Herb Reed, The Last Original Platter, Dies at 83 (video)

July 8, 2012

Herb Reed, the last surviving member of the Platters, one of the first pop groups to break the color barrier in the 1950s with crossover hits like “Only You,”……“The Great Pretender” and a soaring street-corner version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” died on Monday in Boston. He was 83.

The cause was lung disease, said his manager, Fred Balboni.

Mr. Reed was credited with naming the group in 1953 (“platters” was disc jockey lingo for vinyl records) when he and a group of friends in Los Angeles began singing a cappella in amateur contests. The core of the original group — Mr. Reed, David Lynch and the lead singer, Tony Williams — later joined with Paul Robi and a 15-year-old girl named Zola Taylor to form the quintet that recorded “Only You” in 1955, the first in a string of hits.

Mr. Reed became the group’s most enduring presence. As original members were replaced, he remained, singing bass on all of the 400 recordings the group made during its peak years, including four that reached No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart: “The Great Pretender” (1955), “My Prayer” (1956), “Twilight Time” (1958) and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1958). He continued performing until 2010, and a year later he won a court battle over the rights to the Platters name.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtXnUEW_OXw&w=420&h=315]

In the tradition of black singing groups like the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, the Platters used highly polished harmonies and had a musical sophistication that helped their records gain acceptance on mainstream radio at a time when racial divisions, though loosening, were still being observed in the record business. The Platters’ early records, like those of many black artists, had color-coded labels — usually orange, sometimes purple — to alert D.J.’s that they were “race records,” something that effectively barred them from the air in parts of the South. (The term was later changed to “rhythm and blues.”)

Jay Warner, in “The Billboard Book of Singing Groups,” credited the group’s songwriter and manager, Buck Ram, with persuading its label, Mercury Records, to market the Platters without regard to the race divide. Mr. Ram’s persistence, Mr. Warner wrote, “convinced Mercury to continue promoting the black group as if they were a pop white act.”

Still, Mr. Reed told interviewers, he found conditions on the road difficult during the ’50s and early ’60s, especially in the South, where the Platters had to perform separately for white and black audiences and were often baited or threatened by white thugs. He spoke poignantly in a video taped interview in 2010 about his mixed feelings about the wealth and professional success he achieved in the ’50s, when the Platters were touring the country, appearing on television and in the movie “Rock Around the Clock” (1956), with Bill Haley and the Comets.

“In those days, when you had all these gigs, and the TV, and the movies, honestly, it didn’t mean anything,” he said. “There was still so much prejudice everywhere. How could you enjoy it? You couldn’t go anywhere but your intimate circle. What you did is, you had your own world that you lived in, with friends and food, you had your own nightclubs. So you could survive.”

Herbert Reed was born into poverty in Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 7, 1928, and lost both his parents when he was about 13, living afterward in the homes of various relatives. He left for Los Angeles when he was 15 and began singing in church gospel choirs while working odd jobs. Singing in amateur contests, he discovered he could make money doing what he liked best.

Mr. Reed’s survivors include one son, Herbert Jr., and three grandchildren.

The Platters continued to record and tour in various incarnations until the late ’60s. In the ’70s Mr. Reed began touring with a new ensemble of singers, which he called the Platters. But as years passed, more and more groups calling themselves the Platters began to appear. By the 1990s, when he began waging a legal battle to gain some control over the use of the name, there were about 80 of them.

Mr. Reed, who once said he spent over $1 million in the legal effort, finally won a federal court decision in 2011 giving him, as the sole surviving member of the original group, preferential rights to the Platters name.

“You know, a lot of people tell me to just hang it up,” Mr. Balboni, his manager, recalled Mr. Reed saying earlier this year. “But I just cannot do that. It’s not right to have someone steal your name. It’s just not right. We were cheated back then, but that’s how things were done then.”


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