Herb Reed, founder of the Platters, dies at 83

Los Angeles Times

Herb Reed was in his 20s when he founded the Platters in Los Angeles in 1953, naming his vocal group after the term used by radio DJs for the vinyl records of the day.

Well into the digital download era — and into his 80s — Reed was still touring and singing bass on “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “Twilight Time” and the other hits that made the Platters one of the top R(ampersand)B groups of the 1950s.

“Every audience is different,” he told the Lowell Sun newspaper in Massachusetts in 2004. “No matter where you get on stage, it’s like starting over. They haven’t seen you before.”

Reed, the last surviving member of the five original members of the Platters when they signed with Mercury Records in the 1950s, died Monday in a hospice house in Danvers, Mass., said Fred Balboni, his personal manager. He was 83.

Reed, who had battled chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years, did not stop touring until last June and even then he did some isolated dates, including his last one five months ago at a restaurant in Saugus, Mass.

“He loved being around people, and he loved the excitation of being on stage,” Balboni said.

Reed was the only member of the Platters to record on all of their nearly 400 recordings.

The Platters, whose No. 1 hits included “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and whose popularity crossed racial lines, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

“Vocal groups were a critical element in the musical foundation of rock and roll,” Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, said Tuesday.

“The Platters were arguably the most significant vocal group of those early decades,” Stewart said. “Founding member Herb Reed’s inimitable bass vocals were an instrumental part in shaping the instantly recognizable harmonies of the quintet’s litany of memorable tracks.”

Reed considered doo-wop the most popular music in America and the most accessible because “everybody can sing a little doo-wop,” he said in the Lowell Sun interview. “You can’t have fun with today’s music. Today’s music, hip-hop and rap, you can’t keep time with it. I don’t understand it at all.”

Reed was born into a poor family in segregated Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 7, 1928. His parents died before he reached his teens. He then lived with relatives and began singing with friends and in a church choir.

When he was 15, Reed accepted a friend’s offer to ride with her to Los Angeles, where he landed a job in a carwash.

In 1952, he began singing with fellow harmonizing street singers Joe Jefferson, Cornell Gunther and Alex Hodge. A year later, with Reed singing lead, they began performing and winning amateur contests around Los Angeles. The same year, the newly named Platters signed with the small Federal Records label but had no success.

That changed after meeting songwriter Buck Ram, who became their manager in 1954 and wrote or co-wrote many of the Platters’ biggest hits.

The group also underwent personnel changes: David Lynch replaced Jefferson and Tony Williams replaced Gunther and became lead singer. Then Paul Robi replaced Hodge and female singer Zola Taylor was added.

The Platters signed their first contact with Mercury Records in 1955 and scored their first hit with a song that they had first recorded for Federal: “Only You.”

“Back then they categorized you,” Reed said in an interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel in 2008. “If you were black, you were rhythm and blues. If you were white, they considered you to be pop. We were going for beautiful tunes with beautiful melodies and a beautiful tenor voice and beautiful voices (harmonizing) in the background.”

From 1960 on, various members left the Platters. Reed was the last of the original five to leave, breaking away from Ram’s management company in 1969. But in 1970, he re-formed the Platters.

Since 2001, when Reed performed on stage, the group was billed as Herb Reed and the Platters. And if he was not appearing with the group, it was billed as Herb Reed’s Platters.

Over the decades, Reed fought numerous legal battles with other groups using the Platters name. But in 2011, a Nevada judge ruled that superior rights to the Platters name belonged to Reed.

He is survived by his son, Herbert Jr., and three grandsons.

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