THE FIVE KEYS (By Steve Walker)Rudy West (lead tenor) (born 1932, died 14 May, 1998)
Maryland Pierce (second tenor)
Ripley Ingram (octave tenor) (born 1929, died 1995)
James "Dickie" Smith (second tenor/baritone) (born 1933)
Bernie West (bass) (born 1929)
When we undertook our survey of favourite doowop records recently I was surprised to find, after I had compiled my own list of one hundred "essentials" that the group which featured most heavily in that list (equal with the Drifters with six entries) was the Five Keys (in the overall total of all votes, the group came fifth, after the Flamingos, the Drifters, the Spaniels and the Clovers). So here is their story.
Rewind to 1945 - Newport News, Virginia - where two sets of brothers - Rudy and Bernie West with Ripley and Raphael Ingram - formed a gospel group which they called the Sentimental Four. They were all students at Dunbar Elementary School at the time, living within a few blocks of each other in the Marshall Avenue area, then later at Huntington High School.
Influenced, as were so many of the early r&b harmony groups, by the Ink Spots (Rudy was a big fan of Bill Kenny) and the Mills Brothers, by 1948 the Sentimental Four had branched out into pop and r&b. They entered and won amateur contests in a number of local theatres - the Booker T. in Norfolk, the Capitol in Portsmouth, the Hippodrome in Richmond and the Jefferson in their home town of Newport News.
In early 1949, they decided to change their sound, adding second tenor Edwin Hall as a fifth member. He was from the same neighbourhood, and a mutual friend recommended him to the group. As the group's sound changed, Ripley Ingram became a key part with his ability to "float" between first and second tenor and above, hence "octave tenor". Although they now had a fifth member, they strangely did nothing about their name for a while, continuing to be billed as the Sentimental Four for a few more months.
With their changed sound, the Sentimental Four (plus one) won the Jefferson amateur show for five consecutive weeks, the prize for which was a trip to New York to appear on the Apollo Theatre amateur show - the big time! Before the Apollo contest, in mid-1949, Rafael Ingram received his draft notice and promptly joined the Air Force to avoid the Army. He ended up being sent to Korea, where he lost a foot to frostbite. (When he returned home, he became a member of the Avalons, another Newport News group).
Rafael's replacement was baritone/second tenor James "Dickie" Smith, a relative of Harptones' lead Willie Winfield. Dickie, at the time living in the East End area of Newport News, was a neighbourhood friend of the Sentimental Four. He had been singing with a local group called the Virginia Brown Dots, which frequented the same amateur shows as the Keys. Dickie was now the "baby" of the group, being a year younger than Rudy.
Before the trip to NYC, Jefferson Theatre manager Isaac "Ike" Burton, who had become the group's manager, decided that a name change was in order. They were in his office when a key ring with five skeleton keys on it fell on the floor, and the "Five Keys" they became. (They even jokingly toyed with "Five Skeleton Keys"; another name they had kicked around was the "Virginia Gentlemen").
There were around 30 other amateur acts that August Wednesday night at the Apollo in 1949 (the regular show was headed up by Billie Holiday), but the Five Keys came in first. Roy Hamilton was on the same show, singing "You'll Never Walk Alone"; he was yanked off the stage by the crazed stage manager, "Porto Rico" (who, in a dress, would sound an air raid siren, fire a gun with blanks or simply use a huge hook to discourage acts which he felt the audience wasn't responding well to). The Five Keys sang the old standard, "Them There Eyes", and got a standing ovation.
As a result of their Apollo victory, the group were booked to play a week at the Apollo and another week at the Howard, as guest artists on the Count Basie Show. A further benefit of their appearance that night at the Apollo was that Eddie Mesner, owner of Aladdin Records was in the audience that night and came backstage to meet them.
Returning to Newport News, the boys joined the "Brownskin Models" revue, and toured with them during the summer of 1950 (summer was a necessity because both Dickie and Rudy were still in High School).
Soon after this, the Five Keys became six by adding guitarist Joe Jones. Joe was from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but at that time was living in Newport News. In the early spring of 1950, before the Brownskin Models tour, Edwin Hall, who had recently got married, left the group. He was replaced by second tenor Maryland Pierce, lead singer of a local group called the Four Bees. This group also frequented the local amateur shows, and the Keys and the Bees had gone to school together (Rudy, Dickie and Maryland were still in school). The groups would "battle" each other in the neighbourhood.
Now the "classic" line-up was in place: Rudy West (first tenor), Maryland Pierce (second tenor), Ripley Ingram (octave tenor), Dickie Smith (baritone/second tenor), and Bernie West (bass), along with guitarist Joe Jones. They also not only had different lead singers, but different kinds of lead singers: Maryland had a bluesy voice for ballads and up-tempo tunes (his influences were the Dixie Hummingbirds, Wynonie Harris, and Roy Brown), Rudy had the sweet Bill Kenny-type ballad voice, and Dickie did rhythm and scat numbers.
In the spring of 1950, after Edwin had left, the Five Keys landed a radio show for a couple of months. It was a weekly 15-minute show on WVEC (in neighbouring Hampton, Virginia), each Sunday morning. Their repertoire included all kinds of music - gospel, r&b and pop and as their opening and closing theme song, they chose "The Glory Of Love" (a Billy Hill composition which had been a #1 hit for Benny Goodman in 1936).
That summer, the Brownskin Models joined James E. Straight's Carnival, which started in Syracuse, New York and ended up, after three months of wandering, in Orlando, Florida. The Five Keys thus became part of a tent show, generally working weekends and using weekdays for travel. The tour was priceless in terms of experience; they learned to do precision dancing in unison, developing a routine for each song. Their choreographer was Leroy Watts, a former tap dancer, who was now working as a barker at the carnival.
Some of the songs they sang on the tour were: that new smash by Nat "King" Cole, "Mona Lisa"; "When Paw Was Courtin' Maw" (dressed as hayseed farmers), "The Glory Of Love", "I'm So High", and "Hucklebuck With Jimmy".
In early 1951, the group were signed to Aladdin Records and in April, their first record was released: "With A Broken Heart" c/w "Too Late" (Aladdin 3085). Sales were mediocre, but in July 1951, Aladdin issued "The Glory of Love" backed with "Hucklebuck With Jimmy" (Aladdin 3099). "The Glory Of Love" featured Rudy West on lead with Dickie Smith taking the bridge - this use of two lead voices became a feature of many Keys' recordings.
By September, the Five Keys' version of "The Glory Of Love" was taking off in various territories throughout the U.S.A., holding off competition from versions by the Hollywood Four Flames, the Skylarks, and the Four Knights. The record would eventually reach #1 in the R&B charts. Aladdin Records were reporting that "The Glory Of Love" had become the label's biggest seller ever.
When "Old MacDonald" was released as the flip of the Five Keys' seasonal offering ("It's Christmas Time") for Christmas 1951 it created enough interest for Aladdin to reissue it after the festivities were over, this time coupled with "Yes Sir, That's My Baby".
A high-class session recorded on 4 March, 1952 produced "Red Sails In The Sunset" (lead vocals from Rudy West and Dickie Smith), "Be Anything But Be Mine" (Rudy and Dickie), "These Foolish Things" (Dickie) and "Love My Loving" (Maryland Pierce). The first two titles were released as Aladdin 3127 in April 1952 and sold well in most territories.
Residencies at The Apollo and one-nighters throughout the south increased the group's popularity. Further releases throughout 1952 kept them in the spotlight - "How Long", "I Hadn't Anyone Till You", "Hold Me" and "I Cried For You".
Towards the end of 1952, Rudy West received his call-up papers. During his absence on military service, his place was taken by Ulysses K. Hicks, another Newport News friend from their Jefferson Theatre days.
In early 1953, the group recorded their answer to Ruth Brown's mammoth Atlantic hit "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" with their own "Mama Your Daughter Told A Lie On Me" c/w "There Ought To Be A Law Against Breaking My Heart" and followed this up with their version of "These Foolish Things" and two of my own favourite Keys numbers - "Teardrops In Your Eyes" and the superb "My Saddest Hour" which, in early 1954, developed into their biggest seller since "The Glory Of Love".
In late December 1953, Dickie Smith received his draft notice, enlisted in the Air Force, and recruited a friend of his, baritone Ramon Loper (who also had a group, the Bob-O-Links, that performed around the Newport News area), to be his replacement in the group.
In June 1954 the Five Keys appeared at Moondog's Birthday Ball in Akron, Ohio. The show, mc'd by Alan Freed also starred Joe Turner, Faye Adams, Al Savage, and the Joe Morris band. The complete sell-out (many were turned away) was also noteworthy for the fact that more than one-third of the audience was white, a fact not lost on representatives of eastern radio station WINS in New York which was mulling over plans to bring Freed and his show to the Big Apple.
Shortly thereafter the group saw its association with Aladdin Records coming to an end. They were originally set to go to RCA Victor and its subsidiary label X (soon changed to Groove), but that deal was soon buried. On 29 August, Dave Cavanaugh a&r representative for Capitol Records announced the signing of The Five Keys to the Hollywood based major label. This was a breakthrough for the group and one of the very few instances of an r&b act getting a shot with a national major.
Their first session, held at Capitol's New York studios on 30 August, 1954, produced four tunes: "I'm Alone" (led by Maryland Pierce), "Ling, Ting, Tong" (Maryland), "Trapped, Lost, Gone" (Bernie West), and "I'm Just A Fool" (Ulysses Hicks). (Just for a touch of realism, Capitol got a Chinese man to play the gongs on "Ling, Ting, Tong").
In early October 1954, Rudy was discharged from the army. (While in the service, he'd sung in good company; with him were Jesse Belvin and David McNeil, bass singer with the Dominoes). He promptly re-joined the Five Keys, who now had six singers (Ulysses was being kept on with the intention of phasing him out; in the meantime, he knew all the arrangements, including some that Rudy didn't know). However, there were only "Five" Keys on stage at any one time; Rudy was usually out there, but he left the stage when they did "Ling, Ting, Tong", and Ulysses came out to replace him.
Rudy had re-joined the Five Keys by the time they started a week's booking at the Apollo Theatre on 15 October, 1954. It was during this show that co-star Chuck Willis gave them a song he'd just written. It had a two-voice lead, and he thought it would fit the Keys' style; the song was "Close Your Eyes". When this beautiful song was recorded in November, Maryland Pierce took the lead and Rudy West sang the "echo".
"Ling, Ting, Tong" took off in late 1954, eventually peaking at #5 in the R&B charts and even crossing over to reach #28 Pop. However, the Keys were outsold by the kings of the black cover records, Otis Williams & the Charms, who peaked two places higher.
With "Ling, Ting, Tong" doing so well, Capitol tried to secure another hit by releasing "Close Your Eyes" (backed with "Doggone It, You Did It") in January. At the same time, they issued an EP containing all four released songs. "Close Your Eyes" peaked at #5 in the R&B charts, just as "Ling, Ting, Tong" had done.
Sadly, in January 1955, Ulysses Hicks collapsed and died of a heart attack whilst the Keys were touring. He was aged just 25.
More classic recordings were made at their third Capitol session, which took place on 25 April, 1955. "I Wish I'd Never Learned To Read" (once again with Maryland leading and Rudy doing the echo) and "The Verdict" (Rudy) are two firm favourites with Five Keys' fans. Both were released and sold well during the summer of 1955. In November of that year, "Cause You're My Lover" and "Gee Whittakers" became the group's only double-sided hit.
On 20 November, 1955, Dr. Jive was invited onto the newly-renamed "Ed Sullivan Show" (formerly "The Toast Of The Town") to bring 15 minutes of rhythm and blues into the nation's collective living room. He brought the Five Keys (singing "Ling, Ting, Tong"; they had wanted to do "Close Your Eyes", but "Ling Ting Tong" was specifically requested by Ed Sullivan's daughters), Lavern Baker, Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson's Orchestra, and Bo Diddley. This was the famous occasion where Bo Diddley "forgot" to sing the required "Sixteen Tons" and sang "Bo Diddley" instead, incurring the wrath of Old Stoneface.
On 23 December, the Five Keys started appearing with Dr. Jive, on his Christmas week show at the Brooklyn Paramount. Others on the show were Bo Diddley, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, Shirley & Lee, the Cheers, the Flamingos, the Four Fellows, the Turbans, Willis 'Gator Tail' Jackson and his Orchestra (with Mickey 'Guitar' Baker), and that epitome of rhythm & blues singing, Pat Boone. Problem: the Five Keys' new record was 'Gee Whittakers', which Pat Boone had covered. Question: who would get to sing it? Dr. Jive's decision came down in favour of the Keys, which really angered Boone's manager.
At the beginning of 1956, Aladdin issued the final Five Keys single on that label - "Story Of Love", backed with a re-release of "Serve Another Round" (which had last been issued in November 1952) on Aladdin 3312. [An L.P. "The Best Of The Five Keys" would be released on Aladdin 806 later that year]
In April, Capitol issued "I Dreamt I Dwelt In Heaven" c/w "She's The Most" and in June "Peace And Love" c/w "My Pigeon's Gone". Also in June, Aladdin sued Capitol for breach of contract (two years after the group had signed for Capitol via RCA Groove) - the magnet was a chunk of "Ling Ting Tong". Capitol settled out of court.
A session for Capitol in June 1956 heralded a change of direction for the Five Keys. Full orchestral instrumentation and a syrupy, pop-sounding female chorus were added, no doubt in an attempt to grab some of the Platters' market share. From this session, the beautiful "Wisdom Of A Fool" was released in November to become a strong seller. It was covered in the UK by Norman Wisdom.
More pop-sounding tracks were laid down in January 1957, by which time we may as well have been listening to Rudy West at the Copa for all the r&b that the tracks contained. Tracks like "The Gypsy" and "C'est La Vie" show just how the Keys' sound had been emasculated. To go along with these big band sounds, the Five Keys travelled with arrangements for a 16-piece orchestra. This was standard when they played a big theatre or when they were on tour.
The end of 1957 saw the beginning of the end for the original Five Keys. Rudy got married, left the group and was replaced by Dickie Threat (pronounced "Threet"), also from Newport News. Shortly thereafter, Ramon Loper became another casualty. His mother was living in New York, and he decided to stay with her. He ended up working with one of the many Ink Spots groups around. Ramon's replacement was baritone Charles "Bobby" Crawley, who had sung with Maryland Pierce in the Four Bees back in the late 40's. The group was now: Maryland Pierce, Dickie Threat, Ripley Ingram, Bobby Crawley, and Bernie West.
The last original Capitol release was in November 1958: "One Great Love" and "Really-O, Truly-O". After this, it was quiet on the Five Keys scene for a while, as Capitol allowed their contract to lapse. (There would be four other Capitol singles and an LP, but these were all reissues in the 60's and 70's).
In the summer of 1959, the Five Keys signed with Syd Nathan at King Records where they returned, not before time, to their r&b roots. Several fine sides were recorded ("Ziggus", "Dream On", "Dancing Senorita", "I Took Your Love For A Toy"), variously led by Maryland Pierce and Dickie Threat, but the group's time in the spotlight had passed. Rudy followed the group to King as a solo artist and had three releases in late 1959, but none of them sold well. Despite the high quality of the Keys' King recordings, the group was going in the wrong musical direction in 1959/1960.
Various "Five Keys" groups played concerts through the 60's and 70's but by then the glory days were but a memory. In April, 1992, the Five Keys were inducted into the UGHA Hall Of Fame, where Maryland and Rudy sang "Close Your Eyes".
Ripley Ingram passed away in early 1995. The beautiful voice of Rudy West was stilled on May 14, 1998. Ramon Loper, who turned up in New York in 2001, passed away in October 2002.
"Influencing the Harptones, the Cadillacs, the Solitaires, the Heartbeats and countless others including many white groups, the Five Keys were a vocal group for all time" - Jay Warner, "American Singing Groups"
Golden Classics (Collectables 5472; 1993) [for the Capitol years]
The Aladdin Years (Collectables 5632; 1995)
Best of Capitol & Aladdin (2-CD; Collectables 79; 2000)
Dream On: The Very Best Of... (Collectables 2875; 2004) [for the King years] [see: http://www.oldies.com/product/view.cfm/id_28752.html]
Recommended reading: "American Singing Groups", Jay Warner (Billboard Books)
Marv Goldberg's site was the main source for most of the above information:
Also worth a visit - J.C. Marion's Doo Wop Nation:
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at email@example.com