BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the more unlikely of entrants into the rock field was this vocal group who were in their mid-40’s when they made their first records in 1949 after forming just over a year earlier after careers on the periphery of music leading up to that.

The four singers were comprised of Leonard Thomas, lead tenor (b. 1910), second tenor Cecil Murray (b. 1907), baritone Howard Scott (b. 1904) and the youngest of the bunch, bass James Riley (b. 1917). The first three met working together in a hotel, Leonard operating the elevator while Murray and Scott were singing waiters. They’d had plenty of experience before that in various capacities, the most notable being Scott performing briefly in a Broadway show, but their career prospects in any field of music by this point were pretty slim.

Upon hooking up with Riley however they formed The Rhythm Masters and in January 1948 won first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts radio program which featured amateur performers on the nationally heard broadcast. They then began appearing frequently on his local New York radio shows and sang nights at a nightclub in town honing their act which was pure pop at this point.

In summer 1948 they cut records behind vocalist Ann Cornell for Bandwagon Records in the midst of the recording ban, a common violation, but they failed to elicit much attention. They got their own chance in 1949 (as The Rhythmasters) on a tiny start-up label called Bennett, which seemed to be in existence for mere moments. Then in August 1949 they launched their rock career on Ivory Records with the new name The Rhythm Kings, splitting their sides between mannered pop and more emotionally compelling material that fell on the outskirts of rock ‘n’ roll.

In spite of the sheer improbability of their presence in rock they showed a genuine commitment to the style, with Thomas sticking to a more emotional delivery over solid harmonizing by the others even as some of the material itself and the sometimes mild backing compromised their authenticity.

In late 1949 they added a fifth member in pianist Isaac Royal who was with them through their most prolific recording period, even adding organ to some tracks which was an unusual sound for rock at that point. In late 1950 The Rhythm Kings made the jump from inconsequential Ivory Records to the far more established Apollo Records but their records continued to sell poorly regardless of the strength of the label and they were primarily earning their living as the featured attraction as The Dogwood Room of The Hotel Blackstone in New York, even making a local TV appearance in the summer of 1950, which surely had them on for their pop material. As if that split in style wasn’t enough to confuse listeners by the next year they were singing spirituals in addition to secular material on stage, leaving plenty of questions of just where they should be categorized.

By 1955 they changed their name to The 4 Pals and cut a few records under that name for tiny labels and then managed to hook up with major label RCA who brought them in as a replacement for The Cues – a group organized by Jesse Stone who appeared mostly as backing singers behind a ton of artists but also recorded for RCA’s Groove subsidiary as The 4 Students, a name that RCA then gave to The 4 Pals/Rhythm Kings for two releases, which would be their last, in 1956. With much fuller instrumentation including sax solos and other rock touchstones, there was little doubt as to what style they were in by this point but by now they were reaching the half century mark and there wasn’t much room for them on the now packed vocal group stage alongside the teenagers and kids barely in their twenties who made up the overwhelming majority of the acts and so they packed it in after an eight year run.

Considering their late start in the game as recording artists, plus their advanced age for rock ‘n’ roll and presumably their lack of any pre-existing affinity for the style, or certainly their lack of experience in prior years to tackling anything of this nature, the group wound up being remarkably resilient as the rock vocal group field grew ever more competitive in time. Though nothing they did found any real success and much of it just barely qualified as rock to begin with, they were good singers who at least proved adept at conforming to some of the qualities to get them in the door in the first place. Once there they managed to remain far longer than anyone would’ve expected.
 
 
THE RHYTHM KINGS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

NIGHT AFTER NIGHT
(Ivory 751; August, 1949)
A stylistically compromised record on their rock debut, but not without some signs that they might yet connect in the field thanks to lead singer Leonard Thomas bearing down emotionally at times while the others provide steady, if unspectacular, harmony backing. (3)