The Platters – The Best of the Platters: The Millennium Collection – Classic Music Review
I’ve always found the induction process employed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rather confusing, as several of the inductees can hardly be classified as rockers. For example, Joan Baez never rocked in her life, but somehow she made the cut.
Well, thanks to Dolly Parton, I now have a halfway credible explanation as to why The Platters (whom I never considered rockers) are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As you may have heard, Dolly asked the Hall to remove her name from this year’s ballot as she didn’t think she deserved that dubious honor. The Hall responded to her request by explaining, “From its inception, rock and roll has had deep roots in rhythm & blues and country music. It is not defined by any one genre, rather a sound that moves youth culture.”
Said the old men who run the place.
Though I agree wholeheartedly with Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden when he described the Hall as “an utter and complete load of bollocks … run by a bunch of sanctimonious bloody Americans who wouldn’t know rock ‘n’ roll if it hit them in the face,” the response does explain the presence of The Platters in Cleveland’s hallowed halls (though it doesn’t explain the complete absence of Britpop bands).
The Platters had the good fortune of timing their entry into the music scene when rock ‘n’ roll was in its nascent stage. Early rock was primarily a dance medium and any sock hop worthy of mention simply had to include a few slow dance numbers to titillate the sexual plumbing of adolescent boys and girls while giving the chaperones something to fret about. The Platters released some of the best slow-dance records ever recorded and moved youth culture in the most effective manner known to humankind—activating the energy flow to the second chakra, the source of sexual healing.
If you’re not into New Age lingo, you can fall back on the description of their offerings at Platters.com: “the ultimate in ‘make-out music’.”
And yes, there’s a Marvin Gaye review in the works.
The Platters were simply a great vocal group, more than worthy of their inclusion in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame on the day it opened. Though there were several African-American vocal groups competing for attention in the mid-50s, The Platters conveyed a certain soulful elegance in their music, a quality facilitated by a guy with the delightfully masculine moniker Buck Ram.
When Buck first connected with The Platters, he was well-known in the industry as a successful arranger, producer and songwriter. In the mid-50s, Buck was looking for a vocal group who could sing his largely jazz-influenced 40s pop songs. Buck rescued The Platters from early obscurity by shifting their vocal stylings from R&B/gospel to something closer to the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots and making two important lineup changes—a switch to Paul Robi as the baritone and the addition of female vocalist Zola Taylor. This core group would release a string of hits throughout the decade, including four #1’s.
The Millenium Collection is a starter set that contains all their Top 10 hits and a few that made the Top 40. All the tracks feature the marvelous voice of lead singer Tony Williams, including some songs released after he left the group in 1960. Mercury Records refused to release any new Platters material for two years after his departure, choosing instead to mine the Williams numbers left in the vault.
This is the same Mercury Records that wanted to release “Only You” on their “race label” until Buck threw a hissy fit and convinced them otherwise.
It’s hard to complain about an all-Tony collection, but for the sake of diversification, I wish they’d included “He’s Mine,” which features a rare lead vocal from Zola Taylor and a sound much closer to rock ‘n’ roll (you can find it on the 16 Greatest Hits compilation). The more serious flaw in this edition is that the songs are not presented in chronological order, thereby failing to highlight the significant changes in the group’s sound that began in 1959. For the sake of the narrative, I will present the songs in release order.
Ready to slow-dance? Okay! I’ll take the lead. Come closer . . . closer . . . I’m not going to bite you . . . not yet anyway . . . attaboy! Now. Right arm up, left arm around my waist. Hey! I said “waist,” not “ass!” No! Now you’re too high up and you’re pulling my ponytail! Down, down . . . stop fiddling with my bra strap . . . that’s better. Now, look into my eyes—they’re those green things, just below my eyebrows. There you go! My goodness! You’re as stiff as a board! Relax! Oh! You are as stiff as a board! Back off a bit . . . thanks . . . those little guys have a mind of their own, don’t they? . . . no, no, I didn’t mean “little” in that way . . . okay . . . wait for the music . . . one . . . two . . . three . . .
“Only You (And You Alone)” (July 1955, #5): The song that kick-started the public’s love affair with The Platters is a good example of the old maxim, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”
The group had recorded this number that Buck Ram had written in the 40s (under the name Ande Rand) when they were on the Federal label in 1954 but the execs decided it wasn’t ready for primetime—and The Platters had to agree. Bass vocalist Herb Reed (who came up with the group’s name) recalled, “We tried it so many times, and it was terrible. One time we were rehearsing in the car … and the car jerked. Tony went ‘O-oHHHH-nly you.’ We laughed at first, but when he sang that song—that was the sign we had hit on something.” Others remember the jerk as a hiccup or Tony’s voice breaking, but whatever the source, that little vocal quirk heard at the beginning of the second and third verses is . . . well, it’s just the coolest sound ever!
Though The Platters had moved to Mercury when they finally got it right, the sound on “Only You” is rougher and rawer than their later recordings—more R&B than R&B-influenced pop. As a big fan of rough and raw, I absolutely love this song, and my partner and I often grind away to “Only You” after we’ve left it all on the playing field . . . er, bed.
“The Great Pretender” (November 1955, #1): Talk about one helluva follow-up hit!
The interest in the song has little to do with the chord pattern of I-IV-V in G major with seventh chord variations and a single change to B major to add a bit of drama to the finale. “The Great Pretender” is all about melody and harmony. Tony Williams handles the largely white key melody with aplomb, navigating the frequent leaps like an Olympic hurdler, rising close to the top of his tenor range with a crescendo at the end of the second bridge that sends chills up and down the spine. The four-part harmonies supporting Tony are the musical equivalent of a beautiful four-layer birthday cake prepared by a master baker. I love the “whee-ooh” vocal fills and it’s impossible to imagine “The Great Pretender” without that . . . magic touch. A small helping of tenor sax from hard-bop pro Plas Johnson (best known for the sax on “The Pink Panther Theme”) adds just the right amount of texture to seal the deal.
I was astonished that my research on the song yielded no commentary on the obvious subtext that would have appealed to teenagers of any generation, particularly teens in the 50s. The story is about a guy putting on a brave face in response to the loss of his lover. As he was probably brought up according to the maxim, “boys don’t cry,” he makes a half-hearted attempt to convince the listener that he’s “Just laughin’ and gay like a clown” (not homosexual, but “footloose and fancy-free”).
The subtext is formed through specific lines in the song that would have struck a chord in any teenager struggling with peer pressure conformity in a heavily-conformist society. “My need is such I pretend too much,” “I’m the great pretender, adrift in a world of my own,” “Too real is this feeling of make-believe,” “I seem to be what I’m not, you see” all express feelings common to high-schoolers who secretly know they’re phonies and that everyone around them is a phony but no one has the guts to expose the silent conspiracy—you learn to go along to get along. We all derive personal meanings from the lines in songs that may not have been what the artist intended to convey but awaken subliminal thoughts and feelings that help us clarify what’s going on inside.
I’m not sure what Buck Ram was thinking when he wrote this number, but whether he meant to or not, the lyrics would have resonated with many teens struggling with lost love, identity . . . or both.
By the way, Buck wrote this beautiful song in one of the lavatories in the old Flamingo Hotel in Vegas during a Platters performance. I really hope he wasn’t doing anything else while engaged in the act of composition.
“(You’ve Got) The Magic Touch” (February 1956, #4): Goldilocks would not be happy with this number, as it’s a bit too fast for a slow dance and a bit too slow for the more energetic dance forms. Buck Ram’s lyrics fall far short of the excellence he would later display in “Twilight Time” (“When I feel your charm/Its like a fourth alarm” is a pretty weak simile), and while Tony Williams does a fine job with the lead vocal, the melody isn’t particularly challenging or memorable.
That’s the bad news. The good news is “The Magic Touch” gives the other four singers a chance to shine and they take full advantage of the opportunity, putting on a master class in dynamics and vocal group variation. Zora’s voice is prominent in the oo-oohs in the verses; the men take over at the start of the bridges with assertive harmony in the opening line and then quickly return to their quieter supporting role in the second line. The second line response changes, with the male voice dominant in the responding “uh oh” on the first pass and Zora’s girlish voice clearly dominant in the second go-round. The finish is outstanding as the group takes a tight run up and down the scale, at one point forming a minor chord that does not appear elsewhere in the song but makes for a strong transition to the closing chord. For me, the magic in this song is all about the thrilling sound of a variety of human voices coming together in harmonies that nourish the soul.
“My Prayer” (June 1956, #1): Hey! Wanna hear one of the gloomiest recordings ever made? Check out “Avant de Mourir” by George Boulanger (circa 1926) on YouTube.
Yes, I mean NOW. Don’t worry, I’ll wait . . . . . . . . . . . .
Pretty fucking dismal, huh? Well, what were you expecting with a song title that translates to “Before Dying?” It’s as far away from “Yummy Yummy Yummy I Got Love in My Tummy” as a song can get!
Such are the origins of “My Prayer.” Thirteen years after Boulanger (Romanian) composed the music, Carlos Gomez Barrera (Mexican) and Jimmy Kennedy (obviously an Irishman) added the lyrics and pitched the song to Glenn Miller (American) and the Ink Spots (African-American) and voila! Two Top 10 hits!
Hooray for international cooperation!
Glenn Miller’s version is (believe it or not), a bit on the jaunty side—a pleasant little foxtrot that would have made for a perfectly sterile slow dance around the ballroom floor. I think the Ink Spots nailed it, turning the gloom of the original into a soft acoustic guitar ballad featuring an appropriately subdued and tender vocal from Bill Kenny.
The Platters borrow heavily from the Ink Spots arrangement, replacing the guitar with the piano for the central arpeggio. The big difference is Tony Williams really goes full American Idol during the finish and chews the musical scenery into a pulp.
Eh—what do I know. Chalk up another #1 for The Platters.
“You’ll Never, Never Know”(August 1956, #11): Buck used pseudonym number two for “You’ll Never, Never Know,” appearing in the credits as Jean Miles, but that’s not the real story here. Paul Robi and Tony Williams also received royalties for their part in the composition.
This isn’t your typical Platters number marked by glossy elegance. The most noticeable difference is the presence of a drummer with an undeniable emphasis on the backbeat, making “You’ll Never, Never Know” sort of a reconnaissance mission into rock ‘n’ roll territory. The second difference is the prominence of Herb Reed’s exquisite bass vocal on the opening line of the verses—and to me, that alone is worth the price of admission. The close featuring Herb singing the lowest note in the song while Zora harmonizes a gazillion scales higher is a very rare treat indeed.
The song has a nice flow and all the singers are obviously feeling it, so I’m not exactly sure why this didn’t break the Top 10, but it probably had to do with the tendency of the American listening audience to shake their heads in dismay when their favorite artists try to do something different.
“Twilight Time” (April 1958, #1): The story behind the composition and development of “Twilight Time” is somewhat confusing, so bear with me.
The original recording of the song was made in 1944 by the Three Suns, a popular instrumental group of the era. Their version is completely instrumental (accordion, organ, guitar and what sounds like a celeste) and sold four million copies. Other instrumental versions followed, most notably by Jimmy Dorsey and Les Brown and His Band of Renown (their version was the B-side of “Sentimental Journey,” featuring a young singer by the name of Doris Day). The Three Suns are credited as composers on all three versions.
Buck Ram claimed that the lyrics came from a poem he had written in college; other sources claim he wrote the lyrics later, specifically for The Platters. When you listen to the Three Suns recording, it’s hard to believe that the lyrics didn’t exist at that time, for the melody fits the lyrics like a soft suede glove. Buck’s name does not appear on the 45, but since the Three Suns didn’t use the lyrics (if there really were any to use), his name wouldn’t have been there anyway. Buck was well-known in New York music circles at the time—he hobnobbed with Ellington at the Apollo, wrote arrangements for Basie and Armstrong and sold Chick Webb on the idea of bringing a talented young singer named Ella Fitzgerald into his band—so he might have crossed paths with the Three Suns along the way.
Lacking any firm evidence to support that connection, I finally had to conclude that Buck Ram was a master songwriter (he was one of the top five songwriters in airplay over a 50-year period along with McCartney, Simon, Kristofferson and Webb)—and his skill allowed him to transform his old college poetry into lyrics that synced perfectly with the exquisite melody composed by the Three Suns.
What I love most about The Platters’ take on “Twilight Time” is Tony’s gorgeous and sensitive vocal. These are beautiful lyrics filled with vivid imagery that deserve to be heard, and Tony enunciates each syllable with crystal clarity while successfully conveying the sweet anticipation of a romantic evening:
Heavenly shades of night are falling
It’s twilight time
Out of the mist, your voice is calling
‘Tis twilight time
When purple-colored curtains
Mark the end of the day
I’ll hear you, my dear, at twilight time
Deepening shadows gather splendor
As day is done
Fingers of night will soon surrender
The setting sun
I count the moments, darling
‘Til you’re here with me
Together at last at twilight time
The Three Suns were a pop group during the Swing Era, so the chords are more complex (ninths, eleventh, diminished) than those on “The Great Pretender.” I love the way the group ends the song, with the other vocalists joining in on “Together at last at twilight time.” If you ever find yourself in a romantic mood and want to share that mood with your love interest, slip “Twilight Time” onto the turntable, hold your honey with loving tenderness and let Tony Williams and The Platters whisk you away to a world all your own.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”(October 1958, #1): Sometimes I’ll hear a song without really listening to it and wind up with a faulty impression of what the song is about. This tendency is most likely to rear its ugly head when the song in question originated in a Broadway musical, for I loathe the very concept of a musical.
Because the only interpretations of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” I actually listened to came in the form of instrumentals via Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins (Hawkins wins), I always thought the song had something to do with all those elegant, smoke-filled dinner clubs you see in movies from the 1930s and 1940s. With nearly everyone on the set puffing away like mad (both the actors and the crew in the background), I assumed that getting smoke in your eyes was a fairly normal environmental hazard that occasionally caused the waterworks to flow. Ergo, the song must have been written about a breakup where the guy informed the gal about his wife and kids, evoking stinging tears and blobs of mascara—like when smoke gets in your eyes.
I never paid attention to the lyrics until this encounter with The Platters and wasn’t entirely surprised that I was way off. The lyrics penned by Otto Harbach (music by Jerome Kern) form a homily of sorts: when your heart is afire, you are unable to see what’s really going on between you and your sweetie pie and are completely gobsmacked when she tells you to hit the road, Jack—all because the smoke from your burning heart distorted your perception.
What a horrid visual!
Otto Harbach was “considered one of the first great Broadway lyricists” (Wikipedia) but even Willie Mays had a few off-days. The lyrics are rather awkward with truncated lines, triple rhymes and language that was archaic even in the 30s (“So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed”). The film rendition in Roberta (the musical featuring the song) is performed by Irene Dunne, who sounds as stiff as a seventh-grader at her first recital.
Tony Williams is generally successful in smoothing out the rough edges, and if you pay no attention to the lyrics, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is a superb slow dance number set at just the right tempo for close contact. I love the layered harmonies that precede the finish, but Tony comes on way too strong at the close. All things considered, The Platters made something out of not much and once again found themselves at the top of the chart.
“Enchanted” (February 1959, #12): This is the song that marks a significant change in the group’s sound. Prior to “Enchanted,” the instrumental arrangements were fairly low-key to avoid interfering with the listener’s enjoyment of the vocals. On “Enchanted,” the strings bury the group’s response parts and Tony’s vocal is not only louder but loaded with an extra helping of reverb. The result of all this unnecessary tinkering is that Tony is largely separated from the rest of the group, while the group has been demoted to the minor leagues. I liked The Platters so much better when I could hear Herb Reed, Zola Taylor, David Lynch and Paul Robi without interference.
1959 turned out to be the no-good-very-bad year for The Platters. All four of the men were arrested in the northern southern town of Cincinnati, Ohio on a morals charge involving sex with minors. The minors in question were nineteen and a few reports claim that at least two of them were white.
Needless to say, the four plaintiffs were found innocent on all charges but the publicity surrounding the event caused some radio stations to temporarily ban Platters music. Sometime later that year, in a painful example of no-good-very-bad timing, Tony announced he was leaving the group to pursue a solo career.
“Harbor Lights” (January 1960, #8): The last three songs in the collection are standards from The Great American Songbook that had already been recorded by everyone who was anyone. The orchestration is typical of the era in that it is overwhelming, intrusive and painfully corny. Consider them all Easy Listening crossover singles without a hint of R&B . . . with only a very faint hint that there are four other singers in the group.
“Harbor Lights” is probably the least worst of the three thanks to Tony’s smoothly restrained vocal. Then again . . . those sound effects terrify me . . . whenever I hear a seagull I assume that nasty bird is about to make a bombing run and ruin my new sweater (see my Donovan reviews for the origins of this debilitating trauma).
“Red Sails in the Sunset” (August 1960, #36): Tony has now officially departed and Mercury is releasing the singles as “The Platters Featuring Tony Williams.” For a thorough review of this song, see “Harbor Lights.”
“I’ll Never Smile Again” (July 1961, #25): For a thorough review of this song, see “Harbor Lights.”
I will add that this song in particular was a poor choice due to the impressive list of vocalists whose recordings of “I’ll Never Smile Again” preceded that of The Platters. Sinatra made the initial recording with Tommy Dorsey; that version hit #1 and stayed there for twelve weeks. The next three vocal artists to record the song were The Ink Spots, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. By the time Tony Williams gave the song a shot, the listening audience had already had their fill.
Mercury let The Platters go once their contract expired in 1962 (and once they’d run out of Tony Williams tracks). You’ve got to feel for Sonny Turner, who was no doubt excited to land the dream job of lead singer for one of the most popular groups of the era—only to have his dreams blown to smithereens. Fortunately, Sonny wasn’t the kind of guy to give up too easily, and later in the decade, he led the new lineup back into the charts.
The Platters have endured through the decades with numerous lineup changes and competing identities. The list of films and TV shows featuring Platters music is simply astonishing, particularly when you consider that most of the productions on that list were released in the 21st century.
I think it’s highly unlikely that The Platters will ever disappear from the scene. The five original Platters left us with recordings that are timeless, and no matter what happens next on this unhappy planet of ours, those recordings will be around to remind us of how sweet romance can be.
I’ll be offline for a couple of weeks as my honey and I set out to enjoy the harbor lights in one of the few cities on the continent that isn’t currently experiencing a climate-change-inspired heatwave: Copenhagen. I’ll be back sometime in June.