The Ink Spots, Decca 3258, 1940, #10 Pop
Back in 1985, my friend and musical associate John Wilson came up with the idea of the Gentlemen’s Club, a four-part-harmony group modeled on The Four Freshmen. We still do very occasional gigs here and there, complete with the plaid pants, blazers, and dickies we’d worn since the beginning. When we were thirty, the clothes made us look campy and retro; in our sixties, they just make us look old. (Perhaps now we should dress like hipsters.) The group was kind of a relief project from Wilson’s highly-charged, high-decibel nasty rockin’ country band Bowley & Wilson. I was doing my stint with B&W as bassist/ vocalist at the time, and Wilson knew I really thrived on close-harmony stuff from hearing some home recordings I was working on when he first met me.
I think I would’ve felt right at home as an Ink Spot or a Platter.
One saccharine song on The Gents’ very first set list was the Ink Spots classic “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” I sang lead, and although I didn’t exactly impersonate the melodramatic crooning of Inks lead singer Bill Kenny, I did schmaltz it up quite a bit. I realized quickly, singing this type of song for the first time, that it felt very natural, much more natural than I felt singing Beatles songs, or James Taylor or Wilson Pickett. It’s strange to think that the music style I have the greatest affinity for is the smooth, sweet sound of the black vocal groups of the forties and fifties, but it’s true: I think I would’ve felt right at home as an Ink Spot or a Platter. “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” has stayed with me ever since, even separate from the Gentlemen’s Club, even when my pants aren’t plaid, even when I am dickie-less, and it led me to other Ink Spots classics, most notably “Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees).”
I have to figure that when Fred and Doris Fisher wrote it they were having a little fun with this odd ballad of nature-as-prattling gossip-monger: the whispering “green grass,” the “blabbering breeze,” the snow that buries lovers’ secrets. Whatever their intent, it sure gets a laugh, or at least some puzzled looks, when I sing it now.
German-born Fred Fisher was at least partly responsible for such novelty classics as “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?,” “Pull the Cork Out of Erin, Let the River Shannon Flow,” and “Wee, Wee, Marie (Will You Do Zis for Me?)” Doris was his daughter. She also wrote “Put the Blame on Mame,” “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (which Spike Jones made into a novelty classic), and other hits. So, it was a father-daughter team with a sense of humor.
Others, including Ringo Starr, have recorded “Whispering Grass,” but it’s The Ink Spots’ version that is special, and it’s all because of the lead vocal of Mr. Bill Kenney. Like nearly all Ink Spots hits, it starts with a finger-picked guitar playing a D / Eb diminished / Em / A pattern. The other Spots are barely heard oohing as Kenney warbles. Very formulaic, but addictive—if you find Bill Kenney’s crooner voice as appealing as I do.
Another part of the formula, one reason their songs don’t date well, is the verse that follows the chorus. It’s usually spoken by bass Hoppy Jones, with an Amos-and-Andy-ish delivery sprinkled with “honey chile” and “honey lamb” and “mm-mm-mm” commentary. (The flip side of this record, “Maybe,” obediently follows this pattern, except that Hoppy’s spoken break is replaced by another member’s looser sung delivery.)
I sometimes wonder about the group’s name. Everything I’ve read about them seems to indicate they came up with the name themselves, but I figured the term “ink spots” was generally applied to black people by white people as a belittling description. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Best just to enjoy the special sounds The Ink Spots created and hope they had as good a time singing the songs as I have listening to them.