During the late '50s and early '60s, it wasn't uncommon to find doo wop and R&B singers recording and performing under numerous monikers, often trading out group members or substituting them at the last moment; everyone was expendable and no one person's identity created the group itself. The L.A.-based Jay Hawks were one of these acts and are best remembered for recording the original version of "Stranded in the Jungle" (1956), a novelty recorded by another group sharing its membership between two names/record labels, the Cadets/the Jacks.
Carver Bunkum (bass), Carl Fisher (second tenor), Dave Govan (baritone), and Jimmy Johnson (lead) were high schoolers whose audition of an original, "Counting My Teardrops," impressed Flash Records' owner, who offered to put up the money to record it. It wasn't until their second Flash release, "Stranded in the Jungle," that the group became a success, drawing a lot of local L.A. airplay. "Stranded" was, incidentally, one of the first instances where a producer did what is called sampling; that is, the song included sound bites from other popular songs of the day, using the lyrics of these songs as news bulletins interrupting the verses.
Unfortunately, Modern Records' Joe Bihari rushed his Cadets into the studio upon hearing their version of "Stranded in the Jungle " and topped the group with his own release, getting it on radio stations in strong regional markets across the country and into stores in those areas, before the Jay Hawks even had a chance to make a move. By doing this, he was actually able to beat them to the punch and therefore was able to provide his group with their own hit, which charted at number four R&B/number 15 pop in June 1956.
Quick follow-ups by the Jaw Hawks -- including "Love Train" and the honkin' "Johnny's House Party" -- failed to chart, however, and by 1960, Bunkum had left the group to be replaced by Don Bradley (bass) and Richard Owens (first tenor). Along with the new group members came a new name. Feeling that they wanted to do more ballad material and that the name "Jay Hawks" was typecasting them as a novelty act, they decided to call themselves the Vibrations. They scored their own hit with the dance tune called "The Watusi" (number 25, 1961) for Checker Records.
Meanwhile, multi-talented producer/label head H. B. Barnum had already produced "Western Movies," (number eight pop and number seven R&B) in 1958 for the Los Angeles-based Olympics, a flagrant Coasters'-style imitator/rip-off group. Barnum thought that the Vibrations were the ideal group to record another novelty tune he had co-written, "Peanut Butter," which he credited the tune to the Marathons. Unfortunately, Checker Records later discovered what was going on and brought a lawsuit against the group, Barnum and his record label. As the Vibrations' various members each had individual contracts with Checker, the label won the rights to market copies of "Peanut Butter" under their logo.
Not to be denied, Arvee Records promptly secured the rights to the name the Marathons, rounded up some more singers to record "Peanut"'s successor -- including "Tight Sweater," written by a young Sonny Bono, as the group's follow-up -- and continued to push the novelty to the masses. Arvee then released a full-length LP of the Marathons' "Peanut Butter" and some other LP filler, but this recording failed to further the Marathons' name.
By 1964, the real Jay Hawks/Marathons/Vibrations gradually turned to more romantic material, although their first hit, "My Girl Sloopy" (number 26, 1964) was closer to their previous cuts; they also recorded the "original" version of "Hang on Sloopy," which later would be a huge hit for the McCoys.
The Jay Hawks/Marathons/Vibrations had their last brush with glory in 1968 with the Okeh Records-released "Love in Them There Hills." Richard Owens was briefly in the Temptations lineup in 1971, but returned to the fold with the Vibrations who continued on until 1976, closing out their career as a nightclub act. ~ Bryan Thomas