Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



U.S. vocal group of the 1950s created by songwriter Buck Ram. With many years of showbiz experience, Ram formed a talent agency in Los Angeles in 1954 and his protégés the Penguins scored a no. 8 USA hit with 'Earth Angel' '55; he took over the Platters from Ralph Bass and took both groups to Mercury Records. The Penguins never matched their success with 'Earth Angel'; the lead singer on that record was Cleveland Duncan (b 23 July 1935, Los Angeles; d 7 November 2012). The Platters' original lineup on the Federal label had included Gaynel Hodge, who co-wrote 'Earth Angel', and Cornell Gunter, later a member of the Coasters. When the Platters started recording for Mercury the lineup was lead singer Tony Williams (b 5 April 1928, Elizabeth NJ; d 14 August 1992 NY), second tenor David Lynch (b 1929, d 2 January 1981), Alex Hodge (Gaynel's brother) and Herbert Reed (b 7 August 1928, Kansas City; d 4 June 2012, Boston). Ram added L.A. native Zola Taylor (b 17 March 1938; d 30 April 2007; she was from another of Ram's acts, Shirley Gunter and the Queens; Cornell Gunter was her brother, and later spelled his name 'Gunther'.) The Hodge brothers' uncle was Austin Powell, who had led a successful novelty quintet The Cats And A Fiddle c.1940. Baritone Paul Robi soon replaced Alex Hodge.

The Platters had recorded Ram's 'Only You' for Federal, but the label rejected it. They did it again for Mercury and it reached no. 1 R&B, no. 5 pop in 1955 despite a white cover by the Hilltoppers; their next, Ram's 'The Great Pretender', topped both charts the same year (satirized by Stan Freberg for the slow, soft kling-kling-kling piano; revived in an affectionate impressionist title track of a Lester Bowie LP '81); both hits were included in Alan Freed's movie Rock Around The Clock.

Williams's church-influenced lead, string backing and the novelty factor of the beautiful Taylor (women were rare in doo-wop groups) made for the best smooch records of the decade for slow dancing at parties; the group were the first black act of the era to reach no. 1 on the pop chart, helped smash the industry's monopoly through white covers. Thirty-five pop hits on Mercury through '62 included 'My Prayer', a 1939 song previously recorded by Vera Lynn and Sammy Kaye, adapted from a violin composition by Georges Boulanger; Ram hired ace Sammy Lowe (ex-Erskine Hawkins band) to arrange it 'because he wanted an arranger who didn't ridicule what his singers were doing' (quoted by Stanley Dance); it went no. 1 pop/2 R&B, 'Twilight Time' (no. 1 both charts, with words by Ram: it had been a 1938 hit for the Three Suns, and a lovely instrumental version was a hit in 1945 by Les Brown), 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' (Jerome Kern classic; no. 1 pop, 3 R&B), 'Harbor Lights' (no. 8 pop, 15 R&B; a 1937 hit for Kaye '50), also standards 'I'll Never Smile Again', 'To Each His Own', 'If I Didn't Care', etc. They kept their cleancut image even after members were arraigned on vice charges in 1959 (it was a set-up and they were acquitted).

Williams left '61, but they came back on Musicor '66-7 with Sonny Turner singing lead, hits including 'I Love You 1,000 Times', 'With This Ring', both co-written by Luther Dixon. The group members fell out; there were groups led by Reed and others, leading to lawsuits and injunctions; Ram had tried to prevent the Ink Spots syndrome, setting up the Five Platters Inc. in '56 with members of the group owning shares and not allowed to use the name when they left, but it didn't work. Compilations are sometimes not the original recordings; the safest ones are on Mercury or Rhino. Reed was the last surviving original member and had won 'superior rights' to the name The Platters; he claimed to have named the group in the first place and to have been the only one to have sung on all the group's recordings.