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Harmony Lane: Mumford's golden tenor voice belied his hard life

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.”

By Todd Baptista

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 and R&B. Ruth selected the name Larks in tribute to the Orioles. From 1950 to 1952, they waxed a number of stellar sides with little success. Before their first release, they auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” and Perry Como’s “Chesterfield Supper Club” program. They immediately won over Como and his producers. A Como show kinescope, with Mumford leading on “Lucy Brown,” survives. 

The quintet — Ruth, Raymond “Pee Wee” Barnes, Allen Bunn, David McNeil, and Mumford — subsequently appeared on “Talent Scouts,” singing “Tennessee Waltz.” They won. 

In January 1951, they recorded “When I Leave These Prison Walls” and “Hopefully Yours.” 

“Gene wrote those two while he was in prison, and he brought them into the group,” Ruth explained. “They’re true songs, and they’ve got a lot of heart and a lot of soul in them.”

Late that winter, they recorded the ethereal ballad “My Reverie,” which had been a #1 1938 hit for its writer, Larry Clinton.

“It was Gene’s idea to record ‘My Reverie,’” Ruth confirms. “He had heard it by Larry Clinton. When they played it back, we figured it was going to be a hit. We had just piano and sax and standup bass.”
Although “My Reverie” failed to make the national charts, it is generally recognized as the Larks’ biggest-selling record. In the early 1960s, Slim Rose, owner of New York City’s Times Square Records, obtained an orange wax 45 rpm copy that would sell for thousands today. Slim hung it on his rare record wall with a “not for sale” sign. Two weeks later, someone broke into the store during the night. The only item taken was the orange wax “My Reverie.”
In October, the group’s latest release, “Little Side Car,” hit #10 on Billboard’s R&B list. 

“We were constantly on the road during that time,” Thermon stated. “We were rehearsing every day. We all lived in Harlem in the 134th Street neighborhood. We didn’t work day jobs. It was a little rough. Bess would give a loan to us once in a while. I’d tell her Gene was going to quit or something, and she’d give us a little money.”

In early 1952, Berman tried several times to score another hit. “My Lost Love” furthered Mumford’s reputation as a fine balladeer, but it failed to click. “Stolen Love” hit #9 on Cashbox’s New York R&B chart in April. By the time “I Live True To You” was issued in July, the Larks had begun to dissolve. 

“Everybody got tired,” recalled Ruth. “Performing was a full-time job for us, and we weren’t making enough money to keep going. The only money we made was from the show dates. We would record, and she wouldn’t give us anything for the session, either. There was very little you could do about it. They wouldn’t sell your contract to anyone else.”

In the summer of 1952, Mumford left, and the Larks soon disbanded. For a little over a year — through most of 1953 — Gene toured with the Golden Gate Quartet with 25-year veterans Clyde Riddick and Orlandus “Dad” Wilson, pianist Glenn Burgess and another veteran vocalist, Orville Brooks. Eventually, Mumford and Brooks left to reform the Larks with David “Boots” Bowers and Isaiah Bing of the King Odom Four.

The new group took the Larks name and signed with Apollo. With similar musical backgrounds and tastes, the group’s harmony came together quickly. 

“Strangely enough, they adapted more to our songs,” Bing explains. “The King Odom Four did the same songs. Plus, we sang a few old standards. They knew them all. After we got together, we rehearsed for one week, and then we were on the road traveling.”

In early 1954, they waxed “If It’s A Crime,” a ballad with a sweet, yearning lead from Mumford and strong harmony throughout. Although the records and live performances continued into late 1955, success was nominal, at best.

“We got starting money from (Berman), but it was just money borrowed,” Bing recalls. “I know we didn’t have any big sellers, but we never got a dime for any of our records.”

On Sept. 2, 1955, they began a weeklong stint at the Apollo. During this engagement, they signed to appear in Studio Films’ “Rhythm and Blues Revue.” Backed by Paul Williams and his band, they were filmed at a New York soundstage performing “Margie,” “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise,” “Without A Song,” “Shadrack” and “Danny Boy.” 

“It was strange, because we thought we were going on a set where all the other stars were and do our part. We were singing live with the band on a set, but we did our part apart from the other stars,” Bing recalls.

Within weeks of the filming, the Larks broke up. Researcher Marv Goldberg, through a 1989 interview with Bowers, summed their demise. 

“The breakup of the Larks occurred during a 1955 gig at the Apollo. It was somehow rumored that Gene and Isaiah would be pulled offstage by police because of non-payment of alimony.”
“The Orioles came in and finished the week and that was the end,” confirms Bing.

A little more than a year later, Mumford surfaced fronting the Serenaders, which likely included Bowers, who had joined the Ravens but may have teamed up with Gene as a favor. One single, “Please Give Me One More Chance”/”When You’re Smiling,” was issued in April 1957 on Hy Weiss’ short-lived Whiz label. By this time, Mumford’s delivery had matured from soft, delicate tenor to powerful, full-voiced balladeer.

Billy Ward soon selected Gene to replace Jackie Wilson in the Dominoes. Vic Schoen’s studio orchestra, complete with strings, accompanied them on the 1931 classic, “Star Dust.” Mumford’s interpretation of the tune proved him to be a master of his craft at age 33. The disc was an immediate smash; 200,000 copies shipped within the first three weeks of its May release. It would become the biggest pop success of Mumford’s and the Dominoes’ careers. In 24 weeks on the Hot 100, it peaked at #12, earning a gold record. On the R&B list, it hit #5. 

The Dominoes tackled “Deep Purple” next. Mumford already was familiar with the 1939 #1 hit rendition by Larry Clinton, the originator of “My Reverie.” “Deep Purple” peaked at #20 during a 12-week pop chart run that fall. On Sept. 4, the group lip-synched “Star Dust” and “Deep Purple” on “American Bandstand.” On Sept. 15, they appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” singing “Star Dust” live.

Two albums, Sea Of Glass and Yours Forever, were issued by Liberty. Gene, who had relocated to Los Angeles, was encouraged to go solo. He left the Dominoes in the summer of 1958 and signed with Columbia. After three unsuccessful pop releases, Mumford wandered back to Liberty and recorded a pair of singles, including a string-heavy version of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” in 1960. During this time, he also performed briefly with Charlie Fuqua’s Ink Spots.

That fall, he returned to the Paris-based Golden Gate Quartet, joining Wilson, Riddick and Franck Todd. He participated in seven sessions with them for Pathe Marconi, the French arm of EMI-Columbia in October and November, 1960.

Among the sides recorded were “White Christmas” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (issued on a bootleg Apollo single in the 1970s), the ethereal “Deep River” and “The World Outside (Warsaw Concerto).” The Gates’ recordings with Mumford were issued on numerous LPs, singles, and, later, CDs, in nearly every European country.

“Gene stayed with the Gates until the fall of 1962 and left after an African tour,” longtime member Clyde Wright explains. “Gene had a serious drinking problem. That’s why Dad Wilson, who was a great admirer of Gene’s voice, asked him to leave.” By year’s end, Wright and J. Caleb Ginyard, who had embarked on solo careers, returned to the Gates, replacing Mumford and Todd.

Living in an apartment on South Bronson Avenue in Los Angeles, Mumford sang lead with various Ink Spots groups and Bill Johnson’s variation of the Golden Gate Quartet into the 1970s. In the late 1960s, he surfaced with Deek Watson’s Ink Spots. In the 1970s, he sang with the Ink Spots of Cliff Givens and Orlando Roberson and even joined forces with former Lark David McNeil in his Spots group for a spell. He also worked with the Doodlers, who had recorded several singles for RCA and Jones Records.

In November 1970, Mumford made a rare “surprise” appearance at the Brooklyn Fox Theater along with the Spaniels, Penguins, Tony Williams’ Platters and others.

Writing in Stormy Weather magazine, Wayne Stierle remarked that “Gene did a smooth ‘Deep Purple’, and he only got a fair reaction. If this show had been pushed ahead of time, the collectors would have been separated from the clods. But talk about history.”

In 1974, Ry Cooder, who regularly used veteran vocalists and musicians on his LPs, tabbed Mumford to sing in the background on his Paradise and Lunch album, which included classic R&B, gospel and blues tunes, including “Jesus On The Mainline” and “It’s All Over Now.” 

By the mid-1970s, however, Mumford’s alcoholism had caused his health to fail. Around the time he recorded with Cooder, he developed diabetes.

“He just had to have his liquor, but that wasn’t the case when he was with me,” Ruth recalled.

“He drank around us,” Bing admits, “but he always did his work. Strange as it may sound, he did better work when he had a drink. Maybe he was less inhibited.”

On May 10, 1977, Mumford was admitted to the Vermont Knolls Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles. Diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, Mumford was hospitalized nearly three weeks. The effects of diabetes and chronic alcoholism made it impossible for his body to fight off the infection.

Early in the evening on May 29, 1977, Gene Mumford died, just one month shy of his 52nd birthday. 

On June 2, 1977, his body was returned to Durham and buried alongside his parents, William and Ella, in Beechwood Cemetery. Ira Mumford, Gene’s older bass-singing brother, settled in Portland, Ore., after his group secured a long-standing gig there and later went to work for the railroad. He died in 1985 at age 64.

“If Gene Mumford had lived a good life and was living today, he’d be one of the greatest. Drinking liquor killed him,” Ruth stated. “Everybody wanted to sing with Gene. Gene was one of the best singers I ever heard. My favorite memory of him was when he won that Godfrey thing singing ‘Tennessee Waltz.’ He was such a showman. Everywhere he’d go, people would just go for him. He was a good country boy.”

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