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Connecting through the Collections

Georgette Covasa, MLIS Student and SCRC Intern

Becoming involved with the environment around me is something I particularly enjoy as a student. The spaces you belong to and the places you visit outside of the classroom are just as critical to the university experience as the schoolwork itself. This engagement impacts how you feel about your school experience, your daily life, and how you balance your time. As an undergraduate student, the calmness of my campus, especially the university library, lessened the pressure of schoolwork and made me feel comfortable. When I was in London in 2018, I found myself immersed in the city life particularly because the university I attended was located in central London. In both places, learning about the local histories and being involved in the lifestyle of the environment helped connect me emotionally to the school. I felt as if I could really say I belonged. 

Now, as a remote student enrolled in a Master of Library and Information Science program at Syracuse University, I’ve found myself struggling to maintain that same connection to the university that I’ve previously had. While learning remotely has certain advantages, it is difficult to say I’ve felt part of a college community. After my classes, I log off and return to the daily life around me far removed from university life. While SU does a great job of providing immersive sessions, lectures, and other methods of involvement for students, the lack of physical presence in a school setting has impacted my experience as a Syracuse student. I had not taken the time to learn about Syracuse, or the state of New York, in order to familiarize myself with the environment that the university is in. This is not something I fully realized until I took on an internship with the Special Collections Research Center at Bird Library.

William Safire, black and white photo
Photograph of William Safire. William Safire Papers.

Over the course of the past semester, I’ve been involved in transcribing papers from the William Safire Papers and creating metadata for videos in the Inside Albany Records. William Safire was an American author, journalist, columnist and presidential speechwriter (Fun fact: Safire is of Romanian descent, and I am Romanian, making it even more exciting that I got assigned to this specific project!). Most notably, he worked as a political columnist for The New York Times where he often provided political commentary. One of his commentary pieces on Bert Lance’s alleged budgetary irregularities under Jimmy Carter in 1977 won him the Pulitzer Prize. Along with his political column, he also wrote a column called “On Language” that discussed popular etymology, new or unusual usages of words, and other language related topics. The Special Collections Research Center holds the manuscripts from both Safire’s political works and his “On Language” column, along with copies of his letters to specific people, such as Ray Bradbury, Safire’s interviews with various people in entertainment, and his personal notes. Safire is incredibly blunt and abrupt in his style of writing. As a transcriber, it is interesting to see what he decides to delete and cross out; his initial thoughts are often even more brusque. While his pieces often do not reveal much about New York State in regard to history, the experience of working through these resources helped me understand why Safire’s work remains valuable and why SCRC might want such materials in their collections. Specifically, his strong identity as a “libertarian conservative” and support of the war in the Middle East, coupled with his unparalleled prose, persuades readers to think critically about the subjects at hand. Working through this collection helped me understand the importance of having a collection that showcases multiple political and cultural perspectives.

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Letter, William Safire to Justice William Brennan, regarding the etymology of the phrase “wide-open, robust and uninhibited,” coined in response to the NY Times v. Sullivan case. William Safire Papers.

Even more prominently, working on creating metadata for Inside Albany videos is what has allowed me to learn more about New York as a state, making me feel a little bit closer to the environment in which Syracuse is located. Inside Albany was a weekly half-hour public affairs television program that aired from 1975 to 2006. The program focused on contemporary events and issues of the New York State government and politics. Topics have included the budget related to higher education, environmental clean-ups, and the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. For these videos, I am tasked with ensuring that a succinct description is created for the video, the people in the video are properly identified, and the subject matters are linked. All of this ensures that people who are performing searches will be able to find these videos or that searches can bring up Inside Albany videos when applicable. Deep attention must be paid in order for all of this data to be properly created, and I have come to understand much about the inner workings of New York through doing so. Though much has changed in New York since 2006, I am able to understand the timeline of events and present day occurrences much better through analysis of the Inside Albany videos.

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Opening credit card for Inside Albany No. 0005, Inside Albany Records.

With both of these projects, not only has the information in specific materials brought me further understanding of New York and Syracuse University, but the simple act of working on something for the university has made me feel more connected to the campus. Attending the university as a student is something incredibly beneficial for my career and personal growth, but being able to contribute and work for the university, interact with employees, and become involved in novel conversations has helped me build that emotional connection to the university where I am earning my degree. 


The William Safire Papers (William Safire Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and the Inside Albany Records (Inside Albany Records, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.


“Our Day Will Come”: Black Pop Music in the Sixties

By Nora Ramsey, Reference Assistant

Working among the collections for most of my time at Syracuse University as a graduate student has given me many unique and interesting perspectives on libraries, archives, and the materials held within them. However, my time here has also made me aware of a gap in collecting focus. 

While applying for a second masters degree in musicology, I wanted to find a way to bridge my interests regarding music and epistemicide. Specifically, I am interested in how music is archived and the problems that occur when there is limited representation in collections. The African American Musicians Photograph Collection is a prime display of purchasing a collection with limited contextual information. The collection consists of professional portraits of Black musicians, performers and singers, who were primarily active during the 1950s and 1960s. It does not contain letters, personal reflections, or other information which could be used to further describe the artists. The collection includes notable performers such as The Wanderers, Ruby and the Romantics, and many more.

The Wanderers

Original members Ray Pollard (lead), Frank Joyner (tenor), Robert Yarbrough (baritone), and Sheppard “Shep” Grant (bass) began their career in 1952 as the Barons on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue in New York’s Harlem. The group was known as The Larks for only a short time, and then changed to the Singing Wanderers after performing and winning at an Apollo amateur night show. With Pollard’s vocal flexibility, the group found themselves signed to Savoy Records for the single “We Could Find Happiness” in 1954. 

Months later, the Singing Wanderers signed “Say Hey Willie Mays” and “The Wrong Party Again” with Decca for two opposite-sounding singles. To increase their exposure, Lee Majid, Savoy’s A&R director, began booking the group with legendary singers such as Eartha Kitt and Ethel Merman. Despite not yet reaching the Billboard charts, the band appeared on the Ed Sullivan show several times.

The Wanderers publicity shot
(Left to right) Ray Pollard, Sheppard “Shep” Grant, Robert Yarborough, Frank Joyner as The Wanderers. African Americans Musicians Photograph Collection.

In 1957, the group changed their name once more, this time to The Wanderers, and began releasing singles with Onyx Records.1 They tried to expand their range of material, even recording a pop single called “Thinking of You.” In the New York area, this song received good reviews and identified Ray Pollard as one of the elite singers among 50s vocal groups. After MGM acquired Onyx Records, The Wanderers released “For Your Love” in an attempt to merge the group’s vocal talent and past hits. The concept yielded the greatest success of the group and was reviewed by Billboard favorably. The song charted nationally later in the same year at number 93, but achieved much greater success in New York.

There is No Greater Love” landed #88 in Pop during the summer of 1962, and it was the Wanderer’s last and highest charting record.  The group continued to perform until bass Shep Grant died in 1970. Pollard continued singing and landed a role in the Broadway play, “Purlie, ” in 1971.

Within the collection of photographs itself, there is no identifying information on the group’s portrait other than their name printed at the bottom. The photographer’s name, Maurice Seymour, provided little contextual information as to when, why, or at whose request, the photographs were taken. However, the photos do provide valuable information on how Black musicians were being presented to a commercial audience. The men are rigidly posed and have their hair slicked back in a pompadour popularized by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash during this time period. It’s evident in this staging that studio producers looked for Black artists to have a look deemed “marginal” yet at the same time be attractive to the white buying public of the 1950s and 60s.

The Wanderers publicity photo
The Wanderers posing and looking upwards for a group photo. African Americans Musicians Photograph Collection.

Ruby and the Romantics

The Wanderers weren’t the only group to receive this treatment— Ruby and the Romantics were also faced with a new commercialized version of themselves. Black artists had little control over their commercialized “look” and “sound” in an age where record companies had extensive control over the music industry.

Ruby and the Romantics publicity shot.
Ruby and the Romantics (Left to right) George Lee, Leroy Fann, Ruby Nash, Ronald Mosely, Ed Roberts. African Americans Musicians Photograph Collection.

Ruby and the Romantics exemplified the Black pop sound of the early 1960s. The group began as an all-male quartet from Akron, Ohio in 1961 that included Ed Roberts (first tenor), George Lee (second tenor), Ronald Mosley (baritone), and Leroy Fann (bass). Initially, they labeled themselves The Supremes. At the same time as The Supremes quartet was forming, Ruby Nash and her sister Betty, along with two of their friends, were appearing at talent shows in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. Supremes member Leroy Fann discovered Ruby at one such talent show after an unsuccessful trip to New York City to land a label. He was sure that her voice and talent paired with his own group would lead them to great things.

Thanks to musical arranger Leroy Kirkland, the group was able to schedule an audition at Kapp Records in front of A&R director Alan Stanton. Stanton decided to sign the group under the condition that they immediately change their name (possibly because he had heard of another budding female vocal group with the same name). Within a few days, The Supremes were rebranded by the record company and became Ruby and the Romantics.

In no time, The Romantics’ first single “Our Day Will Come” charted on the Billboard Hot 100, and six weeks later, topped the chart as the country’s number one song. It was also listed in R&B at number one and was an international hit in Australia at number 11 and in England at number 38. In 1964, the album earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock and Roll Recording. Ruby and the Romantics’ song, “Hey There Lonely Boy“,  was a beautiful ballad that helped to develop the cleaner pop brand that would later be known as MOR (middle of the road). The music brand “MOR” is targeted to listeners between the ages of 25 and 55. Middle of the road music is primarily based on marketing demographics rather than musical elements, so it can embrace a wider range of genres. “Hey there Lonely Boy” fits into this category, and its exposure to a wider audience helped the single to reach number 27 on Billboard’s national charts.

Today, recordings of Ruby and the Romantics are considered prime examples of Black pop music from the early 60s. Their music is the subject of many musical covers that have also reached acclaim.  The Marvelettes made “Young and in Love” a number 23 Pop and number 9 R&B hit in 1967. “Hey There Lonely Girl” by Eddie Holman reached number 2 Pop and number 4 R&B in 1969.

In 2007, Ruby and the Romantics were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and also honored by their hometown of Akron, Ohio, for their accomplishments and international impact in 2013.

Ruby and the Romantics publicity shot.
Ruby and the Romantics exemplified the Black pop sound of the early 1960s. (Top row) Leroy Fann, Ed Roberts, Ronald Mosely, and George Lee. (Bottom row) Ruby Nash. African Americans Musicians Photograph Collection.

The portraits of Ruby and the Romantics were taken on behalf of Kapp Records. The group’s personal managers, Lloyd and Mannie Greenfield, are also mentioned at the bottom of their photographs. Similarly to the portraits for The Wanderers, these images have very little contextual information needed to create a more complete portrait of the singing group. It was for this reason, upon seeing this binder full of photographs, that I wanted to focus on the history of the people and the music they created, rather than their posed images for the recording company as they appear in the album. This being said, while the collection could, and should, have more context, there is much to learn about consumerism and the commercialization of Black artists in the postwar era. This full binder of musicians is representative of mass-produced music in an era when white audiences were being increasingly exposed to genres like jazz, soul, and funk and when the power of Black artists as producers and consumers was increasing.

Euro-centric narratives and systemic racism have undervalued marginalized creators that deserve to have their stories told. Collection, preservation, and access are deeply involved in how primary source material is used in memory-making processes. The archival field helps shape historical narratives and contributes to the ways we use the past to construct the present. It remains to be asked: What practices should be in place for music librarians to counteract epistemicide and encourage diversity among collections? In addition to promoting already present materials, I believe librarians should help users contextualize them as well. This should be done by reviewing collection development policies, digitization policies, and hiring practices and also by making sure to describe collections fully, keeping in mind that information for Black artists has historically been more inaccessible. By doing this, we can make sure the narratives we promote are inclusive and culturally competent. There is power in deciding which narratives get told and which do not— we should be striving to provide equitable access to as many as possible.


1  It is not known why The Wanderers hopped between record companies so often. However, it is interesting to note that Savoy Records was an American record company; Decca Records was a British label, but was established in the US by Lewis, American Decca’s first president Jack Kapp and later American Decca president Milton Rackmil; Kapp Records was an independent record label started in 1954 by David Kapp, brother of Jack Kapp (who had set up American Decca Records in 1934); and Onyx Records was just a small, independent American record label based in Manhattan.


The African American Musicians Photograph Collection (African American Musicians Photograph Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.


References

Warner, Jay. American Singing Groups: A History from 1940s to Today. Hal Leonard Corp, Milwaukee, 2006.

Westover, Jonas. “Adult contemporary.” Grove Music Online.  February 11, 2013. Oxford University Press. Date of access 9 Apr. 2021, <https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002234111>