“Celebrating the final draft, 1995. Clockwise from top left- William “Dicey” Galloway, William Dempsey James, Linda Champion, Raoul J. Cita, Marlowe Murray, Willie Winfield, Todd Baptista.”
Truly, an accomplished composer, gifted arranger, pianist, singer, and vocal coach was Raoul J. Cita. He was the creative genius behind the success of the Harptones and the writer of “Life Is But A Dream”, “My Memories Of You”, “That’s The Way It Goes”, “So Good, So Fine”, “I Depended On You”, “Forever Mine”, “Loving A Girl Like You”, “Three Wishes”, and “It Was Just For Laughs”, among others.
History will say that he was born in Newark, New Jersey on February 11, 1928, grew up in New York City and started piano lessons at the age of 5. Influenced by the music of the big bands, he had written his first song, "I'm Afraid", while in the service in the late 1940s. "I loved the Modernaires and the Sentimentalists with the big bands," he recalled. “They come first. Then the Five Keys, Swallows, and later the Four Freshmen." Seeking talent for a social club that he was a member of called the Gremlins, Cita was introduced to a Harlem street corner group called the Skylarks which included William Dempsey James, Freddy Taylor, and Curtis Cherebin. “I listened to them. I saw where they were kind of rough. I felt like maybe I could improve them a little bit, help them out. I had never done it before but I thought I could. So I gave them my address for them to come over my house and get together. That was somewhere in '51, '52."
Cita gave them an original song to practice called "Fine Little Girl" and rehearsed them for a local performance. By the time the Skylarks and Cita crossed paths again, a year and a-half had elapsed and William “Dicey” Galloway had joined, bringing lead voice Willie Winfield into the fold from his own group on the lower East Side. By mid-1953, Dicey set out to find them an accompanist. Dicey was told about Cita, the piano player that the Skylarks had worked with for the dance about a year and a half earlier. "I was singing with Willie in the Winfield Brothers in 1951," Galloway recalls. "Dempsey knew Cita and we went around to Cita's on 119th Street and that's how the Harps came together," Galloway recalls. "Dempsey came by and he brought Dicey and Willie, and Willie's brother Clyde," remembered Cita. "They just came by one day. Dempsey had told them about me. They came to me with 'Sunday Kind of Love.' I didn't arrange it, I just made the introduction, 'I'm through with my old love...' I had written a song, 'My Memories of You', so we started to work on that. Oh, everyone got enthusiastic and it turned out nice."
Cita suggested the new group be named the Harps, after his favorite instrument. First tenor “Nicky” Clark and bass Billy Brown replaced Taylor and Cherebin, both of whom would return in later years. This lineup, lead Willie Winfield, first tenor Clark, second tenor James, baritone Galloway, bass Brown, and pianist, writer and arranger Cita, rehearsed regularly in the basement of Cita's house at 55 West 119th Street.
After capturing first place in an amateur night at the Apollo contest, the act was subsequently signed to a recording pact with Monte Bruce, Leo Rogers, and Morty Craft’s independent Bruce Records. "Just before they put 'Sunday Kind of Love' out, my managers called me one day and told us that there was another Harps," remembered Cita. "It was a religious group, so they wanted to change the name. So I told them make it Harptones. I had thought about that anyway."
He rehearsed, coached, wrote for, and or worked with artists including the Joytones, Lyrics, Neons, Rubies, Ruth McFadden, Herb Lance, Mabel King, Carol Blades, and Peggy Farmer, among others. Both the Hearts, and the Dreamers, who later became the Valentines studied with him. He recorded duets with Gloria Hawkins as Roy and Gloria and with Forestine Barnes of the Hearts as Forestina and Cita.
“Sunday Kind Of Love” was an immediate hit in the New York area upon its release in late 1953, sold well throughout the Northeast and influenced countless vocal harmony groups for years to come. Cita wrote the majority of the group’s Bruce sides and sang baritone on their rendition of “Since I Fell For You”. "Bruce more or less went along with what we wanted to sing," explains Willie Winfield. "Mostly, what Cita wanted to do at that time. We left a lot of our material up to Cita. That's how it all came about, especially original tunes." He also brought some of his favorite standards including “The Masquerade Is Over” and “Laughing On The Outside”.
Bruce never made a royalty payment to the Harptones for any of the recordings that they made. Eventually, the company folded and in the spring of 1955, manager Leo Rogers and the Harptones signed on with Hy Weiss’ Paradise subsidiary label and recorded their biggest seller, "Life Is But A Dream". "Shortly after I met Hy Weiss he asked me for a song," recalled Cita. "He wanted it to sound like 'Memories of You.' He said, 'Give me another 'Memories of You'.' I guess you could say it was a challenge. People would often give me a title and say write a song around it and that's a challenge. I was working as a secretary temp then and I was arranging it in my head while I was walking down a street at lunch time. I remember that." "Life Is But A Dream" was a Cita masterpiece, further enhanced by Weiss' improved recording facilities and production. Cita's piano playing and the accompanying organ played by Ram Ramirez set a resplendent mood behind the stellar performance of Winfield and the Harptones.
By July, 1955, it had reached #4 on Billboard’s New York R&B chart. "’Life Is But A Dream' should have went across the nation but Hy Weiss was afraid, I feel, that Leo Rogers and Morty Craft were going to snatch us out of there with the agreement they had. He didn't push it at all." The record endures as a group harmony classic today and was featured in the 1990 film "Goodfellas".
Ironically, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) was reluctant to publish the song when Cita first submitted it. "BMI didn't want to admit our song," Cita confirmed. "They were saying that our song was an infringement on 'Sh-Boom' because of the 'Life could be a dream' melody. I told them a lot of people in the neighborhood had songs that had similar melodies. Even 'You Could Be My Love' by the Five Crowns. I told them that I wrote that song way before 'Sh-Boom' came out and that I had the letter to prove it and the date on it and everything. When you didn't want to copyright a song, you put it in an envelope and mail it to yourself with the postmark on it when it comes back. So when I took it there they didn't bother me anymore."
Cita played piano on the vast majority of the Haprtones recordings starting with their 1953 classic, “Sunday Kind Of Love”. He toured with them up until the age of 86 in 2014. The end came on December 12, 2014. Ill with stomach and liver cancer, he was two months shy of his 87th birthday.
Cita, as he was known to everyone, generously shared his precious time and his razor-sharp memory with me for years as I worked on my first book, Group Harmony Behind The Rhythm and the Blues. The book’s final chapter, 40 pages devoted to the Harptones and their history, came to fruition largely because of the help Cita and Willie Winfield gave me. Cita read every word, confirmed each fact, and edited when necessary, right up to its publication in 1996. When one of the members of the group referred to Sid Arky, the fellow who bankrolled the Andrea label in 1956 as “a good gangster”, Cita deleted the reference. “There’s no such thing as a good gangster. A gangster is a gangster.”
When the book was published, he came to me, arms outstretched, a large cigar and a glass of red wine in his hand and embraced me with the words, “my buddy!” It’s my favorite memory of the man I idolized as a youngster, reading about in magazines and hearing on well-worn records.
I loved paying him book royalties, cherished his friendship, and shared his passion for everything from the Glenn Miller Orchestra to Amos Milburn. Dozens of cassette tapes went through the mail. We worked together on a good half-dozen shows and were together at probably two dozen others. “Hello, this is Cita.” “Cita, we have Ruth McFadden on the show with you. Would you be willing to back her and maybe arrange a duet of “School Boy” for her and Willie? Maybe the group can sing background?” “Sure. No problem.” Another time we were talking about one of my favorites, “No Greater Miracle”, which had never been performed live. “Would you be willing to write an arrangement and do it for us?” “Sure, we can do that. Do you still want ‘Foolish Me’ and ‘Loving A Girl Like You’ in the set? We’ll do them, too.”
In the great days of UGHA, we used to like to socialize back at the hotel into the wee hours of the morning- often until the sun was up in the sky. On one occasion, we were watching a film of the Delta Rhythm Boys. We sat together transfixed. “This is mono,” he impressed. “Listen to how you can hear all four parts clearly. That is something.” At that moment, a friend of ours entered the room. “What the hell is this?” the guy said. “This ain’t freaking doo-wop!” The guy turned and walked out of the room. Cita was insulted. It was one of the few times I saw him that way. He looked at me and smiled the way he always did, and shook his head. “Ignorant” was the only word that passed his lips before we turned back to the film.
Once I sat and watched him going over a royalty statement from Collectables. “They pay and I appreciate it,” he said. He meticulously went through the numbers and divided the amount into percentages for each vocalist, careful to differentiate between which recordings included Dicey Galloway and which had Jimmy Beckum so he could pay them appropriately.
When the group would come to Massachusetts or if Dicey was traveling with us to New York or New Jersey, Cita always invited him on stage to perform “Sunday Kind Of Love”. On one occasion, Dicey called out Cita for not letting him join them on “Cry Like I Cried”. “Dicey, we don’t sing that song the same way. The arrangement is different.” “I can sing that.” “Dicey, you can’t sing that.” “N----, I recorded that song!” Dicey barked back. Never rattled, Cita just smiled and shook his head. The next time the Harptones came to town, Cita had arranged and rehearsed “It Was Just For Laughs” and invited Dicey up to perform his original lead vocal with them- the first and only time they ever performed it after 1954.
When introduced on stage, his fellow Harptones always motioned back to Cita, sitting at the piano bench and said he was “resting on his laurels”. But Mr. Cita was far from it. He never lost his enthusiasm for writing, arranging, and performing- whether it be with his beloved Harptones or a young hopeful.
We last chatted when he was released from the hospital after fracturing his hip a few months back. He told very few people about his terminal illness. Rarely rattled, he was intelligent, meticulous, and a fiercely loyal friend, going to bat for me on more than one occasion. While I will truly miss him, I was blessed to have shared his friendship and his passion for music, and honored to have the opportunity to share his story and his gifts with others.