Friday, January 4, 2008

Who's Who In Knickerbocker Village History: The Crests

Not really KV, but certainly close enough. The Up On The Roof post recalled Richard Karney's remembrance that the Crests originated from the Smith Projects, "One of our classmates or grade mates' brother was one of the background singers."
an excerpt from billerocker note: the Patricia Van Dross mentioned was Luther Vandross's older sister
Johnny Maestro and The Crests
0ne of the most popular of the late '50s groups, the Crests were often thought to bean all black aggregation. In fact, they were about as integrated as a group could get, with four men (two blacks, a Puerto Rican, and an Italian), and one black female. Talmadge (Tommy) Gough (first tenor), Harold Torres (second tenor), and Patricia Van Dross (tenor) were all from the Alfred E. Smith housing projects in Chinatown on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1955, while students at P. S. 160 Junior High, they teamed up with Jay (J. T.) Carter (bass) of Delancey Street to forma singing group. With influences ranging from THE MILLS BROTHERS to THE AMES BROTHERS(with THE HARP-TONES, THE CLOVERS, THE 5 ROYALES, THE FIVE KEYS, THE PENGUINS, and THE ORIOLES thrown in for good measure) the unnamed quartet started performing at hospitals and charity functions for experience while learning the craft of harmonizing from an old singer known only as Mr. Morrow.
In 1956, Mulberry Street resident John Mastrangelo met the group at the Henry Street Settlement House. John's previous group had also been integrated, and reportedly included a young Tony Orlando. Mastrangelo's strong voice and natural feel for R&B made him an instant asset to the group and they joined forces. J. T. Carter came up with the name the Crests (a good many years before the toothpaste). The group found the New York subway system to be an excellent place to polish their sound. On one occasion they boarded the Lexington IRT at the Brooklyn Bridge and took the opportunity to practice. To their astonishment, as the train pulled into the next stop, a woman got up, walked over, handed them a business card, and left the train without even mentioning her name. The card read "Al Browne and Orchestra," Mr. Browne being the well-known arranger who backed up THE HEARTBEATS and other acts. The group scrambled to call him, set up an audition, and by June 1957 were recording two original Mastrangelo compositions. The mysterious lady on the train turned out to be Mrs. Al Browne.
The songs "Sweetest One" and "My Juanita" were tremendous first efforts for a new group, especially considering the medieval production work and studio sound. "My Juanita" was an up-tempo rocker with a slow double-chime prelude, a smooth lead from Mastrangelo (now calling himself Johnny Maestro), and a tight background by the Crests. "Sweetest One" was an understated ballad. Its simplicity was classic, but most in the know would have put their money on "Juanita." On July 15, 1957, the tiny Joyce Records (run out of the back room of a Brooklyn record store) bet on "Sweetest One," putting all two minutes and four seconds on the national Top 100 chart peaking at number 86. "My Juanita7 subsequently became a standard rehearsal tune for every street-corner group.
The Crest's next single was "No One to Love," a beautiful ballad with an "Earth Angel" intro followed by wondrous harmony and an original arrangement. Lightning didn't strike twice, but Maestro recalls that each member received a $17.50 royalty for the tune. It probably went to buy the checkered sport jackets and thin black ties they wore at their local gigs (with Pat in her gown, the performers looked like four Bo Diddleys and a prom queen).
After almost a year of shows, the Crests got a break in the form of an introduction by songwriter Billy Dawn Smith to music publisher George Paxton, a veteran of the Brill building. Paxton formed Coed Records and signed the group just as they became a quartet. Pat was forced to leave when her mother refused to let her tour with the older guys (in 1958 the members were 18 to 19 years old). Had Patricia's younger brother been old enough to do more than hang out to hear the group sing, he would have been an interesting vocal addition to the Crests. His name was Luther Van Dross.
The Crests' first Coed single was "Pretty Little Angel" b/w "I Thank the Moon," the former written by Maestro, arranger Bert Keyes, and Luther Dixon (writer of several SHIRELLE's hits), and the latter by Billy Dawn Smith. "Pretty" did well in New York (for example one Rochester station, WRVM's survey had it at number 25 and moving up on March 31st) but soon fizzled out. The next release was "Beside You," a pretty ballad with loads of harmony and a mid250s sound. When deejay Alan Freed and TV's Dick Clark received their copies they both flipped it over and took a liking to a sentimental birthday song called "16 Candles." The record entered the Billboard pop charts on November 24, 1958, and the R&B charts almost two months later. The group then played the first of many shows for Alan Freed's Christmas party at the Loew's State Theatre along with three giants of rock who would all be dead within six weeks: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. In the week of January 26, 1959, "16 Candles" was number four nationally and Vileness' "Donna' was number three. J. T. Taylor had a friendly bet with Valens that week as to whose record would hit number one first. On February 3, 1959, Valens, Holly, and the Big Bopper J. P. Richardson) died in a plane crash while the Billboards chart of February 9 had "16 Candles" at number two and "Donna" at number three. Ironically, neither recording ever made it to number one. The record that kept both from that position was Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee." At its peak, "16 Candles" was selling 25,000 records a day and well on its way to becoming one of the most popular birthday songs since "Happy Birthday." "16 Candles" actually started out as "21 Candles" written by Luther Dixon and Allyson Kent, but since the average age of targeted record buyers was much younger, the number of candles was brought down a few notches.
The Crests were now playing all the major venues from the Apollo to the Paramount along with the prime-time Saturday night radio version of "American Bandstand." (Dick Clark may remember his first encounter with the Crests at the Little Theatre on 47th Street in New York City. The Crests were cavorting in the dressing room when Clark peeked in to say hello. When one of the boys fell against the door Clark got a black eye for his trouble.) The boys appeared on what in those days were called all-star shows-and they really were. On a given night the Crests would appear with the likes of Jackie Wilson, THE MOONGLOWS, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, THE FLAMINGOS, DION AND THE BELMONTS, Frankie Avalon, and more saxophone-led orchestras than you could shake a stick at, including those of Sam "the Man Taylor, King Curtis, Big Al Sears, Red Prysock, Earl Warren, and more. From 1958 to 1960 the group was almost always on the road.
Their first single after "Candles" was a swaying, dreamy stroll-styled ballad called "Six Nights a Week" (#28 Pop, #16 R&B). As was the case with many acts, the charts were a relatively accurate barometer of the quality of the Crests records from this point on. "Flower of Love" was bland in comparison to other Crest cuts and only attained a six-week run up to number 79. But the charting proved that the Crests were out in front with deejays and the public; far superior records of the time (such as "Millionaire Hobo ' by the Fantastics, "MY Heart7' by THE CAROLLONS, and "Lovers Never Say Goodbye" by the Flamingos) had less activity.

No comments: