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ALADDIN 3085; APRIL 1951



As if you hadn’t been able to tell, over the past six months or so the rock vocal group idiom began to hit its stride.

After three years where it was ruled by two, maybe three, acts, suddenly there was an influx of new groups who were in some ways indebted to those earlier outfits but in other ways had updated or overhauled the entire concept of them to appeal to a new younger and more forward looking audience.

Of the recent arrivals The Five Keys may be, in some quarters anyway, the most respected, which is high praise when in such heady company as The Dominoes, Clovers and Larks, not to mention The Four Buddies who are two for two when it comes to hits so far. But in terms of casual name recognition, familiar hits and an enduring legacy The Five Keys somehow fell behind the others.

How this happened, despite recording consistently for a decade with the same core members with hits sprinkled throughout their run, is hard to fathom when looked at from a fan’s perspective, but might make a little more sense when you take a step back and watch them from afar.


Somebody Else Has Taken Your Place
As with all groups we meet for the first time we gotta start at the beginning which for The Five Keys was 1945 in Newport News, Virginia where two sets of brothers started singing gospel together as teenagers.

By 1949 they’d had some turnover, one of the brothers was drafted and along with a replacement they’d added a fifth member along the way, and they won the weekly Amateur Contest at The Apollo Theater in August of that year after settling on the name The Five Keys consisting of Rudy West and his brother Bernie, along with Dickie Smith, Ripley Ingram and Edwin Hall who soon left the group after getting married and was replaced by Maryland Pierce.

After a year of touring in various shows, appearing on radio AND three of them still attending school, they were signed to Aladdin Records in early 1951 and launched their career.

Looking at that background you can see that despite being so young they’d already covered a lot of ground, musically as well as geographically, from gospel to the pop sounds of The Ink Spots who were their idols as kids, then once The Orioles changed the game they became devotees of them as well.

In other words they were young veterans in many ways whose style was based more on older models and thus were less likely to be influenced by the latest breakthroughs of the day.

Though they did sing more rhythmic songs, they were not tackling harder shouting gospel sounds like The Dominoes, nor were they steered in the direction of the bluesier deliveries adopted by The Clovers. While Bernie West was a capable bass, he was not out front like Jimmy Ricks, Bobby Nunn or Bill Brown which removed the primary vehicle for racier material in their repertoire.

In other words, the sounds of 1951 which seemed shockingly new to fans – and thus the things which are easily pointed to as game changing years later – were being done by their rivals, not them.

With those other groups having already released their breakthroughs there was also the possibility they might in fact be Too Late to make the same impact, for how much of a good thing could a rock fan be expected to take in one sitting?


When I Woke Up This Morning
With its stark – yet heavy – piano opening courtesy of sixth member, accompanist Joe Jones, this hardly sounds like something that fits neatly into the existing landscape and while it’s a dramatic lead-in it’s not something which immediately alerts you to what kind of record is to follow.

When the voices come in however it starts to become a little clearer. The group was unique in that they had three lead singers, each specializing in something different. Here it’s Maryland Pierce who handled more uptempo stuff.

Too Late isn’t exactly uptempo… deliberately mid-tempo is more like it… but it’s got a subtle rhythmic quality to it and his tenor voice is strong and unwavering. He also wrote the song which is a plus because it allows him to play to his strengths which manifest themselves here with a dramatic presentation during the verses using a delivery akin to a newsboy crying out the latest headlines while selling papers which is remarkably effective in getting your attention to say the least.

He drops down in tone on the choruses which adds another wrinkle and showcases his range while the other Keys are sublime in their harmonies behind him, not with complex parts but still doing far more than merely humming modestly behind him.

The fifth voice, Ripley Ingram, is key to their sound, floating between the others who have more well defined roles. Wheres The Orioles were unique thanks to Alex Sharp’s floating high tenor/falsetto, The Five Keys would be defined in part by Ingram’s flexible octave tenor which was something no other groups featured.

The group is so tight harmonically without being rigid in their execution, maintaining a looseness thanks to how their voices shift as the song unfolds, always hitting you with something different, be it the way Pierce is singing the lead from section to section, or how the group alters their approach accordingly.

Though there’s not one thing that stands out above the rest, as frequently was the case with the other groups on the scene to their everlasting advantage, nothing about The Five Keys performance can be criticized in the slightest. They’re already a polished act with a vibrant sound… but maybe one that’s not quite instantly identifiable.

Heard You Knockin’ On My Door
Here’s where we come to the point that I’m dreading because The Five Keys are so highly regarded by aficionados of the style that anything that’s not effusive praise is bound to be viewed as outright criticism even though this qualifies more as trying to discern why, in spite of their technical brilliance, they didn’t quite have the lasting resonance as other groups.

A lot of factors might be working against them… some, like their affinity for some older stylistic precedents and their three different types of leads leaving them without a consistent frontman, we’ve already mentioned. Other things, such as their increasing reliance on ballads and an unfortunate move towards pop styled backing when they switched labels sure doesn’t help either.

But even here, before all that, there’s something missing on Too Late that doesn’t make it any less of a record, but unquestionably makes it less of a potential hit.

That something is “an identity”.

Popularity is determined by two to three minute songs designed to grab you on first listen with something that pulls you back for more. No matter how many times you hear it the song’s hook – be it vocal, musical or lyrical – can never grow tiresome. Yet for all of their brilliance as singers, the songs of The Five Keys were often lacking that crucial element.

Here we get a good enough story – a rumination of a lost love that cleverly and unexpectedly turns the situation on its head halfway through – and a delivery that gets increasingly impassioned as it goes, ending with something that can legitimately be called almost soulful. We have the aforementioned shifting vocal arrangement that never fails to hold your interest. Even the music, while lacking a solo of any kind and using very limited instrumentation, is still effective enough in this setting.

But where’s the hook you’ll remember? Usually it’s the chorus, sometimes it’s an engaging lead-in or vocal breakdown in the middle and other times it’s a rousing instrumental break, but this has none of those.

What’s leaving the biggest impression is simply the overall quality of all of the parts. Equal parts.

It’s impossible to criticize any group or any record that distributes its assets so evenhandedly. Yet as admirable as it is that’s not how you capture the average listener’s eye and unfortunately it’s not the fanatics who make stars, it’s the run-of-the-mill casual fans who hop on board a sound that is so invigorating and catchy that it can’t help but stop them in their tracks.


Baby, I’ve Got To Go
The Five Keys are one of the greatest vocal groups of all time and there can be no serious discussion of the style that doesn’t include them among the elite, but I’m genuinely worried that it might not be apparent as we go along when taking their records one by one.

Sure, the overall quality will be hard to miss, but the moments that truly jump out at you might be strangely lacking. I hope not, but it’s definitely possible.

While those other groups led off their careers with songs that were obvious hits from the moment the needle dropped, Too Late doesn’t elicit that same response.

It’s good… really good… but it’s something better appreciated when paying close attention to technique, to vocal blend, to subtle arranging decisions and slight lyrical surprises, all of which are easily missed by a casual observer.

That’s ultimately The Five Keys cross to bear, they were truly democratic group with each member pulling their weight who may have suffered historically for not having a dominant figure or sound to make the less discerning masses sit up and take notice.


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