Forever known as the group who replaced The Drifters wholesale in 1958 leading to that legendary group’s most successful commercial stretch, The Five Crowns had a history that was almost as convoluted with as many members coming and going as the one they became.

The original Five Crowns got their start in 1952 Harlem when a group of kids formed The Harmonaires. Though they never recorded, the members themselves all found some success as recording artists as half the group soon split and formed The Five Willows while the remaining two, Wilbur “Yonkie” Paul and Dock Green changed their name to The Five Crowns and brought in three brothers, John, Claude and James Clark, none of whom were actually referred to much by their given names, preferring Sonny Boy (though John was the oldest), Nicky and “Papa” (though James was the youngest, just 16 at the time).

It was James who sang lead on most of their releases when the group became managed by former Orioles valet Lover Patterson who got them a contract with small Rainbow Records where they largely concentrated on ballads which were Papa’s specialty, though Yonkie sang lead on the faster material.

Their first release became a big hit in New York (#2) and charted elsewhere as well, though it never cracked the national charts. That was as close to stardom as they got, as they fell prey to the misguided belief that covers of pop tunes was a viable option in rock ‘n’ roll, while some of their original material remained unreleased or underpromoted.

Then in mid-1953 they allowed themselves to be “talked into” signing with the new and underfunded Old Town Records when they were about to audition for the more well-heeled Jubilee and naturally the upstart label couldn’t get their releases widely heard.

Before long the group, which had very few opportunities to make money doing live appearances, began to split with the middle Clark brother, Nicky, joining The Harptones. His two siblings followed suit in leaving, with James singing with The Carnations next who soon became The Cadillacs, showing that the brothers had enough talent to sing with the best.

The Five Crowns still had their founders however and now recruited Richard Lewis, Jesse Facing and Bugeye Bailey to round out the group who went back to their old boss at Rainbow Records, Eddie Heller, who issued a lone recording on his subsidiary Riveria Records before the group split again as Paul headed to The Willows.

Dock Green however wasn’t ready to give up and put together yet another Five Crowns which featured Elsbeary Hobbs as their bass. Those two would factor in their big move a few years down the line, but for now they had to be content with a series of one-off releases for Gee Records, Trans-World, Caravan and R&B, most with a returning Yonkie Paul handling the lead among other former members Lewis and Facing.

By 1958 the group was without a contract and with mostly new members consisting of Sy Palmer, Benny Nelson, Charlie Thomas, Dock Green and a returning Elsbeary Hobbs, the latter four of whom would soon be hired en masse as a new version of The Drifters. During this time Nicky Clark, then later his brother James, would join them with the latter getting the lead on their final side as The Crowns (the “Five” had been dropped).

Their perseverance, or at least Dock Green and Lover Patterson’s, had finally paid off when The Drifters, still largely riding the reputation established when Clyde McPhatter led them from 1953-1955 though they had also undergone massive membership turnover, were fired for drunkenness and because new lead singer Bobby Hendricks was already going solo.

So The Five Crowns became The Drifters overnight – minus James Clark, one of the original members, who was not invited due to his own drinking habits – even though the group sounded nothing at all like the gospel-rooted Drifters they were replacing. But with great material and production by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, plus the promotional efforts of a stellar label in Atlantic, the “new” Drifters became the biggest rock vocal group of the next few years, thereby ensuring The Five Crowns name would have reason to be written about for decades to come, even if it was only in passing.
THE FIVE CROWNS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Rainbow 176; August, 1952)
A solid debut which reveals their amateurism with unsteady harmonies at times, but which largely excels with that loose-knit approach as this features a strong lead by James “Papa” Clark, a nice floating tenor behind him and a decent relatable story to boot. (7)

(Rainbow 179; August, 1952)
Though James Clark has a few nice moments on this, he also struggles at times to maintain a firm grip on what is an uneven wandering song that doesn’t support his lead with any significant parts behind him making this rather uneventful. (4)