The Zodiacs don’t mind

Some artists needed an entire album, or more, to make their grandest statement. The South Carolina-based group Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs needed one minute and 37 seconds to urge everyone to stay … just a little bit longer…  They were able to get to  #1 in late 1960 with their short-but-sweet hit.  Here’s yet another entry from The Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s.

# 182
Stay / Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs /
Herald H-552
(Total points: 1,551 / Chart debut: 10/3/1960 / Chart peak: 1 / Weeks on chart: 18)

”Stay,” which was #1 in the Billboard issue dated November 21, 1960, is the shortest recording ever to reach the top spot of the Hot 100. Even though the record label lists a time of 1:50, the song actually is closer to 1:37, making it more than 10 seconds shorter than “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits, which spent a week at #1 in 1965.

Maurice Williams (born April 26, 1938), the leader of the Zodiacs, started singing in church at an early age in his home state of South Carolina. Inspired by Fats Domino, he also learned to play piano. By 1956, he and four friends had formed a secular vocal group called The Royal Charms, who managed to work out a deal to audition for Nashville-based Excello Records on their next trip to the city – a pretty good trick considering they’d never been to Nashville. The group managed to raise roughly $40 among their friends and family in two weeks, and off they went.

Ernie Young, the head of Excello, was suitably impressed with the group, but he changed the name of the Royal Charms to The Gladiolas. Under that name, their first single was a Williams composition called “Little Darlin’.” The Gladiolas’ version got to #41 on the pop charts and #11 R&B, but it became a huge hit when covered by the white Canadian vocal group The Diamonds. That version spent two months at #2 and, because Young didn’t rip off Williams the way so many others would have, the royalties from “Little Darlin’” made Williams much more than their recording ever did.

The Gladiolas never had another hit, and they left Excello after two years. Because Young had trademarked the name, they had to come up with a new moniker. When stopped in Bluefield, W. Va., they saw a car called the Ford Zodiac. On the suggestion of his manager, Williams stuck his name in front of the new group name so that he’d never lose it again.

Under their new name, they made a 45 for the Charlotte, N.C. label Selwyn, “Say Yeah”/”College Girl” (Selwyn 5121), which was reviewed in the May 25, 1959 issue of Billboard. They then made two 45s for the local, Columbia, S.C.-based Cole label, the first of which was mentioned in the September 14, 1959 issue. None were hits. But Cole’s owners, Al McCullough and Phil Gernhard, liked what they heard, and they took some unreleased demos to New York to shop them around. One of these was “Stay,” which was inspired by the same woman as “Little Darlin’”; Williams had thrown the song in the trash before deciding to record it anyway.

After several rejections, Gernhard was able to interest Al Silver of Herald Records in the Zodiacs. Silver loved “Stay” but hated the recording quality; he gave Gernhard instructions on how to re-record it to make it better. Back in South Carolina, the Zodiacs, who by 1960 were composed of Williams, high tenor Henry “Shane” Gaston, tenor Wiley Bennett, baritone Charles “Frog” Thomas, drummer Willie Morrow, and bassist Albert Hill, did just that. The result was the shortest #1 song in chart history.

“Stay” might have been short, but its influence has been long-lived. The Four Seasons had a Top 20 hit in 1964 with it after Vee-Jay Records, having lost the group to the Philips label, pulled it off an album. In 1978, Jackson Browne made the top 20 of the Hot 100 with his version, which had new lyrics that paid tribute to his road crew. Finally, the original version was used in the multi-million-selling soundtrack from the movie Dirty Dancing, and from that LP, it was issued as the B-side of Patrick Swayze’s Top 5 hit “She’s Like the Wind.”

As for the Zodiacs, they had two other singles that didn’t get out of the 90s on the chart, though they continued to record throughout the 1960s on myriad labels. Another Williams composition, “May I,” first released on Vee-Jay credited to Maurice Williams in 1964 and re-released on Deesu a couple years later as a Zodiacs single, became a classic of the Carolina beach-music scene, especially after it was remade by Bill Deal and the Rhondels in 1968.

Collector’s notes: Original copies of the 45 are on a yellow Herald label. At least four different variants of this label exist; one has the word “Herald” in all capital letters at the top, the others have “Herald” with a capital H and no other capitals. A fifth label variation, probably later than the all-yellow ones, has a multi-colored label with only the heralding trumpet in yellow at the top. “Herald” is in all capitals on this one.

Every copy of the 45 on Herald has the time incorrectly listed as “1:50.”

Fast fact: Williams has never revealed the name of the girlfriend from his teen years who inspired both “Little Darlin’” and “Stay,” and in a 2011 interview with Goldmine magazine, he said he planned to keep it that way.

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