The Ink Spots
The Ink Spots
A number of black male quartets have billed themselves as the Ink Spots, cashing in on the tremendous success of the original singing group which performed during the 1930s and ’40s. Famous for their song “If I Didn’t Care,” with its smooth tenor lead and spoken refrain, they were the best known act of their kind and served as a huge influence on later rhythm and blues groups. The Ink Spots were also one of the first black acts to become a hit with white audiences. The Ink Spots made numerous recordings, had regular radio shows, and performed with the biggest musical stars of their time, including Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. While they were at their peak of popularity, the group appeared in two Hollywood movies.
After the quartet split up, however, their reputation became blurred by the splinter groups that were created. And so the Ink Spots have lost some of the recognition they deserve, according to David Hinckley of the Daily News; he reflected in 1995 that “the Ink Spots are too often relegated to the wallpaper of pop music history as if they were one more group that was
Members include Jerry Daniels (died November 7, 1995, in Indianapolis, IN), tenor and guitarist; Charlie Fuqua (born 1911, died 1971), tenor and guitarist; Orville Jones (born February 17, 1905, in Chicago, IL; died October 18, 1944, in Chicago, IL), bass singer and cellist; Bill Kenny (born in 1915, in Philadelphia; died of respiratory illness in March 23, 1978, in Vancouver, British Columbia), tenor; Herb Kenny (born in 1915, in Philadelphia, PA, died of cancer on July 11, 1992, in Columbia, MD), bass; Ivory Watson (born 1909, died 1969), baritone and songwriter.
Daniels, Jones, and Watson formed trio King, Jack and the Jester in the early 1930s; with the addition of Fuqua and an “s” on “Jester,” became a quartet; struggled to establish the singing group in New York City; changed name to the Ink Spots before touring with Jack Hylton in England; signed recording contract with RCA Victor, 1935; debut record Swing High, Swing Low, ASV/Living Era, 1936; Daniels became ill and was replaced by Bill Kenny in 1939; Jones died in 1944, and was replaced by Herb Kenny; founding members dissolved group in 1951, but proceeded to form own groups under the same name.
bright and new for a while, then got covered over by something brighter and newer.” Original members of the Ink Spots struggled for many years to distinguish themselves from copycat acts and to perpetuate the reputation of the group, but were often fighting amongst themselves. Now that all of these men have passed away, several “Ink Spots” groups continue to perform, and if they do not have an authentic pedigree, they do serve to keep the many songs popularized by the Ink Spots in the public’s ear.
The group’s founding members were all from Indianapolis. They were Jerry Daniels, who played guitar and sang lead tenor; Orville “Hoppy” Jones, who sang bass and played the cello; Ivory “Deek” Watson, a baritone and songwriter; and Charlie Fuqua, the second tenor and guitarist. The Ink Spots are sometimes described as having evolved out of the Percolating Puppies, a group that Deek Watson performed with on street corners in Indianapolis. Watson was on the road when he met up with Fuqua and Daniels, whom he knew from Indianapolis. This meeting resulted in the formation of a trio that went by the name King, Jack and the Jester; the addition of Jones and an “s” to the name made a quartet.
This foursome moved to New York with hopes of making it big, but struggled to make a living. For a time, all worked as ushers at the Paramount Theater. Subsequently, the quartet billed themselves as the Riff Brothers until one day in 1932 when, according to Deek Watson in his book The Story of the ‘Ink Spots, ’ the group happened upon the idea of the “Ink Spots.” Watson told of how he was inspired by a splash of ink from a fountain pen and how he had to overcome the protests of his fellow members. He remembered Jones as saying that he was “always wanting us to be something colored. ’Black Dots, ’ ‘Ink Spots’—next thing you know he’ll be wanting to call us the ’Old Black Joe’s’.” But the members agreed to try the new name, and its adoption coincided with better fortunes for the struggling quartet.
During the 1930s, the Ink Spots specialized in singing up tempo jazz or jive music. Early in the decade they traveled to England under contract with promoter and bandleader Jack Hylton, and in 1935 the group signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. The Ink Spots had made about a dozen records by 1939, when Daniels left the group. He was ill and could not keep up with the hectic pace of traveling and performing. Tenor Bill Kenny was then hired to take his place. This transition resulted in a major stylistic change for the group, as they turned to the slower tempo heard in their first big hit, “If I Didn’t Care.” The song featured a solo guitar introduction, Kenny’s fluid tenor lead, and a talking refrain. This became the group’s signature sound, although they did have several up tempo hits. At about this time, the quartet signed a five-year recording contract with Decca Records and soon had additional hit songs with “Address Unknown” (1939) and “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)” (1940).
The Ink Spots were highly successful in the 1940s, when they worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, and Dinah Washington. The group appeared in the films The Great American Broadcast of 1941 and Pardon My Sarong (1942). The men were cast as Pullman porters in the first film, in which they performed “Swing, Gates, Swing,” “If I Didn’t Care,” “Java Jive,” and “Maybe.” Watson recalled the experiences of making these film with great enthusiasm in his book. He said of Pardon My Sarong, “We really had a ball. Abbot and Costello were fine people to work with.” In this film, the group repeated “Java Jive” and performed “Do I Worry?” and “I’ve Got a Bone to Pick with You.” By this time, the United States had entered World War II and the quartet was also traveling around the country preforming at army camps. Fuqua was soon enlisted in the army and Bernie MacKay filled in for the tenor until he was discharged.
The next permanent change in the Ink Spots lineup came when Hoppy Jones, who suffered from epileptic seizures, died of a brain hemorrhage in 1944. He was replaced by Herb Kenny, Bill’s twin brother. This version of the group stayed together until 1951. Watson credited the breakup of the Ink Spots to the meddling of booking agents and managers and said in his book, “They got us so confused, and caused so much conflict among us, that at last even we realized that we could no longer make it as a group…. Many people actually cried when they heard the news that we had split up. I know it was one of the saddest days in my life, and I believe it was in Charlie’s and Kenny’s too.” The multiplicity of Ink Spots groups began when both Bill Kenny and Charlie Fuqua led quartets using the name. Deek Watson—who had worked in Fuqua’s split—had a further spin off and would be forced to use the name The Brown Dots. Soon the argument over use of the Ink Spots name would be in the courts, as others—including members of these splinter groups—began performing under the name. Such litigation went on for many years.
Most of the former Ink Spots tried to continue working in the music industry, although they did so with mixed success. The exception was Jerry Daniels, who—having left the group before its first big hit—became a state excise officer; he died at age 79 in Indianapolis. Deek Watson, who had performed with groups in Las Vegas and toured Australia, had hopes of reuniting the remaining original members of the Ink Spots when he published The Story of the Ink Spots in 1967. However, he died in 1969 without having realized this dream.
The Kenny brothers each worked at solo careers. Herb had a hit with “It Is No Secret” in 1951 and he continued to perform until 1957, when he became a disc jockey in Washington. At one time, he was program director for WJMD. In the mid-1960s, he returned to his singing career, but he also worked as a car salesman in Washington. Herb retired to Columbia, Maryland and made his last public performance in April 1992, when he sang at a ceremony inducting him into the Hall of Fame of the United in Group Harmony Association. He died at home just a few months later, on July 11, of cancer.
Herb’s fraternal twin Bill moved to Toronto to begin a solo career and later relocated to Calgary, Alberta where he recorded three albums. Bill would tour with the Harlem Globetrotters as a half-time entertainer and he worked as a solo performer into the late 1960s. His career and indeed his life seemed over, when in 1969 he was almost killed; he lit a cigar in an underground garage where there were gas fumes coming from his car’s overfilled gas tank. He returned to performing, but in 1971 was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease that weakens the muscles. When Kenny surprised his doctors by recovering from the effects of the disease, he hoped to again pick up his music career, but audiences were now caught up with Ink Spot copycats. Bill Kenny died in March 1978 in Vancouver of a respiratory illness.
Sadly, the individual members of the Ink Spots never regained their place in the spotlight. However, the music they performed has had a lasting impact on contemporary music. During the early 1950s, rhythm and blues artists such as the Drifters, Coasters, Penguins, Temptations, and Platters all were indebted to the Ink Spots for their style of performance. Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” also copied techniques perfected by the Ink Spots. The group’s recordings continue to be reissued and the original members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1992, on the occasion of the death of Herb Kenny, former Baltimore radio program director Steve Cochran concluded that “The Ink Spots were an important chapter in modern American music… They defined what a vocal group could be, substituting beautiful voices for instruments.”
Swing High Swing Low, ASV/Living Era, 1936.
The Ink Spots, Vol. 1, Decca, 1950.
The Ink Spots, Vol. 2, Decca, 1950.
Time Out for Tears, Decca, 1956.
Ink Spots, K-Tel, 1956.
Something Old, Something New, King, 1958.
Torch Time, Decca, 1958.
Songs That Will Live Forever, King, 1959.
Sincerely Yours, Vocalion, 1964.
Lost In a Dream, Vocalion, 1965.
The Best of the Ink Spots, MCA, 1980.
Just Like Old Times, Open Sky, 1985.
Whispering Grass, Pearl Flapper, 1992.
Watson, Deek, with Lee Stephenson, The Story of the “Ink Spots,” Vantage, 1967.
Calgary Herald, May 4, 1996, p. B7.
Daily News, (New York) December 28, 1995, p. 56.
Newsday, July 15, 1992, p. 107.
New York Times, July 15, 1992, p. 19; November 11, 1995.
Times, August 13, 1992.
Washington Post, July 14, 1992, p. B5.
www.allmusic.com, All-Music Guide, 1998.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
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