Although they are primarily known for a superlative rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight," the Jaguars had several other fine records and were highly regarded by other vocal groups on the West Coast.
Like the Calvanes, Dreamers, Flairs, Meadowlarks, Medallions and Penguins, the Jaguars came from the halls of Fremont High in Los Angeles. In fact, they had started, in 1954, singing in the Fremont High Mixed Chorus. Originally known as the Shadows, the members were: Herman "Sonny" Chaney (lead), Valerio "Val" Poliuto (tenor), Manuel Chavez (baritone), and Charles Middleton (bass). The Shadows were thus a true mixed group, being Black, White, and Hispanic.
However, as time went on, the guys became dissatisfied with the name "Shadows" and changed it to the Miracles in 1955. Under this name, they made their first recordings.
In the spring of 1955, the Miracles recorded for entrepreneur John Dolphin. Said Sonny: "He was cuttin' everything walkin' and crawlin'." Two sides ("A Gal Named Jo" and "You're An Angel," both led by Charles Middleton) were issued in April 1955 on Dolphin's Cash label, but in such small quantities that the record is extremely rare today. No surprise that it wasn't sent out for review. (Note that while the session date is given as May 2, the songs were being touted by Dolphin as having already been released in an April 16 press release.)
Less than a month later, the Miracles hooked up with Bob Ross' Aardell label and their recording career began in earnest. But Ross didn't like the name "Miracles," and they sat around trying to think up a new one. It came to them courtesy of comic Stan Freberg, who was at Ross' office that day and suggested the name "Jaguars." A session was held on June 4, and the first release ("I Wanted You"/"Rock It, Davy, Rock It") was issued shortly thereafter. The top side was led by Sonny Chaney, the flip by Val Poliuto. "I Wanted You" started doing well locally (DJ Zeke Manners ended up playing it multiple times in a row) and, because of its success, the Jaguars appeared on the very first Hunter Hancock "Rhythm & Bluesville" TV show.
The disc was reviewed on June 25, with "Rock It, Davy, Rock It" being rated "excellent." Other reviews that week went to Nappy Brown's "Piddly Patter Patter," the Tenderfoots' "Those Golden Bells," the Laurels' "Tis Night" (another of the 500 or so songs in my top 10), and Wynonie Harris' "Git With The Grits."
At the same session they had backed up Bob Ross' daughter, Patty, on her version of "Rock It, Davy, Rock It" and also on "The Big Bear." That disc was also released in June, and reviewed on July 2, along with the Cardinals' "Two Things I Love," the Tenderfoots' "Sindy," the Meadowlarks' "Always And Always," the Chromatics' "Don't Know Why I Cry," the Larks' "Honey From The Bee," the Smoothtones' "Bring Back Your Love," and the Vel-Aires' "Death Of An Angel."
In November 1955, Ross released their second Aardell record: "Be My Sweetie"/"You Don't Believe Me." Once again, the group split leads, with "Sweetie" led by Charles Middleton and "Believe" by Sonny Chaney. Both sides were ranked "fair" on January 7, 1956, along with the Platters' "Tell The World," the Pastels' "Put Your Arms Around Me," and Crown Prince Waterford's "Driftwood Blues."
These sides only achieved minor success, but immortality was waiting in the wings. In the fall of 1956, Aardell (now re-named "R-Dell") released the Jaguars' version of the Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern standard "The Way You Look Tonight" (led by Sonny); the flip was "Moonlight And You" (led by Val). While not making the national charts, "The Way You Look Tonight" was their biggest hit. As Sonny said: "At least I think it was our biggest; we never saw a dime."
[I don't know how much it cost to book the Jaguars for a performance, but according to an ad in the June 2, 1956 issue of Billboard, you could buy a real one for $350 (and you could get that sloth you'd always wanted for only $40).]
"The Way You Look Tonight" was reviewed on December 8, with both sides ranked "good." Other reviews that week were for the Moonglows' "Over And Over Again," the Schoolboys' "Shirley," the Clovers' "A Lonely Fool," Nappy Brown's "Little By Little," the Flamingos' "Would I Be Crying?," the Copesetics' "Believe In Me," the Danderliers' "My Love," the Baltineers' "Moments Like This," the Marquis' "Bohemian Daddy," the Fi-Tones' "Waiting For Your Call," and the Debonairs' "Mother's Son." On February 16, 1957, the "The Way You Look Tonight" was the #9 best seller in Los Angeles.
In February 1957, R-Dell released the Jaguars' next record "The City Zoo (Baby, Baby, Baby)" (led by Val and Manny); its flip was "I Love You Baby." It doesn't seem to have been sent out for review.
And then, all was quiet for a year. I can't find any listings of the Jaguars appearing anywhere (although I'm sure they did), in spite of their smash local hit.
Although there were some sides in the can, ("Don't Go Home," "Girl Of My Dreams," "Thinking Of You," "Look Into My Eyes," and "You Have Come Back"), there were no further releases by R-Dell at this time.
On December 12, 1957, the Jaguars did a single session for Lee Rupe's Ebb label. [Lee was the ex-wife of Specialty Records owner, Art Rupe. She used the money she received in the divorce to set up Ebb.] "Hold Me Tonight" (led by Sonny), backed with "Piccadilly" (led by Charles), was issued in January 1958. Strangely, a January 1958 statement by "genial John Dolphin" claimed that Piccadilly was going to be the first release on his new Ball label. Since he was murdered by (genial?) songwriter Percy Ivy on February 2 (happy Groundhog's Day, John), we'll probably never know what this was about. (However, since the Hollywood Flames' "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz" was partially published by one of Dolphin's companies, there was some sort of tie-in there to Ebb.)
While at Ebb, the Jaguars became part of the backup on the Ralph Mathis and the Ambers session that produced "Never Let You Go" and "I'll Make A Bet." The Ambers were a group from San Francisco's George Washington High School: Ralph Mathis (lead and brother of Pop singing sensation Johnny Mathis), Barry Tompkins (second tenor), Stan Voetz (baritone), and Manny Haber (bass). According to Barry Tompkins (now a sportscaster with ESPN), session producer Jesse Johnson decided to throw in more voices, and rounded up everyone he could find to do additional vocals and clapping (including the Jaguars, who happened to be in the studio that day). The publicity photo of the Ambers, of course, just shows the group itself. The songs were released in March 1958 and both sides were ranked "good" on March 24, 1958, along with the Larktones' "The Letter," Bobby Day's "Little Turtle Dove," Ray Charles' "Yes, Indeed," the Velours' "Remember," the Deltairs' "I Might Like It," the Guytones' "Hunky Dory," the Elchords' "Peppermint Stick," and the Pharaohs' "You Look So Good."
In April 1959, Manuel Chavez and Sonny Chaney recorded some sides for the Sabrina label as "Frankie & Johnny": "My First Love" and "Do You Love Me." In 1960, as "Chavez and Chaney," there were two more tunes, this time on Spry: "Be My Love" and "Piccadilly Rose.
Sometime in mid-1959, Art Laboe released his first "Oldies But Goodies" album, and "The Way You Look Tonight" was a part of it. The first LP ever to contain songs by artists from different recording companies, it was an immediate sensation. A year and a half after its release (on December 31, 1960), it had been on the album charts for 66 weeks. Interestingly, at about the same time that Laboe's LP was released, there was another album with the same title, on Mercury, by the Griff Williams Orchestra (this one doing old show tunes and Pop standards).
In September 1959, presumably due to the interest generated by the "Oldies But Goodies" album, R-Dell re-released "The Way You Look Tonight" with "Baby, Baby, Baby" as the flip ("The City Zoo" had disappeared from the title).
Probably not by coincidence, the Jaguars' next recording stop was Laboe's Original Sound label, where they recorded "Thinking Of You" (with Sonny in the lead) and "Look Into My Eyes," released in September 1959 (these were re-recordings of two of their unreleased R-Dell sides). Manny Chavez didn't show up for some reason, and Laboe added top tenor Tony Allan and baritone/bass Richard Berry to the session. "Thinking Of You" was rated "excellent" on October 12, along with Fats Domino's "Be My Guest," the Fiestas' "Good News," Little Richard's "Maybe I'm Right," the Barons' "Gravel Gert," and the Memos' "My Type Of Girl."
In October 1959, only a month later, a white C&W duo, also called "the Jaguars," had a release ("Big Noise"/"I Could If I Would") on the little-known Janet label out of Manchester, Kentucky. There was also another Jaguars group in this period, a band that recorded for Epic and Tamla.
On the strength of the reaction to "The Way You Look Tonight" on the "Oldies But Goodies" album, Bob Ross dug into his unreleased R-Dell masters and came up with "Don't Go Home" and "Girl Of My Dreams," which he released in July 1960.
With Manny Chavez once again absent, Sonny, Charles, and Val recorded a session for T-Bird, sometime in 1960, as the "T-Birds." The songs were "Green Stamps" and "Come On Dance With Me" (along with the unreleased "Taco Harry" and "Hog Wild"). The masters were purchased by Chess for a January 1961 re-release.
In August 1961, the Jaguars had their last session for a long while. They recorded "Fine Fine Fine" and "It Finally Happened," which were released on Rendezvous that same month (and re-released in June of 1963). The Jaguars seemed to have dissolved at that point, and in late 1961, Manny Chavez played guitar with the Sevilles, on their "Charlena" session, before going into the Army.
There was one further Jaguars record in the 60s: "Don't Let My Love Be In Vain" (written by Sonny Chaney), backed with "Sweet And Kind" (by Chavez, Poliuto, and Chaney). It was released on Sharp around November 1964, but I have no other information about it. I'm not even sure who the singers were.
In 1989 and 1990, there were a few Jaguars releases on Classic Artists. All four original members were still around then, and were probably on these recordings, however, I can't say that for a fact.
Even today, "The Way You Look Tonight" displays a group with a reservoir of talent and the ability to do a clean and fresh reading of an old classic; it remains one of my favorite songs. Unfortunately, this winning combination did not result in the rewards which the Jaguars certainly deserved.
Special thanks to Mike Sweeney and Tom Diehl. Discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez.
CASH (as the Miracles)
1008 A Gal Named Jo (CM)/You're An Angel (CM) - 4/55
9 Boogie (CM)
Let Us Be As One [aka Sweet Thing] (SC)
0002 Rock It, Davy, Rock It (PR)/The Big Bear (PR) - 6/55 (backing up Patty Ross)
0003 Rock It, Davy, Rock it (VP)/I Wanted You (SC) - 6/55
0006 Be My Sweetie (CM)/You Don't Believe Me (SC) - 11/55
11 The Way You Look Tonight (SC)/Moonlight And You (VP) - 10/56
16 The City Zoo (Baby Baby Baby) (VP/MC)/I Love You Baby - 2/57
Thinking Of You
Look Into My Eyes
You Have Come Back
129 Hold Me Tonight (SC)/Piccadilly (CM) - 1/58
142 Never Let You Go (RM)/I'll Make A Bet (RM) - 3/58 (behind Ralph Mathis & the Ambers)
Mine All Mine
(These were scheduled as Ebb 138, but never issued)
11 The Way You Look Tonight (SC)/Baby Baby Baby (VP/MC) - 9/59
Also released as Baronet 1 in 1961 and as Original Sound 59 in 1966
06 Thinking Of You (SC)/Look Into My Eyes (ALL) - 9/59
Re-recordings of two of their unreleased R-DELL sides. Re-released as #20 in February, 1962
117 Don't Go Home/Girl Of My Dreams - 7/60
T-BIRD (as T-Birds)
101 Come On Dance With Me/Green Stamps - 60
CHESS (as T-Birds)
1778 Come On Dance With Me/Green Stamps - 1/61
159 Fine Fine Fine/It Finally Happened - 8/61
Re-released as #216 in June 1963
100 Don't Let My Love Be In Vain/Sweet And Kind - 11/64
106 Mellow Sunday/Our Summer Song - 2/89
113 Play A Love Song/All On Me - 4/90
117 Happy Holiday/[More Than Enough For Me - Feathers] - 12/90
CM = Charles Middleton; SC = Sonny Chaney; VP = Val Poliuto; MC = Manny Chavez;
PR = Patty Ross, backed up by the Jaguars; RM = backing Ralph Mathis & the Ambers
SABRINA (as Frankie & Johnny)
331 My First Love/Do You Love Me - 4/59
[Reissued on Liberty 55271 in 1960]
SPRY (as Chavez & Chaney)
122 Be My Love/Piccadilly Rose - 60
BLAST OFF (as Frankie & Johnny)
100 Please Be My Love Tonight/Piccadilly Rose - 64
[These are the Spry sides, overdubbed with violins]