The Ink Spots - Biography
By J Poet
Ink Spots were a vocal quartet from Indianapolis, Illinois made up of long time profession singers and guitarists. They spent many years struggling in obscurity, but when they broke big with their first Decca hit “If I Didn’t Care”, they went on to become one of the top acts in the country. They were one of the first black vocal groups to have a large white audience and their smooth vocal harmonies laid the foundation for the do-wop and rock’n’roll vocal groups who followed. The Drifters, Coasters, Penguins, Temptations, and Platters all borrowed from the style of The Ink Spots and Elvis Presley’s arrangement of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is a pure tribute to the Ink Spots style. After “Hoppy” Jones died of a brain hemorrhage in 1944, the group lost momentum, but continued on with ever shifting personnel until 1951, when they splintered. Since then there have been dozens of groups using the Ink Spots name, most having no relation at all to the original quartet. The classic line up was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
Orville “Hoppy” Jones and Miff Campbell met in 1928 in Indianapolis and performed as the dance duo Jones and Campell. Across town, Ivory “Deek” Watson sang in a coffee pot band, a group that tapped out rhythms on a small tea pot, a medium coffee pot, and large coffee pot; they were called the Percolating Puppies. Charlie Fuqua was also singing in a coffee pot band with Jerry Daniels. In 1931, Daniels and Fuqua turned pro as Jerry and Charlie and landed a regular 15-minute show on WKBF.
While on tour in Cleveland, Daniels and Fuqua met Watson and in 1933 formed a trio called King, Jack and Jester. In 1944, Jones joined and they performed as King, Jack and Jesters. They moved to New York in 1944 to make it big. They worked day jobs as ushers at the Paramount Theater and developed a unique sound with Jones plucking the strings of the cello like a bass, and the four blending their harmonies around the lead vocals of Daniels. The popular bandleader Paul Whiteman had a vocal group called The King’s Jesters, so Jones, who had an Afro-centric worldview, suggested a racially explicit name The Ink Spots. At this time, the group did mostly up tempo, jumpin’ jive numbers and found some success on the “chittlin’ circuit”.
The Ink Spots met bandleader Jack Hylton who took them with him on a tour of England, where they caused a sensation with their singing and dancing. In 1935, they signed with RCA Victor, but had no success. Tired by the endless touring, Daniels left the group in 1939 and was replaced by Bill Kenny. Kenny had an incredible high tenor and the group took off after he joined. They slowed the tempos and started doing romantic ballads, with Hoppy reciting the words of one verse in his rumbling baritone. Their first single for Decca, “If I Didn’t Care”, was a huge hit. Decca paid them 37.50 for the session, but when sales reached 200,000 they gave the band an additional $3,750.
They were now headliners and also kept appearing on their popular WJZ radio show. The hits kept coming, often landing on the pop carts as well as the R&B charts. “Address Unknown”, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)”, “Swing, Gates, Swing”, “If I Didn't Care”, “Java Jive”, and “Maybe” were all chart toppers. They landed parts in the films The Great American Broadcast of 1941 and Abbot and Costello’s Pardon My Sarong where they got to sing their hits “Do I Worry” and “Java Jive”. They toured the country and performed at army camps to entertain the troops that were heading off to WW II. When Fuqua enlisted, he was replaced by Bernie MacKay, another show biz vet from Indianapolis.
In 1944, the classic line up was back together and touring the country with Cootie Williams and Ella Fitzgerald when “Hoppy” Jones died of a brain hemorrhage. The group tried several bass singers before settling on Bill Kenny’s twin brother Herb. They continued having hits like “Cow-Cow Boogie”, “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”, and “I'm Making Believe” with Ella Fitzgerald, and “The Gypsy” which stayed at #1 on the pop charts for 13 weeks. It was their last big hit. Buy the end of 1945 the band members were constantly feuding. Singers members came and went, with many ex-members staring their own Ink Spots groups. During the 50s and 60s there were dozens of groups on the road claiming to be Ink Spots, but the original quartet was long gone. Individual Spots continued singing with varying degrees of success, but only Herb Kenny had a hit as a solo artist with “It Is No Secret” in 1951. The classic line up was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.
The Ink Spots recorded before the advent of albums, but their hits are all available on various collections. Swing High Swing Low (1996 ASV/Living Era) has the early RCA recordings, The Ink Spots, The Millennium Collection (1999 MCA) gives you their 12 biggest hits, Rare Air (2001 Flyright) contains transcriptions of their radio shows of the 1940s, Street of Dreams (1999 Avid UK) collects 25 of their less known hits, Fabulous Ink Spots (2004 Castle/Pulse UK) includes their 40s hits including the three duets they cut with Ella Fitzgerald. For a comprehensive collection try The Golden Age of the Ink Spots: The Best of Everything (2002 Jasmine UK) a great four CD 101 track collection.