Delta Rhythm Boys
While trolling around an MP3 newsgroup one day, I saw the name 'Delta Rhythm Boys.' I had no idea who they were but the name intrigued me. From the name itself, I had to guess that they were some kind of early vocal group- turns out that it was a good guess. Also guessed that they'd provide some amazing harmonies and I definitely wasn't disappointed. (To hear the Deltas for yourself, keep an eye out for Dry Bones on RCA, a great compilation of their material from the '40's.)
Carl Jones Interview
by Jason Gross
In a piece of serendipity, not long after my discovery, I received a notice that not only had the Deltas been inducted into the United In Group Harmony Association Hall of Fame but also that one of the members was actually present to accept the award. Surely, this had to be a sign that this something worth following up.
Doing a bit of homework, I found out why their name didn't ring a bell. Although they had done recordings with Ella Fitzgerald and Fred Astaire as well as shows with Amos & Andy and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, not to mention numerous film and radio appearances, recordings for Decca and Atlantic and heralded international tours, they were much less well-known that say, their heroes the Mills Brothers. As it turns out, despite the fact that they were spread over every manner of media available to them at the time (I'm sure they would have been on the Net had it been around then), the Deltas were a group with pride. Refusing to tour the South during the Jim Crow days and also shunning degrading movie offers, the Deltas no doubt lost some opportunities though they did find plenty of work otherwise. Also, since they were so versatile with different styles, it was hard to peg them into any category easily, which means that marketing them wasn't always easy. Beyond these hurdles, it's their half-step jubilee style that became a blueprint for many doo-wop and vocal groups to come after them.
I was privileged enough to speak to long-time member Carl Jones (on the far right in the above picture) about the Deltas' history and also get a lot of fascinating historical details in the bargain such as the birth of the Nat King Cole trio, Ella Fitzgerald's career battles, the early days of Las Vegas and the mechanisms of the film industry at the time.
Many thanks to Luck Media and Jerry Skokandich and his great Rhythm and Blues Highway site.
PSF: Were you involved in music before joining the Deltas?
I majored in music here in Los Angeles, in high school and college. I was in a couple of groups. In high school (around 1937-1938, I had a group called the Dreamers. Then we were in another, larger group of 12 called the Plantation Boys, who did jazz things.
After I graduated from high school, in college, I did a lot of work in the film industry, making vocal arrangements for production numbers. In fact, I was doing that when I first met the Deltas. But I had been working before that in my own group and other groups out here as a vocal arranger. I had my own group and I had a group with four young girls in high school called the Three and A Half Nightingales. I did the arrangements for them and then I put them together with my group of seven voices all together and I made arrangements for that group. We did lot of radio work out here and a lot of performances at parties and different venues like that.
PSF: Who were you modeling these groups after?
My inspiration, and this is before I joined the Deltas, was a group called Merry Macs. They were under contract to Capitol Records and they recorded with Johnny Mercer. I liked that because they had three guys and a girl and they put the girl on top with the lead. Then I started to do the same thing with my group- put the top on the lead, rather than having the traditional quartet with the tenor over the top and baritone and bass underneath. That was basically how we did the Deltas' arrangements, especially after I joined the group.
PSF: How did you originally get involved in radio?
I had just graduated from high school and a radio station called me because I had been working around in films as I said. They wanted a transcription of songs for their particular station- this was before DJ's, and all the radio stations would have their own music to play. So they said 'we're going to send you a guy with a trio, then we'd like for you all to do about eight songs for us.' I said OK.
They gave me the name of the piano player to go see and his name as Nathaniel Cole. So when I went to see him, he was directing the show at a nightclub in Hollywood. We got together and showed him the chart that we (the quartet) were going to sing so he could accompany (us). They (Cole's group) did about four things on their own too. He did not have a trio together before that- he put it together just for this particular date. So that was the birth of the Nat King Cole Trio. Then we did the session for the radio and a jukebox company heard them. They had us come out and sing for them- they were going to put their own records on their own jukeboxes. We sang for them and they liked us. Nat and them played and they said 'Well, that's great. We like you guys as singers but we would need to hire musicians for you. But the trio, we don't have to hire anybody.' He told them (the Trio) that one of the guys would have to do the lead singing besides playing. The guitar player and the bass player said 'we don't sing so Nat, you have to do it.' Nat said 'Man, I don't sing!' They said 'You gonna have to sing!' So the first record for them was "Straighten Up and Fly Right" for this jukebox company. It was so popular here in L.A. that I think it was Decca Records that bought the master and put it out nationwide. That was the first hit of the Nat King Cole Trio and they never looked back after that.
PSF: What did you hear about the Deltas before you joined? Did they have some kind of reputation?
I really never heard of them before because they were from Dillard University (New Orleans) and they were unknown here on the West Coast. In fact, they were really unknown because when they were at Dillard, they were juniors. A man came from South America and wanted them to come there on a tour to sing Negro spirituals. That's what they were singing at Dillard, representing the college, acappella. So they left Dillard and they were supposed to be gone for six months but they were down there for two years, traveling and singing.
When they came back, the ship landed in New York. They could not go back to Dillard because the semester was almost over. So they decided 'Maybe we can try it here in New York and get some work.' That's how they started. They auditioned for Decca Records and Decca liked them with the song "Dry Bones." Decca signed them up. It was owned by two of the Kapp Brothers, Dave Kapp and I think it was Joe Kapp. Their third brother was Paul Kapp. They called him and said 'We've just signed a group here- you might be interested in managing them so come on down and meet them.' Paul went down and met them and they talked it over. That's when they added a piano player, Rene DeKnight. They started singing other songs besides spirituals, because Rene was doing the arrangements.
PSF: So they traveled out to California when you met them?
Yeah, they came out in a show with Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. They were on tour so when they reached L.A., they did the show and then they stayed because Universal signed them up for a seven year contract. So they stayed out here on the West Coast. Those contracts can always be cancelled after the first year and they were not too pleased with the stereotypical image that the studio wanted. These guys were music majors at Dillard- they played instruments and sang.
PSF: What do you mean by 'stereotypical image'?
In a stereotype, they wanted them to do a song... instead of doing it in a night club, they put them in a run-down shack and would have them sing like they were in the South, like share-croppers. So they said 'Why can't we just be singing somewhere else?' The war was going on at the time so they asked 'Why can't we be G.I.'s?' So the studio said 'OK, but if you're too particular, we can nullify your contract after one year.' They said 'Great, OK, no big deal but we had some pride.' So they didn't like to do the stereotypical thing that the movie industry at that particular time did.
PSF: So did they win out with that?
Yes, they did. They finally turned them around. They did about 15-16 movies. But they shot them in their own separate deal. They just photographed them singing songs. Then they would put that section into a movie that they needed a lift sometimes. A B-Movie or a C-Movie. The guys never knew what film it was going to be in because the studio would insert them into a particular film. For instance, say we were in a nightclub talking on a business deal and then you hear a voice. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, we would now like to present to you, the Delta Rhythm Boys!' Then the camera would switch to them singing the song. When they finished, you'd hear applause but then the camera would switch back to us. We'd say 'Hey, that was great, wasn't it?' (laughs) They did that so that when the film got into the Southern United States, the South at that particular time would delete any of the music songs that blacks were in. That's the way they did. However, in the rest of the United States, they were left in. So the Deltas became very well known for the movies they were doing.
PSF: What did you think of the group during the first time that you met them (1944)?
Truthfully, I had seen them in one of the movies that they had done and they didn't particularly impress me. They were singing the traditional way- the lead singer was singing, the tenor was on top and everything. They didn't seem to be blending like my group was. I didn't like the blend. The first tenor was the reason. They were OK but they didn't impress me at all.
When they finished the year, they had a contract to do a show here in L.A. at the Orpheum Theatre downtown. Count Basie was going to be there for two weeks. So they had a contract to sing with Count Basie but the lead singer went back to New York- his wife told him that he was too good for the group and that he didn't need them. So they were left without a singer and they auditioned singers around here.
So for the group that I was in, the manager called me and said 'The Deltas are looking for somebody to replace the top tenor- would you be interested in joining them?' I said no. About two weeks later, they had auditioned everybody down here that they could find. He called me back and said 'They can't find anyone. Would you mind just doing this contract with Count Basie downtown for two weeks?' I still didn't want to do it but when they said Count Basie, that was one of the bands that I loved. So I said 'Well, I'll do that.'
So I met them and I was quite impressed with them. They had the music all written out and everything. That impressed me too- in those days, most black quartets did head arrangements. They didn't know anything about writing music, they just got together and harmonized. But these guys were all musicians, they read music, they had the charts.
So we had two weeks to rehearse for me to get ready for the Orpheum. It came off very well. Later, they said 'We have a contract in Las Vegas. Could you go with us?' I said 'I guess I could work it out...' So I went to Las Vegas with them in 1945. We were the first entertainment of color there except for the Nicholas Brothers, at the Frontier Hotel. There were only two hotels on the strip at the time.
PSF: It was pretty sparse out there then.
There was nothing there but the highway. There was the Last Frontier and the El Rancho Vegas Hotel. Across from the Frontier, there was a little restaurant/dive called Mickey Do-Do's. That was all that was out there. It was very strange. (laughs) There was nobody around. When we did the show, people came there but it wasn't the kind of audience you see today. Everyone was local people, more or less. They came in with their Western attire. It was not a classy place.
They couldn't find any place for us to live. They put us in a little shack downtown that had been the Red Light district. They had closed it down but the little houses with the Red Lights were still there. We didn't like that at all. They said 'We don't have any other accommodations.' We said 'What's wrong with the hotel?' They said 'You can't stay at the hotel.' So we told them 'if we can't get accommodations at the hotel, then we can't work.' So the lady in charge said 'I guess you won't work then.'
We told our manager in New York what happened. The other hotel, El Rancho Vegas, was trying to get us there. So we went back the next year to there (1946). That was set up like bungalows all around and the main room was the gambling room and nightclub. So we stayed there with no problem. The next year, the Frontier called us again and the money was rising each time. They said 'You can stay here now.' We said 'No, that's OK' and we went back to the El Rancho Vegas.
PSF: So when was the group playing Vegas?
We were there in '45, '46, '47, '48, '49 and I think in '50, we went to Hawaii and then to Japan and back.
PSF: Who did you see as your contemporaries? The Ink Spots? The Mills Brothers?
The Mills Brothers were the beginners. I was in high school when I first heard the Mills Brothers over the radio. The groups that I had used to imitate the Mills Brothers. That was the quartet that started the whole thing. The Ink Spots didn't come along until much later. And all of your Negro groups were mostly spiritual groups, at that time.
PSF: What impressed you about the Mills Brothers?
It was the first time we had ever heard anybody sing like that. They were young and they were singing (as) a trio with a bass. It was different because they, being family... when you find a group that's family singing, they're always usually better than just four guys getting together singing. Technically, their voices blend better. They have the same intonation as far as the voices are concerned. Not that you can't find that with strangers but family singers always better because they all have the same tone quality. And the Mills Brothers were the popular ones and the only ones really heard over the radio at that time. They were our favorites.
PSF: What do you think set the Deltas apart from other vocal groups?
They were doing some jazz things but after I joined them, Rene the piano player was doing the vocals. Then they had me doing the vocals too. So the two of us were doing vocals. He approached his vocals from a musician's standpoint. I approached my vocals from a singer's standpoint. What we did was pattern our arrangements after orchestras. That was the doo-wop era and instead of doing that stuff, we started putting words in the background, rather than 'doo wop' behind the solo. What made the group stand out was Lee Gaines, the bass, who formed the group originally. He did the lead singing a lot. No other group had a bass that could swing like that.
With the Deltas, everybody was a soloist. I sang the lead but I wasn't the only one to sing a solo in a song. Even when we did a regular song, I may do the lead like a ballad and then we'd put rhythm with it and change key. Then the bass would do the same song in a rhythmic way. Then we'd go back just when we're going to do the eighth bars, we would always change key, like orchestras did in their arrangements. So our arrangements were pretty well involved with more of a jazz leading into it.
PSF: You were talking before about the group doing sacred songs and later doing secular songs. Did you see that as being a big divide in the music industry?
There was a great divide because most of the groups doing the religious things, the Negro spirituals, were from the South. The group that left there from Fisk University that started the whole thing was the Golden Gate Quartet. When I joined the Deltas, we went to New York, in January 1945, and went to the Zanzibar Hotel. We were singing jazz. The Golden Gate Quartet was (at) Cafe Society downtown and they were singing spirituals. No group had ever sung spirituals before in a nightclub because (if) you weren't in church, you didn't hear that kind of music. But there were doing a narrative type of spiritual so it turned out to be very popular, especially with the very wealthy. (laughs) They never heard anything like that. So they were very successful with that.
So the Deltas having done the same thing at Dillard, always put some of the spirituals in their show too, especially since "Dry Bones" was the song that made them popular. No matter what we did, we always did jazz things and we also did spirituals and then we always did songs from Broadway shows, in a jazz way, not like it was (done) on the stage. So we had a big variety of styles. The industry couldn't put us into a niche. We were not an R&B group- we could sing R&B but they couldn't put us into it because we were working all the time with other orchestras too. We recorded with Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunsford.
The other groups couldn't do that or didn't do that because they couldn't sing jazz. And our bass singer wrote the lyrics for "Take the A Train" for Duke. Then he wrote the lyrics for "Just A-Sittin And A-Rockin" for Duke. Then he wrote "Just Squeeze Me," one of Duke's things. Then he wrote the lyrics, when I joined them, to Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump." The year that I joined them, I went back to New York on the train 'cause I helped them with the lyrics, we wrote the lyrics to Lionel Hampton's "9:20 Special." These were all instrumental things and then we started singing those. We used the same arrangements that the orchestra. If the trumpet too a solo, we kept the trumpet there and put words there and sang the trumpet part.
PSF: It seems that instead of being limiting, being so diverse actually opened up a lot of opportunities for the group?
Yes, oh definitely. It really worked out for us once we went to Europe. Even here in the United States when we went to a club, we could always give them a good show and we didn't always depend on the records we were making. They were OK, they were popular. But we didn't have any smash hit because we didn't adhere to the popular trend of what was going.
Then we had comedy things written for us in New York by a guy. As an example, we would take a song like "There's Nothing Like A Dame" from South Pacific. He would write special lyrics for us, "There's Nothing Like A Man." In the show, we'd sing "There's Nothing Like a Dame." Then we'd apologize to the ladies and say 'this is for you': "There's Nothing Like a Man." And it was hilarious because then the ladies just laughed. It was just funny material. We had a lot of comedy written like that for us. Our popularity actually was due to the presentations that we did when we were in nightclubs.
PSF: Did radio play any part in the success of the group?
Yes, it was very important because they had a show in New York where they sang spirituals once or twice a week, just before I joined them. Then we were with the Amos and Andy Show in 1946. We were at a nightclub and they were out here and asked if we would be interested in doing a radio show with them. We told them to talk to our manager. They gave us one of Johnny Mercer's songs to sing. We auditioned for them and they liked us so they signed us up for a year.
It was very successful because they had had another group the year before that but that group didn't read music. They could sing songs but in a radio show like that, during the rehearsal, you had to cut a lot of the stuff out in order to be on the nose for one hour. So a lot of the songs we did... we started out doing songs about three minutes and then finally they asked us if we could cut it to maybe two-and-a-half minutes. The other group couldn't do that because they never timed their songs and they didn't know how to do that. So when we wrote the arrangements, we arranged them to the times. And if they wanted to cut out eight seconds or sixteen seconds, all we did was take a pencil, make a note, skip it and go to the next thing. (laughs) And we could change that quickly so they were quite impressed with that.
After the first year, our manager said 'The boys are losing money by not traveling, we've got offers to travel.' They said 'Our budget doesn't allow us to pay more money but if we can get them another job, would you stay with us?' The manager agreed to that. They were on NBC and they went to CBS and talked with a comedian named Joan Davis. She had a comedy hour. They signed us up on the Joan Davis Show for the next season. So we were the only group ever to have a contract for NBC and CBS networks at the same time, for 1947. So we stayed another year with Amos and Andy and Joan Davis. But after that, we left because we had to go back on the road again.
PSF: Were you around for any of the films that the group did?
No, I wasn't. The only time I came close to what they were doing was we did a film called Follow The Boys for Universal. It was a film where the G.I.'s went to the South Pacific to entertain the troops. I had been asked to do another production number of people who were singing for the boys going overseas. It was an all-black production. I made an arrangement for the choir called "Get On Board Little Children." That was as close as I got to the Deltas back then. We were in the same films but I never saw them or spoke to them until I went to rehearse with them.
PSF: Did you notice any changes with the groups' opportunities during the war?
Not really. It was almost average over here. We had one problem of transportation- we couldn't fly from here (California) to New York or Chicago by just buying a ticket. It was being taken over mostly by the military. If there were military officers who had to go, they got the priority and we would have to take a train. But we were in New York for a long time and the bars were closing at 4 AM and opening at 6. So they stopped that and started closing the bars at 2 AM and opening at 6. So people didn't stay out late anymore like they had been doing. That's the about the only thing that impacted the nightclubs where we were working. People would for the first show (at) nine o'clock or twelve and then they would go. Then that was it. You didn't find too many people in the bar. Before that, you'd have a big show at 1 AM or 2 AM and everybody's still out at the bar at four o'clock. But we weren't too involved in the everyday activity of what was going on because we were still busy recording and traveling and working all the time. We were always booked about a year in advance so we never had any problem with that.
PSF: Did you see that the Deltas were shut out of some opportunities at the time because of prejudice?
Not really because we refused to work in the South. We never worked in the South at all because of the segregation deal. The only time we did was when we went one time, around 1951, to Miami. They asked us to go there and work so that it would break the color line. The Ink Spots had gone down there and they were the first group to work at the one of the big nightclubs down there. We didn't want to go but the union to us, would we mind going in order to break the color line. The star of the club was from New York, a comedian. They said 'You'd be like working in New York because the comedian is from New York and the orchestra is from New York so you won't have any problem.' Our baritone, Kelsey Pharr, was from Miami and his father was a mortician down there and also owned the graveyard. So we said that we'll go down so that Kelsey could go see his dad. That's the only time we went South to do any shows.
PSF: Could you talk about the recordings that the group did with Ella Fitzgerald?
We were working at Club Zanzibar in New York and she was working Philadelphia, around 1945. It was about the second time I recorded with them and they made me make the arrangement. (laughs) I said to them 'I don't want to!' They said 'No, you're going to have to work.' "I'm Beginning To See the Light" was the song.
Then when we did the Ella thing, I did one of the songs. She off from work in Philadelphia and took the train into New York. When we go off from work, we went to the studio. We started the session around three o'clock in the morning. We did four songs- we were finished by six because we already knew what we were going to do. I made a chart out and told Ella 'this is where you will sing and this is where we'll harmonize.' We rehearsed it about a half-hour and she had it.
The reason we recorded with her was because she refused to record with the Ink Spots anymore. She had recorded a couple of things with them and it turned out very well. But she couldn't stand Bill Kinney showing off behind her on stage when they were performing at the Paramount, flashing his gold rings while she was singing. (laughs) She said 'I'm not (going to) stand for that!' Then they had an argument. He said 'I'm just as popular as you are.' So she refused to work with them anymore. So that's how we came to record with her.
Then after that, we ran into her every now and then. We saw her in Paris when she came over with Jazz at the Philharmonic and in a couple of other places. Sometimes we'd see her at the offices at Decca when we'd go to pick up our checks twice a year. She was saying that she should get more money. They took stuff out her check- managers deducting this and that. She wasn't aware that they were taking more money than they should have been taking from her. We told her what she should do, to stand up, because nobody else would do it.
PSF: Why did the Deltas move to RCA Records in the late '40's?
We joined RCA after we left Decca. It was like family at Decca because our manager was one of the (Kapp) brothers. But they kept giving us these awful songs. We said 'We don't sing this kind of material.' (laughs) They wouldn't let us change key. 'You can't do that because you confuse the listener.' We told them 'We change key every time we sing and perform and we don't confuse anybody.' So we left them. When contract time came up, we didn't re-sign with them.
So we went to RCA. And who should come over to RCA after we got there- Dave Kapp. He left Jack Kapp (laughs), his brother, at Decca and came there. But he was not an A&R man there. So we did some better material at RCA but we still weren't too satisfied with the kind of music they were giving us. They still wouldn't let us change key. (laughs) We went back to Decca because they asked us to come back. So we went back there for a while.
PSF: Something special about the style of singing that the Deltas developed were half-steps. Could you talk about that?
"Dry Bones," in the original arrangement they did that they brought to New York, was done by the professor of music at Dillard. What they did is they started with the toe bone and your foot bone and you go on up to your knee bone, thigh bone, hip bone. Then you sing back down from the shoulder bone back to the foot bone. But you're changing keys in half-tones as you're going up. Then you're there at the top and you start changing keys again, coming down from the shoulder bone.
PSF: So that song became pretty popular?
We had to sing "Dry Bones" everywhere we went, on the radio and the big shows. We always did two songs because we told that we didn't just want to sing "Dry Bones." We wanted to sing something else. So we always sang two songs and "Dry Bones" had to be one naturally because that made the group popular. You can't fight that. We understood that too. We hated to do it but we had to do it because everybody asked for "Dry Bones."
PSF: During the late 1940's, the group also recorded for Atlantic under an alias, right?
Only one time. The reason we used the name the Four Sharps was (because) we were still with Decca. Our manager had been talking with Atlantic. He was looking for a group to sing with Ruth Brown, who was pretty hot at that time. Our manager said 'The Deltas could do this.' They said that they wanted an R&B group. He told them that we sang R&B but that we didn't sing it for our work. For the nightclubs that we'd go to, people don't listen to R&B. He told them that in black nightclubs, there's R&B but we didn't work in black nightclubs. In the top white nightclubs, we were singing from Broadway shows. He told them that we would record four things under the name the Four Sharps and then they could see how it goes. They agreed to that.
So we did the songs with Ruth Brown. "Sentimental Journey" was the one they wanted to do so we did that. They had a couple of other songs. They needed a song for the second session. I was kidding around so I said 'Oh yeah, I'll do one for you.' But they took me seriously and really wanted me to do it. I was just fooling around but I knew that I had to do something. (laughs) So I wrote a song called "It's All In Your Mind." I wrote it strictly for her and the way she sang. We went back and did the session and she liked it- it was easy in the kind of way that she would sing it. Then later on, we recorded it ourselves for Decca.
But that was the end of the Four Sharps. We started getting calls that they wanted us to come down South to this club and this club. Our manager said 'You guys can't do that- you got your contracts to do.'
PSF: Shortly after that, I've read that you had a European tour and you recorded Swedish folk songs.
What happened was when we first went to England in '49, because a guy named (impresario, Sir) Lew Grade came over and heard us in a nightclub in New York. He wanted us to come to England and book us for the Moss Empire Theatres, which had varieties show for one week for almost every city in England. You did that as a tour. But they couldn't pay our fare over there and back. So our manager said 'The boys can't pay for that. We don't need to go to England.' (laughs) What Lew Grade did, he made a deal with a group in Stockholm that was having a sport exhibition. They ended up paying for our flight to Sweden and then to London.
So we went to Stockholm and it was a weekend thing. Hotel, food, everything was paid (for). We didn't have to spend any money for anything. It was very interesting because we never heard of Scandinavia. It was such a foreign thing, way up North. The people were beautiful. We did the show outside and a young man came up to say 'Would you mind if I recorded your program to have it?' He had a wire recorder and we didn't think anything about it. Another man had an amusement park and asked us to come back there the next summer. He said 'I'll pay to come here.'
When we went back the next summer, the kid who had the recorder played it for his friends and they all liked it and wanted copies. He and his friend talked to his landlord to sponsor them to open a record company, called Metronome. When we went back in 1950, they gave us some songs to record while we were there. In the meantime, we had left Decca so we signed with Metronome for artistic control. Our manager took the masters and peddled them out over here, to Jubilee, to Mercury and other companies. We recorded in English but we (also) recorded in Swedish, Finnish and Danish. We had recorded so many things in Swedish that we put out an album of that. We went every year and every summer, we did at least two new songs on tour. That was a great thing, like a second home.
PSF: What was the group doing in the early '50's?
We were still here, working around the United States. We were in Vegas, Lake Tahoe in '50, '51 at Harvey's Nightclub. In '51, we went to Hawaii for the first time and did a show in Honolulu and went back the next year. In '53, we went back again and then to Japan. We were also working in Vegas each year at that time also at the Sands, the Flamingo. We went up north to Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. We were just working around the United States at that time.
PSF: Was the group making more money from touring than from the recordings?
Oh yes, we were. We were still recording but that was just on the side. But it helped us because where ever we went, the radio DJ's would play our record maybe a week before we got there, advertising the nightclub. Then when we came, we would come over to the studio and he would interview us. Then the songs would be there. A lot of the songs they played, we never really sang on stage 'cause we didn't like them. But at least people heard us sing. (laughs)
Our performances on stage were actually the key to our success. Each place that we worked, we always had lines outside and the club made money. So they always wanted us back the next year. When they wanted us back, they even paid us more or they held us for a longer period of time. Four weeks or eight weeks in Hawaii- we were there twice a year.
PSF: When the Deltas did a New Year's show in France in the late '50's, how did that turn into a long-term engagement there?
In 1957, we went to Paris and we opened at Christmas at the Moulin Rouge. At that time, we had also signed a recording contract with Barclay Records in Paris. We were recording then in English and in French while we were there. The agency that booked us was headquartered in Paris so he was booking us in Spain and Brussels and all over. So we stayed in Paris for four years, that was our headquarters. We worked anywhere from down through Spain, Scotland, Portugal and then the other way to Italy, Venice, Yugoslavia, Poland. We went to North Africa, Algeria, Morocco, Israel. We were going to go to Egypt but at that particular time, Egypt and Israel were not on friendly terms. Once they saw an Israeli stamp in your passport, you couldn't go to any of the Arab countries. We were supposed to go to Lebanon and Egypt but we didn't. But we worked all over Europe.
PSF: Did you find that the European audiences were as receptive or more receptive than the American audience?
Oh yeah. We mostly did nightclubs here in the States. Over there, we were doing the theatres. The girls would come up and ask for autographs and some of them would grab your tie if they could get it or your handkerchief out of your pocket. (laughs) We had a hard time with them. They would snatch things- they wanted a souvenir. Some of the American groups went over and they had their suits made so that you could tear away, so the girls could snatch the sleeve and the whole sleeve would come off. (laughs) We didn't want anything like that though. But the enthusiasm was very good in England.
PSF: Why did you decide to leave the group in 1960?
I left the group because I wanted to do some writing on my own. One other reason I left the group was because the Deltas had always been ahead of all the other vocal groups in trying musical things (arrangements) on stage. So we got to a point, with the exception of the piano player and myself, they had lost the desire to continue to pave new ideas and ways. They became sort of... 'We don't need to do anything (new). We can do these songs here.' They got to a point where we were not introducing anything new, visually or musically, to audiences. I said 'If you're going to do that, I'm going to leave the group. I don't want to just sing to be singing.' We always tried something new. We put dancing into the show. We did uniforms in the show. We did all kinds of things and we were all successful. But they got to a point where... 'Well, we don't have time to do that.' So I left them. They didn't think I'd leave- it took me a year to convince them that I was really leaving.
When I left, I went to Japan immediately and worked with a singer named Eri Chieme. We originally met her when we were in Honolulu, working there around 1955. The agent who booked us there, also booked her in Japan. So the agent booked us there in Japan the next year. We did a concert with her.
So I produced two albums of jazz things with her. We sang together and then I produced a Christmas album in foreign languages for her and a folk song album in foreign languages for her. That was very successful.
Then I went to Honolulu and opened a studio there 'cause there were no teachers there. I was in a studio there between '61 and '64, going back and forth to Japan.
PSF: Did you follow the career of the Deltas after that?
Yes, we kept in touch. Rene was with them and when he left, he came to Hawaii when I was there. We had a partnership. We produced shows for the military there, some of the clubs. I wrote commercials for radio and TV. We put a show on there but we finally came back to here, to L.A..
We still kept in touch. In fact, in '77, we took some charts over and I rehearsed them, because they had not been learning any new songs. So they were in Nice and I worked with them on the charts. Then I sent someone over to join the group in '80. We always kept in touch.
PSF: Were you still working in the music industry after that?
I teach now privately. I'm a vocal consultant. I have students. I produce shows, jazz productions, hiring orchestras and singers. I do some recordings and consulting mostly. I've been doing that ever since I left the Deltas, when I was in Honolulu.
PSF: Where you pretty shocked at (Delta members) Herb Coleman and Traverse Crawford dying within a year of each other ('74, '75) and later Hugh Bryant dying at Lee Gaines' funeral ('87)?
Yeah, it was a shock because Lee called me about Herb. Then we heard about Lee and Hugh because NBC was there filming it. We have it all on film. We were sort of... We knew about when Lee became ill and we talked with him at the hospital. Rene told him to see a particular doctor in Sweden. Then he went to Finland where an American friend was (Charlie Horner), who's writing a book about the Deltas now. So, we were pretty close.
PSF: What are you most proud of with your work with the Deltas?
I hadn't thought about it except (that) it was an experience for me that I could never equal in any other venue. I couldn't do it as a tourist. I did it as a performer and met a lot of people. It was something, an experience that I wouldn't trade for anything. It did a lot of me.
PSF: Have you listened to a lot of music after leaving the Deltas where you saw that there was an influence on their work?
There were some we heard that tried to do certain things and some actually copied some of our arrangements, especially in Japan, which they do a lot. They asked me if it was OK if they did the songs first. I said 'Sure, I'd be flattered.' I knew that they couldn't do it like we did.
PSF: Did you think that a lot of doo-wops groups were inspired by the Deltas?
I never thought about us being an influence on them until they brought it up. The groups were coming up, saying 'we tried to copy you but we just couldn't. You guys are the greatest.'
We're also in the Hall of Fame of UGHA (United In Group Harmony Association), in New Jersey. We were inducted as a pioneer group because all the other groups, they said, were trying to copy what we were doing. We didn't even think about that because we weren't trying to do anything for somebody to copy. We just did what we liked musically.
PSF: How did you feel when you accepted the award for the Deltas at the Vocal Hall of Fame this year?
I think it's nice that they thought of us to do this. It was very heart-warming to know that what we had done had rubbed off on a lot of other groups, which we didn't know at the time. We were just singing what we wanted to do.
PSF: Do you have any Delta records that are personal favorites?
I don't have any favorite records of ours because each one is an entity onto itself. It would be more than a few that I really like. For me, if it involves all the music that I know and I know that it's done right and I recognize it as such, then to me, it's rewarding. But that does not mean it's a favorite with me because I'm involved with too many musics that come through my way. I don't pick a particular record that would be my favorite. I'd have too many for that.
See some of Carl Jones' favorite music
Also see United In Group Harmony Association (UGHA): http://www.ugha.org
And see the 2001 annual music issue of Oxford American with an excellent article on the Deltas
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