If you were to put together the harmonies of the best ‘50s R&B groups and mix them with The Four Freshmen and The Hi-Los, the result would be the Skyliners, an unbelievably perfect blend of voices emanating from five white Pittsburgh teenagers. The group was formed of members from their different local groups, the Crescents, the Montereys, and the El Rios. In 1958, the Crescents attended St. George’s Catholic School in the Allentown area of Pittsburgh’s South Hills. Former vocalist (the Marquees, studio singers) Joe Rock, now a promo man heard the group and took note of the promising 13-year-old Wally Lester on tenor (although the group as a whole wasn’t completely together). Sometime later, Rock attended a local record hop hosted by Al “Nickles” Noble of KTV’s “Jukebox.” He saw an a cappella group called the Monterey’s and flipped over the 14-year-old bass singer, promptly drafting him for the Crescents. The kid’s name was Jimmy Beaumont, and as good as he was on bass, when he sang in tenor voice he floored everyone; he immediately became the Crescents’ new lead singer.
Around this time, the Crescents heard about a young South Hills High School guitarist. Jackie Taylor’s Hank Ballard guitar style was warmly received, and he too joined the group.
After doing a demo tape of a few originals along with “Sympathy” (THE CADILLACS) and “Please Don’t Tease” (THE SPANIELS), Rock sent the tape to ABC Paramount. The company eventually offered them a contract. In the interim they auditioned for Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller, who also wanted the teenage group; Leiber and Stoller even volunteered to write for them. But somehow both deals were blown.
At Rock’s request, a promotion man from Specialty Records came to Pittsburgh to hear the group, but half of the demoralized Crescents decided to go joy riding rather than meet with him. The three who showed up were Jimmy, Wally, and Jackie. Jimmy was so upset about the missed opportunity he sought out another local quartet that included Janet Vogel (top tenor), Joe VerScharen (baritone), and Richie Atkins (bass), and asked the three if they’d like to join the Crescents. Janet and Joe jumped at the offer and Richie declined. The group had everything but a bass until Jimmy realized their rockin’ guitar player Jackie had a voice that could cover a range from bass to falsetto.
In mid-1958 the Crescents were now Jimmy Beaumont (17, lead), Janet Vogel (16, top tenor), Wally Lester (16, tenor), Joe VerScharen (17, baritone), and Jackie Taylor (17, bass).
Joe Rock, while sitting in his car between stoplights, wrote a lyric titles “Since I Don’t Have You” about the girl who had just left him. Jimmy wrote the music the next night. Someone brought in a tape recorder and a rough a cappella demo was done. Janet, thinking the tape had been turned off, kept riffing at the end, weaving up to an incredible high C finale.
It was this tape that Rock sent to 13 established labels, including Chess, ABC, Imperial, and RCA. All 13 came back with rejection notes. One said the song was negative and should have been “Since I Have You.” Another wrote, “A song with 13 ‘yous’ at the end will never sell!” Undaunted, the group thumbed through the phone book and came up with Calico Records, which was owned by Lou Caposi and Bill Lawrence and had Lenny Martin as A&R head and arranger. The Crescents, who were influenced by the Cadillac’s, the Spaniels, THE EL DORADOS, the Four Freshman, and the Hi-Los, practiced their hearts our and on November 3, 1958 Dodge, sped off, and promptly became involved in a head-on collision. Miraculously, no one was hurt and they arrived in time to audition. After singing ”Since I Don’t Have You” and “One Night, One Night,” Martin said, “Hold it, no need to go any further. That’s my group.”
“Since I Don’t Have You” was recorded on December 3, 1958, at Capitol Studios in New York. 18 musicians were used, an awesome number for a teen vocal group at the time and the first time a full orchestra had been used with a rock group. When the test pressing came back there was no group name on the label, which prompted Rock and the Crescents to think about a new permanent moniker. They came up with the title of an old Charlie Barnett 1945 hit (#19), “Skyliner.”
“Since I Don’t Have You” was released the day after Christmas 1958. The record was soon number one in Pittsburgh, and Dick Clark invited the Skyliners to appear on his February 13th “American Bandstand” show (after their performance he announced the song was an old standard a tribute to the songwriting of Rock and Beaumont). Within three days of the Dick Clark performance “Since” had charted on Billboard’s Top 100 and had sold 100,000 records. Beaumont and company’s debut single did better R&B (#3) then Pop (#12), and the group began to perform on the chitlin circuit, including the Apollo on eight occasions. In the early days stunned silence usually greeted them until they began singing and converting black audiences to instant fans. The Skyliners became the first white group ever to tope the R&B charts (“Since” went to number one in Cashbox).
“This I Swear,” another dreamy Beaumont-Rock love ballad, was issued in May from Calico’s 1409 Fifth Avenue Pittsburgh offices. (Appearing at the New York recording session was a young writer/artist/producer and member of the Teddy Bears named Phil Spector; he later cited “Since I Don’t Have You” as an influence on his production style in the 60s.) Like “Since I Don’t Have You,” “This I Swear” did better on the black charts (#20 R&B to #26 Pop).
Though all the originals issued on Calico read “Skyliners,” Rock and Beaumont actually wrote the songs, occasionally with VerSharon.
“It Happened Today” was their third 45. It reached only number 59 Pop in the fall, but oldies radio played it for the next 30 years as if it had been a top 10 hit. Another goodie was the flip balled “Lonely Way,” which reached number on in Hawaii and was one of their most requested performance songs. As recorded by THE ZIRCONS in 1963, “Lonely Way” helped to start the ‘60s a cappella craze in America. It became a favorite tune of THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER (as the Skyliners were one of their favorite groups).
The January 18, 1960, issue of Billboard cited both sides of the follow-up single (“How Much” and “Lorraine from Spain”) as “Spotlight” Winners of the Week, commenting, “The group has two fine outings. ‘How Much’ is a nicely chanted rock-a-balled. ‘Lorraine’ is a Latin-ish rocker. Their deliveries on both are smooth and winning and either side can take off.” “How Much” had been written by Rock and Beaumont between shows (five a day) at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. They played the test pressing for Alan Freed, who loved it. The record broke quicker than their previous releases but never charted nationally.
In the spring of 1960 the Skyliners released an up-beat version of the Arthur Johnson-Johnny Burke standard “Pennies from Heaven,” putting the group back in the spotlight at number 24 on the home of yet another great Pittsburgh quintet, THE MARCELS.
The Skyliners’ first single on Colpix, “The Door Is Still Open,” failed to chart. The follow-up, “Close Your Eyes,” only reached number 105.
VerScharen got tired of living out of a suitcase and left shortly after getting married. The group signed to Cameo for the single “Three Coins in the Fountain” and then moved on to Viscount Records for “Comes Love,” their best ballad since the early Calico days, masterfully arranged by Jim Drake and sung to perfection by the group. It managed to chart nationally at number 128 on February 16, 1963.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Beaumont left briefly to record a few solo sides for Colpix and its affiliate May, without success.
In June 1963 Jimmy and the group recorded a beautiful version of THE HARPTONES “Since I Fell for You” on Atco that was overlooked. The group them disbanded.
In 1965 Jackie Taylor formed a new Skyliners on Jubilee, issuing a blue-eyed soul ballad called “The Loser,” produced by Mike Lewis (of THE CONCORDS) and Stu Wiener. It reached number 34 R&B and number 72 Pop in the summer of 1965.
After two more ballad singles failed to hit, 1970, when Beaumont, Janet Vogel Rapp (now married), Lester, and VerScharen re-formed for Richard Nader’s Madison Square Garden oldies revival and kept on playing the oldies circuit. The foursome then recorded a Buddah LP in 1970 called The Skyliners Featuring Jimmy Beaumont “Once Upon A Time,” but no single was issued.
A 1975 single, “Where Have They Gone,” looked promising, but its fate was summed up in a note from Joe Rock to this writer: “Here’s a copy of the record Capitol is losing for us.” The record stopped dead at number 100 on March 22nd, becoming their last chart single.
In 1978, Jimmy, Janet, and two newcomers, Bobby Sholes and Jimmie Ross, did an LP for Tortoise International of Southfield, Michigan. As recently as the early ‘90s, Beaumont, Sholes, Rick Morris, and Donna Groom were playing the oldies circuit and keeping the Skyliners; name alive (oldies radio continued to spin “Since I Don’t Have You” and “This I Swear” as if they were new records).
Jackie Taylor became a captain in the army in Vietnam and then went into computers. Wally Lester became a VP for the Clairol Corporation and Joe VerScharen delved into real estate and insurance. Joe Rock continued to manage the Skyliners with Jimmy Beaumont sounding as good as ever. Janet Vogel, wife, mother, and soprano supreme, died on February 21, 1980, at the age of 37.
– Jay Warner