RIP Fred Parris — ‘In the Still of the Nite’ and Well Beyond
Even casual fans of early rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues know the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite,” which means they know the smooth baritone lead voice of Fred Parris.
That’s enough to secure the enduring legacy of Parris, who died Thursday at the age of 85 after what the Five Satins’ Facebook page said was a short illness.
To more serious or obsessive fans of 1950s rhythm and blues, Freddie Parris was known and revered as far more than a one-hit wonder.
Before the Five Satins he led the Scarlets on four lovely ballads, “Dear One,” “True Love,” “Love Doll” and “Kiss Me.” With the Satins right before “In the Still of the Nite,” he sang lead on a lovely a capella ballad, “All Mine.” After “Still of the Nite,” the group recorded a number of splendid records that didn’t sell much, including “She’s Gone (With the Wind),” “When Your Love Comes Along” and “Wonderful Girl.”
Some of the problem was being on small labels with little promotional clout. Some of it was the Five Satins being in the Army when “In the Still of the Nite” became a hit. Some of it was simply the maddening truth that in the chaotic music world of the late 1950s, when payola was a big part of the game and radio was still trying to sort out the whole rock ’n’ roll / pop / R&B whirlwind, a lot of good music got lost.
Through it all, and in years beyond, Parris never stopped singing. As fellow group members came and went, he replaced them, keeping the Five Satins alive as a recording and performing entity for more than 60 years.
If it wasn’t a full-time living for Parris, it was clearly a life passion. Singing “In The Still of the Nite” at every Five Satins show for 60-plus years, he said, wasn’t a burden. It was a rekindling of that one moment for which all artists strive, the one where the bottle catches the lightning.
“In the Still of the Nite” scored at least two remarkable achievements. It became so ingrained for its fans that they knew the “shoo-do-shoo-be-do” background almost as well as the lyrics, and it arguably became as well known as the earlier song of the same name by Cole Porter.
That’s rarified songwriting company, which isn’t bad for a song that Parris said he wrote between 3 and 5 a.m. one night when he was alone on guard duty at an Army base in Philadelphia.
“I never expected it to have so much of an impact,” Parris told the New Haven Register in 2014. “I didn’t know if they were going to listen to it 15 minutes later, let alone 50 years.”
Fredericke Lee Parris was born and raised in New Haven, where he had a paper route and played baseball — well enough to have a tryout with the Boston Braves. A fan of Glenn Miller from the radio, he was drawn to R&B from records that family members brought home.
He particularly liked the smooth harmonies of the Velvets, who recorded for Bobby Robinson’s Red Robin label in New York. Parris had taken to singing himself in a group called the Canaries, and when they dropped him he formed the Scarlets with four fellow students at Hillhouse High.
Determined to get the Scarlets a recording deal, he took a train to New York and dropped in on Bobby Robinson, who eventually and somewhat reluctantly recorded them doing Parris’s “Dear One.”
Their records sold decently around New York, but the Scarlets did not survive going into the service and being sent to different corners of the Earth.
So Parris, using weekend passes to get home, formed the Five Satins and cut a recording deal with a very local and very low-budget label, Standord.
Using a two-track tape recorder, they cut Parris’s “All Mine” at a local VFW Hall. It was a capella because the musicians never showed up and considering the result, that was a happy accident. The record sold locally and modestly.
On either Feb. 19 or Feb. 26, 1956 — the records don’t agree — Parris and three of his four fellow Satins trooped to St. Bernadette’s Church in East Haven, where altar boy Vinny Mazzetta had set up a makeshift recording studio and they sang “In the Still of the Nite.”
First released on Standord to some local interest, it was leased by Ember Records in New York and became a national hit, rising to №3 on the R&B charts and №24 on the pop charts.
Decent contemporary success was not a predictor of future behavior. The song has sold millions of copies, popped up in multiple movies and been inducted into both the Grammy Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For many years it was an automatic №1 in the top-500-of-all-time countdowns at oldies stations like New York’s WCBS-FM.
Parris’s voice held up well over the years, and the Five Satins were royalty at the rock ’n’ roll revival shows they helped launch. Parris himself took a realistic view, suggesting that eventually most popular music is replaced by the music of later generations. That didn’t lessen his delight at the durability of his own music — and not just “In the Still of the Nite.”
What the teenage Fred Parris heard in the Velvets in 1953, later generations have heard in the Five Satins for close to 70 years.