Magic Mirror : The Empires©2004JCMarion


The R & B vocal group that became The Empires had their beginnings in the Tidewater area of Eastern Virginia. Les Cooper, his cousin Bill Goodman, and his nephew John "Buddy" Barnes, were all from the Portsmouth-Norfolk area of Virginia. They all found their way to New York City in the late nineteen forties where they met up with a fourth member, Bobby Dunn, who was originally from North Carolina. They began their vocal efforts in 1953 around their Harlem neighborhood, looking for singing gigs and attempting to impress the ladies. By the time they felt that they were ready for a try at recording, they made the local rounds and were given a shot with the Harlem Records label begun by recording company insider Morty Shad in September of 1953. The new label had recently signed The Serenaders, Brownie McGee, and The Kings.

The new group called themselves The Empires and set up a date for their first session in September of 1954. The two songs released from that first date were "My Baby My Baby" and "Corn Whiskey" and were issued on Harlem # 2325. The record seemingly disappeared almost as soon as it was available and lost out on airplay among the local New York radio stations. In May of the following year Harlem # 2333 was released by the group. The songs were "Magic Mirror" and "Make Me Or Break Me". Listed on the label as lead singer on the tune "Make Me" was one Johnny Ace Jr. (in reality Buddy Barnes), in a crude attempt at capitalizing on the tragic death of the real Johnny Ace the previous New Year's Eve in Houston, Texas. This time their record got some airplay on the smaller local R & B radio stations such as WLIB with Hal Jackson and WOV with Jack Walker. Although the record with its version of "Magic Mirror" was not a big seller, it gave the group name recognition and led to some local club gigs and area dances. The last record by the group for the Harlem label was released in June of the year featuring the songs "Somebody Changed The Lock" and "Ragged And Hungry" on # 2334. This time the label listed the lead vocalist as "Lightning Junior" who was in reality "Champion" Jack Dupree longtime blues singer who previously recorded for Apollo and Red Robin. He would have a hit the next year called "Walkin The Blues" with "Mr. Bear" (Teddy McRae) for King Records.

In late August of 1955 Mercury Records in Chicago forms a new R & B subsidiary label called Wing. One of the label's first signees is The Empires, who are available because of the demise of Harlem Records. Their first vocal effort for the new label is "I Want To Know" and "Shirley" on Wing # 90023. Late in the year someone at Mercury evidently did not like the name Empires because their next release for the company was listed on the label as by The Prestos. They were also moved from the Wing label back to the parent Mercury for their release of "Till We Meet Again" and "Looking For Love" on # 70747 in December of 1955. At about the same time Wing came back with one last record by the group as The Empires - "By The Riverside" and "Tell Me Pretty Baby" on Wing # 90050.

In March of 1956 Mercury decides to make another attempt to concentrate on moving all their R & B talent to the Wing label and the pop music acts to stay on Mercury. In April of 1956 Buck Ram manager of The Platters and Penguins (also on Mercury) takes over management of The Empires. In June of the year Wing releases # 90080 featuring The Empires on the songs "My First Discovery" and "Don't Touch My Gal". Nothing much comes of the group's output for Mercury or the management by Buck Ram. By December of 1956 the group is now on Whirlin Disc Records for Bobby Robinson, and "Whispering Heart" and "Linda" are released on # 104. In the spring of 1957 the group changes names again, this time recording as The Whirlers with a remake of "Magic Mirror" and "Tonight And Forever" on Whirlin Disc # 108. In September of 1957 there was a record released on Amp-3 #132 by The Empires with "If I'm A Fool" and "Zippety Zip". According to reliable sources, this was a completely different group from the original Empires.

The Empires called it a career in late 1957, after toiling for more than five years and not much to show for it. Les Cooper however, had some success after the breakup. He hooked up with Danny Robinson and his Everlast label from the South Bronx and was involved with two of that labels vocal groups The Ladders ( "I Want To Know" and "My Love Is Gone") and The Charts ("Desiree", "Why Do You Cry", and "What's The Reason") . He then went from the vocal scene to the instrumental one as he honed his piano playing talents and organized a group called The Soul Rockers that had a chart hit in the early nineteen sixties called "Wiggle Wobble" a big hit pushed by Murray The K in New York. He also recorded as part of the duo Les & Gloria (Ford) for the Enjoy label in 1963.

The Empires were in reality a New York City neighborhood vocal group, one of so many that proliferated during the early and mid fifties. They were the backbone of the urban sound of R & B in those years and The Empires were part of that scene that served as the link between the R & B pioneers and the teen idols that followed in the late part of the decade of the 1950s. They were an invaluable part of the history of the music that today still dominates the recording industry.

to next page . . . . . . .

back to title page . . . .