BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

Among fans of the 1950’s vocal group scene few acts are as well regarded as The Five Keys. A consistently viable act for the entire decade with multiple lead-singers who each specialized in something different, the group scored enough hits to always be relevant even if they rarely were contenders for the top spot in the doo wop rankings.

Originating as teenagers in Virginia in the mid-1940’s the group initially centered around two sets of brothers in their formative years as they sang locally while still in school, entering talent contests and drawing acclaim for their versatility, singing everything from gospel to pop to rock ‘n’ roll.

After winning the vaunted Amateur Night contest held weekly at The Apollo Theater in New York in the summer of 1949 the newly christened Five Keys started to solidify its membership with bothers Rudy and Bernie West, tenor and bass, Dickie Smith, baritone, Maryland Pierce, second tenor and Ripley Ingram, octave tenor which floats between the others.

Signed to Aladdin in the winter of 1951 as the second era of the vocal group boom in rock was commencing they hit the top of the charts with their second release, a soulful rendition of the pop standard “The Glory Of Love” led by Rudy West.

Though this achievement matched the precedents set by their closest contemporaries, The Dominoes and Clovers, both of whom also scored #1 hits during the year, as well as The Orioles who’d done so in the late 1940’s, their subsequent releases failed to reach the charts, dropping them back in the pack, perhaps because they began trying to replicate that feat with similar songs – standards and pop tunes – rather than emphasizing their diversity in original material and highlighting different lead singers.

In spite of this lack of continued commercial success they were highly regarded for their vocal abilities and were one of Aladdin’s signature artists throughout the early 1950’s. Since the group was still very young, barely in their twenties, the draft inevitably came calling and took Rudy West, their most prominent lead voice, in late 1952. He was replaced by Ulysses Hicks, and soon after Dickie Smith got drafted and was replaced by Ramon Loper and their Aladdin contract came to an end.

In mid-1954 they did a one-off session for RCA, before landing at another major label, Capitol, where they re-entered the charts with the novelty-esque “Ling Ting Tong”. Soon after Rudy West was discharged and Ulysses Hicks, who was going to be released but hung around for a few more months to tour with them, died at the age of 25 from a heart attack in early 1955.

Their early output with Capitol was strong both commercially and artistically with their next hit coming courtesy of Chuck Willis who wrote “Close Your Eyes”, a beautiful ballad that showcased their delicate vocals brilliantly. They followed it with more chart entries in “The Verdict” and a double sided hit with “Cause Your My Lover” and “Gee Whittakers” (which Pat Boone famously covered), making them one of the more in demand rock acts on multi-artist bills.

However it was around this time that Capitol Records decided to mess with success and increasingly recorded them with pure pop backings. The group, believing that this was the way to bigger paydays for live venues were on board with the decision despite being drowned out by white female chorales and sappy strings which did their rock reputations no good while gradually curtailing their commercial momentum in the process.

That was the dilemma… rock would get them the hits they needed to command bigger money for nightclub dates where their rock material wouldn’t go over well, while the pop material with 16 piece orchestras would suffice in those settings but wouldn’t sell five copies because rock ‘n’ roll fans wouldn’t buy them nor would their pop music listening parents.

In early 1958 Rudy West left the group after getting married and was replaced by Dickie Threatt. Ramon Loper departed soon after and his place was taken by Bobby Crawley but without Rudy West they were apparently not as desirable for Capitol and they moved to King Records where Dickie Smith rejoined them after a five year absence replacing Crawley who never recorded with them.

Not surprisingly King Records pushed them back to a more authentic sound but by now their name was either sullied by their pop records or they’d been too long out of the spotlight with rock fans to score any hits. The doo wop revival of the early sixties didn’t help put over their new records, despite being well done. Ironically Rudy West signed as a solo artist with King but got no hits either and rather than join forces to make one last push for relevancy the group broke up in the early 1960’s. Maryland Smith put together another group to use that name for touring and over the next few decades various members would sing under that name, only occasionally getting more than two of them together for a show.

Though they received some belated honors for their work together by the 1990’s, they were never even nominated for The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame and as the members began dying off over the next twenty five years the chance for them to be more widely recognized for their long run as one of the classiest tightest sounding groups in history faded.
 
 
THE FIVE KEYS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

TOO LATE
(Aladdin 3085; April, 1951)
Expertly performed with a soulful lead Maryland Pierce with clever lyrics of a simple subject and sublime harmonies behind him, yet as good as this is there’s not an obvious hook to grab you making it a record that requires more studious listening to captivate listeners. (7)

WITH A BROKEN HEART
(Aladdin 3085; April, 1951)
Though well sung the song itself is far too sparse, both instrumentally and vocally, to really showcase the group at their best and with a melody that doesn’t stick in your mind it becomes reliant almost entirely on the lead performance to captivate you which it can’t quite do. (5)

THE GLORY OF LOVE
(Aladdin 3099; July, 1951)
One of the most exquisite vocal group records in rock history with poignant relatable lyrics, an effortless melody, ethereal backing harmonies and Rudy West’s perfect lead drawing out every emotion needed to connect with listeners on a standard they defined for eternity. ★ 10 ★

HUCKLEBUCK WITH JIMMY
(Aladdin 3099; July, 1951)
A vibrant fun song that manages to overwhelm its technical deficiencies centered on Maryland Pierce’s shaky vocals early on, but their enthusiasm for an uptempo dance song to offset their usual ballads is more than enough to recommend heartily in spite of any shortcomings. (7)

OLD MACDONALD
(Aladdin 3113; November, 1951)
A rocked up – and sexed up – rendition of the children’s nursery rhyme which the group sings with enthusiasm and great harmony with strong instrumental support helps turn this into a somewhat racy dance floor workout for adults and kids alike. (7)

IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME
(Aladdin 3113; November, 1951)
A song that only obliquely refers to the holidays is very well sung by Rudy West but doesn’t feature a very deep story or an engaging arrangement and so while the lead vocal makes for a nice present, the rest of the record might be taken back to the store for an exchange. (5)