The Monograms were one of the many groups that were part of the R&B scene in Indianapolis in the 1950s. While few of them would ever amount to anything, the Monograms managed to work full-time for years although they had only two records. (I originally said one record; Bobby Bernard had completely forgotten about their first one.)
The year was 1953. The place was Arsenal Technical High School on the East Side of Indianapolis (the school's grounds had been the location of a Civil War arsenal). There, a bunch of students got together to sing. There was a blurb in the July 28, 1954 Indianapolis Star that talked about the City Parks amateur talent contest. The Regulaires, a sextet, sang "Coca Cola" and were identified as Tony Thompson, Hilton Hudson, Robert Bernard, Clarence Dorsey, Tony Goodrich, and Herman Lewis, with Pat Burnett on the drums. They became finalists in the contest, held on August 3, but they didn't place in the top three winners in their category.
Not long after that, minus Tony Thompson and Pat Burnett, the others began calling themselves the 5 Turbans ("it was just something different," says Bobby). They were: Hilton Hudson (baritone/tenor), Bobby Bernard (baritone/tenor), Clarence Dorsey (baritone/tenor), Tony Goodrich (baritone/bass), and Herman Lewis (bass). If you wanted a group that had the lower part of the register covered, the 5 Turbans were your answer! (Interestingly, the "When You Dance" Turbans also formed in 1953, in Philadelphia.)
While everyone in the group had his own idols, Bobby's (over the years) would be the Flamingos, Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, Otis Redding, and Sonny Til & the Orioles.
The 5 Turbans played most of the clubs around Indianapolis, including George's Bar and Orchid Room, the Missile Club, the Cotton Club, the Pink Poodle, the Barrington Lounge, the Trianon Ballroom, and the B&B Supper Club. And yes, they did wear turbans when they performed. (A blurb in the January 15, 1955 Indianapolis Recorder said that they'd be at the Coliseum in Evansville, Indiana on the 22nd and "will display the new head pieces designed for them by Rene of Paris." Sure.) While they were to do their own management work for most of their career, for a while Leo Lesser (owner of George's Bar and Orchid Room) and Jerry Shelton (its manager) gave them direction. Their repertoire consisted mostly of the big hits of the day and their own interpretations of standards. Into this mix they threw choreography and comedy routines.
Sometime in mid-October 1954, the 5 Turbans, along with Eddie Chamblee, appeared at the local Walker Casino. On October 31, they were back at the Walker, this time along with Sonny Thompson and Lula Reed. Also in October, Leo Lesser announced his new label, Deb Records. I don't know how many artists ever recorded for it, but the 5 Turbans did, issuing "Christmas Prayer" and "Yuletide Story" in November 1954. Not even a local hit, most collectors have never heard of this one.
A nice photo in the Indianapolis Recorder of October 16, 1954 showed all five, but left out Clarence Dorsey's name. Sometime in December, they were part of a charity show broadcast on WFBM-TV. The blurb along with the photo (Indianapolis Recorder, January 1, 1955) said that they were the creators of "Juanita" and "Don't Say Goodbye", without explaining what that meant. Hilton Hudson was dating a girl named Juanita (whom he eventually married), and he'd written a song about her that the group performed. There must have been some routine that went with it, causing it to be mentioned in a couple of blurbs.
Leo Lesser produced the "Sepia Follies Of 1955", which played the Coliseum at Evansville on January 22, 1955. Others on the bill were Bobby Marshall, Lady Contessa (exotic dancer), Mopps Marshall (comic), and "several other top acts".
The 5 Turbans were at the Spring Festival Dance at the Skatarena, a local dance club. Also present were the Teasers, a comedian called "Mr. Pork Chops", and Willis Dyer and his Hoosierland Combo.
Along the way, the 5 Turbans auditioned for Jerry Herman, the local representative of Sun Records (and future owner of Note Records). Sun was impressed enough to send them a contract, but when they had an attorney read it over, he advised them against signing it.
Sometime in 1956 they abandoned the 5 Turbans name and changed over to the Monograms. Bobby says "We figured it would be our signature within a signature."
The Monograms went up to Chicago to audition for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. They sang Hilton's "Juanita" creation for Chess. Unfortunately, nothing came of the audition ("we didn't follow up on it"), and their recording career would have to wait for a while.
The guys were in different grades in Arsenal High (Bobby was the youngest when they formed), but after they'd all graduated, they treated singing as a full-time job. Even future jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery accompanied them on a few occasions. The local competition at the time was the Counts, the Playmates, the 4 Sounds, the Sensations, the Caminos, and the 5 Dots.
In the fall of 1957, the Monograms finally made it to the recording studios. At a local company called Saga Records (at 2016 North Berwick), they recorded two songs: "Please Baby Please" (led by Hilton Hudson) and a tune originally done by Otis Williams & the Charms: "My Baby Dearest Darling" (fronted by Clarence Dorsey). On the session, they were backed up by the Count Fisher Trio (Count Fisher, drums; Earl Grandy, piano; and Chuck Bush, saxophone), a unit that had appeared with them on many shows.
The record was released in November 1957 and was immediately played by Easy Gwinn on Indianapolis' WIBC. The trade papers gave both sides "good" ratings on January 6, 1958, the same week they reviewed the Silhouettes' "Get A Job," Robert & Johnny's "We Belong Together," Otis Williams & the Charms' "Oh Julie," the Channels' "Altar Of Love," the Bey Sisters' "Sentimental Journey," the Fortunes' "Tarnished Angel," and the Serenaders' "I Wrote A Letter." In spite of the local coverage and the favorable reviews, the record went nowhere.
A March 26, 1959 blurb in Jet said: "[Talking about] How Indianapolis night spot operater Jeff Cambpell was crying over blues singer Faye (Shake A Hand) Adams' failure to make a scheduled appearance at his Flamingo Club until the Monograms, a teenage group, jumped up from the audience and filled the house for three nights Miss Adams missed. Said the now jubilant Campbell: 'I'm glad she stayed away.'" (I just love blurbs like this.) Actually, even thought that silliness makes it sound like the Monograms were just lounging around in the audience, they'd played the Flamingo many times before. For example, the February 7 Indianapolis Recorder screamed in a headline: "The Monograms, Afro-Cuban Dancers Head Big Stage Show At Flamingo Club". The Monograms, it went on, "are currently riding the wave of popularity in this section of the country." They were back on March 6-9.
The Monograms disbanded shortly after this, because the members simply started heading in different directions. There were no internal fights; they just stopped. Both Clarence Dorsey and Hilton Hudson subsequently went into the ministry. (Note that the Monograms who recorded for Safire around 1960 were a completely different group.)
Bobby Bernard decided to give the Monograms one more shot. Later in 1959, he recruited Robert "Chico" Penick (a first tenor who had formerly been with the Counts), Johnny Vardiman (a tenor who'd been with the Caminos), and lead tenor Charles Anderson. They started working around the Indianapolis club scene, quickly establishing themselves as one of the city's leading Soul acts.
Around 1964, Charles Anderson became ill and was replaced by George Black, a soloist whose brother James had been with Johnny Vardiman in the Caminos. This group played local clubs like Damon's Show Lounge And Supper Club, the Tin Angel, the Hollyoak Club, the Mad Pad, Fonza's Bell 40, and the Green Onion.
In 1965, Bobby Bernard left the Monograms to sing with Jimmy Guilford, who had been a member of many Indianapolis groups (including the 4 Sounds, with Thurston Harris' brother, William). They, along with Elaine Livingston, called themselves the Starlighters. Singing R&B and show tunes, they remained together for about three years. After this, Bobby and Jimmy became managers of a local niteclub called "Soul City."
Bobby Bernard's place in the Monograms was taken by Warren "Thin" Hurley, a tenor who'd sung with a group called the Sensations. Around the same time, Charles Anderson rejoined the group, replacing George Black. While the Monograms had become "weekend singers" by this time, they had enough work to last into the mid-70s (with a repertoire consisting of R&B, Soul, and C&W songs). Finally, family responsibilities got in the way and the Monograms called it quits around 1975. After this, Johnny Vardiman sang for a while as a soloist, at a club called the Pink Poodle.
The Monograms are an example of the myriad local R&B groups that existed in most large cities in the 50s. Most vanished after a year or so, without leaving much of a trace. The Monograms not only made it to wax, they lasted for around 20 years.
DEB (as the 5 Turbans)
802 Christmas Prayer/Yuletide Story - 11/54
SAGA (as the Monograms)
1000 Please Baby Please (HH)/My Baby Dearest Darling (CD) - 11/57
LEADS: HH = Hilton Hudson; CD = Clarence Dorsey