Dealers of Dreams: The Penguins©1999JCMarion


In the summer of 1954, Dootsie Williams, the proprietor of Los Angeles independent label Dootone,announces the release of #345 on his label - it features the Dootsie Williams Orchestra, and on one side the vocal is by Willie Headen on the tune "When I Am Gone"and the flip side is the song "No, There Ain't No News Today" by a new vocal group called The Penguins. The quartet was comprised of lead singer Cleveland Duncan, his friend Dexter Tisby on tenor, hopeful song writer Curtis Williams on bass, and a schoolmate of his, Bruce Tate on baritone. The quartet had gotten their name from the famous logo for Kool Cigarettes, Willie the penguin. Nothing much of great importance became of that first effort, but in late September the first rumblings of a new tune by the group called "Earth Angel" began to come out of the West. This great R & B ballad was coupled with "Hey Senorita"on Dootone #348 which started to hit its stride in mid October. The Penguins soon were heard live on the Johnny Otis radio show along with another Dootone vocal group out of nearby Fremont High School called The Medallions. The growing popularity of the group lead to their appearance at Johnny Otis Hepcat Ball at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium in late October along with The Medallions, Richard Berry & The Dreamers, Marvin & Johnny, Chuck Higgins, and Johnny Otis and his band. By early November the recording of "Earth Angel" had started to break out on the national scene, and The Penguins went out on tour with Roy Milton, Shirley Gunter & The Queens, Camille Howard, Mickey Champion, and The Flairs. Helped by the effort of Sid Talmadge and L.A.'s Record Merchandising distribution network, the Dootone record is now reaching into the pop music market and on the national charts. The inevitable pop cover versions start to appear. In late December the group appears at the Embassy Ballroom in Los Angeles with Chuck Higgins & his combo, and on New Year's Day 1955, they embark on an Eastern tour beginning at Washington D.C.'s Howard Theater.

In early February of 1955, The Penguins appear on the Perry Como television show proving their arrival as a pop music phenomenon. As the many fans of the group clamor for a follow up to their massive hit, Dootone releases "Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild" and "Ookey Ook" on #353. The oddly structured ballad side "Love" makes for an interesting departure from the usual blues based chord progression and gives the Penguins a unique sound. The flip side however takes off in a hurry on the West coast. "Ookey Ook" starts a dance craze in the Southern California that remains unknown in New York and the rest of the Northeast which favors the ballad side. Through all of these shifts regarding the record, the previous release of "Earth Angel" remains the country's number one R & B record into April. During that month Alan Freed holds the "Easter Jubilee of Stars " at the Brooklyn Paramount, his first significant presentation of the new music. One of the leading performers on the bill are The Penguins. The popularity of the music and its performers are attested to by the all time box office records that were set at the massive theater, records that had been in place since 1932 by early crooner Russ Columbo.

Fresh from their success at the Alan Freed show in Brooklyn, The Penguins appear for two weeks in the Northeast and then move on to Ohio. At every stop the group meets with great popularity on the heels of their first Dootone hit. It is at this time that the frustration by the group over being shortchanged in recording royalties and publishing rights come to the surface and The Penguins guided by promoter and manager Buck Ram seek to move to the Mercury label. The matter ends up in court in the state of California, and the verdict handed down concludes that the group is totally within their rights to leave Dootone and sign with Mercury Records. One important factor in this case was that three of the group were minors at the time which gave the court jurisdiction in the matter.

In late April, realizing that their top attraction was lost, Dootone, rush releases #362 - "Kiss A Fool Goodbye" and "Baby Let's Make Love" before Mercury can issue the first release by The Penguins on that label. Less than two weeks later Mercury issues #70610 - "Be Mine Or Be A Fool" (similar in title) and "Don't Do It" (a virtual remake of "Baby Let's Make Love"). "Be Mine" is a fine ballad song and a worthy follow up to "Earth Angel". The nastiness continues as Curtis Williams sues Dootsie Williams (no relation) and Dootone Records. Williams the writer of "Earth Angel", "Hey Senorita" and "Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild" alleges non payment of royalties for performing, recording, and composing. Dootsie Williams and Dootone counter sue both Buck Ram and Mercury, alleging that they conspired to induce The Penguins to break their existing contract with Dootone Records. A new element is added to all this litigation as Jesse Belvin and Carl Green separately sue Dootsie and Dootone claiming that they actually wrote "Earth Angel" and are due compensation for composer royalties. In the middle of this storm of suit and counter suit, Dootsie Williams accepts a gold record award for the sales success of "Earth Angel" which is climbing toward the one and a half million mark with 25% of all sales in the Southern California area.

In mid May, Alan Freed emcees a show in Detroit called Command Performance, to help fight the spread of juvenile delinquency in that city. The show features a spotlighted appearance by The Penguins. In late June Dootone Records releases both sides of the first two Penguins singles as a 45 rpm extended play album which is a huge success. In July The Penguins get an outstanding Performer award from the Seven-Up company. Back out in Southern California The Penguins tour with Percy Mayfield and Big Jay McNeely and his combo. Mercury #70654 is released - "Walking Down Broadway" and "It Only Happens With You". During August The Penguins hit the San Francisco bay area with a series of shows with Big Boy Groves, then continue on to the Southwest with Earl King and Joe Jones. In late September Mercury # 70730 features "Devil That I See" and "Promises, Promises, Promises".

The Penguins appear on the L.A. television show "Strictly Informal" with Larry Finley. Broadening their horizons on the musical stage, the group will appear at The Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas on the bill with the Les Brown Orchestra. In November the group is back in their true element as they play a big R & B revue at the Los Angeles Paramount along with Dinah Washington, The Platters, The Colts, Big Jay McNeely and Joe Houston. Dootone releases another Penguins 45 rpm EP and they appear on the first Dootone LP which is called The Best Vocal Groups along with The Medallions, Meadowlarks, and Calvanes. The recording of "Devil That I See" does especially well in the Philadelphia area. The Penguins, B.B. King, and The Platters are featured on Hunter Hancock's L.A. television show. The group goes to New York to take part in the year end reopening of Harlem's Small's Paradise night spot. They move next door to the Apollo Theater for the holiday show, while Mercury releases a holiday pair on #70762 - "A Christmas Prayer" and "Jingle Jangle".

The Penguins begin 1956 being featured on Los Angeles radio. In early February Mercury #70799 features "My Troubles Are Not At An End" and "She's Gone Gone Gone". In March Buck Ram puts together a show entitled "Rock-A-Rama" which will attempt to present the music in a refined manner. The show also stars The Three Chuckles, Eddie Fontaine, Shirley Gunter, The Blockbusters, and Arnold Dover. The tour will cover New England and New York State. Mercury Records announces that they will shift The Penguins and other R & B styled acts to their new subsidiary label called Wing. In April the group appears with Doctor Jive and his R & B revue at the Apollo Theater. In May Mercury releases "Dealer Of Dreams" and "Peace Of Mind" on Wing #90076. The next month the group does a turn on Alan Freed's CBS network radio show. Freed also announces that The Penguins will appear at his Second Anniversary Show over Labor Day week at the Brooklyn Paramount.

The enormous success of the original break-in comedy record "Flying Saucer" by Buchanan and Goodman on Luniverse Records has the unique side effect of reviving interest in the Penguins original version of "Earth Angel" on Dootone. The group moves on for a two week stay at Washington D.C.'s Casino Royale. Not to be caught napping, Mercury sees the renewed interest in "Earth Angel" and rushes The Penguins into the recording studio to cut a new version of their all time hit record. It is out on Mercury # 70943 with "Ice" as the flip. The new version is an interesting treatment with an emphasis on pop music styling and soft instrumental backing on the celeste rather than the classic pounding piano on the original. Many record buyers like the contrast between both versions,and this curious effect causes the second version to do much better than expected. The Penguins now become part of Buck Ram's "Happy Music Show" which attempts to present the music in a controlled environment, putting R & B and rock's best conduct up front rather than the wild and raucous atmosphere that usually accompanies these revues. Many take Ram's outlook as a direct slap at Alan Freed. The Buck Ram show spends all of December in California.

1957 was certainly a strange year for The Penguins. They recorded three times for three different labels during that time. To make matters worse for the group, they had trusted their career to Buck Ram, but all his time and energy was taken up by his management of The Platters who had become an enormous name in the pop music field and the Penguins felt they were now second class citizens in the Ram stable. Mercury released #71003 early in the year - "Will You Be Mine" (which was ironically the sub title to "Earth Angel") and Cool Baby Cool". Two months later the group recorded their one and only Atlantic release on #1132 - "Pledge Of Love"and "I Knew I'd Fall In Love" which is today only remembered as a collector's item, and late in the year back with Dootsie Williams on Dootone (actually now called Dooto because of a threatened lawsuit by the Duotone Corporation) with #428 - "That's How Much I Need You" and "Be My Loving Baby". By now the feeling was that The Penguins had their shot and now it was over, and they were just marking time. The results seem to bear that out. They had only two forgettable releases for Dooto in 1958 - "Let Me Make Up Your Mind"and "Sweet Love"on #432, and "Do Not Pretend" and"If You're Mine" on #435. A Penguins LP on Dootone did little to improve their lot as they tried to regroup.

With changing personnel now a fact of life with the group, Cleveland and Dexter tried a new approach adding two female voices and recording as The Radiants for Dooto #451 "My Heart" and "To Keep Our Love", but this effort was no more successful than the last. This seemed to signal the end of the line for the group, but - three years later a release on the obscure Sun State label reminded people that there still was a group known as The Penguins. Out of left field, a recording for Art Laboe's Original Sound label that had released the very first Oldies But Goodies LP (which included the original Dootone version of "Earth Angel" complete with full intro) created some interest. It was a tune written by future rock iconoclast Frank Zappa concerning the fifties scene in the Southern California suburbs of L.A. called "Memories Of El Monte" (and of the R & B revues at Legion Stadium) that hit a chord with many listeners of the vocal group sound. The limited success of the record led to a second release for Original Sound - "Big Bobo's Party Train" and "Heavenly Angel". Nothing much was heard from the Penguins again until 1969 when Richard Nader's first attempt at recapturing the performers of the 50s featured an abbreviated lineup (Cleve, Dexter, and a female voice - possibly Vesta White of The Radiants) wowed the oldies crowd. The surviving live recording of the show still has the old magic for the lead voice of Cleve Duncan on "Earth Angel" and is a valid post script for one of the very best vocal groups ever, and the quartet that harnessed the music explosion at the very moment of its ignition and started it all - The Penguins, those dealers of dreams.

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