The Chords, a relatively obscure vocal act, carved their niche in rock 'n' roll history by becoming the first R&B group to reach the Pop Top 10, in the summer of 1954. (The Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers were/are considered as pop groups.) The quintet formed in 1951 in the Bronx, where all five members were born in the 1930s. All had previously been members of other groups : the brothers Carl and Claude Feaster (Tunetoppers), Jimmy Keyes (Four Notes), Floyd "Buddy" McRae (Keynotes) and William "Ricky" Edwards (a previous group called The Chords). Not your typical R&B group, they never sang on street corners and were primarily practitioners of jazz and pop with a touch of R&B thrown in.

Originally called the Keynotes, the group became known as the Chords by 1954 and amassed some original tunes for auditions. They first performed for Red Robin Records owner Bobby Robinson, but their timing was unlucky. Bobby listened to their song "Sh-Boom" while lying in bed sick and impatiently turned them away. Oscar Cohen, a booking agent, brought them to the attention of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, where the Chords had their first session on March 15, 1954, less than a month before Bill Haley recorded "Rock Around the Clock".

Wexler had taken a liking to "Cross Over the Bridge", a big pop hit by Patti Page at the time, and needed a group - any group - to make a cover version for the R&B market. That was the deal when he signed the Chords to Atlantic's new subsidiary, Cat Records. (For a history of the short-lived Cat label, complete with label shots, see: )

On the B-side of "Cross Over the Bridge", Cat grudgingly issued one of the group's own songs, "Sh-Boom", a fun piece of nonsense, with a sax solo by Sam "The Man" Taylor. When word started coming out of California that the Chords record was getting very heavy sales orders, Atlantic was thrilled. Their reaction changed to shock when they found out that the side generating the orders was "Sh-Boom". But they recovered quickly enough to pull "Cross Over the Bridge" (of which Atlantic did not own the publishing rights) from the record in June, adding a new B-side which was also recorded at the March session titled "Little Maiden" (with the same catalogue number, Cat 104). On July 3, 1954, the Chords' version of "Sh-Boom" hit both the pop and R&B charts, where it would peak at # 5 and # 2 respectively. A watered-down cover version by Canada's Crew Cuts on Mercury went all the way to the top of the pop charts. Such was the furore created by the song that even a parody version by Stan Freberg (still funny after 50 years, IMO, though perhaps unnecessarily cruel) made the Top 20.

At the height of their popularity, the Chords were obliged to change their name when another New York group staked a prior claim to it. By the end of 1954 they were known as the Chordcats. They tried to follow the monster novelty hit with similar tracks, like "Zippity Zum", but with no success. Some personnel changes and another new name, the inevitable Sh-Booms, also failed to return them to the charts. After a 1957 release on Vik the group disbanded, but reunited in 1960 for a "Sh-Boom"-styled version of "Blue Moon" (Atlantic 2074), almost a year before the Marcels' eccentric doo-wop version of the same song. During the doo-wop revival of 1961, Atlantic reissued the original "Sh-Boom" on Atco 6213, but this time it went almost unnoticed. The Chords occasionally reunited to play oldies' shows until lead singer Carl Feaster died in 1981. None of the original members is still alive today.

To sum up, I quote Marv Goldberg. "Were the Chords a one-hit wonder? Absolutely. But what a hit! This tune went further than any song before it to popularize R&B. It opened the floodgates wide, but the Chords were unable to profit much from it."

Quote from:

Other sources of information:

Jay Warner, The Billboard book of American singing groups (1992), page 114-116.

Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, What was the first rock 'n' roll record? (1992), page 137-141.


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