Obituary: Tony Williams

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The Independent Online
Tony Williams, singer, born Elizabeth New Jersey 15 April 1928, died New York City 14 August 1992.

TONY WILLIAMS was the original lead singer of The Platters, the most successful black rhythm-and-blues doo-wop group to emerge in the Fifties. The Platters sold over 50 million records and introduced a unique blend of orchestral arrangement with a distinct rhythm-and-blues harmonising, which almost immediately earned them acceptance amongst the United States' white audience.

Williams was the brother of the blues singer Linda Hayes, and it was she who first introduced him to the ex-lawyer turned songwriter and arranger Buck Ram in 1954. Ram had previously worked with the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands. Ram was a booking agent at the time of the introduction, and was reputedly so impressed by the tonal purity of Williams's high tenor, that he decided to create the 'Platters sound', around his voice. Williams was working as a parking-lot attendant in Los Angeles at the time.

Williams had formed the group in 1953, with his fellow members David Lynch, Alex Hodge and Herbert Reed. It was when Buck Ram signed them to a management contract, and added a female singer - Zola Taylor, a member of The Teen Queens - that a distinct style began to emerge. It was unusual to find a female vocalist in a doo-wop group, and Ram sought to widen the range and vocal blend with this addition. Shortly after Ram took over the management, Hodge was forced to leave the group after an incident with the police. The vocalist Paul Robi replaced him, and this new line-up was the final combination which made The Platters the most successful black group of the Fifties.

The Platters signed a contract with Mercury records in November 1955, and the label's initial commercial reaction to them was that they were simply another rhythm-and-blues group. But Ram placed promotional emphasis on Williams's voice as a ballad singer, insisting that the group were pop-chart material. Their first single, 'Only You (And You Alone)', hit the mainstream US chart at number 5, much to the amazement of Mercury's A and R department.

In February 1956 Mercury released their follow-up single, the ballad 'The Great Pretender'. The record, composed by Ram, was a perfect showcase for the emotional range and scope of Williams's voice, and remained at the top of the US hit parade for over two weeks, selling more than a million copies. In September the song was backed with 'Only You' and released in Britain, where it reached No 5 in the hit parade. Before this several cover versions of both of these songs had entered the British charts (there was a delay in Mercury's obtaining a UK outlet). When the original Platters recording finally hit the charts the New Musical Express described Williams's voice as 'unearthly'.

Tony Williams met his wife Helen, a model, in Las Vegas in 1957. She replaced Zola Taylor as the female vocalist, and they were married in 1963, three years after Williams left the group to embark on a solo career with Frank Sinatra's Reprise label.

The Platters had four No 1 hits and 16 gold records, including 'My Prayer', 'Harbour Lights', 'Twilight Time' and 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes', which remained at the top of the British charts for five weeks. Shortly before Williams left the group they were billed as 'The Platters featuring Tony Williams'. The Platters continued with a replacement lead vocalist, Sonny Turner. They performed worldwide, specialising in night-club appearances, but neither Williams alone, nor the group, ever recaptured the special magic of the original combination.

Several changes of personnel followed, and at one time it was claimed that there were over 20 groups claiming to be the original Platters. But, just as Diana Ross was The Supremes, so Tony Williams was The Platters.

(Photograph omitted)