THE CHORDS

Sh-Boom

Some groups go through personnel changes. The problem for The Chords, though, was their name. They couldn't seem to stick with just one. Carl Feaster was the lead singer of the Bronx vocal quintet with his brother Claude Feaster, Jimmy Keyes, Floyd "Buddy" McRae and Ricky Edwards. Performing in a New York subway station led to a contract with Atlantic Records and the remarkable "Sh-Boom," released in 1954 as the B-side of the group's first single on the company's Cat subsidiary label. At first the idea was to promote the record's A-side, "Cross Over the Bridge," already a huge hit by Patti Page on Mercury Records, for the R&B market (Patti's record company affiliation would quickly become a sticking point for Atlantic), but the flip side upstaged the Page song. Disc jockeys and listeners alike preferred its hot sax solo by Sam "The Man" Taylor and 'life could be a dream...sh-boom!' lyrical punch that some actually associated with the impending threat of the atomic bomb, a fearful obsession many Americans had in the 1950s. The Chords, who had written the song as a group effort, had no ominous intentions. It hadn't even occurred to them the song would be a hit. But it was, and not just by them.

The Crew-Cuts, a quintet from Toronto who'd been in the top ten a few months earlier with "Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby" on Mercury, recorded an altered pop version (adding a 'ya-da-da-da-da-da' hook not in the original) that took just one month to climb to number one on the pop charts in August '54, coinciding with the Chords version hitting top ten R&B. The tight harmonies and driving rhythm of the original went unheard by some listeners exposed instead to the lighter, non-threatening sound of the Crew-Cuts' top-selling rendition, one of the two or three biggest hits of the year, though it wasn't a complete shut-out: The Chords landed in the pop top ten as well. One change Atlantic made was to replace "Cross Over the Bridge" (now essentially the B-side) with their own song, "Little Maiden," opting not to do the people at Mercury any favors after the coup their Canadian chartbusters had pulled with "Sh-Boom"...not sour grapes, really, since the cover game was common at the time. It was just business.

The Chords

And business being what it was, the Chords soon had a little problem of their own; another group with the same name already existed, necessitating a change to keep from channeling any more money away from Atlantic and themselves. Later pressings of "Sh-Boom," then, were credited to The Chordcats, a name no one was particularly fond of, especially after the two or three years Feaster and the guys had spent settling into their first choice. Advance copies of the follow-up single, "Zippity Zum (I'm in Love)," had been pressed crediting the Chords, and both 78s and 45s exist showing either name. By the end of the year the newly-altered name was permanent and any possible lawsuits had been avoided. The group's third single, "A Girl to Love," came out as the Chordcats and traveled to the same place "Zippity Zum" had: nowhere. Feeling that yet another name change could only improve the situation, they became The Sh-Booms, hoping it would be clear to listeners that they were the same guys who'd had the one big hit. It wasn't. Confusion had become the order of the day.

It wasn't all about the public image or name recognition or staying a step ahead of any legal entanglements. The guys had a little fun along the way, too: just as their hit was reaching its peak they did a guest shot on NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour, hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the night of July 15, 1954. Appearing with Willie Mays (the baseball great whose team, the New York Giants, was on its way to a World Series Championship that October), they performed "Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)" (which had been recorded by Mays earlier that same day with The Treniers for release on Okeh Records!)

Stan Freberg stepped in to add his two cents with a novelty version of "Sh-Boom," a supremely insulting sendup of not just the song but the entire process of making an R&B record. Freberg had ulterior motives in his parodies of the new rock trend he found so distasteful, commenting to the press, "I hope this puts an end to R&B forever." Like most of Freberg's efforts it was hilarious and all parties benefited from the added promotion its release provided.

Cut loose by Cat after their failed follow-ups, the group moved to RCA Victor's Vik subsidiary for one single as the Sh-Booms, then kicked around for a couple of years before getting another chance with Atlantic in 1960. Still using the Sh-Booms moniker (which by that time they'd been using longer than their original choice, the Chords), they recorded the 1934 Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart classic "Blue Moon" (in a retro style even for the time), failing to gain any airplay or further chances to record for Atlantic (The Marcels' wild doo wop convolution of the song, apparently what was needed to to make the nearly three-decade-old standard a hit in the rock era, was a number one monster a few months later).

The Sh-Booms broke up sometime after this, but Jimmy Keyes wasn't ready to stop. He put together a new group and called them The Popular Five, recording an updated "Sh-Boom" in 1967 (on the obscure Rae Cox label), followed by a couple of 45s for Minit and a final early-'70s single, "Baby, I've Got It" on Gene Chandler's Mister Chand Records, a vanity label if there ever was one (with a smiling picture of Gene himself on the strange-looking mulitcolored label)...distributed by Mercury Records! The full circle had been traveled with the final landing on rival turf. None of the Popular Five records had found an audience (if only the group had actually been popular the name would have made sense). The end, at least as far as making records, had come. But "Sh-Boom" lives on, an iconic and everlasting benchmark of early rock and roll.

- Michael Jack Kirby





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Sh-Boom