REQUEST SONG from my friend Teresa-
by Marv Goldberg
There are some groups that, no matter how prolific, will always be remembered for that one special song. For the Chords, it was "Sh-Boom"; for the Penguins, "Earth Angel." Both those groups cut many other fine tracks as well, but the impact of their big smash hit eclipsed all that came before or after. In the same vein, even if you love the Crows and have your own personal favorite song (mine is "Sweet Sue"), chances are, when you think of the Crows, you think of "Gee."
Our story begins around 1951, in Harlem (on 142nd Street, to be exact), at a time when R&B vocal groups seemed to be springing up on every street corner, alleyway, and subway station in the city. Daniel "Sonny" Norton (lead), Harold Major (tenor), Jerry Wittick (tenor), Bill Davis (baritone/tenor), and Gerald Hamilton (bass) came together and called themselves the Crows.
The Crows, like their peers, sang for the most basic reasons: it was fun, it was a macho (but safe) way of besting other guys, and it was a great way to impress the girls in the neighborhood.
Most groups at this time began by imitating a few others (the Orioles, the Ravens, the Dominoes, the 5 Keys, and later on, the Drifters); the Crows were no exception. They sang the hits of the day, adding enough of their own style to give them an edge in the regular vocal battles with other neighborhood aggregations. These, in turn, gave way to appearances at local parties, community centers, clubs, and school dances.
Finally, the big break. The trip to the Apollo Theater for the Wednesday night amateur show. The applause. The clichéd "agent-in-the-audience-who-knows-a-good-thing-when-he-hears-it." It sounds like a Hollywood B-flick, but it actually happened.
That very real agent was Cliff Martinez, who also managed the Crickets. Later on, he'd manage the Mello-Tones, the Sparks Of Rhythm, and the Pretenders. He soon arranged a session for them at Jubilee Records, where they backed up a trumpet-playing Louis Armstrong sound-alike, named Frank "Fat Man" Humphries on two tunes: "I Can't Get Started With You" and "Lulubell Blues". Even though there were five of them (and they seem to have already been known as the Crows), the group was billed as the "4 Notes" on this June 1952 release.
The disk was reviewed on July 19, with "Lulubell Blues" being considered "excellent." Other reviews that week went to the 5 Keys' "Hold Me," Edna McGriff & Sonny Til's "Once In A While," Ray Charles' "Guitar Blues," the 4 Tunes' "They Don't Understand," the Orioles' "Barfly," and Little Richard's "Ain't Nothin' Happening."
Viola Watkins Ain't nothin' happening with the 4 Notes' record either, and Martinez next teamed the Crows with singer Viola Watkins. They were her backup group; she was their pianist and arranger. They backed her on one side of a September 1952 Jubilee release, "Paint A Sky For Me." This got a "fair" rating on September 27, along with the 4 Blazes' "Stop Boogie Woogie," Mr. Sadhead's "Butcher Boy," Sarah McLawler's "Romance In The Dark," and the Royals' "A Love In My Heart."
The Crows Sometime after the Jubilee sides, Jerry Wittick left the group to join the military. He was replaced by Mark Jackson, who functioned mainly as the group's guitarist, although he occasionally sang tenor. All their subsequent recordings had the same five guys, but for some reason Jackson didn't make it to the group's only photo session.
Then, Martinez took Viola and the Crows to George Goldner, who had just started Rama Records as an R&B subsidiary to Tico, his mambo label. Goldner was impressed and arranged a session in April of 1953. This resulted in "No Help Wanted," I Love You So," "Gee," and "Seven Lonely Days."
Ad for Seven Lonely DaysRama released "Seven Lonely Days"/"No Help Wanted" in April 1953. "Seven Lonely Days" (a cover of Georgia Gibbs' hit) featured Viola Watkins, backed by the Crows. The flip was a cover of Rusty Draper's charter, with Viola's piano featured prominently. The platter was reviewed on May 9 (with "No Help Wanted" rated "good"). That week also saw reviews for the Chapters' "Goodbye, My Love," Sonny Til's "(Danger) Soft Shoulders," and the 5 Budds' "I Guess It's All Over Now."
Ad for Gee When these failed to take off, "Gee" (written by Bill Davis, in less than ten minutes) was released in May. Its flip was "I Love You So," a ballad that would later be redone by the Chantels. Considering the place "Gee" would have in the history of R&B, it was "I Love You So" that Rama was pushing and DJs were playing. Both sides were rated "good" the week of June 27, along with Johnny Ace's "The Clock," Shirley & Lee's "Shirley's Back," the Orioles' "I Cover The Waterfront," and the 5 Willows' "Rock Little Francis" (which, presumably, should have been "Rock Little Frances").