NORMAN FOX & THE ROB ROYS
(excerpted from THE BILLBOARD BOOK OF AMERICAN SINGING GROUPS by Jay Warner)
One of the earliest interracial quintets, Norman Fox & The Rob-Roys were also one of the most underrated and overlooked groups ever to cut a 45. With his distinctive lead voice, Norman Fox (16) of the Bronx hooked up with DeWitt Clinton High School friends Robert Thierer (17, baritone), Marshall "Buzzy" Helfand (17, bass), Bob Trotman (16, first tenor) and Andre Lilly (16, second tenor) in 1956 to form a dynamic vocal mix with their Jewish/black coalition (Trotman and Lilly were originally members of the Harmonaires on Holiday.) They practiced in the school's bathroom, at Norman's house on Henry Hudson Parkway, and at Robert's Knolls Crescent address, sharpening their sound on songs like THE HEARTBEATS' "Rockin' and Rollin'" and their own "Tell Me Why".
Influenced by other groups like THE HARPTONES, THE EL DORADOS, THE CLEFTONES, THE TEENAGERS, and the Heartbeats, the Bronx quintet developed their own unique sound at the same time the racially mixed DEL-VIKINGS were getting it all together in Pittsburgh.
Early in 1957 Bob Trotman met Don Carter, New York agent for the Duke/Peacock organization, at Buddy's Record Shop on 167th Street in the Bronx, and told him of their group. After a live audition in that very same record store, the Bronx boys found themselves contracted to the Texas-based record label.
Originally called the Velvetones, they changed their name to the Rob-Roys (after the drink) and recorded their first single for Peacock's new Backbeat affiliate in April 1957 at Bell Sound Studios.
"Tell Me Why," written by bass Buzzy Helfand, became credited on all subsequent labels as Helford-Carter. (We all know who the freeloading Carter was, but how Helfand became Helford is a mystery. If it was a spelling mistake why wasn't it corrected on reprints over the years?) "Tell Me Why" was an exciting chime-harmony rocker that presented a perfect vehicle for Fox's powerful delivery, the group's tight harmonies and Helfand's solid bass.
Tell Me Why" came out in the summer of 1957. The single was well received by East Coast radio stations (particularly in New York and Philadelphia), but it was obvious that the gospel conglomerate had no idea of how to market rock and roll.
The Rob-Roys turned out to be Backbeat's first integrated group (Fox, Helfand and Thierer were white, Lilly and Trotman black), but they performed at Harlem clubs to the surprise and delight of patrons lucky enough to see them. For the most part they played New York area record hops with deejays like Jocko while waiting for their next release, the Robert Thierer-Bob Trotman dance doo wop classic, "Dance Girl Dance."
In two singles Norman established himself as one of rock's most excitingly identifiable leads. Unfortunately, few people had the chance to concur thanks to Backbeat's inability or unwillingness to market another classic.
In late 1958 the group, weary of lost records, brought two Norman Fox originals to Capitol Records. They signed the group and issued "Pizza Pie" b/w "Dream Girl" in January 1959. Paul Schneller (another white Jewish bass) replaced Helfand on bass just before the Capitol sides were recorded.
On January 19th, Billboard reviewed "Pizza Pie," stating "a rocker slightly dated in sound and approach, but the side is well made, the boys handle it nicely and the novelty interest is there. It ties the story of a lifetime in with a pizza pie. This could catch a spin." The minute the record came out, Don Robey of Backbeat showed up waving a still-valid contract with the Rob-Roys. Capitol chose to pull the single before it reached most radio stations.
In desperation, the group agreed to record five more Fox originals for Robey in order to be released from their deal, which they did, but by the time all was said and done Capitol still wouldn't reissue "Pizza Pie" and lost interest in the Rob-Roys. Ironically, Robey never issued the five sides he fought for and they remain in the MCA vaults.
In 1962 Fox and company did two sides, Aggravation" and "Lonely Boy," for Bob Shad's Time label, but they were never issued.
The group broke up in 1963 but re-formed for a 1971 Hunter College "Oldies Revival" (Beacon Theatre) at the request of disc Jockey legend Gus Gossert. All but Buzzy appeared that night.
In 1986 at the urging of Robert Thierer, new Rob-Roys emerged with Norman back on lead along with veterans Stuart Morgan (first tenor) of a '80s touring DRIFTERS. Alex Augustine (second tenor) of the latter-day CHARTS and ROOMMATES, and Leon McClain (bass) of the Quinns ("Hong Kong").
In the late '80s a couple of ardent collector/dealers happened upon two sides the group had cut for Capitol, "Lover Doll" and "That's Love," and one the Rob-Roys had done in 1974 ("Rainy Day Bells") and turned them into two singles on a bogus Backbeat label. A third Backbeat issue, "Do Re Mi" (somehow spirited from the Robey sides), came out in 1990 for the collectors' market.
Later, Robert Trotman became a motorman (since retired) for New York's E Train; Buzzy Helfand became the owner of a marina in Montauk, Long Island; Robert Thierer became a CPA; and Norman Fox gained success as a garment manufacturer when he and Robert weren't performing as the Rob-Roys. Not surprisingly, the group had greater popularity in the early '60s during the first oldies awareness period than when they were originally recording. "Tell Me Why" became a hit for THE BELMONTS in 1961 (#18).
In late 1991 the group recorded four songs acappella for a Starlight Records CD. Three of the four were their own "Dream Girl," "Pizza Pie," and "Tell Me Why"; the fourth was the Heartbeats' "Your Way." In 1993 four more songs, again acappella, were recorded for a Starlight CD. Two were their own "Dance Girl Dance" and "Lover Doll". One was Neil Sedaka's "Rainy Day Bells" which they had also recorded in 1975. The remaining two were THE KODAKS' "Oh Gee Oh Gosh" and FRANKIE LYMON'S "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", both with Kim Fox (Norman's daughter) doing very strong, lead vocals.
In May, 1992 The Rob-Roys appeared, among other places, at the WCBS 20th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION held at RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL & IN 1993 AT THE WESTBURY MUSIC FAIR.
Currently(2004) .The ROB-ROYS are:
NORMAN FOX-Original Lead(1956)
ROBERT THIERER- Original Baritone(1956)
TINO(NELSON) ALVAREZ-1ST TENOR/LEAD(1991)
WARREN TESORO-2ND TENOR/LEAD(2003)