The Harptones, one of the most respected rhythm and blues groups of all time, never put one of their 29 singles on the national R&B lists. Yet many of their recordings are oldies standards today.
1953 was the year members of the Harps from downtown Manhattan joined up with members of THE SKYLARKS from uptown. The Harps consisted of Willie Winfield, his brothers Jimmy and Clyde, Bill “Dicey” Galloway, and Johnny Bronson. Willie, originally from Norfolk, Virginia, occasionally sang with his cousin Dickie Smith and his group THE FIVE KEYS before coming to New York but never recorded with them.The Harps practiced under the Monroe Street underpass of the Manhattan Bridge (probably the largest echo chamber ever used) while the Skylarks-Bill Dempsey, Curtis Cherebin, Fred Taylor, Eugene “Sonny” Cooke, Raoul J. Cita, and the street singer remembered only as Skillum-hit their harmonies on 115th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.
Early in 1953 Dicey Galloway went uptown to find a piano player who could work with the Harps and ran into the 115th Street Skylarks. In the midst of the Skylarks was Raoul Cita, a piano player, songwriter, arranger, baritone, and exactly the man the Harps needed. As time passed, a new Harps group emerged with Willie Winfield and Dicey Galloway of the original Harps and Curtis Cherebin, Bill Dempsey, and Raoul Cita of the Skylarks.
Soon after, Billy Brown replaced Cherebin, and Claudie “Nicky” Clark of the nearby FIVE CROWNS joined the group. The lineup now resembled the “Willie” club with Willie Winfield (24 and lead), Nicky Clark (20, second lead and first tenor), William “Bill” Dempsey (17 and second tenor), Bill “Dicey” Galloway (17 and baritone), Bill Brown (17 and bass), and Raoul Cita (25, tenor and baritone but usually piano player). Occasionally another Brown sang with the Harps-Johnny Brown-but his career direction became that of a comedian and he wound up as a cast member of the long-running ‘60s hit “Laugh-In.”
The group’s influences, especially Willie’s, were the Five Keys, THE SWALLOWS, and THE LARKS, but what set them apart was the influence on Raoul of THE FOUR FRESHMEN. Their jazz harmony, tailored by Cita to fit the Harps’ enormous talent, lifted them above most rhythm and blues groups and far above typical street-corner collaborations.
Their first paying performance was in New Jersey at the Piccadilly Club where the “huge” sum of $100 was garnered for two nights of singing. They branched out from there, working in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey and even performing on the local New York TV show Spotlight on Harlem.” They also practiced extensively in Cita’s 119th Street basement working on new Cita compositions like “My Memories of You.”
Then in late 1953 came the big test. They felt ready for that equalizer of men and boys, the Apollo amateur night contest. The Skylarks had tried it in 1951 and had been booed off the stage. Willie remembered: he had been in the audience at the time. But this night would be different. The Harps sang a magical rendition of the Jo Stafford 1947 hit (#15) “Sunday Kind of Love” and were rousingly applauded.
If not for a twist of fate, many of the great Harptones recordings might have wound up on MGM. They met the label’s representative at the show. They were to reconvene with him later in a hallway away from the Apollo crowd, but while singing in the hall they met Leo Rogers of Bruce Records. He took them to his partners, Morty Craft and Monte Bruce, who loved their sound. They knew that there was a group called the Harps recording on Savoy (Little David Baughn and the Harps), so Cita changed their name to the Harptones.
In December 1953 the song they had sung at the Apollo became their first single. From the eerie organ intro to the group’s deep harmony to Willie’s velvety vocalizing, “I Want a Sunday Kind of Love” was a classic. The record received large doses of airplay and was selling throughout the tri-state area when word reached the Harptones that a Baltimore group, Bobby Hall and the Kings, had covered “Sunday.” Thought the Kings’ version did well in the Baltimore-Washington area, the Harptones’ superior recording won out and sold as well as an R&B record could sell in 1954 without getting national attention. Even the flip ballad “I’ll Never Tell” was getting airplay.
In January 1954 the first of the Cita-penned masterpieces came out. “My Memories of You” boasted five-part lyric harmony, and Willie Winfield, the “Sultan of Smooth” (as Phil Groia called him), was fast becoming noticeable that Bruce Records didn’t have national clout.
“I Depended on You” was the next record and was led by Nicky Clark and Winfield missed the rehearsal that night. Only three musicians, Don Gardner (guitar), Jimmy Smith (organ), and Al Cass (sax), were on the session as Bruce tried to cut 10 sides one after the other to avoid a midnight January 1, 1954, musicians strike, and the other players had walked out.
The Harptones’ fourth single, “Why Should I Love You,” took them 22 takes while recording in Bruce’s 1650 Broadway space. The 22 tries were not for the song itself but for the whistling intro and exit done over a modified boogie-woogie piano. By the time they got it done, THE FOUR LADS, whose offices were down the hall, had lifted it and put it on the B side of their “Skokiaan” hit. The pop up tempo number had the Harptones’ newly minted jazz-flavored harmonies. It gathered enough momentum to make the pop charts on September 18, 1954, reaching number 25. Though today it’s one of the group’s least remembered recordings it was their biggest national hit.
The Harptones did a number of backup sessions over the years. Their first was a loan by Bruce Records’ Leo Rogers to friend Dave Miller and his Essex label so Dave could record Texas artist Bunny Paul on the Harptones’ “I’ll Never Tell.” (Since Rogers owned the publishing rights he gained from the favor.) Essex issued it in August and the now sought-after collectors’ item quickly vanished. Soon after, Dicey was drafted and replaced by Jimmy Beckum (“Laughing on the Outside,” THE MAJORS, Derby).
In December, “Since I Fell for You” came out thanks to Buddy and Ella Johnson’s suggestion to the Harptones after they met at the Apollo that the group try their song. Their unison-into-harmony intro, high-weaving vocals, and Willie’s trademark pristine lead made for a memorable record-the standard version of the song that Bruce was unable to take beyond the tri-state borders.
On January 14th the Harptones appeared at the historic Alan Freed Rock and Roll Ball at the St Nicholas Arena in New York with an all-star lineup that included THE DRIFTERS, THE CLOVERS, Fats Domino, THE MOONGLOWS, and Joe Turner.
Their sixth and last Bruce release (March 1955) was the bluesiest of all Harptones singles, a remake of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” with an exciting chime harmony intro.
By June the Harptones had signed with Hy Weiss’s Old Town label and issued a song Cita had written almost two years earlier, the classic “Life Is But a Dream.” With higher harmonies than previous Harptones sides and an almost angelic chorus of voices, the group’s jazz leanings were becoming more predominant. The song has since become a street-corner classic and the solo singer’s opening line “will you take part in” has become a measuring stick for group leads.
In September they played another historic gig (of their many one-nighters and package shows). The week-long Alan Freed Labor Day Rock and Roll Show at the Brooklyn Paramount featured the Moonglows, Chuck Berry, THE NUTMEGS, THE CARDINALS, and Tony Bennett, with Red Prysock and Sam “the Man” Taylor and their orchestras.
“(My Success) It All Depends On You” was the October 1954 Harptones issue. It lost momentum due to a Georgia Gibbs song with lyric similarities.
“What Is Your Decision,” written by Ben Raleigh and Ben Weissman (the latter would go on to write 57 songs for Elvis Presley), became their only issue on Leo Rogers’ Andrea label in April 1956. It was the most pop of their melodies, and Billboard’s April 21st reviewer commented, “The lads ask the big soulful question in slow emotional style. Winfield wails again and the group is with him all the way. This one should spin and spin.”
By now the group consisted of Willie, Jimmy, Dempsey, and Bobby Spencer (THE CADILLACS, THE CHORDS, THE CICKETS). “My Memories of You” was re-recorded by this version of the Harptones on the same session as “What Is Your Decision,” and Rogers leased it to Tiptop Records for their September 1956 release.
Feeling their records weren’t being promoted properly (and they weren’t) the group moved over to George Goldner’s complex in the summer of 1956. The first single for Rama was the minor classic “That’s the Way It Goes.” It was the group’s favorite recording and was ahead of its time. Their tight harmony on the verses with part of the Raoul Cita chorus on the top (actually the Joytones and Lyrics were the chorus, in this case Joytones Lynn Middleton Daniel and Vickie Burgess) made this a jazz harmony jubilee. The ending had unison voices weaving upward until they broke into a full blown harmony finale. The flip (actually the A side) “Three Wishes” was a superb pop-jazz ballad that had the smoothest of blend.
The Rama sides were the group’s renaissance. “The Masquerade Is Over” followed in November 1956 and was a prime example of modern R&B jazz, with Cita’s sax-led arrangement and peerless harmonies and lead.
In 1956 the Harptones appeared in the first rhythm and blues motion picture, Rockin’ the Blues, along with THE WANDERERS, the Hurricanes, Linda Hopkins, the Miller Sisters, and disc jockey Hal Jackson.
They continued to tour and perform throughout the East with everyone from THE HEARTBEATS, THE FLAMINGOS, and THE SWALLOWS to Bo Diddley and Etta James, but they never got to the West Coast even though several records were getting play out there.
Watching their acrobatics in their cream colored suits one wondered how they could sing at all. (Few people realize how innovative and talented the group was at dance routines, which they choreographed to Five Keys rockers like “Hucklebuck with Jimmy.”
At one point in 1956 Fred Taylor came in when Jimmy was ill, and Harriet “Toni” Williams Brown sunned for Dempsey while he helped his cancer stricken father. Toni was the third member of the Joytones (“Gee What a Boy,” Rama).
The Harptones’ last Rama single, “The Shrine of St. Cecilia” (originally recorded by the Royals in 1952, Federal), had the most magnificent intro harmony of all their records. The full tenor harmonies descending like a cascading waterfall were truly memorable. It was also memorable as Bill Brown’s last recording. He died soon after, and the group never could replace him.
The Harptones didn’t issue another single until November 1957’s “Cry Like I Cried.” Released on Goldner’s Gee label, the hard-to-sing ballad, a rhythm and blues grind number, had the group’s first use of horns and a big-band intro.
In early 1959 Warwick released “Laughing on the Outside,” the same song Jimmy Beckum had sung with the Majors back in 1953, but it saw little action. So too for “Love Me Completely” and their best Warwick single “No Greater Miracle” in May 1960.
One single in 1960 on Coed produced by Billy Dawn Smith (former lead of the Heralds) and one for Solitaires singer-turned-exec Buzzy Willis at MGM’s Cub label (“Devil in Velvet”) and the Harptones found themselves on Companion Records with two good sides (“The Last Dance” and “All in Your Mind”) that Billboard noted in its February 13, 1961, issue: “The Harptones turn in a strong reading of something of an answer to ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ on this pretty ballad. Side could easily take off. Flip is an answer to the current Maxine Brown (‘All in My Mind’) chart entry.”
Their next single (the group’s 22nd) took off at least temporarily. “What Will I Tell My Heart” mustered enough across-the-country play and sales to reach number 96 on the pop charts in May 1961.
Their last new single with Willie came in 1964 on a song written by their lawyer’s son, Ted Troob, titled “Sunset.”
A year before, Bruce Records had issued a heretofore unreleased cut from 1953, called “Loving a Girl Like You.” Why it was never released in the mid 50’s is a mystery as it was a beautiful and competitive recording. In They All Sang on the Corner, Phil Groia wrote,” “ ‘Loving a Girl Like You’ was sung in the classic five-part Harptones harmony, the soft tenor and baritone, the high falsetto of the second tenor and baritone, the high falsetto of the first tenor, the redoubtable bass and the mournfully heavy affirmation of the rhythm and blues piano chords.”
In 1956 the Harptones backed Ruth McFadden (Old Town) on “Schoolboy,” which was actually a female version of “Loving a Girl Like You.”
In 1965 a group called the Soothers remade the Johnny Ray song “Little White Cloud that Cried” (Port). The Soothers were the Harptones without Willie-Bill Dempsey, Nicky Clark on lead, Fred, Curtis, Raoul, and Hank Jernigan. When you think about the group’s heritage you realize that the last Harptones/Soothers single was cut by four members of the Skylarks and one of THE FIVE CROWNS.
In April 1970 the group with Willie, Dempsey, Jimmy, Curtis, Fred, and Raoul regrouped for the opening of the rock and roll revival at the Academy of Music and stayed together until 1972 when Willie and Raoul added Linda Champion and Lowe Murray (the Fitones, Angeltone) to form the current Harptones.
In November 1981 the group recorded and LP (Ambient Sound) which encompassed yesterday’s feel with today’s technology titled Love Needs the Harptones.
39 years later Willie, Raoul et al were still playing clubs in the East while disc jockeys across the country were still playing “Life Is But a Dream,” “Memories of You,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” and other Harptones gems for the many thousands of faithful listeners.
The Harptones would undoubtedly be included on the top 10 vocal group list of anyone who remembers the ‘50s.
In 1971 Cita was asked, “How do you feel the Harptones compare to other groups?” He replied, “The only groups I feel are up there with us (musically) are the Flamingos, the Platters, and the Four Freshmen.” Many would agree.
– Jay Warner