One of the two granddaddies of vocal groups, the Ink Spots introduced a number of firsts that had a direct impact on the development of rhythm and blues in the ‘40s and rock and roll in the ‘50s. Although THE MILLS BROTHERS were successful years before the Ink Spots and turned out many more hits (71 to the Spots’ 46), each had a tremendous influence on music, the public, and future vocalists, and chances are that a group or singer influenced by the other.
Bill Kenny’s soaring tenor paved the way for Sonny Til (THE ORIOLES), Maithe Marshall (THE RAVENS), Frankie Lymon (THE TEENAGERS), Curtis Mayfield (THE IMPRESSIONS), Russell Tompkins, Jr. (THE STYLISTICS), and many others to follow. Hoppy Jones’s revolutionary talking –bass parts redefined a bass singer’s value and role in group, and his style was emulated by Jimmy Ricks (the Ravens) and almost every rhythm and blues and rock and roll bass since then. More broadly, the Ink Spots were one of the first black groups to cross the racial barrier in radio and live performances.
The ballad style for which they gained fame came about by chance and was not part of their original sound. The group met in Indianapolis, Indiana, around 1931. The original members were Ivory “Deek” (Deacon) Watson (lead), formerly of the swing group the Four Riff Brothers (1929) and before that the Percolating Puppies (1928), a vocal band influenced by Duke Ellington and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers; Charlie Fuqua (second tenor and baritone), the uncle of MOONGLOWS lead singer Harvey Fuqua; Jerry Daniels (first tenor), who sang with Charlie in the vaudeville team Charlie and Jerry.
The latter duo had started out harmonizing and playing guitar and ukulele (Jerry) and four-string banjo and guitar (Charlie). Deek Watson met them at Charlie’s shoeshine stand in Indianapolis near the old Stutz automobile factory (famous for the Stutz Bearcat cars). They formed a trio called the Swingin’ Gate Brothers and later King, Jack and Jester (1931), and launched their career on a 15minute radio show on WHK in Cleveland.
They moved on to Cincinnati’s WLW, doing commercials for CBC (Crosley Broadcasting Company), and were announced by a young Red Barber, later a great sportscaster. At this time, one of the aforementioned Four Riff Brothers, Orville “Hoppy” Jones. Joined the group on bass vocals and standup bass—actually a re-tuned cello. The resulting group sound drew from vaudeville jazz band music.
The quartet came to New York in early ‘30s and immediately ran into a name conflict with the already famous Paul Whiteman orchestra group, the King’s Jesters. The problem was solved by Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom owner and new group manager, Moe Gale, who simply sat down and thought up the name the Ink Spots.
They started out with a 15-minute show on New York’s WJZ radio. Unlike most black acts of the time, they were being accepted at white performance venues, allowing them to play the Apollo one day and the Waldorf Astoria the next.
The foursome’s first encounter with recording happened on January 4, 1935, at RCA Studios, and in the same month RCA issued their first release, “Swingin’ on the Strings”/ “You Feet’s Too Big.” When two 78s went nowhere, the group broadened its popularity by leaving the country, doing transatlantic radio broadcasts over London’s BBC in the winter of 1935.
In early 1936 Moe Gale took notice of Bill Kenny, the winner of an amateur contest at the Savoy Ballroom, and brought him into the group. With the addition of the new member, Jerry Daniels left the Sports and moved to Indianapolis, later singing with local acts like the deep Swingin’ Brothers and the Three Shades.
That same year the Ink Spots signed with Decca and on May 12, 1936, waxed “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” and a rerecording of “Your Feet’s Too Big,” issued as their first two sides. The group began doing package shows with other Gale acts like Ella Fitzgerald and Moms Mabley.
Over the next three years the group, with Deek usually on lead, tried everything from Gershwin ( “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”) to vocal versions of big-band tunes like “Stompin’ at the Savoy..” but by the end of 1938, after 10 singles, nothing had really grabbed the public’s interest. About this time, Billy Kenny met 25-year-old Johnny Smith of the Alphabetical Four, a group that sang both gospel and blues. Smith became a swing man filling in on occasion when someone was unavailable.
The group was in the verge of calling it quits as bookings were down and record sales had never been up. Then, on January 12, 1939, the history of popular music took an important turn thanks to a young aspiring songwriter named Jack Lawrence. He brought a composition he’d written to a Spots session that was supposed to be for the recording of a jive song, “Knock-Kneed Sal.” The group worked up Lawrence’s ballad, “If I Didn’t Care.” With Kenny doing his now famous quivering tenor lead and Hoppy improvising his talking bass bridge.
A lot of people did care, as it turned out. Issued in February of 1939, by April 15 the song had charted in Billboard and reached number two within weeks, selling a million copies to a board spectrum of listeners.
The fate of Lawrence’s catalog of compositions is indicative of the potential sentimental and financial value of songs: it was sold more than 30 years later for over half a million dollars. Along with “If I Dind’t Care” was a song Jack wrote for his lawyer’s daughter in 1938 called “Linda.” His lawyer’s name was Lee Eastman, and Eastman’s offspring later married a man named Paul McCartney. That’s right—the Beatles’ Paul McCartney. And the buyer of Lawrence’s songs? Why, Paul McCartney, of course.
Hit after hit in the style of “If I Didn’t Care” came forth from the Ink Spots and Decca, including “Address Unknown” (#1, 1939), “My Prayer” (#3, 1939, later a hit for THE PLATTERS), “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” (#4, 1949), “Maybe” (#2, 1949), “We Three” (#1, 1949), “Do I Worry” (#8, 1941), “I Don’t Want to set the world on Fire” (which was #4 in December 1941), and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (#2, 1943).
The group broke attendance records wherever they appeared, performing with Glenn Miller’s Orchestra, Lucky Millinder’s Band, and countless others, and they even did films line The Great American Broadcast in 1941 and Abbott and Costello’s romp, Pardon My Sarong. A 1944 radio poll voted them the number two favorite singing unit behind Fred Waring’s Glee Club and ahead of greats like THE ANDREWS SISTERS.
In mid-1943Charlie Fuqua joined the service and hand-picked his replacement, Bernie Mackey from Indianapolis.
From August 1942 to September 1943 the musician’s union strike put a halt to any new recordings, but the Spots still placed four singles on the charts (out of only five releases), including “Ever Night About This Time” (#17, 1942), “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (#2, 1943), “If I Cared a Little Bit Less” (#20, 1943), and “I’ll Never Make the Same Mistake Again” (#19, 1943). The group’s arranger during most of the war years was Bill Doggett, who went on to work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jourdan, and his own combo in 1952. In ’56 he had hits for King on “Honky Tonk” (#2 Pop, #1 R&B) and “Slow Walk” (#26 Pop, # 4 R&B).
In late 1944 Deek Watson, who had at odds with Bill Kenny for some time, left to form his own Ink Spots but was stopped by a court injunction; he renamed his new group Deek Watson and THE BROWN DOTS. Bill Bowen of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers took Deek’s place.
On October 18, 1944, Hoppy Jones’s booming bass was stilled forever when he died at the age of 39. He was replaced later by former GOLDEN GATE QUARTET member Cliff Givens. There were more transitions: Huey Long took over for Mackey, Herb Kenny (Bill’s brother) replaced Givens, and in late 1945 Fuqua returned to replace Long (who never recorded with the group).
Decca wanted to keep the Ink Spots on the charts as often as possible, even if they didn’t have enough new material to justify it. Thus from 1945 through ’48, they issued 35 78s of which 17 singles contained recordings that were as many as five years old.
In 1949, Herb Kenny moonlighted with a trio for a while. In 1951 Adriel McDonald, the group’s valet (and former nonrecording member of the Cabineers) subbed for Herb Kenny when he missed a radio show, and he became the full-time replacement. Herb went on to record for Federal (“Only You”) in 1952 as lead of Herb Kenny and the Comets. The Comets were actually a white group called the Rockets that used to back up Perry Como. Herb recorded with them on MGM for five singles in 1952 and 1953.
As friction grew in 1952, both Bill Bowen and Charlie Fuqua exited. An explosion of groups tried to cash in on the name the Ink Spots. Bowen formed Billy Bowen and the Butterball Four (MGM); Fuqua formed his own Ink Spots, but was taken to court by Bill Kenny. Fuqua won, so his new group, with Harold Jackson, Jimmy Holmes, and Leon Antoine, joined King Records for nine quality singles between late 1953 and 1955. Essix Scott replaced Antoine during the latter sessions.
Bill Kenny, meanwhile, was doing a lot of solo work during the early ‘50s, while forming yet another Ink Spots, this one including Adriel McDonald, Jimmy Kennedy, and Ernie Brown. The group’s demise came in 1953 when they were asked to appear on an Ed Sullivan-sponsored show for returning Korean war vets. Kenny okayed the deal but told the group he was appearing solo and couldn’t afford to pay them. The group had had enough and split. Sullivan was so furious that he listed Kenny at the bottom of the bill.
Though the originals sang together no more, Ink Spots groups sprang up like weeds. Kenny was once vacationing in Las Vegas during the mid-‘70s and found three groups posing as the Spots at the same time. At the beginning of the 1990s, over 40 groups claimed to be the Ink Spots. Fill-in Johnny Smith supposedly had exclusive authority from Bill Kenny’s window to represent the group. Watson had the rights but sold them to Bill Kenny in the 40s for $20,000.
Such was the value of the name for fans as well as future vocal groups. Many of their recordings were copied and reworked for new generations in later years. The Platters made a career of covering Ink Spots songs. Bobby Day and the Satellites (actually THE HOLLYWOOD FLAMES) did “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”; the Sharps did “We Three”; THE HEARTS “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”; THE ISLEY BROTHERS and THE BELMONTS covered “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”; the Roommates did “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening”; BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES cut “The Gypsy”; the Orioles revived “I Cover the Waterfront”; and James Brown and His Famous Flames covered “Prisoner of Love.” There were many more.
Charlie Fuqua died in 1970 at the age of 60. Deek Watson passed away in November of 1969, and Bill Kenny died in 1978.
– Jay Warner