Born 1930, Los Angeles, California
The recent death of Al Frazier, a former member of the Lamplighters / Sharps / Rivingtons, has gone relatively unnoticed, certainly on this list. Now Dig This editor Trevor Cajiao has assured me that there will be an obituary in the January issue of NDT.
Baritone singer Al Frazier has been involved with numerous groups, the first of which he formed in 1949 in Los Angeles : the Mello Moods (not to be confused with the Mello-Moods who recorded for Red Robin), whose ranks included future Platters member Paul Robi. Frazier then went into the army and served in Korea. When he got out he formed a new outfit that was unable to decide on a name. Al came up with the Emanons, which is "no name" spelled backwards. Like the Mello Moods, the group never got a chance to record. After leaving the Emanons, Al worked as a barber for some time.
Then in 1953, Frazier crossed paths with lead singer Thurston Harris, bass singer Matthew Nelson, baritone Leon Hughes and tenor Willie Ray Rockwell, at an amateur night run by the famous deejay Hunter Hancock. Al liked their singing, but they didn't have any choreography. Frazier suggested some moves to improve the visuals of their stage act and before he knew it, he was the fifth member of the group, which was as yet unnamed. They auditioned for Ralph Bass of Federal Records, who signed them and came up with the name the Lamplighters. Leon Hughes had left the group before their first recording session and would soon join the Coasters. The Lamplighters began making a name for themselves all over the West Coast and especially their second release, "Be Bop Wino" (with Rockwell on lead) was well received. Though they never had a hit record on the R&B or pop charts, Federal Records never lost its faith in the group and released a total of 13 singles by the quartet, plus another four by the Tenderfoots. This was basically the same group, but without Thurston Harris (who felt he was not paid his worth, though he would return to the group for some time in 1956) and Willie Ray Rockwell. Their replacements were Carl White (lead singer on all the Tenderfoots releases) and Sonny Harris (no relation to Thurston). Matthew Nelson would soon be replaced by Turner "Rocky" Wilson, Jr.
Credited as the Jacks, this same group sang behind Paul Anka on his first release, "I Confess"/"Blau Wile Deveest Fontaine" on RPM. Next, in 1956, they were signed to Jamie Records by Lester Sill and became The Sharps. As such, they would become involved with Jamie's most famous recording star, Duane Eddy. Lester Sill brought the Sharps to Duane's 1958-1959 sessions to chant, whoop and holler, creating the impromptu Rebel yells that became an integral part of Eddy's records. The Sharps' best Jamie single is "Look At Me"/"Have Love Will Travel" (Jamie 1108, from 1958), on which Duane can prominently be heard twanging away in the background. Prior to that, the Sharps recorded for several other labels (Tag, Vik, Lamp, Aladdin, Combo, Dot, all one-off deals) and supplied vocal backing for Thurston Harris on his solo hit "Little Bitty Pretty One" on Aladdin (# 6 pop in late 1957). The group did not record in 1959 and 1960, but by 1961 Frazier, White, Harris and Wilson were back as the Crenshaws with two singles on the Warner Bros label, produced by Kim Fowley. However, the best was yet to come.
Their real break came when producers Jack Levy and Adam Ross renamed the quartet the Rivingtons, after Rivington Street on New York's Lower East Side. Signed to Liberty Records, the group first released "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow", a nonsense rock and roll record that finally gave them their first hit, peaking at # 48 in the autumn of 1962. Rocky Wilson sang lead this time, with such excitement and spirit that I still find the record irresistible. It's ideal to sing along with in the car (when there are no other passengers). "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" (and a less successful follow-up "Mama-Oom-Mow-Mow") sparked off the "Bird" dance craze, which the Rivingtons exploited with a further hit, "The Bird's the Word" (# 52 in the spring of 1963). The real pay-off came a year later when the Trashmen reworked "Papa-Oom-Mow Mow" as "Surfin' Bird", a US # 4 hit in early 1964. The Trashmen deserve to be separately featured in "This Is My Story".
In 1965 Al Frazier became the group's manager. Darryl White took his vocal spot. The Rivingtons spent the '60s cutting credible dance sides for a slew of companies like Vee-Jay, Columbia, RCA and Reprise, and in 1973 they even re-cut a new version of "Papa" (Wand 11253), but they never charted again. Al Frazier occasionally performed with the Rivingtons and was reported to be writing a book on the Los Angeles rhythm and blues scene, which - to the best of my knowledge - has not been published during his lifetime. During the long career of the Lamplighters, Sharps and Rivingtons, Al Frazier was the stabilizing force that held this group of high-living singers together.
Further reading: Jay Warner, The Billboard book of American singing groups (1992), page 235-236 (Lamplighters) and p. 437-439 (Rivingtons).
CD's: The Lamplighters, Loving, Rocking, Thrilling : The Complete Federal Recordings (Ace 1040). 28 tracks, released in February 2005.
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