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Well this is rather awkward, isn’t it?

Today we’re meeting a group who will – with many personnel changes along the way – become best known for being transformed overnight into one of rock’s most legendary acts, The Drifters (Mark III version or is it Mark IV? Who can keep track with those guys?).

Yet we’re still a year away from being introduced to the FIRST version of those Drifters!

I believe this is what they call putting the cart before the horse.

But saddle up anyway because we have no choice in the matter and The Five Crowns, despite a lack of hits, are worth getting to know regardless of the circumstances.


You Ran Away With My Heart
Though their numbers are certainly dwindling by now, there’s still an aging contingent of early 50’s vocal group fans out there somewhere (most of whom did not actually discover the rock music of this era existed until at least a decade, maybe two decades, after it was released) who have spent the better part of their adult lives championing it, mostly to those who look at them with blank stares as they babble on about street corners and terms like first pressings and red vinyl while those people take pity on them I’m sure.

Anyway, these crazed dottering senior citizensumm… these enthusiastic older music lovers sometimes have peculiar favorites… at least it’s viewed as peculiar to those who only are vaguely aware of the biggest names of the period: The Clovers, The Dominoes, The Five Keys, etc.

One of the groups who frequently get mentioned by this crowd is of course The Five Crowns who six years down the road will be brought in wholesale to replace the suddenly unreliable – and uncommercial – post Clyde McPhatter rendition of The Drifters.

By then The Crowns had Benny Nelson (soon to be famous as Ben E. King), Charlie Thomas and Elsbeary Hobbs in their ranks so their names are at least familiar, but as of 1952 the only future Drifter among them was Dock Green. He was joined by the wonderfully named Yonkie Paul, plus three brothers, John, Claude and James Clark, the youngest of whom – naturally called “Papa” – was the lead on ballads.

That was clearly what Rainbow Records felt was their strong suit, pulling You’re My Inspiration as their debut single which stirred substantial interest across the country, reaching #2 in their home town of New York, but never rising high enough in the other cities it charted in (Philly, Chicago, and Shoals Indiana) at the same time to make a dent on the national charts.

Because of that they wound up being just one of the many acts who were making a crowded field even more fully stocked, all while hoping that their break was right around the corner rather than a half decade down the road.


Left My Heart Alone
Right away you can tell why those vocal group aficionados get misty eyed over a record like this with its undeniably ragged charm as the group falls in behind Papa Clark, doubling his lead before switching to a wordless harmony with a nice floating tenor as they let him take the verses on his own.

They struggle at times to stay in key and don’t always keep a firm grip on their parts, but that only adds to its appeal as this record shows off their amateur status far more than anything offered up early on by the bigger name groups we mentioned.

Granted, with You’re My Inspiration they’re moving into the professional ranks now that they have a contract (of course they have to be PAID to officially be deemed pros and that’s never a sure thing for these kinds of labels), but a performance like this is the best way we have to hear what it might’ve been like to walk down a street in the Bronx on a summer’s night in 1952 and pass a bunch of guys under a streetlight passing the time by harmonizing together.

Admittedly that’s a pretty special image, largely because in 2023 it doesn’t exist (though allow me to recommend taking a listen to their great-grandkids working on their rhymes and flow on a hip-hop song in the same neighborhood today). However purely as a record where a certain standard must be reached to come across well, the effect might not be quite as compelling.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t still have a certain appeal, even if the lack of polish might make it seem more like a practice session than a finished product to some.

The biggest key it had in connecting with the average listener of the day is found in the overall mood it sets as they sing about the hurt, the sadness and the lingering uncertainty about a romance gone awry. It’s something that all teenagers can relate to and the fact they themselves were teens – James being just 16 – meant they were expressing emotions in You’re My Inspiration that they fully understood.

In spite of this there are technical flaws that threaten to overwhelm the genuine emotional investment they’re making, such as the brutal passage where they all deliver the reply “with my heart”, with each of them choosing a key farthest away from one another… as well as miles away from the key it was actually written in!

Now some doo-wop fans might love that, thinking it gives the performance more authenticity, but it only gives us something to skip over for as long as it lasts. They recover though and the floating tenor, the moaning harmonies and the skeletal piano, plus one of them delivering a halfway decent bridge in a lower tenor voice before nearly losing their way again, gives the record just enough variety to keep things interesting.

You’re not going to learn much about love from this – they know less than you do I’m sure, which might not be saying much if you’re still collecting old records rather than going out in the world – but you WILL get insight into the fragile emotions of teenagers in love which is something that you should never allow yourself to forget.


Why Must You Go Away
Over the next two years the vocal group idiom would help vault rock ‘n roll from the fringes of the industry to the mainstream, but while they were in the right place at the right time, The Five Crowns would miss out on that boom around the corner.

They came close with You’re My Inspiration, but a tiny label like Rainbow Records with little capital couldn’t quite get them over the hump with it and soon the waters would be flooded with more well-heeled competitors peddling the same types of records by new groups springing up all over the city.

But maybe that tantalizing flirtation with success is fitting. If this kind if record hit big and became a classic that was still widely remembered over the next half century by casual listeners, what forgotten obscurities would the hardcore fan have left to swoon over in their golden years?


(Visit the Artist page of The Five Crowns for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)