The Monotones recorded a spate of clever novelties in the late '50s/early '60s, the most successful of which was the enduring "(Who Wrote) The Book of Love?," a massive Top Ten hit (number five pop/number three R&B) in 1958. The group formed in 1955, when 17-year-old lead vocalist Charles Patrick and his brother James Patrick teamed with 16-year-old first tenor Warren Davis, 15-year-old second tenor George Malone, 17-year-old bass singer John Smith, 18-year-old baritone Warren Ryanes, and his younger brother, 15-year-old second bass John Ryanes, coming together at the Baxter Terrace housing project in Newark, NJ.
They practiced in the project's recreation hall, inspired by acts like the Heartbeats, the Spaniels, the Moonglows, and the Cadillacs. They adopted their name from a previous group who already had it and were in the process of breaking up. The six friends and neighbors also began singing with the New Hope Baptist Choir, along with other choir members Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick, Judy Clay, Cissy Houston, Leroy Hutson (of the Impressions), and several of the Sweet Inspirations. Houston was the choir director and Dionne and Dee Dee were cousins of Jim and Charles Patrick (leader of the Monotones).
By 1956, they were performing the Cadillacs' "Zoom" on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, winning first prize and earning a shot on the show the following week. Unfortunately, James Patrick decided to leave the group to join another act that had performed on the same show: the Kodaks (from Charles Evans Hughes High School in Newark). Undaunted by his brother's choice to sing with a rival act, Charles Patrick began writing new material for the group, the first of which would turn out to be "Who Wrote the Book of Love?"
One story about this hit's genesis claims that the lyrics came to Patrick in an inspiration provided by a toothpaste commercial ("you'll wonder where the yellow went") overheard on a radio program being played in a music store when he was looking at the sheet music to a Four Lads song (an Al Stillman composition, also called "Book of Love"). Charles is said to have gone home with the word "wonder" reverberating in his head and, along with Davis and Malone, written the song that day. Yet another version of the story states that Pearl McKinnon, 15-year-old leader of the Kodaks, actually wrote "Book of Love," which was later co-opted by Charles Patrick with help from his brother James.
In any case, the Monotones demoed the song in the summer of 1957 and sent it to a number of labels, including Bobby Robinson's Fury label (Robinson had already signed the Kodaks after seeing them perform at the Apollo). Atlantic Records liked the song, but wanted it for their group the Bobbettes. By now the Monotones were convinced it was a hit and wanted to sing it themselves. With James Patrick's help, they were given an audition with Bea Caslon's Hull Records, first home of their heroes the Heartbeats (by this time James Sheppard and his Heartbeats had left for Roulette). Caslon decided to sign the group and record their song in September 1957.
One interesting story about an incident that happened during the recording of the song bears repeating: according to the apocryphal story, while the group was rehearsing the intro of the song in the studio, a baseball came crashing through a window and -- perfectly timed -- hit a wall, causing a resounding crash. The group was listening to a playback of the song and sure enough, there it was: "Oh, I wonder, wonder ohm ba doo doo who -- BOOM! -- who wrote the book of love?" They decided to keep it, adding a solitary kick of a bass drum during their session at New York's Bell Studios.
Three months later, in December of 1957, "Book of Love" (shortened by now, title-wise) was released on Hull's Mascot subsidiary. By January, it was too huge for cash-poor Hull, so the group licensed it to Chess Records, who issued it on their Argo subsidiary (it was released in February 1958). On March 24, 1958, "Book of Love" was charting on Billboard's Top 100 and the R&B lists by April 7th. By late spring, it had climbed on the pop charts, charting at number five and the R&B charts listing at number three, where it spent 18 weeks. The song even managed to score a number five in Australia.
By June 1 of 1958, the Monotones were back in the studio and trying their hand at other rock & roll novelties, perhaps trying to discover the secret behind what makes a hit a hit. Their next single, "Tom Foolery" (with its constant stops-and-starts), faired poorly, however. A third session (in July) yielded a few new songs, including the single "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (which featured high-speed horse clip-clops), but these singles failed to gain the group an audience. Hull, meanwhile, was engrossed in promoting the Elegants' hit "Little Star" and so the group turned it over to Apt Records, who didn't issue the song until December 1958. The Monotones weren't pleased about the delay and began looking around for another label. They licensed Apt another track, a novelty tune called "The Ride of Paul Revere," which was released in October 1958, but they were surprised to find out it was credited to "the Terrace Tones" (there was an actual group called this, too, featuring Robert Johnson and Andrew Cheatham, who had written the "Paul Revere" song). Despite the confusion, or maybe because of it, it failed to generate much interest.
On June 4, 1959, four new tracks were recorded: "Tell It to the Judge" b/w "Fools Will be Fools" (the B-side was a "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"-type knock-off) was released as one single by Apt and a new song posing yet another question: "What Would You Do If There Wasn't Any Rock & Roll?" (the song remained unreleased until the 1980s, when the Murray Hill label issued it on a Monotones anthology LP). Perhaps this latter number was a response to Danny & the Juniors' hit from the previous year, "Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay"?
In early 1960, the Monotones issued their first true Hull release, a strange sort of answer song to their own record, called "Reading the Book of Love" even though it had been two years since the other "Book of Love" song was a hit. The group was watching their life pass before their eyes quite literally by this point and issued their last single on January 27th. "Daddy's Home, but Mama's Gone" was also an answer song (answering Shep and the Limelites' "Daddy's Home," which was itself an answer song to "A Thousand Miles Away").
The group's last session -- February 14, 1962 -- produced two more titles, "Book of Dance" and "Toast to Lovers" which weren't released until they were featured on a Hull compilation LP in late 1962, but by now the Monotones had decided to call it a day and disbanded. Another edition of the group recorded one single for Hickory in 1964, but little information about the single exists.
The group later re-formed, in the '70s and '80s, with various members and performed at oldies revival shows. By then, both Ryanes brothers had passed away (John Ryanes died May 30, 1972, in Newark, NJ). As recently as 1992, however, Charles Patrick and his brother James Patrick, Warren Davis, Frank Smith, and George Malone were on hand to ask everyone's favorite musical question from 1958, "(Who Wrote) The Book of Love?"