Having always given myself the utmost credit with regard to being a music lover, even boasting at times at the self-endowed fact that I was a true connoisseur of the music attributed to the 1950’s and early 1960’s, I have recently discovered that I have failed miserably by all accounts regarding my most recent enlightenment. And to add insult to injury from my perspective, I found this post quite difficult to write due to the fact that there are just so many moving parts that it is hard to decide what to include and what to omit. And this is especially true when it comes to the many vocal groups who were emerging during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s with the growth of popularity of R&B music coupled with the birth of the rock and roll genre.
If you spent your teenage years growing up in the 1950’s as I did then you may recall that in 1957 two songs in particular that hit the Billboard Charts that year struck a real musical chord with a lot of folks. Even our parents who were not quite yet caught up the new budding rock and roll music genre took somewhat of a liking to the new releases. And why not, who could not be caught up in those classic pop standards which were “Stardust” and “Deep Purple”.
A vocal group, “Billy Ward & His Dominoes”, released the two songs in 1957 which were covers of a couple of classic contemporary pop standards, “Stardust” which topped the Billboard Charts at #12 in July of 1957 and was followed by the release, “Deep Purple” which went to #20 on those same charts in October of that same year. Aside from being great classic songs, these new versions were steeped in the flavor of the “Doo-Wop” sound which seem to elevate them to an even higher level with the younger generation.
And without any further guidance and/or information from local radio DJ’s or other sources and given the fact that the record label itself was devoid of any clarifying information regarding the lead singer, the majority of us just assumed given the name of the group that it was Billy Ward. And if your memory has failed you to any degree up to this point regarding those two music selections, let me offer up a subtle reminder….
(“Stardust” – Billy Ward & His Dominoes)
(“Deep Purple” – Billy Ward & His Dominoes)
Imagine now, if you will, waking up one morning some 58 years later and finding out that all these years you have been doling out ‘kudos’ to Billy Ward for his amazing voice featured in those two recordings and finding out the singer was not Billy Ward at all. It actually wasn’t until well after the advent of the Internet that I happened across information that would enlighten me greatly with regard to the subject matter of this post.
Well… let me get to the heart of the matter at this point. No, that is not Billy Ward singing the lead on those two songs and I found myself a bit shell-shocked when I discovered the true facts. It was a man named “Eugene (Gene) Mumford” who was quite well known among his musical peers for his golden tenor voice but to the admiring pubic where I was residing he was a total unknown. And unfortunately pretty much remains so to this day. And that, musically speaking, is tragic in my opinion.
The group was basically founded in 1950 and was originally called The Dominoes. Billy Ward along with his agent and partner, Rose Ann Marks, were co-founders of the group. Billy Ward was trained on the piano had been a child prodigy, even attending New York’s famed Julliard School of Music. As a group leader, he had a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian when it came to running and controlling the group and had a no-nonsense personality.
After some initial efforts at trying to organize a cohesive vocal group, in late 1950 the vocal mix that the founders were looking for emerged. At that early point in of the group’s beginnings, The Dominoes, which was the group’s initial name, consisted of the following talents: Billy Ward at piano, Clyde McPhatter – lead singer, Charlie White – tenor, Joe Lamont – baritone, and Bill Brown as bass singer. And yes you read that right, the group’s first lead singer was the very famous Clyde McPhatter who at the time was a virtual unknown and had been recruited from a gospel group. Here’s a selection from the makeup of that group. (Please click on photo to enlarge)
Billy Ward & His Dominoes featuring Clyde McPhatter
McPhatter would remain the group’s lead singer until late 1953 when he would leave the group to pursue both a successful solo career and found the famed group, The Drifters. Amazingly enough, McPhatter’s replacement would end up being another virtual unknown, Jackie Wilson who like McPhatter, would go on to have a stellar career of his own. (Please click on photo to enlarge)
“Rags To Riches”
Billy Ward & His Dominoes featuring Jackie Wilson
And now to the man of the hour, Gene Mumford, who as previously mentioned was well known among his vocal group peers and virtually unknown to the general public. With Jackie Wilson having left the Dominoes and hearing Gene Mumford was available, Billy Ward immediately recruited Mumford for his next tenor and lead singer.
During his early singing years Mumford was a member of a southern gospel group, The Four Interns, and then in the mid-1940’s he had a couple of unfortunate run-ins with both military and civilian law enforcement, eventually spending two years on a prison chain gang until he was cleared of all charges and received a full pardon from the Governor of North Carolina.
After being pardoned and released from prison in 1949, Mumford was contacted by Therman Ruth who was a gospel singer, Dee-jay and concert promoter whom Mumford had come to know prior to his incarceration and had remained in contact with during that time. Therman was in the process of putting together a group he called the Jubilators and as soon as he learned Mumford had been released he immediately contacted him and Mumford joined the group as a tenor/lead.
Then on October 5, 1950 Therman took the group around New York City on a marathon recording fiasco where the group recorded at several different record companies under a sundry of group names and individual aliases. They finally ended up that day at Apollo Records where they had already recorded some tracks earlier in that same day. They were preparing to record new tracks under a different group name, “Southern Harmonaires”, when one of the studios employees recognized them from their session earlier in the day. They called the studio owner, Bess Berman, who came to the studio and after actually hearing the group sing decided on the spot that she wanted them under contract so in the end she made a deal with all the other recording companies and secured sole rights to the group.
Bess wanted a secular R&B group and so it was that the Jubliators faded into obscurity and she renamed the new group the “5 Larks”. Within several weeks the “5” was dropped from the group’s name and they would be known from that point on simply as “The Larks”. And through it all Gene Mumford continued his tenure as tenor/lead.
In March of 1951 the group cut a record with a song on one side titled “My Reverie” and although the song garnished no particular acclaim nationwide it is considered one of the group’s classics and features our man of the hour, Gene Mumford, singing lead so here are those sweet sounds. (Please click on photo to enlarge)
The Larks featuring Gene Mumford
The group’s members slowly began to migrate to other groups in mid-1952. Gene Mumford would join a gospel vocal group called the “Golden Gate Quartet” but in less than a year he left the group in an effort to further pursue a career in secular music. In 1953 Mumford then took it upon himself to try and reincarnate his formal vocal group, The Larks, so he simply began recruiting new members but maintaining the name ”The Larks”, although this was in reality a completely new group.
In 1954 the group was given the opportunity to perform and record some five songs at a local production company named Studio Films who was trying to produce a series of music videos. One of those five songs filmed was the very well-known classic, “Danny Boy”, which is featured below. David ‘Boots’ Bower’s who was the group’s bass singer sings on the first portion of the video but Gene Mumford, who is at the far right of the group, comes in at about the 1-minute mark to finish out the song….
The reincarnated Larks would finally dissolve for the last time in the latter part of 1955. Mumford pretty much remained out of the lime light until early 1957 when he surfaced once again as a member of a vocal group named the “Serenaders”. It was apparently only a short time later that Jackie Wilson had left Billy Ward and His Dominoes so it was at that time that Billy Ward recruited Mumford to replace Jackie in his group. Gene’s voice had fully matured by that time and he could vocally deliver one hell of a ballad.
And so it is that we have basically come full circle since I started this short little post with those two great songs that were released by Billy Ward & His Dominoes in 1957 and featured Gene in the lead. Certainly this historical look is not by any means but I did want to try and give a basic overview of this talent who may have been somewhat overlooked by the general music loving public. Sometimes when it comes to music, again historically speaking, we often miss some of the real historical treasures of that music and its true origins. In the case of Gene Mumford, after myself becoming enlightened on this man, do believe he has been for the most part a true musical treasure sadly overlooked.
Gene Mumford who was born June 25, 1928 passed away May 29, 1977 at the age of 51 having been diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia. Gene also suffered from diabetes and his friend, Therman Ruth, felt that his diabetes along with a serious drinking issue were primary contributors to his early death.
The Larks are now regarded as one of the most important R&B vocal groups of the 1950’s and even though they had less than a handful of songs that hit the Billboard Charts, their music and history certainly seems to bear that out beyond any shadow of a doubt. Billy Ward and His Dominoes enjoyed a bit more success when it came to charted songs but a part of it all was a talent of whose name I was totally unaware which would emerge from the shadows on occasion and surely catch the ear of all within listening distance.
In closing, if you are interested in a much more detailed accounting of the two vocal groups to include Gene Mumford I want to highly recommend reading the following biographical accounts.
Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebook – The Dominoes (Part 1)
Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebook – The Larks
Tod Batista’s Harmony Lane – In Search of Gene Mumford