The Crows and The Chords : Rock Begins ©JCMarion
This article is a sort of takeoff on the old "Battle of the Groups" format. This is a battle of the record that was the "firstest with the mostest" or something to that effect. When talking about the R & B vocal group record that was the first to break out of the limited listening audience (meaning early fifties Black America), and cross over into mainstream pop success (meaning sales to White America and airplay on major radio stations across the country), two records are always mentioned - "Gee" by the Crows and "Sh Boom" by The Chords. The similarities between the two are startling. Besides sound alike names, the two groups had very limited hit potential other than the "big one", and both faded into obscurity as performers by the time the rock and roll tidal wave hit full force. They were soon forgotten, seemingly as bit players in the transformation of popular music. Their history came back to be told because of the enduring love of the music, and the allegiance and loyalty of its many fans. They knew the importance of those record releases and as the spread of the "oldies" format came into being, once again the sounds of the Crows and Chords were heard.
For the record, and in keeping with the desire to be historically accurate, The Crows recording of "Gee" for George Goldner's Rama label is listed as being recorded in the spring of 1953 and released in June of that year. The Chords recording of "Sh Boom" on the Atlantic subsidiary label Cat, was released in April of 1954 ten months later. But - there is more to this story than meets the eye. The Crows record had a bit of an initial push, and then seemed to die on the vine. And there it remained until the following spring when it suddenly reappeared and started selling. And selling. Just about this same time The Chords record came out and the battle was on. There is one more strange similarity between these two groups - both their big efforts were not the first choice of their respective labels. Each was promoting the flip side for airplay and sales. The Crows performance of "I Love You So" was deemed the 'A' side by Goldner (the tune would be covered three years later by The Chantelles for Goldner), and the powers that be at Atlantic favored "Cross Over The Bridge", a Patti Page pop hit that was also covered by The Flamingos for Chance. When the uptempo flips began to sell big, both labels did some reshuffling. The Crows were renamed on some releases to confuse the public and protect sales, and the Chords were the subject of a hurried second pressing replacing "Bridge" with a quickie called "Little Maiden" with the thought of a subsequent issue of the original flip side. So we have two groups from New York with so much in common that they share, and will be forever linked as the opening acts in rock and roll history.
The Crows - The quintet consisted of Sonny Norton (lead), Harold Major (tenor), Mark Jackson (tenor) Bill Davis (baritone) and Gerald Hamilton (bass). In the spring of 1953 they achieved that most coveted of prizes, first place in the finals of the amateur night show at Harlem's Apollo theater. Because of this success they were signed to record for Tico records new R & B subsidiary label called Rama. In April of 1953 they recorded with Viola Watkins and Rama released "Seven Lonely Nights" a cover of the Georgia Gibbs pop hit, and the flip was "No Help Wanted" a pop hit for Rusty Draper. Neither side had any impact and Goldner may have realized the cover records were not going to sell. In June of 1953, Rama #5 was released - "Gee" b/w "I Love You So". With the label pushing the ballad side, sales and airplay were fair to good, then seemed to fade out. After a lapse of a few months, "Gee" began to build popularity in a slow but steady fashion. By the end of the year it was beginning to get serious airplay. The late blooming popularity in the R & B field for the disc led label owner George Goldner to release a Tico release of the tune by Joe Loco's combo for the Latin music market. By January of 1954 the record's sales had entered six figures, a heady amount for an R & B record in the early fifties. The great majority of the sales are in southern California, and interest was so great that the first pop covers were released early in the year- June Hutton on Capitol and The Skyliners pop group on Columbia's Okeh label. In February the first indications of the record crossing over to the pop field are seen. It is beginning to be added to the play lists of a few mainstream radio stations. In March the group draws a record crowd to an in person show in Boston and are in demand for appearances in California where the record remains a constant seller. In April a study of the radio industry reports that Rhythm & Blues radio programs have an audience that is estimated to be up to thirty per cent White, and much of the recent increase is attributed to the popularity of records such as The Crows "Gee". During the summer a surprise development happens in a few areas of the country when the ballad side of "Gee", which was the original 'A' side begins to get airplay. "I Love You So" was originally pushed in the East, but the flip broke big in California. The Rama recording seems to have a never ending life of its own. During its incredible life, "Heartbreaker" b/w "Call A Doctor", "Baby" b/w "Untrue", and "Miss You" b/w "I Really Really Love You" were all released and all sink almost without a trace as did a novelty try called "Mambo Shevitz". One last chance for Rama is "Sweet Sue" and the flip side "Baby Doll" which are pushed in late 54 and early into 1955 and follow the same route as all the other flips to "Gee". These failures and the inability to perform regularly to support their recordings lead to the inevitable breakup of the Crows. The story of the Crows - one hit and many misses, but they have achieved that one characteristic of show business, or any business : performing immortality. They were there at the creation, so to speak, of the sound that would revolutionize and change music across the country and around the world. The next revolution would come two years later when Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers would make this music the new generations own. And it is so proper that it was then accomplished on a label called Gee, named for the song by The Crows that launched the music.
The Chords - The quintet consisted of Carl Feaster (lead), Jimmy Keyes (tenor), Buddy McRae (tenor), Claude Feaster (baritone), and Rick Edwards (bass). In the spring of 1954 Atlantic Records, after three solid years of success in the R & B field was looking to expand their market and launched a subsidiary label they called Cat records, a term used by southern Whites to refer to Black R & B music. The new label debuts with a distinctive logo of a silhouette of dancing jitterbugs. One of the first acts they signed was The Chords, whom top talent A & R man Jerry Wexler wanted to cover the Patti Page hit, "Cross Over The Bridge". The flip side was a swinging tune with a catchy intro made up of nonsense syllables called "Sh Boom". The record was released in April, and by the end of June it becomes apparent that the hit side was certainly "Sh Boom". In June the record is beginning to look like a national pop hit and so the execs at Atlantic quickly issued a second pressing which removed "Cross Over The Bridge" as the flip. The thinking is that "Bridge" can be a worthy follow up and not to dilute the selling power of "Sh Boom". The new flip side is the 'B' side quickie, "Little Maiden". Two sure signs of an R & B record breaking out into the pop field - first a major publishing firm bought the rights to the song for a large sum, in order to reap potential earnings (in this case Hill and Range Music), and a pop cover was issued, by The Crew Cuts for Mercury Records. Many in the music industry are now are making the inevitable comparison to "Gee" by The Crows because of the cross over appeal to pop music radio stations and their listeners. "Sh Boom" is further covered in the pop field by The Billy Williams Quartet for Coral, and has also been issued by country music performers. The Chords now begin to make in person appearances in support of their record. During the summer they embark on an extended tour of California. A typical show was The Blues Jubilee, hosted by L.A. personality Gene Norman, and along with The Chords were The Clovers, Robins, and Four Tunes. The show did sell out box office. It is reported that the Crew Cuts version of "Sh Boom" is the national best seller, but in many urban areas throughout the country, the Chords version is top dog. Because of the hot sales of their record, the group enters that last bastion of public acceptance, television. The Chords appear on the local Spotlight On Harlem, and the national network program Colgate Comedy Hour. After close to five months on the charts, The Chords release a follow to "Sh Boom". It is called "Zippety Zum" and is paired with "Bless You". In November, Atlantic in another strange move regarding the group change their name to The Chordcats, stating another vocal group had first claim on the name. This follows the curious decision to pull "Cross Over The Bridge" as the flip of "Sh Boom" in order to capitalize on it later, which they never did. In November the newly named Chordcats do a number of one nighters in California and follow with a swing through the Southwest with Percy Mayfield. The first Cat label recording with the new name is out at year's end. It is "Hold Me Baby" b/w/ "A Girl To Love". Just to be sure there is no mistake, all advertising notes the Chordcats as the creators and originators of "Sh Boom". Like "Zippety Zum" before it, this new record went absolutely nowhere, and the feeling was that the group was destined to be a one hit wonder. A last gasp attempt to resurrect the act came in mid 1955 when the group renamed themselves after their big success. They were now The Sh Booms, and one last go for the Cat label was "Pretty Wild" b/w "Could It Be", and now the ads noted 'formerly The Chords', but this was not to be any different than the two previous efforts. The trail was almost at an end, as the remnants of the Chords changed personnel and made two or three forgettable records into the end of the decade. The Chords time in history was done and they are remembered for being there at the beginning.
A couple of years ago I saw a tape of a public access cable TV show much like Eugene Tompkins and Arthur Cryer's "Doowop Is Alive", and it covered the funeral of Carl Feaster in Harlem. Many musicians from days gone by were there, along with radio personalities such as Hal Jackson and Bobby Jay (of the Laddins and from CBS-FM). The ceremony ended with an elongated and rousing version of "Sh-Boom". This seemed the perfect answer to a sarcastic question posed by Peter Potter, host of the popular 1950s record review show Juke Box Jury. He attacked R & B music and its performers in 1954 asking if in twenty years time anyone would remember a tune like Sh-Boom, or any record company would even think to re-release it. Forty years later the answer to both parts of that question is an emphatic YES ! The question I have is : does anyone remember Peter Potter ?
So there is the story of The Crows and Chords, two groups that were there at the creation of what has become the dominant force in music the world over for the past four decades plus. Two groups, two songs : it doesn't seem like they would have such an impact. But although their two classics are not the best known, the most requested, or best loved of the many hundreds of vocal group sounds, they were the first to cross over and rewrite musical history, and for that they will always remain number one in our collective hearts.
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