THE LARKS (By Steve Walker)
Eugene Mumford, tenor
What thread connects Tarheel Slim, Hoagy Carmichael and Claude Debussy? Each name occurs in the following story of the Larks.
Although the original Larks group's recording career spanned only a two year period (1951-52), and eleven single releases, their influence amongst other R&B vocal groups that followed cannot be underestimated.
The history of the Larks began with spiritual singer Thurmon Ruth, who had formed the Selah Jubilee Singers in Brooklyn. The Selahs recorded spirituals for Decca from 1939 through to 1944, their best known recording being "I Want Jesus To Walk Around".
By the 1940's, they were operating out of North Carolina and were composed of Thurmon Ruth, Allen (Alden) Bunn, Junius Parker, Melvin Coldten, and Jimmy Gorham. The group had a daily program of jubilee music that aired over WPTF in Raleigh. When the Selahs decided to change over from jubilee to gospel singing, their established audience didn't take kindly to the switch, which caused baritone Ruth and tenor Bunn to leave in mid-1949 and form their own group.
Thurmon Ruth and Allen Bunn joined forces with Raymond Barnes, David McNeil and Hadie Rowe, Jr., calling themselves the Jubilators. A key addition to this quintet was sweet-voiced Eugene Mumford, who Thurmon Ruth had wanted to join his Selah Jubilee Singers as far back as 1945, when Eugene was a member of the Four Internes. Unfortunately for all concerned, Eugene had been falsely imprisoned on an attempted rape and housebreaking charge. Thanks to ceaseless work on his behalf by Eugene's father, enough evidence came to light to enable him to be granted a full pardon from the governor of North Carolina and in June 1949, after having served 29 months in jail, Mumford was a free man.
October 1950 found the six Jubilators in New York City, determined to get themselves on record. Thurmon Ruth knew that the only sure way of seeing any money for their efforts was to record for cash advances, rather than wait for non-existent royalties. In the space of one hectic day, they recorded four gospel songs as the Selah Singers for Jerry Blaine's Jubilee Records, four more as the Jubilators for the Braun brothers' Regal Records over in Linden, New Jersey, then up to Newark to knock out four secular numbers for Herman Lubinsky's Savoy Records under the nom-de-guerre of the Four Barons (including the decidedly non-religious "Lemon Squeezer").
Finally, they drove back across the river to the Manhattan offices of Bess Berman's Apollo Records under the guise of the Southern Harmonaires to record five more gospel tracks. Unfortunately, the studio that Apollo chose to record the session (Mastertone Recording Studios) was the very same at which they had started out that day for Jubilee. Despite using different individual names, the boys were rumbled and Bess Berman was informed of the subterfuge. When the dust settled, Apollo signed the group to a recording contract, but Jubilee, Regal and Savoy were allowed to release the masters that they held under various guises.
A change of name for the group seemed to be in order at this time and so it was that Bess Berman, who saw their future as a secular rather than a gospel group, followed the contemporary trend (Ravens, Orioles) and selected a "bird" name - the Larks.
In November 1950, Savoy issued "Lemon Squeezer" c/w "Got To Go Back Again" on their Regent subsidiary (1026) as by The Four Barons. The group made the decision to move to the New York area on a permanent basis and settled in to their new life as the Larks.
In December 1950, they had their first R&B session for Apollo. The first two masters were "Coffee, Cigarettes And Tears" and a cover of "My Heart Cries For You". The record was released as by the 5 Larks in December 1950 (Apollo 1177). "Coffee, Cigarettes and Tears" is dismissed by most commentators as lightweight and inconsequential, but I think it's a charming loping ballad, which could almost be a cowboy song in different hands, and highlights Eugene Mumford's sweet tenor and clear diction. "My Heart Cries For You" is the Guy Mitchell pop hit and is sung by the group as a straight rendition (backed by that ***** electric organ that seemed so popular at the time).
Back in the Mastertone studios on 18 January, 1951, the sextet cut a couple of classics. With Eugene on the lead once again, they laid down "It's Breaking My Heart" (a pretty ballad, with a nice bass part by David McNeil, which Apollo chose never to issue), "When I Leave These Prison Walls", and "Hopefully Yours". The latter two songs had been written by Eugene Mumford when he was in jail and show a certain wistful hope for the future:
No more home-made molasses No more spam I'll be eating fried chicken, baby And candied yams Yes, I'm gonna ball Now, when I leave these prison walls
No more getting up at six And going to bed at ten Cause when day breaks, baby I'll just be tipping in Yes, I'm gonna ball Now, when I leave these prison walls
I'm gonna catch the first thing smoking Going Chicago way Now baby everything's gonna be OK But you can dig me any time by the clock Forty-seventh street, baby, is really my block.
No more sloping banks and ditches With a pick Cause I'm going out in the town And dig myself a chick Yes, I'm gonna ball Now, when I leave these prison walls
In tone and tempo, "When I Leave These Prison Walls" is not unlike Johnny Bragg's "Just Walkin' In The Rain" written in similar circumstances just three years later.
"When I Leave These Prison Walls" c/w "Hopefully Yours" was released in April on Apollo 1180.
The Larks' next Apollo recordings were made on 27 March, 1951. The quintet (Hadie Rowe had been lost to the army by now) held a double session at which eight tunes were waxed, amongst them the classic "My Reverie". The original melody was written by Claude Debussy in 1896, and bandleader Larry Clinton had added words in 1938 to produce a sizeable pop hit (with vocal by Bea Wain) which propelled Clinton to stardom. Eugene changed the words slightly, but the effect, underpinned by a simple piano and David McNeil's metronomic bass vocal, is deeply effective:
Our love is a dream,
Only a poor fool, never schooled in the whirlpool
Please love me
"My Reverie" c/w "Let's Say A Prayer" was released in May on Apollo 1184. Jay Warner in his book "American Singing Groups" compares this recording to the Flamingos "Golden Teardrops" as the high point of recorded R&B harmony. The exquisite sound of the recording has made it an all time favourite and is always mentioned as one of the top records in this style ever made.
Also from Jay Warner's "American Singing Groups":
"Slim Rose, proprietor of New York's Time Square Records, obtained an excruciatingly rare orange plastic copy of ["My Reverie"] in the early 60's and played it on his record show, then promptly placed it on his rare record wall with the words "Not For Sale" printed on the sleeve. This was the only time in the famous oldie emporium's history that a record was not purchasable. Two weeks later, Slim announced on the air that the store had been broken into. To his and the audience's astonishment, only one record had been stolen out of all the thousands of rarities: the Larks' "My Reverie"."
During 1951, the group got national exposure by singing on the Perry Como TV show (the "Chesterfield Supper Club") and on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show, where Eugene Mumford led them to victory with their version of Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz", a song that was still riding the charts. Their win entitled them to appear on Godfrey's morning variety show the next week.
At the Larks' next session on 26 July, 1951, Allen Bunn was given the lead vocal duties. "Eyesight To The Blind" also features some fine guitar work by Allen.
You can talk about your woman
Yes, her daddy must be a millionaire
Oh what a woman
"Little Side Car" is a reworking of Smokey Hogg's double-entendre tune "Too Many Drivers". "Hey Little Girl" features the group singing as an ensemble on a lively jump ballad.
"Eyesight To The Blind" c/w "I Ain't Fattenin' Frogs For Snakes" (recorded at an earlier session and featuring Allen Bunn and David McNeil) was released in June 1951 on Apollo 427 and "Little Side Car" c/w "Hey Little girl" followed in August on Apollo 429. "Eyesight To The Blind" only made the national R&B charts for a single week, but it held down the number 5 position. "Little Side Car" became the Larks' second chart hit, climbing to number 10. However, it too only lasted a mere week, and these were the only two chart hits the Larks would have.
For the group's next release in September, Apollo returned to the March session and released the near-perfect "I Don't Believe In Tomorrow" (which featured both Allen Bunn, showing that he could sing a romantic lead as well as the blues, and Eugene, singing in high register) c/w bass singer David McNeil's rocking "Ooh...It Feels So Good" (Apollo 430). The latter was clearly influenced by The Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man" which was hitting the high spots that summer of 1951. In less than six month's time, David McNeil would replace Bill Brown in The Dominoes line-up
On 18 October, the Larks went back into the studio and recorded four more tunes: "How Long Must I Wait For You" (a jump tune led by David McNeil), "My Lost Love" (Eugene Mumford); "Christmas To New Years" (Allen Bunn), and "All I Want For Christmas" (Eugene). Neither "Christmas" song was released by Apollo. "My Lost Love" c/w "How Long Must I Wait For You" was released in December on Apollo 435.
In December 1951, Apollo released "My Lost Love" c/w "How Long Must I Wait For You". This was followed by "Shadrack" c/w "Honey In The Rock" in January 1952 (songs that had been recorded by the "Southern Harmonaires" at their first Apollo session back in October 1950; "Shadrack" was led by Allen Bunn, and "Honey" was fronted by the long-departed Hadie Rowe).
The last regular Larks session took place on 18 February, 1952. That day, they waxed four beautiful ballads, all led by Eugene Mumford. Marv Goldberg (whose work forms the meat of this article) suggests that this should be placed in the running for the finest single session by an R&B group. The tunes recorded were: "Stolen Love", "Hold Me", "I Live True To You" and "In My Lonely Room". "Hold Me" had been written by Jack Little, Dave Oppenheim and Ira Schuster in 1933; that year it was a hit for both Eddy Duchin and Ted Fio Rito.
In February 1952, Apollo released "Stolen Love" and "In My Lonely Room" on Apollo 1190 and, during the same month, a solo record by Allen Bunn - "The Guy With The 45" c/w "She'll Be Sorry" - a sign that the group's days were numbered. Sweet ballads were not selling in early 1952 and "Stolen Love" was no exception to the rule - the record buying public were more tuned in to Joe Turner's "Sweet Sixteen", Ruth Brown's "5-10-15 Hours" and the Clovers "One Mint Julep".
Apollo's next release (437), in April, was the haunting, Eugene Mumford-led ballad "Darlin'" c/w "Lucy Brown" (Thurmon Ruth on lead vocals), the song that they'd sung on the Perry Como show a year before.
The Larks' final Apollo session took place in May 1952. This time they were used to back up gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Four masters were recorded: "In The Upper Room, Part 1"; "In The Upper Room, Part 2"; "He Said He Would" and "He's My Light". Both parts of "In The Upper Room" were released in June. While all these masters would be issued eventually, the Larks received no label credit for them.
After this session, the disintegration began. Allen Bunn left to concentrate on his solo career and Raymond Barnes just left. Since the Larks had some contractual appearances to fulfil, Bunn and Barnes were both replaced by baritone Orville Brooks, of the Golden Gate Quartet. This only lasted a short time before David McNeil left to join the Dominoes, which effectively broke up the first Larks group.
The final Larks record came out in July 1952: "Hold Me" c/w "I Live True To You" on Apollo 1194. This was almost the end of the line for the Larks. Around October, Apollo released "He Said He Would" (the flip was a Mahalia Jackson song without the Larks). Sometime in 1953, "He's My Light" was issued. In June of 1953, the final Allen Bunn solo record on Apollo came out: "Baby I'm Gonna Throw You Out" backed with "Wine".
A later version of the group (1954-55) made some creditable recordings for the Lloyds label, but it was the original quintet and the great Apollo sides from 1951-52 that will live in the hearts of vocal group fans forever. Despite their rather short history as recording artists, the original Larks have left us with such joys as "My Reverie" and "I Don't Believe In Tomorrow" as testaments to their timeless quality and precision harmony.
The Larks, who had such a beautiful sound, got very little out of their singing career. With virtually no hits, appearances dried up and they had trouble finding work (a major problem when the main source of your income comes from appearances). Even when they got to perform, the money was never enough to support a full-time career.
Each member found some form of success after the original group broke up. This is what subsequently happened to the Larks:
Thurmon Ruth relocated back to North Carolina by the late autumn of 1952, eventually becoming a famed gospel DJ and MC (as "T. Ruth").
David McNeil joined the Dominoes, replacing Bill Brown (he would later be a member of Charlie Fuqua's Ink Spots for many years).
Eugene Mumford initially joined the Golden Gate Quartet, then formed the second Larks group. After that, it was a group called the Serenaders, with which he recorded the old standard "When You're Smiling" for Old Town's Whiz subsidiary. Finally, he ended up with the Dominoes on Liberty. It was here that Eugene gave his stunning performance on the Dominoes' hit version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust". After leaving them in mid-1958, he had some solo releases on Columbia and Liberty (1958-1960) before re-joining the Golden Gate Quartet for a couple of years.
Allen Bunn continued on with his solo career, later calling himself "Tarheel Slim". (In the later 50's and into the 60's he recorded with his wife, Anna Sanford, as both "The Lovers" and as "Tarheel Slim and Little Ann"). He was also involved with the Wheels/Federals.
Raymond Barnes, starting in 1957, had a subsequent career as a free-lance jazz and rock'n'roll guitarist.
Of the original Larks group, Eugene Mumford died (age 51) on 29 May, 1977, followed shortly thereafter (21 August 21, 1977) by Allen Bunn (age 52). Hadie Rowe died on 19 September, 1998 at age 70. Thurmon Ruth passed away on 13 September, 2002, at the grand old age of 88. I don't know if David McNeil or Raymond Barnes are still alive - I hope they are.
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