'The Great Pretender'

The Platters. i i

hide captionThe Platters.

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images
The Platters.

The Platters.

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

Los Angeles, 1953: Herb Reed, Alex Hodge, Tony Williams and David Lynch were making the rounds at amateur music contests singing mostly for the fun of it, winning more often than not. Eventually, says Herb Reed, the group needed a name.

"I used to listen to disc jockeys refer to records as being platters. `Here we're going to spin another platter by so and so. We're going to spin this platter by so and so.' And that's where I got the idea."

The Platters heard that a songwriter in Hollywood was looking for new groups to represent. The songwriter turned out to be Buck Ram, who co-wrote the Bing Crosby hit "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and had been an arranger for Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. Ram, who was trying to get in on the rapidly changing pop music scene, was already working with a few other R&B groups. But Jean Bennett, Buck Ram's partner, said it was tenor Tony Williams who made Ram think The Platters could be something special.

"Buck had always, from the very beginning, with Tony's voice felt that he could see Tony and The Platters as a Mills Brothers group. Standard act, people who, you know, could last with ballads instead of just strictly the R&B tunes."

Ram could hear how the Platters might be able to set themselves apart from other pop music acts. He fiddled with their sound, pushing Williams into the lead on most songs. The Platters were already signed to Federal Records, a small West Coast label that recorded black artists. Ram, knowing a record contract wouldn't pay the bills, found The Platters paying jobs on the club circuit and looked for songs for them to record. One day the group was hanging around Ram's office poking through his music files when Jean Bennett came across a set of lyrics with "Only You" written across the top.

"And I pulled it out and I said to Buck, `What's the song? This sounds so good. I like this lyric.' Tony said, `Play it for me. I'd like to hear it.' And so Buck and his stymied piano—he wasn't much of a pianist, but he played it and sang it. And Tony said, `I like that. That's a good song.' And Buck said, `Good. We'll make it our first recording.'"

Federal Records released "Only You" in 1954. But that version never made it on to charts. Around that time Ram changed the makeup of the group, dropping Alex Hodge and adding baritone Paul Robi. And in an unusual move, added a girl to the group, 15-year-old Zola Taylor.

"And she did exactly what Buck thought she could do," Ms. Bennet says. "She gave them the courage on stage that they lacked 'cause she was very precocious and, you know, if something did go wrong with the routine, then she would put her hand on her hip and give a big smile and everything, you know, `Come on, fellas,' you know, and she'd bring it right back in line."

Early in 1955, Buck Ram got a call. Mercury Records wanted to sign another group he managed, The Penguins, who had a hit song with "Earth Angel." Ram, seeing a chance to jump start The Platters' career, told Mercury if they wanted The Penguins, they'd also have to take The Platters. Mercury agree and Ram decided The Platters should record "Only You" again. This time, says Herb Reed, the song got an unexpected boost. A new DJ in the Midwest didn't know that record companies used different color schemes to alert disc jockeys to African-American artists.

"Let's say the major label was a black label and if you were a black artist, they would put you on an orange label. This way it would tell the disc jockeys that you were a black act. So what happened is that a guy out in Cleveland, Ohio, picked up "Only You" one night, played it 'cause he didn't know. He didn't, you know, pay any attention and the switchboard lit up. And people wanted to know who that was. So he said, `Well, let me find the record.' And he found it and he says, `A group called The Platters.' So we were just lucky that he didn't pay attention to the color of the label and we were able to, like, sneak through the cracks."

"Only You" became a national hit and crossed from the R&B charts to the pop charts, peaking at number five. Thrilled with the success of "Only You," Mercury executive Bobby Shad began hounding Ram for the group's next hit.

"And he said, `Buck, we gotta have a follow-up'," Ms. Bennett says. "'You and I, we got to get together 'cause I got a bunch of songs.' And Buck said, `You don't need to have a bunch of songs. I've got the song that's going to follow up on "Only You."' `Oh, really. What's the name of it?' So he said, `Well, it's "Great Pretender." And it was a title that he had held in his head, he said, for a long time, but had never written a song on it."

"So anyway, he said, `Bobby, I can't sing it for you now. I have to go to Las Vegas and I will get back with you.' And that night he thought, `Well, I better write this "Great Pretender" 'cause Bobby's not going to let me rest.' So he went into the men's restroom at the Flamingo, where they were playing, and he sat down in the stall and he penned 'The Great Pretender.'"

But there was a problem. Tony Williams wasn't sure he wanted to sing "The Great Pretender." He thought the song sounded like hillbilly music. So, Paul Robi sat down with Herb Reed and the two of them tinkered with the vocal arrangements, which Ram didn't hear until the group was in the studio.

"And when it came time to record that, he was infuriated because he said that isn't what he wrote," Mr. Reed says. "In fact, he stormed out of the studio because he was so upset over the fact that we didn't hold true to what he had written."

There was no time to redo the arrangement. And worse for Ram, he had to come back to the session to play the piano because the group couldn't afford a full complement of studio musicians. The recording went ahead, Williams' voice conveying all the bravado of a man hiding his deepest feelings and the rest of the group providing harmony.

"The Great Pretender" was released while only "Only You" was still on the charts and both songs were featured in the 1956 movie "Rock Around the Clock," a film, when released in Europe, made international stars out of The Platters. A few months later, "The Great Pretender" rose to number one on the pop chart, making The Platters the first black group to make it to the top of the charts. The Platters went on to have several other pop hits in the '50s: "My Prayer," "Twilight Time," and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," all made it to number one.

Buck Ram died in 1991 and only two of the original Platters are still alive today, Herb Reed, who still tours, and Zola Taylor, who suffered a stroke a few years ago. There has been some legal wrangling over who has official use of the name The Platters, but Jean Bennett says ultimately it's not who sings the song that matters.

"It's still the music," says Ms. Bennett. "It's always the music and people remember the songs more than they remember the people."

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