HERBIE COX (The Cleftones) (By Steve Walker)
Born 6 May 1939, Cincinnati, Ohio
In 1955, at Jamaica High School in Queens, New York, two singing groups - The Clefs and The Silvertones - merged to form The Cleftones. The lead singer was Herbie Cox and other group members were Berman Patterson, Warren Corbin (bass), Charlie James and William "Buzzy" McClain. Vocal battles were regularly fought with other local groups, including Gene Pearson's Rivileers and James Sheppard's Hearts (later The Heartbeats).
The Cleftones, all aged between 16 and 18, practiced in the back room of a beauty parlour owned by Buzzy's parents on 107th Avenue and Merrick Road. Their early influences were The Swallows, The Diamonds, The Cardinals, The Moonglows and The Penguins. However, as the group developed, they began to favour the more up-tempo songs and began to write in that vein.
In late 1955, encouraged by their school-friend manager Dave Ralnick, the boys auditioned for Apollo, Baton and Old Town, but were turned down by them all. The next stop was Rama Records at 220, West 42nd Street, in an office over the PAL (Police Athletic League). Label owner George Goldner auditioned them and immediately signed them to his newly-formed Gee label (named after The Crows mega-hit which had been the making of Rama's fortunes in 1954).
"You Baby You"/"I Was Dreaming" (Gee 1000) was released in December 1955 (just a month later, Elvis was appearing on The Dorsey Brothers' TV Show and RCA were putting all their resources behind "Heartbreak Hotel"). "You Baby You" followed its label-mate "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" into the Billboard Pop charts and reached #78, selling an estimated 150,000 copies.
The next release was Herbie's own competition "Little Girl Of Mine" (Gee 1011) (hands up all Shakers singing "Diddle liddle liddle liddle lit, yeah"). It sold over 750,000 during its heyday, and probably close to a million more since then. The record was released in the UK on Columbia 3801 (45 and 78), with the earlier hit "You Baby You" on the flip. Needless to say, the sales hardly registered a blip on the graph, hence it's supposed value of £400 (mint) in the Record Collector "Rare Record Guide".
Subsequent releases through the remainder of 1956 and 1957 included "Can't We Be Sweethearts?", "String Around My Heart", "Why Do You Do Me Like You Do?", "See You Next Year", "Hey Babe" and "Lover Boy", most of which can be found on the 1990 Rhino CD "Best Of The Cleftones" (B0000032S9), but the sales never matched those of their first two releases.
The group's first big live show in 1956 was at Detroit's Fox Theatre with The Cadillacs, Lavern Baker, Lonnie Donegan, Bobby Lewis, Bob Crewe and The Royal Jokers. The group were visually exciting and were always in demand for live appearances. They set a record by appearing 12 times in one year at Murray The K's Apollo Theatre dance parties. Alan Freed used them on nine holiday special shows (on one such Paramount show in 1957 the group backed up Charlie Gracie singing his hit "Butterfly" while singing from the wings - the group, that is, not Charlie).
In the summer of 1958 the Cleftones recorded their first Roulette record (#4094) "She's So Fine" and "Trudy". Once again it was not a big hit. In 1959 they made another record on Roulette (#4161) called "Cuzzin Casanova" and "Mish Mash Baby" (written by Murray The K's mother!) and then in late 1960 (#4302) "She's Gone" and "Shadows On The Very Last Row." Again no big hit.
In 1958, two members of the group left - Buzzy McClain and Berman Patterson (to join the military). Gene Pearson (lead singer of the Rivileers) came out of the military and joined the group. Pearson suggested that they follow the trend of the girl groups and add a female member, and so his friend Patricia Spann joined the group.
George Treadwell, manager of The Drifters, was appointed to a similar position for The Cleftones. The Drifters, by the early 60's, were in such disarray that Treadwell actually asked The Cleftones if they would become the new Drifters so that he could fire the whole bunch. When they declined, he managed to lure Gene Pearson away to sing second tenor on numerous Drifters charters from 1963 onward.
The Cleftones wound up back on the Gee record label (now part of Roulette). In 1961, they released "Heart And Soul" (Larry Clinton's 1938 hit). It was a big success and The Cleftones were back in the Pop charts, hitting #18 (#10 R&B). "We were very proud of being one of the only groups to have hits in both the 50's and 60's," said Herbie Cox. The non-charting UK release was on Columbia 4678.
They followed it up later in 1961 with another standard, Nat King Cole's " For Sentimental Reasons" (Gee 1067/Columbia 4720). It did okay but not as well as "Heart and Soul". The group then was recorded on the Rama record label with "Vacation In The Mountains" and "Leave My Woman Alone" however the record lists the artist only as Herbie Cox and not the Cleftones. It never really got much airplay.
In 1962, back on Gee, the Cleftones released the following records - (#1074) "Earth Angel" and "Blues In The Night"; (#1077) "Again" and "Do You?"; (#1079) "Lover Come Back To Me" and "There She Goes" (Columbia 4988 - their last UK release); and (#1080) "How Deep Is The Ocean?" and "Some Kinda Blue." The Cleftones released two LPs on Gee - (#705) "Heart And Soul" and (#707) "For Sentimental Reasons." They recorded one additional single in 1963 on the Ware record label (#6001) called "He's Forgotten You" and "Right From The Git Go."
Though never officially breaking up, the group became inactive until 1970, when Berman and Herbie met in a bar and decided to put the group back together again, including Herbie's cousin Tony Gaines. A few oldies revival shows later, and they were once again doing regular performances. At some point in the 70's several old cuts from the "For Sentimental Reasons" L.P. were issued on Robin Hood Records.
In 1990, the Cleftones recorded a 45 on the Classic Artists record label - "You Lost The Game Of Love" and "My Angel Lover".
In April 1991, The Cleftones made it to Europe for the first time, appearing at the Wembley Convention Centre with The Five Keys. More recently, in 1999, the Cleftones appeared on the PBS special "Fifty Years of Doo Wop" singing their classic "Heart And Soul".
Website to visit: http://www.destinationdoowop.com/cleftones.htm
Recommended reading: "American Singing Groups" by Jay Warner (ISBN 0-8230-8264-4).
Recommended listening: "Best Of The Cleftones" (Rhino B0000032S9) 1990.
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