By Todd Baptista
At the dawn of the vocal-group era, several years before adolescent hit-making groups were an industry norm, five Harlem, N.Y., boys formed The Mello-Moods, scored a top 10 R&B hit and ultimately influenced countless youngsters who followed. While acts like The Orioles and Ravens were young men in their 20s, The Mello-Moods were barely teenagers, singing adult lyrics with a blend of youthful innocence and precision that remains appealing 60 years on.
Though glaucoma has robbed bass singer Jim “Bip” Bethea of much of his sight, the 76-year-old Mello-Moods lone survivor paints vivid images of an era when local children played Chinese handball on hot summer nights, a parent’s authority was unquestioned, and a grammar school boy like Bip could earn 75 cents a day plus tips delivering laundry and wet wash to his Harlem River Houses neighbors after classes.
“The projects were on West 151st Street and Seventh Avenue,” Bethea recalls. “The buildings were attached and were only four stories high. Everybody knew everybody. We had a sunken playground with basketball courts, tennis courts. That was one beautiful place to live in.”
After hearing him singing along to the 78s of Louis Jordan and The Ink Spots on the family’s Victrola, Bip’s mother signed him up for singing lessons with Constance White, who lived across the street in the Dunbar Houses. “I had Italian and English songs that I sang, and I was doing pretty well. She would have concerts and I would sing at the Y and different places, but I was the only male student that Miss White had.”
Bethea’s attention was soon diverted to a group of male singers.
“They would come into the projects and sing on a bench. I would see them all the time. They were all going to Resurrection Catholic School, just across the street. Bobby Baylor, Monte Owens, Raymond Wooten and Bobby Williams all went there. Resurrection used to have a lot of plays and bazaars, and I would see Ray’s class performing, and he would be singing. I went to P.S. 46, a public school in Sugar Hill. Dihann Carroll was in my class.”
At the time in the late 1940s, Bethea, Wooten and Baylor were 14; Owens was 13, and Williams, 12.
“Monte and I lived in the same project. Bobby Williams, who we called ‘Little Schubie,’ lived in the Toussaint Apartments. ‘Buddy’ Wooten lived on Macombs Place, and Bobby Baylor lived on 148th Street near Eighth Avenue. I started listening and got to singing with them, putting in a little bass because I had a deeper voice. They were baritones and tenors. On those Italian songs I had been singing, I had to get down low a lot, so I was able to chime in with them. We would practice at my house and Bobby Williams’ house because we had pianos.”
Despite their ages, Williams was a proficient pianist and Owens a skilled guitarist.
“I didn’t want to sing with those girls any more because I was the only boy going to these concerts,” he said. “I wanted to be with the boys. So I slipped away from the vocal lessons and my mother had a fit because she was paying for it!”
Initially calling themselves The Bluebirds, the group honed its craft on popular R&B records.
“Bobby could play any type of music by ear. He could play a lot of The Orioles’ songs, ‘It’s Too Soon To Know,’ ‘I’m Just A Fool in Love,’ ‘A Kiss and A Rose,’ ‘Lonely Christmas’ ... all those songs. They would have after-school dances, and we would sing. We would go down to 138th Street to the YWCA and sing. We just enjoyed being together and singing together.”
The boys also went to The Apollo to see The Orioles perform live.
“Oh, it was great. We had school passes, so we could get on the bus for a nickel and go down to 125th Street. George (Nelson), the baritone would take the bridge, and we liked the way he’d twist and turn when he would come in. Sonny Til had all the girls swooning. He’d start ‘Does she love me ...’ and the girls would stand up and swoon, ‘Oh, Sonny!’”
Onstage, The Orioles performed an up-tempo version of Frank Loesser’s “Where Are You (Now That I Need You),” originally popularized by Betty Hutton in the 1949 film “Red, Hot and Blue,” and subsequently recorded by Frank Sinatra and others.
“The Orioles never recorded it, but we saw them do it at The Apollo, and we started to do it,” he said.
The Bluebirds also focused on “Bewildered,” a No. 1 R&B hit in 1948 for both Red Miller and Amos Milburn.The group auditioned unsuccessfully for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts but did place second on Amateur Night at The Apollo.
“We did ‘Bewildered’ with Monte leading and playing the guitar and Bobby on piano. This young fellow was standing around listening to us and said, ‘I not going up against you guys. I’m getting out of here.’ We did ‘Bewildered’ and were winning first prize, and then they said, ‘Wait a minute; we have one more artist.’ That same fellow got up there and jumped and danced and sang and screamed, and he took first prize from us. It was Otis Blackwell,” he said.
One evening, when the group was rehearsing in Bethea’s family’s apartment, his sister and her friend had two male guests over to visit: Jimmy Keyes, who later sang with The Chords, and another friend who sang bass, Demetrius Clare. That visit changed The Mello-Moods’ fate.
“They told us they were singing with a group in the Bronx. We were singing ‘Where Are You’ up-tempo. Jimmy stopped us and told us to slow it down and for Buddy to lead it. They taught us our harmony parts, and that’s how it came about.”
The group also practiced the ballad “My Destiny” that Keyes and Clare taught them, as well as a version of ‘God’s Country,’ with Bethea leading. Somehow, word of the young group reached Bobby Robinson (1917-2011), the owner of a 125th Street record shop who was beginning his own Robin label with distribution through Jubilee Records.
“Ray’s mother told us Bobby wanted to hear us, so we went down and talked to him. He came to one of our rehearsals, we did ‘Where Are You,’ and he liked it and took us downtown and recorded it,” he said.
Robinson paired the group with the trio of with Eddie “Schubie” Swanston (1922-2003), a veteran Harlem pianist-organist and bandleader who had worked with Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, Hot Lips Page and Erskine Hawkins, among others. He also introduced them to Joel Turnero, a former tap dancer turned Cash Box columnist, songwriter and producer, who became their manager and christened them The Mello-Moods. Turnero gave them an original song for the flip side, “How Could You.” Issued in December 1951, “Where Are You” hit No. 7 on the R&B chart in February 1952.
“We were only getting a nickel per record, but sales were tremendous. It was a two-sided hit. But we were kids and didn’t know the finances. Our parents didn’t let us know anything like that. I never saw any contract with Bobby. I received no session money, no royalties. I did hear talk that my mother got one check for $300 when ‘Where Are You’ first came out. But if Bobby did anything, he spoke to our parents. I was 16.”
Baylor, who frequently was absent from rehearsals, was dismissed from The Mello-Moods by Turnero soon after its hit record came out. By 1954, he was recording again as a member of The Solitaires.
For The Mello-Moods’ second release, Turnero selected the 1943 Sinatra ballad “I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night” and a Turnero-Swanston original, “And You Just Can’t Go Through Life Alone.”
The songs, which again featured Wooten’s sweet tenor and Williams’ velvety second lead, were issued on the re-named Red Robin label in April 1952.
That fall, Turnero took The Mello-Moods from Red Robin to Par Records, a subsidiary of Prestige. A three-year contract, executed Oct. 14, 1952, called for a minimum of 36 sides, a royalty rate of 2 cents per record with quarterly accounting statements, and a $50 advance. A handwritten addendum tied Turnero to the group as their manager for the life of the pact. As it turned out, none of these guarantees were fulfilled.
“We went to see Bobby at the record shop, and he and Joel were talking business in the corner where we couldn’t hear them, and then he took us to Prestige. Later, it was thrown in our face that Joel had a three-year contract on us.”
With Teacho Wiltshire’s band, The Mello-Moods recorded four tunes before school on Nov. 6, 1952: “I’m Lost,” a 1944 King Cole Trio hit, and three Turnero-Swanston originals, “Call On Me,” “When I Woke Up This Morning” and the up-tempo Williams-led “I Tried, Tried And Tried.”
“We got in trouble for being late for school because we had an early morning recording session!” Bethea recalls. “By this time, Ray and I went to the all-boys Haaren High School. When I got to my class, the teacher said, ‘Why are you late? You’re going to serve detention.’ So did Ray’s teacher. But Ray told her that we sang with a group and we recorded and that Jim Bethea was in the group. So, I got called to Ray’s class and his teacher questioned me about the recording ... and made us join the Glee Club! I don’t think Ray ever went. I went twice, and then I said I’m not going back any more, and I failed!”
The Mello-Moods recorded again on Dec. 12, 1952, backing Charlie Ferguson and his band on a modern-harmony version of “The Christmas Song,” which went unissued until 1996. Prestige released the Wooten and Williams-led “Call On Me” in January 1953 and followed with “I’m Lost” in October 1953. Despite being first-rate performances, neither disc drew much attention from disc jockeys or record buyers.
“Joel wanted to be the main songwriter, and had us doing something so far off from what other groups were singing it actually bucked the trend. That’s why those records didn’t do well. ‘Where Are You’ and ‘How Could You’ was a two-sided hit,” Bethea recalled. “We liked ‘Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night,’ but those others were not the type of rhythm and blues that was out there with The Orioles, Five Keys and the Larks. Joel didn’t know how to handle us. He wouldn’t listen to what we wanted to do. He was throwing his stuff at us. As youngsters, we were vulnerable. We liked to sing, and we had no idea what the business was all about.”
Disgusted, The Mello-Moods showed up at Prestige’s West 50th Street office on May 13, 1953.
“We decided to see about our royalties. They told us to wait. Then we talked to (label owner) Bob Weinstock. He left the room and then came back with papers for us to sign. We figured this is what we had to do to get our royalties. After we signed, he boisterously threw us out of the office, ‘Now all of you get out of here!’ It was a release that we signed. So we just left. Weinstock ran us out of there, and we never got a dime for what we did. We were very angry. We were teenagers. They damaged us.”
Despite a nationally-charted hit, personal appearances were a rarity for The Mello-Moods, whose parents focused exclusively on school.
“My mother would tear my head off my body if she thought I wasn’t going to school. We could not sing anywhere that there was alcohol. Once, someone told us about a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Ruth Brown and Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson. We sang on that stage and never got paid. We had to do that without Joel. Joel would not let us go out and sing.”
The group did appear on the local “Spotlight On Harlem” television program with Ralph Cooper and radio shows with disc jockey Joe Bostic and comedian Nipsey Russell.
“My cousin Billy Matthews sang with Cootie Williams’ band, and we sang at one of his clubs in New Jersey once. Another time, we sang in Philadelphia and didn’t get paid, and didn’t know our way out of Philadelphia because we had taken a Greyhound Bus. Somebody told us to take the subway. We got lost in the station, and when we got back to New York it was after we should have been in school. I was so tired I got into bed, and the next thing I knew my mother was like a wolf all over me. ‘You’re getting out of here and going to school!’ I went and slept through every class.”
Turnero provided little guidance, and tensions between the group and its self-appointed manager grew.
“We were bitter, and Joel wasn’t getting us any work. He kept throwing it in our faces, ‘I have a three-year contract on you. You can’t do this. You’d better do this.’ It scared us,” Bethea said.
Among other things, Bethea recalls that Turnero tried to turn The Mello-Moods into a Mills Brothers act, even though they weren’t actually brothers.
“He knew we were disgruntled and didn’t want to stay with him any longer. Joel was threatening us with this contract and wouldn’t let us sing any of the songs we wanted to sing,” Bethea said. “So, we said the only way we were going to break this contract was to stop singing. He’s got to think that we broke up.”
After Bethea graduated in June 1953, the group disintegrated.
“Somebody told us about a doctor in Brooklyn that wanted to manage us. We got the address and went out to meet him. He liked us, but by this time my mother and father had bought a home in Queens, and I moved with them. Ray had another year of school to go, and I lost contact with those guys.”
Baylor invited Williams and Owens to join him in The Solitaires. They began recording for Old Town in early 1954. Wooten and Bethea were essentially finished with music.
“Jobs were hard to find coming out of high school. I worked for a place making television tubes in ovens. The place was boiling hot. My second day there, I heard 'Boom!' and a guy screamed. Everybody went running and there’s a guy lying on the floor and the thick television tube glass had cut half his face. I never went back. I finally found a job with a transformer company.”
By chance, Bethea and Wooten were at Buddy’s apartment one summer day in 1961 when they noticed a funeral at the nearby Resurrection Church.
“We were saying ‘I wonder whose funeral that was,’ because a lot of people came out. That afternoon, somebody told us it was Bobby Williams’ funeral. We didn’t even know about it.”
The young pianist, who went on to work with Charlie Mingus after leaving The Solitaires, was no more than 23 when he died of a blood disease. Baylor succumbed to pneumonia in 1989. Owens, who later worked for the post office and played guitar in Jimmy Castor’s band, died after a long illness in 2011.
Raymond Wooten served in the military and later drove a cab. Bethea found employment in the banking industry and as a licensed life insurance agent. He later worked as a custodian for the New York police department before being declared legally blind. Out of touch for years, Wooten and Bethea reconnected in the late 1990s at a Harlem River Houses reunion.
“Ray was living in Mount Vernon. He didn’t have our records. A man that pretended to be a disc jockey or whatever took his stuff and never returned it, and he turned sour. He was finished with music. I had a tape of our songs and gave him a copy,” he recalled.
About the same time, Bethea was introduced to Ronnie Italiano and the United in Group Harmony Association. “I had a cousin that didn’t even know I sang with The Mello-Moods. We would talk on the phone, and he would talk about these shows he was going to in Jersey. He kept saying, ‘You ought to go’.”
One Saturday, Bethea accepted the invitation. Upon meeting Italiano, Bip mentioned he had sung with a group in the 1950s. “He said, ‘What group?’ I said, ‘The Mello-Moods.’ His eyes lit up, and the next thing I knew, Ronnie was up on the stage, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Jimmy “Bip” Bethea of The Mello-Moods.’ I was mobbed. I had people all over me, little pieces of paper and records for autographs, and questions. The whole night was just fanfare.”
Italiano asked Bethea if he could persuade Wooten to come to a future event.
“I told him, ‘I talk to Ray periodically, but he doesn’t want to have anything to do with music.’ Maybe a day later, I called Ray and I almost pleaded with him. We talked about what happened to him, and he said, ‘Bip, I don’t want anything to do with it. They beat us out of everything that we had and all the time that we spent recording with Bobby and Prestige. They threw us out of the place! We were kids!’ He was upset, and it upset me, too. I talked and talked and finally I said, ‘Ray, we did a lot of singing and nobody ever gave us any credit for what we did at our age.’ I convinced him to come one time. I said, ‘Just take the smiles and the applause. You deserve it. It can’t hurt you. You don’t have to do anything.’ Ray and I were tight. When Ray got there, they mobbed him. He couldn’t go to the bathroom without someone coming in there asking questions!”
On April 24, 1999, The Mello-Moods were honored with induction into the UGHA Hall of Fame on Broadway in New York City, and for one final time, Wooten and Bethea performed the songs of their youth, accompanied by The Sheps.
“We hadn’t done something like that in so many years. I enjoyed it. I felt that needed to be done just to get the exposure again. I think Ray felt better, but I knew he wasn’t going to sing anymore. I was shocked that so many people remembered The Mello-Moods. I thought we were gone, dead. I had no idea that The Mello-Moods were that popular or had made such a name for ourselves as kids.”
Stonewalled in their attempts to obtain back royalties by Bobby Robinson and The Concord Music group, the present owners of the Prestige catalog, the duo took steps to issue their complete recorded works on CD themselves.
“Buddy had moved to Delaware and he called me one day and said, ‘Bip, I’ve got the CD together.’” On April 12, 2006, Wooten called Bethea again from the post office, as he sent him the first copy of their CD.
Less than an hour later, Bethea received another phone call, but this time, the news wasn’t good. The 70-year-old Wooten had suffered a fatal heart attack.
“He just went home and passed,’ Bethea said. “Seeing the CD out now, he would be amazed. He would be very happy.”
In recent years, Bethea finally began receiving royalty payments via Collectables and Sound Exchange, in addition to distributing his and Buddy’s own “The Complete Mello-Moods” CD.
“Some things are never too late,” he said.
In 1999, Bethea relocated from East Harlem to Richmond, Va. A prostate and lung cancer survivor, he is grateful for the recognition The Mello-Moods have received in recent years and relishes the memories the group’s music rekindles.
“I’m just so happy to know there’s still somebody out there that remembers us. If people knew how amazed I am that people are still listening to The Mello-Moods and cared that much. When I put our CD on, I think about the studio where we first sang the songs, the things that transpired afterward, the popularity we received, the shows we did, school dances that we sang at, and the teenage life that we lived. I think about how much fun we had together, rehearsing together. It takes me back. I met my wife at one of our rehearsals. We were just youngsters, and we loved to sing.”
For information on ordering “The Complete Mello-Moods,” contact Baptista via e-mail at email@example.com.