Tony Cummings tells the extraordinary 27 year history of acclaimed harmonizers THE CHARIOTEERS
Of all the tens of thousands of black vocal groups of the last century few can have had a career of such unexpected twists and turns as The Charioteers. For in the 27 years of their existence they went from performing jubilee harmony versions of the old spirituals ("Swing Low Sweet Chariot" gave them their name), to singing accompaniments for white crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, to enjoying rhythm and blues hits in the early days of the R&B chart, and, finally, five decades after the Charioteers retired, having one of their recordings featured on a highly popular Marks & Spencer TV commercial.
The origins of this long running team of harmonizers go right to 1930. Then universities both black and white found there was a mass audience for close harmony renditions of slavery-era spirituals. So university-linked choirs and small groups followed in the footsteps of the pioneering Fisk Jubilee Singers, to promote their places of education. Some black universities rebelled against what they saw as the racist undertones of the "old plantation songs" and students at Howard University went on strike in 1909 and again in 1919, refusing to sing the songs while Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest college for blacks in the USA, banned the "negro folk songs" outright. But by the late '20s all that was changing.
Quartet singing in colleges had become a coast-to-coast craze. Every black college boasted a dozen or more amateur singing groups and local and regional contests between what had become known as 'jubilee' groups. And so it came to pass that a professor of music at Wilberforce University, Howard Daniel, organised the Harmony Four. He told writer Peter Grendysa, "We really were not the school quartet. I just organised the group for Glee Club purposes. We used to just sit around on campus and sing acappella, just for our own benefit. The Harmony Four consisted of Pete Leubers, John Harewood, Wilfred B Williams and myself. As soon as I graduated from Northwestern in 1929 I went to Wilberforce to teach in the music department in the fall of 1929. The group started in 1930."
Continued Howard, "The school quartet was out of town and there was to be a state-wide quarter contest in Columbus, given by the Knights of Columbus. The president of the school, Wilbert Jones, asked me if I could send my group up to Columbus since the other group was out of town. So I took my group up there and we won the contest - they had about 28 quartets in the contest. This was in 1930. We only knew two songs, 'Steal Away To Jesus' and 'Let The Church Roll On'.
"When you got up to Columbus you had to pick a number and I picked Number 13. You had to do a song on stage with the curtain up so the audience could see you. Then when it came time for your elimination number, they dropped the curtain and the audience couldn't see you. There was a white quartet that was just about four quartets ahead of us and, man, they sang 'Steal Away' as their elimination number! So, we didn't know what to do and I said, 'Well, we'll just go on and sing our arrangement of it, that's all.' That's what we did and we won the contest. When we sang it there was a hush all over the audience. The recording we made later for Brunswick of that song is the same arrangement that won the contest. The Library Of Congress has a recording we made of that song, made for the Governor of Ohio."
The first prize the group won at the All Ohio State Quarter Contest carried with it a chance to audition for a radio programme on WLW Cincinnati and a two-record contract with Decca Records. Wilfred "Billy" Williams, tenor lead extraordinaire, and his fellow students Peter Leubens, second tenor; John Harewood, baritone; and their music teacher and bass singer Daniel, grabbed their chance. The group's precision harmonies and exceptional high tenor lead of Billy Williams were ready for radio exposure. They got it on WLW. Remembered Howard Daniel, "We were the Harmony Four when we went down to audition. The music director, Grace Raines, heard us and liked us and asked, 'What are you going to use for a theme song?' So we sang 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' and she said, 'That's it, call yourselves the Charioteers.' The Riff Brothers were on the station already when we got there - that was Deek Watson, Slim Green, Orville Jones and James Campbell. They had come to WLW from Indianapolis. We were on a show with them called The Rhythm Club, with Fats Waller, Una Mae Carlisle, an organist by the name of Chandler and a little swing violinist. We stayed at WLW for about two and a half years and then we went to New York."
The Charioteers' appearances on WLW were not without sacrifice. Said Daniel, "I continued to teach school during that time and we would drive down to Cincinnati every morning from Wilberforce. I'd get up at four o'clock in the morning - I lived in Xenia. We had a show with Paul McCarmody, a western show, at seven o'clock in the morning. The boys were all still in school, so I'd drive to Wilberforce, about three miles, pick them up, and then we'd drive to Cincinnati - 55 miles one way. That was every morning, and then we'd have to come back and try to make classes. I had a 10 o'clock class. We did that for two and a half years and sometimes we'd have to go back in the evening for a show called Moon River that came on at midnight."
The group's two 78s issued by Decca Records didn't sell particularly well (though well enough to stay in catalogue for years). Then in 1935 the team of acappella jubilee harmonizers, having graduated from Wilberforce, relocated to New York City. It was in the Big Apple that they made a painful discovery. Recalled Howard, "All of our work had been acappella and when we got to New York we found out that we couldn't make any money that way, singing spirituals. After we got with Jean Goldkette (their manager and a prominent bandleader), we got a studio in Carnegie Hall with a grand piano and we went to work. We would start about nine o'clock in the morning and work until 12, then go across the street to the Horn & Hardart, come back and rehearse until seven o'clock at night. Jean got us a friend of his, a German boy, as a pianist, and he played for us for a year or so, but he died. This left us in pretty bad straits. In the interim, Teddy Wilson played for us about two years."
Concentrating on their radio career brought the Charioteers national popularity and for the next two years they could be heard on all three of America's major radio networks, CBS, Mutual and NBC, an achievement matched only by America's biggest pop stars. In 1937 they returned to the recording studio after signing to the Vocalion label.
Two members of the original lineup, Pete Leubers and John Harewood, had tired of New York and returned to Ohio. But Howard Daniel found replacements in another jubilee group, The Oleanders. Explained Daniel, "The Oleanders had been the school quartet at Wilberforce. They came to New York soon after we did. Two of my boys went back home after about two years and I got two of the Oleanders - Edward Jackson and Ira Williams. Pete Leubers became a teller in a bank in Cincinnati and John Harewood was principal of a high school in Dayton, Ohio."
The Charioteers' first release with Vocalion was on 23rd July 1937, a snappy rendition of the '20s standard "Way Down Yonder In New Orleans". Vocalion had been a part of the long-ailing Brunswick Radio Corporation since 1924 and in 1937 it had only two years of existence ahead of it. The Charioteers recorded only sparingly for Vocalion, switching to the parent label Brunswick in 1939, the last year of Brunswick's independent existence. On Vocalion, the group recorded popular new tunes, the odd and remarkable "Laughing Boy Blues" and, in a brief return to the label in September, 1939, sang backing vocals for Mildred Bailey.
Bailey, a large white woman with a lovely crystalline voice, was the darling of the pre-war jazz singers and the Charioteers backed her on "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child", a slave song from Mississippi that originated before 1860. Brunswick had the group concentrate on old spirituals, releasing some as by The Southern Male Quartet. The unique style of the Charioteers was in a stage of rapid development, best exemplified by "Water Boy" and the two part "De Glory Road". After a few more old-timey songs such as "Love's Old Sweet Song" and "Old Folks At Home", the group joined the newly formed Columbia Record Company, who had taken over Brunswick. In 1938 the Charioteers had joined the cast of one of America's greatest ever musical reviews, Olsen & Johnson's Hellzapoppin', which lasted for four and a half years.
By now Billy Williams' sublimely smooth vocals were driving the group's fame. In 1940 they took a break from the show to feature in a Hollywood movie, Road Show, and The Delta Rhythms Boys took their place temporarily. Thanks to the exposure generated by Hellzapoppin' the Charioteers came to the attention of the world's biggest recording star, Bing Crosby. Bing was at the height of his popularity thanks in part to his coast-to-coast radio show, The Kraft Music Hall.
The Charioteers became regulars on his show during the 1942 season. They stayed with Bing on the radio throughout most of the next five years, regularly performing with him, whilst recording a string of highly regarded recordings in both the pop and spiritual fields. Jukebox hits were also forthcoming in this period including "So Long" (1940), "On The Boardwalk In Atlantic City" (1946), "Open The Door Richard" (1947), "Chi-Baba" (1947), "Look A-There Ain't She Pretty" (1947), "What Did He Say?" (1948) and "A Kiss And A Rose" (1949). Although the group did not make any commercial recordings with Crosby due to contractual difficulties, they did perform with other artists, notably Frank Sinatra, who they accompanied on the 1945 hit "Don't Forget Tonight Tomorrow". Also released in 1945 was the somewhat bizarre coupling of Sinatra and the Charioteers performing the gospel song "Jesus Is A Rock (In A Weary Land)".
In 1947 the Charioteers were to record what was to become one of their biggest hits, a cover of "Look A-There Ain't She Pretty", a finger-snapping ditty originally a hit for crooner Buddy Greco. Astonishingly, the Charioteers' recording got a whole new lease of life in Britain in 2007 when Marks & Spencer used it to accompany the launch of their latest fashion collection, with Twiggy et al cavorting to its slinky strains.
The same year that "Look A-There Ain't She Pretty" originally hit, the Charioteers, thanks to their work with Bing Crosby, were at the height of their popularity with audiences both black and white delighting in Williams and co's slick harmonies. In 1947 Crosby had announced, erroneously as it turned out, his retirement and the same year the Charioteers accepted a long standing invitation to perform in England. Travelling on the Queen Mary they performed at the London Palladium. Daniel recalled the trip in a 1980 interview: "We docked at Southampton and took the train to London. We had a wonderful time there and stayed at 3 Cork Street right off Bond Street." Due to a long term booking at New York's Paramount Theatre they were unable to capitalize on what was by all accounts a very successful run at the Palladium.
By the late '40s the vocal group style was becoming popular with post war black teenagers who embraced a more personal style of vocalising with the lead vocalist more prominent. The group that broke the mould and helped launch the doowop style as it became known were Sonny Til & The Orioles from Baltimore who were enormously influenced by the Charioteers and especially lead singer Billy Williams. Ironically, the Charioteers' last big hit, 'A Kiss And A Rose", was also a hit for The Orioles.
In 1950 Billy Williams was finally enticed out of the group. He was asked to form a group to perform regularly on TV in Sid Caesar's Your Show Of Shows, one of the greatest and most enduring of America's early weekly TV variety shows. The producers had thought the Charioteers too old, so Williams left the group and formed The Billy Williams Quartet. They signed with MGM Records and enjoyed several hits including a cover of the Four Aces' "Sin". By 1956 Williams had launched a solo career and hit the big time in 1957 with his revival of the Fats Waller standard "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter", which also hit the UK charts.
Billy Williams became the first artist to perform on America's national TV pop extravaganza American Bandstand. But by the '60s though the veteran's star had faded and after diabetes destroyed his beautiful high tenor Billy became a social worker in Chicago where he died on 17th October 1972.
The rest of the Charioteers continued on and drifted through five labels over the next seven years. They continued to perform in concert and on TV and worked until 1957 when Daniel decided to retire the group. Though they released 75 singles over 22 years (their last recording being "The Candles" on MGM in 1957), the Charioteers never embraced the LP era like The Inkspots, Mills Brothers and others or conquered the European markets like other jubilee-turned-pop entertainers like the Golden Gate Quartet and The Deep River Boys. But what the Charioteers did achieve was connecting many of the disparate elements of black church music, white pop entertainment and early doowop and in doing so showed both the opportunities and the pitfalls in 'crossing over' from church to showbiz.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.