Little did Dennis Yost realize, at the age of seven when his family moved from Detroit, Michigan to Jacksonville, Florida, that he would become one of the top stars of the southern music scene of the '60s. He and Walter Eaton met while attending Andrew Jackson High School; each was a member of a competing band, though the names are misleading as neither group has any connection to more popular acts you may have heard on the radio at some point: Dennis was a drummer for The Echoes who sometimes sang and Wally was a singer for The Emeralds who sometimes played bass. When the two joined forces, they traveled a winding road that eventually led to the hitmaking fast-track as part of a five- and sometimes six-man band operating under the Classics IV moniker.

With high school in the rear view circa '62, they could be found practicing and occasionally playing under the handle Leroy and the Moments (though there was no one named Leroy and they weren't one of the two or three Moments groups coming up that would go on to greater fame). Guitarist James Cobb and keyboard player Joe Wilson rounded out the quartet. Turns out Yost was quite good at imitating well-known singers, particularly in the doo wop and R&B field; his vocal imitation of James Brown would usually stop people in their tracks. So the foursome started covering older hits and a few current ones as The Classics (though there was already a group...well, more on that later), securing a gig at the Golden Gate Lounge on the west side of Jacksonville near Murray Hill. The lineup in '63 numbered six: Wally on vocals and guitar, Dennis on vocals and drums, Talmadge Branch on bass and three saxophonists, Jack Armstrong, Greg Carol and Lee DuBois.

Their first single, "Who's That New Guy," was recorded in Atlanta in 1964, pressed in limited quantities on the Golden Gate label and made available to patrons of the lounge. In contrast to their usual cover band approach, the original song, written by Eaton, was a breezy, well-produced number. By 1966 the Classics had shown enough promise to get a shot with Capitol Records, staying in the lane established at live shows with ripe-for-revival oldies and imitations of current hitmakers. Their first effort, "Pollyanna," was penned by longtime singer-songwriter Joe South and produced by seasonsed shot-caller Bill Lowery. Eaton and Yost succeeded in doing a spot-on vocal imitation of The 4 Seasons, coming on strong during the late summer of '66 in several markets in Florida, as well as Atlanta and other eastern U.S. cities. But when New York powerhouse WMCA started playing the record, the 4 Seasons themselves cried "Foul!," successfully pressuring the station into dropping it while killing any momentum at competing Big Apple-area outlets. Capitol continued promoting "Pollyanna" in other parts of the country and arranged with Dick Clark for a late October appearance lip-syncing the song on the popular daytime series Where the Action Is!, a last-ditch effort before moving on to the next project.

Classics IV

The band's brief exposure in N.Y. did not go unnoticed by Brooklyn doo wop group The Classics, who'd been together since the late '50s and had enjoyed considerable airplay in New York City in 1960 with "Cinderella" (on WMGM and WABC, but not competing station WMCA) and again in the spring of '63 with a more significant hit, "Till Then," not just big in N.Y. but across the nation. Managers for Brooklyn's Classics threatened to file a lawsuit if the Jacksonville group didn't change the name. Amazingly, Yost, Eaton and company were able to get around the issue simply by adding roman numerals, locking in The Classics IV as the name they would forever be remembered by. Top-tier fame would have to wait, though; the second Capitol release (first as the Classics IV), a revival of Maurice Williams' rock/doo wop smash "Little Darlin'" (Toronto, Ontario quartet The Diamonds took it past the million mark in '57), was overlooked en masse by radio, prompting Capitol to exile the Jax Classics. Perhaps they would have no further need for the IV that should have been a V anyway.

As of 1967 the band, with Yost permanently in place as lead vocalist, included Eaton, Cobb, Wilson and a newly-enlisted drummer, Ken Venable. Feeling confident a dazzling future still awaited them, the guys moved a few hundred miles north to Atlanta, Georgia where opportunities would presumably be more plentiful, but landed in the same types of small nightclubs they had been in before. Around this time, Atlanta-born alto saxophonist Michael Shapiro was signed to a contract with Los Angeles-based Liberty Records...his name ethnically altered to Mike Sharpe! Working in Atlanta, he and Harry Middlebrooks (known for the 1961 dance ditty "The U-T," credited to Harry M. and the Marvels) composed a cool, jazzy instrumental they called "Spooky" with Harry playing organ behind Mike's sax lead. Released in October 1966, it came a little late to make an impact at Halloween, but started getting airplay near the end of the year (going top ten in Atlanta, St. Louis and Raleigh, North Carolina) and had a respectable mid-chart run on the national charts the first few months of '67. Sharpe's follow-up was the near-identical-sounding "Skootchy" and his third 45, "Spook-A-Loo," continued the pattern. Liberty included them all on the album The Spooky Sound of Mike Sharpe.

Down the hall from the "Spook"-fest, Marianna, Florida native Buddy Buie was writing songs for Bill Lowery's music publishing company, Lowery Music. Cobb's connection got him in the door and he began going by the more "professional" name J.R. Cobb; he and Buie wrote "I Take it Back," which became a hit that summer for Memphis-based singer Sandy Posey. By that time the Classics IV had inked a deal with Liberty's sister label Imperial; Sharpe and Middlebrooks had become acquainted with Buie and Cobb, who wrote lyrics for their recent instumental hit ('Love is kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you!') and the Classics IV went into the studio to record the track with Buie producing, Sharpe doing the sax solo and Wally Eaton whistling (like the wind)! As with the original, this version didn't get out to radio and record stores in time for Halloween either; it entered the Billboard charts right before Christmas and peaked at number three in February.

Buddy Buie produced all the Classics IV sessions from this point on and composed most of the songs with Cobb; Sharpe usually played sax, but wasn't always available because of commitments to his solo career. Yost was the center of attention as the group guested on many TV shows, national and regional. Next came "Soul Train," but like Sharpe's follow-up it sounded very similar to "Spooky" and stalled on the chart's bottom rungs. With Yost's profile boost came another adjustment to the band's name. The third single, "Mama's and Papa's" (written by Buie and Lowery), was credited to Classics IV featuring Dennis Yost; a catchy tune with no connection to music's famous Mamas and the Papas, it stalled out of the gate. Would there be any more hits?

Dennis Yost

Continuing to add to his songwriting resumé, J.R. Cobb teamed with Ray Whitley on "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy," a summer 1968 hit for The Tams. Then Buie and Cobb came up with another Classics IV smash. "Stormy" ('...bring back that sunny day!') was less quirky than "Spooky," but retained its signature sound (with sax by session player Ray Jarrel, who began filling in for Sharpe) and returned them to the top ten in December of '68. Just three months later a ballad Buie, Cobb and session arranger, writer and touring bassist Emory Gordy had collaborated on made a rapid upward move; "Traces" ('...of tears from my eyes...') reached number two (held off the top by Tommy Roe's "Dizzy"), giving them a trio of one-word-title hits. The short-title schtick was suspended with the next release, Buie and Cobb's "Everyday With You Girl," a top 20 hit in June '69.

The group spent much of 1968 and '69 on the road, backed by The Candymen, former members of Roy Orbison's band (their own chart single, "Georgia Pines," had appeared on the ABC label in the fall of 1967). Fate had other plans for Wally Eaton, though, when an automobile accident put him in the hospital with a broken jaw and broken leg; he was out of commission for the better part of a year, during which time he decided to retire from touring and traveling and focus on studio production. With or without Wally, they changed their name one last time to Dennis Yost and the Classics IV, fixing it so the math made sense. With the major hits behind them, the group settled in with a nice string of Buie-Cobb-penned mid-charters through the mid-'70s, including "Change of Heart," "Midnight" (note the one-word title) and "The Funniest Thing," switching to the Liberty label and then United Artists (which had purchased Liberty and Imperial in '71). "What Am I Crying For?" hit the top 40 in 1972 on MGM South, a label with many pop and country crossover acts on its roster.

J.R. Cobb left the Classics IV (but continued to write for them) and joined keyboard player Dean Daughtry and other members of the Candymen to form The Atlanta Rhythm Section with lead singer Rodney Justo. The band's first single and album came out on Decca in early 1972. "Doraville," on Polydor, made the top 40 three years later, followed by a string of hits that included the top tens "So in to You" and "Imaginary Lover" in '78 and '79, prior to their coming full circle later that year with a hit remake of "Spooky." Dennis Yost went solo for a few years in the 1980s, eventually fronting a new Classics IV lineup on the oldies concert circuit. In 2006 he suffered brain damage after falling down a flight of stairs, and passed away in December 2008 at age 65.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Little Darlin' Spooky