A Truly Versatile Talent: Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns
By Todd Boptista As published in Goldmine magazine, 2011
Arthur Lee Maye was a truly versatile talent. At six-foot two and 190 pounds, the Tuscaloosa, Alabama-born teenager was signed by the Milwaukee Braves organization right out of high school in 1954 and played 13 major league baseball seasons for five different teams, leading the National League in doubles with 44 in 1964. That was one of three seasons he hit over .300, compiling a respectable lifetime batting average of .274. But Maye was also a talented singer, recording a generous amount of rhythm & blues and vocal group harmony before, during, and after his professional baseball career. Despite the fact that they never enjoyed a nationally charted hit, Maye and his Crowns are fondly remembered by collectors and R&B fans today.
Born December 11, 1934, Maye and his family journeyed to Los Angeles before World War II. By the late 1940s, Lee and his George Washington Carver Junior High classmates were tuning into rhythm and blues on the radio. ]His schoolmates and neighborhood friends included Richard Berry, Thomas “Pete” Fox, later of the Flairs and Jacks/Cadets, Randy Jones of the Meadowlarks and Penguins, Meadowlarks’ lead Don Julian, and Paul Robi of the Platters.
Jefferson High, which Fox, Maye, and Berry attended, and Fremont High, were breeding grounds for vocal group harmony in the early 1950s. "We first started taking an interest in it in junior high," Fox explains. "We were like 13 or 14. By the time we got to high school, we were 15. That was 1951. We would just go around humming the Swallows, or anybody who had a hit record." Maye’s first high school group, the Carmels, included Delmer Wilburn, later of the Squires and Turks. A second group, the Debonairs, included Maye, Obie "Young" Jessie, Pete Fox, bass A.V. Odom and, for a brief time, Jefferson’s track star, Joe Winslow. “We were just kids, and we didn’t know much about harmony,” Maye told interviewer Jim Dawson. “We’d rehearse in the dark to concentrate on our voices, or we’d sing in hallways at school to get our harmonies to ring off the walls, because the echo would exaggerate our wrong notes.”
"We all met singing doo-wops on street corners," Jessie told interviewer Ray Topping. "We modeled ourselves on groups like the Clovers and the Dominoes. We were crazy about them.” The Debonairs remained together for about a year. "We didn't record anything. We sang around school, and we hit a lot of the talent shows around Central Avenue," Fox remembers. "There were several clubs up and down Central Avenue. We went to the Lincoln Theater and sang a song called 'Young Girl' by the Hollywood Flames on a talent show. A.V. Odom sang lead, and we won."
Soon after Richard Berry replaced Odom and Maye decided to leave as well. "Lee Maye was into baseball," Fox explains. "So he was in and out. Lee was doing well with baseball although we didn't really know about it. He was being scouted by the top scouts, and he went to the Milwaukee Braves organization straight out of high school." Maye's tenor spot was filled by Beverley Thompson and, with the addition of Cornell Gunter, the group became the Flairs and scored a regional hit in 1953 with “She Wants To Rock” on the Bihari brothers’ Flair Records.
During his senior year at Jefferson, Maye recorded for Flair as well, joining Berry and baritone-bass Johnny Coleman as the ‘5’ Hearts. Their lone disc, "Please Please Baby"/"The Fine One", was issued in early 1954. Two other sides by the trio were credited to the Rams and released in the spring of 1955.
In the fall of 1954, Maye organized his own group for the Biharis, naming them after the company’s new Crown subsidiary label. Joining Maye, Berry, and Coleman were tenors “Little” Johnny Morris and Charles Colbert. Occasionally, Maye’s brother, Eugene, would sing second tenor. On the Crowns’ first Modern release, the plaintive ballad “Set My Heart Free”, Randy Jones sang bass in place of Coleman. “We used different guys ‘cause some couldn’t follow certain parts,” Maye told researcher Marv Goldberg. “We were all learning how to sing. If someone was there and sounded good, we used him.” With second tenor Odell Cole, the group also provided the uncredited backing for Berry on his “Riot In Cell Block #9” follow-up, “The Big Break”
By the time the Crowns waxed their signature tune, “Truly”, issued on RPM in February of 1955 (and backed by the original version of “Oochi Pachi”, quickly covered by Linda Hayes and the Platters), Morris had left and been replaced by baritone Joe Moore. A strong ballad inspired by the Moonglows’ “Sincerely”, “Truly” featured a bluesy piano and a commanding tenor with nice falsetto flourishes from Maye. As “Truly” began breaking out in various territories, Maye had to forgo promotional appearances and concerts to attend spring training with the Braves. “This is the problem I had,” Maye told author Steve Propes. “My record was always a year behind time. I couldn’t stop baseball to record. I had to play baseball every day. When the season was over, I recorded. They’d keep the old records, and (release) them the next year.”
Two additional RPM discs, “Loop De Loop De Loop” and “Do The Bop” were issued in the spring and fall while Lee toiled with no less than four Braves minor league teams based in Idaho, Wisconsin, Washington State, and Indiana.
With no royalties to speak of, Arthur and the Crowns moved on to Art Rupe’s Specialty label in the winter of 1956, cutting “Gloria”, an emotive piano-driven ballad written for Dreamers’ vocalist Gloria Jones, and “Oh Ruby Lee”, identified on the label as “Oh-Rooba-Lee” to keep from conflicting with B. B. King’s recent release, “Ruby Lee”.
During the following off-season, Maye also sang in the Jayos, an all-star lineup including Richard Berry, Jesse Belvin, and Mel Williams, covering popular R&B hits for Johnny Otis' Dig label. Some sides featured the voices of tenor Harold Lewis and bass Sonny Moore as well. Originally issued on a Dig LP, the Jayos' sides were pressed on 45s in the 1970s and finally compiled on an Ace CD, The Johnny Otis Orchestra- Rock'N'Roll Hit Parade, in 2000. The singer-outfielder led credible versions of “Honey Love”, “Earth Angel”, “At My Front Door”, One Mint Julep”, “Gee”, and “Only You”.
Additional vocal group sides followed for Dig, Flip, and Cash in 1956-58 although only Maye was credited on the label. Tenor Colbert, baritones Moore and Coleman, and bass Charles Holmes, who often stood in for Berry in personal appearances, usually served as the backing group. The falsetto-filled “This Is The Night For Love”, and the underrated, soulful “A Fool’s Prayer” were especially strong, and issued on Dig in the latter part of 1956. By the time Arthur’s rendition of the Swallows’ “Will You Be Mine” was issued on Cash in 1958, the singer was being billed as “Lee Maye of the Milwaukee Braves”. In 1959 he batted .339 with 17 home runs for the Braves’ Louisville affiliate and broke into the Major Leagues.
While playing for the Braves, Astros, and Indians through the late 1960s, Lee managed to record no less than 15 different singles for a variety of labels including Jamie, ABC-Paramount, and producer Huey Meaux’s Pic 1 imprint. On Guyden, Maye and a studio group were credited as the Off-Beats on a version of Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel”. At Jamie, he also recorded a 1965 duet with Barbara Lynn. Occasionally he was billed on wax as “Lee Maye”, his baseball-playing name. Lee’s brother, Gene, kept the Crowns going, backing up Henry Strogin, Cry Baby Curtis, and, as the Terrans, Rene Harris, into the 1960s.
Through the early ‘70s, Maye drifted to the Senators, White Sox, and, finally, a minor league affiliate of the Padres, retiring in 1972 at the age of 37. “I made the right choice going with baseball,” Lee admitted to Dawson. “In those days, none of us ever made much money in music, even when we wrote and sang hit records. “Baseball was my first love. I could always sing at fifty, but I couldn’t play baseball at fifty.” His next dozen years were spent in the employ of Amtrak.
In the 1980s, Maye returned to the concert stage, performing frequently for the Doo-Wop Society of Southern California. In 1985, he recorded one new single, “Moonlight”/“I’m Happy And In Love” for Antrell Records, backed by Dave Antrell and Charles Williams.
On July 22, 1990, less than five month's after old friend Cornell Gunter's unsolved murder, Maye, Berry, Fox, and Jessie revived the Flairs for a Doo Wop Society of Southern California concert. With Berry on keyboards and Fox on guitar, the quartet ran through "Tell Me You Love Me", "She Wants To Rock", "You Were Untrue", Berry's solo "Get Out Of The Car", and Jessie's "Mary Lou". Maye led the Flairs' on "This Is The Night For Love", which they dedicated to Gunter. By the mid-1990s, diabetes had begun to affected Lee’s voice. Still, he soldiered on. While planning an overseas concert tour, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and succumbed to the disease in Riverside, California on July 17, 2002 at age 67. He was survived by his wife, Pat, and three daughters.
He never set a record on the baseball diamond. He didn’t manage to record a chart-topping hit. Nevertheless, Arthur Lee Maye is fondly remembered by enthusiasts of the great American pastime and rhythm and blues vocal group harmony alike as a solid, dependable player and teammate, a talented singer with a sweet falsetto tenor, and a classy, enthusiastic supporter of both the music and the game he loved. “Baseball and singing collided,” he told a latter-day interviewer. “When you're playing baseball and singing, it's a very tough career for both of those, because you have to be at both places at the same time of the year, and you can't do that. (My) greatest thrill is not getting to the major leagues. It’s staying there. I played 13 seasons when they had only 16 teams and I think that was a great accomplishment.”