The Metrotones were another of the myriad local Cleveland groups which, like the Hornets and the El Pollos, was more noteworthy for the talent that came out of it than on its own behalf.
The story of the group goes back to around 1953, and Cleveland's John Adams High School, where bass Andrew Fortson, baritone/tenor Guy Spears, and baritone James Frierson formed the nucleus of the Metrotones. There were two other tenors at the time, but their names are long forgotten.
Sometime in 1954 those two tenors departed, to be replaced by second tenor Leonard Veal and first tenor Fred Camp. Later that year, Guy Spears went into the Air Force and their manager, Russell Cole, replaced him with alto Kim Tolliver. It's a big step replacing a male singer with a female, because it changes the group's harmony patterns and Kim just didn't blend in correctly. She was soon replaced by alto Luvenia Eaton. (Cole continued to use Kim as a single artist. She went on to become a Soul singer with releases on Rojac, Sureshot, Gar, Castro, and Pathfinder, as well as LPs on Fantasy and Chess.)
The Metrotones were influenced by a lot of the music that Alan Freed was playing on WJW (850 on your AM dial), and that everybody was playing on WJMO. This included the Midnighters, the Drifters, the 5 Keys, the Orioles, and the Moonglows.
The Metrotones practiced mostly Pop tunes (for example, "The White Cliffs Of Dover"). Says Leonard of their beginnings: "We were very fortunate to have the ability to put the arrangements together. Guy was responsible for the arrangements.... We went and bought a pitch pipe, so we at least started in key."
On October 31, 1954, the Metrotones, along with the Hornets, the Skylarks, the 5 Flames, and the 5 Swans, appeared at the Circle Theater in a "Battle Of The [local] Vocal Groups".
On March 4, 1955, the Metrotones won the weekly finals in the first "Fame And Fortune" contest at Gleason's Musical Bar (located at 5219 Woodland). The contests were held every Monday and Tuesday, with the winners returning on Friday night for the finals. (Once they won, however, winners never again competed.) Their prize, awarded by WSRS DJ Juanita Hayes ("The Sugar Lump of the Airwaves"), was a week's engagement at Gleason's, which began on March 21. The local press wrote them up by saying "Youthful, but tall in the saddle when they sing, ... the Metrotones ... rode to victory Friday night in the finals of the first week's 'Fame and Fortune' show, being staged at Gleason's Musical Bar." They were immediately added to the weekly show at the Circle Theater which began on March 6 and starred Guitar Slim. The ad for their Gleason's appearance urged patrons to come and see them since they're "showing nightly just how they won." Their March 4 win was followed quickly by an appearance at the Quincy Theater the following night.
Gleason's went back a long way in Cleveland. It was owned by William "Jap" Gleason, who billed himself (in an early 50s ad) as: "Cleveland's most successful impresario.... The man that finds and makes the stars." And humble too!
On April 10, the Metrotones appeared as part of the Easter Ball at the Cleveland Arena, where the Swing Club presented a show, a dance, and a mambo contest rolled into one. The show was headlined by the Ravens, the Drifters, and Madeline Greene. If dancing was your thing, there were the orchestras of Willie Mabon, Bull Moose Jackson, Todd Rhodes, and Rudy Brown, along with Vito and His Mambo Band. Prizes were awarded for the best Easter costume and the best mambo dancers, with the judging being done by Cleveland's top DJs: Bill "Walkin and Talkin'" Hawkins, Teddy "The All-Night Hawk" Blackmon, Juanita "The Sugar Lump of the Airwaves" Hayes, Norman "Big Chief" Wain, "Jockey John" Slade, and Bob Ancel. (Ancel seems to have been nickname-impaired.)
The April 5, 1955 Cleveland Call And Post talked about the Ravens:
Jimmy Ricks, who is without a doubt the greatest bass singer of any group in the country sent a special letter to the President of the Swing Club. [Or, at least, his press agent did.] The letter in parts read: "Tell all of my many friends in Cleveland that I am back with the gang. And when I say back, I mean we are really better than ever. And we are really going to rock the Arena on Easter Sunday. We know that there will be stiff competition from Clyde McPhatter's Drifters and your local group, the Metrotones. But you can tell them all that after the dance everybody will know that "Jimmy Ricks and the RAVENS were in town."
It was probably at this time that the Metrotones met Stanley Mitchell and the Hamptones at Cleveland's Music Box. This is the same Stanley Mitchell who would later form the Tornados (the other Hamptones were: Joe Miles, Donzelos Gardner, and Frank Holt). The Hamptones were impressed, and ended up giving the Metrotones a set of their uniforms.
On May 9, the Metrotones won the newly-inaugurated Monday night talent contest at the Club Trinidad (shades of Gleason's!).
In the spring of 1955, the Metrotones took on a sixth member, tenor Charles "Sonny" Turner, who had been singing with the Skylarks, a local gospel group. (Because of a phony ID he had, he came to be known, jokingly, as "Sonny Dinkes"). Born in Fairmont, West Virginia, Sonny had been a Golden Gloves boxer for a while (as had that other "Sonny," Jackie Wilson). The group was now Sonny Turner, Luvenia Eaton, Fred Camp, Leonard Veal, James Frierson, and Andrew Fortson.
The sextet didn't last too long, however. In a matter of months, Fred Camp left and wasn't replaced. All this time, the Metrotones had been doing club dates (by the simple expedient of lying about their ages), little community centers, graduation parties, hospital benefits, churches, and, most of all, talent shows. Leonard reminisces: "It got to the point where we won all of them. Then we got to do 'guest appearances' at the Circle Theater shows." While this may sound like bragging, it's actually backed up in print: there was a show at the Circle (at 103rd and Euclid) on April 1, 1956 which got written up in the local papers. Billed as the "Easter Hit Parade of Vocal Groups," it featured the Metrotones, along with other local acts like the Carousels, the Turbaniers, the Monotones and the 5 Spinsters (all backed by Jimmy Brown's band). There was a grand prize of $50, for which (per the paper) every group except the Metrotones was eligible.
The Metrotones were also present at a four-day show, beginning July 1, 1955, at the Uptown Theater (St. Clair and East 106th). They shared the stage with Amos Milburn, Sonny Til and the Orioles, Margie Day, and local bandleader Rudy Brown and his Orchestra; the MC was comedian Tim McCoy. This would have been one of the first performances by Sonny Til's New Orioles.
In the summer of 1955, bass Andrew Fortson was drafted and was replaced by Melvin Smith. At the same time, behind the scenes, there was a burgeoning love affair that ended with Luvenia and Sonny getting married.
On September 8, 1955, the Metrotones began a 3-day stay at the Club Trinidad. The blurb was nice enough to mention their names (with only the usual misspellings): Charles Turner, Leonard Veal, Luvenia Eaton, James Frierson, and Melvin Smith. Later that month, they were booked into the Trinidad for a 4-week run.
However, the big news in Cleveland in September 1955 was the new Moondog in town. Alan "Moondog" Freed had gone off to New York and he used the Moondog nickname there for a while, until a successful lawsuit by Thomas Louis "Moondog" Hardin, a New York street person, who was able to show prior use of the name. However, the field was open in Cleveland and the ultimate winner was Sam "Crazy Man, Crazy" Sampson, who was named WJW's new Prince Of The Moondoggers.
On December 30, 1955, the Metrotones were at the Karamu Theater at a party given by the Student Theater. The members were named as Melvin Smith, Leonard Veal, James Frierson, Charles Turner, and "LaVeria" Eaton.
I could only find a single performance for them in 1956. In March, they were at the Rose Room of the Majestic Hotel, along with Duke Jenkins' Orchestra.
When they seemed to be ready, manager Russell Cole brought them to Sandy Beck and Henry George's Reserve Records (at 1735 Chester), where they signed a recording contract on January 31, 1957.
In early February, the Metrotones returned from a gig in New Miami, Ohio, and went right into the Reserve studios to record. They'd been on the show with the Little Walkin' Willie Quartet, which was brought along to back them up. Also on the session was Fred Camp, newly-returned to the group. Thus, the Metrotones on record are a sextet: Sonny Turner, Luvenia Eaton, Fred Camp, Leonard Veal, James Frierson, and Melvin Smith.
The ballad that they recorded was "Please Come Back," led by Sonny Turner. It's pretty and very well done; it shoulda been a hit! Although the label credits Fred Camp with writing it, Sonny says it was actually penned by Russell Cole.
The uptempo side was "Skitter Skatter," written and led by Luvenia (who sounds very much like Kodoks' lead Pearl McKinnon sounding like Frankie Lymon).
"Skitter Skatter" seems like a harmless song, with lyrics like:
What would you do if your baby left you alone?
You'd go skitter skatter witter watter, baby all night long.
What would you do if your baby walked out the door?
You'd go wippy woppy flippy floppy, baby all night long.
What would you do if your baby came back home?
You'd go smoochie woochie hoochie coochie, baby all night long.
Someone at WJMO, however, listened to it and decided that the lyrics were too suggestive (of what???)! So, after getting a little bit of airplay, the DJs were instructed not to spin it any more. For whatever reason, they decided to forget the flip also.
The record was favorably reviewed the week of March 23, 1957, along with Chuck Willis' "C.C. Rider," the Coasters' "Searchin'," the Clovers' "Here Comes Romance," the Souvenirs' "Alene, Sweet Little Texas Queen," the Minors' "Jerry," and the Paragons' "Florence."
March 1957 found them at the Chatterbox, along with Jimmy Witherspoon and Juanita Saddler, a Detroit vocalist.
The March 9, 1957 Cleveland Call And Post had an article about Guy Spears (I bet you've already forgotten that he was one of the original members of the Metrotones). Stationed in Verdun, France, he (now singing bass) was with an Air Force group called the Dreamers. That group had recently won the world championship in the Air Force popular singing competition.
Also in March, Luvenia and comedian Diz Long won a jitterbug contest held at the Rose Room.
Nothing more was heard of the Metrotones until November 11, 1957, when they were at a benefit concert held at Gleason's for a former employee who had contracted tuberculosis.
In January 1958, when they appeared at the Rose Room again. The January 18 Cleveland Call And Post named the members as Charles Turner, Angelo Jones, Luvenia Eaton, Bill Brent, and Leonard Veal. Obviously, there'd been turnover. Fred Camp hadn't lasted long past their Reserve session. James Frierson left, to be replaced by baritone Angelo Jones, and Melvin Smith had been replaced by Bill Brent (who had been with the Hornets of "I Can't Believe" fame).
On February 10, the Metrotones opened at Gleason's Musical Bar once again. They'd be there through the 23rd.
Somehow they secured a contract with Don Robey's Duke Records (it wasn't through Russell Cole; they had parted company). He announced their signing in March of 1958 and in April, he journeyed to Cleveland to record them (along with the LaSalles and Little Junior Parker). The resulting record was released in May: "Without Your Love" (led by Luvenia) and "Rock And Roll Molly" (fronted by Sonny).
But, when the record was released, the name on the label wasn't the "Metrotones", but the "5 Jades". How come? Sonny said that there was a group around called the "Metronomes" and, besides, they were tired by now of everyone mispronouncing "Metrotones." However, there's only a single mention of the 5 Jades in Cleveland: the May 3, 1958 Cleveland Call And Post, talking about the new show at the Rose Room, said: "Another touch of newness is also to be added come Thursday night when the Five Jades (formerly the Metrotones) Duke recording artists, will be the extra added attraction." After that, they reverted back to the Metrotones name.
On June 28, 1958 the Metrotones were at the Club Casa Nova. The ad seems to indicate that it was only for a single night, but they were still there in July.
"Without Your Love" was reviewed the week of September 22, 1958, along with the Solitaires' remake of "Please Remember My Heart," Robert & Johnny's "I'm Truly, Truly Yours," the Spotlighters' "Whisper," the Pentagons' "Silly Dilly," Vernon & Cliff's "You Came Along," the Vibes' "What's Her Name," the Fascinators' "Teardrop Eyes," the Arrows' "Annie Mae," and the 5 Delights' "There'll Be No Goodbye."
The Duke record, too, failed to take off. Then, there was the usual intervention from Uncle Sam and James Frierson was drafted (to be replaced by Robert Shepherd). Sonny Turner became a soloist, appearing around town with the Jimmy Landers Band; they were at the Rose Room in October 1958.
By mid-1959, Luvenia had also left. She's mentioned in an October 19, 1959 Cleveland Call And Post write-up of the Hound Dog's Den, where "Little Bena" ("gal star of the otherwise all-male Metrotones group which has raised so much sand locally through the past few years"); she also became a soloist and also worked with the Jimmy Landers' band on many occasions.
According to Leonard Veal, the group, now all male again, changed its name to the 5 Gents. (Just who the replacements for Sonny and Luvenia were is somewhat murky at this point. Leonard says that there were a lot of singers in and out of the group at this time.) I can't find any mention of the 5 Gents in Cleveland, but the Metrotones were at Gleason's again in November 1959.
In the fall of 1959, Sonny Turner found himself at the Music Box, opening for Redd Foxx. In the audience that night was Bill Crane, a DJ in Los Angeles, who had come home to Cleveland for a visit. The current talk of the industry was Tony Williams' announcement that he was leaving the Platters for a solo career. Crane, who knew Buck Ram, listened to Sonny and thought he'd be just right to take over the spot. [In mid-1960, Crane would be rewarded by being put in charge of the new Cleveland branch office of Ram's Personality Productions.]
The very next day, at a local recording studio on Prospect Avenue, Sonny made an audition tape, containing "Only You" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," as well as a couple of tunes by Dinah Washington and Jackie Wilson (that other "Sonny" again!). The tape was mailed off to Buck Ram, who called back with interest a couple of weeks later. Towards the end of the year, Sonny was invited up to Milwaukee, where the Platters were appearing at a club called Henry's. He auditioned in person for the Platters, Buck Ram, and arranger Rupert Branker (former pianist for the Chords of "Sh-Boom" fame). When he finished, Tony Williams congratulated him, but warned him to "be careful" in the group. And that was it. At the tender age of 19, Sonny Turner had just become the lead of possibly the most well-known vocal group in the world!
Tony wasn't gone, however. Buck Ram was taking no chances and wanted Sonny thoroughly trained. (What I can't figure out, however, is when Sonny had time to rehearse with the Platters. In February and March 1960, there are several ads for him appearing with the Landers band in Cleveland.) Tony continued leading the Platters at shows until early June 1960; his last performance was at the Copa Club in Newport, Kentucky. Sonny first fronted the group when they played the Lotus Club in Washington, D.C. on June 16. From the 1960 notes of Personality Productions' Jean Bennett, we find out that Sonny Turner hadn't signed a contract with the Five Platters, Inc. until May 30. Tony remained with the group until his official resignation on June 6.
Strangely, there was no mention of Sonny with the Platters in the Cleveland Call And Post until 1961. (While the Platters' top ten days were over, Sonny did lead the group on "With This Ring," which rose to #14 in early 1967.)
Meanwhile, back at the Metrotones/5 Jades/5 Gents, James Frierson had returned after his stint in the army and, at the very end, around 1964, the group consisted of Leonard Veal, James Frierson, Robert Shepherd, Angelo Jones, and bass Bill Brent.
At that point, Leonard Veal and Bob Shepherd joined former El Pollos members George Scott and Philip "Frenchy" Dorroh. They, along with Arthur Blakey (who had been in the Wigs on Golden Crest) and James Vaughn formed the Hesitations, who had a few hits on Kapp in the late 60s. The Hesitations stayed together until 1969, even after George Scott had been accidentally shot and killed in December 1967. Another tragedy was that Luvenia Eaton was killed by a hit and run driver in the late 80s. Bill Brent subsequently, and briefly, joined his old partner from the Hornets, Johnny Moore, in the Drifters. He was on their October 12, 1966 session that produced "Baby What I Mean." After leaving them, Brent also joined the Hesitations.
In 1970, Sonny Turner left the Platters and got together a combination band and group called Sound, Ltd., which included Leonard Veal (as a singer) from 1970 to 1977. They sang Platters songs, as well as contemporary Top 40 tunes. They toured Japan, Arabia, and Bermuda, as well as playing Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. Today, appearing with the Sonny Turner Show, Sonny is one of the most respected performers in Las Vegas, consistently winning awards, such as "Best Lounge Act" and "Cabaret Entertainer Of The Year." [That was written in 1997; in 2018, Sonny is still wowing them in Vegas.]
The Metrotones lasted for 10 years, with only two records. When you think about it, that certainly attests to the talent that the group manifested in its live performances.
Special thanks to Ferdie Gonzalez and Richard Reid. Ads are courtesy of Galen Gart and his First Pressings series.
116 Please Come Back (ST)/Skitter Skatter (LE) - 2/57
DUKE (as the 5 Jades)
118 Without Your Love (LE)/ Rock And Roll Molly (ST) - 5/58
LEADS: ST = Charles "Sonny" Turner; LE = Luvenia Eaton