On a seasonably cold winter evening, Eddie Rich and his Swallows ventured to the suburban Baltimore home of their friend and fellow musician, Bob Burnopp, to perform at a private engagement. With spryness that belies his 78 years, Rich walks and talks with the exuberance and excitement of a teenager when the subject is music. There were many great lead singers in the first generation of rhythm and blues vocal groups in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Eddie Rich is one of a precious few still remaining, and even rarer, still singing. “Eddie loves this music,” his wife of 53 years, Barbara, readily admits. “He eats and drinks and sleeps it.”
Today, nearly 60 years since the Swallows began their recording career, Rich and his revamped group- Leroy “Linky” Miller, William “Til” George, and brothers Johnny and Bryan Robinson- are back in the recording studio and hoping to find a home on the doo wop-R&B nostalgia circuit. On this night, the quintet flawlessly delivers eight or nine vocal group classics acappella, including “Will You Be Mine”, “When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano”, “Ride, Eddie, Ride”, and “Beside You”. With just a hint of a rasp, Rich’s golden tenor remains magically in tact, the group’s harmonies strong and soulful. The audience of roughly two-dozen is enjoying themselves, as is the group, but it’s obvious that the man having the time of his life is Eddie Rich.
Born in Richmond, Virginia on 28 March 1931, Eddie was raised in Baltimore and began mimicking the sounds of the Wings Over Jordan Choir and the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny coming through his family’s radio by the age of 8. “Everywhere I used to go, people would hear me sing and they’d tell me, ‘keep singing it’, and give me a dollar. When I got to about 13, I was singing in little places in Baltimore and they called me the second Bill Kenny.” Singing to earn movie fare money, Rich was shocked when an impromptu rendition of “If I Didn’t Care” earned him $20 from passersby.
In the days immediately following World War II, Rich and neighborhood pal Herman “Junior” Denby (born 26 June 1931, Baltimore, MD) began singing together in a group called the Shields. The emergence of Sonny Til and the Orioles in 1948 had a profound effect on teenagers all over the country, none greater than in their home city of Baltimore. Singing groups literally sprang up on every corner overnight. “Here’s a group on one corner, up the street there’s a group, down the street, there’s a group,” Rich recalls. “Earl Hurley was across the street. He had made a big drum and put a stick on it and you would have heard it a block away. It sounded like a bass fiddle. I had to stop singing because I couldn’t believe what I heard.” The Oakaleers- Hurley, lead singer Lawrence Coxson, Irving Turner, and a fellow remembered only as “Gabby” immediately captured Rich’s attention. “They had a better sound than we had. Me and Denby went over and met them. After I went home, Denby came back and told me Earl wanted us to come back and get with them.” The new sextet consisted of three baritones and three tenors. “We sounded like a choir,” Rich laughs.
They soon added Frederick “Money” Johnson (born 27 October 1934 Baltimore, MD), a self-taught left-handed guitarist who hung out and played on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue. “When my oldest brother came out of the service, he bought a guitar,” Rich’s wife and Johnson’s sister, Barbara recalls. “Then my sister, Theresa, picked it up and she could play a little on her own. Then Money picked it up and started playing. Money just had the ear for music. Money was playing the guitar before the group was formed. Earl and Coxson had their group, and Money used to go up on Pennsylvania Avenue and play when they all got serious. Money was around 14 or 15 when he started playing.”
“We used to rehearse at Money’s mother’s house,” Rich explains. “That’s where I met my wife because she was his sister. We were looking for a name, and his mother opened the encyclopedia and said, ‘Oh, here…the Swallows’. She gave us the name.”
The group regularly earned movie fare singing Orioles and Ink Spots’ tunes on the street corners. Eventually, Gabby, Coxson, and Turner dropped out and bass singer Norris Philmore “Bunky” Mack (born 5 May 1932) was added. Local radio announcer Jack Gale referred the Swallows to local businessman Irv Goldstick (1910-1992), who became their manager. “He had a record shop called American Radio but his real business was electronics. He put the sound system in the Royal Theater and if somebody’s television or radio needed fixing, he fixed them, and he always sold records.”
Goldstick got the Swallows local club dates where they performed popular standards like “Tennessee Waltz”, “Chew Tobacco Rag”, and “Out In The Cold Again”, along with several Denby originals including “Dearest”, “Wishing For You”, and “Will You Be Mine”. With Denby on bass fiddle, Hurley on drums, Mack playing piano, and Johnson’s mighty guitar, the self-contained group was introduced to arranger Billy Conrad. “He had us sounding like the Four Aces,” Rich recalls.
Goldstick got the group an audition with King Records’ A&R director Henry Glover who, according to Rich, “said we sounded too white. So Henry changed it from what Conrad had done.” Glover ultimately offered the group a contract if they could learn his composition, “Since You’ve Been Away”. Their debut, “Will You Be Mine”, hit the top 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart in the summer of 1951.
Rich’s dynamic and expressive tenor, a cross between Bill Kenny and the Dominoes’ young lead, Clyde McPhatter, was featured on their initial best-sellers including “Will You Be Mine”, “Dearest”, “Since You’ve Been Away”, “Wishing For You”, “Eternally”, and “Tell Me Why”, into early 1952. Guitarist Johnson and pianist Sonny “Long Gone” Thompson were featured on the bulk of the quintet’s King sides.
A rapid succession of tour dates followed, with the usual R&B theater stops including the Apollo, Howard, Royal, Earle, and Regal, and countless one-nighters throughout the country. Rich enthusiastically remembers sharing stages with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Johnnie Ray, LaVern Baker, and Pearl Bailey in the days before rhythm and blues became rock’n’roll. Alan Freed booked them in Kentucky and Ohio in 1952. “We were glad to get out there and make some money. It was decent. We had royalties coming in. One time, we were in (Irv’s) store and a $2,000 check came in and Bunky said ‘That’s our check!’ They gave the money to us. That had been coming every three or four months, but we didn’t know. It wasn’t just us. A whole lot of groups got ripped off.”
Rich also carries vivid memories of touring the South during the time of racial segregation. “People loved us (on stage), but there were a whole lot of hotels that we couldn’t check into. I had to go around to the back of the restaurant to eat and get sandwiches and we couldn’t drink out of the same water fountains. They had colored and they had white. We really opened the door for a lot of the artists today.”
In the summer of 1952, the Swallows were part of a seven week tour of the South and the East- Universal Attraction’s “Greatest Show of ‘52” with Wini Brown, H-Bomb Ferguson, LaVern Baker, billed as Little Miss Sharecropper, and the Todd Rhodes band. “I remember that tour,” Rich enthusiastically relates. “It was magnificent. The money we were making was halfway decent, you know, for the time. On the one-nighters, your money added up because you got paid every night. Bunky handled the money. We traveled by night and slept in the day. I had to stay awake to watch the chauffeur. We would take turns, because if you don’t…it’s tiresome. One time we went down to Jackson, Mississippi and we had the prettiest car you’d want to see, a 1953 Hudson Hornet. It was sky blue and it had white gangster tires and we had a rack put on top. So we went down there and went to get some gas, and a man was sitting on the porch in a rocker chewing tobacco. My brother-in-law (Money) jumped up and said, ‘I’m going to get a soda’. The man was sitting there rocking right along. Money said, ‘Hey pop, I want a soda.’ The man said, ‘Boy, we call it soda pop down here. If you don’t hurry up and get out of here, I’ll make a telephone call and we’ll get you out of here.’ So, we were running, man, and I had taps on the back of my shoes, and they said, ‘Eddie, come on man’, when he pulled out, my feet were hanging off and sparks were coming off the taps. They were laughing and I said, ‘man, that ain’t funny!’ Another time, we were in an old opera house in Nashville and we saw Hank Williams picture and all the country and western singers. We walked in there and the dressing room was pretty. There were lights all over there. Around show time, the man said, ‘Get your clothes, it’s time to get dressed.” So we went outside and the man had a curtain and he blocked us off, and we changed our clothes in the alley, man! We all had to dress in the alley.”
While on tour in February of 1953, the Swallows – minus Rich- were involved in an automobile accident in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “I don’t think it was meant for me to be in there,” Rich surmises. “See, I stayed over in D.C. I figured we were going to leave Thursday and I came back and they were gone. They left that night for the tour without me. They put Coxson in my place ‘cause they couldn’t find me. Irv (Goldstick) said he was punishing me. He wanted to let me know that one monkey don’t stop the show. He said ‘I could have flown you out there if I wanted to’. So they were in an accident. The driver fell asleep, and the limousine flipped over three or four times and came back up. We had a chauffeur to drive for us and he fell asleep. How I got back on the tour was that people were complaining. Coxson was short and had a bald head. He sang all right, but the people complained and said, ‘that’s not the lead we see outside there (in the pictures). We want our money back. So they came back and picked me up and I finished the tour.”
All members took turns singing lead. Bunky was featured on Glover’s ribald “It Ain’t The Meat” and “Roll, Roll, Pretty Baby”. Money wrote and led “Pleading Blues” and “It Feels So Good”. Hurley delivered “My Baby”. But the group’s biggest chart success came with Denby fronting his own soulful ballad, “Beside You”, a #8 R&B hit in August, 1952. “We got in the studio, and Junior was in the corner playing the bass fiddle and singing like Charles Brown. Glover heard it, and said, ‘Hey, Eddie, if you don’t mind, we’re going to let him sing it.’ I had been rehearsing it, but I said, ‘I don’t mind. If it’s going to be a hit, it doesn’t matter to me.’ When the people started hearing it, everybody thought we had picked up Charles Brown. So we had two different styles.”
On guitar, Money, who got his nickname from a childhood bout with ringworm on his head, had a style all his own. “We toured with B. B. King and he and Money would have a little duet. B. B. sat down and shook his head and said, ‘I can’t believe this man has got a guitar with the tenor strings up and the bass strings down. I don’t see how he does it. He gets more out of it than I get on my own.’”
Denby and Mack were eventually drafted and a succession of replacements, Herman Williams, Al France, Dee Ernie Bailey, Irving Turner, Buddy Crawford, and Ace Thomas, filled the holes on stage and in the studio. With Rich and the group on tour in October of 1952, Denby returned home on leave and was rushed into the studio by Glover to record six sides without the Swallows. “We knew nothing about that,” Rich contends. “If Herman had done like he was supposed to have done, he would have said, ‘Look, man, I’m not recording any records without my own group.” Some historians have suggested Denby’s backing group was the Swan Silvertones. Rich believes his labelmates, the Strangers, accompanied Denby on “Our Love Is Dying”, “Please Baby Please”, and “Nobody’s Lovin’ Me”, among others, all released under the Swallows name through late 1953. When King didn’t renew the group’s contract, they drifted to New York record shop owner Flap Hanford’s tiny After Hours label, recording one ultra-rare 1954 single. “He was checking into the Hotel Teresa at the same time we were, plus he had come to the Apollo to see us,” Rich muses. “He paid us part of our money and then checked out at three o’clock in the morning to keep from paying us the rest.”
A succession of bad managers and the lack of a record deal led to the group’s breakup in West Virginia in 1956. Money toured with a band in Steubenville, Ohio for a time before hooking up with Billy Ford’s Thunderbirds and Sam Warren. Rich teamed up with a young Ohio quartet called the Crowns which included Bobby Hendricks. They eventually worked their way to Baltimore and recorded for Rainbow as the Marquis before Bill Pinkney scooped up Hendricks and Dee Ernie Bailey for his new Flyers group. Hendricks later led the Drifters on “Drip Drop” and launched a successful solo career with “Itchy Twitchy Feeling”.
Rich reorganized the Swallows with former Honey Boys lead Calvin “Khaki” Rowlette (born 1 March 1933), Johnson, Hurley, Crawford, and Dee Ernie Bailey’s brother, Buddy, and signed with King’s Federal subsidiary in early 1958.
Rowlette had a powerful tenor which was featured on most of the material issued on four 1958 singles, including Don Gibson’s country and western-styled “Oh Lonesome Me” and a strong ballad titled “Who Knows, Do You”. “We changed over to what they called rockabilly and made a different sound,” Rich explains. “Khaki had a good voice. The songs didn’t get pushed like they should have. That’s when we decided to go in a different direction and we broke up.”
Rich went to work for the Department of Public Works and still dabbled in music, recording and clubbing with Sonny and the Dukes and backing Plants’ lead George Jackson as the Unisons in 1962. Rowlette, who succumbed to alcoholic cirrhosis in June of 1966, Hurley, who suffered from heart problems, and Mack, who was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs with a broken neck on January 18, 1965, all died before reaching age 35. “We used to hang out together and drink, and have a lot of fun,” Rich recalls of his friendships with his former bandmates. “Our meeting place was Earl’s house. We’d rehearse for a while, and then start going from club to club.” Money Johnson eventually settled in Annapolis. He suffered a stroke in 1997 and died in Baltimore after a period of declining health on 28 October 1998.
In September of 1983, Rich and Denby, who had relocated to Detroit after being discharged from the military, joined forces with Leroy “Linky” Miller, Albert Smith, and Tyree Williams to perform at Mark del Costello’s legendary Burlington, New Jersey concert. In 1985, Rich and a new lineup of Swallows recorded a handful of singles for Val Shively’s Starbound label, including versions of Clyde McPhatter’s “Sit And Hold My Hand”, “A Lover’s Question”, and “When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano”. Rich and Denby reunited again in 1994 when they were inducted into the United In Group Harmony Association Hall of Fame. In recent years, Denby has performed with Jimmie Nabbie’s Ink Spots and now resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Into the New Millenium, Rich continued performing sporadically, enduring a plethora of bad managers, unproductive agents, and occasional personnel changes. “There’s a studio down here that we recorded in that is so small that the drummer had to sit on the toilet bowl and play,” Rich laughs. “(singing)‘Will you be mine’ – flush! It was like a sardine can.”
Recently, however, Rich, Miller, and lifelong friend “Til” George reorganized the Swallows with the Robinson brothers, John and Bryan, who perform locally with the Stylists. A bond was quickly formed, and twice-weekly rehearsals began in earnest. “We’ve been dragged through the mud, and beaten so much, that we aren’t thinking about where we may be in two or three years,” Til confesses. “But we would like to be here.” “It all comes down to who you know,” Rich adds. “If you don’t have any contacts, you’ll be sitting in the dark. I’m not saying give me more than what’s coming to me. But let me have a decent pay and be on the bandwagon, too.”
It’s Saturday morning, and there’s a bitterly cold, persistent wind blowing, but it’s done nothing to dampen the quintet’s spirits as they gather for a promo photo shoot, the memories of the previous night’s performance fresh in their minds. During a break in the shoot, Rich snaps his fingers to set a tempo and begins singing the Swallows’ 1958 single, “We Want To Rock”. Instantly, he’s enveloped into a tight circle as the group joins in, changing the key twice to suit their liking before breaking into an impromptu version of the Fiestas’ “So Fine”, laughing and offering high-fives at the conclusion. In his seventh decade of performing, it’s obvious Eddie Rich still loves to sing.
“I want everyone to know that I’m still around and I hope they can go to places and see us because we’re coming back,” he affirms with a wide grin. “I think there are people still around who remember these songs and they want to keep it up. We were blessed. Years from now, I’d like for people to remember me and the rest of the fellows in the group as singers of good love songs. That’s what we do. Our songs were about love, not hate.”