Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stormy Weather

As a record collector and dealer, I've heard many interesting stories over the years. One of the most incredible I've ever heard was the story of Stormy Weather / Sleepy Cowboy by the Five Sharps on Jubilee 5104 from 1952. Now, thanks to Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks, I know the real story behind this legendary record.

Stormy Weather was written back in 1933 by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen with Cab Calloway in mind. After putting the song together at a party one night, the two later decided it would sound better sung by a woman. They gave it to Ether Waters to introduce during a revue at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. But before that revue had a chance to open, Harold Arlen had already recorded his own version of the song with Leo Reisman's Orchestra. His version went to number one on the charts, so it was already a big hit by the time Ethel introduced it in the show. She recorded a version in that same year which also became a number one chart hit. There were a few more versions of the song, which all ended up in the top ten during 1933, performed by Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, and Ted Lewis. Ethel Waters once said, "I sang Stormy Weather from the depths of my private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated.” With passion like that poured into a song, it had to become a hit. In 1943, Lena Horne sang her big production version of Stormy Weather for the movie of the same name. It only reached number 21 on the charts, but it's the version that most people remembered through the years.

Now we fast-forward several years later to 1952. At that time, the South Jamaica Projects in New York City were fertile ground for a number of street harmony (Doo-Wop) groups, such as the Rivileers, the Cleftones, the Cellos, and the Deltairs. These groups sang on street corners where people would gather around, sit on benches, and listen to their music. One evening a group of younger kids who also loved to sing, Pete Le Monier, Billy Boatswain, Bobby Ward, Wilbur “Buzzy” Brown, and Robert Brown, were all sitting outside on the benches and listening to the Rivileers. They decided to put together their own group, initially calling themselves the Bencholeers. They later changed their name to the Love Larks, and, according to member Bobby Ward, the Rivileers started listening to them!

Not content to be with just one group, Bobby Ward also began singing second tenor with another group called the Five Sharps, which also featured Ronald Cuffey on lead, Clarence Bassett on first tenor, Mickey Owens (Ronald's cousin) on bass, and Tommy Duckett on baritone. Tommy also played piano and arranged the songs for the group. According to Bobby, Tommy was a full-fledged singing member of the group, so there were always five voices. They called themselves the Five Sharps because it fit them musically, and also because they dressed really well and always looked really "sharp" in their nice clothes! The group sang mostly ballads in the style of the Orioles, the Dominoes, the Larks, and the Royals, which were all groups they admired.

One night, while performing in the Villa Grove in Flushing, and after singing their version of My Mother's Eyes, a woman in the audience asked them to sing it again. Turns out that woman was none other than the legendary Billie Holiday who was nearing the end of her career at that point. A guy named Oscar Porter was also in the audience that night and he, after being impressed by that request, approached the group with an offer to manage them. Porter, who probably knew Jerry Blaine well enough to get an act signed without an audition, got the boys into a recording session at Jubilee Records, home of their idols, the Orioles. They worked on two songs. The first was Stormy Weather, which Ronald Cuffey chose because he favored older songs (Bobby hated the song).

The flip side of the original Five Sharps record featured Sleepy Cowboy, which had been written by Ronald Cuffey and Bobby Ward in Ronald's garage. Although they came up with different lyrics, the theme was borrowed from Sleepy Little Cowboy by the Deep River Boys which was originally issued in May 1952. But the only composer credited on the record was the group's new manager, Oscar Porter! That was a common practice back then as a means of shifting future royalty income to others. Ronald and Bobby worked on another tune in the garage that day called Duck-Butt Dottie. Sounds like a great title, but it appears they never managed to get it down on record.

One evening in the middle of October 1952, the Five Sharps showed up at the Jubilee studios in Sugar Hill around 6:00pm. Tommy Duckett played piano while singing along with the others on Stormy Weather. The studio dubbed in the rain and thunder sound effects later. Four hours later, they had both tracks laid down after several takes, during which they consumed franks and sodas. Ronald Cuffey sang the lead on both sides with the prominent bass vocals of Mickey Owens behind him. With the session ending at 10:00pm, it took then until almost two in the morning to get back home to Jamaica. Bobby's father was not pleased!

The record was basically ignored by Jubilee. No review copies were sent out after the December 1952 release, and lack of distribution killed it. Unfortunately for the Five Sharps, the competition was pretty tough at the time. They were up against songs like You Belong To Me by the Orioles, Night's Curtains by the Checkers, Big City by Linda Hayes, Last Laugh Blues by Little Esther And Little Willie Littlefield, and even Please Have Mercy On Me by Little Richard. Hal Jackson, a dee jay on WLIB, gave the Five Sharps several spins on his radio show, but it's almost certain the switchboard didn't light up. Bobby Ward thought his recordings with the Five Sharps were terrible, and he's convinced that everyone else thought the same, since almost no one actually bought the record. Stormy Weather did make it onto the record racks at two stores in Jamaica, Triboro and Green Line. Someone who worked in Triboro told them “If you guys don't sell some of these things, I'm gonna throw them out.” He probably did just that. Each of the guys had a copy, but Bobby couldn't recall if they got them for free from Jubilee or if they had to buy them on their own! Bobby's copy ended up in the possession of a girl he was dating at the time!

The legend behind the record begins in January 1962 at Time Square Records in New York City. This was THE used record shop back in the early 1960's, and it was operated by a guy named Irving "Slim" Rose. A record collector and regular customer by the name of Billy Pensabene came to the shop with a copy of a 78 RPM record he'd found somewhere either in New Jersey or Brooklyn wanting to play it for Slim. Neither of them had ever heard it before, but they both liked it a lot. It was on original copy of Stormy Weather by the Five Sharps.

At the time, Slim was doing a radio show on WBNX called Sink Or Swim With Swingin' Slim. He borrowed the record from Billy because he wanted to play it on his show that week. Supposedly, as Slim was walking home from the studio, he accidently broke it under his arm. This was not a good thing! Slim tried to claim that his pet raccoon Teddy sat on the record, but that didn't help much. Slim still "owed" a copy of the record to Billy and he figured he had two options to replace it, his store and his radio show.

On January 22, 1962, Slim asked his customers to search for another copy and bring it in to the shop. In return he offered a $5 store credit for a 78 RPM copy, or $10 credit for the same songs on a 45 RPM single. Nobody came forward. Slim started to increase the reward each week, all the way up to $500 for a single copy of Stormy Weather. Still, nothing surfaced. In the process, however, Slim managed to stir up a big demand for this mysterious record, so he went to visit Jerry Blaine, owner of Jubilee Records, asking him to reissue the original. Jerry told Slim that he couldn't do it. It seems there were about 80 master recordings that got destroyed in a fire and Stormy Weather by the Five Sharps was one of the missing masters. Blaine later changed his story and said these missing masters were the victims of water damage instead, but it was clear they no longer existed. In fact, Jubilee went to the trouble and expense of putting together a totally different black group to record Stormy Weather along the lines of the original so they could reissue the song on Jubilee 5478 in May 1964. They even called this new group the Five Sharps, but this later recording just didn't have the "magic" of the original. But before Jubilee got that record out, Slim had already recruited a group called the Florals and had them record a bogus version of Stormy Weather on his own Times Square label under the name The 5 Sharks. The flip side of that remake was a tune called If You Love Me.

Remember, NOBODY could find a copy of the original at this point, and the masters were lost forever!

A few years later, in 1968, a Brooklyn collector named John Dunn found a second copy of the original 78 RPM pressing of Stormy Weather. Unfortunately, it was badly cracked and could not be played. He took it to a recording studio where they pieced the song together, made a tape recording, and then edited out the loud pops caused by the crack. Now there was a recording of the original, but few people got to hear it -- that is until March 1972 when Bim Bam Boom, a record collector's magazine, purchased the cracked record from John Dunn. They took it to another studio where a recording engineer spent around 50 hours editing out something like 200 non-musical sounds. Later in 1972, the original Stormy Weather / Sleepy Cowboy was reissued on the Bim Bam Boom label. Finally, the world would get a chance to hear these legendary recordings!

In August 1977, a third copy of the original Stormy Weather 78 RPM pressing turned up! This time it was auctioned off in a magazine called Record Exchanger. The winning bidders were a couple of coin collectors named Gordon Wrubel and David Hall who now run the Good Rockin' Tonight auction house. They shelled out $3866 for it, which they claimed was the highest price ever paid for a single record up to that time. Actually, that wasn't quite true. A 1920's jazz record called Zulu's Ball by King Oliver on the Gennett label had sold for $4000 in 1974. Still, it was big money for a used record back in those days! Amazingly, this same auction featured a FOURTH copy of Stormy Weather which we have to assume was sold to someone else. That copy was in much worse condition with a big piece chipped off the edge of the record.

Researchers have learned that a 45 RPM pressing of the original Stormy Weather probably existed at some point, but none had ever been found. The reason these records were so scarce may take us back to the 1950's and the Korean War! Some of the materials that are used to make records were classified as "essential war products" during World War II. In fact, all production of records stopped for a full year during that war so the shellac used to make them was available exclusively for military purposes. Now the Bakelite Company started to cut back on shipments of the materials needed to make records, which made the record companies worry that the Korean War would bring about a similar ban. The most important ingredient in vinyl is acetylene, which was another essential war product. There was also a strike going on against the companies that made chlorine and chlorides, both vital ingredients for making vinyl records. On top of all this, the industry was trying to kill off the production of 78 RPM records in favor of the new 45 RPM singles that had been introduced by RCA in 1949. It's quite possible that Jubilee Records collected up records that were not selling well, including all the pressings of Stormy Weather, and recycled them. If you own any old Orioles records on Jubilee, chances are some of the vinyl in them was reclaimed from those unsold Five Sharps 45's! Still, there's a chance (SLIM) that one of the original 45 RPM copies of Stormy Weather did survive and is out there somewhere waiting for a lucky collector to discover!

A FIFTH copy of the original Stormy Weather on 78 RPM Jubilee turned up on October 31, 2003. That's when Nauck's Vintage Records in Texas offered a copy on eBay. This one also had a crack across the radius of the record, but supposedly it did not adversely affect the sound when played. After being listed for only three days, the bidding had climbed to a whopping $19,990.00! At this point, eBay pulled the auction down because the sellers had violated eBay's posting rules when they included a direct link to their home page and offered to consider a trade if the minimum bid was not reached. The problem was corrected and the auction was posted again on November 6, 2003. Strangely, the re-listed auction received no bids at all. Afterward, a collector from New Jersey contacted Nauck directly and purchased the record for $19,000. According to the buyer, the hairline crack is "barely noticable and it does not affect play."

Believe it or not, a SIXTH copy surfaced in June 2008! This one had been purchased by a Harlem resident in 1952 at the Blue Note Record Shop and held in his personal collection all through the years. This copy was put up for sale at the famous Christie's auction house in New York City. It was expected to bring in $20,000 to $30,000, but nobody ever met the minimum bid. It remains unsold, probably because the photo used by Christie's revealed a somewhat less than pristine copy. Not only that, Christie's is probably the wrong place to sell a rare record, since it's not a place frequented by record collectors.

In August 2008, yet another copy appeared on eBay. This one sold for only $5200 -- which was actually way too much, considering that this one was a fake! The seller had taken an earlier photograph of the original label, modified it a little, and pasted it on some random 78 RPM record. Fortunately, the winning bidder got a warning in time to cancel the transaction. Be careful when buying expensive old records on eBay!

Although they were still in junior high school, the Five Sharps did manage to make a few appearances at schools and small local clubs. They also appeared on the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night show where they sang a song by the Larks (either Hopefully Yours or In My Lonely Room). They came in third, with the first place prize that week going to the 5 Crowns who sang You're My Inspiration. A few months later, the group called it quits. By the end of 1953, Ronald Cuffey had joined the army and Bobby Ward had gone on to high school. Tommy Duckett ended up joining the Rivileers as accompanist and arranger.

When Ronald got out of the army, he reunited with Clarence Bassett to form the Videos. He sang both first tenor and bass, along with Charles Baskerville (second tenor), Ronnie Woodhall (lead tenor), and Johnny Jackson (baritone). After the Videos, Clarence and Charles went on to become members of the Limelites backing the legendary James “Shep” Sheppard.

One day in 1974, Bobby Ward was listening to a radio show called The Time Capsule. All of a sudden he heard his old group singing Stormy Weather! His wife, Bernice, called the studio and told them that her husband had been a member of the Five Sharps. At first they didn't believe it, but finally Bobby convinced them. He and Tommy Duckett wound up meeting with the staff of Bim Bam Boom records and, as a result, Bobby and Tommy re-formed the Five Sharps around 1976. They appeared at a couple of Gus Gossert shows, and also did a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, all with rave reviews. They also managed an appearance on the Good Day TV show on Boston's WCVB, by which time Clarence had returned, replacing Buzzy. Although this new-found fame didn't last too long, Bobby was happier the second time around: “This time it was about having fun,” he says.

Ronald Cuffey passed away from leukemia around 1970. Tommy Duckett had several strokes and left us in May 1996. It's rumored that Mickey Owens has died too, but Bobby can't confirm it. Clarence Bassett retired and moved to Virginia, where he passed away in January 2005.

So now, thanks to Marv Goldberg's interview with Bobby Ward, along with pieces of the puzzle he collected from a few other record dealers, we now know the complete story behind this legendary piece of vinyl record collecting history.

Now, please enjoy the original Stormy Weather by the Five Sharps!

Find an original 45 RPM pressing of this song on Jubilee 5104 and you'll probably be able to sell it for at least $50,000!

By the way, here's a very interesting garage rock take on the song from 1963 by a group calling themselves The Counts. This appeared on Smash 1821, but that's all I know about it. If you know anything about this group at all, please let me know.


  1. Just a wonderful post! Thank you for the story and the music!

  2. what a great story. i truly love this song!