Zoom : The Story of the Cadillacs ©2000JCMarion


The story of the Cadillacs begins on the street corners of Harlem in New York City during the spring of 1953. As usual the guys built a reputation in the neighborhood for the ability to put across a tune. At that time the name of the group was The Carnations, and the original members of the quartet were Earl Carroll, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, and Gus Willingham. From the halls of PS 140 on 140th Street, and the stage of St. Mark's Church, the "name" status of the young group began to spread. From other would be singers in the area, they were put in touch with Esther Navarro, an agent and writer/producer with the Shaw Agency a top booker of R & B talent. This agency was known far and wide in the R & B circles of the early nineteen fifties by their slogan that "there's no business like Shaw business." The foursome auditioned for Navarro who was impressed enough by the guys that she set up a first recording session for the group.

Before that very first session however, Navarro made two changes in the group. First as a response to a suggestion by Lover Patterson a manager of various vocal groups such as the Five Crowns, James "Poppa" Clark a sometimes member of the Crowns was added to the new group. They were now a quintet. The second suggestion was a change of name - from the Carnations to what ? As a response to a passing car that caught the eyes of the young vocalists, this sure fire sign of success was what they wanted - a flashy new Cadillac. And so the Cadillacs were born. Esther Navarro contacted many independent record producers and met with little success until she contacted Jerry Blaine head of Jubilee Records, and he decided to give the new quintet a shot in the recording studio as part of a new enterprise he had launched - Josie Records (also known as JoZ). The time was the summer of 1954 and musical history was about to be made.

The five voices with backing by Rene Hall's Combo recorded four tunes in June of 1954. These four songs became the first two releases for the label. By the first of July in 1954 Josie #765 is released featuring "Gloria" and "Wonder Why". The group did not know it or couldn't even guess at the time, but this recording would create a unique history as part of the story of vocal group singing. At the time the release did not become a big seller but did catch the ear of a number of listeners in New York and Philadelphia. The Josie label with the Cadillacs release, along with new records by the Four Bars and the Ray-O-Vacs, attempt to become a brand new R & B player in the Northeast.Getting a bit of publicity with the new record, the Cadillacs are part of an R & B and jazz show called "Moonlight Sail With The Stars" along the Hudson River in New York. Also on the bill are The Scarlets, Velvets, Caverliers (soon to become The Fi-Tones Quintet), and jazz greats Kenny Dorham and Thelonious Monk. By the end of the year the second release on Josie #769 is out pairing "Wishing Well" and "I Wanna Know About Love".

At the outset of 1955 there were two changes in the Cadillacs world. The first was a major personnel change in the makeup of the group. Original member Gus Willingham left as did James Clark. They were replaced by Earl Wade and Charles Brooks. Wade had gotten some renown as lead singer for a group known as The Crystals who also recorded as The Opals. Brooks had vocalized with a number of neighborhood groups and was familiar with some of the Cadillacs. The second big change was supposedly the idea of Esther Navarro. She wanted her group to distinguish themselves by working on their stage presence, and for this she enlisted the services of dancer and choreographer Cholly Atkins of the long standing dance duo of Coles and Atkins. Part of a wonderful tradition of dance masters such as The Nicholas Brothers, The Will Mastin Trio with Sammy Davis Jr., The Four Step Brothers, and Peg Leg Bates, Atkins worked with the Cadillacs to develop what was to become their trademark dance routines. This learning sequence added the final ingredient in making the Cadillacs a group to experience on stage.

In late January all the parts were in place, and the group certainly delivered. Josie #773 was one of the great vocal group jump tunes ever released. "No Chance" took off on a full run, and the legions of new fans of the music hyped by Moondog Freed now in New York took to the tune in a big way. Backing up the group now was a combo led by smoking sax man Jesse "Tex" Powell recently with King Records recording with Fluffy Hunter and Danny "Run Joe" Taylor. "No Chance" was just a perfect uptempo R & B tune, with snappy lead by Earl Carroll, jump stop bass by Drake, and super riff singing by the rest of the group. Throw in a stomping sax break and the sound is complete. Add to the equation the synchronized dance routines crafted by Cholly Atkins, the knockout wardrobe, and confident stage presence, and suddenly the Cadillacs were the definite "must see" group for the fans of the R & B scene.

In February for a big benefit show held by the New York B'nai Brith organization, radio personality and m.c. Dick "Ricardo" Sugar booked The Cadillacs and The Hearts from Baton Records. As word of the group spread and the Josie release was heard, the Cadillacs were suddenly in demand. In April the 1955 Rock 'n Roll Festival was held at St. Nick's Arena in Harlem. Featured along with The Cadillacs were Lillian Leach & The Mellows, Varetta Dillard, Otis Blackwell, and the bands of Red Prysock and Joe Morris. Later that same month the Cadillacs joined Dr. Jive at Harlem's Rockland Palace for a WWRL radio sponsored show that entertained a turn away crowd with Roy Hamilton, The Hearts, Charlie & Ray, Buddy Johnson's Orchestra with Ella Johnson and Nolan Lewis and special guest headliner Billie Holiday. Coming off the first true hit record by the group it was time to put together a follow up which is always an important influence in the life of a recording act. For their next release, the Cadillacs turned up the tempo.

Josie Records released #778 in mid June - "Down The Road" and "Window Lady". The 'A' side was the rollicking "Down The Road" another classic example of up tempo vocal group R & B. The supercharged step down acoustic bass intro leads into Earl Carroll's jump vocal with great riffs by the group and bass vocal touches by Drake. A very progressive jazz tinged sax break by Powell leads into the second bridge with vocal by bass singer Lavern Drake. His last note on the bridge is picked up nicely by Carroll on the final chorus which leads into the final scatty wordless ending. With "No Chance" and "Down The Road" impressed upon the R & B public's consciousness, The Cadillacs were suddenly at the top of their game. They certainly didn't realize it at the time, but the best was yet to come for them and for the R & B world.

In July the group appears at the Apollo Theater in New York with radio d.j. Hal Jackson's big R & B show which also starred Willie Mabon, The Solitaires, Titus Turner, Annisteen Allen, The Honeytones, Little Jimmy Scott, and the Arnett Cobb band. In September, "Down The Road" breaks out big in New York City and the East coast. The Cadillacs stage show routines are the talk of the R & B world as they have forged a new direction from the former masters of the form such as The Orioles, Clovers, Vocaleers, and Ravens. They had the "look" of the young modern vocal groups that had taken the music over in the year of 1955. Working on their new record for Josie in the fall of 1955 they settled on another uptempo tune that concerned their lead singer Earl Carroll. Lavern Drake's four beat intro into "Speedo" (originally "SpeedoO) with its immortal tag line "They often call me Speedo but my real name is Mister Earl" took the country by storm during the fall and early winter of 1955. This third jump tune in a row for the group seem to place them in an exalted position as a group that was a tastemaker, one that led the way so others could follow. They were now the group that other groups watches as to stage presentation, choreography, and how to put over a song.

In December of 1955, the Cadillacs were certainly a busy R & B entity. The first week of the month found the group once again at the Apollo Theater, this time with The Pearls and the Sil Austin combo. Alan Freed now no longer legally allowed to call himself "Moondog", is however the leading purveyor of the new sound of American popular music. His big "Rock 'n Roll Holiday Show" held at New York's Academy of Music star The Cadillacs along with LaVern Baker, The Wrens, Valentines, Gloria Mann, The Heartbeats, Three Chuckles, Boyd Bennett & The Rockets, the Count Basie Orchestra with Joe Williams,and sax players Sam Taylor and Al Sears. By the end of the year "Speedo" is on the national charts and inspires terrible covers from pop music retreads. Almost overlooked in the tidal wave of popularity for "Speedo" is the bluesy ballad on the flip side called "Let Me Explain" which surprisingly gets some airplay in many areas. This effort shows the public that the Cadillacs can put over a ballad well and have not abandoned that style since the time of "Gloria".

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