The Bop Chords ©2003JCMarion


The story of the group kown as The Bop Chords is so very typical of New York City in the mid fifties. The neighborhood "rep" was of major importance and many inner city kids looked to music for that respect. That most perfect of instruments, the human voice, was the vehicle that inspired this path. By the mid fifties the sound of the city was certainly that of the R & B inspired vocal groups. But gone were the sounds of smooth harmony that so long had been the identifiable trademark of this style . In its place was a rougher and earthier blend of voices that was more urgent and more "streetwise" to its listeners. From this atmosphere came the Bop Chords in Harlem of 1956.

The lead singer of the group was Ernest Harriston, the tenor voices were William Dailey and Butch Hamilton, the baritone was Mickey Smarr, and the bass was Leon Ivey. Although all had spent some time harmonizing in the area, only Hamilton had some extended experience appearing on a record made by a little kown group called The Five Wings and had also crossed paths with a fine vocalist who would become famous in years to come as Ben E. King. So there they were, five voices in search of a record company joining so many others on this same maiden voyage. Soon they were put in touch with record man Danny Robinson who was just putting the final touches on his new recording enterprise he called Holiday Records located on Eighth Avenue in uptown New York City. They all agreed that a song that the group had toyed with called "Castle In The Sky" was a good first choice to put on wax. This tune coupled with "My Darling To You" was released on Holiday #2601 in late May of 1956.

The up tempo "Castle" was an immediate favorite of New York dj's Hal Jackson and Tommy "Dr. Jive" Smalls and both got many requests for the tune. The chime intro, the loping beat, and hook laden bridge section of the song made it very recognizable and gave it that "X factor" that is so much a measure of success - it was a song that was sung (on and off key) by people on the street and had a maddening way of staying on someone's mind for days. It had all the makings of a winner. Soon the group was asked to appear at that temple of talent, the Apollo Theater in Harlem with the Dr. Jive Revue along with LaVern Baker, Vicki Nelson, Billy Bland, and the parade of groups - The Schoolboys, Cadillacs, Jayhawks, and Cookies. The Bop Chords had made it !

Now with their new found "rep" the quintet got some local gigs and were neighborhood celebrities. Soon they were aiming for a second record for the label and they came up with another winner in "When I Woke Up This Morning". The flip side was "I Really Love Her So" and the songs were released on Holiday #2603 in the fall of the year. The reaction to the up tempo "When I Woke" was a duplicate to their first side. Again they performed a recognizable and very danceable tune, one that listeners really liked. And once again the record sold in triple figures mostly in the Northeast, and was a mainstay on area radio programs. But now the nagging questions that troubled so many of the vocal groups of the fifties - where were the royalties from record sales ? The usual trail of creative bookeeping that was so much a part of the vocal group scene in the fifties became apparent. And in what was repeated so many times back in the day, it took its toll on the chemistry among four or five members of the team. William Dailey and Mickey Smarr left the group and were replaced by Skip Boyd and Peggy Jones. The Bop Chords had become a different set of voices by the dawn of 1957.

The third release by the group was the ballad "Baby" and "So Why" on Holiday #2608. Ernest Harriston did some impassioned vocalizing on "Baby" and the record got some airplay, but not nearly as much as the previous happy up tempo sides. Sales of the record were not encouraging. In early February of the year The Bop Chords were part of a big benefit show for the Harlem PAL held at the Savoy Ballroom. On the bill with the group were Johnny & Joe, The Chips, Channels, Fi-Tones, and The Hearts. The group held their act together for a time but they all knew the end was near. There were no more recording sessions held although there was talk of another session for Danny Robinson which never materialized. The last appearance by the group was a big show held by New York radio personalities Jack Walker and Hal Jackson at the Hunt's Point Palace on Southern Boulevard in The Bronx on the first of November. The Bop Chords appeared on stage with a real groupfest with The Bobbettes, Chantels, Rays, Deltaires, Rob Roys, Dubs, and Shells with Big Al Sears and his band. And then The Bop Chords were no more.

Ernest Harriston did some vocal work with vocal groups around the city such as Shep & The Limelights and The cadillacs. He also recorded as a solo artist in the early sixties. But - the golden era of the R & B vocal groups was at an end. And during that era when 1956 was the center of the universe, the Bop Chords were in the middle of the scene that has provided a million memories with their two all time classic tunes.

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