The Platters: Bringing Pop Vocal to Rock

The story of the pop vocal group that dominated doo-wop

The Platters' classic lineup
The Platters' classic lineup. Getty Images

Who were the Platters?

They weren't technically doo-woppers, but the sheer elegance and class of the Platters, along with shrewd marketing and some perfectly crafted songs by manager Buck Ram, made them the default pop vocal favorites of the rock n' roll era, the epitome of "make-out" music for teens too young for, say, Johnny Mathis or Frank Sinatra

The Platters' best known songs:

  • "The Great Pretender"
  • "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
  • "Twilight Time"
  • "Only You (And You Alone)"
  • "Enchanted" 
  • "My Prayer"
  • "(You've Got) The Magic Touch"
  • "Harbor Lights"
  • "You'll Never Never Know"
  • "With This Ring"

Where you might have heard them The Platters' music doesn't fit every occasion, so their particular heavenly blend of lush romanticism and yearning isn't used all that often in other media. But when it is, it's usually something very special, usually some sort of emotional watershed moment -- a computer virus exhibiting a learned sense of dark humor in an episode of "The X Files" ("Twilight Time"), Andre's suicide attempt in "Empire" ("The Great Pretender"), or Jesse's first taste of heroin on "Breaking Bad" ("Enchanted"). 

Formed 1953 (Los Angeles, CA)

Styles Pop Vocal, Doo-Wop, R&B, Soul

Platters members in the classic lineup:

Tony Williams (born Samuel Anthony Williams, April 5, 1928, Elizabeth, N.J.; died August 14, 1992, New York, NY [Manhattan]): tenor (1953-1961)
Herb Reed (born August 7, 1931, Kansas City, MO; died June 4, 2012, Boston, MA): bass (1953-present)
Zola Taylor (born 1934, Los Angeles, CA; died April 30, 2007.

Riverside, CA): contralto (1955-1962)
Paul Robi (born August 30, 1931, New Orleans, LA; died February 1, 1989, Los Angeles, CA): baritone (1955-1962)
David Lynch (born July 3, 1929, St. Louis, MO; died January 2, 1981, Long Beach, CA): tenor (1953-1981)

Claims to fame:

  • The biggest-selling vocal group of their era
  • Considered the ultimate in Fifties "make-out music"
  • Helped bring pop vocal into the rock and roll era
  • Lead singer Tony Williams is one of pop's all-time great tenors
  • First African-American group to hit Number One in the rock era
  • Were the first black group to beat out a white group's rendition of their song on the pop charts
  • Considered the classiest of pop acts, then and now

History of the Platters

Early years

The story of the Platters is that of three men: Buck Ram, Tony Williams, and Herb Reed. Reed started the group in 1953 as a fairly typical doo-wop unit, but it was manager/songwriter/arranger Samuel "Buck" Ram who made them the Platters we know today, replacing all but Reed, introducing Williams as the group's lead, adding a female (unusual for the time) in Zola Taylor, and forcing Mercury to take them on as a package deal with his other group, The Penguins, who'd just scored with "Earth Angel."

Success

Ram had already tasted success as a songwriter, and his songs -- "Only You," "The Great Pretender," "Twilight Time," were all huge smashes, as were the group's renditions of old standards like "Harbor Lights," "My Prayer," and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." The combination of the new Platters' smooth sound, impeccable taste, beautiful harmonies, and Williams' bel canto tenor was irresistible.

Unfortunately, Williams left for a solo career in 1961, effectively ending the group's classic era.

Later years

Although the group soldiered on through the Sixties, releasing unused cuts featuring Williams singing lead and even scoring a minor soul hit in 1967 with the beach music standard "With This Ring," the ever-changing lineup was essentially reduced to a traveling oldies act by the turn of the decade. Indeed, legal wrangling led to over 125 different "Platters" lineups touring the country, a practice that continues even today. No touring version of the Platters contains original members; Gaynel Hodge, who left the group in 1954, is the only original member still living.

More about the Platters

Other Platters fun facts and trivia:

  • Other members include: Cornell Gunter, Alex Hodge, Joe Jefferson, Sonny Turner, Nate Nelson, Monroe Powell
  • Gunter, an original member, went on to success with the Coasters
  • The four male members were all charged with having sex with a minor in 1959; all were acquitted
  • Zola Taylor is one of Frankie Lymon's three wives, and became his lover when he was only 13
  • Buck Ram, a popular arranger for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the Dorsey Brothers, also wrote the standard "I'll Be Home for Christmas"

Platters awards and honors Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1990), Vocal Group Hall of Fame (1998), Grammy Hall of Fame (1999, 2002)

Platters songs, hits, and albums

#1 hits
Pop "My Prayer" (1956),"The Great Pretender" (1956), "Twilight Time" (1958), "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (1959)

R&B "Only You (And You Alone)" (1955), "My Prayer" (1956), "The Great Pretender" (1956), "Twilight Time" (1958)

Top 10 hits
Pop "Only You (And You Alone)" (1955), "(You've Got) The Magic Touch" (1956), "Harbor Lights" (1960)

R&B "(You've Got) The Magic Touch" (1956), "You'll Never Never Know" (1956), "My Dream" (1957), "On My Word of Honor" (1957), "He's Mine" (1957), "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (1958), "Enchanted" (1959), "I Love You 1000 Times" (1966)

Top 10 albums
Pop The Platters (1956), Encore of Golden Hits (1960)

Notable covers The Platters were the soundtrack of tween innocence for many a budding rock star, which is why Queen's Freddie Mercury released his take on "The Great Pretender" as a single in 1987 and why Ringo Starr took a John Lennon-arranged take on "Only You" back to the Top 10 in 1975. Gene Pitney made an entire album of Platters covers in 1970 called, appropriately enough, This is Gene Pitney Singing The Platters' Golden Platters

Movies and TV Personable and professional, the Platters were a personal concern of vastly influential DJ Alan Freed, and so appeared in several early rock films, including Freed's own Rock Around the Clock (1956) as well as the classic rock n' roll comedy The Girl Can't Help It (1956), Carnival Rock (1957), Rock All Night (1957), the Italian travelogue Europe by Night (1959), and the hilariously bad 1959 Mel Torme / Paul Anka / Mamie Van Doren flick Girls Town (spoofed by "Mystery Science Theater 3000" on an episode, though they praised the Platters' performance)