You won't find the Five Crowns mentioned in most music reference books, even those devoted specifically to '50s rock & roll. Many fans of R&B vocal groups, however, regard them as the definitive Harlem vocal group, and a few simply declare them the greatest vocal group that ever lived. Although the Five Crowns never made any impression on the national charts under their own name, they regularly charted locally in New York and were stars in Harlem. Their late-'50s incarnation, featuring original members Doc Green, James Clark, Elsbeary Hobbs, Ben E. King, and Charles Thomas, became the post-1958 Drifters, responsible for "There Goes My Baby" and the core of the group that later recorded "Up on the Roof," "Under the Boardwalk," and "On Broadway."
The Five Crowns were founded in the early '50s on 115th Street in Harlem, and originally consisted of Wilbur "Yunkie" Paul, Dock Green, and James "Poppa" Clark, John "Sonny Boy" Clark, and Claudie "Nicky" Clark. Clark and Paul alternated as lead singer, while Dock Green sang the baritone and bass parts. Their manager, Lover Patterson, also handled the Cadillacs, another New York-based vocal group that would make a considerable national splash of their own.
The group was signed to a contract with Rainbow Records in the summer of 1952, and released their first single, "A Star"/"You're My Inspiration," in September of 1952: "You're My Inspiration" rose to number nine locally on the Cashbox charts, and lingered there right into December of that year.
Their second single, "Who Can Be True"/"$19.50 Bus," vanished without leaving much of a trace late in 1952, and their third, "Keep It a Secret"/"Why Don't You Believe Me?," issued in early 1953, didn't do much better, although "Why Don't You Believe Me?" became one of their most fondly remembered songs. Those two were intrinsically rare records, even in Harlem, the former released only on 78 rpm and the latter on a red vinyl 45, and are highly prized by collectors. Their next single, "Alone Again"/"I Don't Have to Hunt No More," also failed to sell in any serious quantity.
That record marked the end of their contract with Rainbow Records, and the group next turned up on the New York-based Old Town label, where they debuted with "You Could Be My Love"/"Good Luck Darling," followed by "Lullaby of the Bells." By this time, the group had lost cohesion, and Paul and Green worked with the Duvals on the side (two of their songs, "You Came to Me" and "Ooh Wee Baby," were issued as a Five Crowns record in early 1955).
In 1955, Dock Green revived the Five Crowns with a new lineup and a new contract with Gee Records, where they released one single. They ceased working after one more single for the Transworld label. The group was next heard from under the name the Crowns, with the lineup of Green, Clark, Hobbs, Ben E. King, and Thomas.
Fortune finally smiled on the Crowns in late 1958 at an appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where they were spotted by manager George Treadwell, who had a serious problem at the time. Treadwell was the manager of the legendary R&B group the Drifters who, since 1954, had amassed an enviable record of national hits and a major name for themselves. In late 1958, the Drifters had included Bobby Hendricks (who, according to some sources, passed through one version of the Five Crowns), Gerhart Thrasher, Charlie Hughes, and Bill Pinkney. This lineup had collapsed amid infighting and Treadwell.
Treadwell had a major contractual obligation coming up, an appearance by the Drifters at the Apollo Theater. He heard the Crowns and offered them the chance then and there to become the new Drifters. They reported to Atlantic Records the following day to see how things worked in a real studio, and the following day, the Five Crowns-turned-Drifters recorded "There Goes My Baby," which became the number one single in the country.
The Five Crowns' history is scattered among the Rainbow, Old Town, Riviera, and Transworld labels, and only the Rainbow material (including the Yunkie Paul/Dock Green Duvals "You Came to Me"/"Ooh Wee Baby") has been reissued in a comprehensive way.