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)