The Singular Solitaires
By the spring of 1954 it had been some months since the end of the Mello-Moods vocal group. Three members of that unforgettable vocal quintet, Bobby Baylor, Bobby Williams, and Monte Owens, now found themselves members of a new unit in the Harlem neighborhood, one who called themselves The Solitaires. The group also included Herman Curtis (formerly of The Vocaleers), Pat Gaston, and Buzzy Willis, and they worked on their musical styles in hallways, street corners, park benches, and the recreation room of the local police precinct. As soon as they began to make a name for themselves in the area, their reputation brought them to the attention of local d.j. and radio personality Hal Jackson whose program "The House That Jack Built" on radio station WLIB, was an area favorite. It was this link that brought the group to stationery store owner Hy Weiss, who had begun a small independent record label named after his store. It was called Old Town Records, and it operated out of an unused room at the Triboro Movie Theater in Harlem. Weiss liked the sound of the new group enough to sign them to his label and have the group on Old Town's very first release - #1000 - "Wonder Why" and "Blue Valentine". They also appeared on Old Town #1001 singing backup with R & B singer Ursala Reed on "Ursala's Blues" and "You're Laughing Cause I'm Crying". Their own effort did not fare well and they were soon in the recording studio once again. The result was #1006 - "Please Remember My Heart" and the pop standard "South Of The Border", which was a hit for Frank Sinatra on his first record for Capitol. The 'A' side, "Please Remember" does show some popularity with sales in both New York and Philadelphia. Old Town #1008 provides the group with their final release of 1954 - "Chances I've Taken" and "Lonely". The group begins to make personal appearances in the area including a neighborhood "battle of the groups" at the Three Towers Inn.
In January of 1955, The Solitaires show the power of their artistry with a superbly atmospheric rendition of the pop ballad "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You" on #1010. The flip side of this release is "Girl Of Mine". The framing of the falsetto singing of the title (by Herman Curtis) sets up this performance beautifully. With only an intermittently heard piano and guitar in the background, the voices carry the tune and its memorable arrangement. The stop tempo bridge (sung by lead Bobby Williams) , leads into some breathtaking harmony on the last chorus. The vocal and arrangement (by Williams) are a centerpiece of what this young group was capable of and gave a hint of what was to come. The tune was not a big seller but because of its unique sound found favor among radio personalities such as Ralph Cooper, Dr. Jive, and Jack (Mr. Pearshape) Walker. In the spring of 1955, The Solitaires were back with a rhythmic ballad entitled "My Dear" on Old Town #1012. The flip side was called "What Did She Say". The 'A' side "My Dear" featured Herman Curtis again on lead on a smooth ballad song with a pronounced beat and heavy bass by Pat Gaston in unison with the piano fill between chords. Although the recording balance is wanting (especially on the second half of the bridge), this record coming on the heels of "Ghost" proved to most listeners that this was a group to pay attention to. Alan Freed must have agreed because he featured the tune on his show, unlike the previous release. It seemed that the Solitaires were on the verge of true stardom.
It was at this most important time in the Solitaires history that military service intervened, and Herman Curtis departed, and his place was taken by another neighborhood singer named Milton Love. He played a major role in the next release by the group. In the late summer of 1955, Old Town released #1014 - "The Wedding", a marvelous and dramatic reading of the marriage vows set to an R & B vocal group ballad. Beginning with a solemn reading of "the question"(Do you take this woman . . . etc), Bobby Baylor and Milton Love take off with the I do's in a great two part tenor harmony lead. They trade lines on the bridge, and launch into the final chorus which concludes with the pronouncement and a final wordless harmony fill. It has remained as one of the more unique arrangements in vocal group history and the one record that certainly established the Solitaires as one of the very top vocal groups of the time. The new found celebrity status led the group to a series of personal appearances throughout the Northeast, including a performance in celebration of the re-opening of Harlem's famed nightspot Small's Paradise, now owned and operated by radio personality Dr.Jive.
At the end of the year the followup recording by The Solitaires provided a surprise as the uptempo side proved to be a hit- "Later For You Baby" on Old Town #1015. Most listeners preferred the bouncy side to the flip side called "Magic Rose". Early the following year, Old Town Records released #1017 by Ruth McFadden of a tune entitled "Darling Listen To The Words Of This Song" (another tune with Alan Freed given as a co-composer). This record was a big regional hit and has always been a big question to me. Those with more knowledge than I in these matters insist the backing vocal group are The Solitaires (listed on the label as The Supremes), while I have always thought the group was in reality The Royaltones (with Eddie Carson of "Crazy Love" with the same label). The Royaltones did some backup work with Ruth McFadden for Old Town (#1020 - "Two In Love") so perhaps that is the basis of the confusion. In March of 1956, the Rock 'n' Roll age was in full swing and The Solitaires now recorded a natural sequel to their song about wedding vows. It was called (obviously) "The Honeymoon", and once again paired Bobby Baylor and Milton Love in two part tenor lead harmony, and both trading vocal lines on the musical bridge. Once again the song ends with a lovely high harmony finish, and even though the recording feel of this tune has a rougher balance than "The Wedding", the vocals put it over and the record did quite well. Love takes the lead on the flip side which has always been a personal favorite of mine."Fine Little Girl" pulls out all the stops and is a straight ahead rocker of the first order. I remember seeing the group sing it in person back in 1956 with an extended rocking "zoom zoom" chorus at the end that I wanted to see and hear go on and on. This release on Old Town #1019 is an original two sided classic.
The Solitaires were now one of the premier vocal groups in the field of Rock & Roll (as the music was now referred to). Coming off their latest Old Town releases the group was a big hit at Dr. Jive's Easter week review at the Apollo Theater in New York and followed that up with a big rock review at the State Theater in Hartford, Connecticut. Other areas of the country now came calling and the Solitaires began the road to national popularity. In July, the latest Old Town release by the group (#1026) was released. This time it was two superb ballads - "You're Back With Me" and "You've Sinned", both featuring the lead voice of Milton Love. Radio plays began by featuring "You've Sinned", but as more and more listeners heard the other side it began to appear as though it would be the more popular tune. It was quickly renamed "The Angels Sang", and now the record really took off. "The Angels Sang" had everything- a wonderful song with interesting chord changes in both the main chorus and on the bridge, good recording balance of all the voices, great lead by Love (jumping up to falsetto for one line during the bridge), and a fine dramatic ending (instead of the usual fadeout which was so overused). A long held memory I have of seeing the group do this tune in public is the full sound of the group, and the stunning similarity to the recorded version that they achieved on this most rewarding song. "Angels"became a staple of radio programming that fall of 1956 as the group was at the top of their game. Unfortunately however, at this time Bobby Williams left the group to pursue his arranging and keyboard talents, teaming up with the likes of jazz musicians Charles Mingus and Kenny Dorham (illness would claim his life in less than five years). Pat Gaston also left the group for military service and was replaced by Freddy Barksdale, recently part of the New Yorkers Five group ("Cha Cha Baby").
Hy Weiss announced that August and September of 1956 were the most profitable months in the history of Old Town Records, helped in no small part by the great sales of "The Angels Sang". The Solitaires took part in a weeklong feast of vocal groups at the Apollo Theater in mid October which also featured The Dells, Pearls, Channels, Flamingos, Velours, and Royal Jokers. Late in the year the group records again and the result is Old Town #1032 - "Give Me One More Chance" and "Nothing Like A Little Love" both featuring leads by Milton Love. For the first time in nearly two years the group fails to gain a decent amount of sales or radio play, and the record gets lost almost immediately. The Solitaires recover quickly however, as maybe the return of Herman Curtis is a lucky omen. He sings lead on "Please Kiss This Letter", a fine ballad tune. It is the jump tune on the flip side however that makes all the noise. Milton Love sings lead on "Walking Along", a happy nonsensical tune that had all the right features for success. A wordless bass intro by Barksdale leads into the vocal, and the tune features the "wo wo wo's", and the bass "yeahs", and the stop tempo stomping feet in unison that make the record one that is immediately identifiable. Weiss leased the record to the Chicago based Argo label, where it did the job of distribution in the Midwest that contributed to its national hit status, and producing the biggest hit record of the Solitaires existence. The next few months were a whirlwind of personal appearances as the hit record of "Walking Along" takes the group into mainstream pop music stardom. They don't record again until late in the year when "I Really Love You So" and "The Thrill Of Love", both featuring Herman Curtis are out on Old Town #1044. The record does not chart.
The first (and as it turns out- the only) release by the group in 1958 is Old Town #1049 - "Walking And Talking" and "No More Sorrows". Herman Curtis does the lead singing on "Walking" which is his final effort with the group, and it does moderately well keeping the Solitaires in the public eye in the Northeast. Another interesting feature of this recording is the "borrowing" of bass singer Wally Roker, long a mainstay of The Heartbeats who subbed for Barksdale on this session. The late fifties was a time of profound changes in the pop music scene, many of them not so friendly to those that originated in the world of R & B in the early part of the decade. The Solitaires remained true to their beginnings, and though the success of their efforts had waned by the late fifties, they perservered. Old Town #1059 featured Milton Love on lead for "At Big Mary's House" an interesting jump tune, and "Please Remember My Heart" a fine ballad in the group's classic style. The other release for the year by the group was on #1066 and featured a return to their earliest Old Town days with their version of the pop music torch song "Embraceable You" with a fine reading of the tune by Milton Love. (The flip side was "Round Goes My Heart"). The record received some airplay and sales but it was evident that the glory days, as they were, had become a part of their past. By 1960 the group continued to record and perform, but now moved in a more modern style of vocalizing.
There would be three more Solitaires recordings for the Old Town label. "Helpless" and "Light A Candle In The Chapel" were released as #1071 in late 1959. The following year "Lonesome Lover" and "Pretty Thing" were Old Town #1096, and in 1963 the final Old Town record by The Solitaires "The Time Is Here" and "Honey Babe" on #1139. Ten years had passed from the very first Old Town recording, which is certainly a landmark for longevity by one vocal group on the same label for all those years. It was surely one of the great associations with group and label ever. There was one final recording by the group as The Solitaires for MGM in 1964 - "FoolThat I Am" and "Fair Weather Lover", both again featuring Milton Love on lead. Thus ended a decade of excellence by the New York vocal group that had become a part of so many music fan's lives during the 1950s. As their name implies, they stand alone as a vital part of our musical history. They are indeed, singular.
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