A Moment In Time : The Gladiolas & The Diamonds©2000JCMarion


In the early nineteen fifties, around the campus of the University of Toronto, four students toyed with the idea of organizing a singing group. As most college students in this era (very much unlike today) they distanced themselves from the tastes of high schoolers in their growing love for the new sounds of R & B that went under the guise of rock 'n roll. College students developed an acquired adult sound of the mainstream end of the modern jazz spectrum such as the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Cal Tjader combo, Jonah Jones and the singing groups the Hi-Los and Four Freshmen. These four Torontonians were also heavily influenced by their fellow Canadians known as The Crew Cuts who hit the big time with pop covers of R & B hits "Sh-Boom" by The Chords and "Oop Shoop" by Shirley Gunter & The Queens. The as yet unnamed foursome consisted of Dave Somerville on lead, Ted Kowalski on tenor, Phil Leavitt on baritone, and Bill Reed on bass.


By early 1955 the group now called The Diamonds had been signed to Decca's subsidiary label Coral Records. Following the lead of the Crew Cuts they did two covers - "Black Denim Trousers" a tepid original by a one hit group called The Cheers (with TV's Bert Convy) on Capitol, and The Clovers' "Nip Sip" on #61502. Neither of these Coral releases went anywhere. The second try for Coral "Smooch Me" / "Be My Lovin' Baby" on #61577 also did an immediate deep six. The group was now adrift after the two failures and without direction and they might have vanished but for a big move by their manager Nat Goodman who got in touch with the country's number one breakout disc jockey, Bill Randle of WERE in Cleveland, Ohio. Through his influence, they were sent for an audition with Mercury Records in Chicago which was the label that had The Crew Cuts under contract. The powers that be at the label saw a similar possibility as the other Canadian group and soon The Diamonds were in the studio and their first release for their new label hit the streets.


In March of 1956 they covered The Teenagers "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" and The Cleftones "You Baby You" on #70790. Unbelievable as it may seem in the context of the times, "Fools" became a top fifteen pop chart hit for The Diamonds and Mercury hit paydirt again with a Canadian cover. The rest of 1956 saw The Diamonds hit with three more covers - The Willows "Church Bells May Ring" on #70835, The Clovers "Love Love Love" on #70889, and The G-Clefs "Ka-Ding Dong" on #70934. The group did an original "My Judge And Jury" on #70983 which bombed, and ended the year with another cover of The Heartbeats "A Thousand Miles Away" which went nowhere. By now the Mercury execs were in a bit of a quandary. They felt the cover record concept might be wearing a bit thin as many of the country's teenagers were becoming much more astute and going with the originals rather than lukewarm covers by pop music oriented recording artists.


In early 1957 someone at Mercury Records heard a strange R & B sound from a unique label based in Nashville, Tennessee, called Excello Records. The label specialized in "down home" blues musicians such as Lazy Lester, Earl Gaines, and especially Slim Harpo. The label recently had success with a vocal group called The Marigolds on a R & B original "Rollin' Stone" on #2057, and they followed that up with "Two Strangers" on #2061, and two sides featuring former Prisonaires lead vocalist Johnny Bragg on "Foolish Me" on #2078 and "It's You Darling It's You" on #2091. The success with The Marigolds led the label to launch a group from South Carolina called The Royal Charms. Lead singer of the group Maurice Williams felt the group was ready to expand their local base and contacted Ernie Young head of Excello Records in Nashville where they soon headed for an audition. Young was impressed with the group especially the songs written by Williams, and in particular one tune called "Little Darlin'". He had the vocalists change their name, and staying with his "flower" motif (a la The Marigolds) he named them The Gladiolas. "Darlin'" was released early in January of 1957 on Excello #2101 and from the get-go the strange Latin rhythms and vocal inflections made for success on the R & B charts where it went as high as the number eleven best seller in the country.


The scene shifts to Chicago where Mercury Records played the tune for Somerville and his fellow Diamonds. They learned the song and soon went into the studio to record their cover version of the song. Mercury #71060 was released in late February of 1957 and because of its status as a major label with access to airplay and national distribution, the Diamonds soon were being heard from coast to coast. This time something was different. Somehow everyone got it right on this one recording, from the tricky rhythms, the exaggerated falsetto of Kowalski, strong lead by Somerville, and the speaker rattling bass of Reed, it was the ultimate cover record. An absolute "killer" intro featuring castanets, a clanging cowbell, and the harp glissando, leads into the wordless first chorus featuring Reed on bass leading into the lead vocal. Reed's recitation in the middle of the song is not too far from a "fool" voice used in many tunes but he pulls it off keeping with the dramatics of the song. After this section another harp touch leads into the final chorus featuring an almost brittle vocal by Somerville where he almost spits out the vocal with an elongated exaggeration with background also featuring a hard vocal edge. The "cha cha cha" ending caps it off, and the record is over. In one of the extremely rare instances in American musical history, a White cover group (Canadians no less) outdid the original in rhythm and feeling making for the greatest vocal group cover record ever (yes better than the Charms "Hearts Of Stone" and The Drifters "Adorable"). "Little Darlin'" sold more than a million, got as high as number two on both the pop charts and R & B charts and was a major hit of 1957.


After "Darlin'" the Diamonds got on the charts with "Words of Love" on #71128 and "Zip Zip" on #71165, and then the top ten with a cover of The Rays "Silhouettes" on #71197 (the flip was a cover of The Rays flip "Daddy Cool"-one of the best flip sides of the late fifties). Early in 1958 The Diamonds made the top five with an original called "The Stroll" (#71241) regarding the dance step popularized on American Bandstand. The group made sporadic appearances on the best seller lists through the early sixties including covers of The Solitaires "Walking Along" on #71366 (which spurred Old Town Records to re-release the original) and The Danleers "One Summer Night" in 1961 (#71831). After that last moderate charter, The Diamonds disbanded became part of history. And The Gladiolas ? They had three more sides, all unsuccessful for Excello - "Run Run Little Joe" (#2110), "Hey Little Girl" (#2120), and "Shoop Shoop" on #2136. Maurice Williams then got a taste of the business end when they were dumped by Excello and told the label had the legal right to the name. Back to South Carolina they went with a new name as The Zodiacs and did five tunes for obscure local labels that are rare collector items today : "Golly Gee" / "T Town" Cole #100, "Lover" / "She's Mine" Cole #101, "College Girl" / "Say Yeah" Selwyn #5121, the hopefully named "Another Little Darlin'" / "Lita" Soma #1418.


By 1960 with numerous personnel changes the new Zodiacs were given a shot with veteran New York R & B label owner Al Silver of Herald Records. The 'A' side was a slow-medium tempo tune called "Stay" featuring a blasting falsetto section by Williams and an original sound for the group. Reaction was not long in coming for Herald #552. The record began to sell and be played on radio stations across the country. By the time the record had crested, Maurice Williams had the monster hit he had possibly been deprived of by The Diamonds cover three years before. "Stay" went all the way to the top spot, becoming the number one selling record in the entire country. There were no follow up successes for the group and they subsequently recorded for a number of labels throughout the sixties after Herald such as Atlantic (one side), Scepter, SphereSound, Seahorn, and Deesu. The group has kept in the public eye ever since because of the incessant popularity of "Stay" from a place in Beach Music (based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina) and on soundtrack recordings such as "Dirty Dancing" and television advertising.


The parallel stories of The Diamonds and Gladiolas / Zodiacs are each interesting enough, but that moment in early 1957 when the two worlds collided and produced the greatest vocal group cover record ever, is the stuff of dreams and legends, and the kind of occurrence that will probably never ever happen again - but we were there !


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