Herb Reed of the Platters, who died Monday in Boston at age 83, was the last surviving original member of the great '50s R&B and doo-wop group known for its soaring operatic hits “The Great Pretender,” “Only You,” “Twilight Time,” “My Prayer” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Reed’s glorious bass voice anchored the group’s sound, keeping the music rooted to the earth as tenor Tony Williams took those songs and dozens of others upward into the musical stratosphere.
To the casual pop music fan, it’s easy to lump the Platters with the Coasters, the Drifters, the Penguins, the Clovers and other early R&B and doo-wop groups of the '50s. That's partly because, for so many of these vocal groups, their identity began and ended with the name -- they weren't differentiated into superstar guitarists or drummers or even lead singers, but made their living by harmonizing together. Clyde McPhatter left the Drifters to chart a solo career that gave him an individual identity, but for the most part, it was the collective that fans knew and loved.
Reed and Williams first got together with tenor David Lynch, soprano Zola Taylor and baritone Paul Robi here in Los Angeles in the early '50s, and it's usually Williams’ voice that one heard first in their mix. But “My Prayer” provides a great example of what Reed contributed time and again.
After Williams sings the opening line, a cappella, “When the twilight is gone,” the other Platters answer and support him with an elongated “gone” in which Reed's oaky bass is not only heard but also palpably felt.
That's historically the role the bass voice serves in gospel, pop and classical music: It’s the soul, reaching to the deepest parts of the human heart.
It’s appropriate to reference classical music when discussing the Platters because their signature sound tapped much the same sweep and grandeur of great operatic arias.
The group’s manager, producer and sometimes songwriter Buck Ram, who had shepherded the career of the Ink Spots a decade earlier, had a great ear for what would appeal to more than just the African American listeners who still bought the majority of R&B records in the early '50s when the Platters came around.
Ram sweetened their records with strings, and he got the five singers to apply their vibrant harmonies to many songs that had previously been hits in the '20s, '30s and '40s, giving them an air of familiarity to a broad swath of music fans.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” had been a No. 1 hit in 1934 for the great bandleader Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller had reached No. 2 with “My Prayer” in 1939, and “Twilight Time” had been a top 10 hit in 1944 for the Three Suns. Here's a video of the Platters' version of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes":
The Platters brought a new pulse and sensuality to the material, but also elegance and sophistication that were more transcendent and ethereal than the gritty sexuality of the likes of Ruth Brown and Etta James. The Platters created a blueprint for towering pop music that would later be exploited magnificently by Roy Orbison and Del Shannon and even can be heard in the sweeping pop-R&B balladry of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.
Ringo Starr tipped his hat to the group with his version of “Only You” on his second post-Beatles solo album, “Goodnight Vienna,” in 1974.
Although the Platters suffered the fate of many '50s R&B groups over time with spurious versions of the act cropping up in far-flung lounges and casinos, Reed did his best to keep the Platters legacy intact, touring until last year, when health issues prompted him to retire.
Photo montage of Herb Reed and original members of the Platters. Courtesy of Balboni Communications Group.