THE MOONGLOWS (By Steve Walker)
Bobby Lester [Dallas] (lead), born 13 January, 1930, died October, 1980
Alexander "Pete" Graves [aka Walton] (tenor), born 17 April, 1936, Alabama
Harvey Fuqua (baritone), born 27 July, 1929
Prentiss Barnes (bass), born 25 April, 1925, Magnolia, Mississippi
The story of the Moonglows is interwoven with the birth of rock'n'roll as a marketable commodity via the ambitions and aspirations of one Alan Freed. Cleveland was the background to the early part of the Moonglows' development and although there is no doubt that Freed's early interest in the group gave them a tremendous start to their career, I like to think that their own talent would have seen them through to success, albeit maybe along a different path. In Bobby Lester, the group had one of the greatest lead voices amongst their contemporaries, while the name of Harvey Fuqua runs like a golden thread throughout the Moonglows' story, with tendrils reaching back into the 40's and forward into the 60's.
Harvey Fuqua was the nephew of Charlie Fuqua of Ink Spots fame. In 1950, Harvey and Bobby Lester could be found in their home town of Louisville, Kentucky, singing together for fun at high school, with Harvey providing accompaniment on piano. A brief stint in the Armed Forces interrupted their harmonizing, but in 1949 they landed their first professional singing job at a small Louisville night club.
A year later, they joined tenor sax man Ed Wiley's band for a tour of the South. Wiley featured a variety of jump and blues tunes, and the young singers developed a wider repertoire from this experience. At the end of the tour, Bobby returned to Louisville, while Harvey moved to Cleveland where a friend from the service, Danny Coggins, born in Tennessee, was operating a gas station. Harvey supported himself with mundane day jobs and spent his nights haunting the many local night spots where rhythm and blues was spotlighted. Harvey, Coggins (as lead tenor), and their neighbour Prentiss Barnes (as bass), decided to try their luck as a vocal group.
Calling themselves the Crazy Sounds, they specialised in "vocalese", improvised lyrics set to recorded jazz, a style pioneered by Eddie Jefferson and parlayed into hit records by Clarence "King Pleasure" Beeks. In later years, this style was used to good advantage by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Manhattan Transfer.
During 1952, Bobby Lester arrived from Louisville to replace Danny Coggins as lead vocalist, and local singer Alexander "Pete" Graves was added as second tenor - by the end of the year the classic Moonglows line-up was in place.
The group began to sing in r&b clubs around Cleveland. Their deep, warm style evolved from their early influences such as the Orioles and the Ravens. Harvey Fuqua also found that he had a talent for writing romantic ballads and in Bobby Lester he knew that he had the perfect lead singer to express the sentiments in his songs.
Whilst performing at a club called the Loop in Cleveland, they were heard by Al "Fats" Thomas who had recorded for National Records in 1949. He was so impressed by what he heard, that he immediately contacted his friend, the popular disc jockey over at WJW, Alan Freed, who was busy making a name for himself by programming a straight diet of undiluted r&b to his audience.
The story goes that Thomas let Freed hear the Moonglows over the phone from the club, at which point Freed had the group come straight over to the studio at WJW to record what would become their first single, the Fuqua-Lester composition "I Just Can't Tell No Lie," on Freed's own instantly-created Champagne label. Freed also changed their name to reflect his own on-air "Moondog" persona by renaming them the Moonglows. The label read "Al Lance" as writer, which was Freed's pen name.
Released in late 1952, with "I've Been Your Dog (Ever Since I've Been Your Man)" on the "B"-side, "I Just Can't Tell No Lie" (Champagne 7500) gave the world the first taste of Bobby Lester's incredibly smooth and soulful lead and a rough introduction to Moonglows harmonies of the future.
With Alan Freed's dynamic boosting behind the record, it became a strong regional hit, reportedly selling almost 10,000 copies. Sales were also helped by frequent appearances at Alan Freed's stage shows. However, no follow-up record transpired and Freed eventually sent the group to Chicago to seek a wider audience and further fame and fortune.
They headed initially for Chess Records at 950 East 49th Street but were unable to see Phil Chess, so they walked the few blocks across town to 1151 East 47th Street, home to Art Sheridan's Chance label, currently hot with the Spaniels "Baby It's You" (Chance 1141), leased from the incipient Vee-Jay label. At Chance, they sang three new Harvey Fuqua compositions, "Hey Santa Claus," "Baby Please," and "I Was Wrong" for Ewart Abner, general manager of the label. He liked every song and signed them. They cut the blues ballad "Baby Please" (with Harvey on lead) and a harmony-filled jumper, "Whistle My Love" (Harvey and Bobby Lester duetting) as the group's first single, issued the fourth week of October 1953 (Chance 1147). At about the same time, Chance released the Flamingos' classic "Golden Teardrops" (Chance 1145). "Baby Please" sold well in the Chicago and Cleveland areas.
The Alan Freed connection was obviously still active since both sides of their first and subsequent Chance originals had the writer credits Fuqua-Freed. (It was just the way things were done in those days, and a resigned Harvey has stated, "Alan would sit there and throw a word in every now and then so, ya know, we'd give him credit for that, sometimes all the credit.") For Christmas 1953, Chance issued two Moonglows originals, the rockin' "Hey Santa Claus" and another soulful blues ballad, "Just a Lonely Christmas" (Chance 1150). They are r&b Christmas standards today and both can be found on the Blue Moon CD compilation "Blue Christmas" (BMCD 5003).
In February 1954 their third Chance release (Chance 1152) was the only non-original from this period, a cover of the January 1954 Doris Day-sung, Fain-Webster song "Secret Love," done in a beautiful Moonglows setting, with Bobby on soaring lead vocals. Though "B"-side rockers were mandatory at that time, "Real Gone Mama" was a first-class jazz-tinged jump side.
Their biggest-selling Chance single was their next 45, "I Was Wrong" c/w "Ooh Rocking Daddy" in June 1954, a rhythm ballad with a bluesy melody, a great bass part, and a jumpin' bridge that was another solid example of the Moonglows carving their own vocal niche. The group's last Chance side "219 Train" c/w "My Gal" was released during Chance's decline and so the song received no promotion, relegating a good r&b record to instant extinction. The Moonglows left Chance after those five classics for the standard reason: no royalties and no royalty statements. They left behind a couple of fine unissued tracks, "Fine, Fine Girl" and "My Love".
In the autumn of 1954 the quartet signed with Chess (for records) and the Shaw agency (for bookings), and two years of struggling started to pay off. "Sincerely," another Fuqua-penned ballad (that naturally read Fuqua-Freed) was issued in November 1954 (c/w "Tempting" on Chess 1581) and in March 1955 made the national Jukebox top 20.
>From the first, "bah, bah-doh, bah-doh" bass line by Barnes, "Sincerely" builds in intensity with harmonised second tenor and baritone and, finally, an anguished lead by Bobby Lester. The finale offers a sample of the Moonglows' famous "blow note" technique, a percussive exhalation adapted from early vocal groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet. The Moonglows smoothed and toned down the mode, turning the "bark" into a breathy "wooo" on ballads. The technique was widely imitated in later years, but remains the most identifiable element of the Moonglows' style.
The same month that Chess released "Sincerely", they issued a Lester-Fuqua duet, "Shoo Doo Be Doo," (c/w "So All Alone" on Checker 806) as Bobby Lester and the Moonlighters. Feeling they had an up-tempo hit, but not wanting to wait for "Sincerely" to die down and not wishing to distract from the ballad image they were projecting, Chess's sister label Checker became home to the Moonlighters. Though not charting nationally, "Shoo Doo Be Doo" received extensive airplay and sales in pockets of the country, and booking agents looking to hire the group found out that to get them, they had to take the Moonglows too! The Moonlighters' schizophrenia lasted for one more single in December, 1954. "Hug and a Kiss" c/w "New Gal (Checker 813) failed and they went back to being full-time Moonglows.
With "Sincerely" selling all over the country, the Moonglows became an instant sensation. Entering the R&B charts on 4 December, 1954, the record knocked the Penguins' "Earth Angel" from the #1 spot on 22 January, 1955, before becoming dislodged two weeks later by Johnny Ace's posthumous blockbuster "Pledging My Love" - heady times indeed. "Sincerely" sold strongly far into the summer months of 1955, racking up 20 straight weeks on the charts with sales reported to exceed 250,000 discs. Had the record not been covered by the McGuire Sisters, whose version sold over a million copies, they no doubt would have had a bigger hit, though some maintain the McGuire's access to white radio gave the song its status as a standard. (Harvey acknowledged that the bridge on "Sincerely" was almost exactly the bridge of the Dominoes' 1952 rocker "That's What You're Doin' To Me", so whether they knew it or not, the McGuire girls covered two r&b groups in one song).
In February 1955, a simple "doe-doe-doe" bass intro led listeners into "Most of All, " one of the most beautiful of all Moonglows masterpieces. With Bobby's soaring lead and the group "blowing" through the bridge, "Most of All" and its four-part harmony "ooh-wah" ending, reached # 5 R&B, but mysteriously failed to chart Pop. The flip of the record was "She's Gone" (Chess 1589).
In June 1955 "Foolish Me" (c/w "Slow Down" on Chess 1598) with its ascending and descending slur harmonies and Bobby's potent lead, came out but couldn't chart.
On 10 September, Billboard reviewed the Moonglows' "Starlite" and "In Love" (Chess 1605), writing, "The boys come through with showmanly vocal performances on two fine songs. 'Starlite' is a dreamy ballad with a poignant warbling stint by the group's lead singer. 'In Love' is a delightful rhythm ballad, highlighted by a fascinating phrasing gimmick on the title. The platter has a bright future." Wishful thinking for the reviewer and countless music lovers, but "Starlite" stiffed. Apparently Chess was in a "don't spend a dime on promotion" period.
If "Starlite's" failure was a sin, the loss of its follow-up, the fluid bluesy rhythm ballad "In My Diary," (c/w "Lover Love Me" on Chess 1611) was pure sacrilege. The last Moonglows single of 1955, its beauty was heard only in scattered spots throughout the country. The record sold more as a collector's favourite in the '60s and '70s than it did upon release. "In My Diary" is my own Moonglows' favourite record. Bobby Lester's nasal falsetto whinny on the word "my" never fails to lift the hairs on the back of my neck (and towards the end of the record he sings the whole line "in my diary" in the same way - unreal).
About this time, the group were joined by guitarist Billy Johnson (born Hartford, Connecticut in 1929) - the Bo Diddley look-a-like that you all know from the publicity photographs. Johnson was a veteran of the Charles Brown and Sonny Thompson orchestras and had just been released from Angola Prison following a marijuana bust.
The ultra commercial "We Go Together" c/w "Chickie Um Bah" (Chess 1619) in March 1956 was next and by the summer it was # 9 R&B. Their next (Chess 1629, July 1956) became their only two-sided charter. "When I'm With You," with its chime harmony, sent kids swooning to the tune of # 15 R&B. Written by Fuqua and Dallas (Bobby Lester's real name), it is acknowledged by Harvey as being one of his favourite Chess sides. The "See-Saw" flip had unfamiliar credits (Davis-Sutton and Pratt); Freed's name was no longer showing up on Moonglows sides. Pratt, by the way, was Harry Pratt, aka Harvey Fuqua. "See-Saw" outdistanced "When I'm With You" and by the autumn of 1956 had reached # 6 R&B. "See-Saw" was the Moonglows' first record with a jazz group backing in the form of James Moody's rhythm section.
In 1956 the group had its first appearance in a film when Alan Freed, with whom they had been constantly touring for the previous two years, brought them to the soundstage of the teen classic "Rock, Rock, Rock", along with the Flamingos, the Teenagers, LaVern Baker, Chuck Berry, and Tuesday Weld in her screen debut (with Connie Francis singing for her). The two songs the Moonglows sang in the film were the Ben Weisman ballad "Over and Over Again" and "I Knew From The Start," which became their next two-sider in 1956 (but not until a fast version of "Over and Over Again" was recorded and released around the same time (December 1956) with the same record number - Chess 1646).
One more film appearance found the Moonglows singing "Barcelona Rock" in Alan Freed's "Mr. Rock And Roll", but the track was never released as a single.
Their first single of 1957, "Don't Say Goodbye" (c/w "I'm Afraid The Masquerade Is Over" on Chess 1651), cast the Moonglows as one of the first r&b groups to use strings. The intention was to make an album, which would include these two tracks, aimed at taking a slice of the Platters' lucrative market. The album was never released, but several additional fine tracks were produced, including "Blue Velvet", "I'll Stop Wanting You", "Love Is A River" and "The Beating Of My Heart".
Next was their delicious version of Percy Mayfield's 1950 r&b chart-topper, "Please Send Me Someone To Love" (with Harvey Fuqua on lead) c/w "Mr. Engineer (Bring Her Back To Me)" (Chess 1661, July 1957), which spent six weeks on the R&B charts in the summer of 1957. Two more releases saw the year out - "Confess It To Your Heart" c/w "The Beating Of My Heart" (Chess 1669, September 1957) and "Here I Am" c/w "Too Late" (Chess 1681, December 1957).
By this time, Bobby's voice was conspicuous by its absence, a problem magnified by the lack of quality material except for one gem supposedly written by a mysterious M. Paul entitled "Ten Commandments of Love" (Chess 1705). The group was now called Harvey and the Moonglows, and their harmony intro and Harvey's listing of the commandments of love made the record a favourite love song of 1958 and an all-time classic. It ultimately charted # 22 Pop and # 9 R&B. M. Paul turned out to be the nine-year-old son of one of the Chess brothers, but before you consider him a protégé, note that when the legal smoke cleared, it turned out that Fuqua had actually written the song.
With Lester's smooth, mellow lead being replaced by Harvey's tougher, more soulful voice, the group became divided as to which musical direction they should take. Should they follow the Platters' movement to dynamic pop ballads or "get blacker" in their sound? Soul music was waiting in the wings, presaged by James Brown, whose string of innovative singles in 1957 and 1958 were highly influential in spite of lacklustre sales (and James, for his part, had been greatly influenced by the "5" Royales).
"I'll Never Stop Wanting You" c/w "Love Is A River", both recorded in December 1956, were paired together and issued in January 1959 (Chess 1717). Billboard's 19 January issue reported, "This one starts with some pleasant vocal harmonies, followed by a devoted lead performance in a slow rock tempo. The cat really put his heart in this. Watch it!"
"Ten Commandments Of Love" would be the last time that the original Moonglows would record together. Fuqua quit the group and took over as lead of the Marquees, a young group from Washington, D.C. that included Marvin Gaye, Reese Palmer, James Knowland and Chester Simmons. Gaye is heard doing his first recorded lead on the jump "Mama Loocie".
Retaining the Moonglows' name, and returning to Chicago, Harvey added Chuck Barksdale of the Dells to the group on bass and proceeded to cut the next "Moonglows" single, the ballad "Twelve Months of the Year," with Marvin Gaye doing the recitation. Despite Harvey's enthusiasm, Barksdale's bass, and a budding Marvin Gaye, the new Moonglows couldn't make any significant impact.
In 1960 the new Moonglows dispersed and Harvey and Marvin went off to Detroit. While there Harvey married the sister of the young songwriter who had co-written a late Moonglows trifle called "Soda Pop." Her name was Gwen Gordy and her brother was Berry Gordy.
In 1961 Harvey set up his own Tri-Phi label signing groups like the Five Quails and the Spinners, whom Harvey trained as a cross between the Moonglows (blow harmony and all) and a soulful Hi-Lo's type group. Meanwhile Chess issued its last Moonglows single, one of the group's most beautiful ballads, "Blue Velvet." Harvey moulded the Spinners so well that their recording of "That's What Girls Are Made For" (with Marvin Gaye playing drums) sounded like Harvey was on lead even though it was Bobby Smith. Harvey sang on all the Five Quails and Spinners records on Tri-Phi.
In 1964 Pete Graves formed another Moonglows including Doc Green (The Five Crowns, Rainbow), George Thorpe, and Bearle Easton (both from the Velvets, Red Robin). They tried to recreate the old group's sound on five singles for Lana (from the Chess days), one single for Times Square, and one for Crimson.
In 1970, Bobby Lester, who was now managing a Louisville nightclub, returned to perform with a local group called the Aristocrats. Within a year he turned the quintet into a new Moonglows with Albert Workman, Bobby's cousin Gary Rodgers, Robert Ford, and Billy McPhatter (son of the late Drifters lead Clyde McPhatter). They performed at the Academy of Music in 1971 but after the show the backups wanted to go home to Louisville while Bobby wanted to continue on. He contacted Fuqua and they went about the task of restructuring the group.
In 1972, three-fourths of the original Moonglows group (Fuqua, Lester, and Graves), along with Chuck Lewis and Doc Williams, recorded an LP for Philadelphia deejay George Woods' Big P label. The album was then bought by RCA. The LP was called Return of the Moonglows and had remakes of "When I'm With You," "Most Of All," "I Was Wrong," "Ten Commandments of Love," and "Sincerely ' 72," which started like the original and then got funky after one verse. The latter song reached # 43 on the R&B chart in the summer of 1972 and became the Moonglows' last chart record.
A performance in Boston in January 1979 was taped and issued as the Relic LP, "Bobby Lester and the Moonglows One More Time", featuring many of the old favourites. These Moonglows stayed together until Bobby's sad demise in October 1980 of cancer. The group was to appear at Madison Square Garden on 14 November, so to keep the tradition alive, Billy McPhatter rejoined the group and performed for the five-thousand-plus fans that had come to hear the Moonglows, a group that hadn't had a pop hit in 22 years.
In 1983 Fuqua was invited to appear at the Grammy Awards and brought the remainder of his RCA version of the group. It was this same foursome that appeared at Radio City Music Hall in April 1986. Billy McPhatter's group of Moonglows, with Robert Lee Davis, Gary Rodgers, Peter Lawford, and Bruce Martin carried the tradition into the late '80s. Entering the '90s the newest member was none other than Bobby Lester's son.
After selling his Tri-Phi operation to his brother-in-law, Berry Gordy, Jr., Harvey Fuqua became the head of Motown's Artist Development Department. He discovered Tammi Terrell, wrote and produced numerous hits including "What Does It Take" for Junior Walker (an original Tri-Phi artist), and produced "Someday We'll Be Together" for the Supremes. His song "Sincerely" was nominated for a 1990 Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance by a Country Group known as the Forrester Sisters (who had a top 10 country hit with it). In 1991 the Moonglows' original was used in the box office smash "Good Fellas".
The Moonglows are simply an American vocal legend, and deservedly so.
The above notes were compiled from Jay Warner's "American Singing Groups" and Pete Grendysa's sleeve notes to "The Original Chess Masters" 2-CD set "Blue Velvet - The Ultimate Collection" Chess/MCA CH 9345 (1993) which is highly recommended listening.
I can't find out whether Harvey Fuqua, Pete Graves or Prentiss Barnes are still with us. Hopefully they are. Does anyone have any more up-to-date information?
More info on Prentiss Barnes:
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