Vocal Integrity

In the early ’50s long before there was Motown, black groups struggled to get their music before audiences. R&B wasn’t a “new” sound, but in a world dominated by white artists, the deep, soulful harmonies and soaring vocals within the first strains of rock and roll, were seductive. The powerful music couldn’t be ignored for long, simply because it was that good.
The Platters were one of the best groups in the business and they made history by breaking musical, racial and gender barriers, becoming international stars.
Hit songs like “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “My Prayer,” “Twilight Time,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “Harbor Lights,” became timeless classics and served as inspiration for many groups who followed in their footsteps.
Behind the monstrous success, is a personal story fraught with internal struggles, poor management, controversy, scandal, and 40 years of legal battles over spin-off groups and “great pretenders” trying to get a piece of the pie.
The battle ended with original member Herb Reed receiving full rights to the name and the group he helped create.
Reed was the last of the “original” Platters members to pass away, and after his death, the torch was legally passed to Frederick Balboni, Jr., Reed’s longtime manager and manager of the current lineup.
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 teamed up with music producer, songwriter and manager Buck Ram, who helped turn things around. The trendsetting vocal group re-recorded “Only You,” launching the group onto the national stage.
They were one of the first African-American groups to be accepted as chart toppers and were 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 Lance Bernard Bryant, Kingsley O’Brywan McIntosh, Leslie Mone and Kenneth Williams, all under the musical direction of Michael Larson.
We talked with Balboni and Bryant about the history, the stories and the show they’re bringing to the Riverside Resort. Here is their take…

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. 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. 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.

Explain the DJ “mistake” that got The Platters their first big hit.
Balboni: In that 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.

What was the 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. 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. “Tin Pan Alley” sound 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 in the current political ‘scape. 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.
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.

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 cappella 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 as The Platters had intended. We also will be integrating new music.
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 cappella numbers or numbers with only a piano as an accompaniment. We show the progression of the music.
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.


THE PLATTERS

Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Wednesday-Sunday, Sept. 5-9 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info