This may or may not be common but I’ve got some vivid memories of my youth. I mean, 5 and 6 years old. I can recall both significant and insignificant moments in my young life and some of the more consequential ones still live with me to this day. And I realize that many of the things I can recall are things that I can see now helped shape who I became.
I remember as a 9-, 10- and 11-year old the times I would visit my mother and stepfather. They were always very busy running their own business but I can remember the times when work was done and it was time to exhale and relax. A lot of the forms this relaxation took remain with me today. I’ve related before in these pages settling in on the couch of the living room at their place and watching The Fugitive on a little black-and-white TV. I also recall one night when my stepfather played the Mills Brothers for me.
I can still see the cover of the cassette and I can still hear the song; “By the Watermelon Vine, Lindy Lou”. For those of you unfortunate enough to not know, the Mills Brothers are a legendary vocal group of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Once he had played the Mills Brothers for me, perhaps my stepfather figured I was ready for the next level; the Ink Spots.
A little research tells me that this was in 1982 or ’83 because in 1982, a recording of the Ink Spots’ song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” was featured in a legendary TV commercial for Chanel No. 5. I can only assume that my stepfather had seen this commercial and this brought back memories of him having heard the group in his own youth. Now here I am at 10 or 11 and I am being indoctrinated.
The memory of hearing the Ink Spots for the first time….I wish I could describe. I will say that now some forty years later the moment has the mists of time swirling around it. I have a definite memory of the experience if not a crystal clear one. But the lack of clarity only adds to the aura of the group and their music. Thinking back, I have a faint recollection of a dimly lit, cozy and comfortable trailer. Outside is night, blackness. Inside the mood is tranquil, the type of relaxation you can only enjoy after a long day of hard work. From the cassette player comes sounds the likes of which I haven’t heard before. The Ink Spots took me away that night. And they have the same power over me today.
The classic line-up of the Ink Spots included Charlie Fuqua (1910-1971), Hoppy Jones (1905-1944), Deek Watson (1909-1969), Jerry Daniels (1915-1995) and Bill Kenny (1914-1978). In 1934, Fuqua, Jones, Watson and Daniels got together to form a quartet that was christened “The 4 Ink Spots”. After only about 18 months, however, a pivotal personnel change takes place. Jerry Daniels decides to retire from the business – and at times like this I am so fascinated to know what happened to a person. What kind of life did Jerry Daniels go on to live? He is replaced by Bill Kenny, yet another Vintage Leisure player to hail from Philadelphia. While his speaking voice was low and husky, Kenny sang in a pure high tenor; it was a distinctive voice that would influence a generation of singers.
I’ve long shaken my head and rolled my eyes at what I assumed was some dumb white man’s idea of a clever group name for four black guys. But now I’m not sure. The back of one of my 2 10″ Ink Spots records reads thusly; “(They) got their name, by the way, not because their complexions happen to be dusky. Legend has it this way. The four young men and their manager were sitting in an office trying to think up a likely name for the quartette…when their manager idly glanced at the blotter on which he was doodling with his pen. The pen had gone dry and he shook it impatiently. Four blots appeared. ‘The Ink Spots!’, he shouted, and the Ink Spots they were and still are”. You may say that it’s naïve of me to believe this story but consider this; nowadays, we might spin a yarn to make ourselves look better and avoid getting called out. I feel like, in the 1940’s, nobody would’ve blinked at a black quartet being christened “The Ink Spots” by a white man so why spin a yarn? Might be true.
The Ink Spots performed extensively on radio until May 12, 1936 when they cut their first sides for Decca. For the next ten years, they would record timeless songs while managing to sound like no other group before them. Eventually, Bill Kenny introduced a new format for the group’s songs that he called “Top & Bottom”. This style called for the tenor to sing the first verse and for the second, the bass singer would recite the lyrics instead of sing them. Added to this format was a commonly recurring plucked guitar intro and the Ink Spots presented essentially every one of their recorded works in this manner.
Then, on November 6, 1936 – at 2:30pm – they appeared on television. Sounds like nothing, I know but consider the date. The Ink Spots were featured performers on an NBC/RCA TV Demonstration; the first live TV demonstration in history. The 40-minute program was broadcast from the transmitter on the top of the Empire State building to the 62nd floor of the RCA building. This makes the Ink Spots the first African-American performers to appear on live television. In the subsequent review of this program in Variety, the Ink Spots are mentioned first suggesting that they were the first performers – of any colour – to appear on live TV. Interestingly, also appearing on this program was Eddie Albert in a drama he wrote called “The Love Nest”, the first original drama to ever be presented on live television.
In 1941 and ’42, the Ink Spots made appearances in two films. First came The Great American Broadcast (1941), starring John Payne and Alice Faye. The boys perform four songs in this musical comedy. The following year the Ink Spots could be seen in the Abbott and Costello movie Pardon My Sarong as singing waiters serving up two numbers.
There are a couple of things to understand about the Ink Spots. The first is that there was a “classic” line-up of the group followed by hundreds of acts using the Ink Spots moniker. This is something we’ve seen before here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. We have seen the Platters who were a pioneering and legendary vocal group popular in the 1950’s. Groups calling themselves by this name are still performing today but any Platters outfit that doesn’t include original lead Tony Williams is not the Platters. Conversely we have seen the Drifters, a group who seemingly had a revolving door policy for members and – at least until the mid-1960’s – it didn’t matter who sang the leads, the Drifters made great music. Many groups used the name through the ensuing decades. So, a word of warning; 33 1/3 RPM LP records you find in the wild bearing the Ink Spots’ name are to be avoided; the original line-up issued no albums in this format.
The classic line-up of the Ink Spots made historic music between 1936 and 1946; the unit stayed together until 1954. After this time, both Bill Kenny and Charlie Fuqua sang with groups calling themselves the Ink Spots. Actually, at the same time, scores of groups sprang up using the name though they had no connection to the original group whatsoever. To avoid litigation, many were sure to add to the moniker; “The Fabulous Ink Spots”, “The Famous Ink Spots”, “The Amazing Ink Spots”, “The Sensational Ink Spots”, “The Dynamic Ink Spots”, etc. Eventually, a US Federal Judge declared that no one owned the rights to the name and “The Ink Spots” became part of the public domain.
A few words about the legendary Bill Kenny. After the Ink Spots, Bill carried on recording, performing and songwriting; he wrote “There is No God But God” recorded by Elvis Presley on his 1972 gospel album He Touched Me. It was a later Kenny solo version of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” that was used in the previously mentioned Chanel No. 5 commercial. Kenny was a vocal proponent of civil rights and was oft-quoted in print expressing his views. He later married a lady from Vancouver. In fact, Kenny eventually relocated to British Columbia where he had his own show on the CBC, The Bill Kenny Show. He died in New Westminster – birthplace of actor Raymond Burr – in 1978 of respiratory illness. He was 63.
I have long been a fan of music critic Will Friedwald. His name shows up as a writer of liner notes for albums by my favourite singers and as author of some of my favourite books on pop and jazz singing. His 1996 book Jazz Singing is indispensable though I stumbled over a few of Will’s takes. While I respect his opinion, there were things I took umbrage over. Keep in mind that Will is a music critic; his job is to assess what he perceives to be quality, not to celebrate all things that bring you joy. That’s my job.
In Jazz Singing, Friedwald eviscerates the Ink Spots, conjuring up a new negative adjective almost every time he references them; “corny” (3x), “insufferable…unbearably square”, “godawful”, “monotonous and repetitive of all formulas”, “bad music”, “pummelling all the vitality out of (Ella Fitzgerald)”. All that being said, I feel permitted to disregard what Will says about the group because he wrongly identifies Bill Kenny as “Bill Kinney“. Not sure how someone of Friedwald’s stature could’ve made such a mistake.
Still, no other group in the history of the world ever sounded like the Ink Spots. Their sound is truly singular. You’ll never mistake any other group for the Ink Spots and you will know them the moment you hear them; literally from the first seconds of an Ink Spots record, you know it’s them. Now, this has been critiqued through the years as a negative and I suppose I can understand that. But of all the hats I enjoy wearing, that of “critic” is one I seldom don. One of the major tenets here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure is the defence of things deemed “bad” from a critical standpoint. One of the goals here is to glorify the guilty pleasure. The Ink Spots may be prime examples of this.
Which leads me to the second thing you must know about the Ink Spots. Owing somewhat to their unique sound, their’s is a music that is possessed of an innate ability to transport you back in time like no other you will hear. Perhaps only big band ballads can compare. The Ink Spots are so of their time that hearing them conjures up visions of Sunday night, 1941. It’s been a fun, active weekend and there is another work week ahead. Now is the time for quiet contemplation. Seated with your significant other in the comfort of your favourite chair in the living room. It’s a busy room, almost drab in brown hues – like many of the sitting rooms of the 1940’s – but its your special space. The two of you sit, idly keeping busy with knitting or crosswords or magazines, enjoying that tranquility that comes with the unconscious knowledge that you’ve chosen your mate well. Words aren’t necessary now. It’s a placid union of souls.
The focal point of the room is the radio. Bringer of news and weather but – most importantly – music. Rising slightly above the noise from the street below the open window, gentle sounds drift out and fall like a silken sheet on the room, leaving its mark on everything like dew on morning grass. A sigh heaves gently out of your breast and you smile. This, this is the Ink Spots.
Those mellow guitar notes may usher in EVERY, SINGLE song but they become like the recognizable steps of a dear friend coming up the walk; the repetition breeds a comforting familiarity. We must begin with “If I Didn’t Care”, the Ink Spots signature tune. The song took off in the spring of 1939 and became one of the biggest hits of the era. Actually, it became what was at the time the 10th best-selling single of all-time, selling 19 million copies. 19 million. Even today, it remains one of less than 40 songs that have sold at least 10 million physical copies worldwide. The group was paid $37.50 for this recording session; when the song took off, renegotiations netted them $3,750. Better, I guess, but 19 million copies! “Address Unknown”, from the summer of ’39 was the lads’ first #1 song on the fledgling music charts. “I shoulda been diplomatic and figgered that someday you’d be solid gone”. Only weeks later the boys hit again with “My Prayer”, a song that would be a hit much later for a group that was spawned almost directly from the influence of the Ink Spots, the Platters.
The lilting “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” takes you to a sunny hillside just outside the mission walls. The first recording of the song was by the Ink Spots and it added bliss to the spring of 1940. With “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)”, the listener yearns right along with Kenny. “We three will wait for you even to eternity. My echo, my shadow and me”. In December of 1940, the Ink Spots’ version and one by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra both hit #3 on the charts. This gentle number has been performed by Bob Dylan in concert, by Paul McCartney on record (with Diana Krall) and heard in episodes of Better Call Saul and The Blacklist. “I love coffee I love tea…” “Java Jive” is a happy jaunt that deviates somewhat from the formula. Pat Boone made a video for his 2012 version from his Ink Spots tribute album recorded with Take 6. This is just to name a few of the Ink Spots’ wonderful recordings.
BMG acquired RCA Records in 1986. Later, BMG Music Canada launched a CD-buying club along the lines of Columbia House and I joined it. The stock was not as good as Columbia House but it allowed me to get some CDs by artists I maybe didn’t already own and maybe wouldn’t necessarily seek out; I remember buying Cowboy Junkies, Neil Sedaka and Bruce Hornsby. It was here I picked up the CD I urge you all to find, the Ink Spots’ Greatest Hits: The Original Decca Recordings. This was back in Apartment Zero Days, a time in my early twenties when I lived on my own in a bachelor apartment that was a gathering place for my friends. The Ink Spots never made it to my hi-fi on those Saturday nights until Frank Darabont and Steven King endorsed this group, the deepest of all cuts.
The stunning 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption begins with the Ink Spots’ recording of “If I Didn’t Care”. You all may agree that a song when used well in a film can acquire additional sheen and I had a friend who was a fan of the film and noticed the mood of the early scenes that were aided by the sounds of the Ink Spots’ legendary song. He bought the CD mentioned above and now I had someone else who understood the mood and the atmosphere created by the Ink Spots’ music. Sometimes we’d play the CD after everyone had gone, in the dead of night, when it seemed to fit best. The CD is essential for any self-respecting, time-travelling Vintage Leisure-type. Take it to the next level and check out The Anthology, a 48-song collection available on iTunes and Spotify.
Every last resource you will encounter on the internet that references the Ink Spots will mention the same thing. The Ink Spots – along with the Mills Brothers – blazed a trail for the doo-wop and vocal groups to come, from the Ravens up to Boyz II Men and Bill Kenny’s vocal style was the prototype on which many street corner leads were patterned. But more than this is where – and when – the Ink Spots will take you. If the appeal of old music today is based in part on its power to transport you back to a time that continues to captivate many of us, then you can find no better portal than the Ink Spots.
For an exhaustive look at every facet of the career of the Ink Spots, including a charting of their day-by-day activities as a group, head to the incredible InkSpots.ca
10 from the Ink Spots
- If I Didn’t Care
- Address Unknown
- My Prayer
- When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano
- Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees)
- We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)
- Java Jive
- I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire
- The Gypsy
- Perfume Shrine (2008). I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire. PerfumeShrine.Blogspot.com.