The Platters formed in Los Angeles in 1953 and were initially managed by Ralph Bass. The original group (Alex Hodge, Cornell Gunter, David Lynch, Joe Jefferson, Gaynel Hodge and Herb Reed) managed to land a contract with Federal Records, but found little success. Herb Reed is credited with creating the group’s name. In June 1953, Gunter was replaced by lead vocalist Tony Williams. The band then released two singles with Federal Records, under the management of Ralph Bass, but found little success.
The band then met music entrepreneur and songwriter Buck Ram. Ram made some changes to the lineup, most notably the addition of female vocalist Zola Taylor; later, Alex Hodge was replaced by Paul Robi. Under Ram’s guidance, the Platters recorded eight songs for Federal in the R&B/gospel style, scoring a few minor regional hits on the West Coast, and backed Tony Williams’ sister, Linda Hayes, One song recorded during their Federal tenure, “Only You (And You Alone)”, originally written by Ram for the Ink Spots, was deemed unreleasable by the label, though copies of this early version do exist.
Despite their lack of chart success, the Platters were a profitable touring group, successful enough that The Penguins, coming off their #8 single “Earth Angel”, asked Ram to manage them as well. With the Penguins in hand, Ram was able to parlay Mercury Records’ interest into a 2-for-1 deal. To sign the Penguins, Ram insisted, Mercury also had to take the Platters. Ironically, the Penguins would never have a hit for the label.
Convinced by Jean Bennett and Tony Williams that “Only You” had potential, Ram had the Platters re-record the song during their first session for Mercury. Released in the summer of 1955, it became the group’s first Top Ten hit on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. The follow-up, “The Great Pretender”, with lyrics written in the washroom of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas by Buck Ram, exceeded the success of their debut and became the Platters’ first national #1 hit. “The Great Pretender” was also the act’s biggest R&B hit, with an 11-week run atop that chart. In 1956, The Platters appeared in the first major motion picture based around rock and roll, Rock Around the Clock, and performed both “Only You” and “The Great Pretender”.
The Platters’ unique vocal style had touched a nerve in the music-buying public, and a string of hit singles followed, including three more national #1 hits and more modest chart successes such as “I’m Sorry” (#11) and “He’s Mine” (#23) in 1957, “Enchanted” (#12) in 1959, and “The Magic Touch” (#4) in 1956. The Platters soon hit upon the successful formula of updating older standards, such as “My Prayer”, “Twilight Time”, “Harbor Lights”, “To Each His Own”, “If I Didn’t Care” and Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. This latter release caused a small controversy after Kern’s widow expressed concern that her late husband’s composition would be turned into a “rock and roll” record. It topped both the American and British charts in a Platters-style arrangement.
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in its inaugural year of 1998. The Platters were the first rock and roll group to have a Top Ten album in America. They were also the only act to have three songs included on the American Graffiti soundtrack that sparked an oldies revival in the early to mid-1970s: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, “The Great Pretender” and “Only You (and You Alone)”.
The group’s lineup has changed many times. The lineup in 1953 included lead vocalist Cornell Gunter, Herb Reed, Alex Hodge, Joe Jefferson, and David Lynch. This lineup changed when the group signed with Ram, who built the group around tenor Tony Williams’ distinctive and versatile voice and his ability to bring life to Ram’s songs. Within a year, Hodge, Jefferson and Gunter were out and Paul Robi, new lead Tony Williams and a female, Zola Taylor were in. The details of baritone Alex Hodge’s departure are muddy; author Peter A. Grendysa says Hodge was fired by Ram in October 1954 after having been accused of possession of marijuana, Bookers and the record company were told that Hodge was let go for bouncing a fifteen-dollar check. The resulting lineup – the one remembered for the group’s biggest and most lasting hits – lasted until 1960.
As a group, the Platters began to have difficulties with the public after 1959, when the four male members were arrested in Cincinnati on drug and prostitution charges. Reed said he lost contact with Taylor shortly after this time. Although none were convicted, their professional reputation was seriously damaged and US radio stations started removing their records from playlists, forcing the group to rely more heavily on European bookings.
As the group’s lineup splintered further, endless wrangling over the lucrative “Platters” name began, with injunctions, non-compete clauses and multiple versions of the act touring at the same time. Williams would lead his own Platters group, as would Zola Taylor (who left in 1964 to be replaced by Barbara Randolph), and Paul Robi (who departed in 1965). The Buck Ram Platters had the strongest legal claim to the name.
Herb Reed, the final member of the original Platters, resigned in 1969. He would eventually lead an “official” Platters group under license from The Five Platters, Inc. Nelson had left in 1967, and later worked with Herb Reed’s group until suffering a fatal heart attack in 1984. Dawn left in 1969 and was replaced by Regina Koco who stayed with the group until 1983.