That’s the Way It Goes: At 89, Willie Winfield Steps Away From the Mic

Sixty-five years ago next month, disc jockey Alan Freed opened another front in the rock ’n’ roll revolution by presenting the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Sussex Avenue Armory in Newark, New Jersey.

Artists on the Mayday show, which promoted Freed’s debut on New York radio station WINS and drew more than 11,000 fans, included the Harptones, a New York vocal group featuring the arresting and singular voice of 24-year-old Willie Winfield.

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The Harptones, early 1950s. Wilie Winfield, top right. Raoul Cita, lower right.

The Harptones’s set that night, on a bill that also included Muddy Waters, Charles Brown, the Clovers, Buddy and Ella Johnson and a mambo band, was not the first time Willie Winfield sang in public.

This Saturday night, however, will likely be the last. After seven decades, mostly with some configuration of Harptones, Winfield has announced that he’s retiring after a final performance during LAR’s 2019 Doo-Wop Weekend at Half Hollow Hills High School in Dix Hills, Long Island.

At 89, he’s entitled. Like singers from Sinatra to Mabel Mercer, he left it all on the stage.

The word “legend” gets thrown around a lot, and it might not often be applied to a singer whose group never placed a record on the national R&B charts.

But Willie Winfield is to rhythm and blues vocal group harmony music what Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera were to New York baseball. Top of the list. It’s not even a discussion.

Why?

Well, for starters, Winfield was versatile. He could sing jump tunes. He could sing mambo. Back in the Sussex Avenue Armory days he joined his fellow Harptones in spins, splits and a whirlwind of stage moves that foreshadowed later acts from the Cadillacs to the Temptations, the Pips and Michael Jackson.

But for most of his fans, Willie Winfield was about the ballads. Give him a good love song, put velvet harmonies behind him, add Raoul Cita’s piano and he took you somewhere else. For three minutes there was nothing but the song.

That goes back to the beginning, in 1953, when the Harptones were fused together from earlier New York groups and their first release in December on the tiny Bruce label was “Sunday Kind of Love.”

While the song “Sunday Kind of Love” had been around since 1946, Cita wrote the Harptones a new introduction: “I’m through with my old love / I loved her through and through / I’m searching for a new love / Can that new love be you. . . .”

Group members Billy Brown, Nicky Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway, and maybe Cita, sang those lines as a harmony intro, teeing the song up for Winfield: “I . . . want . . . a Sun-day kind of lo-o-ove. . . .”

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That’s all it took. It never became a national hit, largely because small labels like Bruce had neither the money nor muscle for that kind of promotion. But in New York, and anywhere else it was played and heard, it was already confirming the Harptones as vocal group harmony royalty.

The flip side of “Sunday Kind of Love,” not incidentally, was an equally beautiful ballad, “I’ll Never Tell,” and in March of 1954 Bruce released a third gem, “My Memories of You.”

Over the next few years Winfield would lead the Harptones on a string of treasures, including “That’s the Way It Goes,” “Life Is But a Dream,” “Shrine of St. Cecilia,” “On Sunday Afternoon,” “Cry Like I Cried” and “Loving a Girl Like You.”

With a little time off here and there, he’s been singing those songs, plus some stage-friendly jump tunes like “Oobidee Oobidee Oo,” for 65 years.

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Harptones 1986: Winfield, Linda Champion and Lowe Murray, with Cita down front on piano.

Winfield has been joined and back by a rotating cast over the years, not unusual in the mix-and-match world of vocal group music, and many of those singers — some of them women — have been superb vocalists themselves. Most of them are also, sadly, gone.

Still, Winfield and his voice have been the constant, and if that voice doesn’t have the range it had at the Sussex Avenue Armory, it has held up remarkably well and still embodies the essence of a lovely and underappreciated American musical art form.

The vocal group harmony music of the 1950s, when it’s remembered at all in mainstream popular music today, is often stuffed into a small slot called doo-wop. It’s affectionate but misleading, because it suggests the music was some sort of cute novelty, a trivial footnote.

As with all musical styles, some 1950s R&B was lightweight. “Sunday Kind of Love” and “That’s The Way It Goes,” to pick two Harptones songs out of a hat, are quite the opposite.

Winfield, who was born in Norfolk, Va., spent his late teens and early 20s absorbing the music of groups like the Five Keys — which included his cousin, Dickie Smith — the Orioles, the Swallows and the Larks.

These groups could sing, and the Harptones had the further weapon of Cita, who — like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys — was enchanted by harmony groups like the Four Freshmen. Besides writing several wonderful ballads, including “My Memories of You” and “Loving A Girl Like You,” he arranged the breathtaking harmonies of “That’s the Way It Goes.”

Like many of their peers, Winfield and the Harptones rarely saw financial rewards commensurate with the musical pleasure they gave the audience.

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They recorded for a whole series of small labels, putting them in the heart of the Wild West that was the independent R&B business of the 1950s. Royalties were an afterthought at best, and while the Harptones got plenty of work on the road, that hard grind didn’t pay anything like it would a decade later.

Most of the Harptones, including Winfield, eventually had to find paying work. The revival wave of the late 1960s was a nice unexpected bonus, and while it didn’t make any singers rich, it did provide a sense of how much their music was appreciated.

When the United In Group Harmony Association compiled its top 500 songs, the Harptones had 14, more than any other group. When WFUV’s Group Harmony Review polled fans on the top R&B songs of 1956, “Life Is But a Dream” was number one.

In the broader sense, Harptones’s records remain a defining sound of the early- to mid-‘50s R&B era, before the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” shifted some of the focus away from ballads toward uptempo.

Popular music taste will always be a creature in motion, of course, and none of those inevitable changes has diminished the thrill R&B fans still feel 65 years later from hearing Willie Winfield sing “Sunday Kind of Love.”

The melody lingers, the song plays on.

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