The Five Keys Part One : The Aladdin Years ©2002JCMarion


In 1946 in the Tidewater area of Virginia, in particular the shipbuilding town of Newport News, a pair of brothers got together and formed a musical quartet to sing gospel music. The four members were Rudy and Bernie West, and Ripley and Raphael Ingram. Practicing often after school and in their local church, they were originally known as The Harmonizing Four. After a number of months they began to try their hand at pop music and soon turned their attention to that field. They changed their name to the Sentimental Four and began to make personal appearances in their home area. They had entered the local weekly amateur nights held in the Jefferson Theater with great success and soon the manager of that theater Isaac Burton became the manager of the group.


Raphael Ingram had gotten his "greetings" from Uncle Sam, and was replaced by Maryland Pierce a high school classmate of Rudy West's. Soon lead singer Dickie Smith also joined and the new group was rechristened The Five Keys. Burton brought the group to New York to do battle at the most famous of all amateur nights, the one at the New York Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem. The Keys hit the stage and gave a snappy rendition of the pop standard "Them There Eyes" and knocked 'em dead and took the win. They returned to the Newport News-Portsmouth-Norfolk area of Virginia and did many local club dates. They were spotted by Irving Miller who produced the traveling all Black Revue called "Miller's Brown Skinned Models" which played southern dates at carnivals, fairs, and expositions. This experience let the Keys get lots of practice on the road and how to handle the business end of their chosen profession.


In early February of 1951, Eddie Messner head of Aladdin Records in Los Angeles, on a talent scouting trip to the Eastern part of the country, signs the Five Keys to his label. After some practice and song choices, the first release by the group was set in late April on Aladdin #3085 - "With A Broken Heart" and "Too Late". The initial offering for the label did not do much but it did not take long for the Five Keys to hit their stride with their second release during the summer on Alladin #3099 of the pop standard "The Glory of Love" and the flip side was a jump tune called "Hucklebuck With Jimmy". The ballad side takes off immediately on the West Coast and soon is the hottest selling R & B record in Los Angeles. The well known Shaw Agency takes over booking and management of the group and the are set to open for a week during Labor Day at Philadelphia's Club Harlem. Soon after the Keys sign on for a series of one nighters in the South and Midwest with Joan Shaw and Billy Ford's band. In late September the Messner Brothers of Aladdin Records declare "Glory Of Love" the label's biggest seller ever. The Hollywood Four Flames record a cover version of the song for the Recorded In Hollywood. In October the group is threatened with legal action over their name said to be originated by a group called The Keys consisting of the four Furness brothers. At years end, the Five Keys have a seasonal release on #3113 with "It's Christmas Time" and the flip side of "Old MacDonald".


The year 1952 started out with "Old MacDonald" getting a new flip side on #3118, the old time tune "Yes Sir That's My Baby". The group also does in person appearances in the Boston area, and follows it with a tour of the South along with Varetta Dillard, Billy Wright, and Hot Lips Page and his band. In early May the group does a week at New York's Apollo Theater along with Big Joe Turner. About this time the newest release by the group is out on Aladdin#3127 - "Red Sails In The Sunset" / "Be Anything But Be Mine" this time pairing two pop music standard ballads. Following quickly was #3131 - "How Long" and "Mistakes" in late May. The Five Keys are booked with The Griffin Brothers combo for a river cruise on the Potomac River in August. Saul Richfield was now the manager of the group and in July the group continues with a spate of pop standards on #3136 with "I Hadn't Anyone Till You". The flip side is the ballad "Hold Me" which was a hit for The Larks. Later in the year during November, The Five Keys are honored by Aladdin Records president Eddie Mesner for their success on the label. The group finished up a very successful week at Detroit's Plantation night spot and are headed for a week at the Sportsman's Club in Newport Kentucky. "I Cried For You" and "Serve Another Round" are released on Aladdin #3158 in mid November. For the Christmas season the group will appear with Charlie Barnet and his orchestra in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Arcadia Club. At the end of the year Rudy West and Dickie Smith were slated to do service for the U.S. Army, and so replacements Ulysses Hicks and Ramon Loper were added to the five voices.


In February of 1953 the Keys continued on Aladdin with #3167 - "Can't Keep From Crying" and "Come Go My Bail Louise". When that release showed little promise the group followed it up with an answer record to Ruth Brown's massive Atlantic hit "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" in late March. The Five Keys tune was called "Mama Your Daughter Told A Lie On Me" and was coupled with "There Ought To Be A Law Against Breaking My Heart". In May The Five Keys are the first act to appear at a new night spot in Jacksonville, Florida called The El Sambo Room. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the Keys return to the standard ballad approach with their version of "These Foolish Things" on Aladdin #3190. The flip side of the new release is "Lonesome Old Story". In July the group does a week at Weeke's Lounge in Atlantic City with Milt Buckner and Freddie Cole. In October The Five Keys are signed to do a number of one nighters in the Mid Atlantic states. The unique bill will also headline the Woody Herman Orchestra. Aladdin #3204 by the group is released. The record features the songs "Teardrops In Your Eyes" and "I'm So High". The Keys do a number of one nighters in the Northeast starring with Chuck Willis and Milt Buckner's Combo. The group rounds out the year with their new Aladdin release "My Saddest Hour" and "Oh Babe" on # 3214.


Beginning in 1954, it seems that "My Saddest Hour" is the best selling Five Keys record since "Glory Of Love". Also in January Dickie Smith former Keys lead singer has signed a recording contract with Bruce Records in New York to perform as a solo act, and soon has "A New Kind Of Love" out on his new label. In March the Keys new Aladdin release on #3228 is "Someday Sweetheart" and "Love My Loving". The quintet is booked at many night spots along the Eastern seaboard throughout the spring with such stops as Odd Fellows hall in Wilmington, Delaware, and Elk's Lodge in Alexandria, Virginia. Although sales have been spotty for the group on Aladdin they continue to be a good draw on the road owing to their two big hits "Glory Of Love" and "My Saddest Hour". In late May #3245 is released featuring "Deep In My Heart" and "How Do You Expect Me To Get It?". On June 25 The Five Keys appeared at Moondog's Birthday Ball in Akron, Ohio. The show mc'd by Alan Freed also starred Joe Turner, Faye Adams, Al Savage, and the Joe Morris band. The complete sellout (many were turned away) was also noteworthy for the fact that more than one-third of the audience was White, a fact not lost on representatives of eastern radio station WINS in New York which is mulling over plans to bring Freed and his show to the big apple. Meanwhile the group saw the end of its association with Aladdin Records coming to an end. The group was originally set to go to RCA Victor and its subsidiary label X (soon changed to Groove), but that deal was soon buried. On August 29, Dave Cavanaugh A & R rep for Capitol Records announces the signing of The Five Keys to the Hollywood based major label. This is a breakthrough for the group and one of the very few instances of an R & B act getting a shot with a national major. Recording sessions for the group are set up for mid-September.


After the move to Capitol, there were two further releases on Aladdin by the group. The first was #3263 - "My Love" and "Why Oh Why" in November of 1954, and a re-release of "Glory Of Love" (called "The Story Of Love" in some ads) b/w "Serve Another Round" on #3312 in January of 1956. But in September of 1954, the rock 'n roll tidal wave was about to be unleashed and the veteran Five Keys with seven years of professional experience behind them were poised to become a part of the biggest musical explosion the world had ever seen.

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