Washington, D.C.-based R&B group the Cap-Tans formed in 1948 -- according to Marv Goldberg's profile in the December 1976 issue of Yesterday's Memories -- tenor lead Sherman Buckner, first tenor Floyd Bennett, second tenor Alfred Slaughter, and baritone Lester Fountain initially teamed as the Buddies, one of several groups managed by local impresario Lillian Claiborne. Upon backing local radio personality Paul Chapman on his 1948 D.C. Records label release "Coo Coo Jug-Jug," the Buddies renamed themselves the Cap-Tans; following a second collaboration with Chapman, 1949's "Goodnight Mother," the group added lead Harmon Bethea, an alumnus of the Claiborne-managed spiritual group the Progressive Four. In early 1950, the Cap-Tans negotiated a new deal with Claiborne and partner Winfield Adams, agreeing to record exclusively for the duo, who would then license the masters to interested labels; the result of the deal is one of the most fractured and convoluted discographies in the annals of postwar R&B, beginning with "My My Ain't She Pretty," issued on the Gotham label that spring. The record fared so poorly that Gotham owner Ivin Ballen rejected the Cap-Tans follow-up effort "I'm So Crazy for Love" without so much as a listen. The single instead surfaced on Dot in August 1950, and was a big enough local hit to inspire the Ravens to cover the song for Columbia. Dot also released the Cap-Tans' third single "Chief, Turn the Hose on Me" by year's end, heralding the end of the group's tenure with the label.

After the Cap-Tans cut several unreleased sides for King Records, Claiborne struck a new deal with Gotham, but while the group recorded several sessions for the label, only one single -- 1951's "Yes" -- ever materialized at retail. Lester Fountain was drafted into military service that summer, necessitating the addition of baritone/guitarist Raymond Reader, and the reshuffled Cap-Tans next surfaced just prior to year's end with "Asking," released on Decca's Coral subsidiary. The release proved another commercial flop, and in the spring of 1953 the Cap-Tans dissolved. Upon returning from the service that summer, Fountain convinced Alfred Slaughter to assemble a new lineup, but it too splintered by the following year. Harmon Bethea, meanwhile, returned to his gospel roots as a member of the Progressiveaires, recording a pair of singles for the DC label before coming back to secular R&B in 1958 with the L'Cap-Tans, a group featuring lead Lester Britton, first tenor Richard Stewart, second tenor Elmo "Chico" Anderson, and guitarist Francis Henry. The L'Cap-Tans released "The Bells Ring Out" on Hollywood Records in the spring of 1958, adding new lead "Baby Jim" Belt to the lineup before cutting "Homework" for DC in 1959. The group (now comprising Bethea, Belt, tenor Roosevelt "Tippie" Hubbard, and tenor James "Toy" Walton) reverted to the original Cap-Tans spelling for 1960s "I'm Afraid," issued on the Detroit-based Anna label. The follow-up "Annie Penguin," issued in 1961 on Claiborne's Hawkeye imprint, was credited to "Wailing Bethea and the Cap-Tans."

In the wake of 1963's "Revenue Man," issued on yet another Claiborne-owned label, Loop, Bethea formed a completely new incarnation of the Cap-Tans featuring tenor Johnny Hood, tenor/baritone George Nicholson, baritone Robert Osborn, and keyboardist Paul Earl. "Whenever I Look at You" appeared that October on the Sabu imprint, followed two months later by "You Better Mind." As the outbreak of Beatlemania forced older acts to reinvent their music and image, Bethea and Claiborne brainstormed an unusual gimmick: Bethea would appear masked while performing with the Cap-Tans, and in 1964 the group even credited its Ru-Jac label release "Love Can Do Wonders" to "The Maskman and the Cap-Tans." The record didn't sell, but Bethea remained smitten with the mask concept; inspired by the rising popularity of the James Bond series and the espionage genre as a whole, he finally retired the Cap-Tans moniker for good, renaming the group Maskman and the Agents for their 1964 Hit Bound release "In My Diary." Efforts for Loop (1966's "Roaches"), Capacity (1967's "The World Is a Cafeteria,") and Gamma ("There'll Be Some Changes") followed before Bethea finally scored his first-ever R&B chart hit with 1968's Dynamo release "One Eye Open." With the success of 1969's "My Dog, My Wife, My Cat," he briefly dropped the Maskman shtick altogether, recording a handful of solo records for Musicor before resuming his alias to cut a series of mid-'70s singles for Vigor, BBC, and Jan-Jan. ~ Jason Ankeny

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