The Ink Spots were an African American vocal group who gained international fame in the 1930s and 1940s. Their unique musical style led to the rhythm and blues and rock and roll musical genres, and the subgenre doo-wop. The Ink Spots were widely accepted in both the white and black communities, largely due to the ballad style introduced to the group by lead singer Bill Kenny.
In 1989, the Ink Spots (Bill Kenny, Deek Watson, Charlie Fuqua and Hoppy Jones) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1999 they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Since the Ink Spots disbanded in 1954, there have been well over 100 vocal groups calling themselves "the Ink Spots" without any right to the name, and without any original members of the group. These groups often have claimed to be "2nd generation" or "3rd generation" Ink Spots.
The Ink Spots formed in the early 1930s in Indianapolis. The founding members were:
Orville "Hoppy" Jones (born 17 February 1902, Chicago, Illinois - d. 18 October 1944, New York City) sang bass. He played cello in the manner of a stand up bass.
Ivory "Deek" Watson (born 18 July 1909, Mounds, Illinois - d. 4 November 1969, Washington, D.C.) sang tenor and played tenor guitar.
Jerry Daniels (b. 14 December 1915 - d. 7 November 1995, Indianapolis, Indiana) sang tenor and played guitar and ukulele.
Charlie Fuqua (b. 20 October 1910 - d. 21 December 1971, New Haven, Connecticut) had a baritone voice and played guitar.
As "Jerry and Charlie", Jerry Daniels and Charlie Fuqua had formed a vocal duo performing in the Indianapolis area around 1931. About the same time, Jones and Watson were part of a quartet, "The Four Riff Brothers", who appeared regularly on radio station WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1933, that group disbanded, and Watson, Daniels and Fuqua got together to form a new vocal, instrumental and comedy group, which was initially called "King, Jack, and Jester". They continued to appear regularly on radio in Ohio, and became a foursome when Jones was added to the group the following year.
In July 1934 they accepted a booking at the Apollo Theater, New York, supporting Tiny Bradshaw. At this point they had changed their name to "The 4 Ink Spots". Later in 1934, The Ink Spots achieved international success touring the UK with Jack Hylton's Orchestra, one review in the Melody Maker stating
The sensation of the programme is the coloured quartette, the Four Ink Spots. They sing in a style something between the Mills Brothers and the Three Keys, and accompany themselves on three tenor guitars and a cello -- which is not bowed, but picked and slapped like a double bass. Their natural instinct for hot rhythm is exemplified in their terrific single-string solo work and their beautifully balanced and exquisitely phrased vocalisms. They exploit all kinds of rhythmic vocalisms -- straight solos, concerted, scat, and instrumental imitations. They even throw in a bit of dancing to conclude their act, and the leading guitarist simultaneously plays and juggles with his instrument.
They first recorded for Victor Records in 1935, but although the group was growing rapidly in popularity their early record releases were not commercially successful. Their first recordings included songs such as "Swingin' On The Strings", "Your Feet's Too Big", "Don't 'Low No Swingin' In Here" and "Swing, Gate, Swing".
Bill Kenny joins:
In 1936, Jerry Daniels was replaced by a young singer from Baltimore named Bill Kenny. Kenny signed with The Ink Spots after winning 1st place in an amateur contest at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Three years later Kenny would be credited for bringing the group to global success with his unusual high tenor ballad singing.
In 1938, after being in the group for two years, Bill Kenny started to introduce the group to a new format that he called "Top & Bottom". This format was used primarily for ballads rather than the uptempo "jive" songs the group was used to performing. This format called for the tenor (Bill Kenny or Deek Watson) to sing the lead for one chorus followed by a chorus performed by Bass singer Hoppy Jones where he would recite the lyrics rather than sing them. After a chorus of the "talking bass" the lead tenor would carry out the rest of the song until the end. The earliest example of their "Top & Bottom" format is from a radio broadcast from 1938. The song entitled "Tune In on My Heart" features Bill Kenny taking the lead and Hoppy Jones performing the talking bass.
The year 1938 also saw Bill Kenny taking his first feature solo in Decca studios. His feature was on a song entitled "I Wish You the Best of Everything". Although it wasn't in the "Top & Bottom" format it was a ballad and did use the signature Ink Spots guitar intro. Even though this record did get a good response it wasn't very successful in terms of record sales and didn't reach the pop charts.
"If I Didn't Care and the late 1930's":
On January 12, 1939, The Ink Spots entered Decca studios to record a ballad written by a young songwriter named Jack Lawrence. This ballad, "If I Didn't Care", was to be one of their biggest hits, selling over 19 million copies and becoming the 7th-best-selling single of all time. It was also the first recording by the group to reach the US Pop Charts. Despite its popularity, "If I Didn't Care" never reached #1 on the US Pop Charts, staying at #2 for several weeks. This is the first studio recorded example of The Ink Spots "Top & Bottom" format with Bill Kenny singing lead and Hoppy Jones performing the "talking bass". For this recording, each member was paid $37.50; however, after the record sold 200,000 Decca destroyed the original contract and the group was paid an additional $3,750. This was the recording that brought the group to global fame and also the recording that would establish the "Top & Bottom" format as The Ink Spots "trademark". From 1939 until the group's disbanding in 1954, many of their songs would employ this format. The year 1939 also saw The Ink Spots at the top of the US Pop Charts with five other recordings that featured Bill Kenny in the "Top & Bottom" format. Their biggest hit of 1939 was the Lombardo, Marks & Hill ballad "Address Unknown". This was their first #1 hit on the US Pop Charts. Other chart toppers from 1939 included "My Prayer", "Bless You", "Memories of You", and "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You".
Between the years 1940 and 1949 the Ink Spots landed well over 30 hits on the US Pop Charts with 18 of them on the top 10. The groups first #1 hit was "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)" which they recorded in 1940. In 1944 The Ink Spots teamed up with Ella Fitzgerald to record "I'm Making Believe", and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall". Both of these recordings featured Bill Kenny and also reached #1 on the US Pop Charts. In 1946 The Ink Spots earned a #1 spot on the US Pop Charts with "To Each His Own". The Billy Reid composition "The Gypsy" was The Ink Spots biggest chart success, staying at the # 1 position for 13 straight weeks in 1946.
Records that found The Ink Spots in the top five of the US Pop Charts in the 1940's included "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano" (#4), "Maybe" (#2), "We Three" (#1), "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire" (#4), "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (#2), "A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening" (#2), "I'm Making Believe" (#1), "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" (#1), "I'm Beginning To See The Light" (#5), "The Gypsy" (#1), and "To Each His Own" (#1).
In 1941, The Ink Spots were featured in The Great American Broadcast starring John Payne and Alice Faye. In the film The Ink Spots played Pullman porters who would sing during their break. Later in the movie The Ink Spots "make it big time" and sing live on the radio over a national broadcast. In the movie the group can be seen singing a short segment of "If I Didn't Care" "Alabamy Bound" and "I've Got a Bone to Pick with You" . They also are featured in a scene with Alice Faye and John Payne providing background vocals on a ballad entitled "Where You Are".
In 1942, The Ink Spots were featured in an Abbott and Costello film, Pardon My Sarong. In this film The Ink Spots play singing waiters in a nightclub. The group can be seen singing the ballad "Do I Worry?" and the swing song "Shout Brother Shout".
Lineup and members:
In 1943, Ink Spots baritone singer and guitarist Charlie Fuqua was drafted into the US Army. He choose his friend Bernie Mackey to be his temporary replacement until he returned to the group. After being with the group for two years, Mackey was replaced by Huey Long in March of 1945. Long completed the role as a "fill in" until Fuqua finally returned in October of 1945.
Hoppy Jones, an important personality to the group, died in October, 1944 after collapsing on stage at the Cafe Zanzibar in New York City, near the height of their popularity. Hoppy Jones had been having cerebral hemorrhages for a year, and had fallen ill from it in June 1944. Jones was temporarily replaced by Cliff Givens who filled in for five months, from October of 1944 to March of 1945. Jones permanent replacement was to be Bill Kenny's brother (and maternal twin) Herb Kenny. Herb Kenny sang with the group from 1945 to 1951 when he went out for a career as a solo artist. The last bass singer or the Ink Spots was Adriel McDonald who was with the group from 1951 to 1954. McDonald was previously The Ink Spots' personal valet, a job given to him by Herb Kenny with whom he had sung with in a group called "The Cabineers" in the early 40's.
Due to personality clashes between Bill Kenny and Deek Watson after Hoppy Jones' death, Kenny decided he'd rather carry on as the leader of the group and bought Watson's share of the group for $10,000 which in turn gave Kenny the power to kick Watson out of the group. Watson went on to form a group similar in style to The Ink Spots called the Brown Dots (which later became the Four Tunes). Watson's place was filled by Billy "Butterball" Bowen who sang with the group from 1943 to 1952.
The final years:
In 1952, Charlie Fuqua left Bill Kenny to form his own vocal group using the name "Ink Spots". At this time Kenny and Fuqua each owned 50% of the Ink Spots however it was decided by court ruling that Kenny's group was to continue on as the original "Ink Spots" while Fuqua's group was to use the name "Charlie Fuqua's New Ink Spots". Fuqua however did not go by this name and against court ruling called his group the "original" Ink Spots.
After Fuqua's departure from the Ink Spots in 1952 he was replaced by popular Jazz and R&B guitarist Everett Barksdale. The group now consisted of Bill Kenny (lead tenor), Teddy Williams (2nd Tenor) who had replaced Billy Bowen, Everett Barksdale (baritone and guitar) and Adriel McDonald (bass). After being with the group for only a few months Teddy Williams was replaced by Ernie Brown. Barksdale only stayed with the group for about a year before being replaced by baritone vocalist and guitar player named Jimmy Cannady. This lineup of Bill Kenny (lead tenor), Ernie Brown (2nd Tenor), Jimmy Cannady (baritone and guitar) and Adriel McDonald (bass) lasted until 1954 when the final change of lineup was made.
In April of 1954, Ernie Brown was replaced by Henry Braswell who sang with the group for the Ink Spots final three months. In July of 1954 Bill Kenny officially disbanded The Ink Spots after an appearance at the "Bolero Bar" in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license