Commentators discussing current racial tensions in America often refer, almost nostalgically to the 1960’s civil rights movement, a historical inaccuracy since it was neither a monolithic movement, nor confined to the 1960’s.
The post World War II civil rights movement was actually a tapestry of events occurring over several decades in all walks of life. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947. President Truman desegregated the military in 1948. Arguably the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th Century in the United States, Brown v. Board of Education, ended “separate but equal” schools in 1954. In 1955, Rosa Parks made a stand on a Birmingham bus and federal troops integrated Little Rock Central High in 1957.
These and other events paved the way for what is known today as the 1960’s movement - Freedom Riders, North Carolina lunch counter protests, integration of the state universities of Mississippi and Alabama, and the famous marches – Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Edmund Pettis Bridge March.
Woven within this tapestry are the stories not just of heroes but of regular people who in small ways helped integrate America. One such person was Herb Reed, who died recently at the age of 83. Certainly not regarded as a civil rights pioneer, his influence was nonetheless undeniable.
In the 1950’s, rock and roll was becoming America’s dominant musical trend (and still is today). This was Herb Reed’s walk of life. He helped found and was the last surviving member of the decade’s preeminent black vocal group, The Platters, who had 16 gold singles and three million-selling LPs. Along with black solo artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, James Brown, and Fats Domino, The Platters integrated rock and roll, an underappreciated achievement because it involved changing attitudes of a younger generation who would forever view race differently than their parents.
In 1953, Reed, with several friends, organized a singing group. He called them The Platters, a term for popular records used by disc jockeys of the era. Their white manager, a former composer and arranger for Count Basie, reconfigured the group and brought in a female singer (which also made them one of the first male/female groups).
Despite his beautiful bass, Reed willingly gave up the lead on most songs to tenor Tony Williams, one of rock and roll’s great voices. In 1955, their early release, Only You, climbed into the top five in the pop charts, surpassing a white group’s version of the song. Soon followed a slew of iconic 1950’s classics including The Great Pretender, My Prayer, Twilight Time and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (written by the great composer, Jerome Kern). During the 1950’s civil rights era, The Platters were unquestionably the top black rock act and the first great crossover group for white teenagers who began listening on radio to rhythm and blues (“race records”).
They soon became one of the first rock groups to be seen in movies, appearing in two of the biggest movies of 1956. They were featured in Rock Around The Clock, with the white group Bill Haley and the Comets, whose eponymous hit defined rock and roll before Elvis. In their other movie, The Girl Can’t Help It, a rock and roll showcase, they shared the screen with two of Hollywood’s most important contemporary white actors, Tom Ewell and the newcomer Jayne Mansfield. Both movies were huge hits with teenagers and solidified The Platters as a mainstream American act, something previous black groups had trouble achieving. The country was changing even as separate black and white drinking fountains, bathrooms, and swimming pools remained the norm in many parts of the country.
Unfortunately musical tastes were also changing. Despite their hits and popular nightclub act, by the early 1960’s, The Platters suffered the fate of most rock groups. Tony Williams left and The Platters’ standing as the premiere crossover group was soon eclipsed by the new Motown stable of artists and musicians from Stax Records, including Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
By 1970, rock’s most prominent acts included Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson Five featuring young Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross. Each known by their first name, their popularity rivaled that of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Such a rapid ascendancy of black artists would have been unimaginable less than two decades before when Herb Reed was putting together The Platters.
As a testimony to their cultural influence, The Platters’ recordings were featured more than any other artists in the soundtrack of American Graffiti, George Lucas’s classic 1970’s movie about white California teenagers in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s. White kids listening to black music.
In 1990, Herb Reed and The Platters were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame although like the situation that befell many early black rock groups, other performers unrelated to the original group attempted to appropriate their name. Shortly before his death, Herb Reed won the legal right to the name The Platters, after nearly four decades of protracted litigation.
It was poetic justice for a proud man. Herb Reed will never be mentioned in the history books about the civil rights movement but he nevertheless played a significant part. Millions of people derived enjoyment from listening to The Platters - and never worried about the color of the artists.
Proof that those who change the world aren’t always mentioned in the history books.
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