Seeing West Fifth through someone else's eyes

·3 min read

May 26—When I drive down West Fifth Street these days, I remember a day in 1995, when I stood on the southwest corner of Fifth and Elm with three members of The Five Embers and saw the neighborhood through their memories.

I still try to see it that way.

A reissue of the Owensboro quintet's 1960 single — "I'm Free," backed by "My Fragile Heart" — was being played on oldies radio stations in New York City, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that year.

The Embers were brothers Charles and Richard Brown, who alternated lead and first tenor; Delmar "Sonny" Rates, second tenor; Melvin Smith, bass; and Raymond Johnson, baritone.

They had spent nearly a decade of street-corner harmonizing and five-night-a-week rocking in barrooms and college campuses across western Kentucky and southern Indiana.

And that day in 1995, three of them were back on the corner where it all began on a summer night in 1955.

As they talked, the West End Day Care Center disappeared.

The Savoy Club and the Cozy Bar once again stood side-by-side on that corner.

It was Saturday night again, and the soldiers had come pouring in to West Fifth Street from Fort Campbell and old Camp Breckinridge.

"Everything you've heard about Fifth Street wasn't a lie," Charles Brown said with a chuckle at the street's old reputation as a walk on the wild side.

"You'd dress up just to come out and lay back to watch the action," Richard Brown said.

"And you'd never come on Fifth Street at night without a suit and tie," Charles Brown added.

Next to the Cozy Bar was Talbott's barber shop, a funeral home, a grocery store and a drugstore.

It was a busy street on a Saturday in the '50s.

And there on the corner by the Savoy, teenage boys would gather to harmonize in the doo-wop sound that was sweeping the country — particularly in Black communities.

"There'd be eight or nine of us — sometimes even girls," Charles Brown recalled. "The police would come and run us off. But after awhile, they started coming around just to listen.

"To me, it was always more of that 'gut-bucket gospel' sound."

In 1957, part of the street-corner group went to Nashville to compete in a talent contest at Tennessee State College.

The future Embers won the contest.

And from the Savoy Club and Little Brown Jug in Owensboro to the Rustic Club in Jasper, Indiana, The Flamingo in Reo, Indiana, Evansville's Roberts Stadium and area college campuses, the Embers were on the road singing four hours a night, five nights a week.

"You'd get up to go to your real job at 7 a.m.," Charles Brown recalled. "You'd work there till 4 or 5 p.m. Then you'd get in the car and go to wherever the show was. You'd sing from 8 to midnight, and then you'd go home and do it again."

In 1961, Richard Brown went in the Army.

Sonny Rates followed not long after.

And by 1963, the Embers were no more.

"We had to survive," Charles Brown said. "We had to get real jobs."

I never saw those days in Owensboro.

But I relish the stories.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com.