The Five Keys Biography

The Five Keys were one of the first group's to sing in five-part harmony, making them a seminal pre-rock & roll vocal group, and one of the most influential acts of the 1950s. Led by Rudy West -- known internationally as "the Sultan of Smooth" -- the group was also one of the first black R&B groups to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show. They are best remembered for their 1951 hit "The Glory of Love."

In the late '40s, a Newport News, VA-based group calling themselves "The Sentimental Four" -- original members were lead Rudy West, his brother Bernie West, Raphael Ingram, and Ripley Ingram (also brothers) -- were invited to perform at the at the Apollo Theater in Harlem after winning three consecutive weeks of amateur contests in their local area. After taking first place at the Apollo, they scored engagements at the Royal and Howard Theaters as well, solidly establishing their reputation along the eastern seaboard. In 1951, they were signed by Eddie Mesner, owner of Aladdin Records, to a recording contract. Around this time, Raphael Ingram was drafted into the Army and was replaced by Maryland Pierce (formerly of the Avalons). The group also added another singer, Dickie Smith, and piano player Joe Jones, a move which prompted a new name change to the Five Keys.

In April, 1951, the group issued their first single, "With a Broken Heart," which failed to chart. Their next single, released in July, was "Glory of Love," which proved to be a colossal hit, scoring number one on the R&B charts by September. The Five Keys toured both the East and West Coasts and recorded (in New York and Los Angeles) at least ten more releases -- "How Long," "Someday Sweetheart," "Red Sails in the Sunset," "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" (with Rudy West and Dickie Smith sharing lead vocal duties), and one of the greatest R&B songs of all time, "My Saddest Hour," and "Serve Another Round" -- all of which were issued by Aladdin between 1952 and 1953. In 1953, Rudy West and Dickie Smith both entered the Army; their replacements were Ramon Loper and Ulysses Hicks. The group left Aladdin in 1954 and recorded four sides for RCA's Groove label before moving over to Capitol Records, where they would have their most commercial success.

When Hicks died suddenly in 1954, the lead tenor position was filled temporarily by Smith's cousin, Willie Winfield of the Harptones. Backed by the Howard Biggs Orchestra (the former Ravens arranger), they were in the right place at the right time to take advantage of Capitol's advanced recording techniques. With Rudy West -- out of the Army and now sharing lead vocal duties with Maryland Pierce -- taking over for Winfield, they recorded a number of tracks for Capitol, many of them Top 100 charters. In all, they amassed an extraordinarily powerful body of stirring and stunningly beautiful vocal R&B, highly representative of the best doo wop music had to offer at the time. Some of the Five Keys' best material comes from this period, including "Ling Ting Tong" (with Pierce on lead), which smashed the pop and R&B charts early in 1955, as well as one of the highest regarded doo wop efforts of all time: "Close Your Eyes" (R&B number five, 1955), "The Verdict" (1955), "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" (1956), "Wisdom of a Fool" (1956), "Let There Be You" (1957), and"One Great Love" (1958).

Tired of touring, Rudy West retired with the group in 1958 (he began working for the U.S. Postal Service), but recorded on his own for the King label, covering the Passions' "Just to Be With You" with an unlisted group. The rest of the Five Keys re-formed in 1959, with Thomas "Dickie" Threat taking West's high tenor duties. They recorded several sides for the King label, between August of 1959 and March of 1960. By now, the group was becoming a pure R&B vocal harmony ensemble, without any of the pop-style embellishments of their Capitol recordings. The material was, in many ways, a throwback to their earliest recordings, sounding a bit like the Platters or the Coasters, and even Bo Diddley's influence showed up on "Will You."

In 1962, Rudy West re-recorded "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" for Seg-Way Records with a new group of Keys featuring Bernie West, Dickie Smith, John Boyd, and Willie Friday. In 1965, West recorded "No Matter" for the Inferno label with yet another configuration of Keys who were old friends from Virginia that had recorded as the Chateaus: Edwin Hall, Ollie Sidney, William "Pepper" Jones, and George Winfield (one of Willie Friday's cousins). They remained together until Rudy West passed away on May 14, 1998. His last performance with the Five Keys was on April 18, 1998, at the Nassau Coliseum in New York, where he received a standing ovation. He had been in the music business for forty-six years by that point. Ripley Ingram has also passed away. Surviving members include Bernie West (who lives in Newport News, where he has been a deacon in a church), Maryland Pierce, and Dickie Smith.
~ Bryan Thomas, All Music Guide

The Five Keys Bio from Discogs

American R&B and doo-wop group popular in the late 1950's. In 1949, brothers Rudy and Bernard West joined another set of singing brothers - Ripley and Raphael Ingram - to form The Sentimental Four, a gospel quartet. Inspired by the harmonies of The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots, they soon began to shift toward R&B.

The young foursome toured briefly with Miller's Brown-Skinned Models, an all-black revue that played fairs and carnivals. And they started winning local talent contests. Those victories led to a chance to perform at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. The singers won a contest there, too. And soon after, Los Angeles-based Aladdin Records signed the group.

After a few lineup changes that included adding a fifth member, the combo renamed itself The Five Keys. "Ling, Ting, Tong," was a No. 28 pop hit in 1954. That was followed by the ballad "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," which reached No. 23 in 1956, and "Wisdom of a Fool," which hit No. 35 in 1957. But the group's influence was greater than the best-sellers would indicate.

Before black groups started crossing over onto pop charts, The Five Keys had a powerful effect on R&B music - especially among vocal harmony acts. "One of the most popular, influential and beautiful-sounding R&B singing groups of the 1950s, The Five Keys were not only a link between the gospel/pop units of the '40s and the later R&B and rock groups, they led by example, having hits in R&B, rock 'n' roll, and pop before the decade was through," wrote Jay Warner in the Billboard Book of American Singing Groups.

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