Church Bells May Ring!

Cover Records

Let’s go back 55 years, focusing on a particular song, along with a recording process that existed back then called cover recordssmall record companies (labels) did not have the distribution abilities of the larger, predominantly white artist record labels who could cover the song and then out-distribute the smaller labels.

Yes, in 1956, Rock ‘n’ Roll and R&B were still just emerging as the pop music of the day and cover records where the norm rather than the exception. 

An obscure group named The Five Willows had been around for about 4 years.  Then one day in 1956 Tony Middelton’s wife suggested the basis of a song.  The guys (at that time just The Willows) wrote the song.  During the recording Morty Craft decided to dub in chimes (which where played by a totally unknown artist, “Neil Sedaka”).  The song was called “Church Bells May Ring” and it shot up the Charts, but got stuck at #62 Pop and #11 R&B. 

Why would it stall?, you ask… the reason was because Mercury Records had a Toronto group, “The Diamonds”, record that same song and Mercury being a larger company just out-distributed them  such that the Diamonds went to # 14. 

Not only was that a problem, but The Cadets/Jacks also released the same song with a B side of Heartbreak Hotel.  So the charts could be confusing and the Artist’s on the smaller labels where harder to get and teenager’s just wanted the song…

The Willows


From PBS Special with Tony Middelton/

1.   Church Bells May Ring/ Melba/ March 1956/ #62 and # 11 R&B

The Willows bloomed in 1950 from Harlem as The Dovers: Richie Davis, John Steele, Ralph Martin, Joe Martin (twins), and Bobby Robinson. Tony Middleton replaced Robinson who left in 1952 to open a record shop on 125th Street that became Fury Records.

The Dovers built a reputation battling other groups; they often practiced with Gloria Lynne’s group, the Delltones; Lynne later recorded on Premium with the Wheels before going solo. Pete and Goldie Doraine became their managers and financed the groups’ 1953 debut, “Love Bells,” on their own Pee Dee label, as the Five Willows. Three singles followed on Allen Records in 1953 that did nothing for their bank accounts.

After two flops on Herald in 1954, they hit as The Willows (dropping the “Five” for booking purposes) on the Melba label in 1956 with “Church Bells May Ring,” featuring Neil Sedaka on chimes. It blasted to number 11 R&B but died at number 62 pop due to the Diamonds’ number 14 pop cover. The Cadets and Sunny Gale also played the cover game.

They didn’t have any more hits but hung tough until 1965. Platters on Eldorado and Gone in 1957-1958 credited to Tony Middleton & the Willows went unnoticed; ditto for singles as the Willows on Club and Warwick Records. The Martin twins, Freddie Donovan, and Dotty Martin (Joe’s wife) were the Willows for two nonstarters on Heidi Records in 1964. And a lineup featuring Tony Middleton and Richie Davis appeared in the ’70s to work the doo-wop revivals; but by the ’90s, the Willows wept no more.

The Diamonds

Video: “Little Darlin” 1957 cover of Maurice Williams Song/


and now…

In 1953, Dave Somerville was working as a sound engineer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada. One of the shows produced at the CBC was Pick The Stars, a local talent show. He noticed four gentlemen practicing in the hallway for that show, and stopped to listen. After exchanging niceties, Somerville offered to be their manager. This group was composed of Stan Fisher, Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed. They agreed and for the next several months, Somerville provided tutoring, and got practice time in un-occupied studios at the CBC.

That Christmas, the group was to sing for a Christmas party at a local church. That date conflicted with lead singer Stan Fisher’s studies for a Law exam; Fisher decided he needed the study time. Since Somerville knew all the songs, he took Fisher’s place. The audience reaction to the Somerville-led group was so tremendous that the group that night decided to turn professional. In one fateful decision Fisher decided to stay in Law school and not continue with the group. Somerville became the permanent lead, and that was the night The Diamonds were born.

By 1955, all members of the group had left college, and/or jobs to sing full time. Professional musician Nat Goodman became their manager and got The Diamonds onto Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on American television. The result of the contest was a stalemate between The Diamonds and another contestant. The prize of being guest artist for a week on Godfrey’s show led to a recording contract with Coral Records. Coral released four songs, the most notable being “Black Denim Trousers & Motorcycle Boots“, a cover of a recording originally by The Cheers. The Diamonds’ version sold a few thousand copies, which was only enough to get them a little local recognition.

The next big step was an audition with Cleveland, Ohio, radio disc jockey Bill Randle, who had aided in the success of some popular groups, such as The Crew Cuts. Randle was impressed with The Diamonds and introduced them to Mercury Records, who signed the group to a recording contract. At this time, black artists were not played on white radio stations. Mercury Records, as well as other major record companies, were designating white artists to cover the recordings of black artists for the purpose of expanding their listening audience.

The Diamonds’ first recording for Mercury was “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” a cover of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’s version, which reached #12 in the U.S. as their first hit. They had a hit follow-up single, “Church Bells May Ring” (originally by The Willows), which reached #14 in the U.S.

They also covered songs by such black groups as The Clovers and The Heartbeats. The Diamonds biggest hits were 1957’s “Little Darlin’” (originally recorded by The Gladiolas) and 1958’s “The Stroll“, which was not a cover, but an original song written for the group by Brook Benton, from an idea by Dick Clark.

Although they were signed to do rock and roll, Mercury also paired them with Pete Rugolo in one of his “Meet” series. The album entitled “The Diamonds Meet Pete Rugolo” allowed The Diamonds to return to their roots and do some established standards.

The group sang “Little Darlin’” and “Where Mary Go” in the film The Big Beat, and sang the theme song for another film, Kathy-O.

They had many television appearances, including the TV shows of Steve Allen, Perry Como, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Eddy Arnold and Paul Winchell. They also appeared on American Bandstand.

The Cadets/Jacks

1.  Church Bells May Ring/ Modern 985/ 1956

The Cadets/Jacks were Aaron Collins (the brother of Betty and Rosie Collins who recorded as The Teen Queens), Willie Davis, Austin “Ted” Taylor, baritone Lloyd McGraw and bass singer Will “Dub” Jones. Ted Taylor, who left the group in early 1956 for a solo career, was replaced first by Prentice Moreland (who attended only one session).

Modern Records came up with the name The Cadets, and the group released their first single, “Don’t Be Angry“/”I Cry“. Collins led the A side while Taylor led the flip side. The group followed with several more singles. One of them was slated to be a cover of The Feathers’ “Why Don’t You Write Me?” Modern worried that this single may compete with “Don’t Be Angry“, so it was recorded on their subsidiary label, RPM Records, and was credited to “The Jacks“. Davis led “Why Don’t You Write Me?“, and the flip side, “Smack Dab In The Middle“, was led by Jones.

Many more singles followed, with the five recording as The Cadets on Modern, and “The Jacks” on RPM. McGraw left at the end of the year, and was replaced by Pete Fox (spelled Foxx). The group signed up to the Buck Ram management in March 1956, and continued churning out singles.

A few months later, Taylor left to pursue a solo career. He was replaced for one session by Prentice Moreland. This particular session was instrumental, however. It was the recording of “Stranded In The Jungle, a cover of an already popular tune by The Jay Hawks. The song was spoken by Dub, with a duet refrain by Davis and Collins. The flip side, “I Want You“, was led by Jones.

It was Prentice Moreland who delivered the line, “Great googly moogly, get me outta here!” in “Stranded In The Jungle”. Following that session, Davis, Collins, Jones, and Foxx continued as a quartet.

They continued recording under both names, but toured only as The Cadets. They would, however, perform Jacks songs onstage. Collins was drafted that summer, with his place taken for a short time by the returning Ted Taylor. After only a matter of weeks, Collins was able to return to the group, and Taylor was back out.

The quintet’s identity as The Cadets started as the musical cover group for the Modern label. Their first outing was a version of Nappy Brown’s “Don’t Be Angry“, and the second release was a cover of The Marigolds “Rolling Stone“. Then followed backup for Young Jesse and Dolly Cooper, a late blooming “Annie” song (“Annie Met Henry“) and a double cover of Elvis (“Heartbreak Hotel“) and The Willows (“Church Bells May Ring“).
The next release was also a cover, but this time things were different. The cover of The Jayhawks “Stranded In The Jungle” took off like a rocket and went to the top of the R&B charts and also scored big on the pop charts.

The Cadets never again achieved this measure of success issuing a string of covers such as Peppermint Harris “I Got Loaded” and “I’ll Be Spinning” originally by Johnnie & Joe. By the turn of the new decade the Cadets had been ready to call it a career, but a new lineup of two members of the Cadets and two members of the Flairs became a new vocal group called The Flares (note the different spelling).

1957 saw albums released under both the Jacks and Cadets names, under Modern and RPM, respectively.

Confusing to many was the use of Cadets tracks on the Jacks album, and vice-versa. That year the group stopped touring, without any big hits since “Stranded“. In May, there was a single release by “Aaron Collins and the Cadets”, which was Collins backed by studio singers. In November, the four were back together for one more release.

At the end of the year, the group split. Collins and Davis joined The Flairs. Foxx became a guitar instructor and continues (as of date of post; 30 December 2009) to give lessons out of his studio in Los Angeles, California; Jones joined The Coasters. A few recordings were made with the Cadets name in 1960; this was Davis and Collins with the Flairs.

The group reformed in the late 1990s, with Davis, Foxx, Randy Jones, and Tommy Turner. This lineup appeared on the PBS special, Doo Wop 51. In 2001, while rehearsing for a show with the Doo Wop Society of Southern California, Jones had to be rushed to the hospital, requiring the other three to perform as a trio at the performance. Jones had suffered a stroke, and died thirteen months later. The group brought in new bass Ed Carter, and continues to perform.



2 responses to “Church Bells May Ring!

  1. Hi, Russ… another awesome and fascinating blog post. I have a tiny fun thing to share… I actually got to meet and sing a bit with the Diamonds. It was Christmas break from USC where I was attending college, my parents and I went to Laughlin, Nevada and the second night in the casino’s theater, I got to go up on stage. My folks were talking about the days of “The Stroll” and of course, when they did that song, it was like suddenly being back in their time. Great stuff. It’s interesting how things change and yet stay the same, the bigs are still more visible and powerful and the indies keep plugging along, toiling in their shadows…

    • Ava – you got to go up on stage at the casino! How cool is that? … and yeah, we keep toiling in their shadow… yet, it seems your career is taking off. I notice you have a really good, tight backup group and are getting radio recognition. Way to go! I’m proud of you.

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