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1950's R&B &
Carolina Beach Music
Doo Wop Groups
The Five Embers
The Five Embers, Owensboro, KY, 1959. Left to
right: Sonny Rates (2nd tenor), Melvin Smith (bass), Richard Brown (lead, 1st
tenor), Raymond Johnson (baritone), Charles Brown (lead, 1st tenor).
Courtesy of Phil Schwartz.
Fifth and Elm streets was
the center of action in Owensboro, Kentucky. The year was 1956. "Everything
you've heard about 5th Street wasn't a lie," Charles Brown says with a chuckle
at the street's reputation as a walk on the wild side. "You'd dress up to
come out and lay back to watch the action," adds younger brother Richard.
Street corner groups were plentiful in this section of the city in the
mid-50s. ''There'd be eight or nine of us ... sometimes even girls," Charles
recalls. The police would come and run us off. But after awhile, they
started coming around just to listen."
The Five Embers came about
from a loosely organized group of individual talents who were part of this
scene in the northern Kentucky town of Owensboro, not far from the home of the
Everly Brothers and Merle Travis. The members all attended Western High, an
all-black school in the area. An early version of the group had a brush with
success in 1957 when they won a NFA competition at Tennessee State College.
Part of the prize was an appearance on WLAC radio, Nashville, with Roy Acuff.
On the chartered bus which took them to the engagement, they received their
first taste of the life of black entertainers in segregated America. It
wouldn't be their last. "All that was on that bus was four of us singers and
our sponsor ... and a white bus driver,” says Charles Brown. "And we still
had to sit in the back." The group performed "Sincerely" on the live show,
and they recall Roy Acuff as being very cordial.
In 1958, the act was
organized under the management of Gerald Emberton. The groups' name was
derived from the manager's last name. Besides Charles and Richard Brown,
Raymond Johnson, baritone; Mel Smith, bass; and Delmar "Sonny" Rates, second
tenor, rounded out the group. Richard and Charles generally alternated leads.
Richard was the youngest, and often had to get permission to play in the
local clubs, which included the Savoy Club and the Little Brown Jug in
Owensboro, as well as several regular appearances in neighboring Indiana.
Evansville's Roberts Stadium provided them with one of their larger
audiences. As the group developed their stage act, Richard became known as
"Crazy Legs". He was the dancer in the act, with more moves than Elvis.
Richard vividly recalls one night in the Rustic Club in Jasper, Indiana,
where his moves inspired some white girls to jump up on to the stage to dance
with him. ''The owner stopped the music," he says. Times weren't changing
Their manager felt that the
Embers needed a record, and, in 1959 contacted Royce Morgan. Royce and his
partner Bobby Anderson were operating a label out of the State (movie) Theater
in Central City. Bobby worked at the local radio station, WMTA-AM, where they
were recording acts late at night. Bobby was a partner at Summit
records and, when he discontinued that label in 1958, he took on Royce as his
new partner, and they began marketing under the Royce banner. Royce
was actually more of a recording service. For $300.00, you could get two
sides recorded, and receive most of the run of 300 45's. The rest were mailed
to area disc jockeys and promoters. For material, they chose "I'm Free",
penned by Bobby Anderson and Bill Russ. It's a fine up-tempo side with shades
of Thurston Harris' "Little Bitty Pretty One". The ballad side was written by
Harold and Irene Clark of Owensboro. They operated a furniture store in the
area, and wrote songs as a sideline. The song, entitled "My Fragile Heart"
has a haunting melody, possibly inspired, in part, by Hank Snow's "Yellow
Roses". Richard sang the lead on the jump side, and Charles handled the lead
on the ballad. Other musicians on the session included Royce Morgan, guitar;
"Boots" Brown (the third brother), drums; and Tura Carson, keyboard. Both
Charles and Richard recall the session as being very long, with many takes to
achieve the sound they wanted. This was mainly due to the small recording
space and lack of high-tech equipment. In the end, Bobby and Royce ended up
with 2 cuts which were undoubtedly the best of their label's material.
One of 300 copies pressed.
From the CUH
Released in early 1960,
local reaction was excellent, with many jukebox plays, and heavy promotion
from LeRoy Woodward, who operated a local record store called the "Wax Works",
and had a weekly radio show on WVGS, Owensboro. The record got as far as
Louisville, where Charles recalls it being a pick-of -the week on WHAS.
A session at a Nashville
studio (near the Ryman Auditorium) followed, and produced a few demos,
including a tune called "Marie". They even cut a background track for Elvis
in Nashville, which was, apparently, never used. In 1961, Richard enlisted in
the Army. Sonny Rates followed. By 1963, the Embers were no more. “We had to
survive”, Charles Brown laments. “We had to get real jobs.”
In 1995, five hundred copies
of their sole single were pressed on the X-BAT label, with a picture
sleeve of the group, as they appeared in 1959.
Following their service
stints, the group occasionally performed for weddings, and for Western High
reunions. But the heyday of the sound was gone. Richard became a Kentucky
probation officer. Charles was a fire fighter in Owensboro for 25 years. Mel
Smith became steel worker. Sonny Rates was a metallurgist in Hammond, Indiana
and Raymond Johnson was with U.P.S. in Atlanta.
article by Dr. Phil Schwartz, 1996, printed here with the author’s permission.
Based on interviews with
Charles Brown, Richard Brown and Bobby Anderson and excerpts from Keith
Lawrence of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer from interviews 9/3/95.
Delmar “Sonny” Rates died September 10. 2007, in Michigan City, IN, after a
long battle with cancer.