The Five Satins
One of the greatest rhythm and blues ballads of all time was a B side, and the Five Satins who recorded that B side, “In the Still of the Night,” were actually only four Satins. But those Satins were undoubtedly one of the finest vocal groups of the ‘50s.
Fred Parris of 24 Sperry Street in New Haven, Connecticut, was expelled in 1953 from a vocal group known as the Canaries. The avid ball player (he once had a tryout with the Boston Braves) decided to form his own group and labeled them the Scarlets. The quintet of Hillhouse High School students included Sylvester Hopkins (first tenor), Nathaniel Mosely, Jr. (second tenor), Albert Denby (baritone), and William L. Powers (bass).
Since Fred wrote the songs the guys made him lead singer. The rehearsed under the influence of THE 5 ROYALES, THE CLOVERS, THE DOMINOES, and THE FIVE CROWNS. Fred was a particular fan of the Velvets and THE FOUR FRESHMEN.
As the group’s leader, Parris was saddled with the responsibility of finding them a record label, but the 17-year-old had little idea how to go about it. He traveled to New York without so much as a tape in hopes of finding Red Robin Records (home of the Velvets), which was operated out of a record shop at 301 West 125th Street in Harlem. First he encountered Bob Shad, a record shop owner who also owned the Jax label (Bobby Hall and the Kings). Shad sent Fred down the block where he met Red Robin proprietor Bobby Robinson. When the Scarlets lead told Robinson of his group he got the same response elicited from Shad, which in effect was “go home and bring me a demo tape.” When Fred did return with a tape of the self penned “Dear One,” Robinson still wasn’t impressed, but his brother and partner Dan did like the group and convinced Robinson to record them
In early spring of 1954 the Scarlets were given 15 minutes to cut “Dear One” and another ballad called “I’ve Lost.” (This was done during the same session in which the Velvets spent over three hours on what would become their last Red Robin single, “I Cried.”)
“Dear One” had a classic rhythm and blues harmony sound. Fred’s Plaintive lead, shifting to falsetto riffing while the baritone and bass took over, helped make the record a New York hit in the spring of 1954. The flip, “I’ve Tried,” was another solid ballad with more than a hint of the melody line from the 1948 Benny Goodman tune “Beyond the Sea.”
The group got better with each release as December’s “Love Doll” and the later “True Love” demonstrated. Even though “True Love” was almost a clone of “Dear One,” the harmonies had a more confident sound. Parris had his first hit as a writer with the B side but not via the Scarlets. The rocker, “Cry Baby,” was cut a year later by three moonlighting nurses from Bellevue Hospital called THE BONNIE SISTERS, reaching a healthy number 18 on the Pop charts.
The New Haven quintet was called by Uncle Sam in 1955 with the promise that they could stay together. Thus assured, the Scarlets foresaw a great time entertaining troops and officers. Instead, one member wound up in Alaska, One in Texas, and other in Korea, and so on. After basic training in Texas the group returned to New York on leave and cut one farewell single for Red Robin called “Kiss Me.” Fred was then stationed in Philadelphia and was able to return to New Haven for weekends. He formed a new group that included Lou Peebles (tenor), Ed Martin (baritone), Stanley Dortch (tenor), and Jim Freeman (bass). Fred wanted a new name since none of these new members had been in the Scarlets. He liked the idea of something soft and red like the Velvets and the Scarlets. The result: the Five Satins.
At around this time, New Haven teenager Marty Kugell, his partner Tom Zachariah, and their two-track tape recorder came together as a record label and asked the Satins to record for them. As Tom and Marty had no office, much less a studio, they hauled their precious two-track to a V.F.W. (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post in New Haven on a hot summer day. The musicians never showed up (one rumor had it that their instruments fell of a truck), so they recorded the songs a cappella intending to add the music later. The songs were “All Mine” (written by Fred Parris and “Rose Mary” (by Lou Peebles and Jim Freeman).
In an occurrence that could only happen in the imperfect world of the 1950s rock and roll recording, the group left the hall door open in order to provide some ventilation, and toward the end of the beautiful ballad “All Mine” you can actually hear a truck rumbling – right on the finished record.
Music was later added to “Rose Mary” but not to “All Mine”; upon its release on Standard Records “All Mine” became the first rock and roll a cappella release. The sound was ahead of its time and few people ever heard it.
The group soon reorganized, with Peebles and Dortch out and Al Denby of the Scarlets in.
Fred came up with a rocker titled “The Jones Girl,” but before the group could record again he was back at the army base in Philadelphia. One night he found himself on guard duty. At around 3 a.m. alone and pining for his sweetheart, Fred put down his rifle, picked up his pen, and wrote one of the greatest ballads of all time, “In the Still of the Night.” After he returned to New Haven, he and the Satins went into the basement of St. Bernadette’s church in New Haven on a December night in 1955 (this time the musicians showed up) and cut the two sides on Marty’s trusty two-track. There were only four Satins on the date.
Standard put out “The Jones Girl” and its flip that spring, and when it started getting some New York reactions Herald Record prexy Al Silvers bought the masters and reissued them on his new Ember Label. Meanwhile, Fred was in the studio on his last leave before being sent to Japan. At that time he recorded eight sides with the Satins including “Moonlight and I,” “Sugar,” “Oh Happy Day,” and “Wonderful girl.”
By the summer, “Jones Girl” was getting some play but all of a sudden that B-side ballad with magical “sho doe” and “sho be doe” harmony started popping up on hundreds of radio stations.
Billboard’s June 9th review of “The Jones Girl” called it an “enthusiastic vocal treatment of a bouncy rhythm opus with a strong solid beat.” About “Still of the Night” they wrote, “The Satins chant with warm expressiveness on a smoothly paced ballad with dramatic lyrics.”
On September 1, 1956, “In the Still of the Night” charted on Billboard’s R&B lists and one week later did the same on the Pop charts. The song had become such a symbol of the ‘50s that most listeners don’t realize it never came close to being a number one record (except in New York and on various big-city charts); it only made it to number 24 Pop in the fall (#3 R&B). Still, its steady play on radio for over 35 years has made it a multi-million seller, though its author Fred Parris and the group were never honored with a gold record. It is usually among the top five songs on annual and holiday oldies shows and marathons.
While Fred was out guarding Japan, the label of “In the Still” was revised to read “(I’ll Remember) In the Still of the Night” in order to differentiate it from Cole Porter’s standard (now that the Satins’ song was famous in its own right).
Two more beautiful ballads emerged on Ember: “Wonderful Girl” in late 1956 (with a bass player plucking on a cello since he showed up with the wrong instrument) and the Don Howard oldie “Oh Happy Day” in early 1957, but neither charted. Ember was running out of quality tracks to keep the Satins’ name visible, so in May they added New Havenite Bill Baker on lead and sent him on tour with Freeman, Martin, newcomer Tommy Killebrew, and the Satins’ pianist Jessie Murphy.
Meanwhile, to avoid boredom, Fred began singing with some army buddies in Japan when one guy brought in a copy of a record from the States. He started to teach everyone his versions of it and chided Fred for singing a bass part that didn’t blend with the record. The song was “In the Still of the Night,” and Fred was having some fun singing the part the way he’d written it before it was recorded. When the guy found out who Fred was he never showed his face around the barracks again.
Back in the States, Bill Baker and company recorded Billy Dawn Smith’s “To the Aisle,” It took off in July 1957 and became another Five Satins standard, peaking at number 25 Pop (#5 R&B).
In 1958 Fred received his discharge, returned to New Haven, and formed yet another group with ex-Five Satins member Lou Peebles, ex-Scarlet Sylvester Hopkins, and former Starlarks (Ember) Richie Freeman and Wes Forbes. He called this group Fred Parris and the Scarlets and they recorded an excellent rhythm ballad titled “She’s Gone” for Marty and Tom’s Klik label (the label’s small print read “Originally The Five Satins” directly below the name the Scarlets).
The Klik side didn’t click, and since Marty didn’t sell it to an active company there was no chance for promotion. Meanwhile, Bill Baker went on to sing with one of New Haven’s best groups, THE CHESTNUTS (“Won’t You Tell Me My Heart,” Elgin, 1959).
Fred Parris and the Scarlets then became the Five Satins and moved to Ember for “A Night to Remember,” a single that came and went with little play or support. Their next Ember release was “Shadows” (late 1959), a Parris-penned ballad and their strongest song since “She’s Gone,” but it only managed a number 87 Pop (#27R&B). It also became their last R&B charter for 16 years as they began to lean more toward pop.
Ember then lent the Satins out to First Records for one single, the magnificent rhythm ballad “When Your Love Comes Along,” with innovative “du wah wah” harmonies identical to those that showed up two years later in the Imaginations’ “Hey You” (Musicmakers). Though this was a common practice in the ‘50s, try to imagine Sire Records lending Madonna out to a competing company today.
The Satins did three more Ember singles, the best being a splendid version of the number one 1944 Bing Crosby hit “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which reached number 79 on the Pop chart. The last Ember single (“Wishing Ring,” 1961) wasn’t really the Satins, as Fred and Lou were the only group members to show up for the session; three white musicians were drafted and taught the simplest of harmony parts. One of those musicians, the drummer Jerry Greenberg, later became president of Atlantic Records.
In 1960 the quintet joined Cub Records for “Your Memory,” “A Beggar with a Dream,” and “Can I Come Over Tonight” (THE VELOURS), but the label couldn’t make them click. In 1961 Fred and company decided to keep making name changes until something stuck, so they became the Wildwoods (“When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” Caprice) and the New Yorkers, whose “Miss Fine” (Wall) reached number 69 Pop-not much recognition there for an act that’s spent five years under another name, so they went back to the Five Satins for one side on United Artists (“On Lovers Island”).
In 1962, the Five Satins signed with Bob Marcucci’s Chancellor label for two singles, including a fine arrangement of “The Masquerade Is Over.” The group then moved to the Warner Bros., Roulette, Lana, and Mama Sadie labels under their own name and to Checker and Green Sea as the Restless Hearts.
By 1971 the group was Fred, Wes, Richie, Jimmy Curtis of the Chestnuts (Elgin), and Corky Rogers of the Revalons (Pet). They recorded “Summer in New York” for RCA, and by 1972 were label shopping with two other sides, “Fate Has a Brother” and “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother” (Hollies), produced by Five Satins fan Jay Warner.
In 1973 old New Haven mentor Marty Kugell hooked up with publisher Al Altman and the Satins to produce an ode to oldies that mentioned various groups and songs while slipping in a finale of “In the Still of the Night.”
Two years later Kugell, Altman, and company were back at it for a soul LP on buddah, and to counter radio aversion to anything older than their disc jockey’s morning donut, Fred renames the group Black Satin. The 10-cut LP included a soulfully smooth version of “In the Still of the Night” and “Everybody Stand and Clap Your Hands” (#49), their first R&B chart single in 16 years.
With the oldies revival in full swing the Satins became a premier attraction, and following their November 22, 1969, rebirth in Richard Nader’s Madison Square Garden Rock and Roll Revival show, they have been one of the most revered standard bearers of ‘50s music. They appeared in the movie Let the Good Times Roll doing a cappella renditions of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “In the Still.”
In 1977 the group teamed with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes for a solid cut on their This Time It’s for Real LP, with “First Night.” The group at that point was Fred, Richie, Jimmy and Nate Marshall. Billy Baker formed Billy Baker and the Satins in around 1981 with three Hopkins brothers, Sylvester (former Scarlet and Satin), Arthur, and Frank (formerly of the Chestnuts). In 1982 they cut another excellent version of “In the Still of the Night” b/w “Crying in the Chapel” on Clifton Records and continued to perform in the Connecticut area for years to come. In the mid-80s Baker’s Satins included former members of the Modulations Harvey Potts, Jr., Anthony Hofler, and Octavio DeLeon. They recorded an LP in 1987 titled I’ll Be Seeing You. No, it does not contain a version of “In the Still of the Night.”
In 1982 Fred and company waxed another LP, this time as Fred Parris and the Satins on Electra, charting Pop for the first time in 21 years with a nostalgic look back on “Memories of Days Gone By,” a medley that contained “Sixteen Candles,” “Earth Angel,” “A Thousand Miles Away,” “Tears on My Pillow,” “Since I Don’t Have you,” and guess which other song.
The group was still performing in the early ‘90s, and when Freddie held 60-second notes at the end of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” all was right with the world.
– Jay Warner