Life Is But A Dream : The Harptones ©2001JCMarion


In the springtime of that long ago year of 1953 in New York City, three neighborhood vocal groups from different parts of the city came together and formed a unit that would endure for the next half century. The groups were the Harps from the lower east side of Manhattan in and around the Lillian Wald housing project, and the Five Skylarks and Five Crowns both from Harlem. This association and interaction resulted in the formation of the group called The Harp-Tones which consisted of Willie Winfield on lead, Bill Dempsey and Nicky Clark on tenor, Bill "Dicey" Galloway on baritone, and Bill Brown on bass. The group began to get their act together and then added a very important component of their sound - keyboard player and arranger Raoul J. Cita. After practicing their music and honing the sound that was to become such an identifiable part of the nineteen fifties, the stage was set for the group to record. Into the picture came Morty Craft, Leo Rogers, and Monte Bruce and the distinctive purple Bruce record label.


The very first try in the recording studio produced a classic of the age when the Harp-Tones sang their version of a song that had been a big hit for pop singer Fran Warren with the Claude Thornhill orchestra in 1947 - "A Sunday Kind Of Love" (on Columbia 37219). The song seemed a lucky piece for the group since that was one of the songs that they featured as The Harps at amateur night at the Apollo Theater. The record was released as Bruce #101 in late November, and by mid December Bruce Records was being overwhelmed as fifty thousand copies of the record had been sold in just two weeks. The song had everything - the big Hammond organ intro which sounded like those radio soap opera interludes from the thirties, a wonderful reading of the lyric from Winfield, and great harmony both backup and ensemble singing on the bridge by the rest of the group. A memorable sendoff ended the ballad and the sales rush for the tune proved the attraction of the group. The flip side of the record was called "I'll Never Tell" and it even garnered some interest as the sound of the Harp-Tones flooded the radio airwaves during early 1954.


"Sunday" turned out to be a huge success, and nowhere else was it as big as in their own home town of New York. Some mainstream radio stations were even playing the R & B disc so great was its popularity. The group spent much of January touching base with all the radio station dj's in the Northeast with label boss Monte Bruce. Reports from the Midwest indicate that the record is breaking big in Chicago. The sales continue into late February as the Harp-Tones return to the Bruce recording studios for a follow up record, and also sign on to appear at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a far cry from the night a year or so earlier when they were onstage during amateur night. This time they will be one of the star attractions on the world famous marquee. The group also appears at the Harlem Festival of Music and Drama held at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The group appears with Carmen Taylor, The Larks, Four Tunes, and Hal Paige and his combo. The group has now officially dropped the hyphen from their name and are now The Harptones.


The group is now very much in demand as they do a week at Philadelphia's Uptown Theater followed by one nighters in Atlantic City and Asbury Park, New Jersey. Further proof of the popularity of the Harptones so soon in their young career is shown by the fact that they are one of the acts chosen to appear at Alan "Moondog" Freed's very first R & B show to be held in the East. The Mayday Moondog Coronation Ball will be held May 1 at the Armory in Newark, New Jersey. Sharing the stage with The Harptones will be The Clovers, Muddy Waters, Charles Brown, and Buddy Johnson & his orchestra. "A Sunday Kind Of Love" continues to sell as the second release on Bruce (#102) the Cita written "My Memories of You" starts to move. The flip side is a Dicey Galloway vocal on "The Laugh's On You". The draw of the music and its performers, and a harbinger of things to come was the result of the Moondog show in Newark. Ten thousand got in up to capacity, and thousands more were turned away, a sight unseen in the Northeast since the height of the swing craze twenty years before.


The Harptones are now a class "A' attraction and tour the theater circuit - the Howard in D.C., the Royal in Baltimore, and back at New York's Apollo. "My Memories of You" is a top selling R & B disc and is also making some pop hit lists especially in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The tune with its plaintive intro by Winfield and much ensemble singing by the group again backed up by the big sound of the organ (played by jazz stylist Jimmy Smith not session man Teacho Wiltshire) is a real winner with listeners. In late March "I Depended On You" and "Mambo Boogie" are released on #104 and quickly forgotten. Lead singer on these tunes was Nicky Clark in the absence of Willie Winfield for reasons that are still shrouded in mystery. In July Monte Bruce allows The Harptones to sing backup for girl singer Bunny Paul for Philadelphia's Palda Recording Company of Dave Miller. The sides are "Honey Love" and "I'll Never Tell" and are released on Essex #364. That month the group records its newest songs for Bruce Records - "Why Should I Love You" and "Forever Mine" with The Shytones Combo on #109.


Mainly on the strength of sales by The Harptones, Bruce Records opens branch offices in Chicago and Los Angeles. Monte Bruce also buys out Power Records and sides by Herb Lance and Don Gardner. The group's "Why Should I Love You" is covered by The Four Lads for Columbia, another sure indication that The Harptones are a top recording act. The record is given a further boost in the Northeast when Moondog Freed comes to New York radio in September on station WINS. The 'A' side actually has a short lived appearance on the national pop charts, no small feat for a New York City R & B vocal combo in 1954. In late fall Freed plans his first R & B show in New York to be held in mid January at St. Nick's Arena in Harlem. The Harptones will be reunited on stage with Freed at that show due to the fact that they were judged one of the top vocal groups by radio listeners to Freed's show. Before that the Harptones star for a week at the Apollo Theater to coincide with their latest release for Bruce records "Since I Fell For You" / "Oobidee Oobidee Oo" on #113. After the Apollo date, the group will do the theater circuit in the Northeast again.


In January of 1955, Alan Freed's Rock 'n Roll Ball at St. Nick's Arena in New York was a complete sell out for two nights. The show featured the Harptones along with R & B stars Joe Turner, Fats Domino, Buddy Johnson & his band, Danny Overbea, The Drifters, Clovers, and Moonglows. In March Bruce #128 is released and it features The Harptones on Ivory Joe Hunter's great song "I Almost Lost My Mind". The flip side is the jump tune "Ooh Wee Baby". In April the group spends the month on a tour of night spots throughout New England. Bruce Records also releases two 45 rpm EPs by The Harptones (#201 and 202) and announces plans for an LP by the group. In may The Harptones headline a show by WNJR Newark's dj Danny "Cat Man" Stiles in Passaic. Also on the bill is Varetta Dillard and The Nutmegs. In June Hy Weiss head of Old Town Records announces the signing of The Harptones to his new subsidiary label Paradise Records after the split up of ownership of Bruce records. Leo Rogers will continue as the group's manager. The first release for the new label is out in July on #101 and features "Life Is But A Dream" and "You Know You're Doing Me Wrong".


"Life Is But A Dream" has the sound of a huge hit as soon as it is heard on radio. The dramatic intro by Willie is followed by trading verses between Winfield and the rest of the group. The title and main refrain of the song bring to mind the like sounding tag line from "Sh-Boom" which gives the song some built in familiarity and serves to further enhance the record's "can't miss" appeal. The group spends much of the summer on tour throughout Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The group is back on stage with Alan Freed during Labor Day week at the Brooklyn Paramount where all time records are set for attendance and gross earnings set years ago by the comedy team of Martin & Lewis. In early November the group appears at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with the Doctor Jive R & B Revue with dj Tommy Smalls. Also on the bill are Bo Diddley, The Jacks, Flamingos, Heartbeats, Bill Doggett, and Willis Jackson's band. Smalls will feature some of these acts on the night of November 20 on a segment of the Ed Sullivan TV show. During the month as "Life Is But A Dream" continues to sell, Paradise #103 is out which features The Harptones on "My Success (It All Depends On You)" and the jump tune "I've Got A Notion". The group plans a lengthy tour of Europe to begin in mid January which is quite a departure for performers in the R & B field.


In the spring of 1956, Leo Rogers takes The Harptones away from Hy Weiss and has them record for a label he starts called Andrea Records. Their one and only release is #100 - "What Is Your Decision" and "Gimmee Some". The sound of the group is moving further toward a more refined pop music feel, more like "Life Is But A Dream" and less like the bluesy mood of "My Success". There was also some backup work on other labels such as behind Ruth McFadden on Old Town (not on "Darling Listen To The Words Of This Song") but on #1030 - "Little Schoolboy" and "United We Stand". A re-recording of their previous hit "My Memories Of You" was leased by Rogers to the small Tip Top label (partially owned by Rogers) in August on #401 paired with "High Flying Baby", but this record was lost almost immediately. Constant touring during the summer leads into Alan Freed's Second Anniversary Show at the Brooklyn Paramount during Labor Day Week. They seem to be a perennial part of all Freed shows and are always well received. Just before the Freed show, Rama Records announces the signing of The Harptones to that label. Their first recording on Rama #203 is released to coincide with the Freed show. It features "That's The Way It Goes" and "Three Wishes". The side that goes big in the New York area is "Three Wishes" another superb vocal by Willie Winfield on the pop styled ballad. In October the motion picture called "Rockin' The Blues" has its premiere at the Apollo Theater. The Harptones appear in the film as do The Hurricanes and The Wanderers.


In 1957, the year starts out with the group realizing good (not great) sales of "Three Wishes" as a lot more listeners grow accustomed to the pop shadings the Harptones now favor. One style that is popular with the many listeners of vocal group records is the young high tenor lead started by Frankie Lymon. This produces a teenage feel to the music and relegates The Harptones and many vocal groups in similar situations to an "adult performer" status that hurts them among the young record buyers. A second quality release for Rama follows in early 1957 with "On Sunday Afternoon" backed with "The Masquerade Is Over" on #214. "Sunday" follows the path of their previous release with good initial sales on the East coast. All the hallmarks of the Harptones sound are there. The impeccable lead singing by Winfield and the intricate and wonderfully woven sound of the harmony backup show that this is a vocal combo that really knows their way around a song. The next time out for the group on Rama comes in March and features another wonderful ballad tune "The Shrine of St. Cecilia" which is paired with one of their old jump tunes "Oo Wee Baby" on #221. Many longtime vocal group and Harptone fans count their Rama records as their best because of the distinctive sound and polish of these recordings. The ballad tunes certainly show the musical maturity that they had learned as hard workers at their craft for the last five years and are a mainstay of Eastern rock 'n roll. The group stars with Alan Freed's Easter Week show at the Brooklyn Paramount.


In the summer of 1957, George Goldner decided to move The Harptones to Gee records, still hot with The Cleftones and The Teenagers. Continuing the trend that they had established with their Rama Records releases, the Gee side on #1045 featured another wonderful reading by Willie Winfield on "Cry Like I Cried". Willie and the group appear with "Jocko" Henderson at the Apollo Theater for the Labor Day week show at summer's end. The release was on the streets near the end of 1957. The Harptones once again proved their class as an adult act with this side and I have always thought they were the equal of The Platters in this regard. The flip side of the Gee release was "So Good So Fine You're Mine". The ballad side "Cry" carried on into early 1958 and when this record played out its run the group went on a sort of hiatus from the recording studio as if to wait out the changes in the music industry and see where The Harptones would be in this brave new world.


One of the movers and shakers of the recording industry Morty Craft, whom the group knew from their days at Bruce Records, now realigned himself with the group and signed them to his new entity named Warwick Records. In early 1959 the group recorded the pop standard "Laughing On The Outside" and coupled it with "I Remember" on #500. By now the lineup behind Willie Winfield consisted of Bill Dempsey, Curtis Cherebin, Milton Love, a long time member of The Solitaires, and a woman member Toni Brown. "Laughing" got some decent airplay around the eastern part of the country. The Harptones continue to do in person appearances in the Northeast in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Trenton. The next side for Warwick was ""Love Me Completely" on #512 late in the year. The flip side for this release was "Hep Teenager" in an (unsuccessful) attempt to appear timely. In the spring of 1960 the last Warwick single appeared pairing "No Greater Miracle" and "What Kind Of Fool" as The Harptones entered the new decade.


In the early nineteen sixties the group appeared on record for an ever changing array of labels. First after their time on Warwick the group recorded for Co-ed records with ""Rain Down Kisses" and "Answer Me My Love" on #540. Next it was a release on Cub #9097 of "Devil In Velvet" and "Your Love Is A Good Love" noteworthy for the producing efforts of former Solitaires member Buzzy Willis, and two releases on the Companion label in mid 1961. The first on Companion #102 - "All In Your Mind" and "The Last Dance", and was followed by Companion #103 - "What Will I Tell My Heart" and "Foolish Me" and actually entered the pop charts if briefly during 1961. From this point on the recorded legacy of The Harptones takes many twists and turns such as the appearance in mid 1963 on the Bruce label of a session that was recorded a decade earlier - "Loving A Girl Like You" and "High Flying Baby". This in the midst of the fading Twist craze and the building Beatlemania in England. There was a Raven release of remakes of "A Sunday Kind Of Love" and "Mambo Boogie" in 1962.


The group remained a unit in name into the nineteen eighties and even recorded in the early part of that decade for the Ambient Sound label. There are two CDs that remain that preserve the sound of this landmark vocal group. Collectables #5401 features the group's recording for the labels of George Goldner (Rama and Gee) from the latter part of the nineteen fifties. Relic #7021 titled "Sunday Kind Of Love" features the recordings from the Morty Craft and Leo Rogers time, mainly the Bruce recordings from the Harptones classic period.


In summing up, one must certainly count The Harptones as one of the foremost practitioners of the art of the Rhythm & Blues vocal group style. Whenever and wherever recordings in this style are played, the name and music of The Harptones are never far from the listener. They remain one of the best ever, and Willie Winfield definitely raised the bar in the standard he set as a lead singer. Their music will live on forever and ever.


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