On Saturday at Waetjen Auditorium at Cleveland State University, the newly minted R&B Music Hall of Fame will welcome its first class of inductees.
Honorees include legends such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Miracles and Jackie Wilson, along with influential area artists including Little Jimmy Scott, Gerald Levert and Akron’s own Ruby & the Romantics.
This year has brought Ruby & the Romantics, known for its oft-covered 1963 No. 1 hit Our Day Will Come, quite a bit of recognition.
Akron declared Feb. 7 Ruby & the Romantics Day with a well-attended ceremony held earlier this year in city hall that brought tears to Ruby Nash Garnett’s eyes.
“That was really special,” Nash Garnett, who celebrated her 79th birthday in June, said in the living room of her West Akron home.
Now the group will be enshrined alongside legends, some of whom were tour mates.
Of the original group members — Nash Garnett, Ronald Mosley, Leroy Fann, George Lee and Ed Roberts — only Nash Garnett survives to enjoy the accolades. Fann was killed in New York in 1973, Roberts and Lee died of cancer in 1993 and 1994 respectively, and Ronald Mosley had a series of strokes and passed away in 2011. Nash Garnett is unable to attend Saturday night’s induction ceremony, but she said she appreciates the honor for herself and the guys.
Asked to recount the tale of the Romantics, Nash Garnett said: “I’ve told this story so many times, oh gosh, I don’t even know if I can remember everything.”
She grew up in a household where her father and uncle were self-taught musicians, her grandmother played piano and her mother was a big R&B fan. Nash Garnett was entranced by the music of Sarah Vaughn and favorite Nat King Cole.
When she was a little girl, Nash Garnett recalled telling her mother, “ ‘I don’t know if I can sing, but one day I’m going to hear myself on the radio.’ She never lived to see me, but my dad did.”
Eventually, Nash Garnett and a group that included her sister entered one of the Akron Community Center’s frequent talent shows. The competition included future Romantics, who often won.
“That was the first time I ever sang in front of anybody and we won. We beat the guys who were always winning … and I said, ‘Oh man, I like that.’ ”
She joined the Skarlettones, which featured Mosley. Fann, Roberts and Lee’s group, the Embers, had recorded and released a single that failed. They changed their name to the Feilos and released another unsuccessful record, prompting them in 1961 to consider adding a female voice.
“I had never been out of Akron,” Nash Garnett said. “When they finally asked I said, ‘Well, I’ll try it.’ ”
New York audition
The group rehearsed for a year before going to New York in October 1962, where bandleader and arranger Leroy Kirkland got them an audition with Kapp Records. They sang every song they knew for six hours.
Kapp representative Alan Stanton “was so taken by how good they sounded. Those guys just had an ear for music. They were perfectionists,” Nash Garnett said of her bandmates.
Stanton made two suggestions: that Nash Garnett sing lead, a fairly unique setup back then; and that the group change its name to Ruby & the Romantics. The guys were skeptical about the name change. “They thought about it a while and said, ‘OK, maybe girls will like that. We’ll try that,’ ” Nash Garnett said.
She was terrified at the prospect of fronting the group because she always enjoyed singing in the background. “I thought I would die. That wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
The newly dubbed Ruby & the Romantics listened to demos for days before a tune called Our Day Will Come, by Bob Hilliard and Mort Garson, was played. Nash Garnett said she immediately knew the song was going to be a hit, but was rebuffed when she asked if they could record the song.
“Well, what the heck you play it for?” she recalled asking, before hounding Stanton and eventually making her pitch to the songwriters, who finally agreed.
That bossa nova beat
In those days, songs were recorded with the artist and the band playing together in the studio. So Ruby & the Romantics with the band started by running through the song four or five times. During a break, the drummer casually started playing the bossa nova beat that would become the single’s musical base.
“We were still in there, so we just started singing and the band came on in, and that’s how that came about with the bossa nova. And we did it over again in one take. …”
The group and Stanton knew they had a hit, and Fann wrote the B-side, Moonlight and Music, for the group’s first 45.
They were all together the first time they heard it on the radio. “Oh gosh, [the guys] were jumping up and down and stuff. It was really exciting,” she said, noting that her childhood dream didn’t come close to matching the excitement of the moment.
Suddenly, Ruby & the Romantics had a hit climbing the charts — it was Billboard’s No. 1 single in March 1963 — but no stage act.
“We had to try and work up some routines because we had guys in the band that couldn’t dance. We had one guy who was so awkward … oh my … it was a chore getting him to move because he had like three feet,” she said with a soft chuckle.
The group also didn’t have a manager, booker or proper stage clothes, so they scrambled to get ready to hit the road.
Nash Garnett recalls the group’s first big tour, a 30-day haphazardly routed jaunt with James Brown and other acts: “It was horrible. I liked being with the other artists but I didn’t like being on the bus.”
The adventure included the band losing some gear during a storm that flooded the bus, and a scary moment during a night drive when Nash Garnett awoke to discover that the driver had dozed off and was weaving all over the road. She made herself the driver’s nighttime conversation buddy, and to this day, she says she will not sleep in any moving vehicle.
A self-described “hick from Akron,” Nash Garnett also recalls a group tour with American Bandstand host Dick Clark where she first encountered “the black and white thing.”
She said the bus pulled into a hotel in Greensboro, N.C., and the riders saw some folks in the swimming pool. “When they saw black and white [people] get off that bus, you should have seen the people jumping out that pool,” she said.
But Nash Garnett, who said she’d never seen any significant racial discrimination growing up in Akron, didn’t get angry or even particularly offended: “I said, ‘Boy, that’s so stupid.’ ”
Another time, the tour bus stopped to get food, and Clark was told the black artists would have to enter through the back door.
“He said, ‘No, ain’t nobody going around to the back for anything,’ ” Nash Garnett recalled.
The proprietor then said they’d have to cook their own food. Among the acts on the tour were Dick and Dee Dee (The Mountain’s High) and Paul and Paula (Hey, Hey Paula), and the women volunteered to cook hamburgers for the entire bus.
While those moments and seeing “whites only” signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains were certainly teaching moments, for Nash Garnett the best times were spent out of the country in the mid-1960s, where the group was treated like royalty.
“I like the way the people greeted us in Canada and overseas. We did a lot of Army bases, like in Berlin.”
Hits dry up
By the latter part of the 1960s, Ruby & the Romantics’ smooth, cabaret style was being overtaken by Motown’s forays into psychedelic soul, Stax Records’ gritty Southern sound, and the growing behemoth of rock ’n’ roll. The group didn’t have any more hits, but a few songs they recorded were successful for other artists, including Hey There, Lonely Boy, which became a gender-switched hit for Eddie Holman, and Hurting Each Other, later a No. 2 hit for the Carpenters.
Fortunes also took a downturn due in part to bad and shady management (“Managers, good God, they’re horrible”), poor booking and record labels that didn’t know how to sell them. By 1971, Nash Garnett decided she’d had enough of the “tiresome” life on the road and the music business.
She had married Robert Garnett in 1966 and was ready to start the family she had put off for her music career. The group called it quits in 1971.
Nash Garnett returned home, raised three children and worked at jobs including AT&T and the Barberton Salvation Army. Over the years she received calls from oldies tours promising her a great backing band, but she said, “I already had a good band with guys I got along with; a new band would be like starting over.”
Nash didn’t sing professionally again until WNEO/WEAO (Channels 45/49) produced a special in 2002 and asked her to perform Our Day Will Come.
“It was the first time I’d sung in 27 years. I was scared to death,” she said adding that it was also the first time she had performed the song without the Romantics behind her.
“As soon as I was done I wanted to dart off the stage, but the people stood up and started clapping and that helped out, but it was the scariest feeling in the world.”