The Five Keys : Part Two - Capitol Records and Beyond ©2002JCMarion


In September of 1954 the country (and indeed the world) was on the verge of a cataclysmic explosion musically speaking, the likes of which had never been witnessed. Alan Freed had come to New York and 50,000 watt station WINS to spread the news of good rockin' tonight. It was at this precise time that The Five Keys had signed a recording contract with a national major, Capitol Records of Hollywood, California. The time for the group it seemed, was right and the listening public awaited. Late in that month Capitol #2945 is released. It pairs "Ling Ting Tong" with "I'm Alone". In support of their first Capitol record, the group does a week at New York's Apollo Theater in early October. "Ling Ting Tong" is selling well in all parts of the country and looks to be the group's biggest since "My Saddest Hour". The group is booked into the Regal Theaters in both Cleveland and Chicago. As the sales for the Keys on Capitol continue to increase and the numbers begin to affect the pop music audience, other major labels are starting to take notice. The first inclination is to make "cover" records featuring established pop stars as in the case of the Fontaine Sisters cover of The Charms "Hearts Of Stone" which was in turn a cover of the original by The Jewels. This is the first indication of a move toward the merging of R & B and pop formats.


The Charms with Otis Williams now continue on their cover record career with their version of "Ling Ting Tong" for DeLuxe. This practice is most always a sure sign of a certified hit and so it is with the Keys. It is the biggest seller for them and gets into the pop charts as high as number 28. In late January Capitol releases the followup record on # 3032 - "Close Your Eyes" and "Doggone It You Did It". The group signs on with a traveling revue for a series of one nighters called The Top Ten R & B Revue. The show stopped at the Court Theater in Springfield, Massachusetts where the group was well received with their live versions of the two Capitol sides. The next morning tragedy struck the group as 26 year old Ulysses Hicks died of a massive heart attack in the lobby of the Charles Hotel in Springfield. Former member Rudy West, recently discharged from the army immediately rejoined the group.
"Close Your Eyes" breaks big in many parts of the country, as the ballad looks to better the group's previous hit for Capitol Records. The Keys sign to appear with Alan Freed in Boston and Providence in late May. Big box office follows in many night spots such as The Copa in Pittsburgh for a week in June. At this time the newest Capitol side is out which features a ballad written (so it is said) by Alan Freed called "The Verdict". The other side is a novelty number called "Me Make Um Pow Wow" on # 3127. In July the Keys sign on for the latest version of the Top Ten R & B Revue to embark in mid-August for 50 one nighters throughout the Southeast. Along with the Five Keys will be The Clovers, Joe Turner, Gene & Eunice, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Charlie & Ray, and Paul Williams band. A sure sign of the great sales of the tune "The Verdict" is the large sales number for the sheet music for the song. The group is the first act at the new Big Show Lounge in Kansas City. In August Capitol releases "Wish I Had Never Learned To Read" and "Don't You Know I Love You" on # 3185.


During Labor Day week at New York's Apollo Theater, the SRO sign was out early and often as huge box office business was done by Dr. Jive (Tommy Smalls) and his R & B Revue. The Five Keys starred along with Bo Diddley, Joe Turner, Charlie & Ray, Dolores Ware, The Hearts, Spaniels, Claudia Swann and Buddy Griffin's band. The Five Keys after signing with a national major label (Capitol) are set to make R & B history again as they are set to appear on an all star segment of R & B performers hosted by Dr. Jive (Tommy Smalls) on the national CBS telecast of the Ed Sullivan Show. Along with the Keys will be Bo Diddley, LaVern Baker, and Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson and his band. Late in the year Capitol # 3267 is released featuring the up tempo novelty "Gee Whittakers" and backed with "Cause You're My Lover". Doctor Jive goes into the Brooklyn Paramount for Christmas Week and the first act signed for the show are The Five Keys. Also signed are The Flamingos, Turbans, Shirley & Lee, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, Willis Jackson, and (believe it or not) headliner Pat Boone !
The Five Keys start off the year of 1956 by signing for a big touring revue of the South to begin in Pittsburgh in late January. The headliner will be Bill Haley & The Comets and will also star LaVern Baker, Red Prysock, The Drifters, Platters, Turbans, Shirley & Lee, Bo Diddley, and Roy Hamilton. In mid-January the group returns to the Apollo in New York with fellow Tidewater neighbor Ruth Brown, Charlie & Ray, and Roy Milton. Capitol releases "You Broke The Rules Of Love" and "What Goes On?" on #3318 late in the month. Before hitting the road for the big touring revue with Bill Haley, the Keys do dates in the Midwest with Detroit dj Robin Seymour at the Riviera Theater and Cleveland dj Phil McLeon at Keith's Theater. On both bills are Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, The Jewels, Teen Queens, Ivory Joe Hunter, Ernie Freeman, and others. At the end of the road tour in mid-April, Capitol features a jump tune "She's The Most" on their new record. The flip side is "I Dreamed I Dwelt In Heaven" on #3392. In June the Keys are teamed with Louisiana Cajun music ace Clifton Chenier for a number of dates in Oregon and Washington. The latest release by Capitol Records hopes to energize sales by the group which have not been very successful during the last year. "Peace And Love" / "My Pigeon's Gone" on #3455 does not stop the slide during the summer.


In late June the Messner Brothers, owners of Aladdin Records bring a lawsuit for breach of contract against the Five Keys and Capitol Records claiming losses and damages. In August after some serious discussions about the direction of the group's music, a session was done for Capitol Records where it was determined that a more pop music sound might revive the group's flagging fortunes in record sales. The result of this experimentation was "Out Of Sight Out Of Mind" a song written by Ivory Joe Hunter with a straight forward lead vocal by Rudy West. The flip side was a rhythm throwaway called "That's Right" released as #3502. Aladdin Records plans a label compilation LP album to be released featuring a number of sides by the Keys from the early 50s. In September The Five Keys share the stage with the Five Satins in an interesting double bill at the Circle Theater in Cleveland. The fall months prove to be a winner for the group as Capitol's move for a more pop music sound has paid off. "Out Of Sight" is shaping up as the biggest seller in the long career of the group and a big boost for the Keys personal appearance demand. The record would chart in pop music's top thirty, remain on those charts for almost two months, and become a certified gold record selling over one million. They return to Cleveland for a sold out week at The Chatterbox, and big business at Kansas City's Orchid Room. At year's end Capitol releases another pop influenced gem by the quintet "Wisdom Of A Fool" on #3597, paired with "Don't That Prove I Love You". Once again the record's pop influence and style win out on the sales charts as the record gets to number 35 nationally. Sales are not as huge as the previous hit, but these are heady times for the group. Unfortunately, this would be the high water mark for the Five Keys, and they would never attain this level of acceptance again.


The hot streak for the group does not continue and they spend the year of 1957 trying to see if they can return to the charts with Capitol. "Wisdom" continues to sell into 1957 but after that, "Let There Be You" / "Tiger Lily" on #3660 with noted conductors Dave Cavanaugh on "Let" and Van Alexander on "Tiger Lily", "Four Walls" / "It's A Groove" on #3710, "This I Promise" / "The Blues Don't Care" on #3738, "The Face Of An Angel" / "Boom Boom" on #3786, and "Do Anything" / "It's A Crying Shame" on #3830, all are quickly forgotten after a minimal amount of airplay and sales. The group still has name recognition and does a continuous series of personal appearances plugging their newest record, but concentrating on their past successes. They start off the year signing on to Irvin Feld's "Greatest Show of 1957" with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, Bill Doggett, The Moonglows, Five Satins, Charles Brown, and others. In May Aladdin Records plans to release an LP of earlier sides the group did for that label on their new Score Records. Their last attempt for the year was a revival of the Inkspots great treatment of the tune "The Gypsy" which is not noticed. Beginning the year 1958 Capitol pushes #3861 "Whippety Whirl" and "From Me To You" giving prominence to the lead singers on each - Maryland Pierce on "Whirl" and Rudy West on the ballad. However the label's promotion attempts do not result in any positive sales results and so they try again with #3948 which features the tunes "With All My Love" and "You're For Me". In July Capitol goes the extra mile in pushing "Emily Please" and "Handy Andy" on #4009 for the group, but the results are the same. They end the year with another forgettable effort on #4092 - "Really O Truly" and "One Great Love". This was the swan song for the group on Capitol Records as their recording contract was not renewed. The Five Keys five year run at the Hollywood major was over. The group was without a label, but not for long.


In late 1958 Rudy West left the group and signed as a solo artist for King Records. He was replaced by Dick Threat. At this time Dickie Smith reappeared as part of the newly revamped Five Keys. From 1959 through 1961 the Keys had a number of records out for the King Records label based in Cincinnati, Ohio. "I Took Your Love For A Toy" on #5251, "Dream On" / "Dancing Senorita" on #5273, "How Can I Forget You" / "I Burned Your Letter" on #5302, "Rosetta" on #5330, "I Don't Know" on #5358, "Valley Of Love" on #5398, "You Broke The Only Heart" / "That's What You're Doing To Me" on #5446, and "Stop Your Crying" / "Do Something For Me" on #5496, and "I'll Never Stop Loving You" on #5877 were the efforts by the group for the label. By the early sixties it was a new day for the surviving R & B acts. The Five Keys had been at it since the mid forties and their time was long gone as a hit making entertainment package. They occasionally reformed, recording records and CDs for the "niche market" including some fine a capella tunes, and are present for the oldies show circuit which began in the late 60s and are always well received. Rudy West continued as lead singer wherever an audience for the sound of the R & B vocal groups exists. They were there before the beginning, and were present during and after the doo wop era, and are one of the very best practitioners of this style and their history and influence will be with us forever.

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