By Todd Baptista
Into his seventh decade of performing, Maurice Williams still speaks and sings with the enthusiasm of a young man. The man who wrote two of the biggest hits of the early rock ’n’ roll era — recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his signature tune, “Stay,” with a new studio CD and live concert DVD. Born in Lancaster, S.C., on March 26, 1940, Maurice began singing in the First Washington Baptist Church choir but soon gravitated toward rhythm and blues. “Fats Domino really influenced me,” Maurice recalls. “The first record I heard by him might have been ‘Goin’ Home.’ Fats made me want to play piano.” Learning some rudimentary skills from his sister, Carol, a classically trained pianist, he quickly turned his attention to creating R&B. “She would work all day on one (classical) song, and I could write a bunch of (R&B) songs in the same time, so that’s what I did,” he admits, laughing at the memory.
In 1955, Williams and his glee club singing buddies at Lancaster’s Barr Street High School formed the Royal Charms. “We all sang and played instruments. We took our name from two of our favorites groups which were the 5 Royales and the Charms. We did songs that we heard on the radio, pop songs.” One of Williams’ earliest compositions, penned at age 13, was “Little Darlin’.” “I was going out with two different girls at the same time. I wrote ‘Little Darlin’ about the one I really wanted to be with. I was head over heels in love with that girl.”
By the mid-’50s, the Royal Charms — Maurice; tenor and guitarist Earl Gainey; baritone Willie Jones; bass Norman Wade; tenor-baritone William Massey and drummer Mac Badskins — were honing their craft with original songs and the records they listened to nightly on Nashville’s influential WLAC. “There was a disc jockey on WLAC named John R. (John Richbourg) who played rhythm and blues. His show was sponsored by Ernie Young, who owned Ernie’s Record Mart and Nashboro and Excello Records.”
With a desire to further their career, Maurice telephoned Young at his Nashville office in the hope of gaining an audition. “I told him we’d like to come over and audition and he said, ‘Well, I’d love to have you, but don’t make a special trip. If you happen to have a job over here performing, you can come by.’ I lied and told him that we were playing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville in two weeks! I figured two weeks would give us time to rehearse.”
Friends and local merchants in New Town, Lancaster’s black community, donated money to help get the Royal Charms to Nashville. Two weeks later, in late 1956, the group — minus Massey, whose mother forbade him from making the trip — drove the 512 miles in Willie Jones’ beat-up old Chrysler with four well-worn tires and no spare. “We prayed a lot,” Williams recalls. “We had $37 and some change when we left. When we got to Nashville, (Young) had John R. meet us at the hotel and bring us over to audition.”
Duly impressed with the group and their original material, Young signed them to a contract and changed their name to the Gladiolas. “At first, I had ‘Little Darlin’,’ which I had written for Massey to sing, with a beat like ‘Stand By Me,’ and Ernie Young told me that calypso was very popular, so we changed it up and gave it a mambo beat.” Issued on Excello in January 1957, “Little Darlin’” sold well in Southern territories and reached Billboard’s national R&B and pop charts in April, peaking at Nos. 11 and 41 respectively.
“During that time, you had to call and get permission from the writer and the publisher before you covered a song,” Maurice remembers. “The Diamonds had covered everybody, and when they asked (about covering it), Ernie advised me to let them do it because they were white and Mercury had a larger distribution (network). He said, ‘You will get royalties for the rest of your life and they would take it further,’ and he was right.” The Diamonds’ polished rendition hit No. 2 pop behind Elvis’ “All Shook Up”.
Three follow-ups by the Gladiolas were issued in 1957-58, including the fine ballad “Hey Little Girl,” but none drew national attention. Still, the gigs derived from their initial hit were plentiful, and Williams passed over a music scholarship to Columbia’s all-black Allen University. “When I graduated from high school, I was blessed with a hit record, and I asked my mother if I could go on tour and she said, ‘Yes, you can go back to school later,’ but I never looked back, and I’ve been working as a musician all these years.”
The Gladiolas declined to renew their two-year pact with Excello, hoping to latch on with a label that offered better national distribution. Young, in turn, refused to allow them to keep the Gladiolas name. Still, Maurice remains grateful to the man who set him on the road to success. “He could have taken ‘Little Darlin’’ away from me because I was 16 and didn’t know anything about publishing and contracts, but he was a good man. He had started teaching me about publishing and royalties.”
During a stop in Bluefield, W.V., bassist Robert Gore conceived the ultimate group name from a Ford model automobile he saw called the Zodiac. “We liked it, and my manager suggested I use my name in front, so that way I’d always have my name. So we became Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs.”
Five obscure singles on the local Cole, Selwyn, and Soma labels followed in 1959-1960. One by one, the original Gladiolas dropped out. By mid-1960, the Zodiacs included high tenor Henry “Shane” Gaston, tenor Wiley Bennett, baritone Charles “Frog” Thomas, drummer Willie Morrow, and bassist Albert Hill. The self-contained act developed a steady following on the college circuit, playing dances and fraternity parties throughout the Carolinas while continuing to work on original material. “Phil Gernhardt and Al McCullough were recording us locally, and they decided to pitch us in New York.” A host of labels turned the Zodiacs down, but one of their demos caught the ear of Herald Records president Al Silver.
“‘Stay’ was written in 1955 about the same girl that I wrote ‘Little Darlin’’ for. I wanted her to ‘Stay’ just a little bit longer,” Maurice explains, recalling the 10 p.m. curfew that her father had imposed. “I thought it was nothing. I threw it in the trash can. But I went ahead and put it on tape, and one day I was playing songs for the nine-year-old sister of that same girlfriend, and she said she liked the song with the high part in it.” A mere one minute and 37 seconds long, “Stay” had an incredible hook: a high falsetto sung by Gaston.
“I didn’t sing the original demo flat, but Al Silver told them to take it back and have us re-record it and sing it flat — out of key. He said, ‘That way, the average man in the street can sing it.’ We were disappointed, because, being glee club singers, we had been taught to sing on key, but we did it, and I did that ‘ahhh … just a little bit longer’ and sang it flat to get that contract.”
On Nov. 21, 1960, “Stay” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — the shortest chart-topper in rock ’n’ roll history. National television appearances and a steady stream of concert tours materialized. Herald followed with the nationally charted “I Remember” and “Come Along” in 1961 before the company’s interest waned and the group drifted off to record for Atlantic, Scepter, Sphere Sound, Deesu, Snyder, Seahorn, Veep and Plus between 1963 and 1970. One original, “May I,” was leased to Vee Jay in 1964 and later became a million-seller for Bill Deal and the Rhondels.
By then, Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs were entrenched as pioneers and purveyors of the beach-music sound, performing regularly throughout the Carolinas and the mid-southeastern seaboard. The inclusion of “Stay” in the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack in 1987 helped push sales of the song over 10 million. “That was fantastic,” Maurice states. “Things really took off again after that. I don’t care what they call us, but I never considered us a beach-music band. I think of us more as doo-wop and rhythm and blues. That’s what we are.” In 2000, Williams appeared in PBS-TV’s “Doo Wop 51” and performed in England.
Several CDs of new material, ranging from gospel and R&B to Christmas and rock ’n’ roll are available from the artist’s official Website, buymauricewilliams.com, as well as via mail order and Internet file download. The newest of these Bradley House releases, “50 years …” includes a new recording of “Little Darlin’,” complete with Williams’ rap about the group’s formation and early success, and strong, soulful versions of “Do I” and “Dearest Baby”.
Despite the loss of 15-year veteran tenor Freddie Mangum to a heart attack at age 46 in 2009, Maurice has persevered. Based in Charlotte, Williams and his current Zodiacs — 37-year veteran Melvin “Pee Wee” Smith; singer-guitarist Ron Henderson, Jr., whose father sang with the True Tones in the ’50s and ’60s; and newcomer Leon Weaver — maintain an active performing schedule.
As for the rest of Williams’ bandmates, Gainey completed his military service, returned to Lancaster and became involved in gospel music. Gaston retired from the Zodiacs in 1970 and went to work in the trucking industry in Charlotte. At 73 and 75 respectively, they maintain close friendships with Williams, chatting and visiting together often. Gainey occasionally joins his old band mate on stage to perform “Little Darlin’.” Massey is a Catholic priest living in Canada. As for the girl immortalized in “Little Darlin’” and “Stay,” Williams never has divulged her name, and he doesn’t plan to, either. “We were 15 years old, and I was in love. She’s a grandmother living in Georgia now,” Williams reticently offers.
In recent years, Williams been honored with induction into the South Carolina Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Beach Music Hall of Fame. In 2001, he received The Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor a civilian can receive from the state of South Carolina, in a special ceremony with Gov. Jim Hodges. It’s an honor Williams calls his proudest moment.
Grateful to God, his wife of nearly 50 years, Emily, and the fans who have supported him through the years, Williams still relishes each opportunity to take the stage. On Sundays, he can be found performing in his local church choir. “Having had four back operations, I’m just happy to be anywhere,” he quips. “But I am truly thankful to our Lord Jesus Christ for all these years of performing and recording, and our fans for staying with us for more than 50 years.”