Buck Ram

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Had it not been for an accident at age 15, it's possible that Samuel Ram might've been a concert violinist, or a first-chair player with a symphony orchestra. As it was, thanks to that accident, Buck…
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Had it not been for an accident at age 15, it's possible that Samuel Ram might've been a concert violinist, or a first-chair player with a symphony orchestra. As it was, thanks to that accident, Buck Ram, as he became known from childhood on, ended up one of the most successful producers, arrangers, managers, and songwriters in R&B, and amassed four decades of enviable achievements in all of those fields, in a career that bridged a chasm between the popular music of Oscar Levant and the crooning of Bing Crosby, the big-band jazz of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and the Dorsey Brothers, and the R&B and rock & roll success of the Penguins and the Platters.

Born in Chicago in 1907, Ram had a deep and abiding interest in music, especially classical music, from an early age. He taught himself the violin as a boy and was good enough to play in an orchestra in his early teens, until an accident while playing football at age 15 fractured his hand and forced him to switch to the saxophone. Still, Ram continued to study classical music, even as he attended the University of Illinois as a pre-law major. Ram's parents were upwardly mobile, and had high aspirations for their son. They wanted not only a college graduate, but a lawyer in his generation of the family, and he did earn a law degree, and passed the California bar examination in 1933, but he never practiced in the profession. Instead, Ram headed for New York and got a job with Mills Music, a major publishing house.

He became an arranger for an array of big-band performers, and also began writing songs with "Afterglow," for which he provided lyrics in collaboration with Al Stillman to music by Oscar Levant. Ram was primarily active at that time as an arranger, moving up the ladder to the biggest of the bands of this era, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and the Dorseys. He also wrote special material for the Cotton Club and other top nightspots in New York, while writing songs in his spare time -- one of them, "At Your Beck and Call," was recorded by Ellington. In 1943, Ram co-wrote "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which became a huge hit for Bing Crosby during Christmas of 1943 and repeated that chart success a year later, and established itself as a perennial holiday standard surpassed in popularity only by "White Christmas" and "The Christmas Song." Following the lead of his two collaborators, who were employed by the movie studios, he moved to Los Angeles, where he hooked up with the city's burgeoning music scene.

In 1945, he co-wrote a huge hit, "Twilight Time," for the Three Suns, who were one of the more successful groups based in Los Angeles. He might've been able to capitalize on that hit but for a downturn in his fortunes, owing to ill health that overtook him late in the 1940s. He suffered a nervous collapse at the outset of the 1950s and left the music business for a time. When he returned to the business in 1952, Ram found that it had changed radically during his absence -- the times were hard for jazz performers, while the soft pop business was booming and there was a serious undercurrent of activity in country and R&B, but not the '40s-style R&B with which he'd been familiar. This material was starting to sell to younger audiences, and had more of an edge. Ram regrouped by starting a management company, hoping to put his 20 years of experience in the music business to use guiding the careers of some of the new acts that were coming along. It didn't take too long for Ram to figure out what the public would buy in the way of a song, and which artists were best for which songs, a talent he'd displayed since the early '30s.

Still, Ram's business, Personality Productions, struggled to get a foothold -- left without much money in the wake of the lean years of the late '40s and his illness of the early '50s, his new venture had never been properly capitalized, and Ram was just meeting expenses plus a little extra into 1954. Still, despite this, Ram was developing a reputation as an honest and aggressive representative as well as an excellent coach and teacher for any groups that wanted to improve their musical skills. It was during this period that Ram came to discover -- though accounts vary as to who actually "discovered" them -- the Platters, and subsequently became their manager. Ram took credit for refining the group's sound, putting tenor Tony Williams into the forefront of the group's sound, and remaking them from their rather non-descript origins as another L.A.-based harmony vocal group; he was also responsible for the male quartet becoming a mixed quintet, with Zola Taylor joining -- mixed groups were common among pop ensembles but largely unknown in the world of R&B, and her presence and the sound that she added was another way in which Ram helped distinguish the Platters from all of the competition. This took time, however, and in the meantime, the group's efforts on the Federal label, to which they were signed, came to nothing. Even when they cut a good record, as they did in their late sessions, when Ram's work was starting to make a difference, they found themselves eclipsed by Federal's efforts to push a rival R&B outfit on the same label, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

It was Ram's decision to get the Platters off of Federal and onto Mercury Records in early 1955. The label was eager to sign another of Ram's groups, the Penguins, and he risked killing the entire deal by forcing Mercury to take the Platters as well, in whom they were not interested. The maneuver proved a stroke of incredible luck for Mercury as well as a stroke of genius for Ram and the Platters, for the Penguins never enjoyed a major hit on Mecury, but the Platters scored a huge national (and international) hit there in the middle and later part of 1955 with "Only You," one of Ram's own compositions. They followed this up with "The Great Pretender," "My Prayer," "(You've Got) The Magic Touch," "Twilight Time," and a brace of other hits, many of them million sellers and all either written by or arranged and proposed by Ram, who became known at Mercury and around the record industry as the man with the "magic touch." Every time he and Mercury Records' management had a dispute about the direction the group should take, he proved himself right and Mercury's executives wrong, and they would periodically have to come to Ram for advice, or simply turn the next release over to him when it looked as though the well had run dry for the group. Ram was also responsible for polishing the Platters' sound and image and consciously trying to reach a mainstream (that is, adult white) audience with their music. Years earlier than Berry Gordy with the Supremes, Ram was seeing to it that the Platters played the best clubs and the most celebrated venues possible, not only in America but also in England, where they sang before an audience that included members of the royal family -- he also resisted dumbing down their sound by having them do conventional doo wop-type material, aiming instead for more mature listeners with recordings like "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which could appeal to parents as well as teenagers.

Toward that end, Ram put extra effort into the group's albums. Most R&B albums that existed up to that time -- and there weren't many -- were collections of a single or two and some B-sides and quickly slapped-together tracks. Ram made sure that the Platters' album work sounded as good as (or even better than) their singles, from elegant arrangements and delicate textures to carefully selected songs. Equally as important as Ram's efforts in this area was the fact that they worked, for the Platters became one of the first R&B vocal groups not only to sell significant numbers (that is, hundreds of thousands) of LPs, but also the first whose albums attracted as much attention as their singles. Indeed, a few more acts like the Platters around, and there might not ever have been the chasm between parents and rock & roll that existed, for the Platters were exactly the kind of R&B group that parents (white or black) could respect, appreciate, and enjoy, and not worry about their kids hearing -- and, yet, they never sounded like a pop group, and never ceased to sound "black." All of this was years before Gordy had more than an idea for a label of his own or the inkling of the "Sound of Young America," and Ram got no publicity or recognition for his vision or his work. The Platters provided Ram with a platform upon which to build his business. They were booked onto Alan Freed's 1956 national rock & roll package tour and became major attractions on Freed's shows.

Ram had other successful clients, including Robin Robinson ("I Promise You"). Not all of Ram's business decisions were perfect -- he liked to book the Platters to appear in motion pictures, which resulted in their working in high-profile, big-budget productions like The Girl Can't Help It, but also in such forgotten B-pictures as Rock All Night and Carnival Rock, which weren't shown in anything like the best theaters, or too widely, and are remembered solely by enthusiasts for the genre. He also started up his own label, Antler Records, which was a failure. Their success lasted into the early-'60s, long past the point where the hits stopped coming, because the Platters under Ram had always cultivated the best venues, where one needed recognition rather than a recent hit to get booked to perform. At that point, the group's fortunes took a downturn with the departure of Tony Williams, who'd been pushed so far into the foreground that it was easy to forget that there were four other Platters on some records, and had long wanted a solo career for himself. Over time, as the original members exited, Ram discovered that he still owned a valuable property in the name "the Platters" -- the ex-members were allowed to use the names as long it was in the context of "formerly of the Platters," but he found that putting together a singing group with the right attributes that could be called "the Platters" was very lucrative -- the group never entirely went out of style, and when the oldies boom hit in the late '60s, Ram was ready and reaped huge amounts of money, some of which he was forced to spend in court suing unauthorized users of the name.

Ram died on the first day of 1991 at the age of 83, having proved himself a prodigiously gifted composer, arranger, manager, and producer from the 1930's onward, and having made himself a force to be reckoned with in the music business during the 1950s and 1960s. And as the 21st century dawns, Personality Productions, the same company that he formed in 1952 to get back on his feet and prove he still had what it took for success in music, still licenses the name to dozens of groups that pass muster with the company in the style and quality of their work.