The Moonglows may not have invented rock ’n’ roll, but they played an instrumental role in its early development. Working closely with legendary Cleveland, Ohio, disc jockey Alan Freed, one of the early promoters of rock ’n’ roll, they had several rhythm and blues hits in the 1950s before reaching the pop charts regularly later in the decade. Known for their four-part doo-wop harmonies, group members also wrote their own songs. By the end of the 1950s, the original lineup had disbanded, and although several reunions throughout the years featured one or two original members, the Moonglows’ popularity was behind them. Still, they had left their mark on the history of American popular music, a fact recognized by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
The original Moonglows consisted of lead singer Bobby Lester, vocalists Harvey Fuqua, Prentiss Barnes, and Alexander Graves, and Billy Johnson on guitar. Lester and Fuqua had grown up together in Louisville, Kentucky, before going their separate ways upon joining the military. Stories vary about how they came together to form the Moonglows. The group formed in 1951, by which time Lester had already begun to make a name for himself as a rhythm and blues vocalist. One version of the group’s origin has
Members include Prentiss Barnes, vocals; Harvey Fuqua (born on July 17, 1924, in Louisville, KY), vocals; Alexander Graves, vocals; Billy Johnson, guitar; Bobby Lester (born in Louisville, KY), vocals.
Group formed in Cleveland, OH, as the Crazy Sounds, 1951; signed with disc jockey Alan Freed and became the Moonglows, 1952; began recording for Chance Records, 1953; moved to Chess Records and had first big pop hit, “Most of All,” 1954; recorded as Bobby Lester and the Moonglows, 1957; recorded the hit “Ten Commandments of Love” as Harvey and the Moonglows, 1958.
Awards: Pioneer Award, Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 1985; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2000.
him looking to form a quartet and inviting his childhood friend Fuqua to join him. Although Fuqua had not performed professionally, he had plenty of experience singing in choirs. Another version has it that Fuqua had started a jazz vocal trio in Cleveland and invited Lester to join him. But as Fuqua remembered it in an interview with John Soeder in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, no one person really started the group: “We wouldn’t have gotten together if I hadn’t relocated to Cleveland…. We started singing around town and then we picked up a couple of other guys.”
Whoever may have started the group, there is no dispute that they found good fortune by forming in Cleveland. Originally called the Crazy Sounds, the group’s name changed when they came to the attention of Freed, who dubbed them the Moonglows, perhaps in reference to his own radio show, The Moondog Rock ’n’ Roll Party. He became their manager and producer, and he also shared songwriting credits with Fuqua and Lester, although he probably had little input in that part of the process. Freed did back the group wholeheartedly, though, signing them to his own record label, Champagne. They recorded their first single on that label. “I Just Can’t Tell No Lie” became a regional hit, but before it could be more widely distributed, Champagne went out of business.
Undaunted, the Moonglows moved to Chance Records, where they recorded singles that gave them a national presence on the rhythm and blues charts. Their output showed their ability to tackle a wide variety of styles, recording the ballad “Baby Please,” a cover of Doris Day’s hit “Secret Love,” and the rocker “Ooh Rockin’ Daddy.” But in the middle of 1954, Chance Records went out of business, too. Instead of a setback, this proved to be an excellent opportunity for the Moonglows, who moved on to the Chess label, the Chicago-based powerhouse of rhythm and blues recording.
It was at Chess that the Moonglows had their biggest success. Here they took their sound to the growing rock ’n’ roll audience. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times described their appeal as blending “elements of pop/R&B tradition with a sense of the raw, teen-directed urgency that characterized ’50s rock.” Their first Chess single, “Sincerely,” captured a sense of teen desperation. While Paul Simon would later call the song “perfect” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, for the Moonglows it was a hit only on the rhythm and blue charts, As with many songs originated by black rock ’n’ roll artists at the time, the big hit version of “Sincerely” was recorded by a white group, the McGuire Sisters.
Their next single, “Most of All,” brought them to the white rock ’n’ roll audience in their own right. This hit and their relationship with Freed led the group to even more exposure. The disc jockey had branched out into movie production, and the Moonglows appeared in his films Rock Rock Rock in 1956 and Mister Rock ’n’ Roll in 1957. Meanwhile, the hits continued to come. The year 1956 saw the release of “We Go Together” and “Over and Over Again.” In spite of the success, some internal dissension began to surface. Lester’s role as lead singer translated into his receiving top billing and resulted in a name change for the group to Bobby Lester and the Moonglows on their 1957 hits “Don’t Say Goodbye” and “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”
By 1958 Lester had left, but Fuqua stayed and took over top billing. The group released one of their most enduring songs that year, “The Ten Commandments of Love,” as Harvey and the Moonglows. Fuqua was the only original member to appear on the single. Joining him were Reese Palmner, James Knowland, Chester Simmons, and a young Marvin Gaye, who would later become one of the leading figures in soul music. This song marked the end of the Moonglows’ run as hit makers and popularizers of rock ’n’ roll. It also essentially ended the group, as Fuqua followed Lester’s lead and struck out on his own.
While both Fuqua and Lester spent their first years after the Moonglows performing as solo acts, both moved into production during the early 1960s. Fuqua found notable success in this field, founding two labels of his own. He also produced several records for the predominant soul label Motown, working with the company’s founder and owner (and his brother-in-law) Barry Gordy. While these two group leaders went their separate ways, Graves attempted to revive the Moon-glows. As the only original member in the group, he and his three new partners started recording and performing in 1964. While they lasted for awhile, this incarnation had none of the success of the original group.
The revival that came closest to reuniting the original Moonglows came in 1972, when Fuqua and Lester rejoined Graves to record The Return of the Moon-glows. Aside from a minor hit with a funky remake of “Sincerely,” the album had little impact and turned out to be a one-time reunion. The legacy of the Moon-glows’ pioneering rock ’n’ roll would not be forgotten, however, and in 2000 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By this time Lester and Johnson had passed away, leaving only Fuqua, Graves, and Barnes to accept the honor. The group had been eligible for induction for several years, leading to Fuqua’s comment, reported in Jet magazine, “I want to know why it took so long.” Even though the honor may have been delayed, it gave an official acknowledgment to the Moonglows’ status as pioneers who played a key role in the creation of rock ’n’ roll.
“I Just Can’t Tell No Lie,” Champagne, 1952.
“Baby Please,” Chance, 1953.
“Secret Love,” Chance, 1953.
“Ooh Rockin’ Daddy,” Chance, 1953.
“Sincerely,” Chess, 1954.
“Most of All,” Chess, 1954.
“Ten Commandments of Love,” Chess, 1958.
Look, It’s the Moonglows, Chess, 1959; reissued, MCA, 1990.
The Moonglows, Chess, 1964.
The Return of the Moonglows, RCA, 1972.
Sincerely, Huub, 1991.
Blue Velvet—The Ultimate Collection, Chess, 1993.
Moonglows Acapella, Starr Digital, 1996.
Their Greatest Hits, Chess/MCA, 1997.
Graff, Gary, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin, Music-Hound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Jet, March 27, 200, p. 32.
Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2000.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), March 6, 2000.
“The Moonglows,” All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com (May 9, 2001).
“The Moonglows Biography,” Rolling Stone, http://rollingstone.com (May 9, 2001).