The Strangers were an incredibly uneven group. While trying to follow in the footsteps of their idols, the Swallows, they turned out some great ballads and some marginal uptempo tunes.
The Strangers formed in 1952, in the Putnam-Tompkins Avenue area of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. The original lineup of "guys who hung out together" (according to Pringle Sims) was Billy Clarke (second tenor), Pringle Sims (first tenor), John Grant (baritone), Woodrow Jackson (bass), and Seifert "John" Brizant II (piano and arranger). All of the members were around 17-18 at the time. A neighborhood friend, Bernard Jones (baritone), was used as a fill-in singer when someone couldn't make a show.
When they sat down to choose a name, the one they all agreed on (suggested by Woodrow) was the "Strangers."
It's not difficult to figure out that the Strangers idolized the Swallows. They'd practice their tunes (including "Dearest," "Eternally," and "Tell Me Why") until they perfected the technique. Within this basic foundation, the Strangers began to develop their own style, using their own material. In years to come, they'd also admire the Midnighters, the Cadillacs, and the Crows.
The Strangers were prolific songwriters, who wrote almost all of their own material. Considering the youth of the members, the Strangers were capable of writing haunting lyrics, which, when framed in a King Records production, could result in an R&B classic. Most of the tunes had John Brizant's name firmly affixed. "Beg And Steal," "My Friends," and "Blue Flowers" were credited to all the members; "Dreams Came True," "Get It One More Time," "How Long Must I Wait," and "Without A Friend" were all collaborations between John Brizant and Woodrow Jackson; and "Hoping You'll Understand," "Drop Down To My Place," and "Just Don't Care" were credited to Brizant alone. "I've Got Eyes" was by Woodrow Jackson and Pringle Sims. This leaves "Think Again," the only song written by "outsiders": Teddy "Mr. Bear" McRae and Sidney Wyche (who also collaborated on "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" and "Mr. Bear Comes To Town"); Wyche would score big in the 60s with two Jackie Wilson hits: "Talk That Talk" and "A Woman, A Lover, A Friend."
Woodrow Jackson and John Brizant were the oldest in the group, and they took care of the managerial duties. (Not having a manager wasn't one of their better decisions. They made relatively few appearances, and the ones they had weren't even big-time theaters or tours.) Through his songwriting, Brizant knew Henry Glover, an A&R Man at King Records. This was a natural choice for the Strangers anyway, since it was the home of their idols, the Swallows. It was probably Brizant, therefore, who went to see Henry Glover in King's New York office. Glover had been a trumpet player and arranger for several black dance bands (including Buddy Johnson's, Willie Bryant's, Tiny Bradshaw's, and Lucky Millinder's) until he joined Syd Nathan's King label in 1946 as writer, producer and A&R Director. With the growing popularity of vocal groups in 1953, Glover and Nathan were looking to expand the number of groups on King. The Strangers got to come in for an audition.
Glover was sufficiently impressed with the group to give them a chance. On December 28, 1953, the Strangers showed up for the first of four sessions (all of which were held in New York). They recorded four songs: "My Friends" (led by John Grant), "I've Got Eyes" (Billy Clarke), "Blue Flowers" (Pringle Sims), and "Beg And Steal" (Billy Clarke). Pringle is doing the high tenor parts on both "My Friends" and "I've Got Eyes."
In January 1954, King released "My Friends"/"I've Got Eyes." I've always had a problem with "My Friends": the pronouns keep shifting until I can't really tell who the lead is talking to. It is a pretty song, however.
King started out behaving strangely with the Strangers: "My Friends" wasn't sent out for review. In spite of that, the trades listed it as a Territorial Tip in Philadelphia on April 17, in Cincinnati (King's home town) on May 8, and in New York on June 26 (five months after its release). This seems to indicate that King wasn't spending a lot of effort pushing the disc.
And the Strangers began to hit the road. Most of their appearances over the years were outside New York: Philadelphia, Virginia, North Carolina, and other parts of the South. In addition, they played the Hunts Point Palace, Audubon Ballroom, and Savoy Ballroom in Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Baby Grand. They also appeared at shows packaged by DJ Georgie Hudson. While never playing the Apollo, they did appear on Ralph Cooper's Spotlight On Harlem television show.. The lyrics in the song that Billy was singing that day included "I don't give a damn!"; Cooper made him change them.
In April 1954, King issued the other two songs in the can: "Blue Flowers" (another pretty ballad) and "Beg And Steal" (which has always been in my top ten for the Stupidest Song Ever Written). "Blue Flowers" received an "excellent" rating on May 22, along with Chuck Willis' "I Feel So Bad," the Rivileers' "Forever," the Hawks' "Good News," the El Rays' "Darling I Know," and the Bards' "I'm A Wine Drinker."
On June 25, the Strangers were back in the studio to record "Hoping You'll Understand" (led by Pringle Sims), "Drop Down To My Place" (Billy Clarke), "Just Don't Care" (Billy Clarke), and "It's Too Bad" (John Grant).
With only five days to go in June, King rushed "Hoping You'll Understand"/"Just Don't Care" into release by the end of the month. It was reviewed on August 28, along with the Midnighters' "Annie Had A Baby," the Lamplighters' "You Hear," the Penguins' "No There Ain't No News Today," and the Cherokees' "Please Tell Me So."
The group's third King session was held on August 13, 1954, when they recorded "Have Fun" (led by Billy Clarke) "Dreams Came True" (John Grant), "How Long Must I Wait" (Billy Clarke), and "Get It One More Time" (Billy Clarke).
In October 1954, King issued "Drop Down To My Place"/"Get It One More Time." While most of their records paired a ballad and an uptempo sides, this disc contained two of their throwaway uptempo songs. The disc was reviewed on October 30, along with the 5 Jets' "Crazy Chicken," the Midnighters' "Annie's Aunt Fannie," the Lamplighters' "Yum Yum," the Rivileers' "Eternal Love," Roy Brown's "Black Diamond," Louis Jordan's "Put Some Money In The Pot, Boy," the Ramblers' "Vadunt-Un-Va-Da Song," and the 5 Dukes Of Rhythm's "Soft, Sweet And Really Fine."
In January 1955, King released "Dreams Came True," backed with "How Long Must I Wait." "Dreams Came True" was rated "excellent" on February 5, along with the 5 Keys' "Close Your Eyes," the Charms' "Ko Ko Mo," the Flamingos' "Ko Ko Mo," the Orioles' "I Love You Mostly," the Cadillacs' "No Chance," the 4 Jacks' "Tired Of Your Sexy Ways," the 5 Royales' "You Didn't Learn It At Home," the Thunderbirds' "Baby Let's Play House," and the Gems' "I Thought You'd Care."
The Strangers' last King session was held on June 15, 1955. This time they only recorded two songs: "Without A Friend" and "Think Again" (both led by Billy Clarke). They were released by King in August, and both sides were rated "good" on August 13. Other reviews that week went to the Nutmegs' "Ship Of Love," the Marigolds' "Two Strangers," the 5 Royales' "Women About To Make Me Go Crazy," the Gaylarks' "Tell Me Darling," the 4 Deuces' "W-P-L-J," the Turbans' "When You Dance," the Coronets' "The Bible Tells Me So," and the Casanovas' "Please Be Mine."
The Strangers were with King for a year and a half. During that time, the company released six records, none of which was commercially successful. In fact, the Strangers achieved greater popularity during the resurgence of interest in R&B in the 60s than they did in the 50s!
In 1955, the Strangers began to experiment with modern harmony, which eventually led to their demise. The style wasn't that popular at the time and the group was too obscure to make a success of it. At least half of the singers that I've interviewed have told me that their groups dabbled with modern harmony to some extent. It wasn't a commercial sound (how many Hi-Los' songs made it to the Pop charts?) and, let's face it, it's a lot easier to sing R&B than modern harmony (most of these groups were overstating their own talent). The Strangers auditioned for Capitol Records, where they were told they sounded "too white!"
Around 1957, Pringle Sims became the first to leave the Strangers, moving over to the 4 Fellows. He'd stay with them for around 12 years (and was in Larry Banks' 4 Fellows that recorded for Pop-Line). Pringle's replacement in the strangers was baritone John Person, another neighborhood friend. Not long after that, John Grant started getting involved with drugs, and was asked to leave the group. At that point, fill-in Bernard Jones became a permanent member. The group didn't last too much longer.
In the early 60s, John Grant sang with a group called the Vanguards. They were supposed to be managed by Ralph Kiner, the former Pittsburgh Pirates slugger-turned-announcer, but when baseball season started, Kiner went back to announcing, and the group disbanded.
Billy Clarke later became the drummer for a band backing the Spaniels; and, as a member of the Flamingos, sang lead on their 1972 remake of "Golden Teardrops." In the 90s, he became the singer with Ron Anderson's band, the Versatiles (Anderson had been a member of the Fi-Tones). John Brizant successfully continued on in the industry as a writer and arranger.
Of the seven men who sang with the Strangers, John Grant, Billy Clarke, and Woodrow Jackson have passed away. Pringle Sims, John Brizant, and John Person are still alive in 2002. The whereabouts of Bernard Jones are unknown.
The Strangers played a relatively small role in the story of the King dynasty. Nevertheless, they were part of the panorama of the Rhythm & Blues scene during its most creative period.
Discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez. Ads are from various issues of Galen Gart's First Pressings series.
4697 My Friends (JG/PS)/I've Got Eyes (BC/PS) - 1/54
4709 Blue Flowers (PS)/Beg And Steal (BC) - 4/54
4728 Hoping You'll Understand (PS)/Just Don't Care (BC) - 6/54
4745 Drop Down To My Place (BC)/Get It One More Time (BC) - 10/54
4766 Dreams Came True (JG)/How Long Must I Wait (BC) - 1/55
4821 Without A Friend (BC/PS)/Think Again (BC/PS) - 8/55
It's Too Bad (JG)
Have Fun (BC)
LEADS: JG = John Grant; PS = Pringle Sims; BC = Billy Clarke