Maurice Williams is one of the most extraordinarily durable figures in the history of classic R&B and rock & roll, despite the fact that, as a performer, he only ever racked up one major national hit on the pop charts. That song, “Stay,” became one of the classic singles in the history of rock — a number one hit upon its release in 1960 on Al Silver’s Herald label, and a popular favorite for decades since, revived in 1987 with its prominent use in the movie Dirty Dancing. Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs recorded only two more minor pop hits before they disappeared from the charts, but Williams has remained active as a performer and, periodically, as a recording artist and songwriter ever since.
Williams was born in Lancaster, SC, on April 26, 1938, and showed himself musically inclined from a very early age — he started learning the piano from his older sister in the late ’40s, practicing daily so that by the time he was ten years old he was having friends from elementary school over for informal jam sessions at his house. Williams had sung in church, but his interest lay more in popular music, and in 1953, he and his friends were ready to form a group that they called the Royal Charms. The group’s original membership, in addition to Williams, included Earl Gainey (tenor, guitar), Willie Jones (baritone), William Massey (tenor, baritone, trumpet), and Norman Wade (bass). They played school events and talent shows, winning several and acquiring a local following, before they finally got a paying gig at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. The year they’d started out, 1953, Williams had also written two songs that were to have a pivotal effect on his life and career, and the group’s history: “Little Darling” and “Stay.”
The Royal Charms loved performing, and were popular locally, but working the area around Lancaster, they found their prospects limited. The group’s first real break took place in 1956 when a Nashville disc jockey hooked them up with Ernie Young, the head of Excello Records — Williams, then only 16, bluffed his way into an audition over the phone and then had to raise money from friends and local merchants in Lancaster to make the trip to Nashville in December of 1956.
“Little Darling” impressed Young, although he altered it somewhat, giving the song a calypso beat that it didn’t originally have. He also insisted on the group changing its name — it seemed as though every R&B vocal group (the word “doo wop” hadn’t been invented yet) had either “Royal” or “Charms” in its name, and bird-named groups were too common as well. Young happened to like flowers, and selected the name the Gladiolas.
“Little Darling” by the Gladiolas was released by Excello in January of 1957 and was a hit on the R&B charts, rising to number 11 in a four-week run in the early spring of that year. It had a more muted presence on the pop charts, lingering there for 11 weeks but never getting higher than number 41.
What happened next is a matter of interpretation. In some historians’ eyes, the Gladiolas’ version of the song was undercut by a competing rendition, recorded for Mercury by a white Canadian group called the Diamonds, which rose to number one on the pop charts and sold more than a million copies, even becoming a definitive “doo wop”-type single. On the other hand, some listeners, comparing the two versions, say that the Diamonds’ version is more fully realized than that by the Gladiolas, not only with a more ambitious arrangement and greater vocal virtuosity, but a better sound; the Gladiolas’ single, by contrast, almost seems like a demo, only partly realized in technical terms.
Regardless of the virtues of either, Williams, for his part, never minded the Diamonds’ version, because Young — in an example of honesty all too rare in the record business in those days — told him that, as writer of the song, all he should care about is that it sells and gets played, not whose version sells. Young had also left him with full rights as songwriter, rather than trying to buy them away from him, which Williams admits he could’ve done for practically no money at all in those days. It was a decision that was to earn Williams a vast amount of money at the age of 17 and beyond, and educated him painlessly and well about the business side of the music business.
Williams was a serious high school student, and he earned a music scholarship to Allen University in Columbia, SC, that he had to turn down — he was simply doing too much in music to interrupt his career, tempting as it was. The Gladiolas kept performing, touring the West once before returning to South Carolina, where they became a heavy favorite among fraternities, especially at the University of South Carolina. At the end of 1958, the group decided against re-signing with Excello, which meant they had to give up their name, which Young owned. This could have been a disaster, forcing them to re-establish themselves in a new incarnation, but a name and a song, courtesy of Williams, made that easy. According to Williams, it was group member Bobby Gore who saw a German car called a Zodiac, and immediately seized on the name — Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs became the group’s new identity.
Over the next year, the original Zodiacs’ lineup expanded to nine members, including two saxmen (Calvin McKinnie, Harold Alexander). In 1960, the band hooked up with Al Silver of Herald Records in New York, by way of producers Phil Gernhardt and Al McCullough. The group was supposed to provide demos, and Williams retrieved a song he’d written back in 1953 — strangely enough, to the same girl for whom he’d written “Little Darling” — called “Stay” and present it to Silver.
The group signed with Herald and “Stay,” sparked by a stunning falsetto performance by Shane Gaston, became their debut on the label during the summer of 1960. It hit number one that fall and easily topped a million sales at the time, also becoming the biggest hit in the history of Herald Records. Williams & the Zodiacs never had another record nearly as big as “Stay,” which came out at just the right moment and seemed to sell in subsequent years at the drop of a hat, as a romantic and nostalgia favorite — by some estimates, their record has topped ten million sales internationally. Additionally, other artists, including the Four Seasons, Jackson Browne, and Rufus & Chaka Khan, all made the Top 20 or better with their respective versions of the song, and the Hollies cut it as a single at the outset of their career.
The Zodiacs didn’t fare as well as the song. “I Remember,” also released on Herald, never made it past number 86 on the pop charts and didn’t appear on the R&B charts at all. Neither did “Come Along,” which was released in the spring of 1961 and only climbed to number 83 on the pop charts. During the mid-’60s, the group hooked up with the New Orleans-based production team of Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint. With their guidance, the group cut a passionate, soulful recording of Williams’ “May I,” a dazzlingly beautiful song that held a lot of promise. Unfortunately, they chose to license it to Vee Jay, which was then the most successful black-owned record company in the world. But Vee Jay went into bankruptcy within days of the record’s national release, and “May I” never recovered — the record did get out on the Dee Su label in New Orleans, which rescued it physically from oblivion, and it found an audience on the radio. It has been certified a million-seller by the RIAA, despite never managing to appear on either the pop or R&B charts. Five years later, it became a modest Top 40 hit in a smoother version by Bill Deal & the Rhondels, a white dance-rock and R&B-based band from the Virginia-Carolinas area who’d been doing it on stage for years. The group subsequently released records on Atlantic, Sea-Horn, and Scepter, including a fine single, “Return,” with Gladys Knight & the Pips singing behind them. Williams saw minimal chart action from any of this, but remained active — Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs were still a major draw in the South, especially in their native state, and in 1965 cut a live album at Myrtle Beach, SC.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Williams led various incarnations of the Zodiacs on oldies tours, primarily on the beach music circuit on the U.S. East Coast. In the wake of Dirty Dancing, which yielded sales of another eight million copies of “Stay,” he re-emerged as a recording artist on the Ripete label, based in Columbia, SC, which specializes in beach music (they’ve also got a best-of the Swinging Medallions out on CD). Ripete has since released the impossible-to-find 1965 live album on CD, and an excellent career anthology of Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs.