The Five Chances

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In 1950, on the south side of Chicago, a group of eighth graders from Felsenthal Grade School joined together and began singing on street corners for the next few years. These original five -- Darnell…
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In 1950, on the south side of Chicago, a group of eighth graders from Felsenthal Grade School joined together and began singing on street corners for the next few years. These original five -- Darnell Austell (lead), his brother John Austell (bass), Howard Pitman (baritone), Harold Jones (baritone and second tenor), and Reggie Smith (first and second tenor) -- eventually began calling themselves El Travadors. The Austell brothers were nephews of the longtime record entrepreneur Leo Austell, who later founded the Renee label (home to Betty Everett, Cicero Blake, Eddie Sullivan, and others).

In 1954, they won a talent show at the Crown Propeller Lounge and caught the eye of musician Levi McKay, who offered to "school" them in the standards and became their manager. This ultimately led to an audition for the Chance label, a small label helmed by Edwart Abner Jr., a record exec. The Chance label was located on the famed "Record Row" on Cottage Grove Ave (home to King, Vee Jay, Chess, Parrot, and several distributors). Abner liked what he heard and signed the group (the day they all graduated from DuSable High), but he renamed them the Five Chances.

McKay continued experimenting with various lineups, drawing new members from other groups he managed, bringing in Eddie Stillwell from the Fasinoles and Clyde Williams from the Daffodils. (Stillwell would appear on the Five Chances' recordings, but not Williams.) The group recorded several sides for Abner's Chance, but ultimately only " "I May Be Small" b/w a cover of the 1928 hit "Nagasaki," written by Mort Dixon and Harry Warren, were issued as a single. (Two unreleased sides surfaced in 1964 on a Constellation album, Groups Three). In August 1954, they recorded "My Dream Is Yours," a fox-trot taken from a 1949 Doris Day film, which they reconfigured into a fine R&B jump tune.

By the time Chance closed its doors at the end of 1954, Abner had joined Jimmy Bracken and Vivian Carter, a husband-wife team, at Vee Jay, the largest black-owned label at the time. The Five Chances found a new home with Al Benson's Parrot label, but split up not too long after Howard Pitman left to form his own label, Concord Records. Benson later went on to host his own talent shows at the Regal Theater.