So Fine

Old Town Records had been in business for about five years before Marvin and Johnny's overly-possessive sentiments in the ballad "We Belong Together" connected with the public and became the label's first major hit in 1958. An interesting new act came to the attention of owner Hy Weiss some months later through Jim Gribble, who was pushing a demo of a song by his new discovery - though Hy told a different story wherein he claimed to have heard that selfsame foursome harmonizing in the bathroom next to his office, then cornered them out in the hallway and signed them on the spot. All the good doo wop group appellations must have been in short supply by 1958 with the cool car, bird and oddly striking Del Vikings-type names already taken; The Fiestas was not a Spanish group as the sobriquet might suggest, but rather a skillful east coast singing ensemble from Newark, New Jersey who couldn't come up with a reason not to call themselves Fiestas...after all, "The Partiers" doesn't quite have the same zing to it. And zing is precisely what the quartet's very first record had, a winner Weiss claimed to have quickly slapped together at a cost of only 40 bucks, a song not exactly doo wop but somewhere between four-part street corner harmony and a slicker brand of rhythm and blues. It's one of those rare recordings a music critic could review simply by quoting the title: "So Fine"!

Lead singer Tommy Bullock, tenor Eddie Morris, baritone Sam Ingalls and bass Preston Lane comprised the classically-configured quartet, yet to Weiss they could just as well have been Mutt and Jeff times two. What mattered to Hy was always the song, his theory being that the artist was secondary; if the song is good, the record will sell! In this case, Gribble was convinced the other side of the single, a pretty standard doo wop ballad, "Last Night I Dreamed," had the goods...but Weiss and just about everyone spinning platters on the radio, and all those folks out in radioland, preferred the more poppin' unison-vocal "Fine" side. Released towards the end of 1958, it took until March '59 for the stations to feel the '...chills up and down my spine' and start playing the record. It appeared first on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart near the end of of the month and debuted on the pop charts two weeks later. Around the end of April, just as the record slipped into the R&B top ten, a great song by five-man Detroit band The Falcons, titled "You're So Fine," made its appearance and, despite having a far different, grittier sound, threatened to confuse the issue.

Turns out both records were hits, coexisting in the same general vicinity though never quite in direct competition. The Fiestas' "So Fine" peaked at number three R&B in mid-May and remained there for five weeks, topping out at number eleven pop in mid-June, while the Falcons' "You're..." disc seemed to hold back, waiting until July before suddenly leaping from 17 to number two on the R&B survey. By this time the Fiestas' "Fine" smash had hit a bump in the road; Johnny Otis served Old Town with legal papers pointing out that he wrote the song, which had been recorded by The Sheiks in 1955 for Cincinnati's Federal label; a lawsuit followed and Weiss had to pay up. Meanwhile, Bullock and company were in the middle of an extensive road trip promoting the hit single. They took enough time out from touring to wax a midsummer '59 follow-up, "Our Anniversary," but it stalled, and I don't mean in the stalls where Hy purportedly overheard the guys singing on that possibly-a-figment fateful day.

The Fiestas

Jumping on the recently-hot stereo bandwagon (which a lot of smaller R&B labels weren't doing), the third single, "Good News," smacked of "So Fine" and sank. "Dollar Bill" was better, but another hit did not seem to be in the cards. A fifth member, Bobby Moore, was added and sang lead on "You Could Be My Girlfriend," a frenzied plea that made its point in under two minutes. Moore and Lane split from the others in '61 and popped up on the Strand label doing "Come on Everybody" as the Fiestas, but with new backing singers. Old Town's Fiestas moved forward with replacements for the two defectors, Randy Stewart (who penned the group's later B side "The Railroad Song") and Jimmy ("I'm not a "Handy Man") Jones, while Bullock made a soulful solo record for Old Town, "I Wonder Why," as Tommy Andre. By mid-'62 the original Fiestas lineup was back in business and tighter than ever with the happier-sounding-than-the-title-suggests "Broken Heart," a mostly-unison-growling-sax-stereo-soul-shot that finally returned them to the pop listings and into the top 20 of the R&B charts late that summer.

With another hit, the guys had a new lease on life and were able to take advantage with eight more Old Town singles over the next three years, though the only one to show up on a national chart was the late-'62 "Broken Heart" follow-up "I Feel Good All Over." Some of the act's most enjoyable records came out during that time including "The Gypsy Said," "The Party's Over" (Fiesta's over? Not yet!) and their finger-snapping take on Arthur Alexander's fabulous "Anna." When Weiss cut them loose in '65, the group temporarily disbanded. Bullock teamed with Cleveland Horne and laid down some decidedly funkier Gene Redd-produced tracks for Checker in '66 and '67 including "I Don't Want To Share Your Love" and a gotta-hear-it-to-believe-it remake of The Everly Brothers' 1958 chart-topper "Bird Dog." Also, Bullock again donned the Tommy Andre guise for "One More Try" on the Broadway label.

In the 1970s the Fiestas reunited and rerecorded "So Fine" at least a couple of times. Still going for it in '77 and '78, the quartet discoed-on-down with "Tina (The Disco Queen)," an overblown-but-fun track written by Sir Mack Rice and former Fiesta Randy Stewart; after this and one other single on the Chimneyville label, the group wrapped things up with a couple of singles for Clive Davis's Arista Records. Sometimes the first impression is the best; "So Fine" stands as The Fiestas' defining moment. Singers far and wide count it among their favorites; I don't believe it's an exaggeration to say that hundreds of versions have appeared in several genres. Three of those remakes each notched a spot on the charts: a hot acoustic guitar-based version by Ike and Tina Turner in 1968, a Johnny Rivers quick-hook in '73 as part of a "Searchin'/So Fine" medley and a countrified Oak Ridge Boys rendition from 1982.

- Michael Jack Kirby


So Fine