America’s Foremost Vocal Group
The Platters have long held a place in the hearts of all who grew up in the 1950s. Their groundbreaking sound, smooth, romantic, sophisticated and rooted in the doo wop, a capella vocal tradition, owed as much to the songs written by a non-member, producer Buck Ram, as it did to any particular performing member of the group; although Tony Williams’ warm tenor in the lead vocal role marked all of their hits from the ’50s.
Collectively, in the past fifty years, there have been over two hundred members of an ensemble called the Platters. In essence, the Platters were not so much a musical entity as they were a vital business concern. In that regard, the business continues to thrive, to this day.
As an aggregation, the Platters have recorded nearly four hundred songs, selling over one-hundred million copies worldwide, winning hundreds of awards from all over the globe. The group appeared in twenty-seven films, including “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “Rock Around The Clock,” both released in 1956.
The Platters have toured the nation countless times, performing in over ninety countries around the world. On several occasions, there have been more than one group calling themselves the Platters, performing at the same time- all claiming to have (however tenuous) some connection to the “original” group.
But, any attempt to develop a clear understanding of the band’s lineage, from it’s inception to the present, uncovers a trail of acrimony, bitterness and utter confusion. More so, perhaps, than any other musical organization in popular music, the hit songs the group produced are more memorable than any one particular member of the ensemble.
It is unclear precisely who the original members were, when exactly they named themselves the Platters, or who first hung that name upon them. Over the years, various key players in the formation of the group have given their individual versions of the facts, distinctly colored by their own perceptions of the events and clouded by the passage of time, and the all-too-human propensity for taking more credit for certain achievements than actually may be due. However, as best as can be determined, the story of the Platters road to success, began without much furor or fanfare.
The rhythm and blues music scene (which included the burgeoning doo wop movement) around Los Angeles, California in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was roiling with activity. There were hundreds of groups performing in clubs across the region, with members freely mixing and commingling among the vibrant music community, constantly combining and recombining to form new groups. Such was the climate in Los Angles when the Platters’ story first began.
In 1952, Cornell Gunter (who later went on to sing with the Flairs, the Ermines and, most importantly, the Coasters) gathered together Alex and Gaynel Hodge (Gaynel, along with Jesse Belvin and Curtis Williams, wrote the doo wop classic “Earth Angel”) and Joe Jefferson, in the Watts district of Los Angeles, with the purpose of putting together a vocal group that would sing in local clubs and at various amateur contests, with the hope of one day making records. They called themselves the Flamingos (not the same Flamingos as the Chicago-based group who later had a hit with “I Only Have Eyes For You“). Curtis Williams (who also sang with the Hollywood Flames and the Penguins) also sometimes performed with the group.
While the Los Angeles Flamingos found some success at the local level in 1953, Gaynel Hodge soon left the group, to form the Turks. Gaynel was replaced by Herb Reed. Around that time that the group took the name, the Platters. In later years, Herb Reed took credit for coining the name, claiming that he thought of it after hearing a radio DJ refer to vinyl records as “platters.”
Whatever the case, the Platters were born, regularly winning the first-place prize at amateur contests. They made an early appearance on a television show called “Ebony Showcase,” with Cornell Gunter singing lead on an up tempo version of “Old McDonald.” Not long after, Joe Jefferson left the group to join Gaynel Hodge in the Turks. He was replaced by David Lynch.
Soon, Cornell Gunter, the founder of the group, left, to be replaced by Tony Williams. Williams came at the recommendation of vocalist Linda Hayes (Tony’s sister, whose real name was Bertha Williams). Hayes had already recorded several hit songs in the early ‘50s, and may have been having a romantic relationship with one of the group members. With a line-up of baritone Alex Hodge, tenors Williams and Lynch and bass vocalist Reed, the Platters continued their course.
In attendance at one of the Platters’ amateur show performances, Ralph Bass from Federal Records, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati, Ohio-based King label, signed the group to their first recording contract. Late in 1953, they recorded their first sides for Federal. Shortly thereafter, Alex Hodge told the group of a producer who had just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, who was anxious to meet them. The producer was Buck Ram. It was to be a fortuitous meeting, indeed.
Ram, who grew up in Chicago, Illinois, arranged music in the ‘30s and ‘40s for such high profile acts as Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. He was credited with originally discovering Ella Fitzgerald. It is said that in 1932 Ram practically had to drag Chick Webb, the drummer, with whom he was working at the time, to see fifteen-year old Ella perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Within two years, Ella was singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra.
In addition, Buck Ram wrote over five-hundred songs, including the hits “Only You,” “The Great Pretender” and “Twilight Time,” for The Platters, as well as the hit “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” for Bing Crosby and the popular songs “Adorable,” “I‘m Sorry” and “Afterglow,” among countless others. In 1954 he founded a talent agency in Los Angeles. The first group he signed to a management contract was the Penguins. He signed many other young r&b groups to contracts as well. One of those groups was the Platters, whose management contract he purchased from Ralph Bass at Federal.
Throughout 1954, the group recorded a string of undistinguished tracks for Federal, including an early version of Ram‘s “Only You,” their seventh single for the label, which became a minor regional hit. Still, the group had no definitive vocal focus, nor any sort of musical direction in mind. The singles they released through Federal, sound nothing like the Platters in their heyday. Instead, the group was merely mirroring familiar popular r&b trends of the day.
In the summer of 1954, the Platters backed Linda Hayes on three sides, including “Please Have Mercy,” which became a hit for her upon its release on the King label in early 1955. Buck Ram was impressed with the soft edge that a female vocal lent to the Platters’ sound. Women rarely performed in doo wop groups. The idea was rather revolutionary at the time. For a while Ram considered the possibility of permanently adding Linda Hayes to the Platters lineup.
Instead, he brought in Zola Taylor, who was singing with another group he managed, the Teen Queens (later just the Queens, who were led by Shirley Gunter, Cornell Gunter’s sister) who regularly rehearsed at Alex Hodge’s house. Ironically, shortly after Taylor was hired, Buck Ram replaced Alex Hodge with baritone Paul Robi. At last, the best-known lineup for the Platters was complete. At the same time, with the departure of Alex Hodge, the last of the original Flamingos had left the fold as well.
Ram determined that sweet-voiced tenor, Tony Williams should be the lead vocalist for the quintet. Williams had grown up singing gospel music with various church groups. He developed a silken soft voice, which resonated with a fine, luxuriant vibrato.
After two years of training and rehearsals, and an immeasurable investment of time and money, Ram helped to define for the group a vocal character that was all their own, one with which the public would forever after identify as that of the Platters. Ram negotiated a release from the group’s recording contract with Federal Records.
Early in 1955, the Penguins scored a hit with “Earth Angel,” on the DooTone label. Managed by Buck Ram, the Penguins were one of the first black acts to break into the Top Ten pop charts. The fledgling Mercury label was eager to sign the Penguins to a recording contract.
Shrewdly, Ram negotiated a deal for both the Penguins, whom the label wanted desperately, as well as the Platters, whom the label didn’t care about whatsoever. But Ram was adamant, either both groups would be signed to contracts or neither would. Mercury caved to Ram’s demands and the Platters were signed. In an ironic twist, the Penguins would never again have a Top Forty hit after “Earth Angel.”
The Platters fortunes, however, were heading in an entirely different direction. At the urging of Buck Ram, Mercury finally relented, allowing the group to re-record “Only You,” but only after Ram promised that he would personally add piano accompaniment to the traditional a capella arrangement. The song entered the pop charts in October of 1955.
In the ‘50s, it was quite common for white acts to cover popular r&b songs by black artists. The Hilltoppers, a group formed at Western Kentucky College, released a rendition of “Only You” on the Dot label, which entered the charts about six weeks after the release of the Platters’ version. It managed to reach number eight on the pop charts. However the Platters’ version did even better, reaching number one on the r&b charts and number five on the pop charts.
The group quickly followed that hit with the release of “The Great Pretender” in November of 1955. “The Great Pretender” was the first number one pop song for the Platters and was one of the most popular songs for the year 1956. It began a string of eleven consecutive two-sided hits for the Platters. The song was so popular, it was not only covered by countless other groups, it was satirized by comedian Stan Freberg, who had performed a similar treatment on Johnnie Ray’s “Cry,” a year earlier. In the 1956 film “Rock Around The Clock,” producer Alan Freed included performances by the Platters of “Only You” and “The Great Pretender.”
After the rush of their initial success, the Platters went on to record a string of thirty-three hits for the Mercury label, through 1962. They reached the Top Ten again in 1956 with “You’ve Got The Magic Touch.” Buck Ram then created another stir, by enlisting Sammy Kaye and his orchestra to back the group on their followup single, “My Prayer.” While it was unusual for there to be any musical accompaniment behind doo wop groups, no do wop group had ever used string accompaniment before. “My Prayer” became the group’s second number one pop single.
In 1956, Ram incorporated the Platters, forming “The Five Platters Inc.” He gave each member stock in the corporation. Ram then purchased each member’s shares to the rights to the Platters name. At the time, the group was doing well and no real thought was given to the decision. It was seen, mostly, as business move. But some members of the group would later be haunted by their actions. Buck Ram owned the rights to the name the Platters.
The Platters retrenched in 1957, releasing four singles that made the charts but did not hit the Top Ten. But in early 1958, the group rebounded with “Twilight Time” a song for which Ram wrote the lyrics in 1938. They introduced the song on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” Saturday night television show. It immediately went to number one on the pop charts. Later in 1958, the group released a re-worked version of Cole Porter’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,“ recorded in France, while the group was on tour. Eventually that single too made it to number one on the pop charts.
In the summer of 1959, the four male members of the group were arrested in Cincinnati, accused of having sexual relations with four female minors. They were eventually acquitted, but it did prompt some radio stations to pull the single “Where” from their play lists. But, despite that setback, the group was able to continue on, with their clean-cut image mostly intact.
As early as 1958, Tony Williams had considered leaving the group to strike out on his own. He officially left the Platters in August of 1960. However, Mercury continued to release tracks that Williams had cut through 1964, from an apparent limitless vault of such recordings. “Harbor Lights” released in 1960 was the group’s final Top Ten recording, though the group continued to chart with their versions of popular standards, such as “Ebb Tide” and “Red Sails In The Sunset” in 1960 and “If I Didn’t Care” in 1961.
The Platters had no more hits with Mercury after 1962. Zola Taylor left that year, and the process of wholesale personnel changes within the group began in earnest. For the most part, the era of hit records for the Platters had come to an end; although as a performing act, they were still a valuable show business commodity. Herb Reed is the only living member of the original group, still performing Platters material. In 1990, the Platters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Their place is secure in the history of popular music. With the invaluable help of Buck Ram, the Platters created one of the most identifiable group sounds ever: widely imitated, but never surpassed. They took the vital vocal elements of doo wop and transformed them into lushly romantic pop songs, which became anthems in the hearts of idealistic teens who came of age in the ‘50s. With so many different groups performing today under the Platters name, it is a certainty that their music will live on well into the twenty-first century.