The Nutmegs are remembered today for their enduring East Coast doo wop classic, 1955's R&B smash hit "Story Untold" (number two in the U.S.). The group continued to have regional success in the northeastern U.S., scoring a Top 20 regional hit with "Ship of Love." Nearly a decade later, the Nutmegs unwittingly became the founders of an a cappella craze that swept the East Coast between 1963 and 1966, scoring numerous Top Five regional hits with a cappella versions of previously recorded singles. "Let Me Tell You" (number five), "The Way Love Should Be" (number three), "Why Must We Go to School" (number four), "Down in Mexico" (number five), and "You're Crying" (number four) were all popular in the greater New York-area, but the group was never able to gain enough national exposure to chart across the country again. After their first tenor and songwriter Leroy Griffin died in an accident, they broke up and then reformed, calling themselves the Rajahs.
Hailing from New Haven, CT, (home of the Five Satins, the Scarlets, the Chestnuts, and the Four Haven Knights), the original Nutmegs -- lead Leroy Griffin, Sonny Griffin (born James, he was Leroy's brother), Dieder Cobb, and a second Leroy Griffin (yes, there were two men with the same exact name) who later became Leroy Gomez -- all sang together with other members -- Walter Singleterry, Bill Emery, and Gomez's brother Tommy Griffin -- moving in and out of the lineup. The group performed on the street corners of New Haven, especially Webster and Dixon Streets, where Jimmy "Co Co" Tyson was asked to join the key lineup and soon they were a quintet. (Tyson left the group that he was singing with behind, three of whom eventually formed the rival Chestnuts combo). The Nutmegs fragmented again and some of the members left to form a group of their own, the Lyres; the Gomez brothers formed the Four Haven Knights.
Now comprised of a lineup that included Bill Emery (lead), Walter Singleterry (first tenor), Sonny Griffin (second tenor), Jimmy Tyson (baritone), and Leroy Griffin (bass), the new Nutmegs met promoter Charlie Johnson in 1953, who fell for their sound and decided to record two of Leroy's songs, "Ship of Love" and "Playboy," for his small J&G label after the group was passed over by the local Klik label (who had actually recorded the session). The single failed to sell, however, and Johnson lacked the funds to promote it properly.
By 1954, the Nutmegs revised their hierarchy and Leroy Griffin switched over to lead, with Sonny Griffin now filling in as first tenor, Tyson (second tenor), Emery (baritone), and they added yet another Leroy, Leroy McNeil, for the bass vocals. Leroy Griffin's nephew Harold (Harry James, not the musician), would often sit in and listen, little knowing the part he would come to play in the group.
Late in 1954, the quintet traveled to New York and met RCA/Groove recording artists the Du-Droppers, who introduced them to Herald Records executive Al Silver. By then, the Nutmegs had recorded four more sides, including a song called "Story Untold." Three of the four would eventually become the group's first singles for Herald, who opted to tack on the new name the Nutmegs for the first of these, "Story Untold," after the group decided on the name, telling Silver they were from Connecticut, the "nutmeg" state.
In March 1955, "Story Untold" was released and leaped immediately into the R&B charts; by July, it was number two in the nation. Meanwhile, the Crew Cuts covered the song (scoring number 16 on the pop charts), which effectively eliminated the Nutmegs' version from staying on the charts any longer than it did. In August, Herald followed up with "Ship of Love" which, by October, had climbed to number 13 R&B and number five pop in the New York area, but failed to catch on across the country.
The group traveled to N.Y.C. to appear at the Apollo, where they were accused to doing an obscene dance. When DJ Alan Freed caught wind of it, he pulled the group off his play list and they had to go back to Freed and apologize before they would get any additional airplay from him. McNeil and Emery actually went on Freed's show and apologized for the stunt, explaining that they were only doing a dance called the "Hunch" which amounted to "pulling your arms in and out at the sides." Freed accepted the explanation and apology and forgave them enough to add them to his next Brooklyn Paramount show. He also added them to his touring road show, where they performed alongside the Moonglows, the Spaniels, the Harptones, Chuck Berry, and others. Meanwhile, "Whispering Sorrows" was the next single released, but Herald opted to push "Betty Lou," the flip side, which failed to connect. Soon, Bill Emery was leaving the group and was replaced by Sonny Washburn of the Five Dukes ("Cross Your Fingers" on Atlas).
The Nutmegs' fourth single, "Key to the Kingdom," was released in June and was even reviewed in the pages of Billboard (June 16, 1956), who called it "a ballad in the refined, celestial groove, garnished with a few ecstatic sighs." It failed to sell, however. The next single, "Comin' Home," was released in December, but by then the Nutmegs had lost their momentum and a final 45, "My Story" proved it.
By now, Sonny Griffin had also fled their ranks; he was replaced by Eddie Martin (late of the Chestnuts). The group was now bravely soldiering on, but the next single was issued under a different name: the Rajahs. "Shifting Sands" (Klick 7805, released January 1958) bore the same results and slipped through the cracks, as did the group's next single, "A Dream of Love" (released on Morty Craft's Tel label in 1960). Leroy Griffin's nephew, meanwhile, joined the group in 1962. Now the lineup featured Griffin, Sonny Washburn, Leroy McNeil, Jimmy Tyson, and new kid on the block Harry James. The group released one more single for Herald in 1962. Then something quite remarkable happened.
Times Square Records, a label based in New York City, began issuing 45s by the Nutmegs culled from mid-'50s demos which featured no musical accompaniment. They were called a cappella singles. The Nutmegs quickly became the leaders of a new strain of the doo wop genre and held up the standard for others to follow.
In 1963 and 1964, Times Square issued a handful of a cappella Nutmegs singles, including "Let Me Tell You," which reached number five on Times Square's 1963 Top 150 survey. "The Way Love Should Be" scored number three in July of 1963 and "Why Must We Go to School" topped out at number four in December of 1963. The new year began with more a cappella hits: "Down in Mexico" scored number five on the charts in January and "You're Crying" reached number four at the end of the year in December.
Herald Records was obviously aware of what was happening with their former group, so they too got into the act, issuing a cappella versions of "Story Untold" and "Ship of Love" that year to great success.
The story was left untold that same year, however, when Leroy Griffin died in a mysterious factory accident. Harry James, who had painstakingly worked to duplicate his uncle's vocal ability, took over the lead. The group -- now calling themselves the Rajahs -- recorded a few singles for Lana Records, but they didn't last without Griffin's leadership and eventually disbanded for good.
In 1972, the Nutmegs reformed briefly and saw a superlative a cappella LP issued with versions of their previous hits from the '60s, adding to it a terrific version of "Over the Rainbow" sung in a Moonglows style, backed with a fine version of "In the Still of the Night." It was issued as a single by the Pyramid label. No further recordings appeared from the group. ~ Bryan Thomas