The American pop group "The Four Tops" arrive at Heathrow airport in London in 1966. From left, Abdul Fakir, Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo Benson.
Everybody had a favorite singing group when we were growing up. You knew the group members’ names, lyrics to all their hits and probably the label for which they recorded.
What you probably didn’t know is how the group got its name.
Most of the ways groups got their names are, to say the least, strange.
Here are some early rock ‘n’ roll groups and how they got their names.
Hall of Fame performer Clyde McPhatter formed The Drifters in 1953 after he left Billy Ward & the Dominoes. They got their name because all of the members of the original group drifted from one singing group to another. After struggling for several years, The Drifters finally hit it big in 1959 with Top 10 hit “There Goes My Baby” and followed with six other Top 10 hits including their only No. 1 hit ”Save The Last Dance for Me” in 1960. “Up on the Roof” and “Under the Boardwalk” were among their signature hits.
Another group that that shined during the same period as The Drifters was The Coasters who formed in 1956. They took the name because all of the members came from the West Coast. The group’s first major release was the two-sided smash “Searchin’ ” and “Young Blood,” both of which made the Top 10 in the spring of 1957. The group followed that with Top 10 hits “Yakety Yak” in 1958 and “Charlie Brown,” “Along Came Jones” and “Poison Ivy” in 1959.
The Four Tops, one of Motown’s most successful groups, joined forces in 1953 when they were attending a Detroit high school. The original members of the Four Tops, Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo Benson, remained intact for a record 43 years until Payton died of cancer in 1997.
The group was originally called the Four Aims because they were “aiming” for the top, but they eventually changed it to the Four Tops because they did not want to be confused with the Ames Brothers, one of the 1950s premier singing groups.
The group had its first major hit with “Baby, I Need Your Loving” in 1964. They followed that with their first No. 1 hit “I Can’t Help Myself” in 1965. The Four Tops had their second No. 1 in 1966 when “Reach Out I’ll Be There” reached the top of the charts.
The groups other Top 10 hits were “It’s The Same Old Song” in 1965, “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” in 1966, “Bernadette” in 1967 and “Ain’t No Woman” in 1973.
The Orlons, an all-girls group, formed in the late 1950s while attending a junior high school in Philadelphia and called themselves the Teenettes. They changed their name to the Orlons in 1960 to poke fun at a rival singing group at the school called the Cashmeres. They selected the name because Orlon was a synthetic fiber. The group had a short, but successful career amassing three Top 10 hits – the Wah-Watusi,” “Don’t Hang Up” and “South Street” – spanning 1962 and 1963. Those were the group’s only hits.
Struggling for nearly a decade under the names Variatones and Four Lovers, the group’s members decided to change their name in 1962 to the Four Seasons. They picked the name after failing to win an audition for a lounge job in a bowling alley in Union, N.J. They didn’t want to leave the audition totally empty-handed so they decided to take the name of the establishment, the Four Seasons.
After struggling for years, the Variatones/Four Lovers/Four Seasons became overnight sensations when “Sherry” hit No. 1 in September 1962. They followed with No. 1 hits “Big Girls Don’t Cry” in October of that year and “Walk Like A Man” in January 1963. They had 10 other Top 10 hits and two other No. 1 hits, “Rag Doll” in 1964 and “December 1963 (Oh, what A Night)” in 1976.
The frontrunner of the folk movement during the late 1950s and 1960s, the Kingston Trio immediately hit No. 1 with “Tom Dooley” in 1958. The song was about a Blue Ridge Mountain man, Tom Dula, who was hanged for murder in 1868. The three-member group, whose repertoire included calypso as well a folk music, selected Kingston as their name because Kingston, Jamaica, was a hub of calypso music.
While “Tom Dooley” was the Kingston Trio’s only No. 1 hit, the group had six other Top 20 hits including “MTA” and “A Worried Man” in 1959, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in 1962 and “Greenback Dollar” and “Reverend Mr. Black” in 1963.
One of the first all-white doo-wop groups, New York-based Dion & The Belmonts joined forces in 1958 and quickly met with success as “I Wonder Why” reached the Top 25. The following year, they had one of their biggest hits as “A Teenager In Love” climbed to No. 5 on the charts.
The group split in 1960 due to professional differences and Dion, a teen idol on the same level as Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Vee and Paul Anka, enjoyed great success, hitting with “A Lonely Teenager” in 1960 and “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” in 1961 and “Lovers Who Wander” in 1962.
The group took their name because they used to sing doo-wop on the street corner on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y.
The Ivy Three had only one chart hit when “Yogi” became a Top 10 smash in the summer of 1960. The song was not inspired by the New York Yankees’ Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, but by Yogi Bear, the cartoon character from the animated TV series “Huckleberry Hound.”
The trio, which formed at Adelphi College in Garden City on Long Island, took the name because the school’s walls were covered with ivy.
Another of the groups that were one-hit wonders, the Brothers Four were fraternity brothers at the University of Washington, hence the name Brothers Four. The folk group had their only hit, “Greenfields,” in the spring of 1960, reaching No. 2.
The Elegants, another New York doo-wop group, had only one chart song, but it was a monster hit. “Little Star” became No. 1 in 1958 and sold more than 2 million copies. The song was adopted from Jane Taylor’s popular English lullaby “The Star” first published in 1806.
The group took its name from a Schenley whiskey bottle where the word “Elegance” was prominently displayed on the label. The group changed “Elegance” to “Elegants.”
Two of the doo-wop groups from the 1950s, the Cadillacs and Impalas, took their names from cars, but for different reasons.
A R&B group from Harlem, the Cadillacs charted with “Speedoo” in 1956 and “Peek-A-Boo” in 1959. They changed their name from Carnations to Cadillacs, the luxury car of the day, at their new manager’s urging. This was believed to be the first major group named for a car.
One of the first interracial doo-wop groups, the Impalas scored with their only chart hit “Sorry (I Ran All The Way Home)” which reached No. 2 in 1959. Seeking a name for their group, the members decided on Impalas because a group member’s father just purchased a Chevy Impala.
Many of the groups in the early- to mid-1950s had “Four” in their names. Among the “Four” groups were the Four Aces, Four Coins, Four Deuces, Four Esquires, Four Fellows, Four Freshmen, Four Knights, Four Lads, Four Preps and Four Voices.
The most successful of the “Fours” during that span was the Four Lads. The group members grew up in Toronto and launched their career in 1950 and originally was called Otnorots, Toronto spelled backward. They then changed their name to the Four Dukes, but had to change the name because they discovered a group in Detroit was already using it. They then settled on the Four Lads at their manager’s suggestion.
The group’s first hit was “Istanbul” in 1953. The Four Lads has their benchmark hit, “Moments To Remember,” in the summer of 1956 rising to No. 2. They had five other Top 10 hits – “No Not Much” and “Standing On the Corner” from the musical “Most Happy Fella” in 1956, “Who Needs You?” and “Put A Light In The Window” in 1957 and “There’s Only One Of You” in 1958.
Incredibly, the Four Lads are still performing this year – their 60th in the business.
Isn’t it amazing how quality music lasts ... and lasts ... and lasts.
Barry Levine is a news copy editor for The Albany Herald.