One of the tightest and most popular harmony groups of the 1940s, the Charioteers were another of the handful of aggregations put together in school by a teacher. Their mentor and vocalist was professor Howard Daniel, and their school was Wilberforce University in Ohio. Professor Daniel built his group around the brilliant lead voice of tenor Billy Williams; the other members were Ira Williams and Ed Jackson. Forming in 1930, they originally called themselves the Harmony Four. Later they changed it to the Charioteers, from the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a favorite from the group’s repertoire. Starting out with spirituals, the groups expanded its collection to include a greater number of popular tunes. Their first break came after winning the Ohio State Quartet contest in 1931, and soon after, they were brought in to perform on a Cincinnati radio show at station WLW. They ended up staying with the station for over two years, until another radio series brought them to New York.
They signed their first recording contract with Decca Records in 1935. Between 1935 and 1939 they recorded for V-Disc, Vocalion, Brunswick, and Decca without having a hit, yet their popularity grew through radio and liver performances. Unlike most of the popular black vocal groups of the time (like THE INK SPOTS and THE DELTA RHYTHM BOYS) who did little backup work, or rarely received credit on records when they did back up major vocalists, the Charioteers had the good fortune to record with three major singers over a 10-year span (1935-1945): Pearl Bailey, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. Their long run as guests on the Bing Crosby radio show seems to have justified label credit alongside the stars.
In 1938, they signed with Columbia (and its Okeh affiliate), where they would stay for over 10 years. Ironically, in all that time they only had one R&B chart record, a beautiful ballad “A Kiss and a Rose,” in the summer of 1949. The song, which the Charioteers copied from the Ink Spots’ original rendition of the same year, went to number eight on the R&B charts. Ironically, Billy Williams, a recording member for 14 years, left the Charioteers only five months after their first and only hit. He then formed a new group in early 1950. The rest of the Charioteers also left Columbia in 1950 drifted through five labels over the next seven years, never quite regaining the popularity they had with Billy.
Given the Charioteers’ lack of hits, it was pure talent, performance popularity, and relatively stable membership that kept them together for 26 years, recording 75 single releases over 22 of those years. Their last single release was “The Candles” on MGM records in 1957.
– Jay Warner