Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Sonny Turner -- the Platter's lead in the 1960's
Sonny was born in 1941 in Fairmont, West Virginia. His father was a boxer and his mother a gospel singer. His father received an injury in the ring so when Sonny was 4 years old the family moved to Cleveland so his father could get a new job. However shortly after the move his father died but even this did not deter Sonny from trying to follow in his footsteps as he also attempted to establish a boxing career. After a couple of years in the game though he hadn't made any real progress and so his mother suggested a change. As a result, in high school, he started singing. In 1955 while still a teenager he formed a group, the Metrotones, with some other locals and they progressed from amateur shows to local club dates and concerts. They learnt their trade this way, picking up pointers along the way from top groups with whom they performed on tour dates in Cleveland. Sonny was still underage and therefore he had to use a friends I.D. to play club dates and so at the time he went by the name of Sonny Dinkes. The group soon made a name for themselves locally and as a result were signed by Henry George to a recording contract with his Reserve Record label. The groups' members were Sonny, Melvin Smith, James Frierson, Leuvenia Eaton and Leonard Veal. Leonard Veal was to become a member of the Hesitations a few years later.
The group went into the studio in 1958 and cut 4 songs and a single was issued shortly afterwards, "Please Come Back / Skitter Skatter" (Reserve 116). The record enjoyed some success in the Cleveland area and this led to tours across the north-eastern states. The group were progressing and seemed to have an assured future however two members went into the army and this started their break up. Sonny decided to try and make it as a solo act, he entered the top local talent show which was held at weekends at Gleason's Music Bar on 55th St. and Woodland in Cleveland. His performance was well received and led to him securing some bookings, before long he was performing as far afield as Detroit and various venues in Canada.
Across America in L.A. though events were unfolding that were to have a major effect on Sonny's future. Tony Williams, the 'voice' of the Platters had decided to quit the group to pursue a solo career. Buck Ram, the group's manager and mentor, had put the word out that a replacement was urgently needed and a search to find a similar sounding vocalist had commenced. L.A. D.J. Bill Crane was despatched by Buck Ram to scout around the country to find the right person to replace Williams. Thus Crane found himself at the Music Box in Cleveland late in 1960 watching the opening act, Sonny Turner. Crane liked what he saw and so after the show he talked with Sonny, who confirmed his interest in joining the group. A session at a recording studio on Prospect Avenue (in Cleveland) was quickly arranged for the following day and at this an audition tape of top Platters tunes was made. This was forwarded on to Buck Ram who liked the contents and so a live audition with the group was arranged. Bill Crane and Sonny caught a night sleeper train to Millwaukee and the next day at Henry's Club in the city he stood in with the group on a few tunes. The try out went well, even Tony Williams liking Sonny's performance and so he was chosen from the long list of hopefuls to be the new lead singer with the Platters. Two weeks of hurried rehearsals were followed by his first full appearance with the group at the Lotus Club in Washington.
The group’s record company, Mercury, weren't happy with the personnel change and so initially they continued to release tracks featuring Tony Williams on lead vocals. Sonny's first recording with the group was "It's Magic" which was to become the group’s first release of 1962 (January). The first single to feature Sonny's vocals was "Song For The Lonely / You'll Never Know" (Mercury 71904) released in November 1961. However times were moving on and the ballad style tunes with which the group had enjoyed such success in the 1950's were going out of style. Mercury were reluctant to allow the group to change to the new style and as a result the chart hits dried up. Live work kept the group busy but personnel changes continued to occur, Nate Nelson (originally of the Flamingo's) and Sandra Dawn replacing Paul Robi and Zola Taylor. In 1965 the group’s line up was David Lynch, Herb Reed, Sandra Dawn, Nate Nelson and Sonny. Their last Mercury release had occurred in 1964 and in 1965 they had one single, "Run While It's Dark", released on the small Entree label. However by the end of the year a new contract had been secured with Musicor Records which was run by former Mercury Records man Art Talmadge. The New York based company decided a new sound was required for the group and so a search for the right producer was instigated. This eventually led to the appointment of the experienced Luther Dixon to the job and along with his new wife, Inez Foxx, he wrote the song which was to become the groups first single "I Love You 1000 Times" (Musicor 1166). The group’s new sound was based on the highly successful Motown sound although their vocals were not cut in Detroit. The record, which featured Sonny on lead vocals, was released in April 1966 and immediately started breaking big in a number of U.S. cities. It soon entered the national charts, eventually making Top 10 R & B and Top 40 Pop.
The follow up "Devri" (Musicor 1195 : August 66) was also a Dixon / Foxx composition and Dixon production but this failed to repeat the success of its predecessor (however recently this has been the groups most popular cut with U.K. soul fans). A return to the charts was made early in 1967 when "With This Ring" (Musicor 1229) was released. The instrumentation to this Popcorn Wylie / Tony Hestor / Luther Dixon composition was cut in Detroit as were many of the groups backing tracks in this period. However the group was so busy with live engagements that they added their vocals when and where they could. Sonny remembers well one occasion when he left the group on the completion of a booking at the Newport Hotel in Miami. He flew to New York and laid down the vocals over 8 pre-recorded backing tracks assisted by session backing vocalists. Two days after he had left them he was back on a plane on his way to rejoin the rest of the group ready to start their next engagement. In 1967 Larry Johnson replaced David Lynch in the group. On the groups albums lead vocals were shared by the members of the group, for instance Larry Johnson featured on "Get A Hold Of Yourself", Nate Nelson on "Why Do You Wanna Make Me Blue", even bass singer Herb Reed was given his chance. However Sonny was the more usual lead vocalist and he was featured on hit tracks such as "With this Ring". Two more singles were released in 1967, "Washed ashore" (Musicor 1215) and "Sweet Sweet Lovin" (Musicor 1275) and both of these also enjoyed chart success. Their U.S. success was reflected here in the U.K. as a number of singles and L.P.'s were released by EMI on the Stateside label. After these though the groups U.S. releases were less successful even though their quality remained high. Sonny again supplied the lead vocals on the song "Hard To Get A Thing called Love" which was recorded at Groove Sound Studio in New York and released on a single (Musicor 1322) in July 68. Sonny's contribution to this single went further still as he wrote the song, "Why", which was to feature on the B side. Later in 1968 "Fear (Of Losing You) " (Musicor 1341) was released as a single again without much success and shortly afterwards Herb Reed, the last original member of the group quit.
When Sonny had joined the group in 1960 he made $250 a week as a new starter which was not a bad sum at that time, but by 1970 this had only risen to $750 a week. He decided the time was right to try to establish a solo career. He quit and his departure resulted in the complete break-up of the group. Buck Ram immediately put together a completely new 5 strong line-up so he obviously had a financial incentive in keeping the group going. Sonny secured himself a solo recording contract, again with Musicor and he put together a backing group, Sounds Unlimited. They went on the road and started to record some tracks. Sonny also acted as producer on some of their recording work however his first release was the single "Atlanta" (Musicor 1420) which was produced by Kelso Hersten. At around the same time, the summer of 71, the Platters last Musicor single (which incidentally featured Sonny on vocals) was also released.
By this time, back in the U.K., many of the groups earlier Musicor recordings were popular on the 'Northern' scene and this prompted Pye (who now held the rights to the U.S. companies material) to start releasing tracks. Their first effort in May 71 was the album "Our Way" (Pye International 28149) which included re-workings of old standards together with "Devri". This was quickly followed by a more astute release, the single "Sweet Sweet Lovin / Going Back To Detroit" (25559) in July and as this sold well a second single "With This Ring / Washed Ashore" (25569) followed in October. The frantic release schedule was continued in December 71 when the cut-price compilation L.P. "Two Decades Of Hits" (Pye PKL 4411) hit the shops. This included a mix of the groups 60's hits, re-recordings of their 50's hits and lesser known tracks (such as "Doesn't It Ring A Bell", "Fear Of Losing You" and "Love Must Go On"). A few months later, in March 72 a various artist album "The Bumper Funk Book" (Pye Int. 28159) was issued and this included both the Platters "With This Ring" and Sonny's solo effort "Atlanta". The renewed British interest in the group resulted in Herb Reed's Platters (not Buck Ram's official line-up) being booked for a U.K. tour. Naturally Buck Ram was none too pleased with the number of rival line-ups of the Platters that had sprung up and was particularly vindictive towards Sonny's activities at the time (his line ups recording contract had been ended by Musicor while they had offered Sonny a contract).
Musicor released an album on Sonny, "Standing Ovation" and in June 72 this was followed by another single "Chicago Woman" (Musicor 1459) but none of the records faired too well. Sonny and his group were kept busy though continuously touring, with bookings as far afield as Japan, Italy and the Middle East. In 1973 Sonny was reunited with one of his earliest musical associates as Leonard Veal (ex Metrotones / Hesitations) joined Sounds Unlimited, a position he was to retain until 1977. In the late 70's the 'Beach music' scene in the Carolinas picked up on the Platter's 60's material and as a result Sonny started to undertake a lot more live work in the area. This popularity led to an album release for him on Christopher Records of Greenville, South Carolina in 1984, the album "The Touch" containing a re-recording of "With This Ring". Sonny relocated to Los Angeles but after his wife died in 1986 he moved again, this time to Las Vegas. Today he mainly appears at casinos in the city and at similar venues in Reno and Atlantic City, supplementing these with overseas bookings.
To get a full appreciation of the quality of Sonny and the Platters work for Musicor I could do no better than recommend you obtain a copy of the Kent CD "The Platters - The Musicor Years" (Kent CDKEND 116) which features 28 of the best tracks that the group recorded between 1965 and 1969.