The Clefs were one of the many groups from the Washington, D.C. area that flourished in the early and mid 1950s. They formed in 1951, while attending Hoffman-Boston High School in Arlington, Virginia (right outside of D.C.). Chet Boyd (a literature teacher who was also a DJ on station WOL) picked some students from the choir to sing "The Lord's Prayer" for an assembly program, and this led to continued singing after school.
There were six of them: George Henry "Scotty" Mansfield (lead tenor), Pavel Bess (tenor), Frankie Newman (second tenor), Fred Council (baritone), Gerald Bullock (bass), and Leo Carter (guitar). James Sheppard (second tenor and baritone) was a utility replacement when someone couldn't make a gig. Originally the "Six Clefs," the name was ultimately shortened to just "Clefs." (Note that Leo, who was left-handed, played a right-handed guitar turned upside down, in the same manner as Money Johnson of the Swallows.)
Everyone in the area tried to emulate the sound of the Orioles, and the Clefs were no exception. However, they always tried to have their own sound and practiced anything that seemed to fit, such as the Dominoes' "When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano" and Edna McGriff's "Heavenly Father."
For about a year the Clefs appeared locally-on radio shows, a TV show, school functions, and even a boat ride featuring the Orioles (no money, but good exposure). But these appearances were only secondary; their primary goal was to shape and refine their sound for the purpose of recording.
Finally, in 1952, they made some demos at U.S. Recording Studios. These were heard by Lillian Claiborne who contacted the group and ended up managing them. She was the one who brought them to the attention of Phil Chess. By this time, Leroy Flack (brother of 70s hitmaker Roberta Flack) had replaced Gerald Bullock as bass.
Today, Lillian Claiborne is somewhat revered as a discoverer and recorder of dozens of D.C. groups. Scotty said, however, that after considering it for years, he really didn't think she was too good a manager. True, she had a huge roster of talent, but none of them ever made it really big. (The closest she came was getting the Heartbreakers a contract with RCA - where they bombed.) She recorded everyone in sight, but released relatively little of the material. There were many potential hits locked away in her vaults, but unfortunately most of the masters were mediocre at best. She simply didn't have the ear of, say, Rama/Gee owner George Goldner.
"We Three" was suggested to the group by Scotty's sister, who liked the Ink Spots' version of the tune. Although never really a hit, the Clefs got a lot of bookings out of the waxing.
Around June of 1952, backed by the orchestra of Frank Motley (the dual trumpet player), they recorded at least three masters for Lillian Claiborne: "We Three," "Ride On," and "Sorry," all led by Scotty Mansfield. She claimed that she had sent them all to Chess, which issued the first two (she said that Chess wasn't interested in "Sorry"). Some years later, however, Phil Chess claimed that he had only received the two masters. ("Sorry" eventually turned up on the Baron label in 1974.)
"We Three" and "Ride On" were released in July 1952 and reviewed on November 1. Other reviews that week went to the 5 Keys' "I Cried For You," Edna McGriff & Sonny Til's "Piccadilly," and the Ray-O-Vacs' "Start Lovin' Me."
Later that year, there was a reorganization of the Clefs. Because his parents wouldn't let him travel, Leroy Flack was missing gigs (and even missed the photo session). Leo Carter tried replacing him, but it was tough for him to sing bass and play the guitar at the same time, so he ended up leaving too (also, he was a family man and didn't want to travel). The Clefs then went from a quintet to a quartet with Pavel Bess moving down from tenor to bass.
In 1955, the Clefs decided to break away from Lillian Claiborne. They got a new manager, William "Bosco" Boyd (former manager of the 5 Blue Notes), who immediately tried to negotiate a recording contract for them. He took them to New York to audition for Atlantic and he even tried to broker a new deal with Chess. For about two years the Clefs had been touring and playing local gigs in an attempt to stockpile original material (since this was what record companies were looking for). They sent demos of four songs led by Scotty: "Drive Those Tears From My Eyes," "Whiskey! Whiskey! Whiskey!," "Sweetheart," and "Still Ridin'" to Don Robey of Peacock Records. Robey, in turn, sent them back a two-year contract for their signatures.
Bosco had called them from Chicago to tell them that Chess was interested in recording them again. Scotty said: "Phil Chess couldn't understand why Claiborne hadn't sent a follow-up to 'We Three.' At the same time, we had the yet-unsigned Peacock pact in our pockets. We split to Chi to check Chess's offer and didn't sign with Robey until we looked into both Chess and Vee-Jay. I talked with Willie "Big Mama" Thornton in Chi, and that did the trick. She said that Robey was the man to deal with. From that moment on, I found myself with two extremely hard jobs: Robey signed me as both manager and lead of the group." (Scotty became manager since Bosco seems to have disappeared.) Pavel says that another factor that swayed them to join Robey was that he recorded so many gospel groups. How bad could a guy be who did that? However, in light of subsequent events, Scotty felt they would have been wiser to have signed with Vee-Jay.
In Chicago, they discovered that a phony "Clefs" group had worked the beaches and other spots in the area. ("We found out from our fans in the streets that a 'fake bootleg' Clefs had worked the beaches and other notable spots in that area. At first, I found it hard to believe, but the night we did a gig with Faye Adams at the Persian Ballroom made me a believer. Someone shipped in a fake "Counts." I didn't realize that they were fake until I saw the real Counts six months later, in D.C.")
In April of 1954, the Clefs went back to Chicago and recorded four songs for Peacock: "Please Don't Leave Me" (entered in the master book as "Don't Leave Me Now"), "What Did I Do," "I'll Be Waiting" (not the same as the Swallows tune), and "I'm Wondering." In November of that year, Peacock issued "I'll Be Waiting"/"Please Don't Leave Me." The former was led by Scotty, the latter by Pavel Bess. (Robey may have been impressed with the demo songs that the Clefs sent him, but not impressed enough to have any of them re-recorded.)
The record doesn't seem to have been sent out for review, but it would have been rated around December 4, 1954, along with the Crickets' "Be Faithful," the El Dorados' "Annie's Answer," and the Cashmeres' "My Sentimental Heart." Says Pavel, "We were getting the gigs, but there was no record to follow us."
After realizing that the Clefs weren't really going any place, they decided that a name change might help them make a new start. The group thus became "Scotty Mann and the Masters."
Under this name they recorded some more masters for Peacock, which ironically released the two which did not feature Scotty in the lead: "The Mystery Man" (led by Pavel Bess) and "Just A Little Bit Of Loving" (fronted by Fred Council). These tunes were issued in July 1956 and, once again, not sent out for review. They were, however, contemporaneous with the Drifters' "Soldier Of Fortune," the Moonglows' "See Saw," the Coasters' "Brazil," Big Walter's "Pack Fair And Square," the Tangiers' "Remember Me," and the Avons' "Our Love Will Never End." (The other efforts by the Masters were "Your Memory," "Goodness Gracious Baby," and a remake of "I'll Be Waiting.")
The problem with Peacock was that Robey didn't like (or possibly didn't understand) their sound and material, which was East-Coast oriented. Robey dealt more with Southern blues artists and tried to get the Clefs to alter their style. This resulted in sessions which were compromises and pleased nobody. ((This is why Scotty came to believe that the Clefs would have been better off at Vee-Jay-the Chicago sound was similar to what they had been doing.) When Verve Records showed some interest, Robey wouldn't let them out of their contract. (Actually, Robey didn't like to let anyone out of a contract.)
Disillusioned, the Masters/Clefs played local gigs while trying to work around Army inductions. Pavel went into the service in 1957, and the group became dormant. When he got out in 1959, fully expecting to rejoin the group, he found that Scotty had been drafted. In 1961, when Scotty was discharged, he, Pavel, Fred, and Frankie reformed the Masters; they lasted for another year doing mostly weekend work. After they disbanded for the last time, Pavel and Fred formed a duet called the Little Brothers for around a year.
Finally, it was time to say that the music business had lost its allure. Scotty became a professional caddy at an Arlington country club, a job he held for 40 years. He never again tried his hand as a singer. Pavel attended cooking school and also dabbled in air conditioning repair (today he does home remodeling). Fred also went into air conditioning and refrigeration. Leroy did sheetrock work, and Leo worked at a drug store. Pavel isn't sure what Frankie ended up doing.
Scotty summed up the story of the Clefs: "In retrospect, I honestly believe that the public never really heard us at our best on record. I believe we recorded too early. There's a fine line that separates perfection from raw potential. I think we were exposed on record during the time we were merely showing potential. There is a refined difference between "We Three" and "I'll Be Waiting." We were close to perfection on the unreleased "Your Memory." I honestly believe we reached our peak of perfection three or four years later, but by this time, the urge to relate had subsided." Pavel adds, "We had a good time; it was a good experience."
Scotty Mansfield passed away, from lung cancer, on January 19, 2002.
1521 We Three (SM)/Ride On (SM) - 7/52
1643 I'll Be Waiting (SM)/Please Don't Leave Me (PB) - 11/54
UNRELEASED PEACOCK BY THE CLEFS
What Did I Do (SM)
I'm Wondering (SM)
PEACOCK (as Scotty Mann & the Masters)
1665 The Mystery Man (PB)/Just A Little Bit Of Loving (FC) - 7/56
UNRELEASED PEACOCK BY THE MASTERS
Your Memory (ALL)
Goodness Gracious Baby (SM)
I'll Be Waiting (SM - a remake)
BARON (this is the formerly unreleased Chess master)
104 Sorry (SM)/[I Really Had A Ball - Ontarios] - 74
LEADS: SM = Scotty Mansfield; PB = Pavel Bess; FC = Fred Council