[Author's Note: the first paragraph of this article was lifted, verbatim, from the article I wrote on the Jesters. Why not? It's just as relevant, now that I'm finally doing an article on the Paragons.]
It's hard to imagine a more quintessential New York sound than the Paragons and the Jesters. Yell at me all you want, but to this day, I still can't tell them apart. More than that, I can't remember hearing a single tune by either of them until the Paragons Meet The Jesters album was released in mid-1959. And yet, when I heard the album, it all sounded so right. This was the way New York music was supposed to sound.
The Paragons, who formed in 1955, were from various parts of Brooklyn. It all started with three guys from Bedford-Stuyvesant, who were trying to get a group together: bass Al Brown, first tenor Ricky Jackson, and baritone Donald Travis. Al was close with a guy from neighboring Brownsville: a second tenor named Gable "Ben" Frazier (so close, in fact, that they called each other "cousin"). Donald's sister knew and recommended a first tenor named Julius "Mack" McMichael (from East New York); he ended up as their lead. They were all over 18, except for Ben, who was 14 at the time.
Al Brown suggested the name "Paragons," from the Paragon Oil Company (whose trucks I remember seeing all over the Bronx) and the guys started practicing. As inspirations, they chose the Drifters, the Flamingos, and the Moonglows. Closer to home were the Cadillacs and Harptones. But the group they were closest with was the Continentals.
The Paragons sang a lot of gospel songs and a lot of ballads. Were they any good? According to Ben, their unusual sound arose "'cause we didn't really know how to sing." Only Ben and Mack knew anything at all about harmony. "We taught each other how to sing."
One of their practice venues was the Ralph Avenue subway station (great echo). One day, in late 1956, while harmonizing there, they were heard by Hiram Johnson, brother of bandleader Buddy Johnson. He was interested in them and they started to go up to his office in Harlem to work with him.
Unfortunately, Johnson also managed a group called the Marvels, who had a release on ABC-Paramount in November 1956 ("I Won't Have You Breaking My Heart"). It didn't make any waves, but Johnson really believed in them. He may have even started Johnson records to present them to the world (after they'd changed their name to the "Dubs").
All this left Johnson little time to be involved with the Paragons. It finally got to the point that, when someone told them about Paul Winley, whose Winley records was right down the block from Johnson's office (at 322 West 125th Street), they jumped at the chance. (Winley was another record company owner with a famous brother: his was Harold Winley, bass of the Clovers.)
[Unfortunately, since Winley was one of the many companies that didn't put real master numbers on record labels, there's no way to tell which songs were done at what sessions.]
The first release by the Paragons was issued in February 1957 (beating the Dubs to record stores by a month): "Florence," backed with "Hey Little School Girl." Both tunes were led by Julius McMichael, and the piano work, at least on the Paragons' early numbers, was done by David Cortez Clowney, former member of the Pearls and soon to be renamed Dave "Baby" Cortez. At the time, Clowney was singing with the Valentines, but free-lancing as an arranger.
"Florence" was reviewed in the trades on March 23 (ranked "good"), along with Chuck Willis' "C. C. Rider," the Coasters' "Searchin'," the Clovers' "Here Comes Romance," the Souvenirs' "Alene, Sweet Little Texas Queen," and the Metrotones' "Skitter Skatter." By April 6, the tune was a Tip in New York; on April 20, it was a Tip in Philadelphia.
"I used to hate that song ["Florence"]," says Ben. The record starts out cold, but when they did it at shows, they'd come in one at a time.
Their first big appearance was as part of Douglas "Jocko" Henderson's Easter Week show at the Loew's State Theater on Broadway. They shared the stage with the Clovers, Mickey & Sylvia, the Jive Bombers, the Diamonds, the Heartbeats, Jo Ann Campbell, the Teenchords, and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra, featuring Ella Johnson. Note that both the "brothers" in the Paragons' career to date were there: Harold Winley and Buddy Johnson.
Over the years, the Paragons would play the Apollo, the Royal, the Howard, the Uptown (Philadelphia), and the Adams (Newark, New Jersey), as well as many smaller venues, such as Small's Paradise (owned by Tommy "Dr. Jive" Smalls, but named after its original owner, Edwin Small), the Savoy Ballroom, Manhattan Center, and Convention Hall (in Atlantic City). There would also shows in Lodi and Hoboken (in New Jersey), Nyack (New York), the Catskill Mountains, and the New Jersey shore. You'd think that Winley would have paired them with the Jesters often, but Ben says they only appeared with them a few times, at small Harlem clubs.
With "Florence" doing well in New York, the Paragons began a week at the Apollo Theater on May 3, 1957. They were part of a Dr. Jive show that also featured the Dells, the Avons, the Valentines, Charlie & Ray, the Metronomes, Robin Robinson, Titus Turner, JoAnn Campbell, and the Reuben Phillips Orchestra.
The next Winley release was issued in July 1957: "Let's Start All Over Again," coupled with "Stick With Me Baby." Julius McMichael led the top side and Ben Frazier was out in front on the flip. The disk was reviewed on August 5 (with "Let's Start All Over Again" rated "excellent"). Other reviews that week went to Gene & Eunice's "Doodle Doodle Doo," the Charms' "Do Be You," the Ravens' "That'll Be The Day," and the Dells' "Q-Bop-She-Bop." On August 19, the tune was a Tip in New York.
Around November 1957, Winley released "Two Hearts Are Better Than One"/"Give Me Love." Once again, one side ("Hearts") was led by Julius and the other by Ben.
The solid New York City sound of "Twilight" was released around March 1958. Its flip was the mistitled "The Vows Of Love." The first release misprinted it as "The Wows Of Love," but it really didn't matter, since what they're actually singing about is the vowels of love. This was another pairing featuring Julius on one side and Ben on the other.
Winley next had the Paragons back a singer named Tommy Collins (whom they didn't know) on a single side, called "Darlin' I Love You." It was released, coupled with the Paragons' "Doll Baby" (led by Ben) as "Tommy Collins & the Paragons," in January 1959.
On August 31, 1959, music history was made with the release of The Paragons Meet The Jesters LP. From the cool "motorcycle gang" cover to the dueling sounds of the Paragons and the Jesters, the platter had "hit" written all over it. It was released on the Jubilee label (Cosnat Distributers, owned by Jubilee's Jerry Blaine, handled the distribution for Winley). By October it was Cosnat's biggest selling album.
In early 1959, the Paragons were scheduled for a recording session with Winley, but there was a big snowstorm and only Mack and Al Brown showed up. Since the resultant tunes ("Kneel And Pray," "Just A Memory," and "Florence, Don't Leave Me") have a group (although a very understated one), Winley might have come up with some other singers or ended up doing some creative overdubbing. In fact, Winley himself could sing, and may be on them. Whoever the personnel, the songs weren't released for a couple of years.
Finally, they realized that things weren't going well. All of them, except Mack, were unhappy with Winley. Mack was loyal to him and, as a consequence, there was some infighting. When the dust had cleared, both Julius McMichael and bass Al Brown were gone. To replace Mack, they recruited tenor Bill Witt, who had been the lead of the Rocketones ("Mexico"); Al Brown was replaced by David Outlaw. In spite of their feelings towards Winley, they continued to record for him a while longer. With Bill Witt in the lead, they recorded "Don't Cry Baby" (the tune that the Orioles had done), but it wasn't released at the time.
Bill Witt didn't remain too long, being replaced by second tenor Neville "Buddy" Payne, formerly of the Continentals. He led the Paragons on "So You Will Know," which was backed with "Doll Baby" (with Ben in the lead). Issued around April 1960, it was their last Winley release.
Buddy Payne didn't last very long either, and soon they had a new lead: tenor Alan Moore. (Buddy had recently been discharged from the Marines. After his short stint with the Paragons, he re-enlisted and ended up a general in the Marine Corps Reserves. Amazingly, another member of the Continentals, John "Peanut" Jones, ended his army career as a general too.)
First tenor Ricky Jackson also left sometime in the spring of 1960; his replacement was John May. Both Moore and May were neighborhood acquaintances. Bass David Outlaw was another defection, and Al Brown returned for a while (at least long enough to have some photos taken with the new members). However, he soon left again, and, for the rest of their recording career, the Paragons were a quartet with no bass: Alan Moore, John May, Ben Frazier, and Donald Travis. This group started off by recording what was probably their last side for Winley, the unreleased "Thinking Of You" (led by Alan).
At this point, the Paragons finally broke away from Paul Winley for good and teamed up with Andy Leonetti. Someone recommended him to the guys and they went up to see him. They talked and he signed them, without even an audition. He was also to be their manager over the next few years.
Their first record for Leonetti ("Blue Velvet"/"Wedding Bells") featured Alan Moore on both sides. It was issued, with the same number, on three of Leonetti's labels: Musicraft (in July 1960), Musictone (a bit later), and Musicnote (in 1963).
In April 1961, "If" and "Hey Baby" appeared on Tap, another Leonetti label. The top side was led by Alan Moore, the flip by John May. "If" made the Pop charts, staggering up to #82 by mid-year.
Remember those masters that had been recorded in the 1959 snowstorm? Well, Paul Winley decided to release "Kneel And Pray"/"Just A Memory" in 1961 (some copies have the spelling "Memorie"). This was either a reaction to the small success of "If" or possibly Winley was talked into it by Julius McMichael, who, by this time, had started calling himself "Mack Starr." Thus, the label credit went to "Mack Starr and the Paragons," although Al Brown was the only other Paragon on the record (and could barely be heard in any event).
[In November 1962, as "Mack Starr," Julius McMichael had a single recording for Cub, backed up by a female group called the Mellows ("Drifting Apart"/"Oh, My Love"). After that, he relocated to California and, in 1965, joined the Olympics. He remained with them for 15 years, until being killed in a motorcycle accident in June, 1981.]
Also in 1961, Paul Winley released his own Paragons/Jesters album. Called War! The Jesters vs The Paragons, it featured "Kneel And Pray" and "Just A Memory," along with "So You Will Know" and "Two Hearts Are Better Than One." Rounding out the Paragons' contribution were the previously-unreleased "Florence, Don't Leave Me" (led by Mack) and "Don't Cry Baby" (the only tune fronted by Bill Witt).
Towards the end of 1961, Tap released "Begin The Beguine" (led by John May) and "In The Midst Of The Night" (fronted by Alan Moore). Then, in early 1962, Tap issued "These Are The Things I Love" and "If You Love Me," both led by Alan Moore.
Two old Winley masters were issued on the Times Square label in March 1963: "So You Will Know" and "Don't Cry Baby."
The next original Paragons record wasn't released until August 1963: "Time After Time"/"(Come On) Baby Take My Hand," both led by John May. This time, they were on the Music Clef label. (Leonetti certainly had definite ideas about naming labels!)
The final hurrah for the Paragons was a January 1964 LP on Musictone called The Paragons vs The Harp-tones (but it's The Paragons Meet The Harptones on the back of the cover). Although a Leonetti label, it contained some Winley masters ("Florence," "Let's Start All Over Again," and "Doll Baby"). The other tunes were "Blue Velvet," "(Come On) Baby Take My Hand," "Wedding Bells," and the previously-unreleased "Danny Boy" (led by Alan Moore and recorded for Leonetti).
By the mid-60s, Alan Moore had left, and the Paragons had become Ben Frazier, Donald Travis, John May, and tenor Henry "Ducky" Mitchell (who wasn't that great a singer, but was a wonderful dancer). This group had lots of gigs in the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York (a resort center with many hotels). By this time, however they rarely, if ever, sang Paragons songs. Their repertoire consisted of standards, as well as tunes by Ray Charles and the Isley Brothers.
Finally, in 1967, Ben Frazier, who (along with Donald Travis) had been with the group since its 1955 inception, left to get married. John May kept the group together for a short time after this, but it pretty much signaled the end of the Paragons.
In 1972, Andy Leonetti issued an LP called Simply The Paragons on his Rare Bird label. All the tracks had previously been released on other Leonetti labels, except "Diamonds And Pearls." The original of this song was, of course, done by the similarly-named Paradons, from Bakersfield, California. Many of the Paragons' fans thought that they'd done it and asked for it at shows. Ben says that the Paragons never sang it (and certainly never recorded it). I spoke to Andy Leonetti, who told me that the Paragons did record it, with John May in the lead, after Ben had left. But that isn't true. I heard from Paul Gruber, who told me that it's actually the same track as the Escos on Federal from August 1960. I had singer Billy Vera listen to both and he said "They appear to be from the same recording." However, the Paragons' version had been slowed down a bit, "making it sound different, in a different key and tempo." Since the LP is rare, it's possible that the current owners of King/Federal had found out about it and threatened to sue.
In the 70s, in response to the oldies craze, Bill Witt (who had led the Paragons on "Don't Cry Baby"), put together a Paragons group that may have consisted of first tenor Ernest Burnside, second tenor Glen Mosley, and baritone Joseph Pitts. He occasionally appeared with his Paragons group for many years.
In October 1984, a "Paragons" group consisting of Nathaniel "Butch" Epps (of the Chips), Ted Olds, Robert Honey (both from the "Doom-Lang" Tokens), Ray Sanders, and Jimmy McDonald recorded some tracks for Starlight Records. Two of these ("Blue Velvet" and "Florence") were released in December 1984; the others ("Danny Boy" and "Hey Little School Girl") were issued in December 1986.
Of the original five Paragons, all have passed away. Gable "Ben" Frazier was the last, leaving us on October 12, 2007. John May is also deceased, but Bill Witt, Buddy Payne, Alan Moore, and Henry Mitchell are still with us.
Special thanks to Danny Hicks and Bob Kretzschmar. Discography by Ferdie Gonzalez.
215 Florence (JMM)/Hey Little School Girl (JMM) - 2/57
220 Let's Start All Over Again (JMM)/Stick With Me Baby (BF) - 7/57
223 Two Hearts Are Better Then One (JMM)/Give Me Love (BF) - ca. 11/57
227 Twilight (JMM)/The Vows Of Love (BF) - ca. 3/58
236 Darlin' I Love You (TC)/Doll Baby (BF) - 1/59 [as "Tommy Collins & Paragons"]
1098 The Paragons Meet The Jesters - 59
Cuts by the Paragons:
Let's Start All Over Again (JMM)
The Vows Of Love (BF)
Hey Little School Girl (JMM)
Stick With Me Baby (BF)
240 So You Will Know (BP)/Doll Baby (BF) - ca. 4/60
1102 Blue Velvet (AM)/Wedding Bells (AM) - 7/60
1102 Blue Velvet (AM)/Wedding Bells (AM) - 60
500 If (AM)/Hey Baby (JM) - 4/61
WINLEY (Mack Starr & Paragons; see text)
250 Kneel And Pray (JMM)/Just A Memory (JMM) - 61
LP-6003 War! The Jesters vs. The Paragons - 61
Cuts by the Paragons:
Kneel And Pray (JMM)
Just A Memory (JMM)
Florence, Don't Leave Me (JMM)
Don't Cry Baby (BW)
So You Will Know (BP)
Two Hearts Are Better Than One (JMM)
Thinking Of You (AM)
503 Begin The Beguine (JM)/In The Midst Of The Night (AM) - 11/61
504 These Are The Things I Love (AM)/If You Love Me (AM) - 62
TIMES SQUARE (Winley masters)
9 So You Will Know (BP)/Don't Cry Baby (BW) - 3/63
MC-3001/3002 Time After Time (JM)/(Come On) Baby Take My Hand (JM) - 8/63
1102 Blue Velvet (AM)/Wedding Bells (AM) - 63
M-8001 The Paragons vs The Harp-tones - 1/64
Cuts by the Paragons:
Blue Velvet (AM)
Let's Start All Over Again (JMM)
Doll Baby (BF)
Danny Boy (AM)
(Come On) Baby Take My Hand (JM)
Wedding Bells (AM)
8002 Simply The Paragons - 72
Blue Velvet (AM)
Hey Baby (JM)
Wedding Bells (AM)
If You Love Me (AM)
These Are The Things I Love (AM)
In The Midst Of The Night (AM)
Time After Time (JM)
Diamonds And Pearls (actually the Escos' Federal cut)
Danny Boy (AM)
(Come On) Baby Take My Hand (JM)
STARLIGHT (see text; contains no members of any former recording group)
23 Blue Velvet/Florence - 12/84
46 Danny Boy/Hey Little School Girl - 12/86
JMM = Julius McMichael; BF = Ben Frazier; BP = Buddy Payne;
AM = Alan Moore; JM = John May; BW = Bill Witt;
TC = The Paragons, backing Tommy Collins