When we go back to the mid-fifties we encounter records that no longer get much airplay simply because it was so long ago that almost no radio stations are playing records from that era.
The Diamonds were a group of singers from Toronto, Canada, who moved to New York City to seek fame and fortune. They appeared on television on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and released a pair of unsuccessful singles in 1955 and 1956. The group eventually signed with Mercury Records, and their first release on that label was a cover of Frankie Lymon’s hit Why Do Fools Fall In Love. Their follow-up single, Church Bells May Ring also did fairly well, getting up to #14. Listening to that record now one thing is immediately clear to me: it sounds entirely wrong.
I grew up on Long Island in the fifties, listening to countless radio stations on an old 1940s radio. Top Forty didn’t exist yet, so radio was a mix of pop vocals, lingering radio drama and comedy shows that hadn’t quite made it to television yet, big band music from the forties, and (fortunately) a few stations that played rhythm and blues music. My parents put me to bed with the radio set to the Make Believe Ballroom, but it wasn’t long before I figured out how to turn one of the dials and find something else to listen to. One of those R&B stations was probably where I first heard the Willows version of Church Bells May Ring.
The Harlem vocal group was previously known as the Dovers in 1950, and later the Five Willows, before finally settling in as the Willows. They recorded several singles that did well. Near the end of 1955, the group signed with Melba Records. They wrote and recorded Church Bells May Ring as their first release for the new label. Fun note: Neil Sedaka played the chimes on the recording!
While the Willows may have only gotten up to #62 on the pop charts, their record went up to #14 nationally on the R&B charts in 1956, and that’s also the recording that sounds “right” to me. The group never found their way onto the national charts after that and disbanded in the mid-sixties. Like many doo-wop acts from the fifties, the Willows reformed in various lineups and have appeared on some of the PBS doo-wop specials.
The Diamonds made a career of covering other groups; their biggest record came a year later when they covered Little Darling by the Gladiolas and took the record up to number two. Ten more top forty records followed, but by 1961 the hits were finished. The lineup changed constantly over the next forty years, allowing public appearances to continue to this day.