Notebook Cover

  The Marquees

By Marv Goldberg

Based on an interview with Reese Palmer

© 2004, 2009 by Marv Goldberg

Spell it any way you like, there were a lot of groups called the Marquees around in the 50s. In 1956, there were the Marquees on Grand, the Marquis on Rainbow, and the Marquis on Onyx. 1958 saw the Marquees on Len, the Marquees on Daysel, the Markees on Apollo, the Markees on Gone, and the Markeys on RCA; the decade closed with the Marquees on Warner Brothers and the Marquis on Class in 1959. The Marquees who are the subject of this article, fit nicely in the middle, recording for Okeh in 1957. They were also the only ones who went on to greater fame, although not under that name. Reese Palmer's reaction to this plethora of groups was, "Damn! That many 'Marquees'!?!"

"Our" Marquees were from the East Capitol Dwellings of Washington, D.C.: Reese Palmer (first tenor), Marvin Gay (second tenor/baritone; he'd change the spelling to "Gaye" later on, when he became a soloist), James Nolan (second tenor/baritone; formerly of the Red Robin/Pilgrim Rainbows), and Chester Simmons (bass; formerly of the Rama Rainbows). All but James had attended Cardozo High School.

The group formed in early 1957, when the guys were between 18 and 22. Marvin had just gotten out of the army, and Reese recruited him along with some other neighborhood friends. Listening to the music of the 5 Keys, Orioles, and Moonglows, they called themselves the "Marquees," a name picked out by Marvin (and, I suspect, it had something to do with the "Mar" in his name, although there has to be a reason why there were so many groups around with the same name, regardless of spelling, in such a short period of time).

As groups do, they would sing on the street corners of the projects. They did talent shows at various D.C. high schools and also the ones held at the Lincoln Theater. ("We never won those, 'cause Billy Stewart would always beat us out," says Reese.)

They had a neighbor named Peasie Adams, who not only listened, but occasionally joined in with them on the street corners. She had met Bo Diddley at shows (Bo was living in D.C. at this time), and introduced the Marquees to him.

Bo and his manager, Phil Landwehr, listened to them and liked what they heard. Landwehr also became their manager, and, in the late summer of 1957, he landed a recording deal for them with Columbia Records' Okeh subsidiary.

Bo Diddley Billy Stewart On September 25, 1957 the Marquees journeyed to New York City, where they recorded four sides at the CBS Building on Broadway. Two of these were as the Marquees: "Wyatt Earp" and "Hey Little School Girl," both led by Reese Palmer ("I wrote them and I sang them"). They were backed up by the Bo Diddley band (Diddley's maracas player, Jerome Green, is quite prominent on "Hey Little School Girl"). They also backed up for Billy Stewart on "Billy's Heartaches" and "Baby, You're My Only Love."

After the session, Okeh decided that it didn't like the way Bo Diddley's band sounded on "Wyatt Earp." So on November 12, the Marquees returned to re-record the song using a studio band; this is the cut that was released.

The two sides by the Marquees and the two by Billy Stewart were all issued in November 1957. "Wyatt Earp" got a good rating in the trades the week of December 9, along with Thurston Harris' "Do What You Did," the Casuals' "So Tough," Roy Hamilton's "Don't Let Go," the Teenchords' "Tell Me Love," the 5 Stars' "Dead Wrong," and the Vanguards' "Moonlight."

However, as enthusiastic as Okeh was at the beginning, that's how fast they lost interest in the group once the record was released. They did nothing to push it at all, and it quickly faded into obscurity. "It was a waste of time," says Reese. Bookings stayed the same and the group wasn't getting anywhere. The guys recorded some demos and submitted them to Okeh, but they were turned down. So the Marquees asked for, and received, a release from both Okeh and Phil Landwehr. They were on their own, but not for long; better days were coming.

Since Chester Simmons had become a driver and valet for Bo Diddley, he was able to have a conversation with Harvey Fuqua, lead of the Moonglows, when that group came to town to play the Howard Theater in late 1958. Harvey told Chester that the original Moonglows were on the verge of breaking up, and he needed a group to replace them. Fortunately the Marquees were practicing for a big talent show and Chester brought them around to meet Harvey. Harvey liked them and, for a whole week, rehearsed with them between shows at the Howard.

Then Harvey left to play other engagements, and the Marquees feared that he'd forgotten all about them. But they needn't have worried. In about a month (January 1959), Harvey came back for them and they found themselves the new Moonglows. They started out on tour, and when they got to Chicago, Harvey went to a pool hall and found Chuck Barksdale, bass of the Dells (who had split up at this point); he was added as a sixth member).

The original Moonglows used two leads: Harvey Fuqua and Bobby Lester. When James Nolan took over the songs that Bobby Lester had led, Chester Simmons moved up to baritone, leaving the bass work to Chuck Barksdale. When Harvey sang lead, however, both Chester and Chuck sang the same bass notes.

The New Moonglows - 1959 This group recorded at least six sides for Chess in 1959. (Strangely, considering the size of Chess Records, recording dates from this period are unknown.) The tunes were: "Twelve Months Of The Year" (led by Harvey, with recitations by Marvin), "Unemployment" (Harvey), "Mama Loocie" (Marvin), "She's Alright With Me" (Harvey), "That's What Girls Are Made For" (Harvey; recorded by the Moonglows before the Spinners re-did it in 1961), and "Love, I'm So Glad I Found You" (Harvey). "Twelve Months Of The Year" was recorded around February; "Unemployment," "Mama Loocie," and "She's Alright With Me" were done during the summer; and the other tunes may have just been done as demos. They also backed up a singer named George Stevens at the Chess studios, but the titles remain unknown.

At Chess, the Marquees, without Harvey Fuqua and Chuck Barksdale, backed up Chuck Berry on "Almost Grown" and "Back In The U.S.A." (Etta James is also on these), as well as Bo Diddley on "I'm Sorry."

Around April 1959, Chess issued "Twelve Months Of The Year," backing it with "Don't Be Afraid To Love," which had the old Moonglows group. It didn't really matter which group was on which side, however, since the label only credited "Harvey."

In the spring of 1959, Harvey and the Moonglows were scheduled to appear on American Bandstand. Harvey wanted to take his new group with him, but contractually he was obligated to take the old one. Whatever songs they sang (or lip-synched) found Harvey as part of the group, not out in front. However, when he sang "Don't Be Afraid To Love" (which he had recorded with the old group), he did it as a solo number (as he did for the movie Go, Johnny, Go!, released in June 1959, but filmed many months earlier).

The New Moonglows - 1959 The only other released single by the New Moonglows was "Unemployment"/"Mama Loocie," which was issued in September 1959. It was reviewed the week of October 5 (with "Unemployment" getting an excellent rating), along with the Harptones' "Hep Teenager," Brook Benton's "So Many Ways," Titus Turner's "We Told You Not To Marry," the 5 Satins' "Shadows," Willis Sanders & the Embers' "Hungry For Love," and the Top Rank Ravens' (who were actually Willis Sanders & the Embers also) "(There's A) Hole In The Middle Of The Moon."

In 1960, the New Moonglows began to fall apart. James Nolan was the first to leave, then Reese Palmer. "We had families to feed and there wasn't much money." After Reese, Chuck Barksdale left, eventually rejoining the Dells. Marvin Gaye remained with Harvey and it's possible that Chester Simmons did too; he eventually became an independent record distributor in the mid-60s. It isn't known who the personnel were on the last Moonglows release, "Beatnik" and "Junior," which were recorded in September 1960.

Marvin and Harvey and the wives "We spent a lot of time in Detroit," remembers Reese. And there were probably things going on behind the scenes. Both Harvey and Marvin ended up marrying Berry Gordy's sisters (Gwen and Anna, respectively, who had once been the house photographers at Detroit's Flame Show Bar), and both became big with Motown (Harvey in the production end). Harvey also associated himself with the Spinners, who re-recorded "That's What Girls Are Made For."

Reese wanted to continue on in the business, and was recruited by the Scott Brothers at the Howard Theater in 1960. The "Scott Brothers" was a quartet which included two brothers named Scott (whom Reese never really knew), Richard Mobley, and a guy named James, whose nickname was "Gypsy." The Scotts had Mobley ask Reese to go to New York to join them.

Bobby Hawkins, who sang with a group called the C-Notes, came to the Howard Theater to see his friend Reese Palmer, who told him about having been approached by the Scott Brothers. Reese set up a meeting with the other guys, and the result was that Bobby Hawkins was invited to go along too.

When Reese and Bobby got to New York, the brothers had changed their minds, dropping Mobley and Gypsy as well, and hiring three new members in their place (before going on to do a whole slew of recording). Reese and Bobby then combined with Mobley and Gypsy to form a group called the Revlons. They recorded a single tune, "Big Man On Campus" (which was never released) before Reese left them and returned to Washington. (He's not sure if they did any subsequent recordings.)

Of course, Marvin Gaye went on to superstardom, before his tragic death in 1984. Chester Simmons died in 1988. I don't know about James Nolan. Reese spent 19 years as a member of Diz Russell's Orioles. Then, in 2001, he started up the Marquees again. As of the end of 2006, they consisted of Reese Palmer (second tenor), Gayle James (soprano), Ernest Gilbert (baritone/bass), Bob Johnson (bass), Fred Turner (second tenor/baritone), Larry Jordan (guitar and occasional first tenor), James Faison (bassist and occasional bass), and George Spann (keyboards). (When available, Ronald Miles, former lead of the Rainbows joined them.) They appeared at Gee's Nightclub in D.C., which they owned. Reese Palmer passed away in October 2011


OKEH (the Marquees)
4-7096 Wyatt Earp (RP)/Hey Little School Girl (RP) - 11/57

OKEH (Billy Stewart, backed by the Marquees)
4-7095 Billy's Heartaches/Baby You're My Only Love - 11/57

CHECKER (Bo Diddley, backed by the Marquees)
914 I'm Sorry/[Oh Yeah - no group] - 1/59

CHESS (the Moonglows; 1725 only credits "Harvey")
1725 Twelve Months Of The Year (HF/MG)/[Don't Be Afraid To Love (HF)] - 4/59
1738 Unemployment (HF)/Mama Loocie (MG) - 9/59

      She's Alright With Me (HF)
      That's What Girls Are Made For (HF)
      I'm So Glad I Found You (HF)

CHESS (Chuck Berry, backed by the Marquees and Etta James)
1722 Almost Grown/[Little Queenie - no group] - 2/59
1729 Back In The U.S.A./[Memphis, Tennessee - no group] - 5/59

LEADS: RP = Reese Palmer; HF = Harvey Fuqua; MG = Marvin Gaye

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