The Charioteers In Session — 1945 — Past Daily Nights At The Round…

The Charioteers’ first release with Vocalion was on 23rd July 1937, a snappy rendition of the ’20s standard “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans”. Vocalion had been a part of the long-ailing Brunswick Radio Corporation since 1924 and in 1937 it had only two years of existence ahead of it. The Charioteers recorded only sparingly for Vocalion, switching to the parent label Brunswick in 1939, the last year of Brunswick’s independent existence. On Vocalion, the group recorded popular new tunes, the odd and remarkable “Laughing Boy Blues” and, in a brief return to the label in September, 1939, sang backing vocals for Mildred Bailey.

Bailey, a large white woman with a lovely crystalline voice, was the darling of the pre-war jazz singers and the Charioteers backed her on “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”, a slave song from Mississippi that originated before 1860. Brunswick had the group concentrate on old spirituals, releasing some as by The Southern Male Quartet. The unique style of the Charioteers was in a stage of rapid development, best exemplified by “Water Boy” and the two part “De Glory Road”. After a few more old-timey songs such as “Love’s Old Sweet Song” and “Old Folks At Home”, the group joined the newly formed Columbia Record Company, who had taken over Brunswick. In 1938 the Charioteers had joined the cast of one of America’s greatest ever musical reviews, Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’, which lasted for four and a half years.

By now Billy Williams’ sublimely smooth vocals were driving the group’s fame. In 1940 they took a break from the show to feature in a Hollywood movie, Road Show, and The Delta Rhythms Boys took their place temporarily. Thanks to the exposure generated by Hellzapoppin’ the Charioteers came to the attention of the world’s biggest recording star, Bing Crosby. Bing was at the height of his popularity thanks in part to his coast-to-coast radio show, The Kraft Music Hall.

The Charioteers became regulars on his show during the 1942 season. They stayed with Bing on the radio throughout most of the next five years, regularly performing with him, whilst recording a string of highly regarded recordings in both the pop and spiritual fields. Jukebox hits were also forthcoming in this period including “So Long” (1940), “On The Boardwalk In Atlantic City” (1946), “Open The Door Richard” (1947), “Chi-Baba” (1947), “Look A-There Ain’t She Pretty” (1947), “What Did He Say?” (1948) and “A Kiss And A Rose” (1949). Although the group did not make any commercial recordings with Crosby due to contractual difficulties, they did perform with other artists, notably Frank Sinatra, who they accompanied on the 1945 hit “Don’t Forget Tonight Tomorrow”. Also released in 1945 was the somewhat bizarre coupling of Sinatra and the Charioteers performing the gospel song “Jesus Is A Rock (In A Weary Land)”.

In 1947 the Charioteers were to record what was to become one of their biggest hits, a cover of “Look A-There Ain’t She Pretty”, a finger-snapping ditty originally a hit for crooner Buddy Greco. Astonishingly, the Charioteers’ recording got a whole new lease of life in Britain in 2007 when Marks & Spencer used it to accompany the launch of their latest fashion collection, with Twiggy et al cavorting to its slinky strains.

The same year that “Look A-There Ain’t She Pretty” originally hit, the Charioteers, thanks to their work with Bing Crosby, were at the height of their popularity with audiences both black and white delighting in Williams and co’s slick harmonies. In 1947 Crosby had announced, erroneously as it turned out, his retirement and the same year the Charioteers accepted a long standing invitation to perform in England. Travelling on the Queen Mary they performed at the London Palladium. Daniel recalled the trip in a 1980 interview: “We docked at Southampton and took the train to London. We had a wonderful time there and stayed at 3 Cork Street right off Bond Street.” Due to a long term booking at New York’s Paramount Theatre they were unable to capitalize on what was by all accounts a very successful run at the Palladium.

By the late ’40s the vocal group style was becoming popular with post war black teenagers who embraced a more personal style of vocalising with the lead vocalist more prominent. The group that broke the mould and helped launch the doowop style as it became known were Sonny Til & The Orioles from Baltimore who were enormously influenced by the Charioteers and especially lead singer Billy Williams. Ironically, the Charioteers’ last big hit, ‘A Kiss And A Rose”, was also a hit for The Orioles.

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Gordon Skene

Gordon Skene

Two-time Grammy nominee, author and archivist of history, news, and popular culture. Runs Past Daily — runs The Gordon Skene Sound Collection. Hardly sleeps.