Herb Reed: Founder member of the smooth vocal group The Platters

 

With their sweet harmonies, smooth presentation and a repertoire of sophisticated originals and Tin Pan Alley revivals, The Platters became the most successful vocal group of the 1950s. The irresistible "Only You (And You Alone)", "The Great Pretender" and "Twilight Time", as well as their sublime interpretation of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", crossed over from the rhythm & blues to the top of the pop charts and helped break the colour barrier in the US. Their omnipresence on easy listening stations and on the evocative soundtracks of nostalgic films such as American Graffiti has not dulled the appeal of their worldwide hits, which have been covered by Ringo Starr, Freddie Mercury and Bryan Ferry.

The bass singer Herb Reed was not only the last surviving member of the all-male original quartet, but a mainstay of its most popular incarnation – a quintet whose line-up also comprised Tony Williams, the lead tenor with the near-operatic voice, David Lynch, second tenor, Paul Robi, baritone, and the contralto female vocalist Zola Taylor. Reed also named the group. "The disc-jockeys used to refer to the records as being platters," he recalled in 2010. "We were all individual singers, that's why I came up with the name The Platters. But nobody liked it. The record company and the manager tried to get us to change it. I was emphatic. I wanted to keep it. I'm glad we did," said Reed who, over the last 20 years, spent a reported $1m trying to establish his rights to the name.

With 80 "phony" Platters in operation, some of them remnants of the splinter groups once fronted by long-deceased former members, and others started by "people who were in The Platters for five days", as he claimed, the singer and his legal representatives had their work cut out. However, in 2011, a federal court judge in Nevada granted Reed preferential rights to The Platters name, prompting him to comment: "It's not right to have someone steal your name. We were cheated back then, but that's how things were done then. It's doubly wrong to face it again today. It's theft, and I had to fight so that no other artist faces this."

Reed was born into abject poverty in Kansas City, Missouri in 1928. "I would skip school because I was so hungry," he said. After his parents died, he was raised by relatives. At the age of 15, he moved to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a lift there. He arrived with just three dollars to his name, but found employment at a car wash. He made friends and began singing a cappella on street corners, honing a style that drew as much on gospel as on the emerging vowel-heavy doo-wop sound.

After winning several talent contests in 1953, The Platters made their television debut performing an unlikely swing version of the nursery rhyme "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" on Ebony Showcase Presents, a variety show broadcast on KTTV in the Los Angeles area. Ralph Bass, a producer with a knack for unearthing African-American talent, signed them to the King Records subsidiary Federal, but was quickly edged out by the arranger and songwriter Buck Ram, who became their mentor.

Ram reshuffled the line-up, smoothed out their edges and encouraged them to emulate their antecedents The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots rather than follow the novelty route of The Drifters and The Robins. "We were going for beautiful tunes with beautiful melodies, a beautiful tenor voice and beautiful harmonies in the background. We stayed with the melody, we didn't do too many tricks," Reed explained.

Though they only scored regional hits on Federal, The Platters were soon earning $150 a night, more than The Penguins, another Los Angeles vocal ensemble who had just topped the R&B charts with "Earth Angel" and also joined Ram's management roster. In 1955, when Mercury expressed an interest in The Penguins, Ram convinced the Chicago label to also take The Platters in a two-for-one deal. Even better, he persuaded Mercury to let The Platters re-record his own composition "Only You", which Federal had shelved. And Ram insisted the group should be promoted across the board like a pop act, not just to the R&B market. His hunch paid off and turned "Only You" into a crossover smash.

According to Reed, Ram was "a total genius when it came to lyrics." He wrote "The Great Pretender", The Platters' follow-up hit, in 30 minutes, masterminded the release of "My Prayer", adapted from a French song, and had a hand in "Twilight Time", which topped the US charts in 1958 and sounded the death knell for the 78rpm disc (98 per cent of the one-and-a-half million copies sold in the US were 45rpm 7" singles).

The Platters may have appeared in both Rock Around the Clock and The Girl Can't Help It, the musical films which capitalised on the new teenage craze in 1956, but they had little in common with Bill Haley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran. "We weren't recording rock and roll," stressed Reed. Rather, they specialised in easy-on-the-ear material with cross-generational appeal, as exemplified by their gorgeous adaptation of the Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach show tune "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes". Indeed, the group attained such a level of popularity that they recorded "Smoke" in Paris during a whirlwind tour of European capitals in the autumn of 1958.

Unfortunately, despite their status as ambassadors of American music, The Platters were still performing to segregated audiences in the South and experienced racism on their travels. In August 1959, the four male members were arrested in a Cincinnati hotel while entertaining four 19-year-old women, three of them white. The morals charges came with a whiff of racism and the judge dismissed the case, but their career nevertheless experienced a dip.

In 1960, Williams quit to go solo, followed by Robi and Taylor two years later. Mercury continued to issue Williams-voiced material and refused to record the new line-up, still featuring Reed and Lynch alongside Sonny Turner (lead tenor), Nate Nelson (of The Flamingos, baritone) and Sandra Dawn. The Platters eventually signed to Musicor in 1966 and enjoyed a brief revival with "I Love You 1000 Times", "With This Ring", "Washed Ashore (On a Lonely Island in the Sea)" and "Sweet, Sweet Lovin'", US-only hits which became northern soul favourites in the UK.

By the time he left the group in 1969, Reed had recorded over 400 tracks, his glorious basso profondo heard at its best on their 1956 hit "You'll Never, Never Know".

"I never thought that it would keep going, and I never wanted to assume we'd keep getting cheques," said the singer, who used his hard-earned cash to buy a house in Los Angeles but later moved to Atlanta and then Arlington, Massachusetts.

The Platters were inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1990.

Pierre Perrone

Herbert Reed, singer: born Kansas City, Missouri 7 August 1928; one son; died Danvers, Massachusetts 4 June 2012.

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