WILLIE WINFIELD (By Steve Walker)
Born 24 August, 1929, Norfolk, Virginia
Willie Winfield was, and is, the lead singer of The Harptones. Although not as well-known as some other r&b vocal groups of the mid and late-50's, The Harptones are revered within doowop circles due, in part, to a series of fine recordings released at the height of doowop fever in New York and also due to the fact that Willie still fronts a group of Harptones who play revival concerts some 50 years on. In 1953, two neighbourhood groups from different parts of New York City, The Harps and The Skylarks, merged to form The Harptones. The founder members were Willie Winfield, lead; Bill Dempsey and Nicky Clark, tenors, Bill "Dicey" Gallloway, baritone and Bill Brown, bass. A further member joined shortly after their formation - keyboard player/arranger/songwriter Raoul J. Cita. Having won first prize in the Apollo Theatre's Amateur Night in November 1953, the group were spotted by an MGM rep who liked their sound and wanted them to audition at 1650 Broadway. They took him up on his offer, and while waiting outside a closed office for more than an hour the group started singing in the hall and drew the attention of Morty Craft and Leo Rogers of the newly-formed Bruce Records. Label owner Monte Bruce signed them immediately and put them straight into the studio. "A Sunday Kind Of Love" had been a big pop hit in 1947 for Fran Warren with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, and for their debut record the boys gave it the vocal harmony treatment, creating an everlasting classic which was released on Bruce #101. The record was an instant hit around the tri-state area and within two weeks of its release, Monte Bruce had shipped fifty thousand copies. The record was still selling strongly when the group returned to the studio in February 1954 whilst being booked to be one of the star attractions at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where, only a few months before, they had been happy to get on the stage for amateur night. Proof of the group's popularity at the time was show by their inclusion in Alan Freed's very first R&B show to be held in the East. The Mayday Moondog Coronation Ball was held on 1 May, 1954 at the Armory in Newark, New Jersey (other acts appearing were The Clovers, Muddy Waters, Charles Brown and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra. Ten thousand attended - thousands more were unable to gain entrance. At the same time, Bruce Records had released the follow-up, Raul Cita's composition "My Memories Of You" on Bruce #102. Throughout 1954 and 1955, the Harptones continued to appear on a regular basis on Alan Freed's shows. Their record releases during this time included a reprise of Buddy and Ella Johnson's big 1946 hit "Since I Fell For You" (Bruce #113) and Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind" (Bruce #128). In June 1955, Hy Weiss of Old Town Records announced the signing of The Harptones to his new subsidiary label Paradise Records after the split up of ownership of Bruce Records. The first release for the new label was in July on Paradise #101 and featured Raul Cita's "Life Is But A Dream" and "You Know You're Doing Me Wrong". "Life Is But A Dream" became another instant favourite with the fans and continued to sell well through the summer and autumn of 1955 at which time "My Success (It All Depends On You)" was released on Paradise #103. A further change of label in early 1956 saw Willie and the boys release "What Is Your Decision" on Andrea #100 which had a more refined, pop sound to it. At the same time, The Harptones were putting in some backup work behind Ruth McFadden's "Darling, Listen To The Words Of This Song". Moving on again, the group next surfaced on Rama #203 - "Three Wishes"/"That's The Way It Goes" - and in October The Harptones could be seen, along with The Hurricanes and The Wanderers in the movie "Rockin' The Blues", premiered at The Apollo. 1956 saw the advent of the "teen"-led groups, exemplified by the popularity of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and as 1957 dawned, The Harptones found themselves out of step with the latest fad. They were now viewed as an "adult" group. Despite continuing to release high-quality recordings such as "On Sunday Afternoon" (Rama #214) and "The Shrine Of St. Cecelia" (Rama #221), they found their popularity waning with the record-buying public at a time when they were producing some of their most polished work. Still with George Goldner, but now switched to his Gee label, The Harptones released "Cry Like I Cried" on Gee #1045 late in 1957. In 1959, Morty Craft, who had been involved with Bruce Records at the start of the group's career, re-entered their lives and recorded them for Warwick Records. The Harptones had added a female voice, Toni Brown, to the ensemble. Bill Dempsey remained from the original group, supplemented by ex-Solitaire Milton Love and early Harptones member Curtis Cherebin. "Laughing On The Outside" (Warwick #500) made respectable sales and was followed by two more releases: "Love Me Completely" (#512) and "No Greater Miracle" which was released in the spring of 1960. As the 60's progressed, the group appeared on an ever-changing array of labels - Co-Ed, Cub, Companion and Raven. The group remained a unit in name into the nineteen eighties and even recorded in the early part of that decade for the Ambient Sound label. They are still performing in the 21st century, featuring original members Willie Winfield and Raul Cita (see http://www.theoriginal-harptones.com).
Sources: "The Billboard Book Of American Singing Groups" by Jay Warner, and J.C. Marion's feature at http://home.earthlink.net/~jaymar41/harptones.html. There's also some great stuff in Phil Groia's "They All Sang On The Street Corner", but my copy has disappeared. Phil calls Willie Winfield "The Sultan of Smooth". CD's: "The Harptones - Golden Classics - The Goldner Recordings 1956-57" (Collectables #5401); "Sunday Kind Of Love" (Relic #7021) has the classic Bruce recordings.
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