The Fabulous ’50s!: Who wins the battle of the doo-wop groups— Turbans or Paragons?

By  Hank Davis

You probably remember that LP cover from 1959: The Paragons Meet The Jesters. The LP sleeve showed a stylized version of a couple of street punks about ready to rumble — something right out of West Side Story.

Here, we’ve created our own “Battle of the Groups,” and, like that original LP cover, we’re including the Paragons, whose music actually appeared on that vintage Winley LP (also issued on the Jubilee and Josie labels) back a half a century ago.

We’ve gone beyond history here, because the Paragons never took on the Turbans. For one thing, the Turbans recorded for another label (Herald) and wouldn’t have shared an LP sleeve with one of Paul Winley’s groups. For another, although the Paragons were from Brooklyn, New York, (Jefferson High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant), the Turbans had to take the bus in from Philly. That seems a long way to travel just to rumble. Finally, it’s hard to imagine anybody wearing a turban to a street brawl. So, we’ll confine our comments to the music and leave the street fighting to someone else.

Here we have two falsetto-led East Coast groups from the golden age of doo-wop. Superficially, they seem very much alike. But when were we at Goldmine ever superficial?

The most obvious way to distinguish between these two groups is to listen to their biggest hits. For the Paragons, that means “Florence.” The record was released on Winley 215 in early 1957. It may never have appeared on the Billboard national charts (hard to believe if you grew up listening to the radio in New York), but it was a mighty influential sound.

The record is pure smooch music, a back-seat anthem. It is vocal magic from its wordless intro to the final guitar chord two minutes and 41 seconds later. The record is also a major argument against those who believe that great records require great lyrics. In fact, this record doesn’t seem to have any lyrics, good, great or otherwise. Just when you think you’ve picked up a phrase of English here or there, it disappears into that wonderful, wordless, falsetto wail. You can plainly hear the word “Florence” now and then, but I defy anybody to spell out the rest with precision. The singer may be asking her to be true right at the end of the song, but even that is far from certain.

This isn’t Cole Porter, boys and girls. Nor does it need to be. The sound of “Florence” is pure heaven. Julius McMichael’s falsetto lead is essential, and the deep harmony behind him brings the record into focus. Only a brief out-of-tune moment at the conclusion lowers the record’s status below perfection. There’s a small combo playing on there as well, but they hardly matter. That guitar chord right at the end — an interesting inversion — is almost startling. The piano work (mostly right-hand triplets) by David Cortez Clowney is strictly from the “teach yourself on the auditorium piano” approach to keyboards.

Everything on this record breathes “amateur,” which makes it all the more lovable. In truth, Clowney was more talented than it seemed. He had stints singing with both the Pearls and the Valentines and went on to enjoy an instrumental hit, “The Happy Organ,” under the name Dave “Baby” Cortez.

The follow-up to “Florence” made even less of a mark locally or nationally, but it was required listening for any group of four or five guys who found themselves congregating near a piano. “Let’s Start All Over Again” (Winley 220) featured that same assertive falsetto, and, if anything, his sound was even more startling this time around.

Unfortunately, the lead vocal seems to grow in power as the record progresses. That makes for a powerhouse ending but a rather weak beginning. The real star of the record, though, was Clowney, the piano player. Once again, his chops barely rose above the “self-taught” level, which was a recipe for success with its audience. Anybody could play like this. I sure could, and all I owned was a guitar. In many ways, this was the doo-wop equivalent of Johnny Cash’s guitar player, Luther Perkins. The man barely knew his way around the instrument and played in a painfully simple style. But that style was totally engaging and contagious. Luther Perkins probably influenced more aspiring guitar players than Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Sugarfoot Garland all rolled into one. So, too, with Clowney, the Paragons’ piano player. If you couldn’t imitate the piano licks on this record within a week, you might as well take up the tuba or buy a tennis racquet.

According to the Billboard charts, the Paragons made the Top 100 charts only once, in 1961, with their version of the old Perry Como hit, “If.” It’s included on this disc (along with a generous 27 other titles), and it doesn’t hold a candle to their work from just four years earlier. Times were changing fast. The Paragons’ sound certainly got slicked up over the years, as they moved toward classic pop titles like “Begin The Beguine” and “Time After Time.” But, for true doo-wop, in all its amateurish, passionate glory, nothing holds a candle to “Florence” or “Let’s Start All Over Again.”

On “If You Love Me” (the Edith Piaf, Kay Starr song) it’s clear that nobody in the studio had a clue about the actual melody or chord changes. It’s almost funny. Stick with what you know, folks. This CD, easily the most complete look at the Paragons’ music on the market, allows you to reach your own conclusions. I’m glad to have heard all 28 tracks but, for my money, any “Best of” the Paragons could have stopped in 1958. Mark Marymont’s notes offer a satisfying overview of the group’s history.

Of interest, original lead singer Julius McMichael left the group, changed his name to Mack Starr and joined the Olympics (of Western Movies fame). He was killed in a motorcycle accident in the 1980s. By the 1960s, the Paragons had become commercial in a rather ordinary way. As many of the recordings on this CD attest, they had been far from ordinary when they started.

The Turbans are a somewhat different story. Their first release, “When You Dance (Herald 458),” made the national charts, reaching # 33 in November 1955. It was the group’s first and last fling with national fame. The arc of the group’s career is familiar. They meet as kids, get noticed locally (in this case Philadelphia), sign with an indie label (Herald), enjoy success early, and spend the next five or six years trying to recapture it with a series of lesser outings on a variety of labels. In this case, the Turbans ventured from Herald to Red Top, Roulette, Parkway (a Philly label) and Imperial. This probably overstates the decline. Their releases were almost all credible contenders, and the record labels (with the exception of Red Top) all had national distribution and major artists under contract.

So what’s the music like? Unfortunately, “When You Dance” was done with a Latin rhythm that pretty much guaranteed that the group would have to revisit that tempo all too often. One novelty does not a career make — a sentiment that seems pretty obvious with the hindsight of 50 years. At the time, however, with growing desperation swirling around them, their path may not have been so clear.

But, before we stray too far from that first Turbans’ record, let’s have a good look at it. In its unassuming little way, it says a lot about the state of record making, the indie record scene and the dawn of rock & roll. Plainly, nobody knew exactly what they were doing. Everyone — from the kids who were writing and singing the songs, to the session men who were getting union scale for three hours work, to the labels who were publishing and releasing these quasi-amateurish hybrids — was feeling his or her way. There really were no rules yet. You might know what was selling this week, but you could lose your shirt releasing a clone a week later.

If a group like the Turbans got off the bus from Philly and wandered into your office, what did you do with them? They may sound great in a small office at 1697 Broadway, but what happens in the studio? These kids probably don’t know B-flat from the Bronx River Parkway. Somebody’s got to back them up, since a cappella records ain’t selling, but how do you find someone who can play and also has a feel for music like this? The answer most of the time is, you don’t. No American city had a better stash of studio musicians than the Big Apple, but most of them had long-standing careers in pop or jazz.

Many of them hated rock ‘n’ roll music. Even if they didn’t, there was no guarantee they could play it. Listen to some of those early Alan Freed big band albums. The results are often comic. These cats were in tune but, stylistically speaking, they were living on another planet. Horn men like Sam Taylor or Al Sears were pure gold, but there were only so many hours in the day and so many sessions they could work. It was like that for every instrument. Want a guitar player? Call Mickey Baker. But what do you do in the likely event he’s already got a gig? You still had a shot at Kenny Burrell, George Barnes or Bucky Pizzarelli, but these guys, great as they were, weren’t raised on rock ‘n’ roll. Or R&B. Or doo-wop.

Which gets us back to this record. Al Silver, the owner of Herald Records, had the good sense to call in arranger Leroy Kirkland, whose R&B credentials were impeccable. But something odd happened here. Listen closely to “When You Dance.” The side starts with a tight little four-bar intro that sets the Latin (actually, mambo) stage. As soon as we hear Al Banks’ falsetto lead vocal, we know we’re in the hands of a stylist. The backing vocal is strong; we can actually hear them singing “doo-wop,” and there’s that big strong 1-7 chord, and that stop-time moment when the bass sings the song title. Everything is working well so far. The eight-bar release is less effective and the words are a bit cornball, especially when they list all those different dance steps. What the hell is a “Strand?” It sounds like something your grandfather would have danced to.

And now the defining moment: The sax break begins. What in the world is this? Has it been edited in from another record? “Lester Young’s Greatest Hits?” The sax is kinda OK; guess that can pass for honking. But those chords behind him on piano and guitar — what are they doing? Years later, I learned it was called “comping”: a staple of small combo jazz. But this isn’t a jazz record! What’s it doing here? We’ve gone from that nifty little mambo rhythm into straight-ahead 4/4 jazz. After 16 bars of this unexpected trip to Birdland, we suddenly hear Al Banks’ soaring falsetto singing the title, and it’s back to the streets of Philly. The effect is still startling. You have to wonder: Didn’t anybody — the Turbans, Leroy Kirkland or the jazz guys he had hired for the session — think this combination was a little unsettling? Hybrid music can be wonderful. Sun Records made a business out of it, bringing blues, gospel, hillbilly and pop together. But here, it’s happening in sequence. That’s a bit harder to take.

The rest of the Turbans CD (18 tracks in all) convinces us that the group, along with lead singer Al Banks, could handle ballads, up tempo, Latin, novelty, jump blues, and even some borderline soul — before there really was such a genre. But does their signature song exude the same innocence and amateurish spirit that swirls around the Paragons? A closer look (or listen) may be in order some 50 years later. You’ve got the ears, and the discs are widely available in today’s market. Go to it. You can’t help enjoying the experience.

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