Willie Winfield: A Sunday Kind of Love That Lasted Way Past Saturday Night
When the Harptones finally got up the nerve to try the Apollo Theater’s notoriously tough Amateur Night in November of 1953, lead singer Willie Winfield was so nervous he had to be pushed on the stage.
“They’d be telling me jokes to loosen me up enough to go out there,” Winfield recalled a couple of years ago. “Stage fright is very tough to overcome.”
Winfield didn’t say which of the other Harptones pushed him — Nicky Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway, Raoul Cita or Billy Brown — but that fellow has a permanent special place in the hearts of everyone who loves 1950s-style rhythm and blues vocal group harmony music.
Over a career that lasted up to a final performance in April of 2019, Willie Winfield ascended to the Mount Rushmore of beloved vocal group harmony singers. He was carved in stone there when he died Tuesday evening of a heart attack, a month shy of his 92nd birthday.
He led the Harptones on a dozen classics, starting with “Sunday Kind of Love” and running through the likes of “My Memories Of You,” “Cry Like I Cried,” “The Masquerade Is Over,” “Forever Mine,” “Three Wishes,” “What Is Your Decision” and “Life Is But a Dream.”
While the Harptones could whip up a crowd with their energetic and acrobatic stage show — several of their uptempo numbers are captured in the 1956 film “Rockin’ The Blues” —to most fans over the years they were defined by their love ballads and heartbreak songs.
They cut so many classics that one of their most transcendent, “Loving a Girl Like You,” wasn’t even released when they recorded it in 1953. Only eight years later, after collector Val Shively almost accidentally ran across the demo, did fans hear it and wonder why in the world it had sat around collecting dust. (“I went to school / Passed all my tests / And made it through / Along with the rest / But I was not told about / Loving a girl like you.”)
Actually, in a way it sort of did come out earlier. The Harptones had sung it enough in their live shows that it became a street-corner favorite around New York, known by the shorthand title “School Girl.” In 1956 Old Town Records had Ruth McFadden cut a gender-flipped version — same song, same arrangement — as “School Boy.”
The Harptones provided backing vocals.
In any case, vocal group fans can drop a needle pretty much anywhere on any Harptones record and get lost in whatever plays.
“I had no thought of a singing career continuing,” said Winfield. “None at all. Then after ‘Sunday Kind of Love’ came out, our road manager said, ‘You’ll be singing that song for the rest of your life.’ “
He was right. Winfield’s final performance included “Sunday Kind of Love,” which drew the standing ovation that spoke for everyone who had heard him for the previous 66 years.
In a field with a lot of egos, Winfield stood out for a modest, unassuming demeanor. For starters, he never had any desire to ditch the group and go solo.
“The Harptones are the reason I kept singing,” he said, and that applied through numerous personnel changes over the years. “The original group all had the same idea. We did everything together, we went out after shows. We still do that now.
“Anywhere we appear, the original members who are deceased are with me. I still hear their voices.”
And okay, he added, some of those voices are telling jokes.
“In the early days, the other guys lived in Harlem and I lived in Brooklyn,” he said. “One night I overslept and I got to the theater after they had already started. Luckily I had a suit similar to theirs, but my pajamas were showing out of the bottom of my pants. They kidded me a lot about that.”
Then there was the moment with “My Memories Of You.”
“When we sang it on stage, I’d always hit it a key higher,” said Winfield. “So one night the other guys brought out water guns and when I did it, they shot me. The audience thought it was funny. I was never so scared in my life.”
In retrospect, for fans, the hardest thing to believe about the Harptones is that they never had a national hit. They didn’t have a single record on the R&B charts and they cracked the pop charts just once, peaking at №96 in 1961 with “What Will I Tell My Heart.”
Instead they became a classic regional group, well appreciated in the New York area and the Northeast.
“One time we played Canada, and the crowd enjoyed it, but we weren’t really getting over with our stuff,” said Winfield. “So we sang [the Platters’s hit] ‘Only You,’ because that felt like the way to get over. We played a lot of gigs in the Catskills, where you’d do Jewish or Spanish.
“It was exciting to play there. It helped put us where we are now. And they had good steaks.”
The object of making records is to sell records, of course, and Winfield admitted it was frustrating the Harptones never had a national breakthrough.
“I had an attitude about that once,” he said. “I often think about the lack of promotion. If Bruce [the Harptones’s first label] had known what to do, they could have been one of the biggest R&B labels. They had good artists in every field. But they couldn’t get it together.
“At first I blamed the DJs for not playing our records, but then I found they were really our friends. Alan Freed, Dr. Jive, Murray the K, they became very good friends.”
The thing was, the DJ biz had its own set of rules and practices in those days, which Winfield matter of factly acknowledged.
“At one time we decided to try to promote our own records,” he said. “It was like, give the DJ $75 to play the record. Our producers should have been taking care of that. They were the problem.”
Still, by that time, Winfield said the lack of hits wasn’t going to keep him from singing.
“I never thought of my songs as timeless, but they came out that way,” he said. “For singing them, I was lucky that I never lost my pitch. Other guys did. Freddy Taylor went from a tenor down to a bass. Some guys had to change to falsetto.
“Singing the songs for me feels fresh every time. It’s the way people respond. All of a sudden, I forget my age. I lose all sense of everything except the song. I go back to the first time we recorded, when we had no idea what would happen.”
Winfield’s singing began well before the Harptones. Before he got to New York, in fact, since he lived for his first 21 years in his hometown of Norfolk, Va.
“I did a lot of church singing,” he said. “Mostly in the chorus. A few solos. They had stronger singers, soulful, the heavy voices for spirituals. We sang at football games, basketball games. Or after choir rehearsal.”
Outside the choir he sang in a group with his brothers. He also listened to the radio, where he discovered one of the legendary R&B vocal groups, Virginia’s Five Keys.
“They had a 15-minute radio program in Norfolk every Sunday,” he said. “I loved the Five Keys. I heard them and everything came into focus. They had just a piano player, so you really heard the singing.”
While he was still shy about singing on stage, he began collecting songs, which proved useful. He moved to New York after his mother died in 1950, and soon he merged his family group with a New York group called the Skylarks.
Collectively they developed the silky ballad style that for most fans defines the Harptones.
“I brought in ‘Sunday Kind of Love’ and other songs,” he said. “We worked on the sound together. We’d be rehearsing and someone would say, ‘Do this with that note.’ Sometimes it was embarrassing, but we liked to make our mistakes where no one else could hear them.”
With Cita, the Harptones were one of the first R&B vocal groups to have their own pianist/arranger. For material, they often drew on pop classics.
“With ‘Since I Fell For You,’ we did it because I fell in love with the Ella Fitzgerald version,” said Winfield. “That’s where we got that arrangement.”
When the United In Group Harmony Association compiled its top 500 vocal group records of all time, polling collectors around the country, the Harptones placed 14 songs, more than any other group. When WFUV’s “Group Harmony Review” polled collectors on their favorite record from the peak year of 1955, the Harptones’s “Life Is But a Dream” finished at №1.
Once someone pushed Willie Winfield on stage that night in 1953, no one wanted him to leave.