The Leaders

A product of Newport News, Virginia's thriving postwar R&B scene, the Leaders formed in 1952. According to Marv Goldberg's profile in the April 1996 issue of Discoveries, tenors/siblings Harry and James Burton, second tenor Edward "Snipper" Alston, baritone Buster Moore, and bass Charles Simpson met while in high school and originally performed as the Pokenoes, borrowing the name from a card game. By 1953 the group billed itself as the Five Swans, a nod to local heroes the Five Keys. That same year, baritone Ronald Judge replaced Moore, and when James Burton was called for military duty, Simpson's cousin Nelson Shields assumed his tenor responsibilities. In late 1954 the Five Swans won a local talent contest, collecting a slot on an upcoming amateur showcase at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater; the group went on to take top honors for four weeks running, driving back and forth between New York and Virginia between each appearance. Finally the Apollo brass awarded the Five Swans a one-week engagement, during which time they auditioned for the Glory Records imprint. Owner Phil Rose agreed to sign the group on the condition that they change their name to avoid confusion with other acts touring under the Swans aegis. Their 1955 debut single, "Stormy Weather" -- a bluesy rendition of the pop classic with some delightfully odd new lyrics -- was thus credited to the Leaders; though a hit in the Los Angeles and Boston markets, the group's high school commitments conspired to keep them off the touring circuit. A second Glory session followed by year's end, with "Nobody Loves Me" hitting radio and retail in January 1956. A reading of the Rodgers & Hammerstein composition "Can't Help Lovin' That Girl of Mine" appeared in the spring, bringing to a close the Leaders' relationship with the label. The group split soon after, with Burton, Alston, and Simpson continuing on as the Three Voices while Judge and Shields relocated to New York City, forming the Corvairs with tenors Joe Shepard and Prince McKnight along with bass Billy Faison. In 1962 the Corvairs signed to the Comet label to release their Dave "Baby" Cortez-produced debut single, "Hey, Sally Mae"; the record quickly disappeared, and a year later the group resurfaced on Leopard with "No Tears Left for Crying," mistakenly credited to the Westsiders. When the single was subsequently licensed to United Artists, the label further muddied the waters by calling the group the West Siders, and for reasons no less mysterious, their next Leopard release, "I Don't Wanna Be Without You Baby," restored the Corvairs moniker. Faison exited the lineup in 1965, with bass Edgar Brown appearing on the Corvairs' next effort, the 1966 Columbia release "Swinging Little Government." When the follow-up, "Ain't No Soul (In These Old Shoes)," flopped, the group split. In November 1995, the surviving Leaders -- Burton, Alston, Simpson, and Shields -- played their first reunion gig in well over a quarter century. ~ Jason Ankeny

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