The Empires

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Harlem, NY-based R&B group the Empires formed in 1953 -- according to Marv Goldberg's profile in the December 1977 issue of Yesterday's Memories, the group was a family affair, teaming tenor Les Cooper,…
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Harlem, NY-based R&B group the Empires formed in 1953 -- according to Marv Goldberg's profile in the December 1977 issue of Yesterday's Memories, the group was a family affair, teaming tenor Les Cooper, his nephew Johnny "Buddy" Barnes on lead tenor, and his cousin William Goodman on bass. After relocating to New York from their native Norfolk, VA, they added baritone Bobby Dunn, completing the original Empires lineup, and after fine-tuning their harmonies at local churches, clubs, and schools, the group signed to the Harlem label in late 1954. "My Baby, My Baby" followed prior to the year's end, and was supported by appearances at Brooklyn's Club Baby Grand and New York City's Rockland Palace. For the follow-up, 1955's "Magic Mirror," Harlem owner Morty Shad renamed Barnes "Johnny Ace, Jr." in a morbid attempt to capitalize on the recent death of the R&B legend. Even stranger, the Empires' third single, "Somebody Changed the Lock," was credited to Lightning Junior & the Empires -- "Lightning Junior" was, in fact, blues veteran Champion Jack Dupree.

When Shad folded Harlem in mid-1955, the Empires signed to Mercury to record "I Want to Know," issued on the label's Wing subsidiary. When the follow-up, "Looking for Love," appeared on Mercury proper, the group was now credited as the Prestos -- if anything, this switch only hurt their chances of scoring that elusive hit, and upon returning to Wing in early 1956 with "By the Riverside," they were again the Empires. After the release of "My First Discovery," Barnes temporarily joined the Platters in place of the ailing Tony Williams. His absence forced the Empires into hiatus, during which time their Mercury deal expired. They moved to the fledgling Whirlin' Disc imprint for "Linda" -- remarkably, the 1957 follow-up, a re-recorded "Magic Mirror," appeared with yet another name change, this time to the Whirlers. Regardless of their current billing, the Empires split soon after. Cooper later formed the Soul Rockers, scoring a 1962 hit with the instrumental "Wiggle Wobble."