The most successful vocal group of the ‘50s, the Platters helped immeasurable in putting black groups on the pop map. Their biggest assets were Tony Williams’s sweet tenor and their pop radio acceptability, fostered by some early hits from the pen of manager Buck Ram.
Buck had a long career as an arranger for big bands like Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, and Count Basie after earning a law degree at the University of Illinois and studying music at Southwestern University.
He turned to management in the early ‘50s in Los Angeles, building a roster of local talent like THE PENGUINS, the Flairs, THE COLTS, Young Jessie, and Linda Hayes.
Ram thought Tony’s warm, rich tenor was terrific but knew he couldn’t sell a black solo tenor in those times, so he asked Williams if he’s be interested in joining a group. Since Tony already had one called the Platters, an audition was arranged. Though they sounded amateurish, Ram began working with them and with few key changes made the pieces fall into place. After a few practices Gaynel Hodge and Joe Jefferson left and in came Herb Reed of Kansas City, Missouri, from the famous gospel group the Wings Over Jordan. Also hired was David Lynch of St. Louis, Missouri, who was working as a cab driver when he joined.
The Platters were now Tony on lead, David tenor, Alex baritone, and Herb bass. Ram arranged a record deal with Federal Records and cut several sides that included the Ram-penned ballad “Only You.” Syd Nathan, president of Federal, thought it was so bad he swore he wouldn’t issue it, so the Platters’ first single became the gospel-ballad turned rocker “Give Thanks,” which went nowhere. But it did show the potential of 25-year-old Tony Williams.
Their second single was the solid rhythm and blues ballad “I’ll Cry When You’re Gone.” Five more Federal releases boosted their local stature and a few sold around 20,000 copies on the West Coast. Though the group would wind up with a pop harmony style, their early Federal 45s were R&B and gospel oriented. To soften the group’s sound, Ram added Zola Taylor from one of his other acts, Shirley Gunter and the Queens (Shirley was Cornel’s sister). She recorded on the last few sides the Platters did for Federal, including a 1955 backup for Linda Hayes on “Please Have Mercy.” Alex then left and Paul Robi of New Orleans took over the baritone position.
Ram kept the group working and polishing its sound, so much so that another Los Angeles group, the Penguins, seeing how much money a group like the Platters was making without a hit, decided to sign with Ram.
The first thing he did with the “Earth Angel” group was move them to the Chicago major label Mercury, but in order for the Windy City label to have them, they had to accept Buck’s now famous two-for-one deal. “If you want the Penguins you have to take the Platters,” he said, and Mercury reluctantly agreed, privately celebrating over their acquisition of the proven hit Penguins while tolerating their purchase of the no-hit Platters.
The first session for Mercury’s Platters included a rerecording of “Only You.” Mercury’s A&R man, Bob Shad, was ready to drop the song from the session until Buck volunteered to play piano for the musician who had to leave earl. It was the only session Buck ever played on, but he was determined to get it recorded and knew the song could be a hit.
On July 3, 1955, “Only You” hit the charts and was soon at number one R&B (for an amazing seven weeks) and number five Pop. It stayed on the charts for 30 weeks and was the first rock and roll record to beat out a white cover in the race for the top 10 (THE HILTOPPERS reached number eight).
Buck’s beautiful ballad and his persistence convinced Mercury to continue promoting the black group as if they were a pop white act, and to keep the momentum going Ram told Shad of a terrific new song he had that was even better than “Only You.” When pressed to name it he quickly replied “The Great Pretender.” Now all he had to do was write it, and that’s what he did.
“The Great Pretender.” Now all he had to do was write it, and that’s what he did.
“The Great Pretender” was issued in November 1955 and became their second number one R&B single and first number one Pop hit (the first R&B ballad to reach the top Pop spot). The song also began a streak of 11 two-sided hits (its flip “I’m Just a Dancing Partner” reached number 87 Pop) making the Platters the number one American vocal group in that category. “Great Pretender” launched their career as American ambassadors of music their career as American ambassadors of music when it reached number five in England (with “Only You” on its flip side) and spread around the would. Meanwhile, Federal’s Syd Nathan choked on his own words in order to make a quick dollar and put out his badly recorded version of “Only You.” (Billboard’s January 7, 1956, issue noted that Federal hoped to cash in by reissuing “Tell the World” newly backed by “I Need You All the Time,” two previous A-side singles.)
Ballad hits like “The Magic Touch” (#4 Pop and R&B, 1956), “My Prayer” (#1 Pop and R&B, and #4 U.K., 1956), “You’ll Never, Never Know” (#11 Pop, #9 R&B, and #23 U.K., 1956), and “I’m Sorry” (#23 Pop, #15 R&B, and #18 U.K., 1957) established the Platters in a way few black groups had ever been perceived by the general public, save for THE INK SPOTS and MILLS BROTHERS.
The Platters became the first rock and roll group to ever have a top 10 LP, and worldwide ours became the order of the day.
In 1958 they debuted “Twilight Time” on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” Saturday night TV show. A film of the Platters performing the song was used for promotion on TV shows. If you’ve seen it, you were looking at what may have been the first precursor of music videos.
A super seller, “Twilight Time” was number one Pop and R&B in the spring of 1958, number three in the U.K., and number one in Australia.
In October 1958 Mercury issued the legendary ballad “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (originally by Paul Whiteman in 1933-34, #1, Victor), recorded in Paris, France, while the group was on tour. It reached number one Pop on June 19, 1959, for three weeks (Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” finally displaced it) and number one R&B, while it became their only number one record in Britain and also hit the top spot in Australia.
The group delivered excellent records like “Enchanted” (#12 Pop, #9 R&B) and “Remember When” (#41 Pop) in 1959.
The Platters weren’t immune to the perils of their business and touring lifestyle. They (the four male members) were arrested in Cincinnati, Ohio, in August for an encounter with four 19-year-old women, three of whom were white. By December they had been acquitted, but not before shocked and outraged disc jockeys (a proven pristine lot themselves) had removed the Platters’ current single “Where” from many play lists, causing it to die at number 44.
On March 28, 1960, “Harbor Lights,” the Francis Langford 1937 hit (#6), became the Platters’ last top 10 charter (#8 Pop, #15 R&B, #11 U.K.) and “Sleepy Lagoon” their last flip side charter (#65).
After 20 Mercury singles the label changed the credit to read “The Platters Featuring Tony Williams.” It appeared on the 1953 (#2) Frank Chacksfield hit “Ebb Tide,” but the warm reading only reached number 56.
More great standards followed: “Red Sails in the Sunset” (#36, 1960), “To Each His Own” (#21, 1960), and “If I Didn’t Care” (#30, 1961).
By early 1961 Tony Williams had decided to record on his own and signed with Reprise Records. Billboard’s July 10th review noted the change on their new single “I’ll Never Smile Again,” saying, “The group, with its new lead, Sonny Turner, wrap up the tender oldie in a smooth, expressive vocal treatment. An effective side.”
Mercury continued issuing Williams-led Platters singles with “It’s Magic” (#91) the last charter in early 1962. Then Mercury refused to release any product with a lead other than Williams. Buck “I’ll sue ‘em” Ram did exactly that, and 1961 ended in legal turmoil.
By 1962 Paul Robi and Zola Taylor left and were replaced by Nate Nelson (THE FLAMINGOS) and Sandra Dawn, respectively.
The group always worked but it took four years to put them back on the charts while Mercury continued to issue old sides from the can right up to 1964, the last being “Little Things Mean a Lot.”
IN April 1966 “I Love You a Thousand Times” was issued by Musicor and reached number 31 Pop (#6 R&B), their biggest hit since 1961’s “I’ll Never Smile Again” (#25). They issued several more platters on Musicar, the most successful being “With This Ring” (#14 Pop, #12 R7B).
In the early ‘70s there were at least four related Platters groups and who-knows-how-many “pretender” acts. One had original bass Herb Reed with Nate Nelson, Liz Davis, Ron Austin, and Duke Daniels. Another billed as the Original Platters had Paul Robi, David Lynch, and Zola Taylor. Tony Williams formed his own Platters and as of 1989 they consisted of he and his wife Helen, Bobby Rivers, Ted E. Fame, and Ricky Williams.
Buck Ram had no intention of being left out and formed the Buck Ram Platters with Monroe Powell, Ella Woods, Chico LaMar, Craig Alexander (a cousin of Zola Taylor), and Gene Williams. Last but not least, Sonny Turner formed his own group now billed as Sonny Turner, formerly of The Platters and Sounds Unlimited.
David Lynch died in 1981 and Paul Robi passed on in 1989, both of cancer. IN 1990 The Platters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group not only helped break the musical color barrier, they set a standard of quality that groups would try to reach in coming decades. By the time their recording days were done they’d amassed 16 gold singles and three million-selling LPs. They performed in cities and countries that most Americans never dreamed had even heard a Platters disc, taking American music to appreciative audiences all over the worlds.
– Jay Warner