The Five Red Caps
R&B combo the Five Red Caps formed in New York City in 1943. According to Marv Goldberg’s profile in the November 1991 issue of Discoveries, the group was previously known as the Four Toppers, whose Los Angeles-based original lineup — tenor/drummer Jimmy Springs, second tenor David Patillo, baritone/bass player Richard Davis, and bass singer/guitarist Steve Gibson — represented a kind of local supergroup assembling the best voices from four other combos. After cutting the 1940 singles “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” and “Jumpin’ Jive” for Otis Rene’s Armor label, the Four Toppers appeared in a handful of Hollywood films before relocating to the Big Apple. In 1942, Davis left the lineup, and with the additions of new bassist Doles Dickens and baritone/pianist Romaine Brown, the group renamed itself the Five Red Caps, borrowing the name from the headgear traditionally worn by baggage handlers. After signing with manager/producer Joe Davis, the quintet issued its 1943 debut single, “I’m the One,” on his Beacon label — a series of entries including “There’s a Light on the Hill,” “No Fish Today,” and “Just for You” appeared in quick succession, but only the ballad “I Learned a Lesson I’ll Never Forget” was a hit of any consequence, entering the pop Top 20 in early 1944.
The Five Red Caps nevertheless renewed their contract with Davis in the spring of 1944, resulting in another flurry of singles including “Somebody’s Lyin’,” “Don’t You Know,” and “Sugar Lips.” In all, some 20 singles appeared on Beacon in the span of little over a year before the Five Red Caps (who in fact counted six following the addition of second tenor/saxophonist Emmett Matthews) signed to Savoy in late 1944. Their lone single for the label, “If Money Grew on Trees,” was credited to the Toppers after Davis filed a lawsuit claiming rights to the Red Caps moniker. When Savoy dropped the group, they returned to the Davis fold and any pending litigation was dropped. In mid-1945, the Five Red Caps returned to the studio, recording another batch of songs including “You Thrill Me” and “My Everlasting Love for You.” Few of these records generated airplay, but the group nevertheless toured the national theater circuit, headlining supper clubs across the U.S. Finally, in the spring of 1946 the Five Red Caps recorded their final Davis session, releasing one last Beacon single, “Words Can’t Explain,” before signing with new manager Murray Weinger and cutting a lucrative deal with Mercury Records, which insisted the group now bill itself as “Steve Gibson & the Red Caps.”
At Mercury, the Red Caps cut ballads and jump blues similar to their Beacon output, but the quality of both the material and the production improved sharply. Their label debut, “You Can’t See the Sun When You’re Cryin’,” appeared in early 1947, and the following year the group scored a major hit with “Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.” Springs temporarily resigned from the Red Caps soon after, with tenor Earl Plummer tapped to take his place. Over the next several years, Springs and Plummer each rotated in and out of the lineup, and at times both served simultaneously. The Red Caps appeared in the 1949 Rudy Vallée television feature Excess Baggage, and a year later resurfaced onscreen in Destination Murder — they also were a staple of TV variety showcases, appearing with Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey, and Jackie Gleason. But after releasing “Steve’s Blues” in mid-1950, Gibson & the Red Caps exited Mercury in favor of RCA, releasing their label debut, “Am I to Blame” before the year’s end. Its sequel, “I’m to Blame,” hit retail in March of 1951 and featured singer Damita Jo du Blanc, who not only remained a full-time member of the group (she sang lead on their 1952 hit “I Went to Your Wedding”), but in 1954 became Gibson’s wife.
Plummer finally left the Red Caps for good in 1952, followed a year later by Romaine Brown, who formed his own group, the Romaines (whose membership later featured Plummer as well). The Red Caps remained a popular concert attraction, more often than not performing to white audiences, but their approach remained mired in the sound of postwar R&B even as a new generation of vocal groups stormed the charts. RCA had no idea how to rectify the situation and the Red Caps floundered — after releasing 1953’s “Big Game Hunter,” the group did not reenter the studio for over two years, and their final RCA singles, “Feelin’ Kinda Happy” and “Bobbin’,” went nowhere. The group split with the label in late 1955, signing to ABC Paramount to release “Love Me Tenderly” the following summer. In all, the Red Caps released four ABC singles, most notably 1957’s “Flamingo,” before exiting the label in favor of the tiny Hi-Lo imprint, issuing “Itty Bitty” a year later. After dissolving the Romaines, Brown returned to the lineup in 1959 in time for their Rose label debut, “Bless You,” and the subsequent “Where Are You,” released on Rose’s Casa Blanca subsidiary. The Red Caps even returned to ABC for their 1960 remake of “I Went to Your Wedding.”
Both Brown and Damita Jo du Blanc left the Red Caps in 1960, the latter enjoying some solo success with the answer record “I’ll Save the Last Dance for You.” A series of male and female vocalists rotated through the lineup in the months to follow, and in 1961 founding member David Patillo broke ranks to form his own rival group, the Modern Red Caps. From the classic lineup, only Gibson and Emmett Matthews remained by the time of the Red Caps’ final single, the 1962 Band Box release “No More.” The group nevertheless remained a fixture of the supper-club circuit, and for a time in the mid-’60s, they featured up-and-coming vocalist Tammy Montgomery, later known as the tragic Motown diva Tammi Terrell. Gibson finally dissolved the Red Caps around 1968, ending a run that extended across a quarter century; in 1980, he resurfaced as a member of the New Ink Spots. Gibson died in 1995; he was preceded in death by Patillo (1970), Brown (1987), and Springs (also 1987). Du Blanc passed on in 1999.