SH-BOOM! The crazy career of The Crew-Cuts
Bursting out of the same Toronto choir loft that produced the Four Lads, the scrawny Crew-Cuts soared from cakes-and-coffee to $5,000 a week, top spot in the pops and a life without sleep
A night club on the northern outsiw,.. c lilwaukee, Wis., four young men from •^ronto last October sang the aria Sh-Boom : the 399th time in public. The lyrics begin:
Hey nonny ding dong, a lang a lang a lang,
Boom dah doh, ba-do ba-do ba-vayk . . .
The four young men, known professionally as :he Crew-Cuts, were already somewhat disenchanted with the song Sh-Boom but they were aware that they’d continue to sing it three to five times a day for the next six months. Their record of Sh-Boom has sold more than a million copies; in the four months after its release, Sh-Boom had paid them $27,500 in royalties and their fee for nightclub and theatre appearances vaulted from $500 to $5,000 a week.
In addition, the Crew-Cuts have two other records, Crazy Bout You Baby, which two of them wrote and which sold 250,000 records in seven months, and Oop Shoop, released just a month before this article was written. In October Oop Shoop was 17th in record sales in North America and rising with all the majesty a song named Oop Shoop can command. Oop Shoop, some authorities believe, is Sh-Boom spelled sideways.
Further, the Crew-Cuts emerged a few weeks ago on the glossy four-color cover of an album of eight songs entitled Crew-Cuts on the Campus, a collection which gave early indications of being an immoderate success.
All this activity has occurred in eight months, which makes the Crew-Cuts the fastest success story in show business since Johnny Ray cried about a cloud. It makes the Toronto group, who had been singing on native soil for two years to
howls of “Aw shuddup!,” the hottest property on the continent.
The two oldest members of the Crew-Cuts are Rudi Maugeri, 23, baritone, who does t he arrangements, and Johnnie Perkins, 23, second tenor, whose voice is heard most prominently on Sh-Boom. Pat Barrett, lead tenor, is only 21 and Ray Perkins, 22-year-old brother of Johnnie, is the bass.
The Crew-Cuts are a quartet of harried, unhandsome, slightly dazed young men, all of whom have their crew-cuts barbered once a week to maintain the stubble of their trademarks. They range in height from five foot eight to five foot ten. Their weight doesn’t vary at all; they all weigh about 130 pounds and their tailor stuffs padding into the front of their tuxedos to give them a suggestion of massive chest development.
“I’ve got four young Sinatras on my hands,” an executive of Mercury Records, which has the Crew-Cuts under contract, explained recently. “That is, they’re all scrawny.”
The Crew-Cuts have had no opportunity to grow fat on the fruits of Sh-Boom. Assuming the worst the unlikely possibility that they’ll never have another big hit record -this winter of 1954-55 could be the peak of their career. It is essential to Music Corporation of America, which arranges their bookings for ten percent of the fee, that they be kept moving while they are still hot; it is essential to the future of the Crew-Cuts that they
m^ke friends, at every stop, with owners, disk jockeys, newspaper and Halevi, employees, any embryo Crew-Cut fan club t might be developing and with all human beings between the ages of thirteen and twenty. Teenagers purchase eighty-five percent of all popular records and account for an even higher proportion of the dimes that go into juke boxes.
This leaves little time for such comparative nonessentials as eating and sleeping. In a recent threeday period, for instance, the Crew-Cuts had only five meals, not counting a round of cheeseburgers at five o’clock one morning or another evening when the group dined on parsley, chocolate-coated peanuts and two apples.
In the two and a half years they have been singing together, the Crew-Cuts have had frequent periods when they did little eating. Until recently, though, the only reason for lack of nourishment was lack of funds.
They began their musical educations when they were eight years old, in St. Michael’s Cathedral Choir School in Toronto, an academic school from grades 3 to 10 that also trains choir singers. Ot her graduates of the school were the Four Lads, another vocal quartet that became a top night-club act three years ago and recently appeared at. the Copacabana in New York, one of the fattest prest ige spots in the entertainment business.
“Not all the boys can find their vocation in church music,” observed the principal, Monsignor J. El. Ronan, gently. “We must have good boys in the theatre as well as any other place.”
rI'he fact that St. Michael’s Choir School shoul have eight good boys in the theatre within -two-year period is part of the phenomenon of tl times, when the musicContinued on page ! minded public is enraptured chiefly by male quartets. The chances in favor of four young men succeeding in show business have never been better weighted. The odds improve when the quartet begins in a city of night clubs, such as Toronto, where the group can gain experience until opportunity scratches a fingernail on the door.
This was the case with both the Four Lads and the Crew-Cuts, whose history is so interwoven that Rudi Maugeri and Johnnie Perkins started singing in a quartet called the Jordonaires with two other schoolmates who are now with the Four Lads. Rudi and Johnnie dropped out of the Jordonaires to finish high school and later, with the example of the older quartet to encourage them, picked up Pat Barrett and Ray Perkins. They called themselves the Four Tones and started to sing in March 1952.
Arthur Godfrey Chilled Them
Barry Nesbitt, a Toronto disk jockey, heard them and# invited them to sing spirituals on his weekly teen-agers show, whose audience selected a new name for the group, Canadaires. Agent Dave Bossin found them some bookings in small Ontario cities at fees of about ten dollars apiece. They bought white mess jackets and black tuxedo pants on installments from an understanding tailor. Their first break came when a Buffalo night club hired them for a month at $300 a week.
The boys quit their jobs. Pat and Rudi had been clerks in Ontario government offices; Ray was a typewriter repairman and Johnnie a timekeeper with Trans-Canada Air Lines. An acquaintance says of this period “They dug spirituals the most,” but they began building up a repertoire of popular songs.
After Buffalo there was no work for four months. They lived at home and practiced at Rudi’s house, where his mother earnestly pleaded with them to
stop trving to write what later became their first hit, Crazy Bout You Baby. “It’s awful,” she moaned. In November the Canadaires worked a night club in Niagara Falls for three weeks, then took their earnings and drove to New Y-» K to get on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scout program.
They were terrified. The situation wasn’t improved by the coldness with which Godfrey treated them. They came second, and a few shabby bookings in third-rate New York clubs followed. “Anyway, we were working and getting experience. We didn’t care and we could live on hamburgs,” explains Johnnie.
After a few weeks they returned home to Toronto. There was no work again. Don Hudson, a CBC television producer, auditioned them and turned them down as having “no talent.” “He was absolutely right,” the CrewCuts insist today. “We stunk. He would have been crazy to hire us.”
“We’re going to make it,” Rudi insisted throughout the bleak periods. He would point to the evidence that quartets were beginning to have a vogue and the group continued to practice every day. In March 1953 they got a booking in Toronto’s Casino Theatre on a bill that starred Gisele MacKenzie. Gisele, a Canadian employed chiefly by the television show Hit Parade in New York, went back to her record company, Capitol, full of enthusiasm about a new quartet. But she couldn’t remember their name and the Canadaires continued on the fringe of starvation.
Some of the night clubs in Toronto and Montreal where the Canadaires were booked that summer were filled with outspoken music critics. Dozens of times the Canadaires sang above shouts of “Shuddup” and “Sit down.” Once Rudi stepped to the microphone, put his hands on his hips and cursed the fattest oath in his vocabulary. The crowd looked at him with new respect and the boys resumed their program unmolested. That week a Toronto tabloid newspaper printed the simple line: “Why don’t the Canadaires learn to sing?”
At Christmas the Canadaires were back at the Toronto Casino, stealing the show from headliner Jimmie Boyd. Don Hudson, the television producer, refused to bother hearing the group again. A few days later the Canadaires had a three-day booking in Sudbury, where the temperature was forty below zero. Their Toronto agent Dave Bossin had also found them a guest spot on a television show in Cleveland. “You won’t make any money,” he told them, “but you might do yourselves some good.”
The boys decided to grab it, although it meant driving more than 600 miles without sleep in a 1939-model car with no heater. They finished a midnight show for some miners in a Sudbury theatre, put on their warmest clothes and drove for sixteen hours. They appeared on the Cleveland show for six minutes, sang Crazy Bout You Baby and earned twenty-five dollars apiece.
After the TV show they met with a booking agent named Fred Strauss, another man named Geno Carroll, who produced the show, and a disk jockey named Bill Randle, possibly the most influential disk jockey in the world. Strauss said lie would manage them. Then over coffee the older men studied the haggard faces of their new finds and decided to rename them the CrewCuts. Next morning Strauss took them to a barber for four haircuts. A few weeks latei Randle arranged for them to audition with Mercury Records in Chicago.
The freshly clipped Crew-Cuts borrowed Strauss’ car, drove to Chicago and sang Crazy Bout You Baby for Art Talmadge, vice-president of Mercury. He signed them on the spot because he was impressed with their stage mannerisms. “They moved well during the song,” he said later. “I knew they’d be great on public appearances.” The Crew-Cuts made their first record, Crazy Bout You Baby.
To ensure that disk jockeys would play the unknown tune by an unknown group, the boys then borrowed Strauss’ car again and drove to eleven American cities in fifteen days to introduce themselves and the record simultaneously to disk jockeys. On one hop they went without sleep for three days. Three months later, with a quarter-million copies of Crazy Bout You Baby sold, Talmadge called in the Crew-Cuts and showed them a song called Sh-Boom. “How do you like it?” he asked. They hated the song but they were in no position to argue with a vice-president.
The record Sh-Boom appeared early in June and in two weeks sold more records than its predecessor. Competing in r. market that produces fifty “name” records every week, Sh-Boom started off among the top ten records in the country and was still there four months later. For seven giddy weeks last summer it was the No. 1 record on the continent. Grateful Mercury purchased a two-page ad in Billboard proclaiming the Crew-Cuts, truthfully, as “The No. 1 Record Sellers in America.”
By autumn the record was starting to sell in England and was a best seller in South America, Hawaii and Japan. A Toledo high-school yell was changed from “Sssssss-Boom” to “ShshshshBoom.” A motorist driving from Syracuse to Buffalo, a distance of 160 miles, heard the song eleven times on his car radio. Dinah Shore opened her television season in October with a special new song, Somebody Goofed, which contained the words “We wanted to bring a ballad into your living room, but nowadays the rage is for ShBoom!”
Best of all, Capitol’s Stan Freeberg, an outstanding satirist whose most recent victim was Dragnet, produced
in October a parody of Sh-Boom. The Crew-Cuts purchased four copies of the record and played it every day for weeks, laughing helplessly.
“That’s the most important thing that ever happened to us,” Strauss commented when he heard it. “When the country laughs at you, you’re in good shape.”
Sh-Boom was the fuse that lit a rocket. The Crew-Cuts’ ascent into a higher income bracket can be described almost accurately as surpassing the speed of sound. One afternoon in July Strauss signed a contract with Eddie’s, a club in Kansas City, for $800 a week; two days later a week was worth $1,500 and two days after that Strauss signed a contract for two nights at $2,500.
The Crew-Cuts played four weeks at the Chicago Theatre in August for a total of $4,500. They were invited to return in November for one week at $4,500. The singers will go to Toronto’s Casino Theatre on New Year’s Eve and stay a week for $6,000, plus a percentage of the gross. Their last fee at the Casino was $350. In February the boys go to Las Vegas for four weeks for $20,000. After that Strauss won’t consider any booking under $5,000 a week.
Money for Socks and Suits
The soaring earnings of the CrewCuts are controlled by Crew-Cuts Incorporated, which pays the four singers and Strauss a salary of about $500 a week each. The surplus is used to buy orchestrations, annuities, uniforms and such ecjuipment as a station wagon labelled “Crew-Cuts, Mercury Records.” The Crew-Cuts distribute autographed pictures of themselves by the thousands, an expense almost equalled by the cost of running fan clubs with 10,000 teen-age members.
Out of their salaries the singers buy clothes—“every time I walk into a store to buy socks, I come out with a whole new outfit,” Pat Barrett once complained. They also send money home to their parents. Ray and Johnnie bought their parents a motorboat for an anniversary present. At present Strauss is looking for a charity for the Crew-Cuts to assist; he believes some national organization for the prevention of juvenile delinquency would be “a natural tie-in.”
In the eight months since he met the Crew-Cuts, Strauss, at twenty-nine, has (a) had his hair crew-cut, (b) rented a larger apartment and furnished it, (c) put on ten pounds and (d) ordered a red convertible. He has hired a secre-
tary, Rose Buckley, a striking twenty -year-old from Toronto who, ten days after she was hii'ed, had (a) had her hair cut short, (b) had it dyed black, (c) purchased new and startling glasses and (d) changed her name to Robbie Buckley.
From the beginning of their success Strauss continued many of the CrewCuts’ pauper habits. He booked them into hotels in adjoining double rooms, rather than suites, and ate with them in coffee shops rather than in more expensive dining rooms. He feels costly habits learned early in life might later be a hazard. “They drive a Ford station wagon,” he adds, “not a Cadillac.”
Strauss has developed other bits of philosophy for his charges. To appeal to the powerful buying public of teenagers, he has selected red as the color of the station wagon and is delighted when the singers off stage wear such ensembles as a grey suit with a pink shirt, l'ed plaid vest and red-and-whitestriped tie. “Looks young,” he nods approvingly.
To win the less fickle adult audience who could keep the Crew-Cuts wealthy with supper-club dates for years after their last hit recoi-d, Strauss has the singers wear conservative tuxedos on stage, prefers that they sing sentimental ballads and insists on decorum. He permits no dates with the teen-age girls who hang around stage doors and hotel lobbies.
The Crew-Cuts still lack some aspects of social finesse—they once made a public appearance while chewing on toothpicks—but they have a high and mature gloss on their publicrelations. No matter how weary and hungry they might be, the Crew-Cuts never treat casually (a) disk jockeys,
(b) people in the record business and
Recently they spent two weeks in Milwaukee, singing in a night club called Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club. During the daylight hours between their noon breakfast and their first supper show, they were interviewed by disk jockeys and on television, turned up for an autograph session in a department store, rode in a seven-mile high-school homecoming football parade, plugged their new album with employees of record stores and, once, flew to Detroit for a twenty-minute spot at an automobile show for which they received $1,000. They also found time to buy more new clothes, listen to their own and their competitors’ records and rehearse an eight-minute medley of songs from their album.
The two-week booking in Milwaukee started off in a typical way. Fred Strauss and Robbie Buckley met the boys at the hotel entrance when they arrived in the dust-covered station wagon from Kansas City, 575 miles away. Rudi, Johnnie, Pat and Ray were wearing new jeans and windbreakers but looked somewhat rumpled. They usually sleep in shifts on the road, curled around the luggage— seven suitcases, two wardrobe trunks, a tape recorder, two brief cases, three garment bags, a record player, a record carrying case, a spare microphone and assorted smaller pieces. Under the seats are pictures and records; windbreakers and baseball gloves are stuffed around the spare tire in case they have time to exercise.
They tumbled wearily out of the station wagon, uncoiling their skinny limbs from the luggage. “We left at three this morning,” mumbled Ray Perkins, rubbing the beard on his chin. “They gave us all gold tie clips with a diamond on them. We got one for you too, Fred.”
“Great,” said Strauss happily. “I hear you broke an eight-year record at Eddie’s.”
“That’s right,” agreed Johnnie. “That’s what Eddie said. What we can’t figure out is that the place is only six years old.”
“I’ve got news for you,” said Strauss in a lowered voice. “Mercury is getting ready to give you a gold record. Sh-Boom is almost up to a million. Next week maybe, or the week after.”
“Whaaaaaaa!” exclaimed Johnnie.
The following afternoon the boys dropped into the Mercury distributing office to pick up the first copy of CrewCuts on the Campus, which they had promised a Milwaukee disk jockey for its world premiere. While they were waiting in the station wagon, a record salesman leaned against the window and said fervently, “You’re a real crazy outfit, boys. I’ve enjoyed selling you.”
At the radio station a few minutes later the disk jockey announced “I think without a doubt this will be the greatest album Mercury has ever had.” The Milwaukee distributor, Johnny O’Brien, closed his eyes ecstatically. “He’s crazy about it,” he sighed. “When he gets through playing the eight songs, he’s gonna play the label.”
The jockey interviewed the singers. “A few months ago you guys were Pat, Johnnie, Ray and Rudi,” he said. “Who are you now that you’re the biggest success in the country?”
“Pat, Johnnie, Ray and Rudi,” said Johnnie promptly.
During the frenzied drive after the interview, while Johnnie hustled the traffic lights to get to Fazio’s in time for the first show, the Crew-Cuts discussed Beethoven.
“He was a real square,” observed Ray, staring out the window at the rain.
“None of his stuff went in the juke boxes,” added Pat.
“The kids didn’t dig him at all,” agreed Johnnie.
“The trouble was,” explained Rudi reasonably, “he didn’t have any promotion. The jockeys didn’t plug him.”
“I’m wit choo, kid,” murmured Robbie Buckley sleepily.
“During the last show tonight I’m gonna use our joke about the food in this restaurant being untouched by the human hand,” Rudi said.
“What’s that?” asked Strauss in alarm.
“The cook is a gorilla,” explained Johnnie.
Strauss relaxed. “This outfit will go on forever,” he said contentedly. “When we all get older we’ll just change the name. We’ll call ourselves the Skin-Heads.” ★