The Platters were one of the most successful R&b vocal groups of the early rock and roll era. Their distinctive sound was a bridge between the pre-rock Tin Pan Alley tradition and the burgeoning new genre. The act went through several personnel changes, with the most successful incarnation comprising lead tenor Tony Williams, David Lynch, Paul Robi, Herb Reed, and Zola Taylor. The group had 40 charting singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between 1955 and 1967, including four no. 1 hits.
The Platters formed in Los Angeles in 1953 and were initially managed by Ralph Bass. The original group (Alex Hodge, Cornell Gunter, David Lynch, Joe Jefferson, Gaynel Hodge and Herb Reed) landed a contract with Federal Records, but found little success. Reed is credited with creating the group's name. In June 1953, Gunter was replaced by lead vocalist Tony Williams. The band then released two singles with Federal Records, under the management of Bass, but found little success. The band then met music entrepreneur and songwriter Buck Ram. Ram made some changes to the lineup, most notably the addition of female vocalist Zola Taylor; later, Hodge was replaced by Paul Robi. Under Ram's guidance, the Platters recorded eight songs for Federal in the R&B/gospel style, scoring a few minor regional hits on the West Coast, and backed Williams' sister, Linda Hayes. One song recorded during their Federal tenure, "Only You (And You Alone)," originally written by Ram for the Ink Spots, was deemed unreleasable by the label, though copies of this early version do exist.
Despite their lack of chart success, the Platters were a profitable touring group, successful enough that The Penguins, coming off their #8 single "Earth Angel," asked Ram to manage them as well. With the Penguins in hand, Ram was able to parlay Mercury Records' interest into a 2-for-1 deal. To sign the Penguins, Ram insisted, Mercury also had to take the Platters. The Penguins would never have a hit for the label.
Convinced by Jean Bennett and Tony Williams that "Only You" had potential, Ram had the Platters re-record the song during their first session for Mercury. Released in the summer of 1955, it became the group's first Top Ten hit on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. The follow-up, "The Great Pretender," with lyrics written in the washroom of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas by Buck Ram, exceeded the success of their debut and became the Platters' first national #1 hit. "The Great Pretender" was also the act's biggest R&B hit, with an 11-week run atop that chart. In 1956, The Platters appeared in the first major motion picture based around rock and roll, Rock Around the Clock, and performed both "Only You" and "The Great Pretender."
The Platters' unique vocal style had touched a nerve in the music-buying public, and a string of hit singles followed, including three more national #1 hits and more modest chart successes such as "I'm Sorry" (#11) and "He's Mine" (#23) in 1957, "Enchanted" (#12) in 1959, and "The Magic Touch" (#4) in 1956. The Platters soon hit upon the successful formula of updating older standards, such as "My Prayer," "Twilight Time," "Harbor Lights," "To Each His Own," "If I Didn't Care," and Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." This latter release caused a small controversy after Kern's widow expressed concern that her late husband's composition would be turned into a "rock and roll" record. It topped both the American and British charts in a Platters-style arrangement.
The Platters also differed from most other groups of the era because Ram had the group incorporated in 1955. Each member of the group received a 20% share in the stock, full royalties, and their Social Security was paid. As group members left one by one, Ram and his business partner, Jean Bennett, bought their stock which gave them ownership of the "Platters" name, which would later become significant.
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in its inaugural year of 1998. The Platters were the first rock and roll group to have a Top Ten album in America. They were also the only act to have three songs included on the American Graffiti soundtrack that fueled an oldies revival already underway in the early to mid-1970s: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "The Great Pretender," and "Only You (and You Alone)."