Notebook Cover

  The Sunbeams

By Marv Goldberg

Based on an interview with John Cumbo

© 2002, 2009 by Marv Goldberg

The Sunbeams were formed in Glen Cove, in Long Island, New York; this is not a place you'd normally expect an R&B group to hail from.

John Cumbo was originally from Philadelphia, and relocated to Glen Cove when he was 18 (around 1947). In 1950, he started singing with some local guys. "Glen Cove was a small place; I met some singers and asked around for others."

The members of the resulting group (called the "Kovaks", for "Glen Cove") were: Bobby Lee Hollis (tenor lead), Bobby Coleman (first tenor), James Davis (second tenor), John Cumbo (baritone lead), and William Edwards (bass). Unlike most groups, they didn't immediately try to get booked all over; they rehearsed for about two years before starting to look for gigs. The Kovaks, like most other groups of the day, were highly influenced by the music of the Orioles, the Ravens, and the Dominoes.

Finally, they started playing clubs, both on Long Island and in nearby New York City. For a while in 1954, they had a sixth member, a gravedigger who was living in Hempstead, New York (also in Long Island) at the time, named Joe Tex. He didn't remain too long, however, before leaving to start working on his solo career.

One day, in early 1955, John, who also acted as the group's manager, called up Herald Records and arranged for an audition. Why Herald? John's wife just looked up record companies in the phone book, and Herald was the first one she found. The Sunbeams journeyed into Manhattan, to Herald's offices at 236 West 55th Street (although the company was starting to pack for its move to 1697 Broadway in April) and sang four or five original songs for owners Jack Angel and Al Silver, and a&r man Howard Biggs. Two of the songs they sang were "Tell Me Why" and "Come Back Baby".

Bobby Lee Hollis Herald liked the singing, but didn't like the name "Kovaks"; it had to go! The company gave them a few choices (including the "Turbans"), and the one they selected was the "Sunbeams". In late February or early March 1955, the newly-christened Sunbeams recorded four songs that John Cumbo had written: "Tell Me Why", "Come Back Baby", "Shouldn't I Have A Right (To Cry Over You)", and "I Love The Way You Look Tonight". Bobby Lee Hollis was the lead on all the sides.

"Tell Me Why" and "Come Back Baby" were released in March, but Herald really took its time promoting the record. The company was having great success with the Nutmegs ("Story Untold" and then "Ship Of Love"), the Turbans ("When You Dance"), and Al Savage ("Paradise Princess"). With hits like these, it isn't hard to see how the Sunbeams got lost in the shuffle for a while. The record wasn't reviewed until eight months after its release (during the week of November 11, 1955). Other reviews that week were for the Midnighters' "The House On The Hill", the Hearts' "Gone, Gone, Gone", Marvin & the Chirps' "Sixteen Tons", the Sparks Of Rhythm's "Hurry Home", the Cadets' "If It Is Wrong", the Kansas City Tomcats' "Nobody Knows", the Saigons' "You're Heavenly", the Hepsters' "I Had To Let You Go", the Coronets' "The Little Boy", and the Squires' "Heavenly Angel".

That same month, Angel and Silver announced that "Come Back Baby" was going strong. However, it wasn't strong enough, never making the national charts. Meanwhile, the Sunbeams started appearing more and more around Long Island, at beach shows and at small clubs. There was also the Lincoln House, in Glen Cove, a community center at which John Cumbo, along with DJ Ralph Cooper, promoted shows. They appeared at the Celebrity Club (in Freeport, Long Island, with Baby Washington), Club Ruby (in Jamaica, Queens, with Ruth Brown and Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson), Gibson's Bar & Grill (Manhasset, Long Island), and places in Spring Valley (New York), Connecticut, New Jersey, and Manhattan. Says John, "Any club that would let us get up and sing. We weren't trying to make bucks."

The Sunbeams - 1957 Sometime in 1956, Bobby Lee Hollis departed. He'd go on to do some solos for Sue, released in early 1960, under the name "Johnny Pancake" (Sue 721: Wonderful Baby/Shook). In 1963, he joined Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher, and Andrew Thrasher in the Original Drifters. His place in the Sunbeams was taken by Henry Williamson.

At some point the Sunbeams met up with William Henry Miller, a&r man for Hull Records and father of the Miller Sisters. He had a studio in his basement and wanted to record the group, but they were still under contract to Herald. Unfortunately, Herald had decided that the Sunbeams tunes in the can were too "pop", and never released them. The Sunbeams "got pissed" at Herald, since the company wasn't pushing the group: "we wanted action!"

So they bided their time until their Herald contract ran out, and then recorded some sides for Miller: "Please Say You'll Be Mine" and "You've Got To Rock & Roll" (both led by Henry Williamson); note that "You've Got To Rock & Roll" was the only song the Sunbeams recorded that wasn't written by John Cumbo).

The sides were released, in October 1957, on the small Acme label (located at 419 West 44th Street), another outfit that used Miller as an a&r man. It's possible that the label was owned by the brother of Johnny Halonka (first name unknown), owner of Alpha Distributors.

While the record doesn't seem to have been reviewed in the trades, the competition around at the time included the Cuff Links' "It's Too Late Now", the Rob-Roys' "Tell Me Why", the Chantels' "He's Gone", Huey Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu", the Velours' "This Could Be The Night", the Plants' "Dear I Swear", Bobby Day's "Little Bitty Pretty One", Chuck Berry's "Rock & Roll Music", the Spaniels' "You're Gonna Cry", the Hollywood Flames' "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz", the Rays' "Silhouettes", Lee Andrews & Hearts' "Teardrops", and the Dubs' "Could This Be Magic".

Finally, as you might suspect, with the record going nowhere, they guys started to get depressed and dejected. There was no money coming in any more (amazingly, they had gotten some royalties from Herald for a while) and sometime in 1958, it was all over. Bobby Coleman went solo. Henry Williamson joined one of the many Ink Spots groups floating around. John Cumbo found it too hard to get replacements and hold the group together; it just didn't seem worth the trouble. He would occasionally do some solo appearances over the years. John Cumbo passed away in June 2003.

The Sunbeams turned out some nice music. The problem was that they existed at a time when there was a veritable explosion of vocal groups. This made it difficult for established record companies to know which artists to concentrate on, and the proliferation of tiny record companies almost ensured that the label wouldn't be able to finance a hit. (The lack of "promotion" that groups complain about usually translated to a lack of record company money available for payola.) Unfortunately, the Sunbeams got caught up in both problems.


451 Tell Me Why (BLH)/Come Back Baby (BLH) - 3/55

        Shouldn't I Have A Right (To Cry Over You) (BLH)
        I Love The Way You Look Tonight (BLH)

719 Please Say You'll Be Mine (HW)/You've Got To Rock & Roll (HW) - 10/57

LEADS: BLH = Bobby Lee Hollis; HW = Henry Williamson

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