Promise Unfulfilled : The Cellos©2004JCMarion


As in so many instances, the genesis of a vocal group begins in the hallways, stairwells, and yes, bathrooms of a public high school. Certainly in the mid nineteen fifties, the setting of an urban hall of learning was usually not without the wavering sounds of young voices raised in harmony producing the sounds of the day. Such was the case at C.E. Hughes High School in New York City in 1956. The practitioners of the vocalizing included Alton Campbell, Clifford Williams, Bill Montgomery, Bobby Thomas, and Alvin Williams. The original name of the group was The Marcels and they would practice tunes by one of their favorite groups, The Harptones. As soon as they felt that they had enough knowledge and style, The group thought it was important to come up with some original songs to present to the public. Alvin Williams had a tune that he had been fooling around with for a while, and the group worked out the harmonies and vocal parts. That silly little novelty song would become an American original classic. It was called "Rang Tang Ding Dong" after the nonsense syllables sung by the group in the song. It would be known forever more however as "The Japanese Sandman".

The group made a demo record of a few songs in early 1957 and through a lucky connection came to the attention of the Apollo Record company. This label was one of the pioneering New York independent labels featuring R & B music but lately had fallen out of favor with the young rock and rollers looking for the next Teenagers or Schoolboys. Apollo saw their chance and soon the group was in the studio with the renamed group now called The Cellos. In April of 1957 the single was issued on Apollo #510. The flip side was a ballad tune called "You Took My Love". The record hit like a howitzer that spring. It was seemingly everywhere at once. Where ever you went in the city you would hear the quasi-oriental opening, smashing gong, and the falsetto asked question "Who are you?" with its bass voiced answer "I am the Japanese Sandman". One of the great opening moments of all recording history. It couldn't miss !

Alan Freed quickly saw the monster potential of the record and just as fast signed the group for his Easter show at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. The only problem for The Cellos and Apollo Records was that the side was known by both names and some distributors and record industry people confused the issue by not knowing the situation. For instance a top distributor for Apollo in the Northeast was quoted in the trade press as saying that he had not received a single order for "Rang Tang Ding Dong". When asked about "The Japanese Sandman" he replied that he couldn't keep up with the demand and didn't know where to find copies of the record ! The problem came about when a copyright for the title "The Japanese Sandman" was denied because there existed a song with that name from the nineteen twenties that had been a hit a decade later for Belgian jazz guitarist Django Rheinhart. So Apollo tried to put both titles in equal sized print on their label to try and help the situation. Just to add a bit more confusion was the issue of the proper pronunciation of the group's name - with a hard 'c' (CHellos) or a soft 'c' (SHellos), which Apollo preferred. Did it really matter ?

By May the record had hit the national pop charts and was number sixty in the country. In retrospect it is hard to imagine but that month the inevitable cover versions began, the first by Chuck Miller for Mercury Records. By late May the record is selling big in the South and Midwest areas of the country. In July Apollo Records takes a calculated risk with the group. While their first record for the label is still breaking in new territory (namely the West Coast and mountain states) a second record by The Cellos is released. Again the 'A' side is a novelty tune, this one called "The Juicy Crocodile". While the tune is a bouncy fun novelty like the first, this one does not have a solid danceable beat as does "Rang Tang Ding Dong". The flip side is called "Under Your Spell" and is out on Apollo #515. That month The Cellos sign on for a six week rock 'n roll touring show (with an option for four additional weeks) that starts out in Milwaukee and head west. Also in the lineup are The Coasters, Five Satins, Gene & Eunice, and Lucky Thompson's band. In late July "Rang Tang" is picked as record of the week by two competing radio stations in Los Angeles. In August the big touring show with The Cellos plays Denver and then to L.A. where the additional four weeks are added and the West Coast swing will play thirty three dates. The "Big Rock & Roll Show of 1957 will play locations along the coast from Mexico to Canada.

While the group does well on tour, Apollo's strategy does not work and the release of "The Juicy Crocodile" is not much of a success. Initial popularity in the New York area is not duplicated in other parts of the country and by October the group tries again. Apollo #516 features "The Be-Bop Mouse" and "Girlie That I Love". This time out the record disappears almost immediately as Apollo seemingly pulls the plug on the group. They could still get a few gigs as an opening act on the strength of their 'name' from their first record, but time was running out. There was one more release for Apollo in March of 1958 on #524 pairing another novelty "What'sa The Matter For You" with a ballad "I Beg For Your Love" which also went nowhere. That was the end of The Cellos, and also soon would be the end of Apollo Records. Alton Campbell and Billy Montgomery kept at it by joining a reconstituted version of The Channels, and all were left with their memories of fleeting fame.

It has always been a mystery to me as to why certain things happen that seemingly defy explanation. Here is a perfect example. The Cellos first record had the perfect novelty tune - one of a kind intro, catchy hook laden vocal, blasting sax solo by Sam Taylor, priceless jump stop ("all you guys say the big things . . . .etc") where even people who hated rock were forced to smile. And add to that a flip side that was as good a vocal group ballad from the fifties as any - strong backup singing, solo and two part harmony lead vocals, and a great ensemble performance. You can't tell me that five guys that could produce such a superior effort the first time out could not follow with performances at least equal in quality and dynamics. BUT - The Cellos did not and soon became another of those historical asterisks known as "one hit wonders". They were not the only ones - the landscape of rock 'n roll history is documented with like circumstances. But this particular one, this particular group's failure is the one that has bothered me for more than forty years.

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