Fred Parris: “He was a love-struck 19-year-old missing his fiancée while serving in the Army when he wrote one of pop music’s most enduring songs”

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Fred Parris, Creator of a Doo-Wop Classic, Is Dead at 85”:

Fred Parris, who was a love-struck 19-year-old missing his fiancée while serving in the Army when he wrote one of pop music’s most enduring songs, the wistful doo-wop ballad commonly known as “In the Still of the Night,” and recorded it with his group the Five Satins in 1956, died in New Haven, Conn.

His current group, Fred Parris and the Five Satins, posted news of his death on its Facebook page, saying only that he had died after a short illness.

Over the years Mr. Parris varied the story of his signature song a bit, but this was the gist of it: He had met the “girl of my dreams,” as he put it, at the Savin Rock amusement park in West Haven, Conn., in 1954, and by the next year they were engaged. On the train ride back to his Army base in Philadelphia after a particularly nice visit with her, he reminisced about their first night together and began thinking about lyrics and tunes.

“When I arrived at camp, I went straight to the day room,” he said in 2004. “There was a piano there, and I started playing the chord in my head and the words in my heart.”

But soon he had to report for his shift. That’s when the song really came together.

“Before I realized it,” he said, “it was time to go to guard duty. It was a cold, black night, and the stars were twinkling.”

The result was a song that was originally titled “(I’ll Remember) In the Still of the Nite,” to distinguish it from Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night,” said Ralph M. Newman, an R&B historian who filled in some of the details of Mr. Parris’s life. In February 1956, again on leave from the Army, Mr. Parris and three pals, backed by some local musicians, recorded the song on a relatively primitive two-track system in an echoey basement room at St. Bernadette’s Church in New Haven.

Somehow they captured acoustical magic.

“Because we did it at the church,” Mr. Parris said…“I think the song was blessed. And so was I.”

Though it was originally only a minor hit, “In the Still of the Night” achieved doo-wop immortality, thanks to cover versions by Boyz II Men, the Beach Boys and others; its use in “Dirty Dancing,” “The Irishman” and other movies; and its tuneful timelessness. Mr. Newman, a former editor of the R&B history magazine Bim Bam Boom and a former executive with Broadcast Music Inc., traced the record’s slow ascent in an email:

“After this icon of vocal group harmony was recorded and first released by the local Standord record label in New Haven, the master was leased to the larger Ember label, which in 1956 landed it on Alan Freed’s nightly radio show on WINS in New York. There it became, for years, the No. 1 listener-requested song of the period, with which Freed often closed the show with a long list of dedications, and went on to become the perennial No. 1 song on oldies stations around the country.”

Mr. Parris kept writing, performing and recording for more than a half century with an ever-changing lineup, mostly under the Five Satins name. When the oldies boom hit, the song came to define the doo-wop era. The critic Greil Marcus included it in his 2014 book, “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs.”

“Though he continued to record new songs well into the 1980s,” Mr. Marcus wrote, “Parris and different versions of the Five Satins never played a show, whether in clubs around New Haven, for rock ’n’ roll revival concerts in New York, on PBS doo-wop fund-raisers, without ‘In the Still of the Nite’ being the reason the audience was there at all.”

Mr. Newman said he once produced a show featuring the Five Satins on the excursion ship Bay Belle.

“At that time I asked Fred whether he ever tired of singing that song, night after night, year after year,” Mr. Newman said, “to which he replied: ‘No way; I never stop loving doing that song for people who tell me that it occupies a special place in their lives. I consider it a privilege.’”

Frederick Lee Parris was born in Milford, Conn….He grew up in the New Haven area and attended Hillhouse High School. He was a decent baseball player; an entry on the Five Satins in Jay Warner’s “The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History, 1940-1990” says he once had a tryout with the Boston Braves.

Apparently he was a better singer than ballplayer, and he was in several groups before forming the Five Satins. One, which he formed with other Hillhouse students, was called the Scarlets, and in 1954 the group recorded “Dear One,” a song Mr. Parris had written, for the Red Robin label; it received some airplay in the New York market.

The Scarlets cut several other records, but in 1955 military service split up the group. Mr. Parris ended up in Philadelphia and, during trips home to Connecticut, formed a new group. He had admired a doo-wop act called the Velvets and “liked the idea of something soft and red,” as the Billboard book put it; he chose the name the Five Satins.

But despite that name, Mr. Newman said, there were only four Satins at the 1956 recording session: Mr. Parris, who sang lead on “In the Still of the Night,” Al Denby (low tenor), Eddie Martin (baritone) and Jim Freeman (bass). The group, usually with five members, continued on, even recording a minor 1957 success, “To the Aisle,” with Bill Baker singing lead because Mr. Parris, still in the service, was stationed in Japan. Two other records made the Billboard charts in those early years, with Mr. Parris as the lead singer: “Shadows” (1959) and “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1960).

Mr. Parris, when telling the story of “In the Still of the Night,” usually didn’t identify the young woman who inspired the song, though in a Smithsonian article he said her name was Marla. In any case, there was no marriage; shortly after he wrote the song, he said in 1982, “she went to California to visit her mother.”

“She never came back,” he said.

Mr. Parris was married several times, most recently to Emma Parris, who survives him….

“In the Still of the Night” endured, and for a time Mr. Parris and various versions of the Satins toured on the strength of it, but in the mid-1960s the British Invasion shoved the doo-wop era aside. He said that over the years he worked at the Olin and High Standard gun-making plants in Connecticut and delivered food at Southern Connecticut State University.

“You do a lot of stuff to eat,” he said.

But beginning in the 1970s he tapped into the rock ’n’ roll revival market, performing at oldies shows, and in 1982, for the first time in more than 20 years, he and the Satins landed briefly on the charts again with “Memories of Days Gone By,” a medley made up of snatches of “Sixteen Candles,” “Earth Angel” and other classics, including “In the Still of the Night.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.


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