Notebook Cover

  The Metrotones

By Marv Goldberg

based on interviews with Leonard Veal,
Sonny Turner, and Russell Cole


© 2004, 2009 by Marv Goldberg


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.

Metrotones - 1955 Circle Theater - October 1954 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 was drafted 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 Leuvenia 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."

Ad for Gleason's 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." The ad for their Gleason's appearance urged patrons to come and see them since they're "showing nightly just how they won." This win was followed quickly by appearances at the Quincy Theater and the Circle Theater.

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!

In April, the Metrotones appeared 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, Bullmoose 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, Bob Ancel, Norman "Big Chief" Wain, and "Jockey John" Slade. (Ancel seems to have been nickname-impaired.)

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.

Ad for Club Trinidad In May, 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, Leuvenia 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.

Metrotones - 1956 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 Leuvenia 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, Leuvenia 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.

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, 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, Leuvenia 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 Leuvenia (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."

Metrotones - Fall 1958 With nothing happening with their record, you'd think that a group would get discouraged. Not so the Metrotones; they just changed their name. This time they became the 5 Jades. How come? There was a group around called the "Metronomes" and, besides, they were tired by now of everyone mispronouncing "Metrotones."

Don Robey Duke Ad 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 Leuvenia) and "Rock And Roll Molly" (fronted by Sonny). The Duke group was the same as on Reserve, with the exception of Fred Camp, who had left again.

"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."

This 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 Sheppard). A lot of turnover followed, and in late 1958, when Sonny Turner left to pursue a solo career, the group consisted of Sonny Turner, Leuvenia Eaton Turner, Leonard Veal, Angelo Jones, and bass Bill Brent (who had been with the Hornets of "I Can't Believe" fame). Then, in 1959, Leuvenia also left and the group, now all male again, changed its name to the 5 Gents. (Just who the replacements for Sonny and Leuvenia 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.)

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!

Platters - 1966 The Platters next played Huntington, Kentucky, where Sonny rehearsed with them for the last two weeks of Tony's stay; Sonny's first outing with the group was at the Lotus Club in Washington, D.C. 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 Sheppard, Angelo Jones, and bass Bill Brent.

At that point, Leonard Veal and Bob Sheppard 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 Leuvenia 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 2009, 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.


THE METROTONES

RESERVE
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 = Leuvenia Eaton



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