One of the first West Coast rock vocal groups who recorded under a number of different names with varying personnel but remain known mostly for one national hit in 1957 in the midst of their decade and a half long run.

The Flames, as they were first known, were formed thanks to an overabundance of contestants in a high school school talent show at The Largo Theater in Watts in 1949. When it was recommended that some of the solo acts merge to form group vocalist Bobby Byrd put together a trio that included David Ford (tenor) and Willie Ray Rockwell (tenor) and soon added a fourth member Curlee Dinkens (baritone, bass). Like so many other young Los Angeles based acts at the time they wound up performing at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club, though they were among the few who never wound up recording with him over the years. Instead they signed with Selective Records in late 1949 and scored out of the gate with “Young Girl”, a Top Ten hit on the Cash Box territorial listings for Los Angeles, but in spite of that it was their only proper release on the label.

With the rock vocal group boom picking up steam as the 1950’s got underway and with the group’s initial success it’d seem likely that their career would quickly gain traction but instead they went almost two years without a record and when they finally were back in late 1951 they’d undergone their first name change, courtesy of the tiny Unique Record label who called them The Hollywood Four Flames… if you bought the singles on Unique that is. When they leased the group’s sides to Fidelity Records that label issued them as The Four Flames.

So their first three singles released on three different labels under three different names became a portend of things to come for the group. In spite of some very solid output to follow they were the textbook definition of vagabond recording artists. During the heyday of the rock vocal group era of the 1950’s they had releases on sixteen different labels (under such names as The Jets, The Turks, The Question Marks, The Ebbtides, The Pelicans, sometimes involving all of the group, sometimes just a few) before finally scoring a national hit as The Hollywood Flames in 1957.

This should’ve marked their ascent to the big time, especially since a few months later the same foursome would have an even bigger hit, “Rockin’ Robin”, except THAT one was released as by Bobby Day (Byrd under an alias) and The Satellites. So rather than have two huge smashes under the same name to be able to better promote themselves they were unable to capitalize on their recent success as much as they should’ve. Not long after this Byrd left the group he’d founded almost a decade earlier but he too had no further success of any note.

Neither did the remaining Flames, whose membership was constantly in flux more than ever with only David Ford remaining with them to the very end. Other familiar voices to take part in the group for extended runs were Clyde Tillis, who had joined in 1951 replacing Rockwell and stuck with them for a half dozen years, Earl Nelson, who sang lead on “Buzz Buzz Buzz”, ex-Penguin Curtis Williams, Ray Brewster and the final two lead singers, Eddie Williams and John Berry.

For the amount of talented individuals that passed through the group over the years, the only one to have any commercial success in the 1960’s was Nelson, who as half of Bob & Earl (with Bobby Relf, who had replaced the original Bob… none other than Bobby Byrd!) scored big with “Harlem Shuffle”. Later Nelson, now recording as Jackie Lee, notched a decent sized hit in 1965 with the dance record “The Duck”.

The Hollywood Flames (et. all) finally called it a career in 1967. A testament to perseverance they’d lasted in one form or another for almost eighteen years, recording for labels big and small and remaining a reliable live act at every stage. In spite of mostly lackluster commercial returns their catalog has a lot of worthwhile records if you can spare a few months of free time to sort through all of the group names and record labels to track them all down.
THE HOLLYWOOD FLAMES DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Selective 113; January, 1950)
As The Flames… A rather crude, but essentially harmless, come-on to a girl that’s ragged yet enthusiastic as their exuberant voices carry the load with good – if minimal – support by the piano and guitar making for a promising debut. (6)

(Selective 113; January, 1950)
As The Flames… A cover of a Billie Holiday song that the group manages to re-shape just enough to distance it from its origins, but they don’t take it nearly far enough in that regard to make it truly distinctive rendering this an ill-conceived attempt at legitimacy. (3)

(Selective 118; March, 1950)
Backing Peppy Prince as The Flames… Contributing muddied vocals on this update of Joe Liggins’ classic 1945 hit “The Honeydripper” with weaker lyrics and musicianship by much of Liggins’ backing band appearing here. (3)

(Recorded In Hollywood 164; August, 1951)
As The Hollywood Four Flames… A rather inventive vocal arrangement highlights a decent song that was emblematic of their youth and inexperience with women which featured subdued support by sax and organ making this a very smooth professional presentation. (5)

(Recorded In Hollywood 164; August, 1951)
As The Hollywood Four Flames… It’s hard to settle on what’s worse… the woefully out of tune backing vocals early on, a guitar that clashes with the voices, a drunken piano or the wayward singing in the bridge… all of which obliterates a nice vocal open and close. (1)

(Recorded In Hollywood 165; August, 1951)
As The Hollywood Four Flames… Pretty much a straight cover of The Five Keys recent hit from the arrangement to the voicing, with one glaring exception, a spoken word interlude by disc jockey Robin “King” Bruin which adds a surreal touch. (5)

(Recorded In Hollywood 165; August, 1951)
As The Hollywood Four Flames… A much sloppier remake of their debut record finds Byrd mostly duplicating his performance but the others sound disinterested and out of step while the guitar doesn’t blend as well as the piano had. (3)

(Unique 004; November, 1951)
As The Hollywood Four Flames… Perhaps their defining early record, one which came out on two labels at the same time under two names, but which highlights their loose harmonies and vibrant sing-along spirit on a topic they all were as familiar with as their audience. (7)

(Unique 003; November 1951)
As The Hollywood Four Flames… A weird record that sets up a plot but doesn’t follow through, has no real hooks or musical attributes after a decent sax opening, and forces too many words into Bobby Byrd’s mouth, none of which flow well or tell you much… sort of pointless. (2)

(Fidelity 3001; November, 1951)
As The Four Flames… A good expressive lead by David Ford and some fairly nice breezy harmonies isn’t enough to make much sense of this record which wanders a little and has a rather unfocused narrative by songwriter Murry Wilson. (3)

(Fidelity 3002; December, 1951)
As The Four Flames backing Sherman Williams… Their parts are hardly essential to what otherwise is a decent instrumental track, as the lyrics are sort of vague and nonsensical and the singing breaks up the groove too much looking for appropriate spaces to inject themselves. (4)

(Unique 005; January, 1952)
As Hollywood’s Four Flames… A chaotic sounding record with three – or more – overlapping rhythms by the band, the vocal group and Bobby Byrd’s lead, the latter of which is most impressive the more you focus on that and let the rest simply provide the atmosphere. (6)

(Specialty 423; February, 1952)
As The Four Flames… Climbing on board the cover version bandwagon of a song that, while melodic and interesting the first dozen renditions, is beginning to get stale and they play it far too safe and offer nothing new to set theirs apart. (3)

(Specialty 423; February, 1952)
As The Four Flames… An original composition with a solid theme and a few nice vocal moments, but there’s nothing here designed to stand out and so it remains just a fair B-side, not anything to advance their careers. (4)

(Spin 101; August, 1952)
As The Flames… A halfway decent composition looking at the travails of young love delivered in an earnest and heartfelt way by Willie Ray Rockwell, but in spite of the sincerity there are mistakes to be found and it’s hardly aiming high enough to be notable. (4)

(Recorded In Hollywood 165; September, 1952)
As The Hollywood Four Flames…Unimaginative rip-off of The Dominoes “Have Mercy Baby” which alters a few details, including adding an organ to the backing, as Willie Ray Rockwell almost injures himself trying to duplicate Clyde McPhatter’s voice on this sloppy mess. (3)

(Aladdin 3162; November, 1952)
The group is virtually useless backing Patty Anne, the label owner’s stepdaughter, who comes off looking best here as the Flames add little of note on a country song which is completely inappropriate for the rock audience despite a credible Maxwell Davis arrangement. (2)