Barons, The: The Northwest's First Hit-making '50s Teen Rock 'n' Roll Group

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/18/2009
  • Essay 9207
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A half-decade prior to the Pacific Northwest's great rock 'n' roll eruption of 1959-1960  -- a period that saw a series of teenage groups (including the Fleetwoods, Frantics, Shades, Gallahads, Wailers, Ron Holden and the Thunderbirds, and Little Bill and the Bluenotes) all suddenly burst onto the national scene with hit records -- yet another local group blazed that same trail. Tacoma's talented doo-wop singers, the Barons, were signed to one of America's most esteemed independent labels, the Los Angeles-based Imperial Records, and scored a series of promising hits. Unfortunately, the group was a bit ahead of its time -- the Northwest didn't even have an organized teen-dance scene yet -- and the Barons disbanded before they were able to make the most of their remarkable success. As a result, the group's legacy nearly slipped through the cracks of history. They are absent from all rock encyclopedias, they remain unheralded even in their home region, and the Barons' story has never been told until now.

Northwest Doo-Wop

The Pacific Northwest -- although never considered a hotbed of hard-core 1950s rhythm & blues music -- certainly could boast a number of African American a capella doo-wop groups. Included among those were Seattle's Echoes, Five Checks, Mello-aires, Gallahads, Counts, Songcrafters, Bop Tones, and Fabulous Winds. Meanwhile Tacoma had the Four Pearls, Skylarks, Cool Breezers, Parking Meters, Chantz -- and the most accomplished of them all, the Barons.

The founding members of that group -- William Gold (lead), Sterling "Stokey" Wilford (tenor), Carl Charles (baritone), and Malcolm Parks (bass) -- grew up in Tacoma's Eastside housing projects and met while singing together in the choir at the old Bethlehem Baptist Church (1721 S I Street). Later while attending Lincoln High School (701 S 37th Street) and Stadium High School (111 N E Street), they began rehearsing at each other's homes and that's when they adopted the Barons as a name and began singing rhythm & blues tunes -- including a batch written by Gold.

On Broadway

The Barons were inspired by all the new R&B hits airing on local radio shows hosted by two pioneering Black DJs, Fitzgerald "Eager" Beaver and Bob Summerise. Beaver also owned the Broadway Record Shop, which mainly catered to the Black community, and it was while hanging out and practicing there that the Barons probably caught wind of an occasional concert/dance event where teenagers were able to see and hear hip live music. As Wilford -- who was also a star baseball pitcher at Lincoln High -- recalled:

“At that time, the Century Ballroom [1406 54th Avenue E, in Fife] and the Evergreen Ballroom [9121 Pacific Avenue SE] was about the only thing goin’ here. Of course, there was the Oddfellows Hall -- they used to have dances down there. But that was mostly for the white kids. And for our little group, Club 24 was the only place for us to go. But then once a month or two, somebody would come to town, and even the kids could go out to the Evergreen [Ballroom]. We seen the Clovers and James Brown out there.”

Tacoma's Club 24

Tacoma's housing projects did offer -- if not much else -- a chaperoned youth club called Club 24. Every Friday night kids gathered at the place and they danced, clowned around, played ping pong, and generally had fun. Luckily, Club 24 also offered a tape recorder and a supply of magnetic tape that the kids occasionally played with for fun. And that’s how the Barons ended up cutting a few originals -- like "Boom Boom" -- and mailing that self-recorded demo tape off to a few of the top R&B record companies down in California.

So it was that within weeks of sending their tape off, the Barons were shocked to hear back from the famous Bihari brothers at Modern Records, who invited the group down to make a record. Having already scored hits with vocal groups including the Cadets and the Jacks, Modern was willing to dabble a bit further in the doo-wop realm. Though the label offered no cash upfront -- or across, under, around the back, or at all -- the Barons were still so thrilled about this golden opportunity that Gold’s father managed to pony up a couple of hundred bucks to start them on their trip.

Bright Lights Big City

It was in January '55 that the Barons -- with their parents' reluctant permission to miss a few days of school -- hitched a ride down to Culver City, California, and went straight over to Modern’s studios. Upon their arrival they walked in the door, only to be stopped by the front-office staff. The Barons introduced themselves and were greeted warmly, but then informed that there wouldn’t be any recording session that day as had been planned. It seems that a scheduling problem had arisen because one of Modern's premier acts, the hot sax-man Joe Houston (1926-2016), had shown up unexpectedly, and cutting his new LP was the label's top priority. Tired from the travel, general excitement, and subsequent disappointment, the Barons found a hotel and resolved to try again the next morning. But once again they were stalled, and for more than a week the Barons -- whose meager funds were dwindling dangerously -- were led along  this way.

Disheartened and nearly destitute in the big city, the Barons took a desperate last-ditch chance and phoned across town to another big-time R&B label, Imperial Records. Imperial was home to some great artists back then, including Fats Domino, T-Bone Walker, and Big Jay McNeely. Taking the call, Imperial’s head honcho, Lew Chudd, encouraged the boys to hurry on over to his Hollywood offices, whereupon he signed the guys up on the spot. A recording session was held on February 9 (probably with ace arranger Ernie Freeman leading the studio band) and at least six tracks were cut, each of them co-credited as being composed by "Billy Gold" and Imperial A&R man, "Eddie Ray."

Imperial believed enough in the band that it arranged to have them perform a few times at a legendary jazz and R&B room, the 5-4 Ballroom (5409 S Broadway). Indeed, the Barons even got to sing there with one of their idols -- Fats Domino -- a label-mate at Imperial who happened to be in town. Treated relatively well by Chudd -- and having been given adequate funds for return bus fare -- the Barons came home feeling triumphant.

Imperial Era

Later in February the Barons' debut Imperial single -- “Eternally Yours”/ “Boom Boom” (No. 5343) -- was shipped, and it began receiving airplay on R&B stations in California and then across the nation. Imperial bought ads in Cash Box magazine hyping the single as “A Solid Hit,” but, alas, it wasn’t. It was simply a good first single, sung well and backed by professional session players.

It would be their second single that proved itself a winner in the marketplace. On  June 14, 1955, Imperial issued “I Know I Was Wrong”/ “My Dream My Love” (No.  5359), and by August the A-side was breaking out in Philadelphia. With a push by America's top DJ, Alan Freed (1921-1965), the record got good exposure on the mighty New York station, WINS, then in a few of the other R&B markets of the East Coast and the South.

In perhaps in a bit too much of a hurry, Imperial rush-released the Barons’ third single “Cold Kisses”/ “Searching For You” (No.  5370) on September 28, 1955. “Cold Kisses” was noted as a pick hit in the Los Angeles market and it began to sell very well. But then in November an industry trade magazine, Cash Box, noted that their previous single, "I Know I Was Wrong,” was hot in Los Angeles; that the group had signed with one of the era’s showbiz giants, Shaw Artists Corp.; that the group was booked for some shows back east; and that Fats Domino and the Barons would be making appearances on local TV shows. African American-oriented magazines -- Jet and Ebony -- began touting the Barons as up-&-comers to their readership, and it seemed that fame was inevitable.

Back in Los Angeles

All this progress looked promising to Chudd, and he called up to Tacoma to entice the group to return and record some new material. On January 1, 1956, the Barons entered Imperial's studio for a second round of recording.

Meanwhile, “I Know I was Wrong” continued on its path to hitdom. On January 14 it broke onto the Billboard “R&B Jockey” charts and in a two-week run reached the No. 14 slot. As a Top-20 hit, the song would prove to be the group’s commercial zenith. Yet, typically for the industry at the time, even though the tune moved a lot of units -- in R&B record-hound circles it has been estimated at 750,000 -- the Barons received zero royalties from any of the sales.

In March 1956 Imperial issued the fourth single, “So Long My Darling” / "Crying For You Baby" (No. 5383), but it failed to catch fire, as did the Barons' fifth from July of that year, “Don’t Walk Out” / "Once In A Lifetime" (No. 5397). Record-hound rumors circulated that four additional songs -- "My Secret," "Shake The Dice," "Hold Me Baby," and "I Love You Baby" -- had also been recorded, but with Imperial's hopes for the group now fading, they were kept locked away in the vaults. Three decades after-the-fact, a bootleg Owl Records 45 of “My Secret” was slipped into the underground black market, and in recent years “Shake The Dice” popped up on a CD collection.

Back to the Northwest

Upon their return to Tacoma, the Barons were once again faced with the fact that opportunities for live gigs here were few and far between. But on occasion they got a few breaks, getting hired to sing at high school dances in Seattle, Everett, and Tacoma, as well as one show at the Spanish Castle Ballroom and a few at Tacoma’s Brown Derby restaurant. Then, when Seattle's top young African American band, the Dave Lewis Combo, began playing weekly at the Birdland dancehall (2203 E Madison Street) in 1957, the Barons made occasional "spotlight" appearances with them.

Additional high points included the night when R&B star Percy Mayfield (1920-1984) headlined a revue at the Century Ballroom, and the Barons were invited up to sing a few songs with him and his band. On another occasion, the Barons were brought onstage to sing a couple of numbers at Seattle's Eagles Auditorium (7th Avenue and Union Street) by the 5 Royales, a touring doo-wop group whose "Think" became a major hit in 1957.

So Long ...

Before long some of the guys' religiously strict parents disapproved of the R&B lifestyle -- and it does appear that the guys failed to graduate from school -- and such pressures were a factor in causing the Barons to dissolve. Over time, Gold (who eventually moved to Seattle) made stabs at carrying on with new recruits.

Sad to say, though, the Barons' heyday had passed, and their considerable achievements have since faded into the mists of time. Indeed, the Barons are completely missing from such otherwise excellent and authoritative books as The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990, and The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.

My Secret

In April 1987, Seattle's KVI radio broadcast a 10-hour radio special, The History of Northwest Rock, that I had penned, and co-produced with staffer, Mike Webb (1955-2007). Information about the Barons included in the hour-long "Vintage Northwest R&B (1949-1963)" segment caught plenty of area music fans by surprise. Phone calls and letters came in expressing excitement about the group and their "lost" history. The historical details provided in that program subsequently migrated over to the Internet where they existed for years as the only publicly available, and accurate, information about the group.

There is, on the other hand, plenty of inaccurate Barons-related factoids swirling in cyberspace, and on various album liner-note essays as well. This problem apparently began in the late 1960s with the release of an oldies-but-goodies LP that misidentified the Barons as a New Orleans group -- a mix-up that was compounded in the mid-1980s when EMI issued a doo-wop collection. Then, in 1987, the Barons were even included on EMI's Lost Dreams: The New Orleans Vocal Groups LP -- and that misinformation was subsequently incorporated directly into the Encyclopedia of Rhythm & Blues and Doo-Wop Vocal Groups. And these miscues have carried forth: as recently as 2007, the liner notes of a CD box-set (The Cosimo Matassa Story) of Imperial classics has the Barons recording ("Boom Boom" / "Eternally Yours") at Cosimo Matassa's famous J&M Studio in New Orleans on February 9, 1955, with a follow-up session there on June 8, 1955.

A Baron Wasteland

One probable reason for all this confusion -- aside from the fact that Imperial actually did record many other groups in New Orleans -- is that the band's name was a ridiculously common one in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, there seems to have been a Barons vocal group (or rock band) in every region of America during those decades. New Orleans had at least one (Etah Records); New York had theirs (Decca Records); Detroit, theirs (Soul and Spartan Records); and Texas theirs (Torch Records).

In addition, various Barons scattered around the country recorded for Bellaire, Blue Jay Dart, Demon, Epic Key, Mode, RCA, Shagg, Shout, Tender, and Whitehall Records. And to further complicate matters, Imperial even signed a second Barons -- a garage rock band that cut one single in 1964 (the same year, by coincidence, that the label issued records by Seattle's Viceroys and Tacoma's Wailers).

Ahead Of Their Time

But the fact that the Barons' saga has been botched by various music historians reflects not at all on the group's musical merits. In fact, the Barons may well be the quintessential example of a worthy musical ensemble who simply got lost in the shuffle of music biz priorities. The Barons ought to have been serious contenders for widespread rock 'n' roll fame. Just consider that they were already cutting rockin' discs while Little Richard was still working as a bus-station dishwasher; Chuck Berry was still a half-year away from recording his debut hit, “Maybellene”; and Imperial's teen dream megastar, Ricky Nelson, was two years out from signing with the label!

If the Barons were under-promoted nationally by both their label and their talent agency, back home in the Northwest they were wholly underexposed. Yet the Barons do hold the historical distinction of being the very first homegrown Northwest rock 'n' roll group to record their songs -- songs that have stood the test of time and remain available on several compilation CDs. 


Peter Blecha interviews with Sterling "Stokey" Wilford (1985), Dave Lewis (July 1983 and April 12, 1989), and Anthony "Tiny Tony" Smith [Gallahads] (September 5, 1984), recordings in author's possession; Peter Blecha conversations and telephone interview with Win Vidor (1984); Rhea Maas, Tacoma Public Schools archives, email to Peter Blecha, October 19, 2009, in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Pete Grendysa, "The Bihari Brothers," Goldmine magazine, May 1979, p. 35-36;  Peter Blecha, "That's Tough: Vintage R&B of the Pacific Northwest," DISCoveries magazine, April, 1990, p. 104; Peter Blecha, "Northwest Rock: The Eruption of '59," Sound magazine, August, 2009, p. 58-61;  Jay Warner, The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990 (New York: Billboard Books 1992); The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll ed. by Jim Miller (New York: Random House 1976);  Mitch Rosalsky, Encyclopedia of Rhythm & Blues and Doo-Wop Vocal Groups (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2000); Joel Whitburn, Top R&B Singles: 1942-1999 (Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc., 2000).

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