In 1954, while living in the Hill District, Rick Toliver began harmonizing with the street corner doo-woppers of the neighborhood. Even though he was a natural baritone, he was singing first tenor. He often hooked up with Larry Williams, Daryl Gilmore (El Dupreys) and Sylvester Brooks (Smoothtones) for his street serenades.
He came by his voice honestly. Both of his parents sang for a gospel group that toured the region.
One day, as the boys prepped for a talent show at the Addison Center, Toliver caught a cold and couldn't hit his trademark tenor notes. Rehearsing at his parent's home, they decided to draft his 10 year-old lil' brother, Michael, who everyone called Mickey, into the act. He was taught a crash course in vocal harmony.
Brooks slid Michael to second tenor, took over the top tenor himself, and dropped Rick to baritone. But young Mickey was just a fill-in at that point, and wasn't really into music. What he was into was basketball, although that would change.
In 1955, the Toliver clan moved to Homewood, and that was the spark that ignited the Capitols.
Frankie Lymon successfully introduced the soaring tenor lead to R&B recordings in 1956. It was a sound that was already popular on Tioga Street in Homewood.
Five teens, ranging in age from 14 to 17, would hang out on Tioga Street every night and harmonize like the groups on the radio. They were Mickey (lead) and Ricky Toliver (baritone), Fred McCray (second tenor), Arthur Dixon (first tenor), and Frankie Hill (bass).
It may have kept them on the streets, but it kept them out of trouble. (Actually, their dad was a mechanic and had a garage, Toliver's Auto Repair Shop, where they practiced, but who are we to mess with a good street-corner doo-wop story?)
When they got together, the neighbors would gather to check out the sounds. They must have liked what they heard; the group felt that they were ready to make their name by 1956. A visit by McCray to Washington, D. C. led to the name Capitols. Everyone was down with it, and the Capitols it is to this day.
That year the Capitols showcased themselves via talent and community gigs, and they drew the attention of WILY DJ Bill Powell.
Powell featured them live on his radio show several times. By 1956, the Capitols headlined his Rock n Roll shows. Their records would eventually spin on the turntables of local DJs Sir Walter (WILY), Porky Chedwick (WHOD), Barry Kaye (WJAS) and Al Noble (KQV).
Porky was so impressed with the Capitols that he had the group perform at his hops and they became prime draws on Sunday night at the White Elephant in White Oak.
In the midst of their sudden whirlwind schedule of shows, 18 year-old Frank Hill joined the army. Dora "Spike" Hall replaced McCray at second tenor, and he moved to bass to take Hill's spot. With this new lineup, the Capitols landed their first record contract.
Ike Weems became their manager (and part-time bass man), and hooked the Capitols up with DJ Jay Michael, airing out of WCAE. He became a fan. "Jay Bird" was tight with Gone-End Record president George Goldner, who recorded the Teenagers on his Gee label.
In May of 1957, Weems finangled an audition with Goldner, who was in town, by dropping Jay Michael's name liberally. It was held at George Heid's recording studio in the William Penn Hotel. The Capitols sang the Teenagers' "ABC's Of Love."
Goldner thought they sounded like the Teenagers, and signed the Capitols to his subsidiary Cindy label and a five-year contract with a two-year option. He set up a session at the Bell Sound Studio in New York and told the group to get some material ready to record.
The Capitols already had a song, "Millie," which they sang at all their appearances, written by Mickey. According to him the song was about his first love "Lizzie," (Elizabeth Bennett), though they had to change the name to fit the lyrics.
Weems gave the group $90 and had a friend drive them to the Big Apple in his station wagon. Arriving in New York, the group stayed at Harlem's Cadillac Hotel, just down the street from the Apollo Theater. They spent the day at Coney island and reported to the studio to cut "Millie," and "Rose-Marie."
It took two hours and several takes, but they got the job done, and done well. The story they tell is that after a busy day, the youngsters' minds were everywhere but on the task at hand. After hearing the lifeless results of their first take on tape, the embarrassed group buckled down, focused a bit, and nailed it.
In June, the Capitols returned to New York to appear on a talent show at the Apollo Theater. They did "Rose-Marie," complete with some slick, newly developed choreography.
The record was released in July (Cindy #3002), under Mickey Toliver and the Capitols. On July 20, 1957, "Rose-Marie" was ranked # 1 by Jay Michael, and a week later, it debuted on Al Noble's KQV Top 10.
Then Porky started pushing the platter. The Capitols were often doing three record hops a week with Pork the Tork, and did shows with Bill Powell of WAMO and Leon Sykes of WMBS in Uniontown.
The record was also getting heavy air play in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. But even with strong regional record sales, there was no cash coming in, though the contract called for a 6-1/2 percent royalty fee. Imagine that - a label ripping off an artist.
So they played the halls to earn their daily bread. They appeared at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. for a week, doing 4 shows a day. The Capitols also did shows at the Paramount, the Regal, the Uptown and the famed Apollo in Harlem.
What they enjoyed most about their Apollo appearances was the final curtain call, when all the artists would come out on stage and sing one final encore number together.
The Capitols also gigged in New Jersey with DJ Jacko Henderson, and at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, at a Jay Michael's Revue.
Rick Toliver remembers the Mosque show. "The Clovers burned our sweaters. We had hung the sweaters over some lights backstage and unknowingly, the Clovers clicked the switch on." They sang "Rose Marie" in tops with brown holes shot through them.
For some unknown (to the band, anyway) reason, Cindy wasn't releasing anymore of their archived material, and they completely stopped recording the group.
According to Marv Goldberg in his excellent R&B Notebook, Cindy was originally set up for Jay Michaels by Goldner, apparently to serve as a local label of sorts. So he probably never planned any national push for the area acts on Cindy's roster.
In 1958, the frustrated Capitols taped four demo tracks for Atlantic Records. All the tunes were written by Mickey Toliver and sang a cappella. They were jump tunes "Sitting In The Park" and "I Got A Girl," with the ballads "Give Me A Thought" and "There's A Reason Why." They also sent the tape to Vee Jay.
The Capitols wanted to bolt Cindy to sign with Atlantic Records, but Goldner warned them that they were under his contractual control, and the threat of lawyers ended their attempted jailbreak for the time being.
The Capitol's lineup took on a new look in the spring of 1958. Dora Hall left the group after she got married. Willie James, a second tenor who sang with the Hill's El Dupreys, replaced her.
McCray was already married, and Rick Toliver tied the knot in September. The Capitols were still together but not working very much. Family life was number one and there were no new records from the band in 1958. In 1959, a session was held at George Heid's studio that produced two demo's, the uptempo "I Got A Girl" b/w the ballad "Give Me A Thought."
Mickey's voice changed in 1960, and he lost his tenor range. Hey, it happens to us all eventually. When he graduated from Fifth Avenue High in 1960, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, joining up with the 508th Airborne. With his departure, the Capitols shut down, and they parted company with Weems.
From June 1960 until the summer of 1961, the Capitols were inactive. They did resurface with Dora (Hall) Goins (lead), Clarence Herd (first tenor), the El Veno's Eddie Hicks (second tenor/bass), George Taliaferro (second tenor /bass), and Rick Toliver.
A four-song demo tape, written by Hicks, was put together at United Studios. The tracks were the upbeat "Day By Day" and "Man Across the Hill", and the slow "Little Things" and "Just The Way You Axe."
The Capitols continued to perform throughout the Pittsburgh area into 1963. Howard and Sam Shapiro, owners of the National Record Mart and operators of Gateway Records, showed some interest in the group. Goins' husband, a trombonist for the Debonaires, is said to have bird-dogged the Capitols to the Shapiros.
They landed a contract, and in November, 1963, the group entered Gateway's studio above the NRM and recorded Hick's uptempo "Day By Day" and the ballad "Little Things" (Gateway 721). The Capitols were backed by the Debonaires. But the records went nowhere.
In May of 1964, Rick Toliver was promoted by his day job and left the group to focus on his 9-5 gig. The Capitols made appearances as a quartet after that, and became a trio when Herd departed, too. Goins, Hicks and Taliaferro stayed together until 1965, when they held a farewell show at the Paradise Club.
And no, they're not the Detroit trio that did "Cool Jerk" in 1966.
Hicks and Taliaferro did sing for the 1978 Walt Maddox Marcells that recorded a disco version of "Blue Moon" on the All Ears label (#1001). Disco "Blue Moon?"
But hey, everything old is new again, right? Original members Dora Hall and the Toliver brothers joined Eddie Hicks and Calvin Moore, and Mickey Toliver and the Capitols were reborn. You can visit them at Capitols - MySpace Music.
And if you'd like a listen, Dead Dog Records has an album of their material called "The Capitols - 50 Years of Music" with 28 of their tracks. "Rose Marie" is also on a couple of doo-wop anthologies.
"Little Things" by the Capitols - 1963