The Cadillacs were a talented and successful group from New York City that made quite an impact in the mid-fifties by emphasizing choreography in their stage act, one of the first groups to do so. Formed in 1953 in Harlem as the Carnations, the original quartet consisted of Earl Carroll (born November 2, 1937), Bobby Phillips, Cub Gaining and LaVerne Drake. Influenced by the Orioles and the Moonglows, they practised slow, romantic ballads. At a talent show they were heard by Lover Patterson, a freelance talent scout and manager of the Five Crowns. Patterson introduced the group to Esther Navarro, a lovely lady who was both a manager of artists and a songwriting secretary for the Shaw Booking Agency. By the time they went to audition, "creative differences" had eliminated Gaining from the group. Patterson brought in veteran singer James "Poppa" Clark and Gus Willingham to fill out the roster. Navarro liked the Carnations, but that name was already in use and was changed to the Cadillacs, the first of the so-called car groups. She signed the group to a management contract and gave the Cadillacs a few songs to rehearse, among them "Gloria", destined to become a doo-wop standard and the favourite practice song of street-corner groups. The record company that Navarro chose for their recording debut was Jubilee, owned by Jerry Blaine, who had just (to be exact in April 1954) set up a new subsidiary for R&B called Josie. "Gloria"/ "I Wonder Why" was recorded in July 1954 (with Earl Carroll singing the striking lead) and released on Josie 765 during that same month. Surprisingly, it was not "Gloria", but the up-tempo "I Wonder Why" (written by Lover Patterson) that received most of the radio and jukebox play. Their second A-side, "Wishing Well", was another Navarro ballad, recorded at the same July session. With records on the market, the Cadillacs began to get bookings. At the end of 1954, Wiilingham and Clark were replaced by Earl Wade and Buddy Brooks. This change made the group stronger, as Wade was a terrific lead on both jump tunes and ballads. The Cadillacs improved with every recording session. On their first session they had been backed by Rene Hall and his combo, but from their second session until the end of their stay at Josie in 1960 the group was accompanied by veteran tenor sax man Jesse Powell and his band. Powell would become a major contributor to the sound of the Cadillacs.

The song that broke things open for the Cadillacs was their fifth single, "Speedoo", an autobiographical brag piece about Earl 'Speedy' Carroll. Credited to Easther Navarro, "Speedoo" (that was the song title, Speedo the character) had a melody that was almost a carbon copy of "Got the Water Boiling" by the Regals on Atlantic. "Speedoo" entered the Billboard charts on December 10, 1955, and would peak at # 17 pop and # 3 R&B. Alan Freed wanted the Cadillacs on his big Christmas show at the Academy of Music in New York, their first big performance. Navarro supplied her group with sharp new uniforms and then went to work on their stage presence. She hired her good friend Charles 'Cholly Atkins' Atkinson of the dance team of Coles & Atkins to teach the Cadillacs some smooth moves for the stage. This was a great success and other groups, even the Coasters and the Moonglows, started clamouring for some of the Atkins magic.

In spite of good follow-ups like "Zoom" and "Woe Is Me", a second hit proved hard to come by, though "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was a R&B hit (# 11) in January 1957. But the group had plenty of work, doing package tours and dazzling their audiences, not realizing that they were at the peak of their popularity. In the spring of 1957 the group split into two, both still recording for Josie. Confusing the record buyers and radio station program directors is never a good idea and neither aggregation had any success. Earl Carroll and the remnants of his original group recorded as "The Original Cadillacs", while the other group was led by James Bailey. After a few meetings with Esther Navarro the two groups reunited under her guidance in February 1958 and celebrated the fact with "Speedo Is Back", on which the personnel is Earl Carroll (lead), Bobby Spencer, LaVerne Drake, James Bailey and Roland Martinez. The long dry spell in chart hits was finally broken with "Peek-A-Boo" (written by Jack Hammer), which peaked at # 28 pop and # 20 R&B in early 1959. It was the only Cadillacs single to get a UK release (London HLJ 8786). "Peek-A-Boo" was an unabashed Coasters imitation and was followed by several novelties in the same style, like "Jay Walker", "Cool It Fool", "Please Mr. Johnson", "Bad Dan McGoon" and "Naggity Nag". Earl Carroll left when his lead spot began floating between Spencer and Bailey. He would join the Coasters in 1961 (replacing Cornel Gunter) and stayed with that group until 1980.

As the Cadillacs gradually turned into museum pieces, personnel changes accelerated and various conglomerations recorded for Mercury, Smash, Capitol and Navarro's own Arctic label. Their last single was "Deep In the Heart Of the Ghetto, Parts 1 and 2" in 1969, on Polydor. The Cadillacs kept on rolling in the 1970s, to capitalize on the growing fondness for the vintage group sound. Carroll rejoined the group after leaving the Coasters and today original members Earl Carroll and Bobby Phillips still lead the way. In 2007 they recorded a CD of new songs for the Mr. Lucky label.

More info : (With discography)

Acknowledgements :
- Peter A. Grendysa, Liner notes for "The Cadillacs Rock" (Bear Family BCD 16281). This 34-track CD, just released, is a good alternative if the 4-CD Bear Family box (The Complete Josie Sessions, BCD 15648) is a bit too much (or expensive) for you. But if you prefer the Cadillacs as a ballad group, you'd better look elsewhere.
- Jay Warner, The Billboard book of American singing groups (1992), page 86-89.


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