Singer Herb Reed, the last surviving member of early R&B and rock ‘n’ roll stalwarts the Platters, died in Boston on Monday after a period of failing health. He was 83.
The only band member to feature on all of the Platters’ official recordings, Reed supplied bass vocal parts for a number of the group’s most enduring hits, including “Only You (And You Alone),” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “The Great Pretender.” As the last surviving member of both the group’s original lineup and its classic Tony Williams-led incarnation, Reed fought a lengthy legal battle to retain superior rights to the group name, which were finally granted to him in 2011. He had been regularly touring with a combo dubbed Herb Reed’s Platters until very recently.
Born in Kansas City, Reed endured a childhood of stark poverty and struck out for Los Angeles as a nearly penniless 15-year-old. Singing recreationally while working at an L.A. car wash, Reed and friends Cornell Gunter, Alex Hodge, David Lynch and Joe Jefferson formed an amateur vocal group in 1953, which Reed dubbed the Platters. The group was soon signed to Federal Records after storied talent scout Ralph Bass caught them — with Reed singing lead — at a talent show.
After an inauspicious start with the label, the group began to evolve into a commercial force with the addition of lead vocalist Williams (in place of Gunter) and association with songwriter-producer Buck Ram. (Other additions to its best-known lineup were Paul Robi and Zola Taylor.) Ram’s songwriting contributions, as well as his business acumen in getting the group signed to Mercury Records, helped launch the Platters as a significant crossover act into the white market.
In summer of 1955, a Mercury-released re-recording of the Ram-penned “Only You (And You Alone)” became the group’s first R&B chart-topper; follow-up “The Great Pretender” topped the pop chart that same fall. Three more singles hit No. 1 on the pop chart over the next three years — “My Prayer” (1956), “Twilight Time” (1958) and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1958) — and the group appeared in the seminal 1956 film “Rock Around the Clock.”
After a tabloid scandal in 1959, the group effectively ceased to be a major recording act and began splintering into a number of competing groups, with variations of the Platters name, on the touring circuit. Reed initially sang with Buck Ram’s Platters, which recorded several modest comeback singles in the late ’60s.
By the 1980s, the splintering had reached such a point that numerous groups containing no members of the 1950s-era lineup of the group could be found touring as the Platters. Following decades of legal wrangling, Reed finally regained control of the group’s name last year, though he had been performing in various versions of the group consistently since its founding.
“It’s not right to have someone steal your name,” Reed noted after the decision. “It’s just not right. We were cheated back then, but that’s how things were done then. It’s doubly wrong to face it again today.”
As a member of the Platters, Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Vocal Hall of Fame in 1998. He is survived by a son, Herb Jr., and three grandchildren.