Local L.A. Heros - The Lamplighters ©1999JCMarion
The Lamplighters were formed in South Central Los Angeles in the spring of 1952. They were Willie Rockwell, Matt Nelson, Thurston Harris and Al Frazier. After appearing in a number of neighborhood nightspots they came to the attention of Ralph Bass, a talent seeker for Federal-King Records which was headquartered in Cinncinati. How they acquired the name Lamplighters is in some dispute, but one story gives the credit to R & B legend Johnny Otis which is a credible thought because little in the R & B field happened in the vicinity of L.A. in those years without some input from Otis. In the late summer of 1953, the group had their first record release for the Federal label. It was "Turn Me Loose" / "Part Of Me". Late in the year the oddly named "BeBop Wino" is paired with "Give Me" for the label. "Wino" gets a bit of airplay on the west coast and the group begins to get 'name' recognition. Soon after, Federal has the group back up blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon on "Sad Life" / "Move Me Baby" on #12156.
The Lamplighters appear with Linda Hayes and The Flairs at a number of venues in the southern California area including the Elks Hall in January of 1954. Federal releases "I Can't Stand It" / "Smoochie" late that month. During the spring Federal puts out the newest Lamplighters record "I Used To Cry Mercy" and the flip side is "Tell Me You Care". During this time the group appears at the big Tenth Anniversary Cavalcade of Rhythm & Blues at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. The show headlines Ruth Brown, Count Basie, and Louis Jordan, very heady company for the group. "Salty Dog" and "Ride Jockey Ride" are released and as with most of the Lamplighters recordings, get initial airplay bit do not ignite large record sales. They are virtually unknown outside of their home base in southern California. In mid August the group appears at another huge R & B extravaganza, this time at the Savoy Ballroom in downtown L.A. hosted by Hunter Hancock. On the bill are Johnny Otis, Shirley Gunter & The Queens, and the Platters. At this time another Federal release is out : "You Hear" / "Five Minutes Longer". In a rather strange pairing, the Lamplighters return to the Savoy Ballroom on a bill with jazzman Buddy DeFranco. At years end Federal comes out with "Yum Yum" and "Goody Good Things", but the result is the same as previous outings on the label. By now the group was going through self doubt and other pressures both musically and financially, and the personnel lineups were becoming unstable and changing quite often.
The year 1955 starts out with Federal releasing "I Wanna Know" / "Believe In Me" in January, and "Love Rock, and Thrill" / "Roll On" and neither disc makes much noise either on the radio or in record sales. Federal is at the end of their association with the Lamplighters and the group has their own problems to contend with. The lineup at this time consists of Eddie Jones, Harold Lewis, Carl White, and Sonny Harris. Later in the year they get to do a recording session with Decca Records. One release comes of that session : "Big Joke" and "After All". This side meets the same fate as most of the others. At the same time Federal tries something new-renaming the group as The Tenderfoots. There are four recordings released under this name and all are quickly forgotten so the change of names did not change the group's fortunes and the end was near.
Three Federal releases during the next sixth months come from previous outings in the studio. As with seemingly all Lamplighters records, sales and impact are minimal. In October of 1955 "Hug A Little Kiss A Little" / "Don't Make It So Good" is out. In February of 1956 the label releases "Bo Peep" / "You Were Sent From Heaven", and the final Federal recording by The Lamplighters is April's "It Ain't Right" / "Everything's All Right".
That is not quite the end of the story however. The Lamplighters/Tenderfoots then evolved into a group called The Sharps who were known most for being the backup group for sometimes Lamplighter Thurston Harris on his two big R & B hits in 1957 "Little Bitty Pretty One" and one of the finest rockers of all the 50s tunes "Do What You Did". And finally remnants of the Lamplighters/Tenderfoots/Sharps in the early sixties appeared as The Rivingtons and the immortal recording of "Poppa Ooh Mow Mow" a hit in its own right and the basis for the Trashmen's "Surfing Bird". What a long strange trip it's been, and what a legacy that all began with The Lamplighters, stars in L.A. but unknown everywhere else in the universe !
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