By Todd Baptista
Harlem, N.Y.'s Bop Chords recorded only three single releases during an all-too-brief career at the dawn of the rock and roll era. To this day, there are no known photographs of the group. Yet R&B vocal group harmony fans fondly recall the sounds of The Bop Chords, their doo-wopping regional best-seller “Castle in The Sky” and the days when a group of untrained youngsters could go from a street corner to a recording studio to Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater in a matter of weeks.
The Bop Chords were formed in late 1955 in the same West 115th Street neighborhood that brought us The Five Crowns, Five Willows and Harptones. Originally known as the Five Sins, the quintet consisted of lead Ernest “Ernie” Harriston, first tenor William “Sheik” Dailey, second tenor Edward “Skip” or “Rico” Boyd, baritone Morris “Mickey” Smarr, and bass Leon Ivey. Harriston was a native New Yorker. Dailey had been born in Norfolk, Va., Smarr was originally from St. Louis, and Ivey hailed from the Charleston, S.C., area.
In early 1956, The Five Sins became neighborhood favorites, singing on the corner of West 115th and Lenox. Following the release of The Willows’ smash “Church Bells May Ring,” however, the local girls turned their attention away from the Sins. Jealous, the group set out to find a recording contract. Boyd left, and Dailey recruited his friend, New York City native and veteran singer Kenneth “Butch” Hamilton, who lived uptown on West 129th Street. Born Jan. 27, 1937, Hamilton began singing as a child in Harlem’s Metropolitan Baptist Church and later at Cooper Junior High with a quintet called The Millionaires, which eventually changed its name to The Holidays and included a young Ben E. King.
By spring 1955, Hamilton had joined The Sonics, another Harlem group, and waxed a single disc for RCA’s Groove subsidiary, “As I Live On”/ “Bumble Bee.” Hamilton then teamed with neighborhood friend Billy Carlisle, who was in the Five Wings; Hamilton backed R&B singer Billy Nelson on one obscure Savoy disc before Dailey recruited him into The Five Sins. Carlisle and his friends soon formed the Dubs.
“Sheik went to Haron High, and I went to Textile High, and we used to play basketball against one another’s school,” Hamilton recalled. “He knew I sang, and he called me and said, ‘Man, we need a second tenor.’”
Soon after, the act selected a new name.
“Two of our greatest influences were The Willows and The Chords. Some girl said, ‘You guys are always bopping around.’ So we just took the Bop and put it with the Chords.”
The Bop Chords rehearsed regularly in Smarr’s building on West 115th Street.
“It was The Keynotes, The Willows and us. We all used to rehearse in one of the rooms there. I had brought some songs with me from The Wings that we rehearsed — ‘Put Another Leaf On The Tree,’ ‘My Darling.’ And then, somehow, ‘Castle In The Sky’ had come up.”
“Castle In The Sky,” conceived by Harriston and Dailey, had been one of The Five Sins’ practice songs.
Willows’ second tenor Ralph Martin liked the group and brought the members to audition for Bobby Robinson at his record shop on 125th Street. When Martin and The Bop Chords arrived, Bobby’s brother, Danny, was also present.
“At that time, Danny was going to start a new record company,” remembered Hamilton. The Bop Chords sang “Castle In The Sky” and drew the brothers’ undivided attention.
“Danny wanted to record it. There was a few weeks of rehearsal, and bam! We were in the studio,” Hamilton recalled.
Born in South Carolina, 25 year-old Lawrence Dwain “Danny” Robinson, was 12 years younger than his brother, Bobby, and just getting started in the industry. In May 1956, Danny, who was operating his new firm from his 2294 Eighth Avenue living room, brought the group into Beltone Studios on West 31st Street to record “Castle In The Sky” and “My Darling To You”.
The “chime” intro on “Castle” was “something that we just made up ourselves,” Hamilton explained. “Bo, bo, bo. In order, it’s Mickey, me, Sheik and Leon. The band was just five or six pieces. It was Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor on tenor, and Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker. Mickey Baker put the guitar down and picked up a banjo. That’s where you get that clunking sound you hear in ‘Castle In The Sky.’ It’s not a guitar, it’s a banjo. The first take was the worst take, but it was the one they released.”
Harriston’s bright, off-key lead, Taylor’s swinging sax break and the group’s call and answer style “bop-bopping” background created an engaging sound.
“When I heard the playback, I knew it was going to be a hit,” recalled Hamilton. “There are some times you hear the playback and feel the song is going to do something. Danny couldn’t think of a name (for the label). I sang with a group called The Holidays and came up with Holiday Records.”
Issued in June of 1956, the Bop Chords’ first record sold more than 150,000 copies and made local charts on the East Coast. On July 26, The Bop Chords debuted at The Apollo with The Cadillacs, LaVern Baker and others.
“We had white jackets, red Nehru collars with gold stripes in it, black trousers and red slippers,” Hamilton recalled. “Our other outfit was a black shirt with a white tie, kind of flashy. I remember standing in the wings waiting to go on; my knees were shaking. We were nervous, man! I’ll never forget, Dr. Jive said, ‘Here are your five young men from New York City that have a big record around town of ‘Castle In The Sky.’ Let’s welcome the Holiday recording stars, The Bop Chords!’ I almost tripped over the mike going out, I was so nervous. I jumped up about six inches off the ground and did a split and the crowd went wild. It was great.”
The quintet divided about $900 for the week. A follow-up, “When I Woke Up This Morning,” was recorded late that summer and backed with “I Really Love Her” that fall.
“The thing I disliked is that our records weren’t released fast enough. By the time ‘When I Woke Up This Morning’ came out, ‘Castle In The Sky’ was dead meat,” Hamilton said.
Still, the record sold well on the East Coast, reaching 75,000 to 100,000 copies in sales, and The Bop Chords returned to the Apollo, appearing with Fats Domino and Little Richard. Through the fall and winter months, the group appeared sporadically, mostly in the New York area.
“We didn’t have any major agency for bookings. Most of the gigs we got were through Danny or Bobby. We did The Apollo, a few TV shows, a few theaters and the circuit, like The Apollo, The Royal, The Howard,” Hamilton said.
But all was not smooth sailing for the group.
“When we made ‘Castle In The Sky,’ I was nearly 19,” Hamilton said. “Ernie was the oldest, he was about 20, 21. We used to argue and fight a lot. Leon and Ernest couldn’t get along for nothing.”
In 1971, Harriston recalled to interviewer Lynn McCutcheon, “Everybody was a star, and we couldn’t even agree on what kind of costumes to wear. There were some personality conflicts.”
“We had too many arguments,” Hamilton agreed. “Before we’d go on stage, we’d argue. We’d get off the stage, we’d argue,” he stated, laughing at the memory. “A singing group is a business. It’s got to be together.”
Drug problems led to the departure of Dailey and Smarr in the spring of 1957. Harriston, Hamilton, and Ivey brought Skip Boyd back to sing baritone and added Peggy Jones as first tenor.
“Peggy was the niece of Jimmy Jones and lived up on 163rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. She must have been about 16. We couldn’t seem to find a guy, so being that she sang first tenor ...” Hamilton said.
The new lineup returned to Beltone in the summer of 1957.
“When I came from The Wings to the Bop Chords, I had a whole stack of songs, but Danny didn’t like those,” Hamilton explained. “But after they couldn’t find anything else to record and were desperate for a hit, they said, ‘We’re going to take Butch’s songs, ‘So Why’ and ‘Baby,’ and that was the last recording we ever did.”
Issued in October 1957, “So Why” is a great rocker that features the honking tenor sax of jazz musician George Kelly. But it failed to click, and Robinson, who was busy with other groups, did little to push it. One of The Bop Chords’ final appearances was a Nov. 1, 1957, dance at Hunts Point Palace in The Bronx with The Dubs, Shells, Bobbettes, Chantels and Al Sears’ band.
In early 1958, The Bop Chords dissolved. Dailey became a maintenance man and worked for his father, a house painter. Both Harriston and Hamilton found day jobs and continued on in music. In 1959, Butch briefly joined The Pastels and then The Valentines. In 1960, he took a step toward a solo career. Veteran arranger Howard Biggs brought Hamilton to MGM and arranged for a solo single.
“I did ‘Time After Time,’ a standard, and a song called ‘Tonight.’ Ray Ellis, who did the arrangement, and Biggs were responsible for taking me there.”
The record was apparently never issued, though, and Hamilton took a job as a shipping clerk in a garment factory. In the early 1960s, Harriston occasionally filled in for either Charles Baskerville or Clarence Bassett in Shep and The Limelites when one of them couldn’t make a gig. In 1962, he recorded a solo single, “You Need Love”/“Tell Her From Me”, as Ernie Johnson for the Asnes label on West 125th Street. Although it failed to sell, Harriston said that the disc earned him more than all his Bop Chords records!
Through the years, Bop Chords members occasionally ran into one another and maintained their friendships, despite not singing. Smarr eventually moved to Queens, where he died of pneumonia, likely brought on by substance abuse, around the age of 30. The one alumnus who worked steadily in music was Peggy Jones. Before recording with The Bop Chords, she had caught Bo Diddley’s attention in a chance 1956 meeting outside the Apollo. The following year, she adopted the stage name Lady Bo and joined Diddley’s band, playing guitar on “I’m Sorry,” “Road Runner,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Mona” and others into the 1960s.
In 1971, Harriston, Hamilton, Boyd and Ivey reunited as The Bop Chords for various oldies events in the New York area.
“The first was at Shadow Gardens in Queens with the Moonglows,” Hamilton remembered. “We just did gigs here and there, but not steadily.” After about a year, they quietly drifted apart again.
In 1972, Harriston was contacted about doing a reunion show at Madison Square Garden and jumped at the chance of playing before 20,000 people.
“Ernie did the lead, I did the second tenor, and he got three other guys from Long Island that I hardly knew. We did three songs: ‘Castle In The Sky,’ ‘When I Woke Up This Morning’ and ‘My Darling To You.’ We were with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, The Cleftones, Bobby Rydell and Dion. It was the last gig I did with The Bop Chords.”
Sadly, Ernest Harriston was murdered in Harlem in the mid-1970s. Leon Ivey, ravaged by years of alcohol abuse, died in 1993 at age 56. William Dailey eventually returned to the Norfolk, Va., area where he resides today. Danny Robinson died in the Bronx on April 17, 1996, at age 66.
Butch maintained friendships with many of the neighborhood’s veteran singers and lived out his final years on West 120th Street in Harlem. Clean and sober, he wrote and recorded one final song, “I’ll Try Not To Cry Over You,” in 1997. In June 1999, he appeared in The Pioneers of Rhythm and Blues, Rock & Roll and Doo-Wop group photo at Shriver’s Row on 138th Street. Hamilton never received songwriting or performance royalties for any of his recordings.
“We were treated poorly. We were young and didn’t know anything. They gave us a contract. We were so enthused about singing and getting some kind of recognition that we overlooked the fine print,” he said. “People think it’s easy. Show business is hard work. You’ve got to be business-minded.”
Unfortunately, no photographs of the Bop Chords have been found. “Before we went to the Apollo, we went to the studio and had them (done). We put them in the showcase, but the girls saw the pictures and took them out. The shop that took the pictures burned and the negatives burned. I haven’t seen a picture of us since then. There’s a girl who may have a photo that we took in Shadow Gardens (in 1971). Someone took a picture of us, (and) we had it blown up.”
In his final years, Hamilton expressed gratitude for the opportunities he received and was able to put it all in perspective.
“I had fun, man. I enjoyed myself for as long as it lasted. I wanted The Bop Chords to be a legendary name like The Ink Spots,” he laughed, “but it never happened. I appreciate the people for making the record a success and buying it. I’m glad that I was a part of the business, and I hope The Bop Chords, in their short history, were an influence to other groups. I have no regrets. I was happy, and to see that people are still buying my records and remember me, it’s a joy inside. I loved it.”
Hamilton died of cancer Sept. 6, 2002, at age 65.