Ah, Old Town Records! Along with a limited handful of other labels, it brings back the fondest memories of the music I listened to and loved in my youth. The Solitaires, the Royaltones, the Co-eds, Robert & Johnny ... this was the sound of my younger days. This was the sound of New York City Rock 'n' Roll of the 50s.
Hy Weiss, a Romanian by birth, came to this country with his family in the mid-1920s. They settled in the Bronx (not too far away from where famed R&B writer Marv Goldberg would live in the 40s and 50s). As a youngster, there was little hint of his future involvement with our music. He was a member of the football team at DeWitt Clinton High School, and World War 2 found him in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he rose to the rank of staff sergeant. Back in New York after the war, he began working for a furrier.
It was Hy's brother, Sam, who really got him started in the music business. Leon René, owner of Los Angeles' Exclusive Records, was looking for a distributor to work the Harlem area. Hy got the job and was soon (in the late 40s) handling records by the likes of Charles Brown (leading Johnny Moore's Three Blazers) and Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers. The Weiss brothers' first label, a small R&B indie called Parody, was advertised in a 1949 Billboard. Its only known artist was Danny "Run Joe" Taylor (Parody 1002/1003: "Butter Beans And Rice"/"Come Back Connie" - July 1949).
Soon Hy and Sam branched out, adding Modern Records' catalog to their stock. Thus, by 1950, he was also distributing records by Jimmy Witherspoon, Roy Hawkins, Joe Lutcher, Jimmy McCracklin, Lil Greenwood, and Pee Wee Crayton. Branching out even more, in 1951, he joined with Apollo Records owner Ike Berman in the BHS Distribution company (I'll make a guess that it stood for "Bess, Hy and Sam"; Bess was, of course, Ike Berman's wife, soon to take over the running of Apollo).
Hy continued to hang around with the biggies. Aside from BHS, he joined Cosnat Distributing, owned by Jubilee Records' Jerry Blaine.
In mid-1953, Hy decided to start his own label. The inspiration for the name and its attendant block printing on a yellow label came from the Old Town Paper Company in Brooklyn. Hy was associated with them in some capacity, and, to save on start-up costs, he simply used their letterhead as his own!!!
The first act that Hy Weiss recorded for Old Town was the 5 Crowns (whom he stole away from Jubilee). Wilbur "Yonkie" Paul, Dock Green, James "Poppa" Clark, Claudie "Nicky" Clark, and John "Sonny Boy" Clark had previously recorded for Eddie Heller's Rainbow label, but they got into some sort of a fight with him and ended up going to Jerry Blaine to audition. Hy met them while they were waiting and somehow got them into a studio first. A small July 1953 blurb in the trades mentioned the new company and the 5 Crowns' recordings. In August 1953, their "You Could Be My Love"/"Good Luck Darlin'" was released as Old Town 790. Hy was on his way! (However, while he was encouraged by how well the record did in New York, he didn't quit his day job with Cosnat.)
The first offices that Old Town occupied were at 165 East 125th Street in Harlem (you could reach them at Plaza 7-3171). He would move at least three more times over the years.
After only three more releases in the 790 series (including one more by the 5 Crowns and one by bandleader Cherokee Conyers), there were changes made. While the label remained yellow, the block printing gave way to the more familiar "Olde English" script. Additionally, the 790 series was discontinued, and the 1000 series begun.
It was at this point that Hy met up with his first hit-making act, the Solitaires (Herman Curtis, Pat Gaston, Bobby Baylor, Monte Owens, Bobby Williams, and Buzzy Willis). Buzzy worked as unofficial program librarian for WLIB DJ Hal Jackson, and it was through Jackson that the Solitaires met Weiss. At the time, Hy would hold auditions around midnight in the "office" that he kept for that purpose: the cloakroom (under a staircase!) of the Tri-Boro Theater (125th Street and Lexington Avenue).
In February 1954, the first Solitaires record (the magnificent "Blue Valentine") was issued, on the newly-redesigned label. It would take three months for the next Old Town release, Ursula Reed's "Ursula's Blues." 1954 would see three more Solitaires records ("Please Remember My Heart," "Chances I've Taken," and "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance"), as well as the first outing by the Valentines ("Tonight Kathleen"), before they switched over to their hit-making days at Rama.
1955 saw only a few artists appearing on Old Town: there were three records by the Solitaires ("My Dear," "The Wedding," which marked another change in the label: block print with ropes, and "Magic Rose"), one by the Clefftones ("The Masquerade Is Over"), one by Billy Bland ("Chicken In The Basket"), and Ruth McFadden & the Supremes' "Darling Listen To The Words Of This Song."
Around June 1955, the first of the Old Town subsidiaries was formed: Paradise Records. The first acts signed were the Harptones (after the dissolution of Bruce Records) and Hal Paige. Paradise 101 (the Harptones' "Life Is But A Dream") got an excellent review and began to take off almost instantly. Hal Paige's "My Angel Child" didn't.
In fact, 1955 was such a good year for Hy that in September he resigned from Cosnat Distributors in order to devote his full time to making records. Also that month, he and Sam moved Old Town to bigger quarters at 701 Seventh Avenue (now you had to dial CO 5-8810).
1956 started out with one of my all-time favorite Old Town releases: "Crazy Love" by Eddie "Puddin'" Carson and the Royaltones (Rennie Davis, Thomas Davis, Richard Williams, and James Ifill). There were three more Solitaires issues: "The Honeymoon" (the first song I remember hearing by them), "The Angels Sang," and "Nothing Like A Little Love." The Royaltones returned with "Hey Norman" and "Two In Love" (backing Ruth McFadden), the Supremes were represented with "Tonight," and Billy Bland gave us "Chicken Hop." Two more of my all-time favorites came from Old Town that year: Gwen Edwards & Co-eds (I always thought Alan Freed was saying "Glen Edwards") with "Love You Baby All The Time" and Robert [Carr] & Johnny [Mitchell]'s "I Believe In You." These were all solid New York hits.
Other 1956 releases were by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee ("Climbing On Top Of The Hill"), Robert & Johnny ("Million Dollar Bills," which saw yet another label change: the ropes gave way to lines), Ruth McFadden & Harptones' ("School Boy"), Bob Gaddy ("Operator"), and the Co-eds ("I'm In Love"). The Paradise subsidiary wasn't doing much in 1956. The only release that I could find was a re-issue of the Packards' "Ding Dong" in August. (Old Town had purchased four Packards masters from Pla-Bac Records, including the unbelievably off-key "Ladise" and "My Doctor Of Love. Amazingly, two of the Packards, Bill Fredericks and Milton Turner, would end up in the Drifters in the late 60s.)
In November, Old Town launched its short-lived pop series (the 300s) with the Rogues' "World Of Love." There would only be around a half-dozen releases on this black label series (other artists were Oscar Brand and Lou Dee), which, strangely, wasn't announced until February of 1957, three months after its first disc.
1957 started off with the monster New York hit by the Solitaires, "Walkin' Along." In spite of this, there was only a single other record by the group issued in that year: "Thrill Of Love." Actually, 1957 wasn't otherwise a big year for Old Town at all, with releases like Billy Bland's "If I Could Be Your Man," Dolores Coleman's "Yours Truly," Robert & Johnny's "Don't Do It," Bob Gaddy's "Paper Lady," the Keytones' "Seven Wonders Of The World" (which desperately needed more lyrics), the Fi-Tones' "My Faith," Robert & Johnny's "Broken Hearted Man," and Preston Brown's "Walk On."
Also in 1957, the Weiss brothers began Superior Record Sales Company, which distributed (aside from Old Town, of course) Argo, End and Cindy. They'd eventually also handle Vee-Jay, Gone, Ace, Vin, Combo, Lamp, Coed, Tip-Top, and Bullseye. Sam Weiss was the president of Superior, which was located at 767 Tenth Avenue.
While Paradise Records seemed to be dying, phoenix-like it spewed forth a subsidiary, Whiz Records. Around March 1957, Whiz issued Gene Mumford & Serenaders' "When You're Smiling," a tune that never took off, which probably prompted Mumford to join Billy Ward's Dominoes (note that, in spite of other liner notes, the Serenaders had no connection to Mumford's prior group, the Larks on Lloyds). When the Dominoes, with Mumford in the lead, had a tremendous hit with "Stardust" on the Liberty label, Old Town sued Mumford (in January 1958) for breach of contract. The only other known release on Whiz is by Randy King (#1501: "Since You Came Back To Me"/"Blue And Lonesome".)
1958 started out with another smash hit: Robert & Johnny's "We Belong Together." There were three more R&J releases that year: "Marry Me" (which marked yet another label design change: this time to blue, with kind of a castle design, and the return of the Old English script), "Eternity With You," and "Give Me The Key To Your Heart." There were also three new Solitaires entries: "No More Sorrows," "Big Mary's House," and "Embraceable You." The Tremaines gave us "Jingle Jingle" (a master purchased from Val Records, which was re-released later on with the group's name changed to the Packards). The Tremaines sound better than the 1956 Packards and they weren't the same group at all. Strangely, an Old Town ad, which hyped Robert & Johnny's "We Belong Together" as "A Hit Nationally," the Solitaires' "Walkin' And Talkin'" as "A Solid Smash in N.Y. and Phila. And Spreading," and Bob Gaddy's "Woe Woe Is Me" as "Will Be #1 in New Orleans And All Over The South," had this low-key admission about the Tremaines: "Don't Know If A Hit Yet."
Note that during this period, some of the releases had a "star and arrows" design on the label, right under the "Old Town" name. This was seen on both 45s and 78s. I'm not sure what it indicates and it wasn't consistently applied. For example, Robert And Johnny's "We Belong Together" was issued both with and without this design.
There were minor releases that year by Bob Gaddy ("Woe, Woe Is Me," "You Are The One," and "What Would I Do"), the Inspirators ("Starlight Tonight"), Riff Ruffin "All The Way"), Arthur Prysock ("I Love You So" and "I Just Want To Make Love To You"), the Rogues ("Dream"), Vinny Lee ("Mule Train"), and Sonny Moore ("My True Love And I"). But the real winner of 1958 was "So Fine," from a newly-signed group, the Fiestas (who are supposedly Tommy Bullock, Eddie Morris, Sam Ingalls and Preston Lane, although their photo shows five members). The oddball one was #1057 (Bob Gaddy's "You Are The One"). It was pressed on a blue label, with silver print and no lines. The 78 version is crudely done, so that the print just barely fits on the label.
While many of the songs on Old Town have become classics, it's hard to imagine that most of the "hits" that I remember were limited to the New York area. (Since I somehow knew that the Flamingos came from Chicago and the Cadets were from Los Angeles, I just naturally assumed that if I was listening to their music, they were listening to mine.) Evidence of this limitation is found in an early 1958 transaction, wherein Hy and Sam sold the master of Billy Bland's "Chicken Hop" to the Tip Top label of Richmond, Virginia (not to be confused with Sid Arky and Leo Rogers' Tip Top label of New York) so that the tunes could get wider distribution.
By May 1958, Old Town had moved again, this time to 1697 Broadway; their phone number was no longer given in the ads. In July, Hy announced the signing of the Evans Brothers and Jimmy Milner (last baritone of the "original" Drifters when they were fired by manager George Treadwell at the Apollo Theater in May) for his York label. Milner's "You Be The Judge" was released as York #101. Another subsidiary label created in 1958 was Win, which had a release called "Nursery Rhymes" by a white group called the Gems. (Win was a distribution company run by Sam Weiss, along with a third brother, George; They created this label to go with it.)
In September 1958, Old Town leased the Solitaires' "Walkin' Along" to Chess Records, which released it on its Argo subsidiary to compete with the current version by the Diamonds on Mercury. The Solitaires' version was almost two years old by this time.
1959 not only didn't start off with a smash hit, but there were no smashes that year at all. Billy Bland released "Grandma Gave A Party." The Fiestas gave us "Our Anniversary" and "Good News." Robert & Johnny had "Dream Girl" and "Wear This Ring." The Solitaires' sole release was "Light A Candle In The Chapel." Bob Gaddy's "Till The Day I Die," Arthur Prysock's "I Worry About You," and Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry's "I Need A Woman" rounded out the year. Old Town also picked up the 4 Pharaohs' (the Columbus Pharaohs) recordings of "Give Me Your Love" and "China Girl," which were released on the almost unused Paradise label. Another Paradise release was "I Won't Tell The World" by the Blenders, a group featuring Herman Dunham (originally of the Vocaleers, and, as "Herman Curtis," a charter member of the Solitaires). An additional allied label (although I'm not sure how it fit in) was Munich, which released the solid New York sound of the Bonnevilles doing "Lorraine" and "Zu Zu" in 1959.
1960 was a different kind of year: it not only started off with a smash, it would end up with one too. The first, released in March, was Billy Bland's "Let The Little Girl Dance" (a re-working of a tune that had originally been done by Carl Spencer and the Videos). The second, "There's A Moon Out Tonight," by the Capris, was actually the third go-round for this record. Originally issued in 1958 on Planet, it went nowhere. It was picked up by Lost-Nite in November 1960, and released a month later on Old Town. When it stopped climbing the charts, it had peaked at #3. This was the highest ranking an Old Town record would ever achieve.
Other releases in 1960 were by Billy Bland, Bob Gaddy, Robert & Johnny (including a re-release of "We Belong Together"), the Fiestas, Arthur Prysock, the Fairfield Four (a little gospel), Vinny Lee, Gene Kennedy, and Davey Jones. There were also two discs by the Vocaleers, a group that had had its origins on Red Robin Records, back in the early 50s. Now they did "Love And Devotion"/"This Is The Night" for Old Town itself, and "I Need Your Love So Bad"/"Have You Ever Loved Someone" for the still somewhat-alive Paradise label.
In spite of the great year they had in 1960, the only national Old Town hit in 1961 was Larry Finnegan's "Dear One" (which rose to #11). Other valiant efforts were recorded by the Capris, the Fiestas, Billy Bland, Lori Rogers, Arthur Prysock, Robert & Johnny, Gene Kennedy, and Ron Rich. This also marked the first year without a release by the Solitaires.
In 1961, Hy set up Barry Records, named after his young son. In the next few years, it would release around 40 records, including acts like Hector Rivera, the Earls, Nick and the Nacks, and Thelma Jones.
The only hit of 1962 was the Earls "Remember Then," which only got as high as #24 nationally. Other output that year was by Arthur Prysock, Tommy Andre (who seems to have been Tommy Bullock, lead of the Fiestas), Robert & Johnny, the Crab Creek County School Band, Bob Gaddy, Larry Finnegan, Gene Kennedy, the Fiestas, Billy Bland, and Coley Arnez.
There were no national hits in 1963 at all, in spite of several records by the Earls, the Fiestas, Billy Bland, Arthur Prysock, Erlene & Her Girlfriends, Tom Austin & Healeys, and Freddy Houston. In fact, although Old Town lasted until sometime in 1966, they would only have one more national hit: Arthur Prysock's "It's Too Late, Baby, Too Late" reached #56 in 1965. Note that in late 1964, Old Town's label changed once again: it became black, with an outlined New York City skyline, and the words "Old Town" in a large rising moon. (The label was resurrected in 1973, mostly with Arthur Prysock recordings, and lasted another five years.)
Old Town was good at gauging the taste of New York listeners (although not consistently). What Old Town wasn't good at was record keeping. So many tape boxes are mislabeled, that it's a good bet that much of Old Town's history will never be unraveled. For example: the Supremes supposedly made "Zip Boom" and "The Last Roundup." But Waldo Champen of the Supremes says that they didn't (and both feature bass leads, unlike any of the other Supremes sides). One master tape of "The Last Roundup" exists with the group's name given as the "Hallmarks." Another version of the song seems to have been by the Clefftones, whose box is marked "Whirlpools." Actually, the Supremes got into more trouble (and this one was my fault): back in the 70s, when I wrote about the Solitaires, I let one of them talk me into believing that it was that group (under the name "Supremes") who backed up Ruth McFadden on "Darling Listen To The Words Of This Song"; in truth, it was the Supremes themselves who backed her. There was a song called "Listen, Listen Baby" that was found on a tape box belonging to the Solitaires, but it isn't them at all (when released on a compilation, this 1954 group was called the "Unknowns," and, unless some group member hears the song, they'll probably stay that way).
A group called the Chimes recorded two songs in 1958 ("My Broken Heart" and "Mexico"); they both ended up being credited to the Fiestas, since both groups recorded on the same day (and probably shared the same tape). Then there's the Symbols. They did four songs in the spring of 1958. Did Hy Weiss know that they were actually the Beltones (Andrew Pope, Clayton "Dickie" Williams, George "Buster" Cotman, Wilbur "Buzzy" Brown, and Robert Brown) who were still under contract to Hull? He did when Hull found out about it and started yelling "breach of contract."
When all is said and done, compared to many small independent labels, Old Town wasn't particularly successful. In the course of about 13 years, they only placed six songs in the Top Forty of the national pop charts: Robert & Johnny's "We Belong Together," the Fiesta's "So Fine," Billy Bland's "Let The Little Girl Dance," the Capris' "There's A Moon Out Tonight," the Earls' "Remember When," and Larry Finnegan's "Dear One." But, of course, this doesn't tell the whole story. There was more. A whole lot more. Old Town gave us (and, unfortunately, when I say "us," I mostly mean "the New York City area") the 5 Crowns, the Solitaires, the Valentines, the Clefftones, Robert & Johnny, Ruth McFadden, the Supremes, Arthur Prysock, the Co-eds, the Royaltones, the Keytones, the Harptones, the Vocaleers, the Fiestas, the Tremaines, Billy Bland, the Capris, the Earls, and so many more. It's not about making money (of course, Hy would disagree with that), it's about pleasing your audience. And Hy, if you're listening, this part of your audience was very pleased indeed!
Hy Weiss, who produced some of my favorite music, passed away on March 20, 2007; he was 83. Sam followed on March 19, 2008.
See Global Dog Productions for a discography of Old Town Records (click the "O" link on top).
Here's a guide to the various Old Town record labels, put together by Mike Bauer, with some assist from Victor Pearlin. Old Town doesn't seem to have religiously adhered to the various label changes, however, and many exceptions exist.
|OLD TOWN 700 SERIES|
|790-793 Yellow label, green print, logo has double thin lines|
|Number 791 was never released.|
|OLD TOWN 300 SERIES|
300 Black with an outer thick line and an inner thin line - rel. 11/56
304 Black with a single thin line - rel. 4/57
305 Black with an outer thick line and an inner thin line
|Numbers 301, 302, 303, were never released.|
|OLD TOWN 1000 SERIES|
1000-1012 Yellow label, Old English logo, brown print, single thin lines
1013-1027 Yellow label, engraved print logo with ropes; 701 7th Ave. address
1028-1041 Yellow label, engraved print logo with double lines (outer thick and inner thin); 701 7th Ave. address
1042-1048 Yellow label, engraved print logo, single thin line; 701 7th Ave. address
1049-1051 Yellow label, engraved print logo, single thin line; NO address
1052-1171 Blue label with black print, picture of a medieval town on top (some 1052 still had the yellow label)
1172-1196 Black label with silver print, an outlined New York City skyline, blue sky with stars, and the words
"Old Town" in a large yellow rising moon. At some point, the blue sky became red.
1044 is just like 1028-1041 (thick/thin lines) (701 7th Ave. address).
1047 and 1052 also released with yellow label, engraved print logo, single thin line, and NO address
1047 also released with blue label, engraved print logo, single thin line, and NO address
1047 also released with yellow label, block print, single thin line and NO address.
1047 also released with exactly the same layout as 1052-1171, except the label is yellow with black print.
1054 and 1055 are exactly the same layout as 1052-1171, except the label is yellow with black print.
1057, 1103, and 1105 are unlike any other Old Town label. The're dark blue with silver print, no lines, "Old Town" in a
pseudo Old English logo with no address. 1103 and 1105 have the picture of the medieval town at the top.
1183 and 1184 are like 1172-1196, except that the sky is red instead of blue.
Numbers 1002, 1004, 1005, 1013, 1025, 1037, 1040, 1045 and 1048 were never released.
However, in the 1970s, the 1000 series seems to have been re-started (there's a 1002 for Arthur Prysock, and other 1000 series numbers
that had been used in the 50s were recycled.)
1006/1006 and 1006/1007 have the same songs, same labels, but different numbers.
1017 and 1027 have two different labels with the same cuts.
1024 has the same label, but two different flips.
1026 has two different labels, but the same cut with a different title.
1041 has the same label, but two different titles.
1043 has the same label, same flip, same title, but with two different versions.
1052 has two different flips and two different labels.
|OLD TOWN 100 SERIES (1970s)|
|Black label with silver print, an outlined New York City skyline, red sky with stars, and the words "Old Town" in a large yellow rising moon|