Willie Winfield, whose lead vocals with the Harptones made him a favorite of doo-wop connoisseurs in the 1950s, even though the group did not achieve widespread mainstream commercial success, died on July 27 in a hospital in Brooklyn. He was 91 years old.
The cause was a cardiac arrest, his daughter Tina Winfield said.
Mr. Winfield’s angelic voice was first heard in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, and he continued to sing when doo-wop groups turned to nostalgia in the 1970s. He toured with various incarnations of Harptone until he retired in 2019, when he was 89.
“He had one of the best voices,” Dick Fox, a producer who had booked Harptones dozens of times on his Live Oldies show, said in a phone interview. “His voice was unique, and it lasted his entire life. He never lost the high register.”
During the 1950s, Mr. Winfield and the Harptones performed at the Apollo Theater and in shows promoted by influential disc jockeys Alan Freed (at Brooklyn Paramount) and Murray the Kay (at Palisades Amusement Park, New Jersey). He was seen in the 1956 musical review film “Rockin’ the Blues.”
The group’s best-known songs were “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “Since I Fell for You” and “My Memories of You.”
In a 1985 interview for The Daily News, Mr. Winfield told critic David Hinckley, “I feel fresh every time I sing a song.” “That’s how people react. Suddenly I forget my age. I lose everything except the song. I go back to recording the first time, when we didn’t know what would happen.”
Robert Palmer, chief pop music critic of The New York Times, wrote In 1982 Mr. Winfield’s voice had “a persuasive manner with impeccable pitch and one phrase.” And in a 2019 article on the website Medium, Mr. Hinckley wrote: “Willie Winfield Rhythm and Blues Vocal Group is the harmony music that Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera were to New York Baseball. Top of the list. It’s not even discussed.”
But despite Mr. Winfield’s memorable voice, the Harptones’ excellent harmonies and jazz-inspired arrangements Raul Sita, their pianist, they never reached the same level of commercial success that contemporaries such as the Drifters, Cadillacs and Flamingos did.
Willie Lee Eliza Winfield was born on August 24, 1929, in Surry, Va. His father, also named Willie, was a merchant sailor. His mother, Christine (Cook) Winfield, was a homemaker.
Mr Winfield sang in a church group in Norfolk and with his brothers Clyde and Jimmy. After moving to New York in 1950, he and his brothers sang along with two other men on the side of the road and rehearsed under the Manhattan Bridge.
In 1953, some members of another doo-wop act, the Skylarks, merged with some members of the Winfield brothers’ group, forming a new group they first called the Harps and, soon, the Harptones. In addition to Mr Winfield and Mr Cita, the lineup included William Galloway, Billy Brown, Nicky Clarke and William Dempsey. Mr. Dempsey is the only member of the original group that is still alive.
The Harptones “demand consideration in any serious discussion of the truly immortal acts of the doo-wop era,” says Jason Ankeny. Website AllMusic. is written on. But success proved elusive.
Charlie Horner, who drives classic urban harmony website, said in an interview that the Harptones were popular in New York and other cities in the Northeast, as well as Chicago, but their local successes did not add up to any national hits.
However, he said, if Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart had a top 100 (instead of a top 10 or 20) during the Harptones’ most productive years in the mid-1950s, they might have had 10 hits. Their only chart hit, “What Will Tell My Heart,” number 96. reached at On the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961.
The fact that Harptone recorded for a succession of smaller labels with limited distribution did not help their cause.
“At one point in time we decided to try to promote our own record,” said Mr. Winfield in a Daily News interview, which Mr. Hinckley said. repurposed Last week on the Medium website. “It was like, give the DJ $75 to play the record. Our producers should have taken care of that.”
In the mid-1960s, Mr. Winfield began delivering prayer cards to funeral homes; He retired from that job in 1995. He continued to perform part-time with versions of the Harptone, most notably as a background vocalist. “René and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war,” A soft song on Paul Simon’s album “Hearts and Bones” (1983) that recalls the doo-wop music that Mr. Simon grew up listening to.
In addition to his daughter Tina, Mr. Winfield has another daughter, Stephanie Winfield; his sons, Vincent, Timothy and Devane; two sisters, Serita Alexander and Goldie Bronson; two brothers, Clyde and Abraham; 44 grandchildren; and 22 great-grandchildren. His wife Alice (Battle) Winfield died in 2011.
Mr. Winfield’s final performance, Over a doo-wop weekend in April 2019 at Half Hollow Hills East High School in Dix Hills, NY, he wrapped up his career with another signature ballad, “life is but a dream.”
He sat on a stool until the end of the song and after the group sang “Will You Participate in It”, he got up, propped himself to his cane, and finished the line and song in his familiar tenor – ” My life… my aashikui? That’s my dream.”
And he hit the high note.