a great piece by joe w
some of the younger folk might know the platters only from their reincarnation as a soul act in the mid-60s, "with this ring" and "washed ashore" and all that, but the platters were, twilight time of course, a monster group in the 50s--remember "the great pretender"?
they had four number one songs and 16 gold records in five years. tony williams, the lead singer until 1960, had a magical and powerful voice rivaled in the 50s only by roy orbisons and even in the early 60s when i became a teenager, the platters ballads were still huge--"smoke gets in your eyes" followed by "harbor lights" was all you needed to get a girl wet. so when my good buddy john miller, who owns a record store called the record museum, phoned me up one evening in, oh, about 1986 or so, i cant remember exactly when, and told me the platters were playing that night at the holiday inn on the beach--the real platters, the tony williams platters--i dropped everything (what, a tuna fish sandwich and a bottle of beer) and got in his van and headed out to collins avenue and 87th street on miami beach. on the way, we listened to platters tapes--"heaven on earth, "my prayer"--and sped across the causeway, worried the whole time wed be late, locked out, and shit out of luck. when we got there, we could hear the platters already singing, the band finishing up "i love you 1000 times." we jogged, didnt want to miss a note of tony williams. when we got there we saw . . .
jesus h, when we got there we saw a small diningroom with the lights fully on, a tiny venue more suited to a stand-up comedian than a singing group. up on stage to the left, by himself, stood tony williams suited up in a tux, looking lonely; the group--i think most of them were his family--stood way to the right of the stage. the place was empty, absofuckinglutely empty. empty, that is, except for one table around which a dozen or so cubans were celebrating somebodys birthday. while the platters sang, they cackled and cockledoodled, a bunch of cocolocos who couldnt care less about this old negrito struggling up on stage. and tony was struggling. the band launched into "twilight time" and his voice, the one that used to swing from chandeliers and leap over tall buildings, cracked and creaked at every high note. he sounded like he was strangling in his own vomit. at the finale of the song his voice choked and simply crapped out on him. from the back of the clubroom,
where john and i stood, you could see the frustration and embarrassment in his face, his lips pursed in self-disgust. he coughed into his fist and lamely said, "oh man, must a been somethin i ate. man, the food at this place, ha ha ha." he was swaying on his feet, he was drunk. he tried one more tune and quit half way through, waving a weak hand at the group. then one of the group--i think he introduced himself as tonys son--took over the lead while tony snapped his fingers in time to the music and rocked on his heels, his head down.
i wondered what it must be like to have been tony williams--the great tony williams, "the magic touch," "one in a million," "only you"--to have been a glorious star only to find yourself one evening late in your career standing on stage looking out at a tiny clubroom with garish lights that contained only a table full of cucarachas with their backs turned to you, treating you like the shoeshine boy, and two shadows in the back of the room who soon slid back into the night, out of respect for your memory, having seen the saddest thing they had ever seen.