Mount Vernon is a working class suburb of New York City located in Westchester County just to the north of the Bronx. There in the halls of George Washington High School in the fall of 1956, the Scholl brothers Robert and Jerry, and three of their friends Ed Quinn, Neil Arena, and Larry Esposito liked to do some harmony and hit some notes in their versions of their favorite groups of the time, The Teenagers and The Schoolboys. One day about this time, the group called The Mellotones, made contact with a musician named Dick Levister who thought the group showed a lot of promise. Levister was sure that they would be a natural for a recording contract, and so as the boys newly appointed manager, looked for an opening for his local talent. He was instrumental in getting together with one of the true heavyweights in the R & B world in New York, Al Silver the head of Herald Records.
Silver was sure the promise he heard in their delivery, could pan out to produce a hit record for his label as had previous groups he recorded such as The Nutmegs and The Turbans. Picking an appropriate song with which to pair the group with presented a bit of a problem. All sides finally consented to do a tune called "Tonite, Tonite". The finished version was a competent ballad done with a shuffle beat with understated rhythm rather than the heavy 2/4 so much a part of R & B music. The clear enunciation and well modulated harmonies made for a classic side, and the release on Herald #502 (the flip side was "Do Baby Do") during the summer of 1957 was an instant smash hit. It was one of those records that seemed to be a multi million seller because it was everywhere at once. The visual appearance of the group with their trademark white jackets (at Levister's insistence, supposedly) helped them forge an identity with the teenage public. There was however one problem. That summer of 1957 there was a record out on George Goldner's Gee label #1037 called Rosie Lee by The Mello-Tones which even got in the top 25 pop charts. Oops! A quick name change using Levister's nick name King, and Herald #502 was quickly re-released as by The Mello-KINGS.
That their manager and accompanist Levister was Black is a reason most people give as the reason for the classic Black doowop sound of the group. I'm not so sure. I may just give them credit in singing the way that they felt comfortable with. I for one, was never convinced they were not White. (in fact the only group from the whole era that completely had me fooled as to their race after hearing their sound was The Capris on their original version of "There's A Moon Out Tonight" in 1960). Keeping that whole issue in perspective, the record was a big seller in the Northeast, again having regional ties. They made more than one TV appearance with Dick Clark on both the daily American Bandstand, and his weekly Saturday Night show for ABC network.
Late in 1957, the Mello-Kings returned to the Herald recording studios and the result was #507 - "The Chapel On The Hill" and "Sassafras". The ballad side ("Chapel") was a smoothly sung tune, again with a soft shuffle rhythm in the style of recent recordings by The Five Satins and Lee Andrews and The Hearts. The up tempo flip side was a tune with tricky lyrics and an infectious beat. Both were certainly worthy of a big seller status, but that just didn't happen. Radio play was there but as soon as it was evident that the record was not selling, airplay became non-existent. Next up for the group and Herald Records was #511 - "Baby Tell Me Why Why Why" and "The Only Girl For Me". This time the release did a disappearing act as soon as it was released. That spring Herald was out with the newest Mello-Kings record. It was #518 - "She's Real Cool" and "Valerie". The ballad side "Valerie" featured the Mello-Kings at their creative peak. It has that sound of a classic doowop tune with its ascending vocal runs at the intro and on the end and is simply just a great song. I have always felt that it was one of the great lost classics of the era. Its popularity was greater than any of the group's singles since their first effort, but was far from enough to be charted nationally.
Just as "Valerie" was released, Herald came out with their first LP album called "Herald The Beat". It was a compilation album of all the labels biggest hits by The Turbans, Nutmegs, Faye Adams, Charlie & Ray, and The Mello-Kings were prominently featured with three tunes ("Tonite Tonite", "Chapel On The Hill", and "Sassafras"). Sales of the excellent LP helped spread the word of The Mello-Kings and improved the groups visibility on the music scene in 1958. After the release of "Valerie", the group began going through some personnel changes as is so often the case. The Mello-Kings never again attained the sales and popularity they had, but they moved on with five more releases on the Herald label from 1959 to 1961. There was "Chip Chip" and "Running To You" on #536; "Dear Mr. Jock" and "Our Love Is Beautiful" for #548; "Kid Stuff" / "I Promise" on #554; "Penny" and "Till There Were None" on #561, and "Love At First Sight" and "She's Real Cool" on #567 in 1961. There was one further release on the little known Lescay label in 1962 (#3009) "Walk Softly" and "You Lied".
The Mello-Kings as a unit made one last appearance years later for Richard Nader in one of the very first revival shows in 1969 and can be heard reprising "Tonite Tonite" on the commercially released LP of the show on Kama Sutra records. So ends the story of The Mello-Kings (and don't forget King Levister) as a part of the history of the music of the vocal groups of rock 'n' roll. In summing up their story, it probably couldn't be said better than the words of legendary New York dj Scott Muni in introducing the group during the revival show in 1969 when Scottso said "Your record collection cannot be complete without the sound of The Mello-Kings". Amen.
A postscript to the original article - an e-mail from Neil Hartman informs me that the story of the Mello-Kings did not end in 1969, but in fact continues to this day. The group appears regularly, has recorded a new CD and was recently featured in a television program for PBS featuring the group called "Red, White, and Rock", so 2003 finds the sound of the Mello-Kings alive and well and deservedly so.
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