One of the more obscure vocal groups to come out of Cleveland was the Spartans. To make matters more confusing, they recorded for a tiny New York City company (and, on top of that, bootleg copies of the record mysteriously give its location as Nashville, Tennessee).
The Spartans began back in 1950 in the Carver Park Projects in the Central Area of Cleveland as a bunch of kids who played ball while growing up together. One of them, Richard Howard (now known as Rashid El-Amin) was always listening to the radio and singing everything he heard on it. One day, some friends started singing along with him; there was nothing planned about it, it just happened. By the time the dust settled, a group called the Mellow-Larks was born. Says Rashid, "One day we started singing. It seemed like we might have a little something."
The other Mellow-Larks were Curtis Hafley (first tenor), Richard's brother Ronald Howard (second tenor), Paul Mahaly (baritone/bass), and Herb Hinton (bass). The group (which ranged in age from about 13-15) came to idolize the Dominoes, the 5 Keys, the Orioles and (later on) the Drifters. Preferring ballads, they sang anything contemporary that they could hear on the radio: jazz, pop and R&B. Their rehearsal hall was the Friendly Inn Settlement Recreation Center, nicknamed "the White House."
At first, Curtis's father, the Reverend W.L. Hafley, and sister Joan (who were musicians in the church), helped out with the arrangements. When more help was needed, the Mellow-Larks turned to Lamar Gaines, who played the piano and arranged for them.
The Mellow-Larks sang around town, playing the usual Cleveland venues: the Uptown Theater, the Circle Ballroom, the Bandbox, the Ebony Lounge, and, of course, Gleason's. They also did their share of house parties. However, Rashid remembers: "Our families were very strict with us. They didn't like us to sing in clubs. We also sang at churches and benefits, like the VA Hospital."
Initially Curtis was the spokesman for the group, but at some point they hooked up with Al Rosen, an insurance salesman who became their manager. Feeling that the group's name invited confusion with other groups (the Mello-Moods, the Meadowlarks, the Mellows, the Mellow-Tones, etc.), Rosen re-dubbed them the "Spartans."
Along the way, Lamar Gaines left the group, to perform as a soloist, and they picked up pianist James Britton, who had been with the Lyrics. (Today Lamar is still active musically, but as a bassist.)
Rosen had a partner, Perry Stevens (future owner of the Studio, Prospect, and Plaid labels), who fancied himself a songwriter. In 1954, he brought the Spartans two songs that he'd written, "Lost" and "Faith, Hope And Charity." In fact, they were more like poems than songs, since there was only the barest hint of a musical arrangement. The guys liked the poems and started working on the arrangements.
"Lost" was, in fact, quite poetic. The words, with which I've always been impressed, are:
I was lost in an endless twilight
In a land of ever in between
Where the day held no beauty
And the night revealed no dreams.
I was tossed like a leaf in autumn
In a world that never offered love
Where the trees never blossomed
And the clouds hid the stars above.
But then you appeared
Like the sun when the clouds depart
You smiled and touched my hand
And love came to my heart
I'm lost just the way I like it
In a world that's honeycombed with charm
Now I face sweet tomorrow
For I'm lost in your arms.
They practiced the songs religiously, but before a recording deal could be made, Herb Hinton left to join the Renaults, another local group. His place was taken by baritone Clarence Hicks and Paul Mahaly switched down to bass.
Meanwhile, Rosen had been working on a recording deal for them and somehow he hooked up with the owners of the tiny Capri label in New York (at 145 West 45th Street). When they guys were ready, in March or April 1954, they held a session at a local recording studio. Since Herb Hinton knew the arrangements and Clarence Hicks didn't (he was basically still auditioning for the position), Herb came back for a day to do the session and Paul moved back up to baritone.
For backup, they got a local union band: "Banjo Bill and his Rhythm Kings." In spite of the name, Bill played rhythm guitar on the session; there was also a bass and drums. Their own James Britton played the piano. With Richard Howard in the lead, it took about four hours for them to lay down the two tracks, which were promptly sent off to New York, where they were issued in May 1954.
Unfortunately, a slight problem ensued with the first pressing of the record: the line below the label name proudly proclaimed "Nashville, Tennessee." The records had to be re-pressed, but in the meantime, the owner used a knife or razor blade to scrape off the words. Those copies were the ones sent out for review. However, some of the originals were used for promotional purposes in Cleveland (probably stuck into juke boxes where the spurious Tennessee location couldn't be seen) and one of these became the basis for the bootleg copies that have flourished over the years.
Tiny label or not, Capri wasted no time getting the record reviewed. It was in the trades the week of May 15, 1954, along with Big Mama Thornton's "I Smell A Rat," the Counts' "Baby Don't You Know," the Dreams' "Darlene," and Lee Andrews & Hearts' "Maybe You'll Be There."
The record did well locally, being played by Alan "Moondog" Freed on WJW. Freed even got them some gigs in Cleveland, until he moved to WINS (in New York) in September. The disc also did well in parts of Texas. The Spartans not only appeared locally, but in Pennsylvania and New York too. They stayed at a Manhattan YMCA (on 110th Street and Lenox Avenue) while auditioning for a TV talent show (which unfortunately never materialized). Strangely, they never visited the Capri label while in New York.
Not too long after the record came out, Clarence Hicks took ill and left the group; his place was taken Alfonso Gordon. Strangely, Alfonso, too, became ill and had to leave. Since James Britton could sing bass as well as play the piano, this time they kept the replacement in the family. Another name associated with the Spartans was Charles Carruthers, who hung around with them in their early days. Never a real member; he would go on to join the Coronets.
On December 31, 1954, the Spartans were one of the acts in the Brown Skin Scandals Of 1954, playing at Cleveland's Uptown Theater.
By September 1955, nothing much was happening for the Spartans, so Curtis Hafley and Ronald Howard joined the Air Force. When they got out, in 1959, the Spartans re-formed for a while, but it didn't last long.
In 1961, Richard Howard was listening to Cleveland's WJMO, when he heard an interview with Tommy Hunt, who had announced that he was leaving the Flamingos for a solo career. Hunt said that the group was holding auditions in New York. Richard went to the audition and was hired. He remained with the Flamingos for several months, until family needs forced him to return to Cleveland.
Today, Curtis, Richard (Rashid), Herb, and Lamar still live in Cleveland. Paul, James, Clarence, and Alfonso are deceased. Ronnie was killed in March 2005, as the result of a break-in and robbery. He'd just retired from the Post Office, after 42 years on the job.
The Spartans were one of many groups from Cleveland, whose ranks included the Hornets, the El Pollos, the Coronets, Luther Bond & the Emeralds, the Metrotones, the Shufflers, and the Hepsters. None of these achieved any measure of success, but, for the most part, they all look back fondly on their singing days.
Special thanks to Fred Fluellen, Tony Tisovec, Peter Yaffe, and Andrew Hamilton.
CAPRI (leads are by Richard Howard)
7201 Lost/Faith, Hope And Charity - 5/54