EDDIE COOLEY
AND THE DIMPLES

Priscilla

If you've been searching for the music of the future, I've got it right here...at least if we're to believe what it says on the label of any Royal Roost 78 or 45 including "Priscilla," the 1956 hit by Eddie Cooley and the Dimples. The company, originally named after "The Royal Roost," a hot jazz club in New York City owned by Ralph Watkins, was at first called, simply, Roost Records, adding the Royal part a few years later to reflect the full name of what had started as a restaurant and bar. The label released records by many of the acts who performed at the club between 1949 and 1955, with a particular emphasis on saxophonists. Well-established players like Coleman Hawkins, James Moody and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis all made records for the label in addition to Stan Getz, whose peak years lay ahead. Rock and roll was not on the Royal Roost radar.

Songwriter Otis Blackwell was making the rounds of the Big Apple music scene in the mid-'50s, looking for his big break. Under contract to Shalimar Publishing, he came up with "You're the Apple of My Eye," a minor hit for The Four Lovers in May 1956. He sometimes used his stepfather's name, Joe Davenport, as a pseudonym and it was under that name he was credited, along with co-writer Eddie Cooley, for one of the most famous musical creations of the 20th century, "Fever." Little Willie John's incredible recording of the song was a number one R&B hit that summer and made a solid showing in the pop top 40. Blackwell's position as a red-hot songwriter became a certainty within weeks of this success when Elvis Presley laid down the track for "Don't Be Cruel," the year's biggest hit and, some say, the greatest of all Presley songs (competing perhaps with the top hit single of 1957, "All Shook Up," also written by Otis). Later Elvis gems from his pen include "Return to Sender" and "One Broken Heart For Sale," both with regular collaborator Winfield Scott. He also scored with hits by Jerry Lee Lewis, Dee Clark, Jimmy Jones and others.

Cooley had come to New York at about the same time as Blackwell and the two became close friends. He didn't consider himself to be much of a singer and had planned to stick with writing until Royal Roost A&R man Teddy Reig heard his voice on a demo of a song he'd written, "Priscilla," and insisted he should be the one to do it. Boyd Bennett of King Records had rejected the song, so Eddie figured he'd give it a try. Blackwell found three girls living in the projects to back him up (though no one's quite sure which projects or even who the girls were, except that their first names may have been Barbara, Beverly and Carolyn). They named the trio The Dimples. The idea to make it a group effort was an attempt to stand out from the crowd, as hit songs featuring a male singer with female backing vocals were scarce, if nearly nonexistent, in the mid-'50s (the seven-member Dream Weavers, with three backup female singers, came closest).

Eddie Cooley and the Dimples

Alan Freed at WINS was first to jump on the record and in October it began to break nationally, making it to the top 20 in late November. A pop cover version came out by Julius LaRosa, but it was buried by Cooley's catchy original. In early '57 Eddie and the Dimples joined a tour billed as "The Greatest Show of 1957," headlined by Fats Domino. It became a grueling undertaking, as 80 shows were scheduled on 80 consecutive days, February 15 through May 5, set up to move its way around the country to large and small markets alike, stopping in cities as far off the beaten path as Billings, Montana, where big-package R&B shows were an extremely rare treat. The tour gave Eddie and the girls a chance to rub elbows with some of the top stars of the day, including The Five Keys, The Moonglows, Charles Brown, Ann Cole, The Schoolboys, The Five Satins (whose nationwide smash "In the Still of the Nite" had recently become perhaps the biggest hit ever on the New York City airwaves) and Bill Doggett (whose "Honky Tonk" was the number one R&B hit of 1956).

The follow-up to "Priscilla," another song written by Eddie called "Driftwood," was released right at the start of the tour, and its surprising lack of radio play suggests the only people who heard the song were "Greatest Show" concertgoers. Royal Roost rushed out the act's third single "Hey You!" near the end of the 80-night schedule to no avail. With "Fever" and "Priscilla," 1956 had been a banner year for Cooley. In 1957 the exhausting February-to-May tour was the lone highlight, assuming it's allowable to stretch a highlight out over an eleven-and-a-half week period. Later in the year, Federal artist Tiny Topsy released her take on a cool Eddie Cooley song, "Aw! Shucks Baby." The record showed promise but was quickly, and undeservedly, overlooked.

Of course there are those ingenious creations that every so often become the gift that keeps on giving for their songwriters. In 1958 it began to look like that would be the case with "Fever" when a stark reworking of the song that had sent Little Willie John's career into space was released by Peggy Lee. Sultry Lee took it to a place John could not; with a spare jazz arrangement (bass, finger snappin' and brilliantly-timed drum accents) and added verses about the passionate pairings of Romeo and Juliet, and Captain Smith and Pocahontas, she put a sexy sizzle into what had previously been a soulfully-described high thermometer reading. Her version hit the top ten while embedding itself further into the national consciousness.

Eddie Cooley hooked up with the Triumph label for one single in 1959, "Leona," a song reminiscent of "Priscilla," once again with backup by The Dimples. Its disappointment in the marketplace led to a parting of the ways and the Dimples have since dissipated. Eddie's only other known recording session was for a Blackwell-produced album in 1961 called We Wrote 'Em & We Sing 'Em! wherein songwriters Cooley, Blackwell, Scott, Lincoln Chase, Billy Dawn and Ollie Jones performed some of the songs made famous for them by others. Cooley waxed his own version of "Fever" at this session with an odd 'zoom-zoom-zoom' backup from the other five writer-singers. Meanwhile, Elvis had already included a Peggy Lee-inspired rendition on his 1960 album Elvis is Back! The McCoys rocked the song in '65 and returned it to the top ten. Eddie Cooley happily collected substantial royal checks along the way. While "Priscilla" has unfairly fallen on hard times, you still hear "Fever" in a variety of interpretations to this day...it's one of those classic tunes that's just "in the air." Although never a Royal Roost release, it's one song that lives up to that bold claim: "Music of the Future!"

- Michael Jack Kirby




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Priscilla