BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the most respected and influential vocal groups of the early 1950’s despite rather limited commercial response at the time and a lack of much maintream acknowledgement for their contributions in the years since.

The group’s origins were as a gospel outfit, one stemming back to the late 1920’s, although the two members who started The Larks, Allen Bunn and Thermon Ruth, hadn’t joined until the late 1930’s, though that still made them older than most of the 1950’s vocal groups.

They recruited the core of another gospel group from Bunn’s home state of North Carolina – bass David McNeil, tenor Pee Wee Barnes and another baritone, Hadie Rowe to join Ruth and Bunn, both baritone themselves – with the intention of sticking with that style of music.

The lead position would be filled by Eugene Mumford, the one figure whose name recognition eventually outstripped his fellow Larks, but his road to the group was not an easy one as he was falsely accused of attempted rape by a white woman and sentenced to prison, neither of which – the accusation or the conviction – could be considered a surprise in the 1940’s South.

After serving two and a half years he miraculously got pardoned by the Governor after it was shown that he had been railroaded without evidence by a racist system. Now free once again Mumford joined the group in the middle of 1949 and set out as The Jubilators singing strictly gospel and doing quite well at it.

In October 1950 the group set out to get a record contract by taking the approach of casting a wide net… and lying.

Visiting multiple companies in New York and New Jersey on the same day, the group accepted cash for a session at each stop – for Jubilee Records they recorded four gospel tunes as The Selah Singers, heading to New Jersey they landed at Regal Records where they cut four different gospel songs as The Jubilators, then made the trek to Savoy Records where they switched to rock ‘n’ roll as The Four Barons and then returning to New York they landed at the same studio they’d been in that morning for Jubilee, but now were recording gospel again as The Southern Harmonaires for Apollo Records and when somebody recognized them their ruse was up.

Apollo though loved what they heard and wanted to sign them exclusively… but not as gospel singers, which is surprising considering gospel was still the company’s main line and what the group had laid down at their session for them.

Unable to do anything about the earlier recordings cut for other labels, Apollo signed them as The Larks, a name that further cemented the bird group trend in rock vocal group circles, and they began recording secular songs for the company in December.

Over the next two years they were prolific as well as productive, cutting some classic sides, two of which became hits, as they were part of the second phase of the rock vocal group movement which also included The Dominoes, The Clovers, The Four Buddies, The Five Keys, The “5” Royales, The Swallows and The Cardinals among many others.

Though most of those groups applied slightly different techniques, The Larks stood out as many of their songs featured a dry almost dusty sound drawing from their jubilee styled gospel days. Mumford proved to be a talented and expressive lead as well as a first rate songwriter, though it was Allen Bunn who ironically sang lead on their two hits and was a good songsmith in his own right. The group shared the wealth when it came to giving each member a chance to step out front, something which gave their records a welcome diversity, even if it may have hurt their continuity when it came to connecting with listeners.

Their material was also varied, ranging from re-imagining straight blues songs to adapting traditional spirituals and even cutting some gospel again and though they specialized in ballads they held their own on uptempo songs as well but because the audience for rock as a whole was still confined exclusively to the black community, and since they were not getting the sales of many of their contemporaries, their careers were hardly solvent enough to keep them all happy.

In 1952 The Larks began to fracture with Allen Bunn cutting solo records for Apollo. Soon after David McNeil left to join far more successful The Dominoes as Bill Brown’s replacement. Thermon Ruth became a gospel disc jockey while Raymond “Pee Wee” Barnes stopped singing and concentrated on guitar, becoming a respected jazz musician.

Allen Bunn may have had little success on the solo records credited to him at the time, but he persevered, switching his name to Tarheel Slim and in the late 1950’s released a string of excellent records both as a solo act as well as duetting with his wife, Anna “Little Ann” Sanford.

Eugene Mumford did a stint with the famed Golden Gate Quartet before reforming The Larks in 1954 with three new singers, back on Apollo who tried steering them into more of a pop direction, though they did release some good rockers during this period. When this version of The Larks was no more successful than the original group, Mumford was on the move again, taking over for Jackie Wilson as the lead singer of The Dominoes, who themselves were now more pop oriented. It was with them he got his first hit as lead on “Stardust” in 1957.

Because The Larks were too far removed stylistically from the mid-50’s doo-wop that swept the nation their legacy has been limited over the years, but their reputation among other artists of the day who saw them as the equals of any of the more popular acts gives some indication of just how revered they were in rock circles at their peak.
 
 
THE LARKS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
 

LEMON SQUEEZER
(Regent 1026; November, 1950)
As The Four Barons… A suggestive song that is borderline dirty introduces a former gospel group to the rock audience showing the power of rock ‘n’ roll to corrupt anyone who comes in contact with it as they sing the lecherous tune with devilish smiles to everyone’s delight. (8)

GOT TO GO BACK AGAIN
(Regent 1026; November, 1950)
As The Four Barons…Though the group’s natural talent is still evident here, the songwriting and vocal choices are a little less self-assured this time around making this semi-humorous Korean War commentary not quite as effective as they intended. (5)

MY HEART CRIES FOR YOU
(Apollo 1177; December, 1950)
A fairly well sung – albeit in a gospel-like way – but essentially meaningless cover of a shallow pop hit is how audiences first were exposed to The Larks, something which gives little insight into their style, their abilities or their direction to come. (2)

COFFEE, CIGARETTES AND TEARS
(Apollo 1177; December, 1950)
Though a country weeper makes for rather odd source material The Larks vocal blend does wonders with this simple song, bringing out the emotion absent in the original and giving a really good indication of their unique singing abilities. (6)

WHEN I LEAVE THESE PRISON WALLS
(Apollo 1180; April, 1951)
Despite the cruel and heartbreaking true story which led to the writing of this song, Eugene Mumford makes it relatable to those on the outside by focusing on the hope that everyone feels at times of trouble, his vocal textures adding immeasurably to the sentiments. (8)

HOPEFULLY YOURS
(Apollo 1180; April, 1951)
By the end Eugene Mumford almost wins you over with his voice alone, but the passive sentiments, barren accompaniment both of which are a throwback to the late 1940’s Orioles template, make this almost the last gasp for this type of song. (5)

MY REVERIE
(Apollo 1184; May, 1951)
One of the most beautifully sung vocal group records in rock history, an unadorned standard with little more than the Larks voices blending together to create a dreamy ambiance as Gene Mumford’s haunting lead might be the purest sound known to man. ★ 10 ★

LET’S SAY A PRAYER
(Apollo 1184; May, 1951)
Another beautiful vocal performance by Mumford and the others but the problem is the song purports to tell a meaningful story but it’s so vague and confusing that you get too distracted from the voices to really enjoy it as much as you should. (6)

EYESIGHT TO THE BLIND
(Apollo 427; June, 1951)
A very well done blues song that barely hints at rock, mostly through the other Larks vocal harmonizing behind Allen Bunn’s lead. Even that though is more gospel by nature making this a good record that’s a bad fit in rock, hence the low score. (4)

I AIN’T FATTENIN’ FROGS FOR SNAKES
(Apollo 427; June, 1951)
Another slightly unusual source for a song, but one which they handle with ease, making this one perfectly appropriate for rock thanks to some great group harmonies and dueling leads between Bunn and McNeill delivering some really good lyrics and a great hook. (7)

HEY LITTLE GIRL
(Apollo 429; August, 1951)
Another rendition of a song that has had a lot of versions hitting the market finds The Larks stripping the story down and singing it in unison giving it a much mellower feel while the instrumental arrangement is rich and varied behind them giving this a dense sound. (8)

LITTLE SIDE CAR
(Apollo 429; August, 1951)
Another blues cover but this time out the blues aspect is severely downplayed with just a hint of it in Allen Budd’s lead, as the rest of the group is far more prominent with gospel-like harmonies and the backing band is hitting on a jazzy rock groove throughout. (7)

I DON’T BELIEVE IN TOMORROW
(Apollo 430; September, 1951)
It’s not that The Larks can’t sing this lightweight pop drivel technically well, it’s that to do so robs them of their greatest attributes, their emotional deliveries and idiosyncratic style, making this an utter waste of time for rock acts or rock fans. (2)

OOH… IT FEELS SO GOOD
(Apollo 430; September, 1951)
The group does all they can with a poor pastiche of the kind of racy song its pop-oriented writers think will pass muster in rock, but the story isn’t funny or titillating enough to be enjoyed nor can its weak musical qualities allow you to overlook those flaws. (4)

MY LOST LOVE
(Apollo 435; December, 1951)
Though Eugene Mumford sings it well the composition is sort of generic and the other Larks aren’t given much to do, but the real problem is Bobby Smith’s saxophone which gets him co-lead artist credit for all but destroying its rock credentials with its pop approach. (4)

HOW LONG MUST I WAIT FOR YOU
(Apollo 435; December, 1951)
Somewhat of a pastiche of The Dominoes and Ravens bass led racy uptempo numbers isn’t quite racy enough to titillate, nor original enough to stand out, but it’s well sung by David McNeill with an infectious spirit and solid guitar led arrangement which results in an appealing package. (6)