Notebook Cover

  The Leaders

By Marv Goldberg

Based on an interview with Nelson Shields

© 2002, 2009 by Marv Goldberg

Did you ever wonder why "the last porkchops I ate taste like leather"?. Do you ask yourself why "mama won't bake those apple pies"? Do you face "starvation, since I lost my occupation"? If so, you must be listening to the Leaders' rather odd lyrics to the classic "Stormy Weather".

You wouldn't suspect Newport News, Virginia of being a hotbed of R&B activity, but there were many groups from the area. Of course the famous ones were Rudy West and the 5 Keys, the Avalons, and the Chateaus. And there were others, lots of others. One of these, named after a card game, was the Pokenoes, who formed around 1952. The members were Harry Burton (first tenor), Edward "Snipper" Alston (second tenor), Harry's brother, James, (second tenor), James "Buster" Moore (baritone), and Charles Simpson (bass). After the novelty of the name "Pokenoes" wore off, they renamed themselves the 5 Swans.

They were all from the same neighborhood and attended Huntington High School (along with the Chateaus). Sometime in 1953, baritone Ronald Judge replaced Buster Moore; later that year, James Burton went into the service and was replaced by Nelson Shields, Charles Simpson's cousin.

It almost goes without saying that they admired the 5 Keys. Harry Burton lived near the place where the 5 Keys rehearsed. This had several results: they could listen to their idols rehearse, they could pick up pointers from a group that had been around for several years, and, most important, they got to hear all the new songs being practiced, so when the Keys finally recorded them, the 5 Swans were the first group in the neighborhood to be able to sing them at shows. Not all their heroes were groups; while they sang Moonglows, Drifters, and Cardinals songs, they also had an arrangement of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" and Gene & Eunice's "Ko Ko Mo".

Down the street from the local Jefferson Theater, where the 5 Swans competed in many amateur shows, was a clothing store owned by the family of Melvin Nachman, who was studying to be a lawyer. Nachman heard the group and promptly offered to be their manager. Actually, Ike Burton, manager of the 5 Keys (and no relation to Harry), also offered to manage the 5 Swans, but the guys thought he'd be too involved with the Keys to manage them properly. Nachman got them uniforms and arranged for auditions. He even laid out the money to get them a station wagon. However, he really didn't have the know-how and Nelson realizes in looking back that going with Ike Burton would have been a better move.

The 5 Swans did a lot of appearances in the area, including amateur shows. Finally, in late 1954, at the Jefferson Theater, they competed against, and beat, all the other amateur groups in the city. Their prize was a trip to New York, in the Spring of 1955, to appear on the Apollo Theater's Wednesday night Amateur Show. Because their wardrobe consisted of red plaid jackets with pink shirts and pants, MC Leonard Reed made fun of them on stage with "Yup, you're from the South all right!". However, when they launched into their version of the 5 Keys' newly-released "The Verdict", they brought the house down and won the contest. They drove back and forth three more times, winning four weeks in a row.

The Apollo had one of the toughest audiences in the country for an amateur show. Consequently, winning four weeks in a row was no mean achievement. Their reward was a one-week engagement as regular performers.

Someone told Phil Rose, owner of Glory Records about them, and he arranged for an audition. Liking what he heard, he signed the 5 Swans to a one-year contract. What he didn't like was their name. He knew there were other Swans groups around, including the Swans on Oscar Washington's Ballad label out of St. Louis (who may have been the same Swans that appeared on Rainbow back in 1953) and the Swans on Detroit's Fortune label. Also, no one knew it yet, but the very next year there would be a 5 Swans on Ray Dobard's Music City label. "Swans" seemed to be a very good name for a mid-50s group! Someone suggested that the 5 Swans become the "Leaders", and that was the name that carried the day.

The Leaders - 1955 The first session for Glory took place in August 1955, at a studio around 47th Street and 7th Avenue. The nervous kids recorded "Stormy Weather" (led by Harry Burton) and "A Lover Of The Time" (fronted by Ed Alston). According to Nelson Shields, Phil Rose "was mesmerized by 'Stormy Weather'; we put a lot of effort into that song." Phil actually seemed to be partial to bluesy ballads: "We sang hard harmony, like the 5 Keys, the Moonglows and the Drifters. Phil pushed us toward a more bluesy sound."

There are two master numbers missing between the two songs. Nelson and Harry remember tunes called "Dry Your Eyes" (written by a friend and led by Ed) and Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind" (Harry), but there's no way to tell what session they were recorded at. All of their recordings were backed up by the Abie Baker Orchestra. Abie was a bassist, whose son (also in the orchestra) was guitar legend Mickey Baker. The others were sax honker Sam "The Man" Taylor, and drummer David "Panama" Francis. Not a bad little ensemble to back you up!

"Stormy Weather" and "A Lover Of The Time" were released in September 1955, around the same time as the Sheiks' "So Fine", Lorraine Ellis and the Crows' "Perfidia", the Fi-Tones' "Foolish Dreams", the Colts' "Adorable", the Calvanes' "Don't Take Your Love From Me", the Keynotes' "Suddenly", the Spiders' "Witchcraft", the Cues' "Burn That Candle", the Scarlets' "Indian Fever", and the Aladdins' "I Had A Dream Last Night".

"Stormy Weather" had been written in 1933 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, and introduced in a Cotton Club Revue by Ethel Waters. The Leaders bluesy version was based on the Golden Gate Quartet's 1940 recording. The lyrics were something else again: there had been another group (whose name Harry can't remember), which sang "Don't know why/ Mama won't bake no apple pie/ Got no sugar...". From the earliest days of the group, Harry, Ed, and Charles fooled around with those lyrics, and the results were oddball enough to make some noise. While never a national hit, it was hot in Los Angeles, Boston, and several other cities. "A Lover Of The Time" (written by Harry and Ed) celebrates one "Babalu", who stole the narrator's girl and "led her astray". (Of course, Desi Arnaz used to beat his conga drum singing about "Babalu Ayé", an Afro-Cuban god, whose worship required lots of noise.)

With a modest hit on their hands, the Leaders did some appearances. These were necessarily limited, since they were all still in Huntington High. In fact, for as long as they recorded, they were in school (Charles graduated in June, 1956; the others a year later). "We were tied down because our parents wouldn't let us go on the road", says Nelson; they could only work on the weekends.

They did manage to squeeze in a dance in Washington, D.C. along with the Moonglows. Also, during summer vacation they played the State Theater in Hartford with the Nutmegs, the Flamingos, and Bill Haley and the Comets. They also appeared in other Virginia cities: Norfolk and Richmond. Then there was the night that they had to sleep in their car before a show in Wilmington, Delaware!

In late 1955, they did another session for Glory. Presumably four tunes were done here also, but the only known titles are "Nobody Loves Me" (written by Nelson and Harry and led by Harry, who also overdubbed the echo) and "Dearest Beloved Darling" (written by Harry and Ed and fronted by Ed; their first up-tempo song). These sides were issued in January 1956, the same month that saw the release of the Flamingos' "I'll Be Home", the Clovers' "Devil Or Angel", the Hurricanes' "Maybe It's All For The Best", the Teen Queens' "Eddie My Love", Fats Domino's "Bo Weevil", the Royal Jokers' "Rocks In My Pillow", the 4 Fellows' "Fallen Angel", and the Jewels' "How". Although "Nobody Loves Me" is a pretty ballad, with some nice echo work, it didn't chart.

The Leaders returned to the Apollo Theater for the week beginning on March 2, 1956. They were part of an Apollo Variety Show, which also had the Latin orchestra of Alfredito, Mae Barnes (a jazz and pop singer), the Two Zephyrs, the Bonita Sisters, and the Malagon Sisters (Latin singers).

Around April 1956, the Leaders did a third session, which produced "Can't Help Lovin' That Girl Of Mine" (led by Harry) and "Lovers" (written by Ed and featuring Harry and Ed). It's possible that other songs were recorded at the session, but the master numbers for those two are consecutive, so it's impossible to tell.

"Can't Help Lovin' That Girl Of Mine" was a straightforward reading of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's 1927 classic from "Showboat". "Lovers", another up-tempo piece, had the same kids' chant ("eenie, meenie, disbaleenie") that would appear in Lee Andrews and the Hearts' "Glad To Be Here", recorded in 1958.

The record was reviewed the week of June 9, 1956, along with the 5 Keys' "My Pigeon's Gone", Billy Bland's "Chicken Hop", the Hawks' "It's All Over", the Youngsters' "Shattered Dreams", the Cadillacs' "Woe Is Me", the 4 Fellows' "Darling You", Fatso Theus and the Flairs' "Be Cool My Heart", Jimmy Ricks and the Rickateers' "The Unbeliever", Jimmy Castor and the Juniors' "I Promise", the Chestnuts' "Love Is True", and the not particularly highly-rated 5 Satins' "I'll Remember (In The Still Of The Night)".

When this record also failed to chart, there was no renewal of the Leaders' Glory contract. Appearances dried up and money became a problem. Melvin Nachman, their manager, did nothing to get them placed anywhere else and this was, effectively, the end of the Leaders. Harry, Ed and Charles continued singing for about 6 months (as the 3 Voices), doing local appearances until Charles went into the service. Remember, all but Charles were still in high school.

The Corvairs - 1961 But it wasn't over. In September 1958, Nelson Shields and Ronald Judge came to New York to seek their singing fortunes. Taking jobs in Macy's Department Store, they bided their time until the following year, when Nelson met tenor Joe Shepard at a party. The group that resulted from this chance meeting consisted of: Nelson Shields (second tenor), Joe Shepard (tenor), Prince McKnight (tenor), Ronald Judge (baritone), and Billy Faison (bass). They called themselves the Corvairs, after that nifty new 1960 Chevrolet with the engine in the rear. Soon after, they met Floyd "Buddy" McRae (one of the original Chords, of "Sh-Boom" fame), who became their manager.

In early 1962 Buddy got them a recording deal with the Comet label. (Earlier recordings on Cub, Clock, and Crown are by a different Corvairs group; they're the ones who appear in the common Corvairs photo. The Corvairs on Sylvia may also be that group.) "Hey, Sally Mae" has Nelson on lead, while the flip, "True True Love" has the group singing in unison. The sides were arranged by Dave "Baby" Cortez.

After this, they hooked up with Gene Redd, Jr., who was rehearsing groups at the Harlequin Studios at 45th Street and Broadway (two of his groups that went on to fame and fortune were Black Ivory and Kool and the Gang). (Note that Gene Redd, Jr. had been a member of the 5 Chimes and the Fi-Tones; his brother Donald was in Larry Gales' Starlings/Twilighters. Their father, Gene Redd, Sr., was a sax man, who had been in Steve Gibson's Red Caps.)

One day, when they were singing in a subway station of the 7th Avenue line, Joe René, a&r man for Les Cahan's Beltone/Lescay/Leopard labels (of 1650 Broadway) heard them and gave them his card. This led to them recording four sides for Leopard, on April 18, 1963: "No Tears Left For Crying", "Don't You Know" (an acapella tune also known as "Because I Love You"), "I Don't Wanna Be Without You Baby", and "The Girl With The Wind In Her Hair" (which the Jive Five had previously recorded). "No Tears Left For Crying" not only has the five members of the Corvairs, but also two female voices; unfortunately, Nelson doesn't remember their names. Since Joe René liked "I Don't Wanna Be Without You Baby", the Corvairs were given plenty of tries to do it up right. Since he didn't much care for "The Girl With The Wind In Her Hair", they had to do their best in a single take.

The first two sides were issued within weeks as Leopard 5004. For some reason the group was called the "West Siders". That same month the masters were leased to United Artists. The other two sides were released as Leopard 5005, this time by the Corvairs.

In 1965, Billy Faison left and was replaced by bass Edgar Brown. The Corvairs signed a contract with Kama-Sutra Productions in January 1966, but Kama-Sutra loaned them out to Columbia, at which their final sides were recorded. One of these was a remake of the Silhouettes' "Get A Job".

After Columbia, Prince McKnight was replaced by second tenor Harold Gill, but at this point, the Corvairs' recording days were over.

The Leaders - 1995 In 1984, Nelson joined the Velours, with whom he stayed until early 1995. On November 25, 1995, the four surviving members of the Leaders (Nelson, Harry, Ed and Charles; Ronald had died on April 16, 1992) appeared, to thundering applause, at a UGHA show. Since then, Ed Alston passed away on May 27, 2002, and Harry Burton on February 24, 2017. As of 2021, it looks like Nelson Shields and Charles Simpson are still alive.

Special thanks to Ronnie Italiano, Elaine Wade, and Mike Caldarulo.


235 Stormy Weather (HB)/A Lover Of The Time (EA) - 9/55
239 Nobody Loves Me (HB)/Dearest Beloved Darling (HB) - 1/56
243 Can't Help Lovin' That Girl Of Mine (HB)/Lovers (HB/EA) - 5/56

      Dry Your Eyes (EA)
      I Almost Lost My Mind (HB)


COMET (as "the Corvairs")
2145 True True Love (ALL)/Hey, Sally Mae (NS) - 2/62

LEOPARD (as "the West Siders")
5004 Don't You Know (NS)/No Tears Left For Crying (ALL) - 4/63

UNITED ARTISTS (as "the West Siders")
600 Don't You Know (NS)/No Tears Left For Crying (ALL) - 4/63

LEOPARD (as "the Corvairs")
5005 I Don't Wanna Be Without You Baby (JS)/Girl With The Wind In Her Hair (NS) - 1963

COLUMBIA (as "the Corvairs")
43603 Swinging Little Government (PM)/Love, Love My Friend (NS) - 4/66
43861 Ain't No Soul (In These Old Shoes) (NS)/Get A Job (NS) - 10/66

      The Grass Will Sing For You (PM)

LEADS: HB = Harry Burton; EA = Edward Alston; NS = Nelson Shields; JS = Joe Sheppard; PM = Prince McKnight

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