One of the most popular, influential, and beautiful sounding R&B singing groups of the ‘50s, the Five Keys were not only a link between the gospel/pop units of the ‘40s and the later R&B and rock groups, they led by example, having hits in R&B, rock and roll, and pop before the decade was through.
The Keys formed from two sets of brothers, Rudy and Bernard West and Raphael and Ripley Ingram. Calling themselves the Sentimental Four, they practiced in their local church in Newport News, Virginia, and on the streets of Jefferson Avenue and 25th Street. The Huntington High School students originally sang gospel songs but segued into secular material around 1949 when Rudy was 17, Bernie 19, Ripley 19, and Raphael 18. The group did some touring in the late ‘40s with Miller’s Brown-Skinned Models, an all-black revue that played fairs and carnivals. They garnered valuable on-the-job training and returned to Newport News to play talent shows for exposure and prize money.
The foursome won the Wednesday night amateur contest at the Jefferson Theatre three times, qualifying them for a trip to New York to compete in a similar event at the Apollo Theatre. They won that, too, beating over 30 other acts. Word of this superior vocal foursome spread during engagements that followed at the Royal Theatre and the Howard. Eddie Meisner, president of L.A.-based Aladdin Records, signed them in February 1951 but lost Raphael to the army before they could record. He was replaced by Rudy’s classmate and member of the Avalons, Maryland Pierce, along with Dickie Smith.
The group now called themselves the Five Keys, three of whom were the most talented lead singers any group ever had. Dickie Smith was a soulful lead, Maryland Pierce had a fantastic blues sound, and Rudy West possessed a smooth, polished, clear-as-a-bell tenor.
On March 22, 1951, the Five Keys recorded five songs. “With a Broken Heart” b/w “Too Late” was released in April as their first single, receiving scattered airplay but setting the stage for their brilliant version of the 1936 Benny Goodman hit (#1), “Glory of Love.”
Released in July, “Glory” charted on August 18th and became a number one R&B record by September, spending four weeks on top. The Keys’ captivating harmonies helped make “Glory” an eventual million seller and put them on the cross-country tour circuit for years to come. In December, Aladdin issued “It’s Christmastime” as a follow-up single. Releasing a Christmas record after a number one hit was like not issuing anything; few of December and this single was no exception.
The Keys had 10 more single releases between 1952 and 1953, but none cracked the hit lists though many, such as “Red Sails in the Sunset,” “My Saddest Hour,” “These Foolish Things,” and “Serve Another Round,” would have with more promotion, and they were all great listening.
By 1953 Rudy and Dickie were army bound, replaced by Ulysses Hicks and Ramon Loper.