The Walking Dead. That's one way, at least, to describe someone who's doing the Dead Man's Stroll! In 1959, The Revels recorded a song describing one of the most macabre musical scenes ever, starting with the toll of a tower bell, followed by an accidental discovery: 'Just got off from work, it was awful late, I had to pass the cemetery gate...I never thought I could see such a sight, a poor soul doing the dead man's stroll.' Wow! 1950s rhythm and blues meets Boris Karloff's 1936 film The Walking Dead, resulting in the deliriously great "Dead Man's Stroll."
The group was formed in Philadelphia around 1954 as The Re-Vels Quartette (putting the accent on vels, instead of the natural tendency to put it on Rev) with lead singer John Kelly and high school pals John Grant, John Jones, Henry Colclugh and Bill Jackson. The combo clicked and began doing live appearances, cutting a record for the Atlas label, "My Lost Love." A deal with another label, Sound, came along the following year. Their single releases in 1955 and '56 included "So in Love," "You Lied To Me" and "Cha-Cha Toni" under a shortened name, The Re-Vels. The songs, particularly "Toni," received a smattering of airplay in Philly and a few Eastern U.S. cities, but none were hits. The guys bounced around for a couple of years and landed with Chess Records in 1958. "False Alarm" (also as the Re-Vels) picked up some airplay like the earlier singles, but despite its tight doo wop harmonies and a hot opening guitar riff, didn't quite catch on. Chess, riding high at the time with Chuck Berry and Harvey and the Moonglows, was apparently demanding that their acts deliver hits, and the Re-Vels were quickly cut from the roster.
It would seem the key to the success of the group, then, was dependent on two things: taking the hyphen out of the group's name, and recording something with a little more of a novelty flavor. A small startup label founded by Harold Nussbaum (a.k.a. Hal Norton) and William Goldstein and named after a mashup of their names, Norgolde Records signed the group as The Revels. 'Dressed in a top hat, cane and all, must have been going to a dead man's ball...may not believe it but it has to be told, a poor soul doing the dead man's stroll.' Jackson's lyrics weren't what one would expect to break the quintet onto the charts, yet it was meant to be.
"Dead Man's Stroll" was released in September 1959 with the idea of timing it to hit big around Halloween, and the song began popping up on radio stations, leading to a scheduled appearance on American Bandstand with Dick Clark at the end of the month. Clark objected to the "Dead Man" part of the title, so to appease him and avoid losing the much-needed TV exposure, the record's title was changed to "Midnight Stroll" (though the lyrics were left unchanged, with the word "midnight" nowhere in the song). The record broke into the national charts in mid-October, languishing near the bottom at first, as Halloween flew right by. Fortunately the song wasn't affected by the passing of the holiday, as it ascended soon after, reaching the top 40 near the end of November and remaining on the charts until just before Christmas.
A maniacal, uncontrollable, screaming, gasping 27-second bout of laughter erupts over the sax break in the middle of "Midnight Stroll," leading to the final, dreaded set of lyrics: 'We went on strolling for miles and miles, just before I realized, the time had passed and I was cold...I was now doing the dead man's stroll.' The song ends with the gong from that tower...all very spine-chilling and lots of fun! It's one of the great Halloween classics or just plain classics, period. With an early 1960 follow-up on Norgolde, "Foo Man Choo," the group attempted to humorously inflict more chills, but so intense is the aura surrounding Sax Rohmer's sinister Dr. Fu Manchu that he's perhaps too scary and not particulary funny. Besides, the song paled in comparison to these types of records The Coasters did so well; the record went largely unnoticed.
It was Bill Jackson, in later years known as Billy Jackson, who broke out from the group with a long lasting career in the music biz. Having written or cowritten many Revels songs including "Midnight Stroll," he kept at it, joining the Cameo-Parkway label group in 1963. A new discovery, The Tymes, proved to be a good match for his talents: "So Much in Love," written by Jackson with Roy Straigis and Tymes lead singer George Williams, became a number one hit that summer. Jackson continued working with them through the years, cowriting (with frequent collaborator Jimmy "Kokomo" Wisner) "Here She Comes" and "The Magic of Our Summer Love" and producing all of the group's 1963 and '64 hits for the Parkway label, as well as their mid-1970s hits including "You Little Trustmaker," on which it's been rumored he sang lead.
Jackson composed many other songs during his tenure with Cameo-Parkway, among them 1963's "Groovy Baby" (with Straigis) by Billy Abbott and the Jewels and 1964 chart entries "Willyam, Willyam" (with Wisner) by Dee Dee Sharp and The Swans' Fab Four novelty "The Boy With the Beatle Hair" (in collaboration with Kenny Gamble, Joe Renzetti and Jerry Ross). In addition, a 1963 B-side by The Orlons, "Don't Throw Your Love Away" (another Billy Jackson-Jimmy Wisner team effort), hit top 20 in '64 by The Searchers, who also enjoyed a number one hit with the song in their native England. Another highlight of Jackson's career came as producer of the Ronnie Dyson hits "(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can't I Touch You?" and "I Don't Wanna Cry" in 1970.
A wrinkle to the Revels story developed when a San Luis Obispo, California instrumental band with the same name emerged in 1959, at about the time the original group had their one hit. Later identified with the surf music craze of the early-'60s, the instrumental Revels were best known for the singles "Church Key" and "Comanche." The R&B Revels continued well into the decade ("Downtown" and "True Love" being notable mid-'60s releases), leading to confusion for some as to which group was which.