BILL KENNY- The “voice” that led to the Ink Spots success
In early 1936, Bill Kenny replaced Jerry Daniels as lead tenor of the Ink Spots. Shortly thereafter, Moe Gale had the group sign a recording contract with Decca records. Thus, all of the Decca Ink Spots recordings feature Bill Kenny. Even so, many listeners would not recognize the early 1936-38 Decca records of the Ink Spots because the group continued to feature their swing/jump style tunes.
Unlike the other group members, Bill Kenny did not play an instrument (except for limited appearances with a cymbal or triangle) and his singing style focused on ballads. Fortunately for the Ink Spots, the group gradually added some ballads featuring Kenny’s tenor voice to their repertoire. Ink Spots NBC radio shows from February and August of 1938 feature songs with the final Kenny tenor, Hoppy talking bass balad style that lead to their great success following the release of If I Didn’t Care in 1939. There can be little question that the Ink Spots success was primarily dependant on Bill’s joining the quartet even though Deek Watson and Hoppy Jones made important contributions as well.
Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Kenny:
Decca records paired many of their artists on records. On November 3, 1943 Ella teamed up with the Ink Spots to cut Cow-Cow Boogie, the first of seven joint recordings between 1943 and 1950. Ella and the Ink Spots often appeared together in vaudville. Moe Gale packaged the Ink Spots, Ella and and Cootie Williams band together as a “Big three” travelling road show beginning in January of 1944. Compared to the members of the Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald had talent to burn but she was always second billed to the Ink Spots – probably because the less talented group attracted the crowds. This could have been grounds for friction between Ella and members of the Ink Spots. No problems have ever come to light except for an apparent dislike of Bill by Ella. In Janary, 2001 Carl Jones of the Delta Rhythm Boys told Jason Gross:
The reason we recorded with her was because she refused to record with the Ink Spots anymore. She had recorded a couple of things with them and it turned out very well. But she couldn’t stand Bill Kenny showing off behind her on stage when they were performing at the Paramount, flashing his gold rings while she was singing. She said ‘I’m not going to stand for that!’ Then they had an argument. He said, ‘I’m just as popular as you are.’ So she refused to work with them anymore. So that’s how we came to record with her.
Bill Buchanan, who wrote for both the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe, became friends with Bill Kenny over the years that he wrote reviews for Boston appearances. He attended his first Ink Spots performance at the RKO-Boston on Thanksgiving day in 1943. He first met Bill after a show at the Latin Quarter in early 1948. He attended many Ink Spots shows in theaters like the Paramount and Capital in New York, the State in Hartford, the Frolics at Salisbury Beach in Massachussets and the Providence in Providence, Rhode Island. He also visited the Kennys at there home in St. Albans, Long Island, NY.
He recalls one time when he was riding an elevator in the Brill Building in NYC with Bill and Audrey Kenny. The elevator stopped at a floor and Bobby Worth, who wrote one of their biggest hits – Do I Worry? – was standing there. The elevator operator, who knew the connection, stopped the elevator and told everyone present about it. Bill Kenny then broke into a chorus of Do I Worry and when he finished everyone cheered.
He also recalls meeting Bill shortly after the Ink Spots broke up. At this time Bill Kenny had some booking problems and had called The Ed Sullivan Show about an appearance but the call was not returned. Bill Buchanan knew Ed and called him to remind him that the Ink Spots had performed on his show for minimum wages when they were famous shortly after he started his television show. Ed provided his manager’s personal phone number and suggested Bill Kenny call him. Three weeks later, Bill Kenny was on Ed’s show.
Darlene Goetz of Vancouver wrote in 2002 that she met Bill Kenny sometime in 1972 in Burnaby, BC where they both lived when she was nine years old:
Bill Kenny was a local celebrity in our area. He would walk around the area dressed in his african robes and would talk to anyone who wanted to talk. I was a little girl without a father who didn’t have a shy bone in her body. We struck up a friendship that to this day (almost 30 years later) I will never forget.
Mr Kenny and I would talk often. The thing I remember most of those days were many hours spent in his attic looking through boxes and boxes of memorabilia. At that point in my life I had no idea what this stuff was but now realize the importance of it. I remember sitting in his attic with him and he would read me poems. I remember him being a beautiful reader. He would keep me mesmorized for what seems today like hours. I remember vividly him showing me a letter from Elvis Presley and telling me how it would be worth something some day. During that time Mr. Kenny taught me what it was like to feel love from an older man. Not having a father I didn’t know about this father/daughter type of relationship which is very important for a young girl growing up. It’s hard to put into words what this relationship was like but he was a genuine caring man opening his heart to a little girl and that is what I would like passed on to his family. He was a wonderful caring man and I will never forget the talks we had. Bill Kenny touched my life in a way I will never forget.
I do remember him talking about being a proud african and not being ashamed of his roots. We never talked about racism however I do remember him talking about having to walk in back doors instead of front doors because he was black. He mentioned areas of the deep south where people enjoyed his music but he was treated poorly being black. At that period he had some form of a skin disorder ( I dont know if it’s a disease) where his pigmentation was different. He had large areas of white blotchy skin and I questioned him on why and did it hurt etc. This I do remember, it stuck with me.. he put his hand beside my hand and said “see, we’re the same deep down. If you take off my black color I will be the same color as you”. I will never forget that.
Darlene remembers Bill often wearing long robes and a colorful no-brimmed hat. He did not talk much about the Ink Spots although he did mention appearing at the Cave in Vancouver.
Bill Barnes of Vancouver wrote in March of 2004 to say that he attended one of Bill’s shows in Prince Rupert that included his then guitar teacher as one member of the group. He mentions that they also did a show at the Prince Rupert hospital before going on to Terrace for an appearance there. Only Bill Kenny sang at these shows. He mentions how impressed he was with the very personal way Bill and his wife treated everyone they met.
Roy Carver wrote from British Columbia in February, 2006 saying he met Bill Kenny through unusual circumstances:
“In those days, I was attending high school and a friend and I would usually take a short-cut through the golf course on my way home. On one particular day, we were joined by a third fellow who was rather mouthy. Just as we were about to exit the golf course, he yelled out: Hey, N—-r! and the two of them took off at a run. I was startled and looked around to see a rather tall black man running towards me.
I waited for him and when he got to me, I said: Sir, I want to apologize for my friend’s stupidity. I want you to know that I don’t hold with that kind of talk and I think it is just plain ignorant.
He said: Do you know who I am?
I told him, no, I’m afraid I don’t. He told me to go home and ask my mother about the Inkspots and Bill Kenny!
Over the next few years I would often meet him as I walked home and we would chat about music and such as we walked. He would call me ‘Carver’ but would insist that I call him ‘Bill’, not ‘Mr. Kenny’.
He was a fascinating man, full of ideas, always affirming and encouraging. On one of the last occasions that I saw him, he presented me with an 8 X 10 glossy promo portrait and signed it: God Bless you, friend Roy. Your Pal, Bill.”
BILL KENNY AS POET:
In 1970, Tiri Book Publishers of Calgary, Alberta in Canada published a small book of poems by Bill Kenny titled Who Is He? The original hand writtem manuscript of this book is now in the collection of Bill Proctor who also has published copy #53. Bill was kind enough to provide scans of the book cover, a printed poem from the book and one handwritten poem from the original manuscript. The publication run was probably very small as this book seldom comes up for sale.
BILL KENNY-SOLO VOCAL INK SPOT GROUPS/SOLOIST AND RECORDINGS (after leaving the original Ink Spots On 14 JULY, 1954:
After 1953, Bill Kenny did solo work and had various groups. One group was called Bill Kenny and His Ink Spots Trio. None of the trio members sang. Everett Barksdale (who may have sang as an Ink Spot in an earlier group) played electric guitar, Andy Maize played piano and Harry Prather played bass during a 1956 tour of Britain. Because only Bill Kenny sang, we don’t consider this to be a true original Ink Spots group. Rather, we view this as one of the Bill Kenny solo vocal plus instrumental support groups that existed after his singing Ink Spot groups disbanded in July of 1954 after an appearance at the Bolero Bar in Wildwood, NJ. Bill’s solo vocal career probably began at the Copacabana in New York city in November of 1954.
Decca solo recordings by Bill Kenny “Mister Ink Spot” (after Bill’s brother Herb Kenny left the Ink Spots in May of 1951, all Decca recordings featured only Bill Kenny’s voice. Even though some recordings feature an Ink Spots style with a talking bass, it is Bill Kenny who does the talking bass on these records.
Purple label “Faith Series”:
14538-Ava Maria/The Lord’s Prayer14547-The Vision Of Bernadette/Precious Memories14548–I Hear A Choir/It Is No Secret14549-Stranger In The City/Our Lady of Fatima14562-The Gentle Carpenter Of Bethlehem/His Eye Is On The Sparrow14588-At The End Of The Day/I See God14593-These Things Shall Pass/Keep On The Sunny SideRegular Decca releases: 27494-And Then I Prayed/Somebody Bigger Than You And I 27742-I’m Lucky I Have You/I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You
27844-Once/My First And My Last Love
27946-Please Mr. Sun/If I Forget You 27966-Honest And Truly(the flip side was recorded in 1950)28078-I Must Say Goodbye/I’m Heading Back To Paradise 28164-You May Be The Sweetheart Of Somebody Else/Under The Honeysuckle Vine 28219-A Soldier’s Rosary/The Hand Of God 28289-Sorry You Said Goodbye/A Bundle From Heaven 28412-You Are Happiness/Moonlight Mystery 28462-Forgetting You/I Counted On You 28677-I Keep Thinking of You/Who’s To Blame 28738-Don’t Mind The Rain/Do You Know What It Means To Be Lonely 28868-When The Chimes Ring/I Believe In The Man In The Sky
28982-Don’t Put It Off Till Sunday/Just For Today
29070-Vows/The Rose Of Roses
29163-What More Can I Do/Sentimental Baby
“X” (later Vik, both by RCA)
X-0124-If We All Said A Prayer/We Three
X-0155-Whispering Grass/The Gypsy
X-0178-Evening Bells/The Flower And The Weed
Vik-X-0195-Let Me Cry/Two Little Candles
Vik-X-0225-Now You Say You Care-Ballad/Now You Say You Care-Shuffle
Vik-EXA-295 EP-That’s When I Start To Cry/The Best Way You Know How/Star Sapphire/That’s How I Know You’re Mine
Tel-C1004-Oh What It Seemed To Be/You Hurt Me
Tel-C1011-The Old Dream Mender/I’d Climb The Highest Mountain
Warwick 541-Whispering Grass/Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall
AUB-999-Movita(written by Bill Kenny)/That Old Gang Of Mine/w the Bevan Gore-Langton Trio
RCA-SPCS-45-117-For The Good Times/Are You Lonesome Tonight
Many thanks to Bill Proctor for help with this page.
ABOUT THE INK SPOTS
The Ink Spots were a popular vocal group in the 1930s and 1940s that helped define the musical genre that led torhythm and blues and rock and roll, and the subgenre doo-wop. They and the Mills Brothers, another black vocal group of the same period, gained much acceptance in the white community.
Their songs usually began with a guitar riff, followed by the tenor, who sang the whole song through. After the tenor finished singing, the bass would either recite the first half, or the bridge of the song, or would speak the words, almost in a free form, that were not part of the song, commonly using the words “Honey Child”, or “Honey Babe”, expressing his love for his darling in the song. This was followed by the tenor, who finished up singing the last refrain or the last half of the song.
The Ink Spots formed in the early 1930s in Indianapolis. The original members were :-
- Orville “Hoppy” Jones (b. 17 February 1902, Chicago, Illinois – d. 18 October 1944, New York City) (bass) (Played cello in the manner of a stand up bass)
- Ivory “Deek” Watson (b. 18 July 1909, Mounds, Illinois – d. 4 November 1969, Washington, D.C.) (tenor) (Played guitar and trumpet)
- Jerry Daniels (b. 14 December 1915 – d. 7 November 1995, Indianapolis, Indiana) (tenor) (Played guitar and ukulele)
- Charlie Fuqua (b. 20 October 1910 – d. 21 December 1971, New Haven, Connecticut) (baritone) (Played guitar)
As “Kyle and Charlie”, Daniels and Fuqua had formed a vocal duo performing in the Indianapolis area around 1931. About the same time, Jones and Watson were part of a quartet, “The Four Riff Brothers”, who appeared regularly on radio station WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1933, that group disbanded, and Watson, Daniels and Fuqua got together to form a new vocal, instrumental and comedy group, which was initially called “King, Jack, and Jester”. They continued to appear regularly on radio in Ohio, and became a foursome when Jones was added to the group the following year.
In July 1934 they accepted a booking at the Apollo Theater, New York, supporting Tiny Bradshaw. At that point they changed their name to “The 4 Ink Spots” at the request of bandleader Paul Whiteman, to avoid confusion with his vocal group “The King’s Jesters”. Later that year, The Ink Spots achieved international success touring the UK with Jack Hylton‘s Orchestra, one review in the Melody Maker stating
|“||The sensation of the programme is the coloured quartette, the Four Ink Spots. They sing in a style something between the Mills Brothers and the Three Keys, and accompany themselves on three tenor guitars and a cello — which is not bowed, but picked and slapped like a double bass. Their natural instinct for hot rhythm is exemplified in their terrific single-string solo work and their beautifully balanced and exquisitely phrased vocalisms. They exploit all kinds of rhythmic vocalisms — straight solos, concerted, scat, and instrumental imitations. They even throw in a bit of dancing to conclude their act, and the leading guitarist simultaneously plays and juggles with his instrument.||”|
|—Melody Maker, |
They first recorded for Victor Records in 1935, but although the group was growing rapidly in popularity their early record releases were not commercially successful. The following year Daniels left, and was replaced by Bill Kenny (b. 12 June 1914, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – d. 23 March 1978, Vancouver, British Columbia). Also in 1936, they appeared on the first NBC demonstration television programmes.
For the next two years, their popularity grew through radio programs and tours. After a series of unsuccessful recordings for Victor Records and Decca Records, they had their first smash hit with “If I Didn’t Care“, a song written by Jack Lawrence, on Decca, in 1939. They released such other Decca singles as “Address Unknown” (1939), “My Prayer” (1939), “When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano” (1940), “Whispering Grass” (1940), “Do I Worry” (1940), “Java Jive” (1940), “Shout, Brother, Shout” (1942), “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (1942), “I Can’t Stand Losing You” (1943), “Cow-Cow Boogie” (1944 – with Ella Fitzgerald), “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall“/”I’m Making Believe” (1944 – both with Ella Fitzgerald), and “The Gypsy” (1946). Many of these records made # 1 on early versions of the US pop charts – “The Gypsy” was their biggest chart success, staying at the # 1 position for 13 weeks.
They also recorded for Grand Award Records (two records in 1955, one in 1956-1957 and one in 1958).
Their songs, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”, “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” and “Maybe” are songs played on the in-game radio station Galaxy News Radio in the 2008 video game Fallout 3. “I Don’t Want To Set the World on Fire” is also featured on the game’s trailer, and opening for the game.
Charlie Fuqua was drafted in 1944, and was replaced by Bernie Mackey. Hoppy Jones, an important personality to the group, died in late 1944, near the height of their popularity. Bill Kenny and Deek Watson then began feuding, leading to fragmentation in 1945, when Watson went on to form a group called the Brown Dots (which later became the 4 Tunes). He later formed a host of offshoot Ink Spots groups in the 1950s and 1960s. Watson’s place was taken in the original group by Billy Bowen (born 3 January 1909 d. 27 September 1982), and Jones was replaced by Cliff Givens (who was replaced eventually by Herb Kenny, Bill’s twin brother, consequently born on the same date and died 11 July 1992). Mackey left at this time and was briefly replaced by Huey Long.
Charlie Fuqua was discharged in 1945 and returned to the group later that year, replacing Huey Long. This lineup recorded into the early 1950s, when Herb Kenny left and was replaced by Adriel McDonald. Bowen left the next year and was replaced by Teddy Williams. Ernie Brown substituted for Williams for a short time. Fuqua parted with the group and was replaced first by Jimmy Cannady, then by Everett Barksdale. Fuqua would lead a separate Ink Spots group in the future.
Around 1954, Brown and Barksdale both left, making the group Bill Kenny, Adriel McDonald, new member Henry Braswell, and an unknown fourth member. At this point the group was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Kenny agreed, but told the other members of the group that he could not pay them. The other members angrily left. Braswell was out and would never tour with any Ink Spots groups. Bill Kenny sang solo with an instrumental backing band (consisting of the returning Everett Barksdale, Harry Prather, and Andrew Maze), touring as “Bill Kenny and his Ink Spots”. This group appeared on Ed Sullivan, angering Sullivan enough to bill the group last. Kenny later performed with Joe Boatner’s Ink Spots in the summer of 1962. The group’s pianist at the time of the split was Fletcher Smith, he would later perform in Orlando Roberson’s Ink Spots.
Starting sometime in 1953, the Ink Spots group formed by Charles Fuqua was recording for King Records. This group probably consisted of Charles Fuqua, Jimmy Holmes, Harold Jackson, Leon Antoine and Isaac Royal (personnel listed on the actual 45 rpm recording of “Changing Partners“/”Stranger in Paradise“, King #45-1304). They recorded popular tunes of the day such as “Ebb Tide” (1953), “Changing Partners”, “Stranger in Paradise” (1954) and “Melody of Love” (1954, 1955). Their 1954 version of “Melody Of Love” was recorded prior to the Billy Vaughn version which was released in late-1954 and became a #1 hit in 1955 and so was re-released in 1955.
The only other link to the original group was Adriel McDonald. He continued touring with a new group: the returning Huey Long, Walter Springer, and Orlando Roberson. Henry Baxter later replaced Springer. In the late 1950s, Roberson and Long were out (both would perform with and lead other Ink Spots groups), and former Clover John “Buddy” Bailey and Abel De Costa were in. McDonald and De Costa became the group’s only consistent members through the 1960s. Bob Williams replaced Bailey and Jimmy McLin replaced Baxter. Later both were out, and William “Frosty” Pyles and former Raven Joe Van Loan were in. Then these two were replaced by Richard Lanham (later Grant Kitchlings) and Matt McKinney.
At this point, McDonald fell ill and the group split. McDonald did not tour further with any Ink Spots groups. De Costa joined Bernie Mackey’s group (which had already existed for some time). McKinney joined Bob Williams Ink Spots (new at this time). Kitchlings would join Mackey’s group (at a later date than De Costa). Note, however, that several other members that had left the group at earlier times, notably Charlie Fuqua and Deek Watson, had started their own Ink Spots groups by this time.
Legitimate members of the Victor and Decca group included Jerry Daniels, Bill Kenny, Deek Watson, Charlie Fuqua, Hoppy Jones, Bernie Mackey, Huey Long, Cliff Givens, Billy Bowen, Herb Kenny, Adriel McDonald, Ernie Brown, Teddy Williams, Jimmy Cannady, Bob Benson, Asa “Ace” Harris, Bill Doggett, Ray Tunia, Harold Francis, Fletcher Smith, Henry Braswell, Everett Barksdale, Curtis McNair and Harold Jackson, Simon Pico Payne, Biggy McFadden. As far as is known, these are theonly singers and accompanists who deserve to be called “original” Ink Spots (that is, those who were in the group that recorded for Victor and Decca), although dozens, possibly hundreds, of others have claimed that honor over the decades. Some singers have tenuous ties to Deek Watson’s or Charlie Fuqua’s offshoot groups; many, with no credentials whatever, just claim to be “original” members. Huey Long died at his Houston home on June 10, 2009. As far as is known, the only surviving member of the Decca group is Harold Jackson, who is currently living in Pasadena, California.
The Ink Spots were the subject of a 1998 book by Marv Goldberg: “More Than Words Can Say: The Ink Spots And Their Music”. The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. The Ink Spots were even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as influences, in 1989; this induction consisted of Bill Kenny, Charlie Fuqua, Deek Watson, and Hoppy Jones.
At the time of his death at the age of 105 on June 10, 2009, Huey Long was the last surviving member of the group.
|1939||“If I Didn’t Care“||2||—|
|“You Bring Me Down”||14||—|
|1940||“Memories of You”||29||—|
|“I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You”||26||—|
|“When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano“||4||—|
|“Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees)“||10||—|
|“You’re Breaking My Heart All Over Again”||17||—|
|“We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)”||1||—|
|“My Greatest Mistake”||12||—|
|1941||“Please Take a Letter, Miss Brown”||25||—|
|“Do I Worry?”||8||—|
|“I’m Still Without a Sweetheart (‘Cause I’m Still In Love With You)”||19||—|
|“Until the Real Thing Comes Along“||4||—|
|“I Don’t Want To Set the World On Fire”||4||—|
|“Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat”||17||—|
|1942||“Ev’ry Night About This Time”||17||6|
|“This Is Worth Fighting For”||—||9|
|“Just As Though You Were Here”||—||10|
|1943||“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore“||2||1|
|“If I Cared a Little Bit Less”||20||10|
|“I’ll Never Make the Same Mistake Again”||19||—|
|“I Can’t Stand Losing You”||—||1|
|1944||“Don’t Believe Everything You Dream”||14||6|
|“Cow Cow Boogie“(with Ella Fitzgerald)||10||1|
|“A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening”||2||—|
|“I’ll Get By (As Long as I Have You)“||7||4|
|“Someday I’ll Meet You Again”||14||—|
|“I’m Making Believe”(with Ella Fitzgerald)||1||2|
|“Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall“(with Ella Fitzgerald)||1||1|
|1945||“I’m Beginning To See the Light”(with Ella Fitzgerald)||5||—|
|“Prisoner of Love“||9||5|
|“To Each His Own“||1||3|
|1947||“You Can’t See the Sun When You’re Crying”||19||—|
|“Ask Anyone Who Knows”||17||5|
|1948||“The Best Things In Life Are Free”||—||10|
|“Say Something Sweet To Your Sweetheart”||22||—|
|“You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling In Love)”||8||15|
|1949||“You’re Breaking My Heart“||9||—|
|“Who Do You Know In Heaven (That Made You the Angel You Are?)”||21||—|
|“It Is No Secret”(Bill Kenny solo)||18||—|
|1952||“(That’s Just My Way of) Forgetting You”(Bill Kenny solo)||23||—|
From 1995–present, songs from The Ink Spots have been included in the award winning video game series Fallout.
Many Ink Spots songs begin with the same four bar introduction, using the chords I – #idim – ii7 – V7.
Musically, the forties were Ink Spot years. The Vocal fourspme dominated the hit charts with such favorites as “To Each His Own”, “The Java Jive” and “If I Didn’t Care”. Fond Memories. Especially for lead tenor Bill Kenny who now swings on his own as the last surviver of the famous group. This is Bill’s first album in five years and it’s destined to become a hit in keeping with his past records. There’s still plenty of the sensational old-style Tenor to be heard, but now it’s combined with the depths of the lower register. As such, Bill’s singing presents greater dimensions than ever before. The songs he’s chosen here are romantic and sentimental. Some are the greats of yeter-year; some are tunes that have just become a part of what’s known as the standard catalogue. All are bound to turn you on. Bill Kenny’s past hasn’t been without incidents. During the mid-fifties he performed as a single, backed up with the cream of arrangers and conducters. People like Gordon Jenkins, Sy Oliver, and Victor Young. He recorded with Bobby Hackett and sang duets with Ella Fitzgerald. Everything was GO, and the years were good. However, Bill knows bad times too. He is a God-loving man, and believes it was his unabiding faith that saw him through a near-fatal car explosion just a few years back. During his convalescence Bill turned is talent to writting an excellent book of poems which was published in 1970. Vancouver is where Bill and his wife Audrey make their home. And outside of club appearences abroad, Canada is where the sun shines on the Tenor of Ink Spot fame.
-Jack Cullen, Radio Sation CKNW
Notes taken from the Album Bill Kenny (Mr. Ink Spots) With love 1973