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ARTIST: The Harptones TITLE: Featuring Willie Winfield FORMAT: LP LABEL: Relic CATALOG #: RELIC-5001 DESCRIPTION: bio by Jason Ankeny
Despite their failure to achieve the commercial success of rivals like the Drifters, the Flamingos, or the Clovers, the Harptones
demand consideration in any serious discussion of the truly immortal
acts of the doo wop era. Although none of their singles cracked the Top
40, efforts like "A Sunday Kind of Love," "Life Is But a Dream," and
"Memories of You" remain classics of the genre, distinguished by their
rich harmonies and sophisticated, jazz-inspired arrangements. The
Harptones' origins date to 1951 and the grounds of Harlem's Wadleigh
Junior High School, where classmates William Dempsey, Curtis Cherebin, and Freddy Taylor
began harmonizing as the Skylarks. Following the additions of Eugene
"Sonny" Cooke and a classmate remembered only by the nickname "Skillum,"
the fledgling group made its professional debut via the Apollo
Theatre's famed Amateur Talent Contest, performing a rendition of "My
Dear Dearest Darling" that ended in the audience literally booing them
off the stage. After a series of lineup shuffles, the Skylarks welcomed
William "Dicey" Galloway, who concurrently served as a member of another
fledgling Harlem doo wop unit, the Winfield Brothers. In early 1953,
alumni of both groups combined as the Harps. Comprising tenor Dempsey, baritone Galloway, lead tenor Willie Winfield, first tenor Claudie "Nicky" Clark, bass Billy Brown, and pianist/arranger Raoul Cita, the Harps returned to the Apollo in November 1953 and earned top honors with their soulful rendition of the Louis Prima
composition "A Sunday Kind of Love." Even more significantly, at the
end of the evening an MGM Records executive in the audience invited the
group to audition at the label's 1650 Broadway studio.
Harps arrived at MGM's offices the following week, the exec in question
was not available. To pass the time, the group practiced its harmonies
while waiting in the hallway, attracting the attention of Bruce Records
co-owners Morty Craft and Leo Rogers, who occupied an office just a few doors down. Craft and Rogers immediately extended a contract offer, and after altering the sextet's name to the Harptones
(to avoid conflict with the Savoy act Little David Baughn & the
Harps), Bruce issued "A Sunday Kind of Love" just days prior to
Christmas 1953. Buoyed by Whitfield's crushed-velvet lead and Cita's
otherworldly organ intro, the record proved a major hit throughout much
of the East Coast, but spotty distribution effectively destroyed its
chances of breaking nationally. The Cita-penned "Memories of You" followed in early 1954, and it too proved such a local smash that the Harptones were invited to appear at DJ Alan Freed's historic "Moondog Coronation Ball" alongside the Clovers
and Charles Brown. Again Bruce's limited distribution network crippled
the single's momentum, however, no doubt prompting the group to question
the wisdom of passing up its shot with MGM. Clark assumed lead duties for the Harptones'
third release, "I Depended on You." Whitfield reclaimed the reins for
the 1954 effort "Why Should I Love You," copied virtually note for note
by the Four Lads and placed on the B-side of their hit "Skokiaan," effectively obliterating the Harptones' original.
When Dicey Galloway was drafted into military duty in the autumn of 1954, Cita handled baritone duties on the Harptones' fifth Bruce release, "Since I Fell for You." Another Tri-State region smash, it earned the group a spot on Freed's landmark first New York City showcase, 1955's "Rock and Roll Jubilee," alongside the Drifters, the Clovers, the Moonglows, and Fats Domino. But while Bruce's poor distribution again conspired to halt the single's chances at charting nationally, the Harptones remained under contract to the label, and after recruiting onetime SkylarkFreddy Taylor, in March they issued a bluesy cover of Ivory Joe Hunter's
"I Almost Lost My Mind." Two months later, however, Bruce finally
collapsed, with Leo Rogers acquiring control of the company's assets. He
shopped the Harptones to Old Town Records, with owner Hy Weiss agreeing to launch a new subsidiary, Paradise, to accommodate their arrival. After replacing Taylor with Bernard "Jimmy" Beckum, the Harptones cut their Paradise debut, the gorgeous Cita
original "Life Is But a Dream." With its gossamer harmonies and
jazzlike structure, the single ascended to the Top Five in New York, but
little money on promotion outside of the East Coast and the record met
the same grim commercial fate as its predecessors. The ballad "My
Success (It All Depends on You)" closed out the year, coinciding with the Harptones'
weeklong stint at the Apollo. It also marked the end of their Paradise
tenure, and in the spring of 1956 the sextet resurfaced on Rogers' new
Andrea imprint with the pop-inspired "What Is Your Decision."
After recording three songs for the feature film Rockin' the Blues, the Harptones finally cut ties with Rogers, signing with George Goldner's Rama label to release "Three Wishes." Their first effort to feature new addition Harriet "Toni" Williams,
it also heralded the return of Dicey Galloway. "On Sunday Morning"
followed by year's end, and in early 1957 the group issued its third and
final Rama single, "The Shrine of Saint Cecilia." An additional session
was planned, but the night prior to entering the studio, 20-year-old Billy Brown died of a drug overdose. The session was canceled, but because the Harptones were contractually obligated to perform a date at Philadelphia's Uptown Theater, only Williams could attend Brown's funeral. His replacement was Skylarks co-founder Curtis Cherebin, whose arrival coincided with another week at the Apollo. After Rama dissolved, Goldner shifted the Harptones
to his Gee imprint to issue the gritty ballad "Cry Like I Cried," their
lone release for the label. Galloway exited the lineup soon after, and
while the Harptones briefly forged on with erstwhile Solitaires lead Milton Love, the group split a few months later. But in early 1959 former Bruce exec Morty Craft came calling, convincing the group to reunite and sign to his fledgling Warwick label. This incarnation of the Harptones (Willie Winfield, William Dempsey, Nicky Clark, Curtis Cherebin, and Raoul Cita)
cut "Laughing on the Outside" to little attention, returning that
summer with "Love Me Completely." Their third and final Warwick effort,
"No Greater Miracle," did not appear until May of 1960. By the time of
its release, Clark had again exited, and was replaced by Hank Jernigan.
In the fall of 1960 songwriter Billy Dawn Smith signed the Harptones
to the Coed label for "Rain Down Kisses." When Smith assumed the helm
of Coed's subsidiary Companion, he brought the group with him, releasing
"All in Your Mind" (a riposte to Maxine Brown's hit "All in My Mind") in early 1961. With their second Companion single, "What Will I Tell My Heart," the Harptones
scored their first and only national chart hit, squeaking to the number
96 spot on the Billboard pop countdown. But despite their brush with
success, the group exited Companion, finally landing with MGM via its
Cub subsidiary: the Otis Blackwell-penned "Devil in Velvet" marked the return of Jimmy Beckum, who replaced the outgoing Jernigan, but the record went nowhere and the Harptones
did not resurface on record until early 1964, releasing the lovely
ballad "Sunset" on the tiny KT imprint. When the single fell on deaf
ears, a frustrated Willie Winfield finally threw in the towel. The remaining Harptones renamed themselves the Soothers long enough to cut a cover of the Johnnie Ray hit "The Little White Cloud That Cried" for the Port label before calling it quits by year's end. In 1970 Raoul Cita accepted an invitation to re-form the Harptones to play Rock Magazine's First Original Rock and Roll Revival show, recruiting Winfield, William Dempsey, Curtis Cherbin,
and Jimmy Beckum to complete the lineup. The group continued to play
doo wop revival events throughout the decade, and in late 1981 the
current lineup (Winfield, Cita,
ex-Fi-Tones member Lowe Murray, and Linda Champion) cut a new LP, Love
Needs a Heart. Two years later, they backed longtime fan Paul Simon on his Hearts and Bones project. More than a half century following their debut recording, the Harptones remain on tour, with Winfield and Cita still charting the group's career.
RECORD CONDITION: NEW JACKET CONDITION: NEW
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