The Pyramids were one of the many groups that recorded for legendary publisher, songwriter, and label owner Joe Davis over the years. Like their labelmates, the Chestnuts, the Pyramids hailed from New Haven, Connecticut.
The origins of the Pyramids go back to around 1955, at the Mount Zion Seventh Day Adventist Church, on Dickerman Street. There, some choir members got together to sing gospel music. Joe Stallings (tenor lead), Hubert Saulsbury (first tenor), Roland Douglas, Jr. (baritone), and Richard Foster (bass) comprised this nameless quartet.
After a while, they started bringing secular music into their repertoire, and they adopted a name: the 4 Leads. Somehow, through the efforts of Hubert's brother Curtis, the guys also picked up two managers, both of whom were connected with Derby, Connecticut's Onyx Publications (which put out "Rhythm and Blues Songs" and "Rock and Roll Songs" magazines). Marvin Shnayer was billed on the masthead as "Rockin' Shnayer," the "Hip Skipper" (presumably owner or publisher) and Norm Silver as "Solid Silver," the "Breadman" (controller?, treasurer?). The 4 Leads now began making personal appearances around New Haven. At the time, the guys were between 17 and 19.
They practiced mostly pop songs, such as "I Love Paris," "Blue Moon," and their theme song "You Belong To Me," with harmony patterns in the style of the 4 Freshmen. Another influence on them was arranger Bobby Buster, who had worked with the first great New Haven group, the Shadows.
One day, they realized that Marvin and Norm just weren't doing anything worthwhile for them. They therefore switched managers to Roland's father and Merwin Brochin (who owned Arnold's Boot Shops, at which Roland worked). At the same time, they decided on a new name. Since the first line of "You Belong To Me" was "See the pyramids along the Nile," the "Pyramids" they became.
While they were still the 4 Leads, Merwin Brochin had them make a couple of demos at the Allegro Recording Service (at 1650 Broadway, in Manhattan). The two-sided recording was brought to my attention recently by Merwin's son, Mike. The a cappella songs they recorded were "Why Did You Go?" and "So True," and I was impressed with how professional the guys sounded. The label had the "4 Leads" typed in, but that was crossed out and "Pyramids" handwritten in at the time of their name change. While they would later re-record "Why Did You Go?" professionally, the gospel-arranged "So True" was abandoned.
The guys knew Ruby Whitaker & the Chestnuts, another New Haven group, who suggested that the Pyramids try auditioning for Joe Davis, owner of Jay-Dee and Davis Records, located at 441 West 49th Street in New York. They did, singing an original composition "At Any Cost" (written by Joe's brother, Robert Stallings), and Davis was impressed enough to offer to record them (provided they'd pay the $600 cost of the session). Notice that they never recorded any of their Pop material; Davis, like many other small label owners, was only interested in original songs that he could secure publishing rights to.
On August 1, 1956, the Pyramids journeyed to New York again for their recording session. They recorded four songs: "Before It's Too Late" (led by Hubert), "At Any Cost" (led by Joe), "Okay Baby!" (fronted by Roland), and "Why Did You Go" (also featuring Roland). The musicians used were among the best session men around: Al Williams (piano, from the Apollo house band), Sam "The Man" Taylor (tenor sax), Haywood Henry (baritone sax), Clifton "Skeeter" Best (guitar), Carl Pruitt (bass), and Specs Bailey (drums). Davis may have treated his talent somewhat casually, but an impressed Al Williams said: "Gee, we've got some singers here for once!" When you listen to the ballads, you'll find that they have a flavor somewhere between Pop and R&B, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 4 Fellows.
"Why Did You Go?" was another original Pyramids tune, written by Roland Douglas. The other two songs were given to them by Joe Davis: "Okay Baby" was written by Danny "Run Joe" Taylor and "Before It's Too Late" was penned by Lloyd Garrett.
Davis released "At Any Cost" and "Okay Baby!" later in August. The record was reviewed the week of September 1, 1956, along with Lavern Baker's "I Can't Love You Enough," the Teen Queens' "Red Top," the Hearts' "He Drives Me Crazy," the Penguins' Mercury remake of "Earth Angel," the Falcons' "This Day," the Vocaltones' "My Version Of Love," the Keynotes' "Now I Know," and the 5 Lyrics' "I'm Traveling Light."
Nothing spectacular happened with the platter, although the guys heard it played by local New Haven DJs: Tiny Markle on WAVZ and Chuck Davis on WELI. They made a guest appearance on Jim Gallant's New Haven Bandstand TV show (on WNHC, channel 6), singing "At Any Cost." Although it didn't get much airplay here, Roland's wife assures him that she heard the Pyramids's records in both Charlotte, North Carolina and Knoxville, Tennessee. According to the Joe Davis files, the disc sold the dismal number of 746 copies, with most of those being 78s.
And then the touring began: the Pyramids played the Apollo, the Brooklyn Paramount, the State Theater (Hartford), the Royal (Baltimore), and the Howard (D.C.). There were also appearances in Trenton (New Jersey), Springfield (Massachussets), the Catskill Mountains (a New York State hotel area), and the Palm Cafe (New York City). Of course, they appeared locally in New Haven: the Monterey, Eagle's Hall, Palmer's, and the Talmadge Country Club. They worked for Alan Freed, at the Apollo, and at shows put on by local promoter Steve "Wild Man" Gallon, in association with Hal Jackson. (These shows were all over the East Coast: in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.)
When "At Any Cost" failed to chart, Davis released the other two songs ("Why Did You Go?" and "Before It's Too Late") in October. They don't seem to have been reviewed, but their competition was: the Dells' "Oh What A Night," the Turbans' "It Was A Night Like This," the Valentines' "Nature's Creation," Chuck Willis' "Juanita," Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby," the Flamingos' "The Vow," the Meadowlarks' "I Am A Believer," the Hi Fives' "Hong Kong," the 5 Satins' "Wonderful Girl," and Boogaloo & His Gallant Crew's "Cops And Robbers."
The Pyramids continued on for about a year, with no further recordings for Joe Davis; they never went back: "We knew the guy was a crook. We stayed away from him." After a while, Dick Foster left, to be replaced by bass Danny Jackson. Then Hubert left, and was replaced by Douglas McClure, a high tenor, who was the son of Sam McClure, baritone of the Shadows.
One day, they were leaving a practice session in New Haven when they were stopped by Bennie Benjamin, a famous songwriter whose credits include "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire," "Can Anyone Explain," "Cross Over The Bridge," "How Important Can It Be," "I Want To Thank Your Folks," "Rumors Are Flying," When The Lights Go On Again," "I Don't See Me In Your Eyes Anymore," and "Wheel Of Fortune."
Benjamin had heard them sing and asked if they'd be willing to back up Ruby Whitaker, on a version of "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire." They agreed, and the session, arranged by pianist Saul Kline, was done for George Goldner. The tune, and it's flip "I Get The Feeling" (another Benjamin song), were eventually released on Mark-X, one of Goldner's label.
Ruby and her group, the Chestnuts, were actually under contract to Marty Kugel, having recorded on his Standord label. But the Chestnuts kept breaking up and getting back together again, and this was one of the times when they had split up. Roland has no real explanation as to why Benjamin took them to Goldner instead of recording for Kugel; possibly Benjamin didn't know about Ruby's contract. Says Roland: "We didn't even know she was under contract to Marty." He also doesn't know how Benjamin hooked up with Ruby in the first place.
"I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire" was released in October 1957. Its competition was: the Sh-Booms' version of "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire," the Velours' "This Could Be The Night," the Impressors' "No-No-No," the Heartbeats' "When I Found You," the Plants' "Dear I Swear," the Moonglows' "The Beating Of My Heart," the Sentimentals' "I Wanna Love You," the Spaniels' "You're Gonna Cry," the Hollywood Flames' "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz," the Medallions "A Lover's Prayer," the Mello Kings' "Sassafras," and the Meadowlarks' "Blue Moon." Far from being a hit, Roland says: "We never even heard it on the air." Once again, though, his wife swears she heard it down South.
Then, on July 25, 1958, the Pyramids made some recordings for Marty Kugel and Tom Sokira's Klik records: "Sincere" and a cover of that new hit by Little Anthony & the Imperials: "Two People In The World." Neither was released.
After this, the usual depression set in: no money and few jobs. Doug McClure left, and was replaced by Richard Freeman. This only lasted a short while, however, and it was soon all over for the Pyramids. Both Richard Freeman and Roland Douglas went off to join Fred Parris in the Scarlets/5 Satins. While Richard stayed, Roland didn't, making no recordings with the group. In 1963, Doug McClure would join the Flamingos.
Today (the interview was in 1997), Roland is still singing, although he's gone back to his gospel roots (he's with a group called One Accord, from the Charity Seventh Day Adventist Church in Hartford). Joe Stallings lives in Arizona and Richard Foster is in upstate New York; Hubert Saulsbury has since passed away. Doug McClure joined the Flamingos in 1963, and (in 2009) is still with them.
The name "Pyramids" was a popular one, and the New Haven group bridged the gap between the 1955 California group and the 1958 New York group of the same name.
Thanks to Gordon Skadberg and Frank Gengaro.
453 At Any Cost (JS)/Okay Baby! (RD) - 8/56
457 Why Did You Go? (RD)/Before It's Too Late (HS) - 10/56
MARK-X (RUBY WHITAKER AND THE PYRAMIDS)
7007 I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire (RW)/I Get The Feeling (RW) - 10/57
KLIK (unreleased tracks, recorded 7/25/1958)
Two People In The World (DM?)
LEADS: JS = Joe Stallings; RD = Roland Douglas, Jr.; HS = Hubert Saulsbury; RW = Ruby Whitaker; DM = Doug McClure