The Suburbans had one of the more unusual histories of any group I've interviewed. In addition, while not a studio group like the Cues, they actually backed up other performers as often as they appeared on their own records.
Sylvester Bradford first started singing around 1952, with some friends that he made at a Lighthouse for the Blind on 59th Street in Manhattan. Both Chris Kiler (bass) and Wayne Durham (tenor) were blind; Sylvester (tenor/baritone) and Gregory Shankowitz (tenor) were visually impaired. (Note that, in spite of Gregory's last name, he was Scottish!)
The Lighthouse had a piano and guitar which the guys could use, so rehearsals were pretty much limited to weekends. After a while, when the group still had no name, Sylvester just came up with "Bradford Boys."
They practiced "what we heard on the radio," plus songs written by Sylvester. The repertoire included tunes that would be recorded by the Suburbans later on (such as "TV Baby").
After about three years together, they decided to try their hand at recording. They auditioned for Apollo Records (at 457 West 45th Street), which showed some interest. But when they went around the corner to Rainbow Records (767 10th Avenue), owner Eddie Heller was not only interested, but instantly offered to set up a recording session. The session took place the same day as one by Mickey & Sylvia (probably when they recorded "See De Boom Run Dun"), and both of them ended up playing guitar on the Bradford Boys session.
The Bradford Boys recorded two songs that Sylvester had written: "That Feeling" (led by Wayne) and "Little Boy Blue" (featuring the duet lead of Gregory and Sylvester). Rainbow released them in June 1955. The songs don't seem to have been reviewed, but the competition at the time was the Cardinals' "Come Back My Love," the Squires' "Sindy," the Cobras' "Sindy," the Tenderfoots' "Sindy," the Jacks' "Since My Baby's Been Gone," the Meadowlarks' "Always And Always," the Larks' "No Mama No," the Smoothtones' "Bring Back Your Love," the Harptones' "Life Is But A Dream," the Emeralds' "It's Written In The Stars," the Griffins' "Scheming," the Danderliers' "My Loving Partner," the 5 Keys' "I Wish I'd Never Learned To Read," the Dominoes' "Learnin' The Blues," the Barons' "I Know I Was Wrong," the Californians' "Heavenly Ruby," the Flamingos' "Please Come Back Home," the Penguins' "Walkin' Down Broadway," and the Hurricanes' "Pistol Packin' Mama."
The Bradford Boys only made a few appearances, at Catholic Youth Organization functions and at some clubs in New Jersey. The demise of the Bradford Boys had two causes: Wayne started attending Columbia University, which limited the time he could spend with the group. Then, someone at the Lighthouse told them that club owners were extremely reluctant to hire a group with two blind members, because it increased the chance that someone would get hurt onstage.
Sylvester then joined up with the Ivories, as their piano player (in fact, the name "Ivories" came from the keys on the piano). The others were Johnny Hicks (lead), Dave Cole (first tenor), Joe Shallow (possibly Shiloh, second tenor), Johnny Earl Jackson (baritone), and James Coney (bass).
Sylvester wrote both the songs the Ivories recorded on the Jaguar label ("Alone" and "Baby Send A Letter"). Several members of that group went on to form the Love Notes (on Holiday).
After the Ivories, Sylvester got back together with Chris Kiler to form the Suburbans. This time, Chris was baritone and Sylvester was bass. The other members were Cortez Franklin (lead tenor), Andy Williams (tenor; no not that Andy Williams), and another tenor nicknamed "Lucky." The group was named after Sylvester's "suburban"-style overcoat that he liked a lot.
The Suburbans auditioned for Decca, which thought they needed more practice. Then they tried Sol Rabinowitz's Baton records (at 180 West 44th Street), where they met with a better reception. In April 1956, Baton announced their signing.
At their first Baton session, they recorded two more of Sylvester's compositions: "I Remember" (led by Cortez) and "TV Baby" (fronted by Chris). The record was released in May 1956, and got good reviews the week of June 16, along with the Platters' "My Prayer," the Dominoes' "St. Therese Of The Roses," Little Richard's "Rip It Up," the Spiders' "A-1 In My Heart," the Castelles' "Happy And Gay," the Rockets' "Be Lovey Dovey," the Nutmegs' "Key To The Kingdom," and the Champions' "The Same Old Story."
By July, the disk was doing well in Philadelphia and Miami, although it never charted nationally.
Later that year, Baton brought them back into the studio to back up Ann Cole on three songs: "In The Chapel," "Got My Mo-Jo Working," and "Each Day." "In The Chapel"/"Each Day" were released in November 1956, receiving excellent reviews the week of October 20. Other songs reviewed that week were the Angels' "The Glory Of Love," the Cubs' "I Hear Wedding Bells," the Meadowlarks' "I Am A Believer," the Keystoners' "The Magic Kiss," the Parakeets' "Yvonne," and Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew's "Cops And Robbers." The week of January 5 1957, "In The Chapel" was a Pick of the Week, doing well in Washington and Cincinnati. It would eventually reach #14 on the R&B charts.
Then it was back to the studio for the Suburbans in early 1957 to back up Baton's newest acquisition, Jimmy Ricks. The song in question was "Bad Man Of Missouri," and it was released in February. I asked Sylvester what it was like to back up Jimmy Ricks, and he remembered that Chris Kiler seemed to be impressed. Ricks even took them out to dinner afterwards. However, to this day, Sylvester had no idea that Ricks was the foremost bass singer in R&B! Aside from Chris, the others in the group didn't really seem to know who he was either. What a meteoric fall from greatness!
The Ricks record got good reviews the week of March 2, along with the Platters' "I'm Sorry," Little Richard's "Lucille," and the Hurricanes' "Fallen Angel." Never charting, it would be the only Jimmy Ricks record on Baton.
"Got My Mo-Jo Working," released in March, got excellent reviews the week of March 30, along with Shirley & Lee's "Marry Me," the Pearls' "Your Cheatin' Heart," the Rosebuds' "Dearest Darling," the Flyers' "My Only Desire," Willis Jackson's "Later 'Gator," the Drivers' "Oh Miss Nellie," the Robins' "A Fool In Love," the Metronomes' "I Love My Girl" and the Velours' "Romeo." While being considered a Best Buy at the end of April, the record failed to chart, being locked in a death struggle with Muddy Waters' cover version (which also missed the charts).
There was one more session for the Suburbans at Baton, at which they recorded two more of Sylvester's compositions, "Leave My Gal Alone" and "My First And Last Romance." The sides, both of which were led by Cortez, were released in April 1957. They were reviewed the week of April 27, along with Fats Domino's "It's You I Love," Lavern Baker's "Jim Dandy Got Married," the Tunedrops' "Rosie Lee," the Mello-Tones' "Rosie Lee," the 5 Keys' "Four Walls," the Hurricanes' "Priceless," the Serenaders' "When You're Smiling," and the 5 Dollars' "You Fool"/"How To Do The Bacon Fat" (both of which got very poor reviews).
The Suburbans started drifting apart in mid-1957, and on December 11 of that year, Sylvester recorded some solos for Atco. The tunes, "I Like Girls" and "I Live Just To Love You," weren't released until November 1958.
After that session, Sylvester's eyesight, never too good in the first place, began getting worse. He realized that it would be easier for him to write songs than to continue on with a group. He hooked up with Al Lewis, a famous songwriter who had penned "Now's The Time To Fall In Love" ("Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper") in 1931, "You Gotta Be A Football Hero (To Get Along With The Beautiful Girls)" in 1933, and "Blueberry Hill" in 1940. Together they wrote "Tears On My Pillow," which Little Anthony and the Imperials took to #4 on the Pop charts in the summer of 1958, and "I'm Ready," a #16 hit for Fats Domino in the spring of 1959.
Sylvester's Atco release of "I Like Girls" was reviewed the week of November 24, 1958, along with the Fiesta's "So Fine," the Emersons' "Hungry," the Pyramids' "Ankle Bracelet," and the Fi-Tones' "It Wasn't A Lie."
Sylvester also wrote Gene Vincent's "Right Now," which Mary Chapin Carpenter parleyed into a big hit a few years back, and "IFIC," done both by the Chantels and by Lucy Rivera (who was Lucy Cedeno, the female member of the Love Notes, which was the successor group to the Ivories). Bobby Darin recorded an entire album of Sylvester's songs for 20th Century Fox, but it was pulled at the last minute, when Atlantic threatened to sue. Most of the songs have subsequently been done by other artists.
The Bradford Boys, the Ivories, and the Suburbans weren't successful (although the latter group would ride the charts behind Ann Cole), but they allowed Sylvester Bradford to hone his songwriting skills, and give us some fine music to remember. Sylvester passed away in May 2008.
Special thanks to Victor Pearlin, Bob Davis, and Gordon Skadberg. Ads are, as usual, from Galen Gart's First Pressings series and the discography is from Ferdie Gonzalez.
307 That Feeling (WD)/Little Boy Blue (GS/SB) - 6/55
3019 Alone (JH)/Baby Send A Letter (ALL) - 11/55
3023 Alone/Baby Send A Letter (different recordings of both songs) - 56
227 I Remember (CF)/TV Baby (CK) - 5/56
232 In The Chapel (AC)/Each Day (AC) - 11/56
236 Bad Man Of Missouri (JR)/[I'm A Fool To Want You - Jimmy Ricks] - 2/57
237 Got My Mo-Jo Working (AC)/[I've Got A Little Boy - Ann Cole] - 3/57
240 Leave My Gal Alone (CF)/My First And Last Romance (CF) - 4/57
I Told Them (CF)
6130 I Like Girls/I Live Just To Love You - 11/58
WD = Wayne Durham; GS = Gregory Shankowitz; SB = Sylvester Bradford;
JH = Johnny Hicks; CF = Cortez Franklin; CK = Chris Kiler;
AC = the Suburbans backing up Ann Cole; JR = the Suburbans backing up Jimmy Ricks