Breaking Barriers

Long before there was a Motown, several black groups in the early 1950s struggled to make a difference on the music scene. R&B wasn’t necessarily a “new” sound, but to a world dominated by white artists, those deep soulful harmonies and soaring vocals within those first strains of “devil” music called rock and roll, were a little unsettling. But this powerful music couldn’t be ignored for long, simply because it was that good.
Proving that point on every level — The Platters.
The group made history. They broke musical racial barriers and gender barriers, at a time the odds were not in their favor to even make their way out of southern California, to become international stars. Their hit songs like “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “My Prayer,” “Twilight Time,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “Harbor Lights,” became so much more. These songs have since become timeless classics and served as inspiration for many groups who followed in their footsteps.
With all of that monstrous success, however, is their personal story fraught with internal struggles, poor management, controversy, scandal, and 40 years of legal battles over spin-off groups and imposters all trying to get a piece of their pie. Talk about your “great pretenders.”
The battle ended with original member Herb Reed receiving full rights to the name and the group he helped to create. After his death, the torch was legally passed to Frederick Balboni, Jr., who was Reed’s manager for many years and manages the current group coming to the Riverside Resort to perform The Platters Very Merry Christmas.
Reed was the last of the “original” Platters members to pass away.
The Platters story began in 1952, when Reed, Cornell Gunther, Joe Jefferson and Alex Hodge formed the group in L.A. After a failed attempt at recording “Only You,” on Federal Records in 1954, Jefferson, Gunther and Hodge left the group. Reed replaced them with Tony Williams, David Lynch, and Paul Robi. That same year Zola Taylor joined The Platters, becoming the first female vocalist to break the gender divide to become part of an all-male vocal group.
They also teamed up with music producer, songwriter and manager Buck Ram, who helped them turn things around. It was then that the trendsetting vocal group re-recorded “Only You,” launching the group onto the national stage but it was reportedly done by mistake. But charting hit song after hit song after that was no mistake at all.
They were one of the first African-American groups to be accepted as a major chart group and were, for a period of time, the most successful vocal group in the world. With classics such as “The Great Pretender”, “Only You” and their rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, The Platters became one of the greatest vocal groups of the early rock and roll era.
The group’s vocal evolution continues through the crisp, vocal stylings of members Wayne Miller, Adele Galinda Martin, vocal director Lance Bernard Bryant, and Kenny Williams, all under the musical direction of Michael Larson.
We talked with Balboni and Bryant about the history, the stories and the show they bring to the Riverside Resort. Here is their take…
This group, probably more than any other, has been plagued with legal troubles over the years with a lot of internal and external conflict over ownership of the name. The Platters are one of the reasons there is a Truth in Music movement working its way around the country. Talk a little bit about this particular history for people who don’t know.
Balboni: The Platters were very integral in getting the Truth in Music laws passed with Jon Bauman, (“Bowzer”) of Sha Na Na. I was on that committee and represented Herb on the committee. So that’s absolutely true. So many of the artists including the Platters have pretty much been taken advantage of and have been victims of identity theft, but obviously in a different way through their art in the music business. We set out to correct that and we have done that. In the Platters’ case specifically, we regressed through 40 years of bad litigation and in 2011 we received notice from the district of Las Vegas in the federal court there, that we had won our case and Herb had indeed superior rights to the Platters’ trademark and that has been upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals out there as well.
Also it has been validated out here on the East Coast, and we’ve stopped imposters around the country. We also stopped the biggest serial imposter, who happened to have a long running show in Las Vegas. People were going to Vegas thinking they were seeing the group that was at least in the lineage of the Platters, and they ended up seeing a group that had absolutely no connection to the Platters in any way, shape or form.

Original vs. perceived original?
Balboni: There’s only one original member of the Platters and that’s Herb Reed. Reed founded the group in 1953, and he founded it along with three other folks, Alex Hodge, Joe Jefferson and Cornell Gunter. They recorded with Federal Records which was absolutely horrific. It was a recording of “Only You,” and if you heard it you would be, “Oh, my God, what is that?”
They got picked up around 1954, by Buck Ram, a well-known music producer and music manager of the day, and he signed them to Mercury Records. At that point, Herb remained with the group, and new members came in. The new members at that time were Tony Williams, David Lynch, Paul Robi, and Zola Taylor. When Zola Taylor was added to the group in 1954, it was very unique to a vocal group at that time. They were either all men or all women. She was the first to be integrated into an all male vocal group and when she joined the group, she broke through the gender divide.

Explain the DJ “mistake” that got The Platters their first big hit.
Balboni: In 1955, they had a hit with the song “Only You,” The way that came about is in the day, there was a two-record label system. During the day, there was what was known as the “orange” label which were played any time day or night and they were all white artists. The “purple” label contained all black artists and those artists could only be played after 6 o’clock at night.
Alan Freed was a well-known DJ who truly never played a record he didn’t like, one day he took the record from a pile, put the record on the turntable and then the switchboard lit up. That’s all true. That’s when “Only You” became a hit. That started the Platters on a national career, and put them into the national spotlight.

Biggest misconceptions about The Platters?
Balboni: The Platters were not a doo wop group and they also were not part of the Motown movement, which is a commonly held mistake. Lance corrects that in the show. The Platters had their own unique styling and sound. Back when people first heard the Platters, they had no idea they were an African-American group. Actually the reason Alan Freed got away with playing the song during the day and the record being successful, because people listening thought they were listening to a white artist. Remember, MTV didn’t exist back then. Television was just in its birth and not a lot of people had television, but people did see them, probably for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show. Their musical style was called the “Tin Pan Alley” sound, and was the way they categorized the hybrid between R&B and rock and roll.

Being one of the most successful black vocal groups in the ’50s, long before Motown, is a legacy worth preserving. Talk about why it is important to you.
Bryant: It’s very important to me because I’ve grown up listening to the music of The Platters, and I have the utmost respect for the group, also being an African-American artist in this day and age, I know what that means on the current political scape or our society nowadays. It’s very important for me, and all of us, I believe, to uphold the mark they’ve made on music history as African-American artists. Also just for music in general it’s very important for us to maintain the integrity of what it is they created and also it’s a way to show honor and respect for the name they established. I say it all the time, these members devoted their entire lives to establishing this name that has so much nostalgia for America and worldwide for fans that love their music. It just seems right to be able to continue the integrity and continue what it is they contributed.

Are you backed by a band, orchestra?
Balboni: Their real instrument is their voice. When we come to Laughlin, it’s going to be our rhythm section, which is top notch and terrific, and pretty much the mainstream.

In the vein of recreating the sound, there is also the challenge of hitting those difficult notes.
Bryant: There are just a few of those difficult notes to tackle (he laughs). We all work with it, but I’ve worked with a capella groups over the years for quite some time, so really delving into the harmonies and keeping that vocal integrity is a huge task and so important to get it right. Thank you so much for recognizing that.

Talk about the show you’re bringing to Laughlin.
Balboni: Today we have the group moving forward and catching up on its evolution. We keep the Platters’ hits right to the integrity and the sound as in the recipe, as the Platters had intended. We also integrate and will be integrating new music we’ll be recording in 2018.
We balance the classic hits in a part of the show we call the decades medley, it’s a medley of songs of artists who came from the era, who were influenced by the Platters sound, or followed the road of success that was made by the Platters. It’s a diverse show with a capella numbers or numbers with only a piano as an accompaniment. We show the progression of the music.
We close out with cool stuff like “Don’t They Know It’s Christmas,” and Christmas songs the Platters recorded like “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Oh, Holy Night,” and that makes it fun. We’re proving there’s more to them than nostalgia. They were so integral to the soundtrack of America, that their music is just as relevant today in that respect as they were in 1954.


Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Wednesday-Sunday, Nov. 29-Dec. 3 (7 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets