The Five Keys Biography

This US R&B vocal group helped shape the rhythm and blues revolution of the early 50s. The ensemble was formed as the Sentimental Four in Newport News, Virginia, USA, in 1945, and originally comprised two sets of brothers - Rudy West (25 July 1932, Newport News, Virginia, USA, d. 14 May 1998, USA; first tenor) and Bernie West (b. 4 February 1930, Newport News, Virginia, USA; bass), and Ripley Ingram (b. 1929, d. 23 March 1995, Newport News, Virginia, USA; octave tenor) and Raphael Ingram (second tenor). After Raphael Ingram left and Edwin Hall (baritone) and James ‘Dickie’ Smith (b. 1933, USA; second tenor) became members in 1949, the name of the group was changed to Five Keys. At the start of the following year the newly married Hall departed and was replaced by Maryland Pierce, and guitarist Joe Jones was also added to the touring line-up.

With Pierce, Smith and Rudy West sharing lead, and Ripley Ingram providing the then unique ‘floating tenor’ element, the Five Keys joined Los Angeles-based Aladdin Records in 1951. With pianist Joe Jones (no relation to the previous guitarist) now providing accompaniment, the group enjoyed a hit the same year with a remake of the old standard ‘The Glory Of Love’, which became a US R&B number 1. Despite recording an appealing combination of old standards and R&B originals, further chart success on Aladdin eluded the Five Keys.

In 1952 Rudy West went into the army, and was replaced by Ulysses K. Hicks, and in 1954 Dickie Smith left and was replaced by Ramon Loper. This new line-up of Five Keys was signed to Capitol Records, which brought the group to stardom, albeit with some modification in their style from a deep rhythm and blues sound to a more pop vein with greater instrumentation in support. The group’s first hit for Capitol was the novelty pop jump ‘Ling, Ting, Tong’ (US R&B number 5 and pop Top 30 in 1955). Following the first Capitol recording session, Rudy West rejoined the Five Keys in October 1954, working alongside the ailing Hicks, who died of a heart attack a few months later. Further hits on Capitol included some spectacular R&B ballads: the Chuck Willis -composed ‘Close Your Eyes’ (R&B number 5, 1955), ‘The Verdict’ (R&B number 13, 1955) and ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’ (R&B number 12 and pop Top 30 in 1956). The Capitol material also featured old standards, such as a marvellous remake of the Ink Spots’ ‘The Gypsy’ (1957).

Rudy West and Ramon Loper retired in 1958 and were replaced by Thomas ‘Dickie’ Threatt (b. 7 February 1938, USA, d. 9 October 2007, Norfolk, Virginia, USA; tenor) and Charles ‘Bobby’ Crawley (second tenor). An unsuccessful period at King Records from 1958-61 produced more personnel changes and no hits, and few songs that could compete with the new rock ‘n’ roll sounds. Periodic sessions were recorded by various reunion groups in subsequent years, but the basic legacy of the Five Keys rests in their Aladdin, Capitol and King sessions.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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