Unquestionably, one of the most talented, influential 1950s group leads was Eugene Mumford. The North Carolina native lent his golden tenor to the pioneering, influential Larks and later enjoyed his greatest successes fronting Billy Ward’s Dominoes on “Star Dust” and “Deep Purple.”
Despite his talent and versatility, however, few outside the ‘50s R&B scene have even heard his name.
Born in Durham, N.C., on June 24, 1925, Mumford started singing with the Four Interns spiritual group.
“The Four Interns were very good,” Thermon Ruth (1914-2002), the Selah Jubilee Singers and Larks founder, recalled in a 1998 interview with this writer. “They were about the best local group we heard. I met Gene with them (during World War II). I liked him very much, and I told him that I was going to take him.”
An exceptional talent who idolized the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny and Charioteers’ lead Billy Williams, Mumford also had two brothers who were involved in music. One played piano. Another, Ira, born in 1920, sang bass with the New Jersey-based Rivals, who recorded for Apollo in 1946. The Rivals started off singing gospel as the International Clavichords. Although he never recorded with them, Gene occasionally did sit in.
Ruth wanted Mumford to join the Selahs immediately, but in July 1945, Mumford and several others were arrested by military policemen looking for marijuana in a Durham hotel lobby. After several days in jail, Mumford was cleared. Upon leaving the police station, however, he was arrested on charges of housebreaking, unlawful entry and assault with intent to rape. The victim was a white woman. Mumford was released on bail and went to trial in 1947. He was convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term at hard labor. He dug ditches, painted roadway lines and performed other physical tasks, eventually suffering a broken leg.
“I’d see him along the highway,” Ruth recalled. “Gene would be working on a chain gang. I would pull over, and we would talk. He was supposed to stay there a long time. He was hoping he would get out. It made me feel real bad to know how great he was and see him on the chain gang. I told him that if he ever got out, I wanted him to sing with us.”
At the urging of Mumford’s father, William, the State Bureau of Investigation became involved and found a local pharmacy owner with an alibi for his whereabouts at the time in question. Mumford received a full pardon from North Carolina Governor William Kerr Scott in June 1949.
“When Gene got out, he came to me right away,” Ruth recounted. “I remember the first time we sang together in Raleigh. We did ‘I’m So Glad’, and ‘Honey In The Rock.’ We did one program in Raleigh, and I brought him to New York. The first night we arrived, we stayed at the Woodside Hotel on Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Then, I got them rooms, and they stayed with some of my people, around 143rd Street. We rehearsed every day.”
To earn some cash, Ruth arranged for them to record for four different companies in a single day. On Oct. 5, 1950, they recorded gospel as the Selah Singers for Jubilee and as the Jubilators for Regal, and R&B as the Four Barons for Regent. Their scheme unraveled when they recorded as the Southern Harmonaires for Apollo.
“Bess Berman was the last one we recorded for that night,” Ruth recalled, “and the engineer from Mastertone Studio recognized us. He said, ‘These boys were here this morning!’ Bess said, ‘Oh, my God, if they were up here this morning, what are they doing here now?’”
Berman bought the rights to the group from the other firms and planned for them to record pop