With classics such as "The Great Pretender," "Only You," and their rendition of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the Platters were one of the preeminent doo-wop groups of the rock & roll era. Under the guidance of manager and producer Buck Ram, the Platters churned out hit after hit during the 1950s, bridging the gap between more traditional vocal-group stylings and the popular R&B grooves of the early '50s. Their sound was unique, marked by lead singer Tony Williams' powerful vocals and the feminine touch of singer Zola Taylor. Although competing versions of the Platters confused the public for many years, original founding member Herb Reed eventually solidified his rights to the name and the group continued recording and performing in the 2010s.
The Platters started out in 1952 as a Los Angeles-based doo wop group who made a few records for Federal, a subsidiary of Cincinnati's King Records. What changed their fortunes boils down to one very important name: their mentor, manager, producer, songwriter, and vocal coach, Buck Ram. Ram took a standard doo wop vocal group and turned them into stars — one of the most enduring and lucrative groups of all time. By 1954, Ram was already running a talent agency in Los Angeles, writing and arranging for publisher Mills Music, managing the Three Suns — a pop group with some success — and working with his protégés, the Penguins. The Platters seemed like a good addition to his stable.
After getting them out of their Federal contract, Ram placed them with the burgeoning national independent label Mercury Records (at the same time he brought over the Penguins following their success with "Earth Angel"), automatically getting them into pop markets through the label's distribution contacts alone. Then Ram started honing in on the group's strengths and weaknesses. The first thing he did was put the lead-vocal status squarely on the shoulders of lead tenor Tony Williams. Williams' emoting power was turned up full blast with the group (now augmented with Zola Taylor from Shirley Gunter & the Queens) working as very well-structured vocal support framing his every note. With Ram's pop songwriting classics as their musical palette, the group quickly became a pop and R&B success, eventually earning the distinction of being the first black act of the era to top the pop charts. Considered the most romantic of all the doo wop groups (that is, the ultimate in "make out music"), hit after hit came tumbling forth in a seemingly effortless manner: "Only You," "The Great Pretender," "My Prayer," "Twilight Time," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Harbor Lights," all of them establishing the Platters as the classiest of all.
In 1961, Williams struck out on his own. By the decade's end, the group had disbanded, with various members starting up their own version of the Platters. Decades of competing versions ensued, until original member Herb Reed finally won a series of court cases. Reed, who died in 2012, restarted the group and patterned them on the original, with members including Wayne Miller, Valerie Victoria, Frank Pizarro, and Cheo Bourne, plus music director Michael Larson. In 2015, the only group authorized to perform as the Platters released Back to Basics Live! on the You Dig It label. The album included a pair of Grammy Hall of Fame songs "Only You (And You Alone)" and "The Great Pretender." Also included was a bonus track, the new Platters' recording of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" (lead singer Pizarro was a first responder at the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001). ~ Cub Koda