CLEVE DUNCAN

Born Cleveland Duncan, 23 July 1935, Los Angeles, California

And yet another One-hit-wonder : The Penguins! This group DID find a place in Wayne Jancik's book, but if their hit had peaked a few weeks earlier, it would have fallen outside the rock and roll era, which is defined by Wayne as starting on January 1, 1955.

Lead singer Cleve Duncan and tenor Dexter Tisby formed the Penguins with bass Curtis Williams and baritone Bruce Tate in 1954, naming themselves after the penguin on Kool cigarettes. They were one of the first R&B groups to crack the Top 10 of the pop chart, when their second record for Dootone, "Earth Angel", peaked at # 8 (and # 1 R&B) in early 1955. Wayne credits the song to Curtis Williams, but the history of the song is complicated. Over the years a consensus has been reached that its roots can be traced, at least in part, to the pen of Jesse Belvin.

The era of white covers was far from over and the Crew Cuts beat the Penguins in the pop charts, taking their version to # 3. But now, hardly anyone remembers their cover and sales of the original rendering may well have exceeded the 10 million mark. It was actually an unfinished, garage-made, one-track demo recording. In fact, the classic hit has the first five seconds of the intro clipped off and starts abruptly (though no one noticed). Unfortunately, the Penguins wound up involved in almost as many lawsuits as they had Dootone releases. Though they sought out the help of Buck Ram (who not only was an arranger and songwriter, but also a lawyer) to manage them, all the legal troubles seriously damaged their career. Ram signed them to Mercury Records (using his power as representative of the Penguins to get a Mercury deal for another of his groups, the yet unknown Platters), but none of their eight singles for Mercury/Wing nudged the nation's notice. Atlantic released one single by the Penguins (a cover of Ken Copeland's "Pledge of Love"), which spent one week at # 15 in the R&B charts and then disappeared quickly. They never had another hit. Duncan, who owns the Penguins name, re-formed the group several times for oldies shows. All the surviving original members of the Penguins (Bruce Tate passed away) have now given up entertaining altogether.

Further reading: Jay Warner, The Billboard book of American singing groups (1992), page 272-275. CD : The Penguins, Earth Angel (Ace 249). 21 Dootone tracks. Website: http://www.electricearl.com/dws/penguins.html

 
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