ALL HOPPED UP AND READY TO GO APPENDICES… Chapter 3: The Harlem Hit Parade
This playlist – The Harlem Hit Parade – accompanies Chapter 3 of All Hopped Up and Ready To Go, and deals with the birth of a new form of vocal music in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as made famous initially by the Ravens and later the Dominoes. The first few tracks however, are those that served as the main influences on this new generation. The Ink Spots, originally from Indianapolis, became adopted sons of Harlem once Bill Kenney joined the group in 1935 after winning Amateur Night at both the Apollo and the Savoy Ballroom; his delicate lead tenor can be heard on their enormous 1939 sentimental hit “If I Didn’t Care.” The Mills Brothers, a “barbershop” quartet from Ohio, pre-dated the Ink Spots, but didn’t enjoy the same sort of popularity until in 1942 when “Paper Moon” reputedly sold some six million copies. 1942 was also the year that New Orleans’ Delta Rhythm Boys, with Lee Gaines on bass vocals, had a huge success with their version of Duke Ellington’s New York classic “Take The A Train.”
Black vocal groups were not the only influence on the Harlem post-war generation. When the Ravens’ future tenor, Leonard Puzey, entered the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night in 1945, it was to sing bobby-soxer sensation Frank Sinatra’s “There’s No You.” And the Ravens have often credited their breakthrough to their performance at the Apollo, in December 1946, when they tore up Johnny Mercer’s saccharine “My Sugar Is So Refined.” Yet when they first got together, the Ravens used “Darktown Strutters Ball,” heard here in a particular jazzy version by Ella Fitzgerald with the Mills Brothers, as their template.
This confluence of influences, from white pop standards to black jazz and jive, can clearly be heard in the Ravens’ early recordings, especially “Bye Bye Baby Blues” from 1946, which suggests a new form of vocal music, one that would soon officially be recognized as “rhythm and blues.” It can also be recognized, albeit in a more populist manner, in their benchmark recordings of “Ol’ Man River” and “White Christmas,” each of which served as a showcase for their own bass vocalist Jimmy Ricks. By 1950, the point at which they left the independent labels behind, they were instigating the formula for the next fifteen years of vocal harmony music, one that would, much later, be known as doo-wop. Listen, on “Count Every Star,” to Jimmy Ricks’ classic bass introduction, which soon gives way to Maithe Marshall’s lovely lead (with Puzey and Warren Suttles rounding out the register).
I note in the book that “For all their influence, the Ravens lacked one element that would prove integral to rhythm and blues’ arrival as a new musical form: gospel.” To this end, the playlist jumps back in time to the Golden Gate Quartet’s 1939 recording “Golden Gate Gospel Train” and a thrilling a capella version of “Moses Smote The Water” by Harlem’s own Thrasher Wonders. The latter group frequently did battle at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem with the Mount Lebanon Singers, from which an increasingly secular Clyde McPhatter stepped forth in 1949 to enter the Apollo’s Amateur Night with his rendition of Lonnie Johnson’s R&B hit “Tomorrow Night.” His victory that night immediately brought him to the attention of entrepreneur and musical arranger Billy Ward, and the formation of the Dominoes.
As per the Ravens, it’s easy to hear the sum of all these influences (The Ravens certainly among them) in “Do Something For Me,” the Dominoes’ remarkable first recording. Their follow-up single, as sung by the group’s bassist Bill Brown, was the particularly raunchy “Sixty Minute Man,” which became the top selling R&B single of 1951 and helped open the door to a slew of similarly risqué lyrics that would soon fall under the mantle of rock’n’roll. (Among the immediate responses to “Sixty Minute Man” was “5-10-15 Hours” by Atlantic Records’ Ruth Brown, engaged to the Ravens’ Leonard Puzey around this time.) But “Sixty Minute Man” was not truly representative of the Dominoes, and McPhatter returned to the fore on subsequent singles, including the stone classic “Have Mercy Baby,” another number one R&B hit.
McPhatter, like those before and after him, eventually quit the Dominoes over Billy Ward’s domineering nature. Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertgeun hunted him down, and formed a new group around the proven star – one that included members of his former competitors in gospel, the Thrasher Wonders. That group was called the Drifters, their 1953 debut hit was entitled “Money Honey,” and when it too rose to number one on the R&B charts, the rest was about to become a vital part of musical history – and another chapter in the book.
View 3) The Harlem Hit Parade in a larger map
Click on this link to see an expanded view of some of the venues and other locations referred to in this chapter.