The Cats & the Fiddle were one of dozens of harmony vocal groups to spring up in the wake of the success of the Mills Brothers. They endured longer than many of their pre-World War II rivals, both as a performing and recording unit and also as an influence on others who came after them, mostly by virtue of their style being so far out in front of the competition; yet they never charted a record in their dozen years of recording, and the biggest success that their founder ever saw on record was as a member of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five, and rather late in the day for that group as well. Leader/founder Austin Powell (lead vocals, guitar), who'd been leading groups as far back as high school in the mid-'30s, first put the Cats & the Fiddle together in 1937. Powell, Jimmy Henderson (tenor, tiple), Chuck Barksdale (bass vocals, upright bass), and Ernie Price (tenor, guitar, tiple) got together a quartet that was built on harmony vocals, but was also completely self-contained instrumentally, needing no further support on record or on-stage -- in that sense, the Cats & the Fiddle were very unusual and also offered a fuller and more complex, challenging sound than many of their rivals. The group spent a couple of years taking any work they could get, including weddings, proms, and graduation parties. They also got minor supporting (almost more like "extra") roles in a couple of Hollywood movies, including Too Hot to Handle (1938) and Going Places (1939), before they'd ever recorded a note for commercial release. In the late spring of 1939, the Cats & the Fiddle were discovered by producer/agent Lester Melrose, who got them signed to Victor Records' Bluebird imprint, for which they recorded some 42 sides, making their debut in August of 1939 with "Nuts to You" b/w "Killin' Jive."
If anything, the Cats & the Fiddle were ahead of their time, producing a bolder form of R&B than critics were prepared to accept at the time, such as "That's All I Mean to You," which likely would have slotted in perfectly a decade later, but in 1940 just seemed like style-less noise with a swing beat. They potentially offered a sound very different from the smooth model of the Mills Brothers, but found precious few positive notices to encourage them, though audiences at their performances were won over. The group's most successful early tune was "I Miss You," sung by Jimmy Henderson and released in the spring of 1940; their biggest seller up to that time, it was a success that Henderson would never enjoy -- he was hospitalized with meningitis soon after the single's release and died late in 1940. His initial successor was tenor Herbie Miles, who'd previously sung with Powell in his high school group the Harlem Harmony Hounds, but he was gone by the end of 1940, replaced by Tiny Grimes on tenor vocal and guitar, who lasted with them for two years, up to a gig in Los Angeles, after which he elected to stay on the West Coast while the group headed east to appear at the Apollo Theater. Meanwhile, bass singer/player Chuck Barksdale died in 1941, to be replaced by George Steinback. When Grimes left in 1942, his successor was Mifflin "Peewee" Branford, but his arrival coincided with a temporary end to their recording activities, mostly owing to the first of several recording bans instituted by the Musicians Union. Austin Powell was drafted in 1943 and absent for over two years, during which he was replaced by Hank Haslett, who lasted until 1945, when he was succeeded by ex-group member Herbie Miles, who this time stepped into Powell's lead spot. The group resumed recording in early 1946 for the Manor Records label and its affiliated Regis and Arco labels, first taking another crack at "I Miss You So" (with Ernie Price singing lead), which soon found itself up against an RCA Victor reissue of the original, as well as "Life's Too Short," with two new tunes for good measure. In the spring of that year, Austin Powell rejoined the lineup and Branford left. The group also sang and played backup to singer June Davis during their two years with Manor Records. Another membership change came in the summer of 1947 when Herbie Miles left and was succeeded by Emitt Slay, who lasted a short time before being succeeded by the group's first female member, Shirley Moore, along with tenor and conga player Johnny Davis, which expanded the group to a quintet. Moore's arrival marked the most profound change in the group's sound since Austin Powell's being drafted, her voice adding a new timbre to their music, whether she sang backup or lead, as in the case of the singles "Honey Honey Honey" and "That's What I Thought You Said," among the last of the group's Manor recordings, issued in 1948. The group's next stop was Gotham Records, the legendary Philadelphia-based label founded by Ivin Ballen, where they issued two singles in 1949 and 1950 -- by the time the second Gotham single was out, Moore had been succeeded by Doris Knighton. Their fortunes seemed to take a decided upward turn that year when the group got three singles out on the Decca label, but by the middle of 1950 the group had effectively disbanded. Austin Powell reassembled a lineup with Jimmy Davis, Stanley Gaines (bass vocals, bass), Beryl Booker (piano), and singer/drummer Dottie Smith. At various times, and with a somewhat floating membership, the group recorded and performed as Austin Powell & the Cats & the Fiddle and the Austin Powell Quintet, for Decca and Atlantic. Powell later joined the James Quintet, while in 1952 Ernie Price organized a new version of the Cats & the Fiddle. Meanwhile, Powell passed through various other outfits, including several combos built around Timmie Rogers (often in tandem with Dottie Smith), but by 1955 he was part of a new Cats & the Fiddle, configured as a more traditional vocal/instrumental combo, with Big Nick Nicholas on saxophone, Freddy Jefferson at the ivories,
Hector Ford on bass, Sonny Oliver on drums, and Powell on lead vocals and guitar. This group evidently saw some success in live performance but never recorded, and Powell next turned up with Nicholas as part of an act called Tic & Toc. He and Oliver, along with Dottie Smith, were subsequently a part of the late-'50s version of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five during the time of that act's stay on the Mercury label, before he resumed leadership of his own group in 1958. Powell and the other surviving, active members of the group had left professional music by the 1960s, amid the further changes that overtook the public's taste. ~ Bruce Eder