Crazy For You - The Heartbeats : Part One©2006JCMarion


In early 1953, a budding vocal group started to take shape in the South Ozone Park section of Queens, in New York City. The group known as The Hearts, consisted of lead singer Albert Crump, tenors Vernon Seavers and Robbie Tatum, and bass Wally Roker. The quartet felt that an additional member would fill out their sound and give them a fuller representation of the songs they were singing, and so the search was on. They would soon find another vocalist looking for the right connections in a nearby neighborhood. He was James Sheppard, and so the group was now a quintet. About the time the group really started to jell, a female group recording for Baton Records started to get great airplay in and around the New York area. The song was “Lonely Nights” and its popularity led the new group to undergo a name change. They didn’t go far with the name now becoming The Heartbeats. After further work on their songs they were put in touch with Russell Jacquet, a jazz trumpeter and brother of classic tenor saxist Illinois. Russell had just started a record label called Network Records, located in Harlem and by the spring of 1955 they went into the studio and recorded two songs written by Sheppard called “Tormented” and “After Everybody’s Gone” on Network # 71200. At about this time there was also a vocal group on Jubilee Records called The Heartbeats, who were a White trio from New York. They broke up after their one record and emerged two years later as The Three Friends and recorded "Blanche" for the Lido label.

“Tormented” got a little airplay in New York but soon was forgotten, and in the ensuing years has become a much in-demand record among collectors. The group then got themselves together and met with William Miller, a constant presence in New York area R & B music circles and father of the Miller Sisters, a gospel and R & B vocal group. The group was now set to record for another new record label, this time it was Hull Records begun by Blanche (Bea) Kaslin (also spelled Caslon) with Miller and Billy Dawn Smith heading up the A & R for the label. A pianist who recorded with Smith named Al Browne headed up the studio back up band, and the simple piano-vibes-bass-drums backup worked perfectly with the new vocal group. In the fall of 1955 “Crazy For You” / “Just Rockin N Rollin” is released by Hull Records on # 711, the first issue for the company. “Crazy” gets good airplay in New York and Philadelphia, and becomes a local favorite. The listeners are attracted to James Sheppard’s impassioned lead vocal and the tight harmony of the rest of the group, especially Seavers and Crump on the high tenor end. Another interesting thing about the tune is that its simple structure and spare minimal production make it a popular song for beginning local groups to practice on and The Heartbeats become the envy of the Northeast. By early November the record has made enough noise locally for the group to be included as part of the R & B Revue presented by Tommy Smalls (“Doctor Jive”) at the world famous Apollo Theater which headlined Bo Diddley, Etta James, and The Flamingos.

The Heartbeats get further name recognition when they are signed to Alan Freed’s big Christmas Holiday Show in New York to be held at the Academy of Music. “Crazy For You” continues to be a good seller in the New York-Philadelphia area. Into 1956 The Heartbeats continue with a mid January booking at Washington D.C.’s Howard Theater. In February, the group appears with Hal Jackson at the Opera House Theater in the Bronx, and a short tour of venues in New Jersey with Ramon Bruce. That month Hull Records releases “Darling How Long” and “Hurry Home Baby” on # 713. “Darling” has many of the same qualities found on “Crazy For You”, but the bridge of the song is a revelation. Wally Roker’s deep bass recitation is echoed by a high tenor voice leading into Sheppard’s final verse. The Ramon Bruce “Rock ‘N Roll Bandwagon” revue that played six locations in New Jersey which featured The Heartbeats, was a huge success and would spur additional live R & B shows in that state.

In May, the third recording by the group for Hull Records was released. This time the group tried a different approach by putting ballads on both sides of the single. “People Are Talking” was originally slated for the ‘A’ side, but immediately after its issue, listeners were also favoring the flip side - a song called “Your Way”. Both sides jumped out as the group now moved to the upper strata of vocal group popularity. Each of their records for Hull had decent airplay and sales with those numbers increasing each time. “People” was a straightforward ballad with a strong lead by Sheppard, and an alternate lead on the second bridge by Albert Crump. “Your Way” featured a different vocal style for the group on this dramatic ballad. The Heartbeats create an a capella feel throughout the song and James Sheppard hams it up on the talking bridge recitation aided by a high tenor echo effect that had a very widespread influence on young vocalists and street corner groups of the time. Later in that month the boys hit the road again, this time to West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania for a show produced by Joel Turnero that also features The El Dorados.

The two sided hit record for the group led Hull Records to extend the group’s recording contract (seemingly a no-brainer). The label readied the next release by the group set for late September of 1956. On the 29th of September Hull # 720 is released. The songs are a ballad called “A Thousand Miles Away” and a double tempo rocker “Oh Baby Don’t”. The ballad featured another impressive, expressive performance by Sheppard , nice lag singing bass by Roker, and excellent harmony from start to finish. As always, the understated instrumental backing led by Al Browne was impeccable. The jump side featured frantic call-and-response vocals with a switch to straight 4/4 rhythm in the middle with a falsetto lead. The response to “A Thousand Miles Away” was immediate and overwhelming. Hull knew they had a potential national top seller on their hands. In late November the trade press announced that Rama Records headed by George Goldner, had bought out the contract of The Heartbeats with Hull Records. Included in the deal were all master recordings by the group and the publishing rights to all of their songs (most of which were written by James Sheppard). “A Thousand Miles Away” would immediately be released on the Rama label . Sitting in on the business transaction were music publisher Phil Kahl (of Patricia-Kahl Music publisher of most of the Rama and Gee label releases) and Heartbeats personal manager Bill Jenkins. Rama # 216 now featured the two tunes by The Heartbeats and it went national pop in a big way. This was followed by the inevitable White pop cover, this time by The Diamonds for Mercury. Closing out the year, the group appears with Alan Freed at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater for the Christmas Week show that breaks all attendance records at the theater. The Heartbeats are now a top in person attraction.

The group begins 1957 with their part in a show at the Apollo Theater presented by Jocko (Doug Henderson) popular dj in both Philadelphia and New York. Mickey & Sylvia and Clyde McPhatter headlined the show. In early February the group plays the Empire Theater in Brooklyn as the R & B vocal groups find new outlets to present their music. In mid March Rama releases "I Won't Be The Fool Anymore" and "Wedding Bells" on # 222. "Fool" got decent reviews and concentrated airplay because of their run of hits for Hull, but it seemed something was missing this time on the ballad side. No one paid much attention to the throwaway flip side this time either. Further complicating matters was the buyout of Rama/Gee/Tico labels as well as the new Roulette Records label from George Goldner. The buyer was Morris Levy, and so now The Heartbeats found themselves in a new setting.

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