The Students left us a legacy of four songs which became oldies favorites in the early 60s and have remained popular to this day. In spite of this, surprisingly little has been known about the group.
Six guys from the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, who knew each other from Samuel Ach Junior High School, got together to start singing in 1956. They were: Leroy King (lead), Dorsey Porter (first tenor), Roy Ford (second tenor), John Bolden (baritone), Richard Johnson (bass), and Ralph Byrd (guitar and occasional lead singer at gigs).
For reasons unremembered, they called themselves the D'Italians for around two years (an incredibly strange name for a black group). Their repertoire, as usual, consisted of the current hits that they heard on the radio. Unlike most other groups, however, they had mentors: Otis Williams and the Charms, the most successful Cincinnati group, helped them with both their singing and in getting appearances. [There was a mid-60s Cincinnati group called the "Ditalians" that recorded some sides on the local Saxony label. It's unknown what the connection between the groups, if any, was.]
There were talent contests in Cincinnati (at the Regal Theater, the State Theater, and Castle Farms), and the D'Italians entered them all. They won a major show at the State Theater and got to split the $300 grand prize. When they won at Castle Farms, the prize was supposed to be a recording contract, but it turned out to be a hoax.
William "Prez" Tyus, a student at Central High, was desperately in love with a girl named Patricia Pearson, and he'd written a song for her called "I'm So Young." Through Roosevelt Lee, the school custodian (who seemed to know which groups were hot), Prez found out about the D'Italians and sought them out because of their local fame. ("If you're a hot group, you draw songwriters," says Dorsey.) He gave them "I'm So Young" and another of his compositions: "Every Day Of The Week." (Note that Roosevelt Lee later owned his own self-named label. The Cincinnatians' "Magic Genie" came out on Roosevelt Lee Records in 1966.)
Possibly through the efforts of Roosevelt Lee, the D'Italians fell in with Mel Herman, a distributor for Chess Records. It was Herman who got them their recording contract with Checker Records, a Chess subsidiary, in mid-1958. Since they were, according to Dorsey, a "hot group" in the tri-state area of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, Chess took Herman's word for their talent and they never had an audition with the company. (They had thought about hometown King Records, but that company wasn't interested at the time, being busy with James Brown and the Midnighters.)
Mel Herman's brother, C.G. "Jerry" Herman, owned the Note label in Indianapolis (Mel was possibly a part owner), and it was to that city that the D'Italians went to practice prior to their session. The band they rehearsed with was that of sax player Jimmy Coe (who had future guitar great Wes Montgomery with him at the time). The songs were recorded informally at Jerry Herman's house, so that everyone could get a good idea of what they sounded like. After a few trips to Indianapolis, they felt they were ready and a session was arranged with Chess. At this time, they were all 16, except for Leroy, who was two years younger.
About a week before the session, the Chess a&r man questioned why they called themselves the D'Italians ("none of you guys are Italian!") and suggested that they change it. On the spot, Mel came up with "the Students." Dorsey feels that Mel had this in reserve for the time when a name change became inevitable.
But, if you're relatively famous, how do you let all your fans know that you've changed your name? They went to the DJs at WCIN: Jockey Jack, Bugs Scruggs ("the man with the plug"), and Ernie Wait. Thus, it was broadcast over Cincinnati's big R&B station that the D'Italians were now the Students.
One Friday, they all piled into a car and drove up to the Chess studios in Chicago; the Jimmy Coe band met them there. "Jimmy Coe and the Cohorts" consisted of Coe (sax), Pookie Johnson (sax), Henry Cain (piano), Wes Montgomery (guitar), Will Scott (bass), and Earl Walder (drums). They were in the studio all day Saturday and half of Sunday recording "Every Day Of The Week" and "I'm So Young." (Note that the lead guitarist was their own Ralph Byrd, not Wes Montgomery, who just played in the background.)
They kept recording and re-recording the songs over and over. Dorsey remembers that it took 17 takes to get "Every Day Of The Week" down pat; they kept having trouble with the beat of the bass drum. There were a lot of mistakes made; Dorsey says: "I thought 'Man, this is hard!'"
Once their masters were finished, they turned around and backed up Jimmy Coe on his recording of "Wazoo!!", which was done right after "I'm So Young.." Actually, "backed up" is being generous. All they did was shout "Wazoo!!" after each chorus of the song (sort of like what's going on in "Tequila"). In fact, the tune sounds somewhat like "Tequila" meets "Peter Gunn" (although, it's true, "Peter Gunn" hadn't been recorded yet). At least the lyrics were easy to learn!
This is mostly conjecture, but I've seen a pattern like this before. It looks like the Hermans made a deal with Chess that "I'm So Young" would be pressed up on Note in Indiana and Ohio, and on Checker in the rest of the country. This way, their company could make some bucks on the deal without having to worry about competing with a major label. Note was the original label, probably releasing the tunes in July 1958; Checker followed in late August. Since the song made #8 on Milt Nixon's show (over WGEE in Indianapolis) in August, this argues for the Note release being earlier than Checker.
The Checker release was reviewed favorably the week of September 1, 1958 (Note releases didn't seem to get reviewed), along with Little Richard's "Baby Face," the Moonglows' "Ten Commandments Of Love," King Curtis' "IFIC," the 5 Shillings' "Letter To An Angel," Faith Taylor & Sweet Teens' "Your Candy Kisses," and the Chanters' "Five Little Kisses."
By the week of October 20, "I'm So Young" was a Territorial Tip in St. Louis. During November, it was rated #2 on Dave Dixon's show (over KATZ in St. Louis).
And the Students began to tour, doing their share of one-nighters throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. They got to play a week at the Apollo, beginning on September 26, 1958, sharing the stage with the Moonglows and Ruth Brown. Then they did a week at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, with Ray Charles and Roy Hamilton. (Mel Herman got them work all over Philadelphia in the hopes of generating enough interest to force Dick Clark to have them appear for free on American Bandstand, but his scheme didn't work and he had to pay for them to sing "I'm So Young" on national television.) When they got back to Chicago, they also sang "I'm So Young" on a local TV dance show.
When they toured, they had a deal with their school: they'd get assignments that had to completed on the road and turned in when they came back to Cincinnati. As long as the assignments were done, they'd get credit for them. John Sears was their road manager, and he made sure these assignments were done on time.
On May 10, 1959 ("It was on Mothers' Day") they went back to Chicago to record two more of their tunes: "My Vow To You" and "That's How I Feel." Once again the Jimmy Coe band accompanied them, although by this time Wes Montgomery had left them, as had Pookie Johnson. (Strangely, although Coe was specifically chosen for both sessions, the Students never toured with him.)
"My Vow To You" was written by Dorsey Porter, but "because I was a team player," the credit on the record says "The Students." "That's How I Feel" was another Prez Tyus composition, but for some reason, it too was credited to "The Students."
The second record was released in mid 1959, but this time it only came out on Note. It's anyone's guess why another deal wasn't worked out, but it's probable that Note didn't have the resources to distribute the record nationwide. Possibly Chess was holding back to see if it made any noise before committing to a Checker issue. However, it wasn't as successful as "I'm So Young," and the Students started changing their direction: they began practicing modern harmony arrangements.
That summer, they joined the All-American Shows, which was a tent show (or traveling circus) out of Florida. The Students traveled all over the south and Midwest by train, until the show finished up in Davenport, Iowa. Not only did they sing at shows, but they did the "bally" (being what we would call "barkers"), and were occasionally roustabouts, helping to set up the tents.
Along the way, guitarist Ralph Byrd left the Students, and was replaced by Wilbert Longmire, who eventually became a jazz guitarist.
In late 1959 or early 1960, Chess asked them to record a song called "Cathy's Clown." They listened to the demo, decided it wasn't for them ("it was too 'white'"), and passed on it. "We didn't realize it would be a great big one [as eventually recorded by the Everly Brothers]." Dorsey feels that this was the beginning of the break with Chess.
The next time the Students showed up to record at Chess (probably in 1960), they did their modern harmony treatments of "Misty" and "If I Were King." This became their final Chess session, and, since Chess didn't like their direction, the tunes were never released. Jimmy Coe wasn't present on this session; they were backed by some jazz musicians.
At last, with no hits and with a recording company that wasn't interested in the way they wanted to sing, the Students drifted apart. Some joined the service and some just got on with their lives.
But this isn't the end of their story. In March of 1961, thanks mostly to the efforts of Irving "Slim" Rose, owner of Times Square Records, "I'm So Young" and "Every Day Of The Week" were re-released on Chess's Argo subsidiary. This time out the record did better than originally, reaching #26 on the national R&B charts. (It would be issued one further time, on Chess's Cadet subsidiary, sometime around 1964.) Amazingly, the Students were still together at this time, and never even found out they had a national hit!
In January 1962, "That's How I Feel" and "My Vow To You" were re-released on Checker. The Students didn't know about that either, and 1962 was probably the year that they broke up. The last release of a Students record was in 1973, when "I'm So Young" and "My Vow To You" were paired for a release on Chess itself. "I'm So Young" did so well for the Students over the years that Chess actually sent them royalties.
In June 1971, John Bolden and Richard Johnson, managed by Prez Tyus, put together a Students group that appeared at Gus Gossert's "Fifth Rock & Roll Show" at Manhattan's Academy Of Music. The other members were lead Ricky Kennedy and tenor Frank Stanford.
The last time the original Students got together was in 1983, for a show at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Since that time, Roy Ford and John Bolden have passed away. Dorsey Porter and Richard Johnson still live in Cincinnati. Leroy King passed away on Christmas Eve, 1998.
Forty years later, "Every Day Of The Week" is still played on popular "oldies" stations, with occasional spinnings of "I'm So Young" and "My Vow To You." Not bad for a group that only made two records. (Considering that "I'm So Young" was the "big" side at the time, Dorsey is amazed that it's "Every Day Of The Week" that receives the most airplay today.)
NOTE: The Students on Red Top were a group from Philadelphia. The Cincinnati Students were not the group backing up Annie Laurie on "It Hurts To Be In Love."
10012 I'm So Young/Every Day Of The Week - ca. 7/58
10013 Wazoo!!/[Shuffle Stroll - Jimmy Coe Orchestra] - ca. 7/58
(The Students are present on Jimmy Coe's recording of "Wazoo!!"
CHECKER (subsidiary of Chess)
902 I'm So Young/Every Day Of The Week - 8/58
10019 My Vow To You/That's How I Feel - mid-59
ARGO (subsidiary of Chess)
5386 I'm So Young/Every Day Of The Week - 3/61
1004 My Vow To You/That's How I Feel - 1/62
CADET (subsidiary of Chess; note: same number as Argo)
5386 I'm So Young/Every Day Of The Week - ca. 1964
9024 I'm So Young/My Vow To You - 73