The Rainbows are perhaps the most storied of Washington's R&B vocal groups. They descended from a group called The Serenaders who made demo recordings for Mrs. Lillian Claiborne of DC Records around 1952. When nothing came of that arrangement, The Serenaders split up. Henry Womble, Jake Hardy, James Nolan, and Ronald "Poozie" Miles formed the core of the new Rainbows group. Instrumentalist Que Martyn convinced John Berry to audition for the new group. With the addition of pianist Donald Watts, the classic Rainbows line up was set. After at least one false start, they were able to record for Bobby Robinson's Red Robin Records in New York City.
Their signature tune "Mary Lee", which was patterned after The Clovers' "Hey Miss Fannie," began as a taunt to Que Martyn who was sensitive about his new infatuation (and later wife), Marion Lee. The group accidentally (actually, on purpose) let Robinson overhear it while he was setting up the studio, and it became the top deck of their first single. The performance defies simple explanation. Donald Watts' brilliant piano introduction sets the mood. Dual leads from Berry and Miles carry the message, while the group's precisely timed backing gives the recording a very unique sound in the world of R&B vocal group recordings from November 1954. While the record never became a charted hit single, it never really stopped selling, as it transitioned from an East Coast favorite to an "oldie but goodie" to a perennial collector classic.
In time, though, The Rainbows broke up, following Womble's departure for boarding school. In 1956, Berry and Miles formed a new Rainbows with Chester Simmons and Don Covay. Working with DJ Jay Perri and entertainment impresarios Ted and Jim Pedas of Circle Theater fame, they contacted Cecil Steen of Pilgrim Records in Boston. Steen had already re-released "Mary Lee" in early 1956, and he recorded the new group doing "Shirley", which was a "Mary Lee" sound-a-like. Another collector classic was born, but unfortunately it seems not to have sold very well. Before "Shirley" had a chance to run its full course through the market, The Rainbows had already moved on to George Goldner's Rama Records where they recorded "Minnie" and "They Say," two fine performances which sold only moderately.
Rumors abound that Billy Stewart and Marvin Gay (before the name change to Gaye) were members of the Rainbows. They were, without question, contemporaries on the DC vocal group scene, but neither was ever a formal member of the Rainbows. Stewart filled in for "Poozie" Miles at the Royal Theater in Baltimore in September 1956 for a one-week engagement. Gay's participation in group appearances, if any, was even less formal.
After this generation of Rainbows broke up, Covay and Berry moved to New York City where they worked as musicians, singers, songwriters, and later as producers. They enjoyed success with the original version of "Pony Time" in late 1960. When "Poozie" returned from a stint in the Air Force in 1961, he reformed the group with new members. They became a Washington institution, performing well into the 2000's.
Courtesy of Marv Goldberg
“Wish you were here. I need you so much, my dear.”
- Mary Lee