|From the left: Robbie Tatum, Wally Roker, James Sheppard, Vernon Sievers, and Albert Crump.|
When you talk about the most famous groups from the 50s/60s, it’s very hard for The Heartbeats to come up on someone’s list. I started listening to Doo Wop groups when I was a kid, but only later did I recognize who The Heartbeats were. After all, they did chart a Billboard #5 R&B hit, which still earns them respect and admiration up to this day. That hit is A Thousand Miles Away.
The group first started out as The Hearts, made up by teens from two different high schools in Queens, NY. Albert Crump, Vernon Seavers, and Wally Roker, who went to Woodrow Wilson High School, while Robbie Tatum went to Andrew Jackson High School. Robbie invited them to rehearse at his house, which prompted the formation of the group. In what used to be a common practice at the time, the quartet would “battle” against other groups at St. Albans Park, Queens. In one of the battles, they faced James Sheppard’s group, and won. That was when Sheppard was invited to join The Hearts, becoming their lead singer and songwriter.
In 1955, DJ Alan Freed played a song called Lonely Nights, by the girl group The Hearts. They heard the song and decided to change the group’s name to The Heartbeats. They would go on to perform locally, until Roker met jazz musician Illinois Jacquet. It was Jacquet’s brother, Russell, who first recorded the group with none other than Oscar Peterson on piano and King Curtis on the saxophone. Tormented and After Everybody’s Gone were released on a small label called Network.
But it was not until they were introduced to Bea Caslon, owner of Hull Records, that they recorded noteworthy songs. From that moment on, The Heartbeats became known for their slow ballads, like Crazy For You, Your Way, and People Are Talking. They did come across a road bump, however. Someone at Hull had the idea of turning them into an uptempo group, such as The Cadillacs. Fortunately for them, the fans didn’t like the change, and started asking radio DJs to play A Thousand Miles Away. The song became such a success that the both the song and the group were sold to Rama Records in 1957, since Hull wasn’t financially able to promote the hit.
In 1958, Rama became Roulette Records, and The Heartbeats started turning out more soulful songs, such as Down On My Knees and Sometimes I Wonder. It was also during that time that they recorded one of my favorite songs. I Found a Job was an “answer” song to The Silhouettes’ Get a Job, and both were riding on a common theme at the time, economic recession.
Guyden Records was the group’s last label switch, in 1959. That marked a return to their original slow, smooth style of singing. But it also became the start of the group’s end. Sheppard and the rest of the group were arguing over musical taste and responsibilities. His disrespect for the group went as far as falling asleep during a performance in Philadelphia. In 1960, he called upon two old friends from St. Albans Park to form Shep & The Limelites. Their career started with Daddy’s Home, their spin on A Thousand Miles Away, and that marked the end of The Heartbeats’ recording career.
Below, you will see the original Heartbeats singing their most famous song during a PBS concert in 2003. Walter Crump replaces Shep, who died in 1970. While Crump may not have Shep’s original voice, both he and the group make a memorable performance. (It was taken from the Rock and Roll at 50 DVD. A great DVD I will review later on.)