Long before there was Motown, several black groups in the early 1950s struggled to make a difference on the music scene. To a world dominated by white artists, the deep soulful harmonies and soaring vocals of R&B were a little unsettling. The powerful music couldn’t be ignored for very long, simply because it was that good.
Proving that point on every level — The Platters.
The group made history. They broke musical barriers, racial barriers and gender barriers at a time the odds were not in their favor to even make their way out of southern California.
In the process they became international stars. Their hit songs like “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “My Prayer,” “Twilight Time,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “Harbor Lights,” became so much more. The songs have since become timeless classics and served as inspiration for many groups who followed in their footsteps.
With all of that monstrous success, however, is their personal story fraught with internal struggles, poor management, controversy, scandal, and 40 years of legal battles over spin-off groups and imposters all trying to get a piece of their pie. Talk about your “great pretenders.”
The battle ended with original member Herb Reed receiving full rights to the name and the group he helped create. After his death, the torch was legally passed to Frederick Balboni, Jr., Reed’s longtime manager and the current manager of the group returning to the Riverside Resort to perform “The Platters Very Merry Christmas” — with special guest The Drifters.
Reed was the last of the “original” Platters members to pass away.
The Platters story began in 1952, when Reed, Cornell Gunther, Joe Jefferson and Alex Hodge formed the group in L.A. After a failed attempt at recording “Only You,” on Federal Records in 1954, Jefferson, Gunther and Hodge left the group. Reed replaced them with Tony Williams, David Lynch, and Paul Robi. That same year Zola Taylor joined The Platters, becoming the first female vocalist to break the gender divide to become part of an all-male vocal group.
They also teamed up with music producer, songwriter and manager Buck Ram, who helped them turn things around. It was then that the trendsetting vocal group re-recorded “Only You,” launching the group onto the national stage, which was reportedly a mistake by a radio DJ. But charting hit song after hit song after that, was no mistake at all.
They were one of the first African-American groups to be accepted as a major chart group and were, for a period of time, the most successful vocal group in the world.
The group’s vocal evolution continues through the crisp, vocal stylings of members Brian McIntosh, Leslie Mon’e, vocal director Lance Bernard Bryant, and Kenny Williams, all under the musical direction of Michael Larson.
This group, probably more than any other, has been plagued with legal troubles over the years with a lot of internal and external conflict over the ownership of the name. In fact, The Platters are one of the reasons there is a Truth in Music movement working its way around the country.
“The Platters were very integral in getting the Truth in Music laws passed with Jon Bauman, (“Bowzer”) of Sha Na Na,” Balboni said. “I was on that committee and represented Herb on the committee. So many of the artists including The Platters have pretty much been taken advantage of and have been victims of identity theft, but obviously in a different way through their art in the music business.”
After 40 years of bad litigation, in 2011, Balboni received notice from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada in Las Vegas that they had won their case, confirming Reed had superior rights to The Platters’ trademark. The decision was then upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Also it has been validated out here on the East Coast, and we’ve stopped imposters around the country,” Balboni said. “We also stopped the biggest serial imposter, who happened to have a long running show in Las Vegas. People were going to Vegas thinking they were seeing the group that was at least in the lineage of the Platters, and they ended up seeing a group that had absolutely no connection to The Platters in any way, shape or form.”
Reed was the only remaining living member of the group at the time.
“Reed founded the group along with three other folks, Alex Hodge, Joe Jefferson and Cornell Gunther. They recorded with Federal Records which was absolutely horrific,” Balboni said. “It was a recording of ‘Only You,’ and if you heard it you would be, ‘Oh, my God, what is that?’”
While the rocky beginning would have left some disheartened, Reed was committed to breaking though the barriers. The group got their break when a radio DJ “mistakenly” played the wrong side of a 45.
“In that day, there was a two-record label system,” Balboni said. “During the day, there was what was known as the ‘orange’ label which were played any time day or night and they were all white artists. The ‘purple’ label contained all black artists and those artists could only be played after 6 o’clock at night.
“Alan Freed was a well-known DJ who truly never played a record he didn’t like, one day he took the record from a pile, put the record on the turntable and then the switchboard lit up,” he said. “That’s when ‘Only You’ became a hit. That started The Platters on a national career, and put them into the national spotlight.”
Because The Platters were one of the most successful black vocal groups of the ’50s, long before Motown, this latest iteration believes the legacy is worth preserving.
“It’s very important to me because I’ve grown up listening to the music of The Platters, and I have the utmost respect for the group,” said Bryant, the vocal director of the group. “Also being an African-American artist in this day and age, I know what that means on the current political ’scape of our society nowadays. It’s very important for me, and all of us, I believe, to uphold the mark they’ve made on music history as African-American artists.”
The group believes it is important to maintain the integrity of the music the Platters created to show honor and respect for the name they established, Bryant said.
“I say it all the time, these members devoted their entire lives to establishing this name that has so much nostalgia for America and worldwide for fans that love their music,” he said. “It just seems right to be able to continue the integrity and continue what it is they contributed.”
Recreating The Platters signature sound, is a challenge of itself, Bryant said.
“There are just a few of those difficult notes to tackle,” he said with a laugh. “We all work with it, but I’ve worked with a capella groups over the years for quite some time, so really delving into the harmonies and keeping that vocal integrity is a huge task and so important to get it right. Thank you so much for recognizing that.”
Balboni said the biggest misconception about The Platters is their style of music.
“The Platters were not a doo wop group and they also were not part of the Motown movement, which is a commonly held mistake,” he said. “Lance corrects that in the show. The Platters had their own unique styling and sound. Back when people first heard The Platters, they had no idea they were an African-American group. Actually the reason Alan Freed got away with playing the song during the day and the record being successful, because people listening thought they were listening to a white artist.
“Remember, MTV didn’t exist back then. Television was just in its birth and not a lot of people had television, but people did see them, probably for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show,” he added. “Their musical style was called the ‘Tin Pan Alley’ sound. It was the way they categorized the hybrid between R&B and rock and roll.”
The show is both entertainment and a history lesson.
“Today we have the group moving forward and catching up on its evolution,” Balboni said. ” We keep The Platters’ hits right to the integrity and the sound as in the recipe, as The Platters had intended. We also integrate and will be integrating new music.
“It’s a diverse show with a capella numbers or numbers with only a piano as an accompaniment. We show the progression of the music.
“We close out with cool stuff like ‘Don’t They Know It’s Christmas,’ and Christmas songs the Platters recorded like ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ and ‘Oh, Holy Night,’ and that makes it fun. We’re proving there’s more to them than nostalgia. They were so integral to the soundtrack of America, that their music is just as relevant today in that respect as they were in 1954.”