The original Solitaires in 1954 (clockwise from top left: Herman Curtis Dunham, Pat Gaston, Bobby Baylor, Bussy Willis and Bobby Willams (Monte Owens was absent when photo taken).
(Excerpts taken from the book, Group Harmony: Behind the Rhymn & Blues courtesy of Todd Baptista).
A countless number of vocal groups formed in the New York area from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Several hundred actually cut records and dreamed of becoming the next Ink Spots, Ravens, or Five Keys. A small number of these became one-hit wonders. Very few aspirants managed any kind of consistent popularity for any significant amount of time. The Solitaires, who recorded regularly for over a decade, have managed to maintain an enthusiastic following among R&B enthusiasts for over 40 years.
All the original Solitaires had previous singing experiences. In early 1951, a quintet of eighth graders at the Resurrection Grammar School on 15 1st Street in Harlem formed the Mello-Moods. This group, lead singer Ray "Buddy" Wooten, Jimmy "Bip" Bethea, and tenors Alvin "Bobby" Baylor, Bobby "Schubie" Williams, and tenor-guitarist Monteith "Monte" Owens landed a recording contract with Bobby Robinson's Red Robin label late that year. Their debut, "Where Are You", climbed all the way to #7 on Billboard's R&B chart in February, 1952.
The Mello-Moods appeared at the Apollo and performed on Ralph Cooper's-Spotlight On Harlem" television show. They recorded one more single for Robinson and two for the Prestige label on West 50th Street before going their separate ways.
Baylor, who had left the group after their first record and was not replaced, joined a street corner group called the Hi-Lites on 142nd Street and Edgecombe Avenue. Williams, a jazz enthusiast and piano player, took music lessons from Eddie Schubert of Red Robin's Schubert Swanston Trio, the group that backed the Mello-Moods on their hit record. Owens sang and played with the Caverliers, a Brooklyn group that later recorded for Atlas in 1954 and remained with the label as the Fi-Tones until 1956.
In late 1953, another group was formed on 142nd Street between 7th and Lenox Avenues. Second tenor Winston "Buzzy" Willis and California native Eddie Jones organized this group which would eventually become the Solitaires. Originally, it included lead "California" Jones, first tenor Nick Anderson, and baritone Rudy "Angel" Morgan. "I brought the name Solitaires with me from California," explains Jones. "We were known as 'California and the Solitaires.' We used to sing in the hallways, things like 'Hey Chiquita.' Pat Gaston was living in the apartment building we were singing in, and that's how he got in the group." Willis and Gaston, who sang bass, also had some previous experience. Buzzy had hung out and sung, although never recorded, with the Crows, who scored nationally with "Gee" on Rama in 1953. Occasionally, he would fill in for Harold Major, and Gaston would sing bass Gerald Hamilton's part. Gaston also sang with a local group called the Four Bells who later recorded two singles for Gem Records in 1953-54.
As with most street comer groups, new friendships were formed, outside interests developed, and the initial lineup changed. Uncle Sam or the judicial system also had a hand in changing the composition of many groups. During one of the many hallway singing battles, Buzzy and Pat's group met the Hi-Lites, which included Baylor. Buzzy liked Baylor and tried to recruit him. Baylor. in turn, pledged to sing with whichever group first got a recording contract, He settled on the Solitaires, replacing Jones, when the group landed their first professional job, singing "Hitting My Head Against The Wall" on a television show. Soon after, Baylor brought in Owens and Williams old group, the Mello-Moods, to replace Anderson and Morgan who were often from rehearsals. Morgan, an excellent ballplayer, eventually played in the Brooklyn Dodgers 'organization.
All five teenagers were experienced, but none had the distinctive lead voice, felt was needed. Buzzy soon ran into Herman Curtis Dunham, a sweet first tenor and Red Robin alumnus who had sung with the Vocaleers behind Joe Duncan. Dunham s their first four releases, the influential "Be True", "Is It A Dream", "I Walk Alone", "Love You". Despite their success, Dunham grew disenchanted and quit. Buzzy and Herman became fast friends, and the former Vocaleer was added to the Solitaires.
One of Buzzy's neighborhood friends was Jackie Jackson, son of WLIB's Hal son. Through Jackie, Buzzy became the unofficial record librarian for the disc jockey ( who hosted a show out of the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. When Jackson heard the group, he arranged for record distributor Hymie "Hy" Weiss to listen to them. The audition took place around Christmas, 1953. Weiss liked and signed the Solitaires to a recording contract.
The new lineup, Dunham, Owens, Williams, Baylor, Willis and Gaston, first recorded for Weiss on or about January 7, 1954. "Blue Valentine" / "Wonder Why", became their first release a month later. Both sides were straight rhythm and blues ballads. The background vocals were plaintive. Except for Bobby Williams' subtle jazzy piano riffs, instrumentation was sparce. The overall effect emphasized Dunham's expressive lead. On "Wonder Why", Buzzy Willis sang the bridge.
Dunham, also known by his first and middle names, Herman Curtis, recounted these events in a 1971 interview with Tom Denehy published in Phil Groia's They All Sang On The Comer. "After I left the Vocaleers, I met Buzzy. Within a week, we recorded "Blue Valentine." Recording for the Solitaires was a hassle because I had never led before. I was nervous. I didn't have too much confidence in myself. I had it, but never realized it at the time." Herman's especially sweet voice was an ideal one to front the new group. Long-time Vocaleer Roland Martinez, in Groia's groundbreaking book, remembered how his brother, Joe Duncan, didn't want Herman's more versatile and superior voice singing lead for the Vocaleers. He had no such problem with the Solitaires who loved it. Dunham ended up marrying into Buzzy Willis' family.
Airplay of their first effort led to personal appearances in the New York area. In April, they appeared with Charlie Ferguson, Joe Holiday and the Vibranaires at a "New York Versus New Jersey" battle of the stars at the Three Towers Inn in Harlem. Early on, Chick Hines of Hines, Hines and Dad managed the group and arranged for their original studio portrait, taken before their first session with Weiss. Former All-American football star Fritz Pollard, and, later, Jackson managed the group, arranging bookings. Teddy Reig, a New York area label owner and A&R man, succeeded them for the remainder of the 1950s, while Buzzy Willis served as road manager.
The Solitaires' earliest recordings are revered by collectors today. Since Old Town was in its infancy, few outside the Big Apple heard them. The label was essentially a two man operation with Hy Weiss running the company assisted by his brother Sam.
Born in Romania in February, 1923, Hy Weiss grew up in the Bronx and had worked as a salesman for Leon Rene's Exclusive Records in 1948. In the early Fifties, the brothers distributed records for the Biharis' Modem label and Ike Berman's Apollo Records. Prior to founding Old Town, Hy had worked for Jubilee Records' Jerry Blaine and was still employed by Blaine's Cosnat record distributorship named after the carbon paper manufacturing company Sam had worked for , in July of 1953.
Between that time and the Solitaires' signing, Weiss released just three singles, two by the Five Crowns and one by R&B vocalist Gloria Smith. "Blue Valentine" was the first issue on Weiss' new 10001 label number series. Although the old story that Weiss had begun the label in the Triboro Theater cloak room may be an exaggeration, he apparently had learned enough to minimize operating costs and turn a profit without having records appear on the national charts.
In March of 1954, an oddity appeared in Billboard magazine. Carl LeBow, an A&R man from Cincinnati based DeLuxe Records announced he had signed an Atlanta quartet called the Blue Notes and the Solitaires of New York City to a recording contract. Despite this announcement, neither group ever recorded for that label. Old Town 1001, released about the same time, featured the Solitaires as a backup group, accompanying R&B singer Ursula Reed on one side of her single. In addition, he recorded several other tracks by the Solitaires which were never issued. Two of thes Rodgers and Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" from the musical "Carousel", and "Chap of St. Claire" were preserved on an acetate and a limited quantity issued in 1978 as "0ld Town 1003".
"Come Back To Me", like its predecessors, was a bluesy ballad led by Dunhan again, The group's harmony is far in the background. The Solitaires' rendition of "Stranger in Paradise" was an apparent attempt to produce a version for the R&B market. The Four Aces, Tony Bennett and Tony Martin had all recorded hit versions for pop audiences i nthe latter part of 1953. Dunham's reworked lyrics and sweet lead blended well with the harmony and bluesy tenor sax heard throughout the recording. Both songs were included in the Murray Hill Solitaires boxed set in 1985.
In April and May, the sextet recorded again. Weiss selected one song from each session to make up the group's next release in June of 1954. The A-side, "Please Remember My Heart" had been written by the group and cut in April. Opening with a piano accompaniment from Bobby Williams, a unison harmony line from the group led into Herman's expressive lead. His performance shifted from natural tenor into falsetto and back down again. The song also featured the group's tight harmony up front in the over all sound mix for the very first time.
For the flip side, Weiss selected "South of the Border". As one of the best examples of Latin Mambo style music that was penetrating the rhythm and blues field in 1954-55. It featured Bobby Baylor singing lead amidst a number of effective tempo changes. The pairing proved good as "Please Remember My Heart" sold well in New York and Los Angeles and soon took off in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Billboard selected it as it's "Territorial Tip" for the New York market the week of August 21. It became a local hit that summer while "South of the Border" gained some attention.
Distribution problems at the new label kept this, and all of the group's releases, from achieving national chart success despite Weiss' traveling as far south as Florida to promote his new label and group that summer. Some pressings of this record actually had the group's name misspelled as "Solataires".
Through the efforts of the group's management, the Solitaires began appearing regularly in the New York and New Jersey area, establishing a loyal following among R&B fans.
An October session produced a third single, "Chances I've Taken". Issued in November, it departed from previous efforts in that the group sang in unison behind a bluesy electric guitar. Herman did the bridge on the song, written by Gaston and Willis. Another original composition, "Lonely", a slow blues ballad recorded at the April session was chosen for the flip. The record received little notice and is one of the group's rarest singles, now selling in the range of $500 a copy.
Weiss tried again in December, releasing "I Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance", a Top 5 hit for Bing Crosby in 1933. The stunning R&B arrangement belonged to the Five Keys who had recorded it in October of 1952. Their label, Aladdin, never released it. Williams learned the song and the arrangement from the Keys when the groups played together with the Clovers at the Royal in Baltimore. The Solitaires recorded it at the same session that produced "South of the Border". The tune featured the velvety lead voice of Bobby Williams, augmented by Herman Dunham's haunting falsetto. A commercial failure, "I Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance" is a collector's favorite today.
Milton Love recalls that the group never sang the song on stage from the time he joined in 1955 until Williams left the group in late 1956. "Bobby was mostly a musician, him and Monte were the musicians basically," explains Love. "Bobby was the lead voice on 'Ghost of A Chance', just that one song, and he had a beautiful voice. And strangely enough, during that time we never did 'Ghost of A Chance'. As long as I was with the of group, we never did." "Girl of Mine", another original ballad, appeared on the flip side. Although credited to Buzzy Willis, the song probably came from Herman Dunham as it bears a striking resemblance to the style of the Vocaleers.
"My Dear' / 'What Did She Say" was recorded and released by Weiss in the spring of 1955. "What Did She Say", a rocker written by Bobby Williams and led by Dunham, was the group's first uptempo "doo wop" effort. The record sold moderately in New York although the ballad side, "My Dear", received the airplay. It was to be the last - single by the original group. "After 'My Dear', I went into the Army," Dunham recounted for interviewer Denehy, "and came back on leave while the Solitaires were at the Apollo. I came out and sang one song, 'My Dear'."
Without the services of their lead voice, the Solitaires sought out Milton Love, an eighteen-year old who had been singing lead with the Concords.
Rare photo of Solitaires at Apollo Theatre; l to r: Bobby Baylor, Pat Gaston, Buzzy Willis and Milton Love (Photo courtesy of Todd Baptista)
Love's tenor, as several critics have pointed out, was sweeter and fuller than Herman's and his songwriting and stage performance added a whole new dimension to the group His first session with the group, held in the summer of 1955, produced their August release, "The Wedding' / "Don't Fall in Love".
That fall, the Solitaires returned to the recording studio with "Later For You Baby", a great R&B rocker. Penned by Paul Winley, later the owner of Winley Records in New York and brother of Clovers' bass Harold Winley, the record featured a strong lead from Love, backed by a tight, swinging harmony and Owens' jazzy guitar riffs. For the Bside, Weiss selected the ballad "Magic Rose" which Love had written and led.
In February, the Solitaires followed "The Wedding" with "The Honeymoon", another group-penned effort. Again Baylor and Love sang a tight harmony ballad and played the humorous duet on stage. It was backed with "Fine Little Girl", a Love/Owens creation. The song, also known as "Fine Young Thing", was based heavily on the successful sound of the Midnighters. Owens' blistering electric guitar bore a strong resemblance to Cal Green's playing with the Federal label group. "That's mine," states Love. "I was thinking on those terms. The Royals, Midnighters and Hank Ballard were part of the working groups at that time. The 'Annie' records and all those things, that's what I basically wrote that song after." Both sides were recorded at a marathon session held on January 3 which also produced the Royaltones' local hit, "Crazy Love".
By early summer, the sextet had returned to the studio with another original, "You're Back With Me". "That was a group thing," recalls Love. "Pat Gaston was the originator of it really." The gorgeous ballad featured Love's exquisite tenor soaring atop the group's tight harmony. Backed with Milton's rock'n'roll ballad "You've Sinned", the disc was issued in July, 1956.
When brisk sales warranted a second pressing within the first month, Weiss opportuned to retitle the song, changing it to the more demonstrative "The Angels Sang". "The original title of the song was 'You're Back With Me' and then they changed it," explains Love. "Hy Weiss changed it from 'You're Back With Me'," adds Barksdale. "Because as you listen to it, you've got to call it 'The Angels Sang."' As memorable as some of their earlier efforts had been, "The Angels Sang" reaffirmed the Solitaires' reputation as a classic, solid New York group.
As Phil Groia elaborates, "'Solid New York Group' was a special term reserved only for those groups whose melodies provoked feelings of closeness to city life and a longing for a lost loved one. The Solitaires' voices, particularly on 'The Angels Sang', sounded as if they were chapel bells echoing from rooftops. It was not difficult to visualize tenements, brownstones, busy streets shrouded in the shadows of the New York skyline." Particularly effective in the sextet's background harmony is the soaring high tenor sung Monte Owens.
By the early fall, Pat Gaston had decided to enlist in the Air Force, and the Solitaires were left with the task of finding a new bass singer. As luck would have it, Buzzy Willis ran into Freddy Barksdale, an old friend who be had played basketball with in the neighborhood. Barksdale, born in Brooklyn in April 1935, was already a veteran of several singing groups. As part of the street-corner Velvetones, he had sung with Clyde McPhatter's brother, Dave, Bobby Spencer and James "J.R." Bailey. The group won an Apollo amateur night show in 1953 singing "The Glory of Love".
Early in 1956, Bailey was recruited to replace Laverne Drake in the Cadillacs. Bobby Spencer, who also sang with the New Yorkers 5, left to work with the Harptones on "What is Your Decision?" and eventually became a Cadillac as well. By the summer of 1956, the New Yorkers 5 had broken up. Barksdale meanwhile, auditioned for the Solitaires one late summer night in the Polo Grounds housing project on 158th Street and 8th Avenue. "It was Buzzy, Bobby Baylor, Monte Owens, Milton Love and Bobby Williams played piano," he recalls. "I sang 'Please Remember My Heart.' That same night they told me this was it."
Within a month of Barksdale's arrival, Bobby Williams left the group to pursue a career in the jazz field. He cut a couple of solo sides for H Weiss in late 1956 or early 1957 that went unreleased and eventually landed an audition with jazz great Charlie Mingus.
The revamped quintet went to work on several new compositions for an October 10 session, The first song recorded was the ballad "Silent Grief" which Weiss chose not to release. It was discovered and issued on Old Town in 1993. The session did produce their 11th single in just under three years, "Nothing Like A Little Love' / "Give Me One More Chance".
"Nothing Like A Little Love" opened and closed with a doo wop bass segment from Barksdale. At his suggestion, it was the group's first attempt to bring a bass singer into the forefront of the harmony, a trend rapidly gaining popularity. "If you notice when you hear the Solitaires with Pat, Pat blended into the background," Barksdale explains. "You could hardly hear Pat. On 'The Angels Sang', when they do the chorus, Milton sings, 'I was so all alone dear, longing day by day, it's so good to have you home dear' and (Pat) said, 'Please don't go away.' When I sing it, I bring it out and people ask 'Is that part of the record?" Then when you listen you can barely hear him say it. But I had always been a bass that, I wanted my voice to come out so you can pick me out. Not to overshadow the rest of the fellas but, like, you know I was on the record."
Two days after the session, the Solitaires joined the Flamingos, Channels, Dells, Pearls, Velours, Robert and Johnny, and Ruth McFadden for a week at the Apollo. "Oh, it was dynamite," recalls Barksdale. When it came time for the group to perform the jazzy, multi-tempo B-side of their latest record, "Give Me One More Chance", they prepared something different.
Previously, the Solitaires had never offered fans the flashy, choreographed dance steps that other groups had. "We used to make up our own little dance routines, and it was really the 1-2 sway back and forth," explains Barksdale. "When we did 'Give Me One More Chance', they actually hired Coles (of the famous Apollo dance team Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins) to teach us a routine for that, and when we did that dance routine on 'Give Me One More Chance', there is no other group that I have ever seen in my life that danced like we did. I mean, it was choreographed, it was really choreographed. And when you listen to the song, that horn solo, we were dancing! We had steps that werejust out of sight. And people used to complement us on that dance routine for 'Give Me One More Chance.' That was the song where the Solitaires danced!"
In January, Weiss released the record that went on to become the Solitaires' biggest hit, "Walking Along". The credited writers have changed on various releases over the years, but the song, recorded at the October 10 session, was written by Love and the group. "We actually wrote that together," explains Barksdale. "Milton wrote most of the words. But that was the group that put that together. And they come up with this here, Buzzy Willis and Hy Weiss (on the newest pressings). Hy Weiss never wrote a song in his life. That's how we found there was a thing between him and Buzzy. Why would he put Willis on there? Buzzy must have known what was going on. We found that out afterwards. Weiss-Willis, Weiss-Willis. Milton did the majority of the writing and never got credit for so much of it." "Hy Weiss wanted a fast song," recalls Love. "I had been listening to some old Fats Domino music. It stayed in my head all day long. So I jotted down a couple of lines, and I didn't like them so I threw them away. Then I started to write some more. It took about 6 or 7 hours to put it together."
"Walking Along" was an exceptionally good record. The song opened with the Solitaires and the Weiss brothers setting the tempo by stomping their feet in unison. "That was Hy Weiss stomping his feet with us there at the beginning," Love recalls. Barksdale's resonant and catchy bass riffs blended into the group's great harmony and Love's powerful lead. "We liked 'Walking Along'," confesses Barksdale. "We didn't think it was going to be as big as it was."
For the flip side, Weiss chose "Please Kiss This Letter", a romantic ballad that he had been trying to release for over a year. While the Harptones were under contract with Weiss' Paradise subsidiary, they worked out an arrangement and practiced the song but never recorded it. After they left the label, Weiss gave the song to Herman Curtis Dunham to record at a solo session held in January of 1956 while he was on leave from the Army. "Hy recorded Herman by himself," confirms Barksdale. "He started to put it out by Herman by himself, but then he decided not to. Hearing Herman by himself without the group, he didn't go along with it. So then he came and told us he wanted the group to be on the background. That's when we overdubbed and put our voices in the background. Singing behind him is Milton, Monte, Buzzy, Bobby Baylor and myself." For their harmony, the group borrowed from the Five Keys' 1955 hit, "The Verdict".
Dunham returned to civilian life and to the Solitaires. "Herman came back out of the service, and we had Milton and Herman together," recalls Barksdale. "Oh, that was a group. We had both of them guys, and it was something for a while." The group was on the road for much of 1957, promoting "Walking Along" which was selling steadily. On May 17, they were back at the Apollo with Clyde McPhatter, the G-Clefs, and Buddy Johnson and his band.
In November, Weiss released another single. "I Really Love You So" featured the unlikely lineup of Dunham as lead, Owens and Baylor at tenor, Willis at baritone, and Love singing bass. "Here's the story on that," begins Barksdale. "Hy Weiss wanted Herman to sing lead. He didn't want Milton on that song. I refused to go to the session, 'cause I felt that that was wrong. If you're going to do the recording, you work it out that we can all be on the recording. I told them I was sick. I knew what they were going to do to Milton, and I didn't like the idea. Lo and behold, he calls Milton up and tells him to sing the bass part, 'Bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom', that's Milton! I don't go because I don't want to do the session without Milton, but Milton didn't know that, you see. So I can't blame Milton 'cause he didn't know." Despite Dunham's energetic performance, the record failed to sell nationally. The flip side, "Thrill of Love", featured the lead voices of both Love and Dunham. "Herman had come back into the group during that time, and Hy had this idea about a dual lead," explains Love. "So Herman did that dual lead, and I did the other thing on the song."
Not long after the release of "I Really Love You So", the Solitaires dismissed Herman Dunham. "We were all excited about having two lead singers, Herman and Milton, with the group," remembers Barksdale. "Because it was Buzzy Willis, Bobby Baylor and myself, and there were six of us with Monte. But Herman came out of the service, and he had some personal problems. It was about six or seven months later that we decided w( couldn't deal with Herman and his problems. We said, 'Nah, this ain't going to work.' So we decided to let him go because of those personal problems."
In April, Weiss released "Walkin' and Talkin"', the last new Solitaires single featuring Dunham. Coming on the heels of two great uptempo records, the Dunham-composed ballad was disappointing despite good sales in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Recorded the same night as "I Really Love You So", the A-side included Heartbeats' bass Wally Roker filling in for Barksdale. "They did that that same night," Barksdale explains. "Who was in the studio that night was Wally from the Heartbeats. He did that 'dit-doo-doe-dit'." Despite some reports to the contrary, Roker never performed with the Solitaires and only sang on the one song. The flip side, "No More Sorrows" was a ballad recorded in the early part of 1958. Personnel on this recording were Love, Baylor, Owens, Willis, and Barksdale.
Another memorable event occurred in the spring of 1958. "We were on tour, and we did the Uptown in Philly," remembers Barksdale. "Somebody had died, and they replaced the guy that was on our show. But they replaced him with this young group by the name of the Impressions 'who are going to sing for you a song that was just recorded, (For) Your Precious Love.' Them guys came out there and tore that place up! They sang 'Your Precious Love'. They sang 'Sweet Was The Wine', which was on the back of 'Precious Love', and the people wouldn't let them off. They had to come back and do 'Precious Love' again. Everybody was saying, 'Who is that woman? ' Where's the woman that's in that group with that high tenor. But of course it was Curtis Mayfield. Those are episodes in my life that stick out."
In mid-summer, Weiss brought the quintet back into the studio to record another of their compositions. "Big Mary's House" featured a frantic Little Richard-styled lead from Love and was chosen as the next single. For the flip side, the group re-recorded "Please Remember My Heart" with Love reprising Dunham's original lead. Previously, some sources reported that both Gaston and Williams sang on these sides. Neither returned to the group after departing in 1956. "That is Milton, Bobby Baylor, B uzzy, Monte, and myself," clarifies Barksdale. The record was issued in August of 1958.
In early September, Walking Along" by the Diamonds, recorded over a year after the original, was entering radio playlists. Weiss countered by leasing the original to the Chess' brothers Argo subsidiary label. Mercury Records' cover easily outsold Argo's effort reaching #29 in six weeks on the pop top 40 that fall.
Uptempo R&B vocal group records by the likes of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Dell-Vikings, and Cadillacs had already cracked the white artist-dominated pop Top 20 by early 1957. Had Weiss leased "Walking Along" when it first began to move, a different scenario might have evolved. "You get a record out there, and it starts moving. You got to invest some money," explains Barksdale. "That was the story. You had to invest money to make sure that that sucker's moving. Hy Weiss laid back on it."
The Solitaires were further disillusioned when the Diamonds' cover outsold the Argo release the following year. "We were very, very disappointed," admits Barksdale. "Very disappointed. It wasn't like ours, you know. We didn't think they did as good a job as we did, but see the people that were behind the Diamonds, they put the money behind them. So that one just kept going. See, back in those days, you had to put money behind it and Hy didn't. When he got Arthur Prysock, he (finally) opened up his wallet."
"During that same time, up jumps Fats Domino with 'I'm Walkin'," continues Barksdale. Domino, who always liked songs dealing with walking and wrote several, took the concept to the top of the R&B charts for six weeks in 1957. Interestingly, he did not record "I'm Walkin"' until January of 1957, nearly two months after the Solitaires recorded "Walking Along". Artists often tried their new songs on stage before recording them, but it is unclear if Love had heard the song before writing "Walking Along".
While in New York, another single was recorded. Issued in January, 1959, the A side was a polished R&B version of the Gershwin standard "Embraceable You". The flip, "'Round Goes My Heart" was put together at the session.
The Solitaires always brought original material and vocal arrangements to their recording sessions, a feat that few R&B groups can claim. "We'd go, leaving the 155th Street projects down 8th Avenue," recalls Barksdale. "We'd go down in the subway to go to 49th Street to the studio. We'd get down in the subway, 'Oh, oh, listen to this echo!' Start imitating the Flamingos, the Heartbeats, you know. Just a rehearsal hall before we'd get to the place. And the harmony would just fall right in, boom." "Our rehearsals basically consisted of two, three, four hours," remembers Love. "We kind of blended our voices in a lot of times. We didn't have any problems. The thing about me was I wasn't a quick learner of songs. It took me a little while to learn a song. Herman was the type of guy who'd listen to a song and boom! He was very quick. It would take me a couple of days."
Hy Weiss would hold marathon recording sessions lasting from early evening until dawn. Reportedly, the luxury of recording first and being able to go home early went to the artist with the most recent hit. A number of well-known tracks by various artists were recorded on the same night. The Valentines' initial effort, "Tonight Kathleen", was recorded the same night as "Chances I've Taken". The January 3, 1956 session which produced "The Honeymoon" by the Solitaires also yielded the Royaltones "'Crazy Love". The Co-Eds "I Love An Angel" was taped the same evening as "Walking Along".
Soon after the record was released, both Buzzy Willis and Bobby Baylor were drafted. Seeking replacements, the Solitaires turned to the members of the Fi-Tones who had recently disbanded after recording three singles for the Angeltone label. Second tenor Cecil Holmes and baritone Reggie Barnes joined in early 1959. Barnes, who had a good stage presence, had also sung with the Federals and Blue Notes. Owens knew the Fi- Tones from his brief association with them in 1953. "Monte was the connection there," agrees Barksdale. "I knew Reggie. I rented a room in the building where he was living. Cecil Holmes came from the Fi-Tones. They had kind of drifted apart." Although some have claimed that former Vocaleer and Vocaltone Paul Roland Martinez sang with this Solitaires group, Barksdale is definitive. "Roland was in the studio. Roland used to come around. He used to hang around with us, you know. But Roland says, 'Yeah, I was there, I was on that session.' 'Yeah, you was there, but you didn't sing.' He was there, but he didn't sing," The revamped group's first session, held that spring, produced the ballad, "Helpless". The record was unlike any of the Solitaires' previous efforts. Love's pleading tenor is decidedly soulful, reminiscent of Johnny Tanner's leads with the Five Royales and James Brown's early recordings with his Famous Flames. Listeners unfamiliar with the recording may easily mistake it for an early 1960s soul record. "'Helpless' was written by Milton," explains Barksdale. "The Solitaires, we wanted to show the world, and I mean the world, that we could sing any type of song. If you notice, most of the groups .you could tell when they opened their mouths. You'd say, 'Oh, that's the Heartbeats.'
They just had that flavor. You never heard the Heartbeats singing blues. 'Big Mary's House', that's Little Richard. 'Helpless' is the Five Royales. See, we wanted to show that we could sing any kind of music. When you listen to Milton Love, Milton can sing anything. He can sing ballads, he can sing rough." "I was just sitting home, and I felt bluesy," recalls Love. "I was trying to get some- thing into my head, and then I started writing words down on paper. Putting words here, putting words there. I get my inspiration, a lot of times, I play records I have in the house. And I try to say, 'OK, what's this and what's this...' And all of a sudden it just came out of me. It just came out of me, and it was a good one. Once Monte got a hold of it, and he starts working on It with the guitar, and I tell him what I'm hearing. (In earlier days) Bobby would get on the piano, and we would create it."
For the flip side, Weiss selected the more traditional-sounding ballad "Light A Candle in the Chapel", another Love creation. Despite the fact that Love wrote both sides, Weiss credited them to a "Brizant". Although no first name was listed, this individual may be Seifert "John" Brizant, the pianist with the Brooklyn-based Strangers who recorded for King. His connection to Old Town, if any, is unknown. "'Light A Candle in the Chapel' and 'Helpless' are both my songs," clarifies Love. In order to accent the pietistical mood of the song, Weiss added steeple chimes to the recording. Despite stellar performances, the disc was forgotten amidst the teen idol offerings bleaching the national charts once again.
In late June, the group trekked to the Howard, appearing with Roy Hamilton and others at the Summer Starlite Revue. On July 17, they were back at the Apollo for a week with Hamilton.
The Solitaires had grown disenchanted with Weiss. They felt that he had lost interest in label stalwarts like themselves and Robert and Johnny, opting to invest in newer acquisitions he felt were more marketable. In March of 1959, the Fiestas' "So Fine", issued on Old Town the previous fall, reached #11 on the pop charts. Soon after, Weiss inked South Carolina R&B crooner Arthur Prysock. A veteran performer who had first hit the charts singing with Buddy Johnson's band as a teenager in 1946, his records were extensively promoted.
Some of the group's members became involved in other projects. Milton Love briefly joined old friend Willie Winfield in the Harptones for a couple of shows. "The Solitaires had basically broken up, and a lot of guys had asked me, you know, 'work with me'," recalls Love. "There was a time when I was going to work with the Velours because I knew some of the guys from out of Brooklyn, but it didn't pan out. But I've known Willie for most of my life, and when they approached me to come join the group, I was all for it. We worked. I did a couple of gigs with them. I don't know the exact dates, but we had some nice times down in Washington and Baltimore."
Love and Reggie Barnes ventured through the Cadillacs' revolving door. Along with Earl "Speedo" Carroll, Bobby Spencer, and Roland Martinez, they recorded one single, "Tell Me So' / 'I'm Willing", for Mercury Records in 1960 with Love leading. "'I'm Willing', Speed told me to do the song," Love remembers. "'Cause I was telling him, 'Why don't you lead it, and he said, 'Nah, nah, it's your type of song.' And we just did it, I think it was a one cut thing. We didn't have too much time for rehearsing the thing. We were in the studio, and, boom, we just did it. And as you can hear, that was the result of it all. Speed was doing the tenor."
Although the Solitaires did not record again for over a year, they continued to perform. On October 25, 1960, they returned, along with Robert and Johnny, for one final session with Weiss. Two tracks, Milton's cha-cha, "Lonesome Lover", and the mid-tempo "Pretty Thing", which featured a Love and Barnes duet lead, were issued in November. Weiss gave the disc little attention. At the time, he was actively promoting "There's A Moon Out Tonight", a 1958 master by the Capris that he had purchased from the Lost Nite label. The revival cracked the pop top 5 in early 1961. Weiss' investment in Prysock also paid dividends. His rendition of the Ray Noble standard "The Very Thought of You" charted in May of 1960 and was followed by "One More Time" in 1961. Old Town's biggest seller, "Let the Little Girl Dance", paradoxically, by label veteran Billy Bland, reached #7 on the pop charts in the spring of 1960.
All of this spelled fewer sessions and singles for the Solitaires. "When Hy got a hold of Arthur Prysock, he just dropped everything," explains Barksdale. "Robert and Johnny, all the people that got him to the position he was at, he just dropped. All his investment was going toward Arthur Prysock. That's when we said, hey, man, let's get out of here."
Harriet "Toni" Williams Brown, who had sung with the Harptones for several years, joined the Solitaires shortly after they left Old Town. "She was a beautiful girl," remembers Barksdale. "We used to do a duet of 'Lovers Never Say Goodbye'. She went to California and became a model. I saw a few pictures of her in Jet and Ebony." In 1961, the Solitaires appeared at the Apollo as part of an oldies revival show along with the Cadillacs, Dubs, and several others. Unfortunately for the group, Milton Love received his draft notice later that year. "We hit a peak, and then all of a sudden I had to go into the service, and then everything was downhill after that," Love explains. "Milton went into the service," recalls Barksdale, "and the group actually faded apart, we drifted apart,"
After Love was drafted, the group, consisting of Baylor, Holmes, Bames, Owens, and Williams Brown who was dating Bames at the time, performed briefly after the Solitaires broke up, Barksdale teamed with old friends Bobby Spencer and J..R. Bailey. Together with former Valentine and Cadillac Ronnie Bright, they formed the Crystals, singing behind Sam Hawkins. Hawkins, who had recorded a pair of singles for Gone Records, including the minor 1958 hit, "King of Fools", was a regular in New York nightclubs. "He had the record," remembers Barksdale. "J.R. talked me into going over there. He said he wanted to get some people together, and we started doing night clubs. We did a lot of nightclubs with Sam Hawkins. That's when I got the inkling that I could start singing lead 'cause I would sing with Sam Hawkins. I would sing (singing) 'First the tide rushes in, plants a kiss on the shore, then rolls out to sea, and the sea is still once more ' Sam got me to sing that song ("Ebb Tide"). It used to go over."
For about a year, Hawkins and the Crystals sang together. They sang in clubs, like the Baby Grand on St. Nicholas and 125th with Nipsey Russell, appeared at the Apollo, and recorded a single, "You're the Reason", for Decca in 1961. "We probably would have done some great things," surmises Barksdale. "'Cause we played a lot of night clubs, and we were supposed to go to Long Island. And J.R. and Sam Hawkins went down South, and they got caught with some white girls in the car and got locked up. We were supposed to go to the Island and because they were down South locked up, of course the gig was canceled. Right after that was when we decided that everybody would go in their own different directions."
Weiss, who still had a host of unissued Solitaires tracks, released a new single in March of 1963. The A-side, a blues ballad called "The Time is Here", written by Love, had been recorded in 1959, For the flip, Weiss resurrected "I Really Love You So", previously issued in the fall of 1957. The Herman Dunham song was retitled "Honey Babe". "Everything that came out was on the shelf," Barksdale confirms. "Hy had enough material once we drifted apart so he could still continue to put out records."
Many Solitaires recordings remained unreleased until the 1980s and 1990s. The 1985 Solitaires boxed set contained a dozen such tracks. The early 1954 recordings "Come Back To Me", "Stranger in Paradise", "If I Loved You" and "Chapel of St. Claire" were all issued along with alternate takes of "Wonder Why" and "I Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance". A number of songs were heard for the first time. "I Won't Cry No More", an early 1956 Dunham recording, "Davy Crockett", a 1955 Midnighters-influenced cut, the Love-led ballad "How Long" from late 1956, two 1959 recordings, "Hully Gully Roll", and a splendid version of the Orioles' "At Night", a regular in the Solitaires' stage repertoire, were included. Two others, "Listen Listen Baby" and "Come Back and Give Me Your Hand", were actually mistakenly credited to the Solitaires. While the group singing the first is still unknown, the second song has been ascribed to the Royaltones. "'Listen Listen Baby', that's not even us," confirms Barksdale. "'Come Back and Give Me Your Hand', that's not the Solitaires. It was written by Bobby Mansfield."
Two additional late '50s tracks, "When Will the Light Shine For Me" and "The Girl is Gone" were issued on Ace in 1992. "Silent Grief", cut at the "Walking Along" session, was found in 1993 and issued on a limited Old Town red wax pressing that year. "With 'Silent Grief', they called and said, 'Hey, Freddy, you got the new song by the Solitaires?"' Barksdale recalls. "I said, 'What song?' And when they played it, it came back! Milton is singing lead, and he didn't even remember it."
According to the Solitaires, there are still recordings to be found. "We used to come in town and do songs, and they never were released," Barksdale states. "We did 'September Song' with Bobby Baylor singing lead, a full band arrangement. I would say it was the late 50s, early 60s. We used to do it live at the Apollo. I'll never forget it 'cause I had a girl, and I had to sing it staring at her in the audience." Despite several theories on Ic material, the group has no memory of recording a version of the Dominoes' 1953 1 "The Bells" or a song titled "No, No, No". They did reportedly sing "The Bells" on stage with Baylor taking the Clyde McPhatter lead.
In 1963, Barksdale formed a group to play local nightclubs. "I was going to a place called Connie's Ballroom on 129th Street and Lenox Avenue," he recalls. "I had gotten three-piece band, drums, bass, guitar, and I was doing little shows as Freddy's Gang. The band was Monte Owens on guitar, Roland Martinez on bass, and Reggie Barnt playing drums. We did that for a couple of years, singing "Sixty Minute Man" and "Funny How Time Slips Away".
Love's discharge in 1963 led to the reorganization of the Solitaires. "Milton did his two-year stint, and when he came out, the first thing he did was contact me," explain Barksdale. Together, they reformed the group along with Bobby Baylor and Cathy Miller. a girl who had taken Harriet's place. Miller remained with the group for only a few months.
The Solitaires in the early 1960s. (clockwisefrom top) Freddy Barksdale, Milton Love, Cathy Miller Bobby Baylor (photo courtesy of the Solitaires)
Through Buzzy Willis, the Solitaires signed to record a single for M-G-M. "Buzz, was the business manager which is what we called him at the time," explains Barksdale "He was the manager for the Solitaires and worked very closely with different agencie about getting shows and so forth. Buzzy was the one that made the connection. Basically all we did was sing. Just like today, he's the road manager for Kool and the Gang.
Buzzy always had a connection. All we wanted to do was sing. Buzzy wanted, 'oh, man, let me go and call this guy', 'let me do this here', 'all right, here's the contract'." The M-G-M group, Love, Barksdale, Willis, Barnes and Holmes, recorded "Fool That I Am" and "Fair Weather Lover" in early 1964. These recordings, issued that February, presented the Solitaires in a contemporary vein, featuring Love and the group backed by a horn section. "Fool That I Am", which made regional lists in some northern cities, was written by Brooklyn-born Neil Diamond who was still two years away from his first chart appearance.
About the same time, Willis arranged a deal for the group to record a single for Roulette Records. "Through A Long and Sleepless Night" and "What Would You Say" were released in March under the name of the Chances. "That was just getting a name together," recalls Barksdale. "It was a chance that we was taking," he jokes. The Willows' bass Freddy Donovan joined the group and sang the intro. "He just happened to be at the studio that night," explains Love. The flip side was a duet by Love and Baylor with harmony reminiscent of "The Honeymoon". Recorded on a different evening than the A-side, the voices were overdubbed onto an existing instrumental track. According to Barksdale, personnel on "What Would You Say" were Love, Baylor, Barnes, Willis and Barksdale with Cecil Holmes conducting the band. These later sides carried the notation "Produced by Buzz Willis". Barksdale disputes the claim. "Buzzy didn't produce nothing. He could barely produce his note."
Later that year, the group was recruited to back Ray Brewster in yet another new Cadillacs group. Brewster, also billed as Bobby Ray, had recorded for Capitol Records with Bobby Spencer, J.R. Bailey, and Roland Martinez as the Cadillacs. This assemblage, featuring more Solitaires than Cadillacs, consisted of Brewster, Love, Baylor, and Barksdale. Their one rare single, "Fool" / 'The Right Kind of Lovin"', was issued on the local Arctic label. " Ray Brewster had sang with the Cadillacs and was the one that was supposedly like the 'Speedo' of the group," explains Barksdale. "If you notice, 'Speedo' wasn't there. What happened, Esther Navarro, I'll never forget that, she always came up with one of those slick ones. Get one guy and then, OK, get four other guys as the Cadillacs 'cause she owned the name. At one time there, they had two Cadillacs working at the same time." Brewster also sang with the Penguins and, in the early 1960s, was a member of the Hollywood Flames.
Despite their efforts on Mercury and Arctic, the members of the Solitaires never appeared in person with the group. "I never worked with the Cadillacs as a group member," clarifies Love. For the remainder of the 1960s, there were day jobs and the occasional nightclub dates as Freddy's Gang. Barksdale and Owens opted for the U.S. Postal Service, Love got a job as a medical technician at Roosevelt Hospital, and Baylor was employed by the Transit Authority. Willis, Barnes, and Holmes all worked in the music industry.
The oldies revival of the early 1970s brought the Solitaires back together. "I made contact with some people that I knew," recalls Barksdale. "And the guy said, 'Hey, man, we want the Solitaires to do a show at the Academy of Music.' This had to be after'69. And we went into the Academy of Music up there on 14th Street in Manhattan with my band backing us up. Milton, Bobby Baylor and myself, it was just the three of us. I will never forget it as long as I live because I sang '(1) Wonder Why' and got a standing ovation. And that's when we started singing again. We were doing shows, but we had my band behind us. Then we got a hold of Monte, and we started doing shows. Monte Owens had gotten his own band. He was playing guitar, and Roland Martinez was playing bass.
So we started working as the Solitaires again featuring the four of us, Monte, Bobby, Milton, and myself." In January of 1973, Buzzy Willis joined the group on stage for a performance at the Academy of Music. It was the only time that the "Walking Along" lineup would appear together after 1959. The Solitaires remained together for most of the decade. I did not know that the group would still be in demand," explains Barksdale.
The Solitaires in the early 1970s. (left to right) Freddy Barksdale, Milton Love, Bobby Baylor. (photo courtesy of the Solitaires)
Throughout the 1980s, the members of the Solitaires worked their day jobs, saw one another occasionally but did not sing together. The events surrounding the group's eventual reformation are bittersweet. I was coming from church one night, and I was on the boulevard, and I just happened to turn my radio on and they're playing 'South of the Border'," recalls Barksdale. I was listening to WSGT and they're saying that was a song by the late Bobby Baylor, and I almost had a heart attack. My foot went right to the brake. I just couldn't believe it. I knew Bobby, we grew up together, you know and...the late Bobby Baylor? So they said if you need information to call this number. So I wrote the number down, and I pulled off at the first telephone booth. I called this number, and a young lady picked up the telephone. It was Neil Hirsch's wife, and then I spoke to (R&B disc jockey) Neil Hirsch. He told me they were at his funeral, and he had died from pneumonia in the hospital. They thought it was a cold, and it turned out worse than what they thought, and finally he died." Baylor, who was in his early 50s, was still working for the Transit at the time of his death in January of 1989.
Not long after, Barksdale received another telephone call. "Right after that, Neil called my house and said would I be interested in singing with a group again. I said, 'No, man, I haven't sang in God knows when.' He said, 'Well, look, you can make yourself some extra money if you do some shows. You don't have to stay with them if you don't want to. He said, 'It's the Wrens. You know, Bobby Mansfield.' Then he gave me Bobby's phone number, I called up Bobby, and he said, 'Yeah, we're gonna rehearse at this center up here in the Bronx, and I said, 'Well, I'll go over there.' He gave me an album of the Wrens, and they had certain songs checked off, and he said, 'Try to learn these songs.' He said, 'Before you leave, we're gonna sing some of the songs so you can get a feel for how they sound.' They started singing, and I started singing, and it sounded just like we had been singing together for years."
The reformed Wrens, Mansfield, his son Robby, original tenor George MagNezid, and Barksdale, began performing in the New York-New Jersey area. Many of the group's performances were for Ronnie 1. and the United in Group Harmony Association. "I walked in there for the first show with the Wrens, and the people met me at the door coming in with my uniform saying 'Freddy from the Solitaires, you're Freddy of the Solitaires.' And I'm saying, 'I don't know these people.' They knew what session I was on, you know, all these things. The place was packed. Now I was in total shock. I couldn't believe it. I stayed with the Wrens, and one day Bobby introduced me, 'This is Freddy Barksdale. He sang with the Cadillacs, he sang with the Solitaires, and now we've got him.' And you know, they gave me a standing ovation. Coming off, I said, 'Ronnie, how would you like to get the Solitaires back together?...
Barksdale began the search for former Solitaires and found Milton Love, Monte Owens, Cecil Holmes and Buzzy Willis. Holmes and Willis declined. Owens had recently suffered several strokes and was unable to perform. Love was enthusiastic. With Dave Cooper and Phil Vear, Barksdale and Love reformed the Solitaires, debuting at a "Ronnie I's Collectors Concert" with the Vocaleers, Vernon Green, and George Grant on May 12,1990. In June of 1991, Vernon and Cooper were replaced by Robby Mansfield and George Magnezid from the Wrens.
They have been performing regularly since. The new group with Love, whose trained tenor has retained its lustre, has recaptured the magic of even their earliest sides. "The songs that Herman sang, Milton can do them," states Barksdale, convincingly. "Herman was known for his high falsetto tenor, that's what he was doing with the Vocaleers before he came to the Solitaires. When he started singing 'Please Remember My Heart' and 'Wonder Why', Herman was singing from his heart. Milton gets that same reaction. Milton had voice training. Herman had no training. He was just singing from his heart. You'll find that people who sing from the heart, they can get over, but when you get that little voice training behind it, that helps a whole lot."
Today, the group's repertoire includes nearly all of the Solitaires' Old Town recordings. "We're one of the rare groups that have come back that are singing different songs," explains Barksdale. "We don't go back with the same songs. The minute you come off stage, they say, 'Why didn't you sing such-and-such and such-and-suchT There are so many other songs. So we have to tell them we're told to only sing a certain amount of songs. Never since we've come back have I seen them not ask us, 'Why didn't you sing such-and-such a song?' Even when we did 24 songs in Pittsburgh. We just do Solitaires. That's one of the things that has been impressed into our minds by the people that book us. When we go to sing, they want us to sing the Solitaires. They don't want us to be doing Drifters or Cadillacs. They want us to do just the Solitaires, and we're fortunate enough to have enough of our own material to do. You can count, like, the Five Keys and Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels, they do their own thing. And that's what the people want to hear. They want to bear the Solitaires sing the Solitaires."
A Solitaires reunion backstage in New York City, 1995. (left to right) Fred Barksdale, Cecil Holmes, Milton Love, Buzzy Willis. (photo by Kristen Baptista)
On April 25, 1992, the Solitaires were inducted into the United in Group Harmony Association Hall of Fame in New York City. On this night, the group was joined on stage by Monte Owens. "We tried to get Monte to play,just to play the guitar," recalls Barksdale. "He said that since he's had them strokes, he can't even pick up a guitar. Monte was a beautiful guitar player, a beautiful person, period. When we were inducted into the Hall of Fame, I knew he was in the theater. I knew he couldn't walk much, but I insisted ti he come up because I felt he should be up on that stage with us."
Original bass Pat Gaston opted to go on to college after completing his militay service and earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. He became the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections in New York and served in that position durh the infamous power blackout in July of 1977. Today, he is the warden at the Riker Island prison. Invited to the Hall of Fame induction, Gaston was injured in an automobile accident that day and was unable to attend.
Winston "Buzzy" Willis remained in the music industry after the Solitaires disbanded in the mid- 1960s. He went to work for RCA Records and became the label's first black vice-president. He was in charge of their R&B production by the early 1070s. H also served as vice-president of R&B operations at Polydor. In the 1980s, he became th road manager for Koo] & the Gang. He reportedly divides his time between New York and California.
Cecil Holmes worked for several labels and became an executive with Buddah Records. He is still active today with Columbia and lives in Paramus, New Jersey. Botl Willis and Holmes joined the current group for an impromptu version of "Embraceable You" at a New York City show in February of 1995.
Reggie Barnes became a successful session drummer, playing with Jimmy Castor in the 1970s. He played on the 1991 Joel and the Dymensions CD for Classic Artists Records.
Roland Martinez played bass on the road with Lloyd Price and Cat Stevens into the mid1970s. In the 1990s, he rejoined his brother, Joe Duncan, in the Vocaleers.
Jimmy "J.R." Bailey performed as a soloist, background vocalist, and session saxophonist for a number of years, He became an accomplished producer, publisher, and songwriter. In September of 1983, he made an appearance with the Laddins at the legendary Burlington County concert in New Jersey. He died of a heart attack at the age of 48 in 1985. Bobby Spencer, no longer active in the music industry, has been seen in recent years in the 118th Street and Park Avenue neighborhood.
Eddie "California" Jones, who sang with Willis and Gaston in the original streetcomer Solitaires, sang lead with the Demens on Teenage Records in 1957 and remained with them when the group became the Emersons on Newport the following year. He went on to play piano and arrange for several groups including the Chantels and Laddins. Today, he is the musical director and arranger for the Cadillacs.
Monte Owens retired on a disability from the U.S. Postal Service. In the spring of 1992, he entered a nursing home and now lives in a retirement facility.
Herman Curtis Dunham remained active in music after leaving the Solitaires. In 1959, he recorded "I Won't Tell The World"P'But I Know" for Hy Weiss' Paradise label, billed as "Herman Dunham and the Blenders". That year, he rejoined the Vocaleers and recorded one single, "I Need Your Love So Bad'T'Have You Ever Loved Someone?", with them for Paradise. In August of 1962, Dunham recorded four solo sides for Weiss which have never been issued. He later served as an organist with an local band. "Herman is still alive," affirms Barksdale. "When we got this group together, once I got Milton, everybody was saying, 'See if you can get Herman.' I tracked Herman down to a Baptist Church in Harlem. The word is that he moved south, and we can't contact him no way, shape, form, or fashion. 'Cause if we did, we'd try and see if he wants, to sing again." Dunham, who still sings gospel music, is believed to be living near Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hy Weiss, now in his 70s, lives in Woodbury, New York. He continues to license his Old Town and Paradise masters to Ace Records in Great Britain for international distribution. In his liner notes for the 1985 Murray Hill Solitaires four LP retrospective, Weiss wrote that "The Solitaires were probably the finest exponent of rhythm and blues music done with finesse and were far ahead of their time. Due to my own inexperience in the music business at that particular time, the group never really reached the heights and acclaim they were entitled to. My fondest memories of a long life ... are of my continuing relationship with each and every one of this particular group. They were, they are, and always will be, something special to me."
Today, the best of the group's Old Town recordings are available on an Ace CD, "Walking Along With The Solitaires", issued in 1992. The four LP boxed set, "The Solitaires For Collectors Only", was issued on the now defunct Murray Hill label in 1985. Although it is out of print, copies can still be located in some oldies record stores. "Walking Along" was included in the soundtrack of the 1991 film "A Rage in Harlem". Despite these reissues, Barksdale states, "We didn't get a dime out of any of that."
In June of 1993, the Solitaires, Wrens, Chords, and Lillian Leach and the Mellows were filmed for a National Geographic Explorer cable television documentary on the Bronx's doo wop vocal groups. It was aired in September of 1994 on WTBS.
In May of 1994, the Solitaires experienced the biggest thrill of their career, performing before 4.000 fans at a concert in Hemsley, England. "They've had eight shows, and they said the largest crowd they've drawn was for the Solitaires, and there was just us on the show," Barksdale proudly relates. "The way the people treated us over there, you know, they say, 'We treat you royally', they wasn't kidding! We went over there first class. We got there, we had our dinner, everything was paid for. They had a brand new bus that took us wherever we wanted. They paid us the day we got there, we hadn't sung a note."
Indeed, it is the reaction of their admirers that motivates the Solitaires more than forty years after their formation. "It's the fans," explains Barksdale. "The reception by the fans. There's still standing ovations and people really wanting to hear you. On stage, you see the crowd reacting, a lot of people are patting their feet and into the rhythm. It is really beautiful, and this is what keeps the Solitaires going. We were blessed to make it to a degree." "I love this group 'cause I was gone for a long time," explains Love. "Freddy got in touch with me somehow, and that's how we got back together again, and here I am today. It was our love of music that kept this group together. It was just circumstances that pulled us apart."
"I think it's a love of the music itself," Love theorizes of the public's ongoing affection with the 1950s vocal group sound. "Not only of our music, but I think the whole thing with, not rock'n'roll as they call it, but of rhythm and blues. The original thing that it was supposed to be. It even amazes me today when we go places and people say, 'I remember the Solitaires songs. Your songs have always been in the back of my head.' And it amazes me. But I think it's the love of the music itself as far as our group is concerned. That's the reason why it stays on. We were a group who worked hard,. We sang hard, and we tried to be there in the good times and the bad times."