrong time in the company's history.
Ray's last two records were issued on Dee Dee in 1969. The first was "Together Forever"/"Think It Over" and the second was "Hello There, Pretty Baby"/"I Don't Care" from October of that year. On "I Don't Care," Ray is once again backed up by the Rubies, so it's possible that this was an older master from the same Salem session that produced "If I Found Love" in 1965.
Ray Pettis passed away, from cancer, in 1991, at which time he was working with the Greg Rockingham Band. (He may have been referencing Rockingham's Deep Blue Organ Trio; Greg was the son of David Rockingham.)
It's really a shame that the Gems, with their beautiful sound, couldn't have done better. Maybe if they'd had a manager....
See the Ray Pettis article at John Ridley's Sir Shambling site.
901 Talk About The Weather/Deed I Do - 6/54
902 Since I Fell For You (Dorothy Logan & Gems)/[Small Town Man - Dorothy Logan] - 6/54
903 I Thought You'd Care/Kitty From New York City - 1/55
904 You're Tired Of Love/Ol Man River - 6/55
909 The Darkest Night/One Woman Man - 10/56
915 Till The Day I Die/Monkey Face Baby - 6/57
908 Please Tell Me When/Ow, You're So Fine - 8/56
911 Does It Have To Be Christmas/Christmas Here, Christmas There - 11/56 (recorded 1954)
161 Tell Me Who/I Said She Wouldn't Do - 57
3005 I Could Cry/Never Again - 58
71360 Show Me/If You Want My Heart - 8/58
4004 Trust In Me/Why-Yi-Yi - 1/59
B AND F
1333 Revenge/Pretty, Fickle Woman - 2/60
101 Land Of Love/Let's Jam - 60
#### Power Of Love/Joining The Crowd - Ray Pettis - 3/62
2113 One Look - Ric & Ray/[Till The Day I Die - Ric Lee] - 63
DEE DEE (David Rockingham Trio, vocal by Raymond Pettis)
1000 That's All/[Dawn - David Rockingham Trio instrumental] - ca 7/63
JOSIE (David Rockingham Trio, vocal by Raymond Pettis)
913 That's All/[Dawn - David Rockingham Trio instrumental] - 8/63
SALEM (Ray Pettis)
1005 Question And Answer/If I Found Love - 65
("Question" has the Fabulettes; "Found" has the Rubies)
TEAKO (Ray Pettis)
4770 Question And Answer/If I Found Love - 65
("Question" has the Fabulettes; "Found" has the Rubies)
EXODUS (Ray Pettis)
2012 Don't Use Me/2 Step - ca 66
DEE DEE (Ray Pettis)
73173 Together Forever/Think It Over - ca 1969
3903 Hello There, Pretty Baby/I Don't Care - 10/69
("I Don't Care" has the Rubies)