Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Canadian vocal quartet of the late 1950s, one of the best white groups performing covers of black hits: tenor Ted Kowalski (b 16 May '31), baritones Dave Somerville (b 2 Oct. '33) and Phil Levitt (b 9 July '35), bass Bill Reed (b 11 Jan. '36; d 22 Oct. 2004). Levitt sang in high school, and in his last year noticed that harmonizing (on hits by the Ames Brothers) attracted the attention of female classmates. During the summer after high school graduation in 1953, at a nearby vacation spot called Crystal Beach, Levitt and his best friend Stan Fisher again wowed the girls, harmonizing in the street on the Hilltoppers hit 'I'd Rather Die Young'. Both then attended the University of Toronto; Levitt studied engineering, and met Kowalski while they were practicing surveying (walking around campus with telescopes on tripods, they discovered a mutual interest in scoping out the co-eds, then that they were both singers). Kowalski recruited Reed and the boys began harmonizing around town; Kowalski named them The Four Diamonds.

Having worked up half a dozen tunes they decided to try out for the local TV talent show Now's Your Chance; practicing quietly in a corner in the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. building, they were heard by Somerville, a sound engineer who was also a very good singer, and who told them they were not yet ready for the show but offered to be their manager, and sneaked them into studios with pianos for rehearsing. That Christmas Reed landed their first gig, at a minstrel show in a church; Fisher, who was in law school, stayed home to study for an exam: Somerville took his place and the group were a sensation. Fisher decided to stay in school and the others vowed to turn pro.

Next they met their major influence, a black group called the Revelaires, who sang spirituals and gospel songs and had day jobs in Detroit. They were appearing at a downtown hotel in Toronto; it was Bill Reed's idea to go and see them, and, Levitt said, "We were absolutely blown away. Their rhythm, dynamics, vocal ability and showmanship were unlike anything we had ever experienced." The Diamonds introduced themselves and begged for lessons, and the visitors agreed to coach the Diamonds whenever they came to town. The baritone would sit knee-to-knee with the baritone, tenors with tenors and so on, and the Revelaires would teach them their parts. They had started imitating the Ames Brothers and the Four Lads, but the Revelaires became their biggest influence. "They did their best to un-square us, " said Levitt, "to make us cool. They taught us to snap on the off-beat, to give dynamics to lyrics, to feel the music, in other words, to swing. Some of us took to it better than others, Bill probably the best, me the least. I loved it and I tried my utmost, but it was hard to throw off the yoke of 19 years of square breeding."

Levitt and Kowalski had quit school; a local professional musician Nat Goodman became their manager and insisted that Reed and Somerville quit their jobs if they were serious about professional singing. He got them a gig in the summer of 1955 at a resort called Greenwood Lake, an hour from New York City, and an appearance on the Arthur Godfrey talent show, where they tied with a female classical pianist. This landed them a week on Godfrey's morning talk/variety show, which in turn helped get a contract with Coral Records. Their first two recordings included 'Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots', which they learned from the sheet music in the studio. Driving back to Greenwood Lake after the session, they tuned in Alan Freed's radio show: he was playing his top 40 for the week, and announced that the last song he would play at the end of the show was his number one pick . . . 'Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots'! The Diamonds were amazed. How did Coral get the record to Freed so quickly, and convince him to pick it as his number one? Reed said, "We thought, these Yanks can do anything!" Getting back to their lodgings, they rounded up all their new friends to hear the end of the broadcast, and Freed said, "And now here it is, your number one song, ‘Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots' . . . by the Cheers!" The Diamonds hadn't even known that they were making a cover record.

Next they met Cleveland disc jockey Bill Randle, who had an uncanny ability to discover talent and hit songs; in the studio waiting room they met and harmonized with another aspiring young singer called Andy Williams. Randle liked them, leading to a new contract with Mercury, and recording sessions in Chicago, where their music director and mentor was David Carroll (b Nook Schreier in Chicago, 15 October 1913). Their debut chart hit in 1956 was 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love', less successful than the original by Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, but the industry usually saw the white cover do better in the pop chart. They toured to promote the record, and the bloom started to go off the rose. Until then life had been one great big party, but cramped togather in a car, eating in cheap restaurants and living out of suitcases was not so much fun, and on top of that, said Levitt, "The record we were so vigorously promoting was a cover, and a cover of a pretty terrific original at that." There was a stigma attached to this at the time, but the boys later realized that their hit records had made money for the black songwriters, and possibly even increased sales of the original in the black chart.

But in any case Mercury was calling the shots. At one point they recorded, in New York, two songs by white writers which were obvious attempts to imitate black hits: 'Judge And Jury' and a spiritual, 'Put Your House In Order'. They didn't like the songs and felt vindicated when they both flopped. However, the Diamonds had 15 top 40 hits '56-61, including three top tens '57-58. A good cover of the Gladiolas' 'Little Darlin' (written by their lead singer Maurice Williams) featured a rhythm cowbell, Carroll's influential idea. The group liked the other side, a ballad with a Hawaiian flavor called 'Faithful And True', which they had pursuaded Mercury to let them record, but at the recording session Carroll kept them working on 'Little Darlin', which made them famous once and for all: it reached no. 2 in the Billboard chart and probably would have reached the top if it hadn't been overtaken by Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up'.

Levitt left the group mid-'57 to go back to school, replaced by another Canadian, Mike Douglas; the group's further top tens were 'Silhouettes' (also a million-seller for the Rays) and 'The Stroll' (a minor hit for Chuck Willis). They even made an album with Stan Kenton arranger Pete Rugolo. At the end of the decade Reed and Kowalski were replaced by Californians John Felton and Evan Fisher; by then black groups were coming into their own as the golden era of soul dawned and the Diamonds were soon relegated to cabaret. The bandleader/ recording director was also becoming less important; David Carroll, having backed the Crew-Cuts, the Diamonds, Rusty Draper and others, had also made instrumental dance albums, but that style too had had its day, and Carroll went on the road in 1961 as music director for the Smothers Brothers.

Levitt and Kowalski both had careers as electrical engineers; Reed went into record promotion, and Somerville's beautiful voice has kept him in show business to this day. In the Spring of 2004 the Diamonds appeared in Atlantic City with a huge '50s show that included the Platters, the McGuire Sisters, the Chordettes, the Four Aces, the Four Lads and the Crew-Cuts (the last two groups also originally from Toronto): the Diamonds were the only ones with all four original members. Levitt values all the memories, but adds, "I have to say that, for me, the most marvelous thing about being part of the group was in the early days when, alone in somebody's living room or basement, we would put together an arrangement. Typically, one of us would suggest something, perhaps 'I Ran All The Way Home' by the Mills Brothers; then Dave would simply start to sing the melody and Bill, Ted and I would search out our parts and within 10 or 15 minutes we'd have something. There were no microphones and no instruments, just our voices, and the blend was smooth and the sound was beautiful, to my ears anyway, and I remember wishing that the song and the evening could just go on forever."