Of all the R&B groups to come out of New York City in the 1950s, without a doubt the Harptones are the most beloved. In the UGHA survey of the top 500 vocal group recordings (held in 2000), the Harptones, while not having the number one record, placed more songs (14) in the top 500 than any other group.
The story of the Harptones goes back to the streets of Harlem in the early 50s. First, there was a group called the Skylarks, comprised of William Dempsey James (always known as "William Dempsey"), Curtis Cherebin, and Freddy Taylor. They began their street-corner serenades around 115th Street and 7th Avenue in 1951. Soon the trio expanded into a quartet, with the addition of Eugene "Sonny" Cooke (future lead of the Charmers on Timely), and then a quintet when "Skillum" joined. A trip to the Apollo Theater's Wednesday night amateur show ended in disaster when they were booed off the stage.
Another group around at the time was the Winfield Brothers, which consisted of Willie Winfield, his brothers Clyde and Jimmy, his brother-in-law Johnny Bronson, and William "Dicey" Galloway. Singing seems to be in the Winfield blood: one of Willie's cousins (although by marriage) was Dickie Smith of the 5 Keys; another was George Winfield of the Chateaus. Actually the Winfield Brothers were an oddity, one of the few Manhattan R&B groups that didn't come from Harlem (all but Dicey were from the Lower East Side). Because Dicey lived in Harlem, he also occasionally sang with Dempsey's Skylarks.
In time, members of both groups combined, under the tutelage of pianist/arranger Raoul Cita. When the dust settled, the members were: Willie Winfield (tenor), Billy Brown (bass; a friend of Curtis Cherebin, whose mother wanted him to finish school instead of singing), Claudie "Nicky" Clark (a first tenor whom they stole from the 5 Crowns), William Dempsey (second tenor), William "Dicey" Galloway (baritone), and Raoul Cita (accompanist, arranger, and occasional tenor/baritone).
Cita chose the name "Harps" for the new group, which sang on street corners, hallways, subway stations, anywhere they could. While memories of the Skylarks' Apollo Theater disaster still haunted them (Willie had been in the audience that night), the Harps decided to try their own luck at it. On a November night in 1953, they walked off with first prize for their arrangement of Louis Prima's 1946 composition, "A Sunday Kind Of Love." (This was in spite of Willie being so nervous that he had to be pushed out on stage.)
The win almost led to the big time for the Harps. A representative from M-G-M Records was in the audience and asked them to look him up. They went down to his office and, to kill time while waiting for him to show up, they (naturally) started singing in the hallway. That hallway was in 1650 Broadway, and there were plenty of other ears around to hear them. Four of those ears belonged to Morty Craft and Leo Rogers (who were partners with Monte Bruce in the newly-formed Bruce Records). Almost immediately, in November 1953, the three partners herded the Harps into a studio and, in spite of Willie having a bad cold, "A Sunday Kind Of Love" and "I'll Never Tell" became the first songs recorded by the group. Note that Cita wrote the two line introduction that Billy Brown sang: "I'm through with my old love, I loved her through and through. / I'm searching for a new love, can that new love be you?"
At the last minute, in order to avoid confusion with a Harps gospel group, Cita had them change their name to the more familiar "Harptones" (or "Harp-Tones" as it was spelled on the record). The two sides were released in December 1953, as the first Bruce record.
With some time to kill before being inducted into the Air Force, the 5 Keys' Dickie Smith (Willie's cousin) cut a couple of sides for Bruce ("A New Kind Of Love" and "When You're Gone"). The group in the background is, of course, the Harptones (although I can't hear them on "When You're Gone"), as well as Dickie's wife and in-laws.
"A Sunday Kind Of Love" started taking off, but was hampered by poor distribution. This was, unfortunately, to be a hallmark of Harptones' records for their entire career. The disc was distributed throughout the Northeast, down to Washington, D.C., and out to Chicago, doing well on local charts wherever it went. (You have to wonder how R&B history would have been changed if only the M-G-M rep had been around when the Harptones showed up.)
The next Bruce record, released in March 1954, was "My Memories Of You"/"It Was Just For Laughs" (also released as "The Laugh's On You" and "Just For Laughs"), two tunes that had been cut back in late December. "My Memories Of You" is led by Willie, with Nicky on the bridge); "It Was Just For Laughs" is led by Dicey. The release coincided with an appearance at the Apollo theater, for the week beginning March 19.
The Harptones had been backed up on all these sides by the Sonotones, another of Bruce's acts. They consisted of Al Cass (saxophone), Jimmy Smith (organ), and Don Gardner (drums). Cita is also present on the piano.
Also in March, the Harptones appeared at the "Festival of Music and Dance," held at Manhattan's Savoy Ballroom, and sponsored by radio station WLIB. Others on the bill were the 4 Tunes, the Larks, Carmen Taylor, Otis Blackwell, and Slim Gaillard.
Once again, a Harptones release did very well locally; "My Memories Of You" made the local charts in New York and Newark. On May 1, 1954, the Harptones were one of the acts that appeared with Alan Freed in his triumphant "Moondog Coronation Ball" at the Newark Armory. They shared the stage with the Clovers, Charles Brown, and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra (featuring sister Ella Johnson and Nolan Lewis). Then it was on to the Howard Theater (in D.C.) with Johnny Ace and Willie Mae Thornton (who, as Duke/Peacock's biggest acts, were barnstorming the whole country).
It was at this time that Bruce issued the third Harptones record (two more songs that had been recorded in late December): "I Depended On You"/"Mambo Boogie." The former tune was led by Nicky; the latter by Dicey. It was probably an unfortunate pairing, since Willie's now-familiar voice wasn't audible for the customers to pick up on. And they didn't pick it up!
July 1954 saw the fourth Bruce disc: "Forever Mine"/"Why Should I Love You." This time the back-up band was the Shytans, another Bruce act. Both were led by Willie, with Nicky on the bridge of "Forever Mine" and the group whistling (anything for a gimmick) on "Why Should I Love You." The latter song was covered by Columbia's 4 Lads and placed the back of "Skokiaan," which became a big hit for them. (When one side of a single becomes a hit, it takes the flip with it. Thus Bruce, Craft, and Rogers, who owned the publishing rights, made a bundle out of it.)
Also in July, the Harptones were loaned out to Essex Records in order to back up femme singer Bunny Paul's cover of the Drifters' "Honey Love." The flip was the Harptones very own "I'll Never Tell" (the rights to which were owned by Bruce, Craft, and Rogers, so if Bunny were to hit it big with "Honey Love" ... [you fill in the blank]). The record was released in August, but failed to take off. That same month saw the Harptones backing up the Woodside Sisters on "So Soon"/"Love Me," released on RCA's X subsidiary.
They began September 1954 with a week at Lenny Litman's Copa in Pittsburgh. On September 12, the Harptones appeared at the VFW Hall in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, singing "the nation's 4th ranking record" (according to the ad). Strangely, both ads for that appearance claimed that they were "Mercury recording stars." On September 18 and 19, they were part of the entertainment in the "Celebrity Parade Of Stars" cerebral palsy telethon, broadcast from Pittsburgh's Syria Mosque Theater. The list of "stars" advertised included none that I've ever heard of, other than Al Hodge (TV's Captain Video). They were also on the "Rhythm Rendezvous" TV show during this time.
Trouble: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of September 24, 1954 reported that: "Jimmy Casanova, the singing comedian and m.c. at the Vogue Terrace, is also a songwriter and he has filed piracy charges against the Four Lads, the Harptones, Columbia Records and the Bruce label, among others, charging that their platter of 'Why Should I Love You' (it's on the flip side of the Lads' 'Skookian' [sic] is almost a direct lift from his own copyrighted composition [May 5, 1953] of the same title. Casanova claims they've taken 16 bars of music and eight bars of lyrics from his song and he wants damages. The case is scheduled to come up in Federal Court in Chicago on Monday [September 27, 1954]." Both the Harptones' and 4 Lads' versions credited the song to "Barlow". Not another word was ever printed about the lawsuit.
The next Bruce release (November 1954) was "Since I Fell For You"/"Oobidee-Oobidee-Oo," both led by Willie. By the time these had been recorded, however, William "Dicey" Galloway had been drafted; Cita sang his part at the session, after which former Skylarks member Freddy Taylor joined to replace Dicey.
A short time later (the week beginning December 6), the Harptones found themselves at the Apollo Theater, along with the Buddy Johnson Orchestra. This was memorable because it was Buddy who'd written "Since I Fell For You" back in 1948 (it was first sung on record by his sister Ella Johnson). The record did well locally again, but the Harptones were being cheated out of national recognition by Bruce's poor distribution system.
This informative blurb appeared in the December 18, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle: "Monte Bruce of Brooklyn is now in the big time and is handling a new singing gang called 'The Harptones'. Monte sent a record of their latest hit, but it was busted. One of the guys is Babs (Bebop Santa) Gonzales." Where do they get this stuff from?
The Harptones started a new year in the company of Alan Freed. This time it was at his first New York appearance, the "Rock And Roll Jubilee" at the St. Nicholas Arena. Held four months after he'd moved from Cleveland to New York's WINS, this time Freed had Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, the Clovers, the Moonglows, Red Prysock, Fats Domino, and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra. By now, however, Freddy Taylor had left and Bernard "Jimmy" Beckum, former lead of the Majors on Derby had joined. He was another relative of Willie's, by marriage.
March 1955 saw the release of two more tunes led by Willie: "I Almost Lost My Mind" (the Ivory Joe Hunter tune) and "Ou Wee Baby" (both of which had been recorded the previous November). The following month, those two songs, plus "Forever Mine" and "A Sunday Kind Of Love" appeared on the first Bruce EP. A second EP, a bootleg issued in the early 60s, contained "My Memories Of You," "Mambo Boogie," "I'll Never Tell," and the previously-unissued "High Flying Baby."
In May, Bruce records disintegrated, with Leo Rogers acquiring the company from Monte Bruce and Morty Craft. Rogers, who kept the Harptones, brought them to Hy Weiss, owner of Old Town Records. Weiss initially started up Old Town's Paradise subsidiary to handle the Harptones.
The group had a session in late May or early June 1955, at which they recorded four tunes: the incomparable "Life Is But A Dream" (led by Willie), "You Know You're Doing Me Wrong" (fronted by Jimmy Beckum), "My Success (It All Depends On You)" (Willie), and "You're Going To Need My Help Someday" (a ballad led by Jimmy in a dramatic Dominoes style). In June, the first two titles were released as Paradise 101.
Once again, it was a matter of a Harptones record taking off in many local areas, but on a label that was unable to capitalize on it. While "Life Is But A Dream" was probably the Harptones biggest seller, it too failed to make the national charts. In truth, had they been with a company with coast-to-coast distribution, the Harptones could have been one of the supergroup chart-toppers of the day, right up there with the Clovers, the Drifters, the Dominoes, the 5 Keys, the Flamingos, the Moonglows, and the Midnighters.
The Harptones made it to the Apollo again, the week of June 24, 1955. Also on the bill were Big Maybelle, Wild Bill Davis, and Gene Ammons.
While at Old Town, the Harptones did some backup work for some femme acts. There was "I Love You Baby" and "Dreaming Is No Good For You," behind Peggy Farmer, and "School Boy" and another version of "Dreaming Is No Good For You," with Ruth McFadden out in front ("School Boy" was a female version of "Loving A Girl Like You," a song which the Harptones had recorded for Bruce, but which wouldn't be released until 1961).
There was another session, held in August, which saw four more tracks laid down: "I've Got A Notion" (led by Jimmy Beckum), "On Sunday Afternoon" (Willie; an unreleased version of the song that would be issued on Rama the next year), "Mambo Boogie" (Jimmy; a reprise of the tune they'd done for Bruce), and "School Girl" (Willie; another attempt at "Loving A Girl Like You"). Another tune done for Rama was "I Got A Fine Little Girl," featuring William Dempsey in the lead. (Thanks to Barry Rosen for pointing this one out.)
Labor Day saw the Harptones appearing with Alan Freed again at the Brooklyn Paramount. This time, the other acts were the Cardinals, the Moonglows, the Nutmegs, Chuck Berry, Lillian Briggs, Nappy Brown, and Tony Bennett. The New York Age of September 17, 1955 said (of all the acts): "However, on the Paramount stage, they just didn't seem to click. At one point in the show we got the impression that we were witnessing one of those unrehearsed amateur shows. One thing is certain - the show was not worth two bucks, even in this day and age of high and exorbitant entertainment prices." But, they continued, "Our biggest criticisms are not of the artists but of the presentation. The sound system was lousy. In the balcony, where we sat, the performers on the stage could hardly be heard. The band, comprised of 18 pieces, could have left at least 10 of them home." And, "It was a little difficult to understand [the] audience at first. For a while, we couldn't figure what they liked and what they didn't like. We finally discovered when they applauded that meant that they were glad the act was finished but when they screamed and stomped and yelled, so that the act could not be heard, they were showing their appreciation." (No sarcasm there.)
At the end of October, they were with Alan Freed again, this time at the State Theater in Hartford. Other acts in the "Rock 'n' Roll Revue" were Lillian Briggs, Nappy Brown, the Solitaires, the El Dorados, the Cadillacs, the Moonglows, Sam Taylor and Al Sears.
In November, the second and final Paradise record by the Harptones was issued: "My Success (It All Depends On You)" and "I've Got A Notion." Also in November (beginning on the 4th), the Harptones played another week at the Apollo, this time, as part of a Dr. Jive show. They shared the stage with Bo Diddley, Bill Doggett, the Jacks, the Flamingos, Dakota Staton, the Heartbeats, Howling Wolf, Etta James, and the Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson Orchestra.
The Harptones started 1956 by being contestants on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts TV show on January 2, 1956. Jack Paar was the guest host. The other contestants were bass/baritone David Smith and soprano Jane Burke. I don't know who won, but, since neither Willie nor Cita ever mentioned it, I imagine it wasn't the Harptones.
In early February 1956, the Harptones appeared at the National Theater in Detroit, along with Big Maybelle, Nappy Brown, the Colts, and T.J. Fowler's band. From there, they went to the State Theater in Hartford as part of Larry Dixon's Rock 'n' Roll/Rhythm & Blues Jamboree. Others on the show were the Bonnie Sisters, Bo Diddley, the Cadillacs, the Teenagers, the Turbans, and Jesse Powell's orchestra.
Another big deal: by the end of 1955, Leo Rogers had pulled the Harptones away from Old Town. He had just set up Andrea Records (with new partner Sid Arky), and the Harptones ended up having a single Andrea release, issued in March 1956: "What Is Your Decision" and "Gimmie Some" (both fronted by Willie). Additionally, they recorded another version of "My Memories Of You" and "High Flyin' Baby."
But who were the Harptones at this point? Both Nicky Clark and Billy Brown had departed, and Cita had picked up Bobby Spencer (who had sung, or would sing, formally or informally, with half the New York groups around at the time). So for that session, the group was Willie Winfield, Raoul Cita, William Dempsey, Jimmy Beckum, and Bobby Spencer. This was the only session Bobby Spencer was on; Billy Brown returned soon after.
Cita, who liked to make as many voices blend as possible, also decided to have the Joytones (Vickie Burgess, Margaret Moore, and Lynn Daniels) join in on "What Is Your Decision." As usual, the latest Harptones release had poor distribution.
Sometime in the spring of 1956, the Harptones were selected to record some songs for a movie called Rockin' The Blues. "Mambo Boogie," "Ou Wee Baby," and "High Flying Baby"; songs not typical of the Harptones' sound, thus became the only visual record of the group. Audiences could see Willie Winfield, William Dempsey, Billy Brown (who had returned), Raoul Cita, and Freddy Taylor (who had briefly returned because Jimmy Beckum had quit; his mother, in South Carolina, had become ill, and Jimmy had to care for her).
Rockin' The Blues was filmed at the Sunset Studios in Harlem. This film had the thinnest of plots, used to connect DJ Hal Jackson introducing several acts of varying popularity (although not singing their current releases). The story line centered around comedians Mantan Moreland (who had played "Birmingham Brown" in many of the Charlie Chan movies) and Flournoy Miller (who had written the musical "Runnin' Wild," which had introduced the Charlston). The two were ineptly attempting to sneak into a show, which also featured the Wanderers, the Hurricanes, the Miller Sisters, Connie Carroll, Pearl Woods, Reese La Rue, Linda Hopkins, and Teacho Wiltshire's Band (with musical supervision by Andy Kirk). The movie was produced by music impresario Fritz Pollard (who had been the first black All-American football player, and who was currently the manager of the Solitaires and Leslie Uggams). It contains some incredibly primitive editing (for example, much of Hal Jackson's speech is out of synch with the picture, and the scenes with Moreland and Miller seem to be inserted almost at random, instead of in any logical order). There is also some unintentional comedy when black actors and actresses are filing into the theater as the "audience," and then the camera cuts to a spliced-in stock scene of an all-white audience.
Soon after this, William "Dicey" Galloway was discharged from the army and returned to the Harptones, replacing Freddy Taylor. While Billy Brown had returned in time for the movie, Nicky Clark didn't; presumably he had rejoined the 5 Crowns at this time. The Harptones needed a replacement for Nicky because of scheduled appearances and turned to Harriet "Toni" Williams (second tenor and baritone).
Toni had started off her show business career with modern dance. However, after coming to the conclusion that solo black dancers weren't getting very far in those days, she joined the Norma Miller Dancers (as had her father). But fortunately Toni realized that she was "a harmony fanatic," and soon joined the Joytones (prior to their recording days). Since the Joytones and the Harptones were both managed by Cita (and both rehearsed in the same location), everyone knew each other.
Billy Brown was the one who suggested Toni to Cita, realizing that she knew all their arrangements. She auditioned and Cita liked the sound. Fortunately, her mother was amenable to having her travel with a bunch of guys and, within a few days, Toni was appearing with the Harptones at the Howard Theater. Since she was both a dancer and a girl, she brought a whole new dimension to the group (Billy and Dempsey also participated in the dance routines). The Harptones were now Willie Winfield, Billy Brown, William "Dicey" Galloway, William Dempsey, Toni Williams, and Raoul Cita. (Toni's place in the Joytones had been taken by Vickie Burgess, who led their recordings; she would join the Harptones in the 1990s.)
Note that Toni did not join (as I had written previously) to replace William Dempsey, when he had to care for his ailing father. She joined to replace Nicky Clark, with whom she never sang in the Harptones.
In May of 1956, Cita put together the "Royale Cita Chorus," consisting of the three groups he rehearsed: the Harptones, the Joytones (Vickie Burgess, Lynn Middleton, and Margaret Moore), and the Lyrics. The Lyrics, who never recorded except as part of the chorus, consisted of Ronald "Tweetie" Ellis (lead), Willie Boddie (second tenor), Donald Owens (tenor), Freddy Taylor (tenor/baritone/bass), and Curtis Cherebin (baritone/bass). Freddy and Curtis, of course, had been singing together since the days of the Skylarks. The only one not present was Willie Winfield because, according to Cita, "he wasn't good at harmony back then."
Cita now had a dozen singers at his disposal (I'm assuming that he, himself, didn't sing with this aggregation) and he brought them to the attention of George Goldner, owner of Rama and Gee; both the Harptones and the Joytones ended up with Rama recording contracts. The chorus first recorded on May 2, 1956, the day when the Joytones recorded "Gee What A Boy!" On that day, they backed up Mabel King on "Symbol Of Love." Their next session was on August 7, when the Harptones recorded "That's The Way It Goes" for Rama; Cita used the chorus to fill out the sound on that side (but not on the flip, "Three Wishes"). That same day, they backed up Mabel King again, this time on "Second Hand Love." Finally, they recorded "I Understand" and "Chang Chang A-Lang" under the name of the "Royale Cita Chorus." All of these songs were released in August 1956.
As well as "That's The Way It Goes" and "Three Wishes," the Harptones also recorded "What Is Your Secret" that day (led by Willie, it's a song that would be recorded three times, but never released).
A few weeks later, the Harptones were part of Alan Freed's Labor Day show at the Brooklyn Paramount. Other acts included Mabel King, the Joytones, the Teenagers, the Cleftones (all Goldner acts), Fats Domino, the Penguins, and Joe Turner.
On September 11, the Harptones had another session for Goldner. The three songs recorded were: "On Sunday Afternoon," "The Shrine Of Saint Cecilia," and "Ou Wee Baby" (all led by Willie). Before anything was released from this session, however, Leo Rogers issued "My Memories Of You" and "High Flyin' Baby" (both of which had been recorded at the Andrea session in the spring). These tunes came out on Rogers and Arky's new Tip Top label in September.
A few days later (on September 14), the Harptones began another week at the Apollo Theater. Other acts on the bill were the Teenagers, the Cleftones, the Valentines, the Joytones, Mabel King, Bob Kornegay, and the Jimmy Wright Orchestra. (It was probably just a coincidence that every one of these acts recorded for George Goldner!) From there, the group went to the State Theater in Hartford, Connecticut, where they appeared with Fats Domino, the Teenagers, the Valentines, the Cleftones, Mabel King, the Joytones, and Jimmy Wright. I wonder how Goldner allowed Fats to slip in there (I guess Bob Kornegay couldn't make it).
Rockin' The Blues opened at the Apollo Theater on October 19, 1956, when the acts onstage were the Wheels, Sugar & Spice, Marie Knight, and Pigmeat Markham. Strangely, it wasn't nominated for any Academy Awards.
There was another Rama session held on October 26, at which Willie led the Harptones on "The Masquerade Is Over." It was released in November, with "On Sunday Afternoon" on the flip. Later that month, the Harptones backed up young Carol Blades on "What Did I Do Wrong" and "When Will I Know," which were released in February 1957. That same month, "The Shrine Of Saint Cecilia" and "Ou Wee Baby" were paired as the Harptones' third and final Rama release.
On November 23, Alan Freed hosted a week at the Apollo Theater. Besides the Harptones, the other acts were the Cleftones, the Moonglows, the Pretenders, Eddie Cooley & the Dimples, Little Billy Mason, the Gee label Angels, the Lanes, the Joytones, the Rhythm Jesters, and Sonny Knight.
On January 10, 1957, the Harptones and Buddy Lucas appeared at the Orangeburg (New York) Playland Ballroom.
January 17, 1957 saw another Rama session, from which nothing was ever released. The Harptones recorded the first version of "So Good, So Fine, You're Mine," the second version of "What Is Your Secret," and the first version of "Until The Real Thing Comes Along."
At this point, the group had been stable for a year: Willie, Dicey, Dempsey, Cita, Toni, and Billy. But tragedy was about to strike. In the early spring of 1957, on the night before a recording session, Billy Brown died from a drug overdose. While the recording session was cancelled (rescheduled for the following day according to Toni, but I can't find a record of any songs recorded then), they were contractually obligated to make an appearance at Philadelphia's Uptown Theater, missing the funeral. Only Toni attended, taking a bus both ways (and making it back for the show). Willie almost made it to the funeral, but got lost on the highway. Billy Brown was ultimately replaced by Curtis Cherebin (who had recommended Billy for the job in the first place).
In mid-March, they were part of a show at Hartford's State Theater along with Bo Diddley, the Jive Bombers, the Drifters, the Dells, Andre Williams, Big Maybelle, and King Curtis.
The other tragedy that occurred at this time was George Goldner selling his Rama, Gee, Tico, and Roulette labels to Morris Levy in March 1957 (for the $250,000 needed to pay off his gambling debts).
Curtis Cherebin joined just in time for the Harptones to appear at the Apollo for the week beginning on April 5. This was a "Disc Jockey Favorites" show, which also had Annie Laurie, Nappy Brown, the Federals, Al Jackson, and the Willis Jackson Orchestra. Right after that, they appeared at Alan Freed's Easter show at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. Other acts included the Pearls, G-Clefs, Solitaires, Del Vikings, Cellos, and Cleftones.
In late May, the Harptones spent a week in a Georgie Woods show at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia. Other acts on the bill were Clyde McPhatter, Donnie Elbert, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the Coasters, Little Esther, and Doc Bagby's orchestra.
Soon after Billy died, Raoul Cita left the Harptones. He teamed up with Washington D.C.'s Gloria Hawkins, waxing a couple of records for Deluxe (as "Roy and Gloria"), including the original release of "So Good, So Fine" (although the Harptones had already recorded an unreleased version in January). [While the part of "Roy" is usually credited to Roy Gaines, I checked this with Cita himself. In those days, his nickname was "Roy," although he is more usually known as just "Cita."] While Cita would continue to do some occasional arranging for the Harptones, he would not appear with them again until 1964 (although he sang on their first couple of Warwick recordings in 1959).
A mystery record from 1957 was the Rapidtones' "Sunday Kind Of Love"/"My Memories Of You" on Rapid; the old Harptones masters. No one seems to know who put this out; it wasn't advertised or reviewed. I asked Cita about it, but he didn't know. Since Morty Craft appears, as a writer, on the only other Rapid release I could uncover (Adrienne Lawner's "Too Much For Granted"), it's pretty certain that he was involved. I can't even figure out why it was done. Certainly people bootlegged records then, but they were counterfeits; this wasn't (that is, it wasn't an exact label reproduction). The Harptones didn't have any current hits to compete with (although how would anyone picking up the record even know that they were the Harptones?). The record was three years old, so who would want to buy it in 1957? There was no oldies market yet; that wouldn't come until the early 60s. We may never know the story.
On June 13, Rama had them record a second version of "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," but it was never released either. On August 30, they began a Labor Day week show at the Apollo with DJ Jocko Henderson. The other acts were: Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Big Maybelle, Lee Andrews & Hearts, the Cookies, Little Joe & Thrillers, and the Reuben Phillips Orchestra.
On October 7, 1957 the Harptones returned to the studio to record "Cry Like I Cried" (Willie), the second version of "So Good, So Fine" (Willie & Toni), and the third version of "What Is Your Secret" (which still wasn't felt to be worthy of release). That same month, "Cry Like I Cried," backed with "So Good, So Fine" was issued on the Gee label (Rama having suspended operations).
Also in October, Harriet "Toni" Williams became Harriet Brown when she married Billy Brown's brother, Bobby. All the guys were at the wedding and they all performed together.
Soon after this, William "Dicey" Galloway left the Harptones. He was replaced by Milton Love, lead of the Solitaires, at some appearances, but that didn't work out, and within a few months the Harptones had broken up. Harriet "Toni" Williams ended up in the Solitaires. In 1964, divorced from Bobby Brown, she married their tenor/baritone, Reggie Barnes. She would go on to be a dance instructor in the 60s and a DJ in the 70s and 80s.
Toni says that Cita was missed in the Harptones. They got a guitarist to do the arranging, but he just wasn't Cita. Dempsey became their manager and Willie their road manager, but without a regular booking agent (and a hit record), it got tougher to get gigs.
For about a year New York existed without the Harptones. But in early 1959, Morty Craft, who had just started his Warwick label, convinced the group to get back together. This time out, the Harptones consisted of Willie Winfield, Nicky Clark, Curtis Cherebin, William Dempsey, and Raoul Cita; they were backed, once again, by the Joytones. Their first session for Warwick produced "Laughing On The Outside" (a song that Jimmy Beckum had done, with his group the Majors, back in 1951) and "I Remember," which were released in March.
The group's second Warwick session yielded "Love Me Completely" and "Hep Teenager," two tunes that were released in June 1959. The next, and last, Warwick session was held around a year later, when "No Greater Miracle" and "What Kind Of Fool" were recorded; they were released in May 1960. By this time, Nicky Clark had departed again, to be replaced by one of his buddies from the old 5 Crowns, Wilbur "Yonkie" Paul (who does lead on "What Kind Of Fool). Soon after, Yonkie was replaced by Hank "Pompi" Jernigan.
Next, songwriter Billy Dawn Smith signed the Harptones to the Coed label. They had a single release in September 1960: "Rain Down Kisses" and "Answer Me My Love." To coincide with this, they appeared at Foot Guard Hall in Hartford, along with Sam Cooke, on September 29. The next night, both acts were at the Brass Recreation Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Billy Dawn Smith was put in charge of Coed's Companion subsidiary, and that's where the Harptones' next session took place, in January 1961. The four songs recorded were "All In Your Mind" (an answer to Maxine Brown's smash hit "All In My Mind"), "The Last Dance," "What Will I Tell My Heart," and "Foolish Me." All were led by Willie, except for "The Last Dance," which was fronted by Hank Jernigan. The first two were issued on Companion in January 1961. When these failed to take off, the other two were released in April.
As poor a showing as "What Will I Tell My Heart" made, it remains the only Harptones song that ever hit the national charts (peaking at #96). It was a venerable tune, having been written in 1937 by, among others, Jack Lawrence (who would go on to write "If I Didn't Care").
Strangely, with their first chart hit under their collective belt, the Harptones left Companion for M-G-M's Cub subsidiary. On July 7, 1961 they recorded "Devil In Velvet" and "Your Love Is A Good Love" which were released the same month. By the time of this session, Jimmy Beckum had returned to the group, to replace Hank Jernigan.
In 1961, "Loving A Girl Like You" was released on Bruce, paired with "High Flying Baby," two songs which had been recorded back in 1953. Collectors Wayne Stierle and Donn Fileti were in Leo Rogers' office seeing what they could find. Wayne tells the story: "He was playing all his demos for us, when out of nowhere, it seems, on comes 'Loving A Girl Like You'! I couldn't believe it was laying around all that time. I was hoping to find another Mastertones falsetto lead ballad, or maybe a group no one ever heard of. I had assumed that given the popularity or 'name value' of the Harptones, that every ballad with Willie on lead had been released. I never dreamed there would be a knockout ballad that might even be better than a majority of their singles, and that it would be complete and ready to go. It was a stunning 'find' of a surreal nature. Perhaps one of the best 'lost masters' ever turned up, in that it was the Harptones at the top of their game, to say the least. Leo had no plans for it and didn't see anything in it, as it was 'just another demo' to him. They were released on a single record because Donn Fileti and I insisted on it, and bought a quantity, so Leo would press it up, as I asked him to do, on the correct label. When it was pressed, I took 100 copies to Times [Square Records] and it became a solid seller there...."
There's a group backing Mabel King on her 1963 Amy release, "Love"/"When We Get The Word," but Cita says that was the Delta Four, not the Harptones.
Although the Harptones were being relegated to an "oldies" act by this time, there was one more original recording. In early 1964 they did "Sunset" and "I Gotta Have Your Love" for Warren Troob's KT label. This group consisted of Willie Winfield, Jimmy Beckum, William Dempsey, Nicky Clark, and Raoul Cita.
After this, Willie Winfield, mainstay of the Harptones, decided to quit the group. There were few bookings anymore, and it was just better to concentrate on a paying job.
The Harptones tried it one more time. Hank Jernigan returned, and, along with Nicky Clark, Curtis Cherebin, William Dempsey, Freddy Taylor, and Raoul Cita, recorded "The Little White Cloud That Cried" (led by Nicky) and "I Believe In You" (led by Hank). Possibly feeling that without Willie there was no Harptones, the group called themselves the "Soothers." The disc was released, in July 1964, on the Port label (a subsidiary of Jubilee).
In the early 70s, Willie and Cita teamed up with Curtis Cherebin, William Dempsey, and Jimmy Beckum to do some performances. When those met with some success, Willie and Cita decided to make it a semi-permanent thing. To this end, they recruited Lowe Murray (formerly of the Fi-Tones) and Linda Champion, a lineup that would last for many years. This is the group that created the Love Needs LP for Ambient Sound in 1982. In 1983, through the efforts of their booking agent, they got to back up Paul Simon on a single track on his Hearts And Bones album: "Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War." Cita couldn't remember how the deal was set up, but he thinks it's possible that Simon specifically asked for them.
In 1990, Lynn "Sugah" Middleton Grier (who had been a member of the Joytones), replaced Linda Champion, but when Sugah died in 1994, Linda returned to the group. She remained until 1999, when she retired for good, to be replaced by another Joytone, Vickie Burgess (who'd also been in the Charmers).
It's now 2010 and the Harptones still occasionally appear. Willie's voice is still strong as he leads the group in the songs that have delighted Harptones fans for 50 years. Lowe Murray, who was a Harptone for 30 years, died in December 2008; he's been replaced by second tenor Don Cruz, who'd been part of the Metros/Crystals (Cub, Metro, and Cub). The others are old pal William Dempsey, Raoul Cita, and Vickie Burgess. Over the years, William "Dicey" Galloway has occasionally appeared in the bass role.
Raul Cita, heart and soul of the Harptones, passed away, from cancer, on December 13, 2014; he was 86. Always willing to talk about the Harptones, he graciously endured a seemingly endless stream of questions from me over the years.
Fill in whatever superlatives you choose (you don't need me to do it for you), the Harptones are worthy of them. In spite of the fact that they were only really known in a small area of the country, it's difficult to imagine R&B without the Harptones.
Special thanks to Willie Winfield, Raoul Cita, Harriet "Toni" Williams Barnes, Ed "Rockin Richard" Marcus, and Wayne Stierle. Discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez.
101 A Sunday Kind Of Love (WW)/I'll Never Tell (WW) - 11/53
102 My Memories Of You (WW/NC)/It Was Just For Laughs (DG) - 3/54
103 A New Kind Of Love/When You're Gone (backing up Dickie Smith) - 3/54
104 I Depended On You (NC)/Mambo Boogie (DG) - 54
109 Why Should I Love You (WW)/Forever Mine (WW) - 7/54
ESSEX (Bunny Paul & Harptones)
364 I'll Never Tell/Honey Love - 8/54
X (The Woodside Sisters [with the Harptones in the background])
4X-0049 So Soon/Love Me - 8/54
113 Since I Fell For You (WW)/Oobidee-Oobidee-Oo (WW) - 11/54
128 I Almost Lost My Mind (WW)/Ou Wee Baby (WW) - 2/55
EP-201 Sunday Kind Of Love/I Almost Lost My Mind//Forever Mine/Ou-We-Baby - 55
101 Life Is But A Dream (WW)/You Know You're Doing Me Wrong (JB) - 6/55
103 My Success (It All Depends On You) (WW)/I've Got A Notion (JB) - 11/55
UNRELEASED OLD TOWN
You're Going To Need My Help Someday (JB) - 55
School Girl (WW) - 8/55
On Sunday Afternoon (WW) - 8/55
Mambo Boogie (JB) - 8/55
I Love You Baby - (Peggy Farmer & Harptones) - 8/55
Dreaming Is No Good For You - (Peggy Farmer & Harptones) - 55
Dreaming Is No Good For You - (Ruth McFadden & Harptones) - 55
100 What Is Your Decision (WW)/Gimmie Some (WW) - 3/56
203 That's The Way It Goes ** (WW)/Three Wishes (WW) - 8/56
** with the Royale Cita Chorus (they're not on the flip).
RAMA (Mabel King backed up by the Royale Cita Chorus)
204 Second Hand Love/Symbol Of Love - 8/56
GEE (the Royale Cita Chorus)
1021 I Understand/Chang Chang A-Lang - 8/56
TIP TOP (Andrea masters)
401 My Memories Of You (WW)/High Flyin' Baby (WW) - 9/56
OLD TOWN (backing Ruth McFadden)
1030 School Boy/[United We Stand - Ruth McFadden] - 9/56
214 On Sunday Afternoon (WW)/The Masquerade Is Over (WW) - 11/56
221 The Shrine Of Saint Cecilia (WW)/Ou Wee Baby (WW) - 2/57
What Is Your Secret (WW) - 8/56
I Got A Fine Little Girl (WD) - 56
1029 What Did I Do Wrong/When Will I Know - (Carol Blades [& Harptones]) - 2/57
1045 Cry Like I Cried (WW)/So Good, So Fine (WW/HW) - 10/57
Until The Real Thing Comes Along (WW) - 57
RAPID (the Bruce cuts, on an early bootleg recording - as the "Rapidtones")
1002 Sunday Kind Of Love (WW)/My Memories Of You (WW) - 57
500 Laughing On The Outside (WW)/I Remember (WW) - 3/59
512 Love Me Completely (WW)/Hep Teenager (WW) - 7/59
551 No Greater Miracle (WW)/What Kind Of Fool (WP) - 5/60
540 Rain Down Kisses (WW)/Answer Me, My Love (WW) - 9/60
102 All In Your Mind (WW)/The Last Dance (HJ) - 1/61
103 What Will I Tell My Heart (WW)/Foolish Me (WW) - 61
123 Loving A Girl Like You (WW)/High Flyin' Baby (WW) - 61 (recorded in 53)
EP-202 My Memories Of You/Mambo Boogie//I'll Never Tell/High Flyin' Baby - early 60s
K9097 Devil In Velvet (WW)/Your Love Is A Good Love (WW) - 7/61
201 Sunset (WW/JB)/I Gotta Have Your Love (WW) - 64
PORT (The Soothers)
70041 The Little White Cloud That Cried (NC)/I Believe In You (HJ) - 7/64
197 Marie (WW)/That's The Way It Goes (WW) - 75
A counterfeit record. These a cappella sides were issued using a record number
originally belonging to Valli Hilton.
FZ-37718 Love Needs - 2/82
My One And Only Love
Those Wonderful Moments
Love Needs A Heart
When Your Love Has Said Goodbye
I'm So In Love With You
If I Give My Heart To You
I've Never Been In Love
That's What I Need
Our Love (I Am Yours, You Are Mine)
We Are In Love
ZS5 02807 Love Needs A Heart/It's You - 3/82
23942 Hearts And Bones (a Paul Simon album) - 12/83
Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War
The Harptones back up Paul Simon on this track
LEADS: WW = Willie Winfield; NC = Nicky Clark; DG = Dicey Galloway; JB = Jimmy Beckum;
HW = Harriet Williams; WP = Wilbur "Yonkie" Paul; HJ = Hank Jernigan; WD = William Dempsey
6145 So Good - So Fine - You're Mine/We Fell In Love - 9/57
6153 You Know My Love Is True/What A Fool Was I - 12/57