Tracking the long flight of The Swallows

By  Todd Baptista

(Todd Baptista)

(Todd Baptista)

On a cold winter evening, Eddie Rich and his Swallows ventured to the suburban Baltimore home of their manager, Bob Burnopp, to perform at a private engagement.

Still spry at age 78, Rich walks and talks with the exuberance and excitement of a teenager when the subject is music. There were many great lead singers in the first generation of rhythm-and-blues vocal groups in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Eddie Rich is one of a precious few still remaining, and even rarer, still singing.

“Eddie loves this music,” his wife of 53 years, Barbara, readily admits. “He eats and drinks and sleeps it.”

Today, nearly 60 years since The Swallows began their recording career, Rich and his revamped group — Leroy “Linky” Miller, William “Til” George and brothers Johnny and Bryan Robinson — are back in the recording studio and hoping to find a home on the doo wop-R&B nostalgia circuit. On this night, the quintet flawlessly delivers eight or nine vocal-group classics a cappella, including “Will You Be Mine,” “When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano,” “Ride, Eddie, Ride” and “Beside You.” With just a hint of a rasp, Rich’s golden tenor remains magically intact, the group’s harmonies strong and soulful. The audience of roughly two dozen is enjoying themselves, as is the group, but it’s obvious that the man having the time of his life is Eddie Rich.

Born in Richmond, Va., Eddie was raised in Baltimore and began mimicking the sounds of the Wings Over Jordan Choir and The Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny coming through his family’s radio by the age of 8.

“Everywhere I used to go, people would hear me sing and they’d tell me, ‘Keep singing it’, and give me a dollar,” says Rich. “When I got to about 13, I was singing in little places in Baltimore and they called me the second Bill Kenny.”

Singing to earn movie-ticket money, Rich was shocked when an impromptu rendition of “If I Didn’t Care” earned him $20 from passersby.

In the days immediately following World War II, Rich and neighborhood pal Herman “Junior” Denby began singing together in a group called The Shields. The emergence of Sonny Til and The Orioles in 1948 had a profound effect on teenagers all over the country, none greater than in their home city of Baltimore. Singing groups literally sprang up on every corner overnight.

“Here’s a group on one corner, up the street there’s a group, down the street, there’s a group,” Rich recalls. “Earl Hurley was across the street. He had made a big drum and put a stick on it, and you would have heard it a block away. It sounded like a bass fiddle. I had to stop singing because I couldn’t believe what I heard.”

The Oakaleers — Hurley, lead singer Lawrence Coxson, Irving Turner, and a fellow remembered only as “Gabby” — immediately captured Rich’s attention.

“They had a better sound than we had,” remembers Rich. “Me and Denby went over and met them. After I went home, Denby came back and told me Earl wanted us to come back and get with them.” The new sextet consisted of three baritones and three tenors. “We sounded like a choir,” Rich laughs.

They soon added Frederick “Money” Johnson (1934-1998), a self-taught left-handed guitarist who hung out and played on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We used to rehearse at Money’s mother’s house,” Rich explains. “That’s where I met my wife, because she was his sister. We were looking for a name, and his mother opened the encyclopedia and said, ‘Oh, here … the Swallows’. She gave us the name.”

The group regularly earned spending money singing Orioles’ and Ink Spots’ tunes on the street corners. Eventually, Gabby, Coxson and Turner dropped out and bass singer Norris “Bunky” Mack (1932-1965) was added. Local radio announcer Jack Gale referred The Swallows to local businessman Irv Goldstick (1910-1992), who became their manager.

Goldstick got The Swallows local club dates where they performed popular standards like “Tennessee Waltz,” “Chew Tobacco Rag,” and “Out In The Cold Again,” along with several Denby originals including “Dearest,” “Wishing For You” and “Will You Be Mine.” With Denby on bass fiddle, Hurley on drums, Mack playing piano and Johnson’s mighty guitar, the self-contained group was introduced to arranger Billy Conrad. “He had us sounding like The Four Aces,” Rich recalls.

Goldstick got the group an audition with King Records’ A&R director Henry Glover who, according to Rich, “ … said we sounded too white. So Henry changed it from what Conrad had done.” Glover ultimately offered the group a contract if they could learn his composition “Since You’ve Been Away.” Their debut, “Will You Be Mine,” hit the Top 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart in the summer of 1951.

Rich’s dynamic and expressive tenor, a cross between Bill Kenny and The Dominoes’ young lead, Clyde McPhatter, was featured on their initial best-sellers, including “Will You Be Mine,” “Dearest,” “Since You’ve Been Away,” “Wishing For You,” “Eternally” and “Tell Me Why,” into early 1952. Guitarist Johnson and pianist Sonny “Long Gone” Thompson were featured on the bulk of the quintet’s King sides.

A rapid succession of tour dates followed, with the usual R&B theater stops including the Apollo, Howard, Royal, Earle and Regal, and countless one-nighters throughout the country. Rich enthusiastically remembers sharing stages with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Johnnie Ray, LaVern Baker and Pearl Bailey in the days before rhythm and blues became rock ’n’ roll. Alan Freed booked them in Kentucky and Ohio in 1952.

“We were glad to get out there and make some money,” says Rich. “We had royalties coming in. One time, we were in (Irv’s) store and a $2,000 check came in, and Bunky said ‘That’s our check!’  They gave the money to us. That had been coming every three or four months, but we didn’t know. It wasn’t just us. A whole lot of groups got ripped off.”

Rich also carries vivid memories of touring the South during the time of racial segregation.

“People loved us (on stage), but there were a whole lot of hotels that we couldn’t check into,” he recalls. “I had to go around to the back of the restaurant to eat and get sandwiches, and we couldn’t drink out of the same water fountains.”

All members took turns singing lead. Bunky was featured on Glover’s ribald “It Ain’t The Meat” and “Roll, Roll, Pretty Baby.” Money wrote and led “Pleading Blues” and “It Feels So Good.” Hurley delivered “My Baby.” But the group’s biggest chart success came with Denby fronting his own soulful ballad, “Beside You,” a #8 R&B hit in August, 1952.

On guitar, Money, who got his nickname from a childhood bout with ringworm on his head, had a style all his own.

“We toured with B.B. King, and he and Money would have a little duet,” says Rich. “B.B. sat down and shook his head and said, ‘I can’t believe this man has got a guitar with the tenor strings up and the bass strings down. I don’t see how he does it. He gets more out of it than I get on my own.’”

Denby and Mack were eventually drafted and a succession of replacements — Herman Williams, Al France, Dee Ernie Bailey, Irving Turner, Buddy Crawford, and Ace Thomas — filled the holes on stage and in the studio. With Rich and the group on tour in October 1952, Denby returned home on leave and was rushed into the studio by Glover to record six sides without The Swallows.

“We knew nothing about that,” Rich contends. “If Herman had done like he was supposed to have done, he would have said, ‘Look, man, I’m not recording any records without my own group.’”

Some historians have suggested Denby’s backing group was The Swan Silvertones. Rich believes his labelmates, The Strangers, accompanied Denby on “Our Love Is Dying,” “Please Baby Please” and “Nobody’s Lovin’ Me,” among others, all released under The Swallows name through late 1953.

When King didn’t renew the group’s contract, they drifted to New York record shop owner Flap Hanford’s tiny After Hours label, recording one ultra-rare 1954 single.

“He was checking into the Hotel Teresa at the same time we were, plus he had come to The Apollo to see us,” Rich muses.  “He paid us part of our money and then checked out at three o’clock in the morning to keep from paying us the rest.”

A succession of bad managers and the lack of a record deal led to the group’s breakup in West Virginia in 1956. Money toured with a band in Steubenville, Ohio, for a time before hooking up with Billy Ford’s Thunderbirds and Sam Warren. Rich teamed up with a young Ohio quartet called The Crowns which included Bobby Hendricks. They eventually worked their way to Baltimore and recorded for Rainbow as The Marquis before Bill Pinkney scooped up Hendricks and Dee Ernie Bailey for his new Flyers group. Hendricks later led The Drifters on “Drip Drop” and launched a successful solo career with “Itchy Twitchy Feeling.”

Rich reorganized The Swallows with former Honey Boys lead Calvin “Khaki” Rowlette (1933-1966), Johnson, Hurley, Crawford and Dee Ernie Bailey’s brother, Buddy, and signed with King’s Federal subsidiary in early 1958.

Rowlette had a powerful tenor that was featured on most of the material issued on four 1958 singles, including Don Gibson’s country-and-western-styled “Oh Lonesome Me” and a strong ballad titled “Who Knows, Do You.”

“We changed over to what they called rockabilly and made a different sound,” Rich explains. “Khaki had a good voice. The songs didn’t get pushed like they should have. That’s when we decided to go in a different direction and we broke up.”

Rich went to work for the Department of Public Works but still dabbled in music, recording and clubbing with Sonny and The Dukes and backing Plants’ lead George Jackson as The Unisons in 1962. Rowlette, who succumbed to alcoholic cirrhosis, Hurley, who suffered from heart problems, and Mack, found at the bottom of a flight of stairs with a broken neck, died before reaching age 35.

“We used to hang out together and drink, and have a lot of fun,” Rich recalls of his friendships with his former bandmates.

Rich and Denby, who had relocated to Detroit after being discharged from the military, joined forces with Leroy “Linky” Miller, Albert Smith, and Tyree Williams in September 1983 to perform at Mark del Costello’s legendary Burlington, N.J. concert. In 1985, Rich and a new lineup of Swallows recorded a handful of singles for Val Shively’s Starbound label. Rich and Denby reunited again in 1994 when they were inducted into the United In Group Harmony Association Hall of Fame. In recent years, Denby has performed with Jimmie Nabbie’s Ink Spots.

Into the new millenium, Rich continued performing sporadically, enduring a plethora of bad managers, unproductive agents and occasional personnel changes.

“There’s a studio down here that we recorded in that is so small that the drummer had to sit on the toilet bowl and play,” Rich laughs. “(singing)‘Will you be mine’ — flush! It was like a sardine can.”

Recently, however, Rich, Miller and lifelong friend “Til” George reorganized The Swallows with the Robinson brothers, John and Bryan, who perform locally with The Stylists. A bond was quickly formed, and twice-weekly rehearsals began in earnest.

“We’ve been dragged through the mud and beaten so much that we aren’t thinking about where we may be in two or three years,” Til confesses. “But we would like to be here.”

For more information on Eddie Rich and The Swallows, please contact Bob Burnopp at (443)-895-4286 or via e-mail at
bobburnopp@comcast.net.


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