States Rights
By David McGee

dandiliers-chop-chop-boomCHOP CHOP BOOM
The Dandeliers And Other Great Groups On States

First, you have to tip your hat to Delmark for daring to release a group harmony CD in 2010. As far away as we are now from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, the music’s pioneering artists are still revered, still in print, still influencing, to some degree, young musicians for whom labels such as Sun and Specialty are as ancient as Gennett and Commodore were for ‘50s Boomers. Group harmony (and doo-wop), though, has virtually fallen off the musical map. It’s rarely played on radio—even on satellite—and death has taken such a toll on its major groups that many of them are left with few if any original members.

But if Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, et al. still have some cultural import and juice as groundbreakers who fashioned the template for the traditional strains of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, how many casual music fans remember Clyde McPhatter as the honey-voiced lead singer of the original Drifters? Or Bill Kenney, the Ink Spots’ great lead singer who exerted such a profound influence on Elvis’s style? Or the Ravens’ unparalleled tandem of bass singer Jimmy Ricks (who occasionally sang lead) and Maithe Marshall, he of the exquisitely delicate tenor? How about the Clovers, with gifted lead vocalist John “Buddy” Bailey, or Billy Ward’s Dominoes, both reliable hitmakers in the early ‘50s? These were major names, not only in the ranks of group harmony—the early ‘50s golden age, which, not coincidentally, paralleled that of gospel—but on the airwaves and the charts too. To lament the demise of great singers in today’s American Idol-ized climate of overwrought melisma and posturing among those who can carry a tune and the auto-tuning of those who can’t (don’t get me started) is to be guilty of old fogeyism, at the very least.

The Ink Spots, ‘If I Didn’t Care,’ 1939, featuring the great lead singer Bill Kenney, whose smooth, affecting way with a ballad had a profound impact on Elvis’s style

This little riff was inspired by the Delmark disc in question, which recognizes the outstanding work done by five group harmony aggregates signed to Chicago’s States label, a small but potent (aesthetically, not monetarily) subsidiary of United Records. Its abbreviated lifespan of only five years’ duration, 1952-1957,was hardly an atypical indie run when you consider Sun’s muscle flexing was done mostly between 1954 and 1960 and the same could be said for most of the other beloved ‘50s independents. Unlike Sun, Imperial, Duke, Specialty, Chess, Modern, though, States’ vocal group releases were confined to local recognition, save for the Danderliers’ infectious novelty workout, “Chop Chop Boom,” which rose to #10 on Billboard’s R&B chart (the label scored national hits with Tab Smith, Jimmy Forrest and the Four Blazes, and its roster at one time included formidable gospel groups such as the Caravans and the Staple Singers, plus a heavy duty blues roster featuring Junior Wells, Memphis Slim and Robert Nighthawk, among others). This disc confirms the vitality of the Windy City’s group harmony scene—the music here is in many cases on a par with the best of its era, with striking lead singers fronting each one of the groups, impeccable musicianship by some of Chicago’s finest sessions players, and remarkably good sonics (States owner Leonard Allen insisted on recording at Universal Recording, a high-end facility by ’50s standards). If the groups didn’t have the benefit of songwriters as literate and idiomatically assured as Leiber and Stoller, as the better financed Atlantic did, the songs, whether originating from within the group or coming from outside writers (the liner booklet does include songwriting credits, and based on that, almost all of the 15 credited numbers came from group members) are hardly low-rent

The foundation of group harmony repertoire was the love song, whether it be about falling in love, cultivating the love that has arrived, or mourning its departure—and once again we can detect the moral code of group harmony/doo wop in full flower. In twenty-four cuts by five all-male groups, women are not only respected, but often put on a pedestal, and men don’t lash out at women as “ho’s” and “bitches” as a matter of course or when things go wrong, but rather puzzle over what went wrong—witness the Hornets’ stirring “I Can’t Believe,” which begins with a solo piano offering a decidedly churchy prelude to the song before lead singer James “Sonny” Long enters with an anguished but measured exclamation: “I can’t believe you’re treating me like this.” The Hornets made an art form of this kind of guilt trip, running it even more effectively on the lovely, low-key ballad, “You Played the Game,” in which Long plaintively points out, “You made me love/as I had never loved before,” as a prelude to outright begging the gal to come back. (The Hornets, who recorded these sides in 1953, disbanded in 1954 when tenor Johnny Moore left to establish his legend in the history books during a 30-year tenure with The Drifters. Of the five sides the Hornets recorded in one 1953 session, only two were ever released, a single pairing “I Can’t Believe” with “Lonesome Baby”; according to the liner notes, a collector paid a whopping $18,000 for a copy of the single, one of only three that has ever surfaced.)

The Danderliers, ‘May God Be With You,’ possibly the most spiritually conflicted song in group harmony history

The Danderliers’ (inexplicably billed as the Dandeliers on this disc) recordings, more ambitious in presentation, indicate Leonard Allen viewed the quintet as having potential to play with the big boys on a national level. The thrilling vocals of its two lead singers—Dallas Taylor and James Campbell—would convince anyone that the quintet was operating on a different plane. A truly strange ballad, “May God Be With You,” demonstrates how powerful Taylor and Campbell’s one-two punch could be. The song has feet in both the secular and the sacred worlds, literally, by way of the bright church piano intro, and the immediate imploring by the singers to “pray all you sinners, pray all you sinners,” but develops in sound and style into a prototypical ‘50s ballad complete with stabs of smoky, crying sax courtesy Red Holloway, a burbling bass man, and curlicue “sha-wap” vocal punctuations at the end of each verse. Alternating leads, Taylor and Campbell seem to express the dark and the light of one personality, the first beseeching listeners to ask the Lord to forgive them their sins, the second, piercing and urgent, admitting “my soul’s in sin/and I don’t know what I’ll do…what shall I tell Him, oh what shall I say, to ask for forgiveness and freedom some day/well, I think I will, yes I will.” If there is another song in group harmony annals so spiritually conflicted as this, your faithful friend and narrator hasn’t encountered it. At the other end of the spectrum, Taylor’s hard, driving vocal provides the spirited thrust for a frisky, syncopated declaration, “She’s Mine,” and is ably enhanced by bass man Richard Thomas taking a bubbling verse as the group choogles along behind him chanting “ooh wop wop ooh wop wop ooh,” before Thomas hands off the lead in a nifty, amazingly timed transfer to Taylor, all of which follows a red-hot sax solo by Holloway. The Danderliers’ finest uptempo moment came on 1953’s “Shu-Wop,” with its thumping, jungle beat; a terrific, slightly distorted, jazzy guitar solo (presumably  by Lefty Bates, the favored Windy City guitarist of Al Smith, who rehearsed the singers and directed the studio bands heard on States releases) that blends pull-offs, bends and double-stops with single string runs; and some wonderful, percussive nonsense chanting behind the lead vocal—if anything, “Shu-Wop” sounds like the blueprint for the Clovers’ “Love Potion #9,” so much so you wonder if Leiber and Stoller weren’t taking notes when they heard it. It’s no accident that the Danderliers have eight of the 24 tracks here, by far the most of any group. Had States more clout in the business, and the Danderliers the guidance of the likes of Leiber and Stoller, they would have been more than a footnote in group harmony history, as all the elements for broader success were present, with the group being able to navigate with equal assurance novelty as well as serious balladry (the sumptuous, winsome love song, “My Autumn Love”) and blues (“Loving Partner”).

The Danderliers’ finest uptempo moment, ‘Shu-Wop’—the blueprints for the Clovers’ ‘Love Potion #9’?

Some members of the Palms enjoyed success after their States tenure when they formed the Sheppards and scored a group harmony classic with “Island of Love.” But as the Palms, on States, the group had only two single releases. Three of those four sides are here, and those show the fellows with a lively, good-time flair for swinging love songs (“Girl of Mine” and “I Knew I Had a Chance”), but an even more assured and emotionally gripping way with a heart-tugging ballad, as heard on the emotional, soaring “Dianne,” featuring a riveting, open-hearted cry of a lead vocal, probably by first tenor Murry Eskridge, who sounds, at times, uncannily like the Flamingos’ great Nate Nelson, especially when he effortlessly ascends into his falsetto register.

The Palms, ‘Dianne,’ an unreleased gem recorded for the States label now surfacing for the first time on the Chop Chop Boom anthology.

Another talented group, the Five Chances, has a resume boasting short stays at several labels with nothing to show for their efforts, save three laudable efforts included in this retrospective. By 1956 the jumping arrangement of “Sugar Lips” was close to being cliché, but Johnny “Chubby” Jones’s swaggering lead vocal and crooning passages elevate it above the quotidian; Jones shines as both the lead and high, wailing tenor on the swoon-inducing ballad, “Gloria” (no relation to the Cadillacs’ classic), which has not only Jones’s rich, texture performance gong for it, but an arrangement so low-key and discrete it’s almost an a cappella track, save for an abbreviated but oh-so-tasty saloon-style piano solo near the end.

The Five Chances’ beautiful ‘Gloria’ features a superb, emotionally gripping lead vocal by Johnny ‘Chubby’ Jones; dig the saloon-style piano at the end.

As for the Strollers and the Drakes, neither the liner notes nor the doo-wop histories nor Google offers any insight into the who, what, where or why of either. The Strollers may have been the quartet with two female singers providing tight, smooth pop harmonies on King Fleming’s 1956 Chess single, “Please Come Back,” but the sound of female voices is not apparent on the trio of States tracks here, which include a rousing jump side in “Go Where My Baby Lives,” a smoky, sax-infused love pleading, “In Your Dreams,” and an exquisite, nuanced, jazz-tinged torch number, “Bitter Dreams,” encased in an atmospheric arrangement flecked with circumspect, astringent guitar fills en route, with the hollow sound of the soloing—as if the guitar is off mike—adding to the bittersweet mood the singer conjures in his nuanced reading. As for the Drakes, apart from a rather standard uptempo number, “Mellow Daddy,” of no real distinction, their members got it together in fine fashion on a rich ballad, “Just a Dream,” a number with a nice blend of solo and ensemble voices, a tenor who can hit the heart when he rises to falsetto, and a generally pleasing feel about it. Alas, the Drakes’ two efforts for States didn’t make the commercial cut, and are only now seeing the light of day after slumbering in the vault lo these many years.

The Strollers, ‘In Your Dreams’

With liner notes by Chicago doo-wop authority Robert Pruter, Chop Chop Boom retrieves a moment in time, in group harmony and Chicago music history, once thought lost. The States label may have had little success on the national level, but not for lack of good records. Ditto for the groups represented here—most made laudable music for the label, and the Danderliers and Hornets at least proved themselves players on a large scale, had States been blessed with the financial and distribution resources necessary to break out of Chi-town. The honest effort put forth by all parties to these proceedings deserves the dignified presentation their efforts receive here.

Chop Chop Boom is available at

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