THE HARPTONES: 50 YEARS OF MAGICAL MUSIC MEMORIES
There are three factors that make up the magic of The Harptones' music: their catchy, infectious, sometimes haunting, melody lines; their easy, close harmonic confection, which is synonymous with the early Harlem vocal group sound; and the warm, soft and lifting tenor lead of Willie Winfield heard on their artistic compositions, many of which were composed by Raoul J. Cita. They are perhaps the most beloved, respected, and revered New York vocal group and remain a beacon for most aspiring East Coast hallway harmonizers. Through the years they have always been a close knit group, with feelings of love and deep concern for one another. Every song they ever sang had a special meaning to them.
Their story began in 1951 in the schoolyard of Wadleigh Junior High School, located at 115th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Harlem. The Skylarks, comprised of William Dempsey James, Curtis Cherebin, and Freddie Taylor, practiced there. Soon, they were joined by Eugene "Sonny" Cooke and a guy remembered only by his nickname, "Skillum." After many rehearsals, they entered the Amateur Talent Contest at the Apollo Theatre, singing "My Dear Dearest Darling." but were booed of the stage.
Another Manhattan-based group from the lower East Side comprised of the Winfield brothers - Willie, Clyde, and Jimmy - their brother-in-law Johnny Bronson, and William "Dicey" Galloway. They could be heard singing under the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge or wherever they found an echo.
Later, some of the members from both ensembles met with songwriter and piano player extraordinaire Raoul J. Cita and formed The Harps. The members initially included Willie Winfield (lead), William Dempsey James (first tenor), Clyde Winfield (second tenor and lead), William "Dicey" Galloway (baritone), Curtis Cherebin (bass), along with Raoul J. Cita (pianist and musical arranger).
In November 1953 The Harps walked off with first prize at the Apollo Theatre's Amateur Night for singing Louis Prima's 1946 golden nugget, "A Sunday Kind of Love." (The song was also recorded by Jo Stafford, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra.) At the show. The Harps were spotted by an MGM rep who liked their sound and wanted them to audition at 1650 Broadway. They took him up on his offer, and while waiting outside a closed office for more than an hour the group started singing in the hall and drew the attention of Morty Craft and Leo Rogers. Mr. Craft and Mr. Rogers immediately took the group to a rehearsal studio across the street and called their associate Monte Bruce.The three partners were so impressed that they decided to form a new record label and call it "Bruce Records"
By recording time there were changes in personnel. Curtis Cherebin's parents insisted he give up singing to complete school and Clyde Winfield did not want to make a career of singing. At recording time the Harps now consisted of Willie Winfield(lead), Nick Clark (first tenor) (formerly of the Five Crowns), William Dempsey James(second tenor), William "Dicey" Galloway (baritone). Billy Brown (Bass), and Raoul J. Cita (pianist and musical arranger).
The Harps were whisked down to the studio and in spite of Willie’s bad cold, recorded their first single for Bruce Records. The wistful "A Sunday Kind of Love" b/w "I'll Never Tell." Just before the record was released, Cita changed the name to The Harptones in order to avoid confusion with the gospel-singing Harps of Music.
Their debut single sold very well on the East Coast and paved the way for performances at the Apollo Theater in New York, the Howard Theater in Washington, and the Royal Theater in Baltimore.
Their follow-up was "My Memories of You" b/w "It Was Just For Laughs," which emerged in February 1954. Both sides were written by Cita and musically accompanied by him on piano along with The Sonotones - Don Gardner on drums. Jimmy Smith on Organ, and saxophonist, Al Cass. Their third single, "I Depended On You" showcased the versatility of Nick dark on lead. Its flipside was "Mambo Boogie" written by the Harptones and led by "Dicey".
Their next platter was the lovely "Why Should I Love You", b/w "Forever Mine". Unfortunately, it was covered note for note by the Four Lads on Columbia, who happened to be right down the hall and could hear the Harptones rehearsing. It was released as a "B" side by the Four Lads as their "A" side was "Skokkian" which turned out to be a hit. It was profitable for Bruce Records because they owned the publishing rights but hurt the Harptones because not many Jukebox owners would have two versions of the same song on their Jukeboxes at the same time.
"Since I Fell For You" released in the fall of 1954, was written by the Bandleader Buddy Johnson, who during an appearance at the Apollo with the Harptones suggested that they record it. It featured the smooth velvety voice of Willie and high-weaving vocals of The Harptones. At the session Cita filled in for "Dicey" who had been drafted into the service. It did well in the Tri-State area, but it was becoming quite obvious that Bruce Records had great difficulty in promoting their songs on a national level.
The Harptones appeared on Alan Freed's first live NY show. The Rock 'n' Roll Jubilee Ball, which was held at the St. Nicholas Arena on January 14-15,1955.
Some of the other acts included Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, The Clovers, and The Moonglows/Moonlighters. The Harptones finished out the month at the Howard Theater, performing with La Verne Baker, The Counts, and The Illnois Jacquet Band.
The next Harptones recording was the Ivory Joe Hunter's tearstained classic, "I Almost Lost My Mind b/w the rocker "Ou Wee Baby". The musical accompaniment included Sam "The Man" Taylor and Mickey "Guitar" Baker. Both songs were re-released on a Bruce EP, along with "A Sunday Kind Of Love" and "Forever Mine." A second EP, released around April 1955, contained three previously issued songs plus the stomping "High Flyin Baby".
When Bruce Records declared bankruptcy the partnership dissolved. Leo Rogers took The Harptones to Hy Weiss, owner of Old Town Records, who enlisted them to kick off his new subsidiary label. Paradise. Hy Weiss asked Cita to write another song like 'My Memories of You".
Their May/June 1955 session netted another Cita penned masterpiece, the hauntingly beautiful "Life Is But A Dream". The "B" side was the rocker, "You Know You're Doin Me Wrong," also written by Cita and featuring Bernard "Jimmy" Beckum, who had previously recorded with "The Majors" on the Derby label. Jimmy became Dicey's replacement.
Although Weiss had better distribution than Bruce Records, he did little in the way of promoting "Life Is But A Dream" on a national level. However it did reach #4 in New York and Billboard picked it as its Territorial Tip on July 23.
The Harptones appeared on Alan Freed's Labor Day First Anniversary Show, which was held at the Brooklyn Paramount. It ran for a week and the groups did five shows a day and six on the week-end.
In November 1955 the Harptones were back at the Apollo Theater performing with such greats as The Heartbeats, The Flamingos, Etta James, and Bill Doggett. In the same month, their second single on Paradise was released - the inspiring ballad "My Success(It All Depends on You)" sliced with the jumping "I've Got A Notion".
While on Paradise the Harptones did background vocals for Ruth McFadden, who with the help of Cita recorded "Loving A Boy Like You" also referred to as "Schoolboy." It was written by Cita and originally titled "Loving a Girl Like You" when recorded by the Harptones. Ruth McFadden's version was released in October 1955, and released a year later. The Harptones version was not released until 1962. By December 1955, The Harptones left Weiss and recorded for Andrea Records, which was started by Leo Rogers and Sid Arky. In April 1956, their only release on that label was the chorally engulfed "What Is Your Decision" with the additional harmony of the Joytones (Vickie Burgess, Margaret Moore, and Lynn Middleton) b/w the finger-popping "Gimmie Some."
Because ofCita's prior association with George Goldner(Rama/Tico/Gee), The Harptones signed with this veteran record entrepreneur. The first of their Rama releases, a Harptones' favorite, was the delicately pleasing "That's The Way It Goes" (accompanied by The Royale Cita Chorus) b/w the superb ballad "Three Wishes" )the A-side). The members on that recording session were Willie, Billy, "Dicey", Cita, Nick, Harriet (Toni) Williams (a singer and dancer who had performed with the Norman Miller Dancers), and Dempsey.
On August 29 they appeared on Alan Freed's ten day Second Anniversary Labor Day Show at the Brooklyn Paramount with Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, The Cleftones, Mabel King, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and others. Their live performances were something to behold, filled with splits, high kicks, and spins. Cita pumped up the volume on the piano and at times, tickled the ivories while sitting on the floor!.
In October 1956, the Harptones appeared in the rhythm and blues motion picture, Rockin' The Blues. They sang three uptempo songs, none of which were any of their well-known hits. The Wanderers, Linda Hopkins, The Hurricanes, The Miller Sisters, Mantan Moreland (who was featured in several Charlie Chan movies), disc jockey Hal Jackson and others were also in the movie. Note: Hal Jackson was the first DJ to play the Harptones record in the New York area.
Their next release on Rama once again showcased their incredible harmonies - "On Sunday Afternoon" coupled with "The Masquerade is Over." In February 1957, they cut their third Rama single, "The Shrine of St. Cecilia," a ballad with one of the most beautiful introductions b/w "Ou Wee Baby." It was the last single that featured 20-year old bass Billy Brown. His untimely death in the spring of that year had a devastating effect on the Harptones. Cita left the group.
Curtis Cherebin replaced Billy Brown, they performed on AlanFreed's Easter Jubilee of Stars at the Brooklyn Paramount and on Jocko Henderson's ten day Labor Day show at the Apollo.
In October, they waxed the weepy "Cry Like I Cried" b/w "So Good So Fine" for Goldner's new Gee label. Present at that session were Willie, "Dicey", Dempsey, Harriet, and Curtis.
Several of the Rama/Gee recordings were supported by the Royale Cita Chorus, which included members of The Harptones, The Joytones and The Lyrics. They are heard in the background on Mabel King's "Second Hand Love" b/w with "Symbol of Love". Mabel and Cita at that point in time started to write songs together and formed a publishing co. Mabel went on to act in numerous plays on Broadway, Television and in the movies.
After the final Gee session, "Dicey" quit and was temporarily replace by Milton Love, lead of the Solitaires. Shortly after the group disbanded.
Morty Craft launched his new Warwick label early in 1959, and persuaded The Harptones (Willie, Dempsey, Nick, Curtis, and Cita) to regroup. They recorded three singles over a span of two years - "Laughing On the Outside" b/w "I Remember," "Love Me Completely" b/w Hep Teenager," and "No Greater Miracle" b/w "What Kind Of Fool." On the last two side Nick left the group and was replaced by the Five Crowns alternate lead Wilbut "Yonkie" Paul who was featured on "What Kind Of Fool.")
Songwriter and Producer Billy Dawn Smith signed The Harptones to George Paxton's Coed label where they cut one single feauturing two uptempo tunes, "Rain Down Kisses" b/w Answer Me My Love" released in November 1960. Smith then switched the group to his Companion subsidiary in 1961. Their first single, "All In Your Mind" was backed with "Last Dance," a song that was written and sung by Hank "Pompi" Jemigan, who had replaced "Yonkie."
Their next release, "What Will I Tell My Heart," just nipped the lower end of the national charts at #96. The Harptones finally had a song that made the Top 100! Its flip-side, "Foolish Me," was written by Smith and features Willie's spontaneous call of his wife Alice's name.Later that same year, they moved to Cub Records, a subsidiary of MGM.
Prolific songwriter Otis Blackwell wrote the ballad "Devil in Velvet," which was backed with the catchy "Your Love Is A Good Love." That single marked the return of Jimmy Beckum.
Most people feel that their best song of the 60's was "Sunset," a pretty ballad on which Willie and Jimmy shared lead vocals. The song also marked the return of Nick and Cita. It was issued on Warren Troob's KT label which was started at the request of Cita who was at that time Troob's client. He offered Troob a package of the Harptones and a female group named "The Rubies". The song "Sunset was written by Troob's son Ted. Warren Troob was a well known lawyer in the music business at this time representing people like George Goldner, Alan Freed, etc. After "Sunset", Willie left the group to take a full time job.
The Harptones renamed themselves The Soothers and made one final stab at the golden ring. In July 1964, they waxed the Johnny Ray hit, ":The Litte White Cloud That Cried," which featured Nick on lead. It was released on Jerry Blaine's Port label, a subsidiary of Jubilee. Its flip was "I Believe In You."
Shortly after this. The Soothers disbanded. Nick moved to Buffalo and died several years later while still in his 30's.
In 1969, Cita received a phone call from David Zaan, and was told that there was a renewed interest in this music, and would the Harptones be interested in reforming? Reformation consisted of Willie, Cita, Dempsey, Beckum and Cherebin and (sometimes Freddie Taylor performed with them). They appeared on Rock Magazine's First Original Rock and Roll Revival Show held at New York's Academy of Music on April 18,1970, as well as their September 1970 and April 1971 shows.
The group worked regularly on the weekends, doing gigs on the East Coast and stayed together until October of 1972, when Dempsey and Beckum, Cherebin, and Taylor departed because they had difficulty combining their day jobs with their live performances. Willie and Cita then recruited veteran singer Marlowe "Lowe" Murray, formerly with The Cavaliers Quartet and The Fi-Tones, and Linda Champion. By 1974, The Harptones had appeared for the sixth time on Rock Magazine concert series.
In November 1981, they recorded a landmark LP, "Love Needs A Heart" for Marty Pekar's Ambient Sound. It was released the following year and featured a contemporary piece and some originals which blended yesterday's sound with today's recording technology. Six of the songs on the album were written by Cita and Mabel King.
In 1990, Lynn "Sugah" Middleton Grier (The Joytones) replaced Linda Champion. Unfortunately, Lynn passed away in 1994 and Linda returned to the group.
In June 1999, due to illness Linda Champion had to be replaced by Vickie Burgess, who was the lead singer of the Charmers and the Joytones. Vickie and the Joytones sang background vocals on many of the Harptones recordings on several labels.
The Harptones were honored by UGHA as "Class Group of the Year" in 1990 and 1992, inducted into the Brooklyn Hall of Fame in 1991, received the Rhythm and
Blues Foundation award in 1998, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002..
In 1999 they performed on Doo Wop 50, which as televised across the country on most PBS stations, and has been shown many times since.
The Harptones - Willie Winfield, Raoul J. Cita, William Dempsey James, Marlowe Murray, and Vickie Burgess - continue to perform and thrill audiences all over the world. These musical pioneers have had significant influence and major impact on many other vocal groups. They have contributed greatly to the growth of rock 'n' roll and have given the world a musical legacy that is second to none. Their credentials speak for themselves. They unquestionably deserve to be nominated and inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think you would all agree.
Opal Louis Nations Edited R. J. Cita