|THE FIVE SHARPS' "STORMY WEATHER":
THE ULTIMATE DOO-WOP RECORD
Doo-wop singles were the first rock 'n' roll records to become valuable as collectibles, and the doo-wop single that many consider the most valuable and fabled of all in The Five Sharps' "Stormy Weather," released on Jubilee 5104.
The Five Sharps (1952)
The story began in 1952 when five young men from the Jamaica housing projects in Queens, New York, after months of performing at local functions, were spotted by a producer and taken into a studio to record two songs, their own "Sleepy Cowboy" and the standard "Stormy Weather," formerly a 1933 smash for Ethel Waters (#1 pop), Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington and others (though today most people are more familiar with Lena Horne’s lesser 1943 hit from the film of the same name). The session took most of the day and the quintet (which included a pianist) was paid in hot dogs and soda pop. First tenor Bobby Ward remembers that they heard their recording of "Stormy Weather" twice on the radio, but that sales were so bad that he and the other members had to buy their own copies even though they'd never been paid in the first place. Not long afterward, the group broke up and a couple of the members joined the armed services. End of story.
(Jubilee 5104 was The Five Sharps' only release. Two Sharps, Clarence Bassett and lead singer Ronald Cuffey, later recorded, in 1958, for Casino Records as The Videos and had a small hit with "Trickle Trickle." Bassett then joined Shep & The Limelights and sang background on "Daddy's Home." The other members of the Five Sharps--pianist Tommy Duckett, Mickey Owens and Bobby Ward--left music altogether.)
The legend began in 1961 in a dingy music shop in a subway tunnel under Manhattan's 42nd Street. The store, Times Square Records, was owned by Irv "Slim" Rose, a cadaverous and gloomy man who bought radio time on local station WHBI to play and promote his inventory of '50s R&B. Slim by all accounts was the first to see the value of doo-wop records, particularly 45s. The wall behind his counter--called the Rare Wall--contained hundreds of rare R&B records, many of them commanding as much as $10, a veritable fortune in those days.
One Saturday, as a group of collectors was hanging around the shop, a man walked in to get an appraisal of his 78rpm copy of a recording of the old Ted Koehler-Harold Arlen song "Stormy Weather" by an obscure group called The Five Sharps. When Slim played it on the store record player, the collectors all heard it for the first time. The song moved at a funereal pace and was crudely harmonized and recorded. It even had the corny sound effects of clapping thunder.
Though some of the gathered collectors pronounced this version one of the worst records they'd ever heard, Slim Rose liked it so much that he borrowed the record to play on his radio show. Unfortunately, either Slim or his pet raccoon Teddy almost immediately broke it, which wasn't surprising since 78s were (and still are) very fragile things that snap and crack without much provocation.
Profusedly apologetic, Slim assured his angry customer that he would replace the broken 78. He put up a sign in his store offering $25 in credit for a 78 of the song and $50 for a 45rpm single. When weeks went by without any takers on his offer, Slim raised the rewards. Finally he went to the Jubilee warehouse on 10th Avenue and discovered that the master for "Stormy Weather" had been one of about 80 that had been destroyed in a fire (or was it a flood?) several years earlier.
Since Jubilee in 1952 had been releasing singles on both the 78 and 45 formats, collectors assumed that there must be a 45 somewhere (for even then, collectors valued 45s much more than 78s). But nothing ever turned up. As the legend of The Five Sharps' "Stormy Weather" grew, Jubilee Records recorded a new version, in 1964, with another group altogether, and released it on a 45 single, Jubilee 5478, as by The Five Sharps, but this record was (and remains) worthless to collectors.
But later on, after Slim's Record Shop was history, three 78s of "Stormy Weather" turned up. One was cracked, one had a half-inch chip, and the third, found in a junkyard, was in "vg" condition. The latter copy was put on the auction block in 1977 and sold for $3,866 to two Newport Beach men, David Hall and Gordon Wrubel (who happen to be present-day members of the DWS). A mint copy would have gone for much higher.
The cracked record, which had been found in 1972, was cleaned up and used by collector Bob Galgano and Bim Bam Boom magazine editor Ralph Newman to master a 45 of The Five Sharps' "Stormy Weather" on the Bim Bam Boom label. Though worthless to collectors, this release's true value is that it has allowed regular doo-wop fans to hear the recording for themselves and decide how valuable the music itself is.
The release of the Bim Bam Boom single led to all five original group members getting together in 1975 to perform at the Academy of Music in New York with several other classic vocal groups, and then to sing at a series of smaller shows around the city until the novelty wore off and sent them back into obscurity. Since then, all have died except for Ward and Bassett.
So the question remains, how valuable would a real 45 of "Stormy Weather" be if it suddenly turned up? According to the aforementioned David Hall, who with Gordon Wrubel owns Good Rockin' Tonight, an appraisal service and auction house, "If a 45 was found, I have no doubt it would bring $5,000." He admits that it would probably drive down the value of his vg copy of the 78.
If $5000 sounds like a high figure, consider that collector Jerry Osborne was offering that much for the record nearly 20 years ago, in 1980. While the value of other doo-wop singles has skyrocketed since then (Good Rockin' Tonight recently auctioned off a copy of The Hornets' "I Can't Believe" on States 127 for $18,000, which in 1980 was appraised by Osborne at only $180), "Stormy Weather" has remained the same.
And yet, claims Hall, at least one buyer has offered $25,000 for his 78. Is Hall just trying to continue the legend of "Stormy Weather"? Who knows? But he and Wrubel keep it locked away in a bank vault. They claim they take it out every five years and play it.
The ultimate importance of The Five Sharps' "Stormy Weather," say some collectors, is that it was the Holy Grail that got them hooked on rare doo-wop 45s in the first place. It was the inspiration that turned record collecting into a passionate profession and sent young, mostly white fans scurrying into junk shops and Salvation Army stores looking for used records.
Thanks to John Johnson of the Los Angeles Times for his contribution to this article.
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