RHYTHM AND BLUES
By Jerry Skokandich
Based upon interviews with Emmanuel “Doc” Robinson, Charlie “Stoney” Dimbo, Donald Sledge, James Brabham and Clifford James.
l to r: Emmanuel Robinson, Charles Dimbo, Clarence Gray, Frank McCray, George Rivers
The Master-Tones formed around 1951 while attending Battle Hill Junior High School in White Plains, New York. They were neighborhood pals who lived on Russell and Fulton Streets. The group lineup consisted of Clarence “Pop” Gray (lead), Charlie “Stoney” Dimbo (bass), Emmanuel “Doc” Robinson (2nd tenor), Frank McCray (baritone) and George “Bronx” Rivers (1st tenor).
They first started singing at school. “Stoney” Dimbo recalls, “Our school would hold roller skating in the gymnasium at night but since we couldn’t skate, we’d go there to hang out and harmonize in the hallways.” Once the guys became serious about their singing, they needed a name for the group and chose The Hearts. No one remembers why. Another friend, Billy Barrels, became their manager and had the guys rehearsing at his house in Greenburgh, New York, almost every night.
By 1954, they were performing at local clubs, although most were underage. One of those clubs was the Red Rose located in New Rochelle, New York on North Avenue.
Like dozens of other young vocal groups at the time, they knew that their path to fame and fortune started at the legendary Apollo Theatre. Record company executives and scouts looking for new talent attended the weekly amateur night shows and were ready to offer contracts on the spot to promising groups.
It took courage for a young group to hit that stage because, if they didn’t meet the approval of the audience they would be humiliated with boos and catcalls and literally yanked off the stage. Many groups never recovered from a trouncing at the Apollo and quit in a hurry. The “Hearts” must have been more than good the night they performed because they won first prize singing “Money Honey”.
Shortly afterwards, another friend of the group helped them secure them a contract at Bruce Records in New York City. The Hearts auditioned with four original songs but only two were to be recorded.
The following article appeared in Billboard Magazine in June 1954, “Morty Craft of Bruce Records will visit distributors from coast to coast for the label, starting in California. The label just signed a new group, The Master-Tones.”
“Doc” Robinson remembers the Harptones being in the studio the night they recorded. This was recently confirmed in a discussion with Raoul Cita who remembers the Master-Tones because he helped record them that night after his session with the Harptones. Cita thought they were from “up north” in Connetticut. “Stoney” Dimbo recalls that Jimmy Smith was the studio bandleader that night. Smith also had a release on Bruce records, “Jughead” b/w “Dancing on the Ceiling”.
However, a quick name change was in order due to the fact that there already was a “Hearts” group in existence. “Stoney” Dimbo recalls that a female *Hearts group was responsible for the name change. The guys talked it over and because they were making a “Master Record”, ………….. they became the Master-Tones and the rest, as they say, is history.
* Note: The Hearts who later recorded on Baton Records had already auditioned
for Monte Bruce prior to his meeting the Master-Tones. Therefore, he
knew that a name change was in order.
Photo of original first press of “Tell Me” b/w “What’ll You Do” released on Bruce Records in October of 1954. Courtesy of Jim Hunt.
The A side to be released on Bruce 111 was an up tempo song written by group members Clarence Gray and George Rivers entitled “What’ll You Do” with bass Charlie “Stoney” Dimbo sharing lead with Clarence Gray. The B-side was a ballad entitled “Tell Me” written by Gene Gray, the brother of lead singer Clarence Gray. Gene did not sing with the group. “Doc” Robinson is the lead off voice on “Tell Me” which sets the stage for one of the greatest early 50’s R&B songs ever recorded. Collectors and fans refer to this, as a “perfect” vocal group recording comprised of outstanding bass work, high tenors, dynamic lead and great harmonizing.
The following article appeared in Billboard Magazine in August of 1954, “Bruce Adds Power – New York, Aug. 21 – Monte Bruce this week took over the Power Records label for his own Bruce Records firm. Bruce acquired all of Power’s masters, artist contracts, etc. Disks will be issued on the Bruce label. Meanwhile, Bruce’s top vocal group, the Harptones, have been booked into the Copa, Pittsburgh. The label’s new talent now includes Don Gardner, Herb Lance, the Shytans and the Master-Tones.”
“Tell Me b/w What’ll You Do” was recorded for Bruce Records and released in 1954. The record received local airplay but made no dent in the charts at the time. George Lavatelli, owner of the Relic Record Shoppe in Hackensack, NJ, recalls hearing “What’ll You Do” being played after its release but not “Tell Me”. It would seem that the Master-Tones recording would just disappear like hundreds of other efforts at that time.
However, the story of the record and “Tell Me” doesn’t end in 1954. The Master-Tones recording received a new lease on life in 1962. “Tell-Me” received airplay on the “Night Train” radio show due to Slim Rose from Times Square Records. This renewed popularity was responsible for Bruce to re-issue the record. It was becoming a collector’s classic.
Donn Fileti, Co-Owner of Relic Records recalls, “Slim asked me to get the record reissued. Wayne Stierle and I were working with Leo Rogers who owned Bruce then. He was affable and pressed up about 500 copies...maybe half on color wax...at Kay Records in Little Ferry, New Jersey. He sold them to Wayne and me and we sold them to Slim. Slim may have taken 50-100 at most the initial shot..he never wanted to load up on any number. He gave it airplay on Alan Fredericks ‘Night Train Radio Show’. I bought an original in the fall of '59 from Brooks Record Shop on Watching Avenue in Plainfield, NJ. "Tell Me" was one of those strange Slim records where a demand was created for a record that almost no one remembered...George Lavatelli remembers hearing the flip on the air. Some of the original, original record collectors...Al Trommers, Jared, Johnny Esposito, probably loved the record and created the mystique from the beginning which Slim was smart enough to pick up on. I thought we did Tell Me with Leo before I entered college in the fall of 1960 (I went to college in Virginia so Wayne took over our "business" then for the most part), but its first appearance on Slim's chart would be a pretty good indication of when it was first reissued.”
“Tell Me” made it on the Times Square Records Top 100 Best Selling Oldies list. It entered the list at position number 7 and was the highest ranking new entry to the Times Square Top 100 Chart for the month of January 1962.
Original record list from Times Square Records courtesy of Bill Olb.
This ad appeared in the March 2001 edition of the “Rockin’ Good News Auction House.”
The Master-Tones’ “Tell Me” would receive more accolades in the 1970’s because of New York DJ, Gus Gossert. Gus was a great fan of “Tell Me” and included it on his first “Gus Gossert Presents - The Original New York Doo-Wop Album”.
Collectors of rare R&B records and fans in general, have continued to raise “Tell Me’ and the Master-Tones to a lofty height in the annals of R&B vocal group recordings. Today, an original 45RPM is priced around $2000 and is considered one of the crown jewels of R&B vocal group recordings.
“Doc” Robinson recalls, “’Tell Me’ was done in about two or three takes and probably the same for ‘What’ll You Do’. I had to stand on a box to reach the overhead microphone. There wasn’t much effort to fix anything and the session went pretty quick. We went home and didn’t hear back from Bruce until one day a friend of mine said, ‘I heard your record on the radio.’ After that, I heard it on the radio a few times and it started appearing in local jukeboxes. Actually, ‘What’ll You Do’ was the side mostly played not so much ‘Tell Me’. Soon after the record came out, we went on a tour down south, just us and a few musicians. I remember staying in a hotel with the Coasters but it was just our group doing a bunch of one nighters down south. After a few months, we wound up in Virginia where we were robbed one night. There was a valet we left in the room who was supposed to watch our things. We think he got drunk and passed out and someone stole our money and musical instruments. That pretty much ended the career of the Master-Tones.”
Doc graduated from White Plains High School in 1955 after the group broke up but it wasn’t too long before he joined a newly formed group called the Partners. The Partners consisted of “Doc” Robinson, Donald Sledge, James Brabham, Charlie Drew and Buddy Lucas, Jr.. Brabham and Drew were members of the Swans who recorded on Rainbow Records while Sledge, although an original member of the group, was in the service when the group recorded.
“Doc” Robinson recalls one memorable show the Partners performed at, “We were on the bill at the Parkway Casino with a bunch of female impersonators. George Rivers made a comment that wasn’t taken kindly by one of the impersonators who proceeded to lift George off the ground. We left there in a kinda hurry.”
The Partners had no known recordings but more on that later. After the Partners broke up, “Doc” hooked up with one more vocal group from White Plains, the Five Sounds. This group consisted of William Riley, Leon Carter, Joe Ruff, Charles Blakely and “Doc”. Although some discographies show this group as William “Russ Riley” and the Five Sounds, who recorded on Al Jon Records, it now seems likely that those Five Sounds were another group altogether and the name William Riley in both groups could be a coincidence. “Doc” Robinson has listened to “Tonight Must Live On” and is adamant that the William Riley he knew is definitely not on that recording. As a matter of fact, “Doc” stated that the William Riley he sang with, wasn’t much of a singer to begin with and not likely to have landed a recording contract. Liner notes on the “Al Browne Brooklyn Doo Wop” CD indicates a group named the Love Notes was actually on the recording backing up William “Russ” Riley. Once again, probably a different William Riley.
Robinson” isn’t positive about any other recordings he was part of but a 78 RPM record recently surfaced entitled “Insulting Blues Boogie” that has been linked to the Master-Tones. The record in question has a Bruce Records label and “Harptones” written on it. However, Raoul Cita of the Harptones listened and was positive that it wasn’t the Harptones. Speculation turned to the Master-Tones as being the real group. Robinson draws a blank even after listening to “Insulting Blues Boogie”, so that mystery might have to wait a while to be solved.
Robinson also remembers another early 50’s White Plains R&B group, the Drones, who had no known recordings. Members of that group were Ray Roberts (lead), Ray Dingle, Johnny Jones and Jimmy Watson. Ray Roberts filled in for Frank McCray of the Master-Tones when they did their tour down south.
“Doc” also knew another group from the White Plains area who had a record released on the Rainbow record label in 1953. The group was the Swans and their recording of “My True Love” would also become a collector’s classic over the years, like “Tell Me” by the Master-Tones. Ray Roberts of the Drones was the lead singer on “My True Love”.
Until now, most R&B fans would have been hard pressed to come up with one group from the White Plains area. It is now evident that there was quite a talent pool residing in this area.
Emmanuel “Doc” Robinson at age 20.
“Doc” was asked recently how much money he received from Bruce Records for “Tell Me”. The answer was none. Sound familiar? Does he have a copy of the record? Yes, but it’s cracked. However, what he does have now though is a feeling of pride, that he was a part of musical history, even if for a brief time.
“Stoney” Dimbo (original bass of the Master-Tones) drifted away from the group after the recording and entered the U.S.Army in 1958. While stationed in North Africa, he met two of the original members of the Capris who recorded “God Only Knows” for Philly’s Gotham label, Reuben Wright and Eddie Warner. Dimbo, Wright and Warner were joined by Leroy Gordon and George Sierra (he later became an actor and appeared on the TV show Sanford and Son) and performed as the Master-Tones in the service.
After the service, Dimbo lived in Cleveland, Ohio for a while and played in a jazz trio entitled the Emanons. Other members included Jared Stout and Donald Lavoie. By 1973 “Stoney” had returned to White Plains and spent five years singing with a gospel group, the Christian Travelers of the Bronx.
The Master-Tones were probably similar to dozens of young vocal groups in the early fifties, except for one fact; they recorded one of the greatest R&B songs of all time, “Tell Me”. The group was appropriately named because they created a “Masterpiece”
“Doc” Robinson is retired and has lived in Trevose, Pa. with his family since 1974. “Stoney” Dimbo still resides in White Plains, NY. Clarence Gray, Frank McCray and George Rivers are deceased according to “Doc” Robinson.
Clarence Gray’s family moved from White Plains to Brooklyn around 1958 and Clarence wasted no time in forming a new vocal group, the Vims. They had no recordings.
The photo above is the only picture of the Master-Tones known to exist. It appeared in a local newspaper in 1954. Now take a close look at the photo in the beginning of the article which appeared on a recent CD, “The Bruce Record Story”. It is the same photo but was graphically altered placing Clarence Gray in the center and Robinson and Dimbo facing towards the center.
(NO PHOTO AVAILABLE)
The Swans on Rainbow Records are another R&B vocal group that made one record and then seemingly vanished from sight. However, what a record! “My True Love” is another R&B gem that makes collectors and R&B fans tingle when they hear it played. The group formed around 1951 and was from Greenburg, New York, which is, located about one mile from White Plains. The members at various times included James Brabham, Charlie Drew, Donald Sledge, Charlie Sharrock, Clifford James and Ray Roberts. Sledge was in the service when the record was made.
Clifford James circa 1953
In a recent interview, James Brabham recalls, “ We were just kids hanging around our neighborhood in Greenburg, NY listening to groups like the Orioles, Cardinals and Clovers. We tried to sound like them and after awhile we figured we needed a name so we came up with a ‘bird name’, the Swans. By 1953, we were playing some clubs in New York City and met Lover Patterson who helped us get the record done.”
Patterson was a “jack-of-all-trades” in the New York music scene. He was connected to Eddie Heller’s Rainbow Record Company where he helped the Swans obtain a contract.
Brabham stated that he wrote “My True Love” along with Ray Roberts and also collaborated on the flip side “(Ain’t Like That) No More”. He also divulged that Ray Roberts was the lead singer on “My True Love” and that there was some unfinished material at Rainbow Records.
“My True Love” was released on Rainbow number 233 in Dec. 1953. The record went nowhere evidenced by no information about the group or the record in Billboard Magazine’s 1953 or 1954 clippings.
The Swans stayed together a short while after the record was released and then broke up like so many groups of the 1950’s. However, because they were part of the “White Plains singing conglomerate”, it wouldn’t be long before some of them were back in the music business.
Photo of original 45RPM of “My True Love” b/w “(Ain’t Like That) No More” by the Swans released 12/53. Courtesy of Rich Kriz.
Around 1956, a former member of the Master-Tones and several Swans joined forces and created a group they called the Partners. “Doc” Robinson (Master-Tones), Donald Sledge (Swans), James Brabham (Swans), Charlie Drew (Swans) and newcomer Buddy Lucas, Jr., the son of famed bandleader Buddy Lucas. “Doc” Robinson and Donald Sledge remember Lucas by the name “Big Luke”.
Donald Sledge recalls, “We went to New York and auditioned for companies at 1650 Broadway but nothing happened recording wise. We did play some clubs and I remember a fancy club in Lodi, New Jersey because it had carpets on the floor.”
The group broke up about a year later and had no recordings, as far as they knew.
Donald Sledge is retired and resides in White Plains, New York. James Brabham is retired and lives in Connecticut. James Clifford is retired and resides in Beacon, New York. By all accounts, Charlie Drew, Ray Roberts, and Charlie Sharrock are deceased.
Another R&B mystery unresolved for years was who were the Swans group on the Steamboat recording “Believe in Me” b/w “In the Morning”. Some R&B aficionados were convinced it was “the” Swans on Rainbow and that the lead singer was the same on “My True Love” (Rainbow) and “Believe in Me” (Steamboat). However, that was all conjecture because no one knew who the members were on the Steamboat recording.
The truth, it seems, is close to what a lot of people believed over the years. Based upon information provided in recent interviews with “Doc” Robinson, Donald Sledge and James Brabham, the Steamboat Swans included several members of the Rainbow Swans and possibly “Doc” Robinson of the Master-Tones. “Doc” Robinson is emphatic that the lead on “Believe in Me” is Ray Roberts, who was also the lead on “My True Love”. He also identifies “Charlie Sharrock as the lead on the flip side “In the Morning”. “Doc” Robinson doesn’t remember being at a recording session but can sing along with “In the Morning” word for word after not hearing it for almost 45 years. That’s too much of a coincidence not to signify some type of connection.
Although a positive identification isn’t possible, there are other pointers that indicate a connection to members of the Partners being connected to the Steamboat recording. One is that Buddy Lucas, Sr. was the owner of Steamboat Records and wanted to feature his son on the label. It seems logical that Buddy Lucas, Jr. enlisted some of his former friends from the Partners to record with him on his father’s label. Or, it is also possible that he had a tape with those two songs and released the Steamboat recording in 1957 without the other members knowing about it all these years. Buddy Lucas, Jr. would know the exact story on this recording, if he is still alive.
This pretty much concludes the singing careers of the Master-Tones and Swans, two groups that were literally amongst the missing for almost fifty years. Until this year, no one knew all of their names and almost nothing about their history as singers. However, there is a happy ending to this story.
On January 25th 2003, “Doc” Robinson, Clifford James and Donald Sledge were re-united at a United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA) concert held in Lodi, New Jersey. (other surviving members, “Stoney" Dimbo and James Brabham were unable to attend.)
l to r; Clifford James, “Doc” Robinson, Donald Sledge and Ronnie “I” at UGHA 1/25/03
Robinson, James and Sledge received a thunderous ovation when UGHA President Ronnie Italiano introduced them to a surprised audience. It has been almost fifty years since these gentlemen received an applause of any kind.
They seemed to be in shock at the outpouring of love and appreciation they received that night. Donald, Clifford and “Doc” took turns at the microphone and told the audience how much they appreciated what was being done for them. “Doc” Robinson was so overcome with emotion he could barely talk. So were a lot of people in the audience.
L to r; Donald Sledge and “Doc” Robinson at UGHA 1/25/03
The guys were deluged with photo seekers and autograph requests the entire evening, the likes, this author hasn’t seen at UGHA in quite a while. Lois Harris Powell of the Chantels was at the show and she came over to say hello and chat with the guys. One lady in the audience was flabbergasted to find out that she went to White Plains High School with the guys and lived in the same apartment with Doc Robinson on Fulton Street. She never knew they recorded. Robinson, Sledge and James kept thanking everyone all night long but it was really all about thanking them, for the joy they have given to thousands of R&B fans over the years.
Prior to the UGHA concert, man for man, Robinson, Dimbo, Brabham, James and Sledge had all felt forgotten, musically speaking, and didn’t think anyone cared at all about what they did as young men so many years ago. Not one of them had an inkling that early R&B music, and especially their music, has survived and flourished all this time.
L to r; Donald Sledge, “Doc” Robinson, Lois Harris Powell (Chantels) and Clifford James at UGHA 1/25/03
Regretably, most of them were within earshot of various radio shows in New York City, that have been playing their songs since the 1960’s. Fate just never had one of them turn their radio dial to one of those stations. UGHA has been holding concerts in Pennsylvania for the past six years but “Doc” Robinson never heard about them. He literally lived within a mile from one of the venues in Trevose, Pa.
That was all corrected at UGHA. They now know how much “their” fans have loved their recordings all these year. They now know that what they did mattered and that they have a place in musical history. Now, everyone will know who they are by name. So when you hear the opening of “Tell Me’, “Darling …… you are the peg of my heart”, you can say, “Hey, that’s ‘Doc’ Robinson on that intro.”
“Doc” made a statement at the show that it was just too bad the other members who passed on weren’t there to receive their due. This author would like to think they were there in spirit and were standing next to their old pals receiving their due. We now know the names of the deceased members so when we hear “Tell Me” we’ll think of the great lead Clarence Gray along with Frank McCray and George Rivers. When we listen to “My True Love” we’ll also think of Ray Roberts, Charlie Druei and Charlie Sharrock.
The Master-Tones and Swans are no longer among the list of unknown vocal groups. All their names are now added to the list of R&B pioneers. They have joined the UGHA family. It doesn’t get any better !!!!!
Additional information provided by Ronnie Italiano, Donn Fileti, George Lavatelli, Frank Osmers, Ferdie Gonzalez, Bill Olb and Todd Baptista. 45 RPM records s provided by Rich Kriz and Jim Hunt.
Billboard Magazine quotes from Galen Gart’s “First Pressing’s Magazine: The History of Rhythm and Blues, Volume 4 (1954)”.