It’s the Canada Day long weekend, and you know what that means? That means radio stations all over Canada are getting ready to pull out their all-Canadian broadcast weekend! There are lots of things that Canadians are proud of, but one of those is definitely their home-grown music. I am sure most countries share the same sort of pride in musical acts that come from their region, but it seems a bit amplified in Canada. Partially its due to the CRTC laws, which regulate that a certain percentage of Canadian made music be played on Canadian stations each hour, giving Canadian artists a chance to make it to the mainstream. Furthermore, due to sharing a border with the United States, there is often room for crossover success meaning that some of our biggest talent make it South of the border too, which gives Canadian’s a lot of pride. So, this weekend we’ll be hearing a lot of Rush, Tragically Hip and Bryan Adams over the airwaves. But you know who I’ve never heard playing at an outdoor BBQ celebration up at the lake? The Crew Cuts. Despite their landmark contribution to the history of Canadian music, nobody ever talks about The Crew Cut, despite there being an awful lot to say.
Ever heard of The Crew Cuts? Some might be familiar with the early 1950’s doo wop group which came out when rock was still very young. Well, it seems to be a long forgotten fact, but what makes The Crew Cuts important to the Canadian music industry is that they were the first group from Canada to have a hit record on the American pop charts.
Canadians had been crossing over into the North American music scene as early as radio charts were being created with early successes being Glenn Gould, Guy Lombardo, Percy Faith and Oscar Peterson. However, at this time, it was far and in between because America had no problem finding their own music stars. But come the 1950’s, when the modern sounds of what would be known as rock n’ roll and pop music began to hit a youth market with a disposable income, Canadian groups crossing over to Americas grew in number from decade to decade. But, while some may dispute exactly who the first true pop success from Canada was, I gotta give it to The Crew Cuts.
The Crew Cuts origins began just prior to the birth of rock n’ roll, which is why I don’t think we can fully consider the earlier versions of the group to be rock or pop, but the group would morph into that industry later. In 1951 four students from St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto – Rudi Maugeri, John Perkins, Bernard Toorish and Connie Cordarini – started a vocal quartet called The Four Lads. Catching the attention of Columbia Records head honcho Mitch Miller, they were invited to record in New York, which was a big opportunity for the group. Toorish and Connie decided to head to the US, but Maugeri and Perkins wanted to finish school first and left the group. Well, The Four Lads managed to have some success, first starting as a backup group with Johnny Ray and then having their own chart success with “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Standing on the Corner.” So, when the Lads came back to Toronto a year later for a homecoming show, they invited their original pals to sing again with them, and having been away from music for a while, Perkins and Maugeri realized that they seriously should have stuck with music and decided to form their own group and take a stab at the business again.
Recruiting John’s younger brother Ray Perkins and their pal Pat Barrett as their new bandmates, the boys called themselves The Four Tones and started to work out their own harmonies and a new act. Now in 1952 The Four Tunes all had good paying government jobs by day but were gigging in clubs between Toronto and Rochester at night and on the weekends. With a lively act and a personal stage presence, The Four Tones proved popular with audiences, but a foolish name change would shoot them in the foot. During an appearance on a Toronto based radio show the group rechristened themselves The Canadaires, which was not only difficult to spell, but nobody seemed to remember it. I’m not even sure how you’d pronounce that. But full of ambition, the boys decided to go for the big time and at the end of the year they saved up their money, quit their jobs and headed out to New York to appear on Arthur Godfrey’s popular program “Talent Scouts.”
An early version of “America’s Got Talent,” the group did fairly well on “Talent Scouts,” coming in second place and got a chance to record a single with a small company called Thrillwood Records. The record was called “Chip, Chip Sing a Song Little Sparrow,” but it was not a success. By the beginning of 1953 the guys were all back in Toronto with no jobs, little career prospects and a crate of records that nobody was buying.
Weeks later the Canadaires found themselves way up North gigging in Sudbury, Ontario. A cold and desolate place in the winter, it seemed to be the farthest place they could be for fortune to smile on them. However, someone back home sent them word that Gene Caroll, who had a music show in Cleveland, Ohio, had gotten a copy of their record and wanted them to appear on his show.
When it came to music, things were hopping in Cleveland a lot more than they were in Sudbury. Something big was happening in Cleveland at this time. Alan Freed was playing a new form of music called rock n’ roll on his radio show and the sounds of rhythm and blues and doo wop were catching like fire all throughout North America. A year earlier, Freed had made headlines when he organized the first rock concert which ended in disaster. Called The Moondog Coronation Ball, the show was supposed to feature Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, Tiny Grims, The Dominos and Danny Cobb and Varetta Dillard. Approximately ten thousand tickets were sold at $1.50 a piece, but the venue only held about six thousand people. By 9 pm so many kids had shown up that the police were called in to control the crowd and a full-blown riot ensued, cancelling the concert and putting rock ’n’ roll on the world stage. Cleveland was the place to be, and the world was listening.
In Canada, very few teenagers had even heard rock n’ roll yet, and who knows if the Canadaiers even knew what they were getting into. But the guys packed themselves into a car and drove 600 miles through a snowstorm from Sudbury to Cleveland. Upon arriving the boys didn’t meet Alan Freed, but they did meet his competitor, Bill Randle, who immediately told them that their name stank, and joked that they should rename themselves The Crew Cuts after their matching hair cuts which were all buzzed short. Well, they listened to Randell’s suggestion and went on The Gene Carroll Show as The Crew Cuts. Proving popular with both the producers and the audience, they were invited to appear on two more shows, and suddenly their luck started to shift quickly.
Maybe it was because they took his band name suggestion, or perhaps it was that he really liked their sound, but Bill Randell really took a liking to The Crew Cuts, and he got them an audition with Mercury Records, where they cut their first single under the name The Crew Cuts called “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby.” Making its debut on Randell’s radio show, the record started finding moderate sales quickly. Mercury Records knew they had a solid clean cut vocal group on their hands. However, the producers at Mercury had another plan for the group. They went out to transform The Crew Cuts from being just another vocal group to part of the rock n’ roll scene.
For their next single, the executives at Mercury introduced The Crew Cuts to doo wop by having them record “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream). Originally recorded by a New York vocal group out of New York for a small recording outfit called Cat Records, but was going up the rhythm and blues charts like wildfire. Mercury wanted their own success with the song, and felt The Crew Cuts had the musical chops to be able to compete with heir own version. The high spirited jazzy feel wasn’t far from what the guys had done before, and they had the right punch to do the intricate word play,. So the Crew Cuts got in the studio and put their own friendly high-spirited spin on it.
A true banger, as Mercury Record executives predicted, the Crew Cuts version of “Sh-Boom” was a hit. “Sh-Boom” first made its debut on the Cash Box charts, which counted record sales, with The Crew Cuts version at #26, and would eventually hit the number one spot on the Billboard charts in August 1954 and remain on the chart for seven weeks. Not only was it one of the first doo wop songs to hit the top spot on the Billboard charts, but it is the earliest track which was considered to be from the rock n’ roll industry by a Canadian artist to appear on the American charts. Its a far cry from sounding wha we would consider rock n’ roll today, but it was a major moment in Canadian music history.
So, with “Sh-Boom” under their belt, the formula was created for the Crew Cuts’ next big hit, and possibly their most recognizable track, “Earth Angel.” Mercury had a huge hit with the record by Los Angeles based group The Penguins at the end of 1954, but as a result of radio stations in the Southern US not supporting the record due to it being by a black group, Mercury wanted to have a white group recut it. Now known as “whitewashing,” this is one of the most nefarious practices that record companies were doing in the early days of rock n’ roll as a way to maintain their maximum sales during a racially divide era. It’s difficult to put a positive spin on this, but after The Crew Cuts success with “Sh-Boom,” they felt that they could do the same with “Earth Angel.” The Crew Cuts complied, and they had another hit on their hands, but their version did not manage to eclipse The Penguins’ version. While The Crew Cuts version of the song reached the #3 spot on the Billboard charts, the far superior version by The Penguins would hit #3 on the rhythm and blues charts. Both were strong recordings, but different in tone which would appeal to their various audiences. Although The Penguins version would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest early pop records recorded in the early era or rock, The Crew Cuts version continues to be an oldies staple to this day.
By 1955 the Crew Cuts were a top group in both Canada and the US, and with American pop sounds starting to find their way over to the UK, in the fall of that year “Sh-Boom” hit number one on the UK Billboard charts and the Crew Cuts crossed the Atlantic to entertain a new British audience starved for early rock sounds. It was during a notable performance in Liverpool that a thirteen-year-old boy named Paul McCartney approached the Crew Cuts after the show and asked for their autographs. But he wasn’t the only future musical superstar at the show that night. Although they hadn’t met yet, George Harrison, who was only 12, also saw The Crew Cuts at that same show. Eight years later both lads would be off to America themselves to launch the British Rock n’ Roll Invasion making the rock n’ roll scene a true international affair.
For the next few years The Crew Cuts recorded a string of minor hits, including “Ko Ko Mo” (not to be confused with the Beach Boys ear worm from the 1980’s), “Angels in the Sky,” “Gum Drop” and “A Story Untold,” but didn’t repeat the success of “Earth Angel” or “Sh-Boom.” Of course, with the success of later acts like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, the shape of pop and rock changed again, and by the end of the decade The Crew Cuts sound was already out of style. But despite this, the group chugged longer than most doo wop groups, finally calling it quits in 1964. They reunited for a few shows in 1977, and after being inducted into Canada’s Juno Hall of Fame in 1990, appeared together in a PBS special. Rudi Maugeri stayed in the music business as a music director for Radio Arts, and passed away in 2004, and Pat Barret died in 2016. The Perkins Brothers, now both in their 90’s, are still alive and reportedly live in the US.
In 2024 it’ll be seventy years since The Crew Cuts first travelled to Cleveland and kicked off the Canadian Rock n’ Rikk Invasion of the USA. Although so much has changed in the course of those seven decades, a relisten to the Crew Cuts reveal that their creativity, showmanship and pitch perfect harmonies shine through. They got that ball rolling and were the pioneers who ventured into the US bringing Canadian pop to the US, and although it was probably just a matter of timing, every artist who ever ventured down to the US from the great white north owes something to them doing it first. Just like young people with musical dreams today, The Crew Cuts went on the journey, took the chances, and got listened to. This holiday weekend, why don’t you put “Sh-Boom” on your Spotify playlist and have a drink for The Crew Cuts. They are worth celebrating.