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Collector at Heart : Jay Warner's new book focuses on vocal ensembles of the last half-century. It is based on memorabilia he has amassed.

August 06, 1993|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Don Heckman writes regularly about music for The Times.

Jay Warner has probably saved every record he ever bought--and then some. The author-publisher-radio personality has a collection of record ings, especially, vocal group recordings, that would turn most pop music collectors green with envy.

"I have over 25,000 records," Warner said last week in the Burbank offices of his publishing company, "and just about every music book and magazine that I ever got as a kid. In fact, my mother was afraid to go in my closets because she was afraid she'd be overwhelmed by an avalanche of magazines."

Warner's collection has been the basis for his recently published book, "The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990." A group-by-group examination of about 360 of the best- and least-known vocal ensembles of the last half-century, the work touches on everyone from the Mills Brothers and the Ravens to the Three Chuckles and En Vogue. Included for many of the groups from the golden era years of the '40s, '50s and '60s are discographies with release dates and labels/catalog numbers.

"I got started," Warner said, "because I was a record collector. I kept looking around for books or information or anything I could find about vocal groups, and there was very little I could find. . . . So, out of frustration, I decided to just do it myself."

Warner began with his own collection, digging through his old magazines, rechecking questionable facts against more current information.

"Then I went directly to the sources themselves, to the performers," he said. "Fortunately, as a music publisher, I had enough contacts to track down a lot of the acts that hadn't been heard from in 30 years. For example, I called Tim Hauser of the Manhattan Transfer. He said, 'Are you going to be writing about groups from the '40s?' and I said, 'Yeah.' So he gave me phone numbers for people like Mel Torme and Henry Mancini. And I said, 'Why Henry Mancini?' And Tim said, 'Hank's wife sang with Torme's Meltones.' "

Another friend put him in touch with one of the singers from Danny and the Juniors, and Warner wound up with "half the Philadelphia-area vocal groups from just a couple of phone calls," he said.

As thorough in his promotional practices as he is in his record-collecting, Warner has gathered a remarkable array of testimonials for the book.

"I'm proud to be included among so many of my favorite performers," Tony Orlando says.

"This book is a treasure for all who love American vocal groups--and a must-have for all of us who sing," adds Shirley Alston Reeves of the Shirelles.

Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters comments: "Now the history of harmony will live on forever," and Ben E. King of the Drifters tells Warner: "Your book on singing groups has taken me back to a time, a people and a music that I love."

Warner came by his interest in vocal music firsthand. Raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, he organized a vocal group called the Carolons when he was still a teen-ager. The ensemble released a single recording--a remake of the Desires' "Let It Please Be Me."

Warner later became founder and president of the Creative Music Group and, in 1983, formed his own publishing company. Among the hundreds of hit songs he has administered through his organization are "Up, Up and Away," "It's a Miracle," "Knock Three Times" and "A Girl Like You." In 1991, he won a Grammy award as publisher of the Best R & B Song of the Year, "You Can't Touch This." His first book, "How to Have Your Hit Song Published," published in 1978, was one of the earliest attempts to provide business guidance for music performers.

Warner is particularly pleased that "American Singing Groups" has become an equally useful reference for serious record collectors.

"Now that vinyl isn't available anymore, these records are terrific collectibles," he said. "When I started collecting in the early '60s, old 45s from the '50s--especially by vocal groups--were highly prized. And now, 30 years later, they're that much more valuable."

Vocal group recordings from the '50s have sold for extraordinary figures. "Stormy Weather" by the Five Sharps is a near-legendary example. According to Warner, its great rarity resulted in prices as high as $3,000 or $4,000 each for the few records that have come onto the market. When a single copy turned up in the mid-'80s, the asking price was $10,000. Other rare items, Warner said, include "some of the early blues numbers by the Moonglows, such as 'I Was Wrong' and 'Baby, Please,' and some of the early Flamingos' releases, especially those on Chance Records."

"I've heard from a number of friends," Warner added, "that they've seen collectors at swap meets carrying my book around, looking through the discographies in an effort to complete their collections.

"There was one guy--a Frank Sinatra collector--who wasn't aware that Sinatra had sung with a black gospel group called the Charioteers until he read my book. Then he started going around to dealers and, sure enough, when he showed them the label number in the book, one of them came up with an original copy."

For all his high energy and organization, Warner is a true collector at heart: as much in love with the music as he is with the idea of rarity or enhanced value.

"I'm like all collectors," he said. "We don't want reissues; we want that original recording. We want to touch that original piece of plastic from 1953 or 1954. And if my book can help anyone find that recording they've been wanting, or if it can help them understand the connection between the New Edition and the Mills Brothers, I figure I've done a pretty good job."

Where and When What: "The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990." Where: Major bookstores. Cost: $21.95 paperback.

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