The Platters may seem like unlikely early rock and R&B heroes. Their polished appearance and string-laden covers of standards may not sound rebellious today. Yet their soulful harmonies added a new edge, signaling a transition in pop music. The group proved that the great American songbook could peacefully coexist with modern soul, forging a new sound that paved the way for rock and roll. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the Platters' 1958 reimagining of the Jerome Kern composition, perfectly exemplifies the group's elegance, originality, and the exquisitely dramatic voice of lead singer Tony Williams.
The story of the Platters begins in 1952, when Alex Hodge, Cornell Gunter, David Lynch, Joe Jefferson, Gaynel Hodge and Herb Reed formed the group in Los Angeles. A year later, Jefferson and Gunter would depart, with Williams joining the lineup. Signing with Federal Records, they released two little-noticed singles; subsequently they added female vocalist Zola Taylor. After Hodge was replaced by Paul Robi, the most iconic incarnation of the Platters was complete. Their biggest success finally came in 1954, when they moved to Mercury Records and began collaborating with producer/songwriter Buck Ram. Ram was behind their classic versions of "Only You," "My Prayer," and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," but he also penned massive hits such as "Twilight Time," "The Great Pretender," and "(You've Got) The Magic Touch." Their beautiful, close harmonies, along with Williams' passionate vocal delivery, crossed over from pop to R&B and early rock audiences, earning them spots in rock musicals such as Rock Around the Clock and The Girl Can't Help It.
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" undertook an interesting journey before reaching the Platters. After the song made its debut in the 1933 musical Roberta, the Kern and Otto Harbach composition was released as a single later that year by Gertrude Niesen. Two years later it appeared in the 1935 movie adaptation, this time performed by Irene Dunne. The 1952 remake found Kathryn Grayson performing the ballad, and her operatic voice beautifully graced the song's lovely melody.
But the Platters' 1958 take represents a change in sound, when a more unrestrained approach courtesy of R&B found its way to popular music. Note the change in arrangement--while the strings remain, the beat is less subtle. The group's exquisite harmonies inject doo-wop into the ballad, thereby modernizing the Broadway tune. But it's Williams' intense performance that transforms "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" into something more, a torch song oozing longing and sensuality. His voice dips and soars, alternates in tone and volume, dramatizing the lyrics. Listen to how he holds the word "I" or ad libs "ohs" to enhance the lyrics' underlying sexuality. "When your heart's on fire / You must realize, smoke gets in your eyes," he croons, making listeners vicariously experience every word. As Williams' voice reaches a crescendo at the song's end, his passion emanates through the speakers, releasing both the agony and ecstasy that previous versions do not reveal.
When the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the museum cited the Platters for best representing a "golden era when pop, rhythm & blues and rock and roll flowed together in perfect harmony." Indeed, the Platters effectively bridged these genres. Yet they also signaled a new era in modern music, where rawness and authenticity frequently trumped mere technical prowess. Williams and the rest of the group were accomplished singers, but they allowed the naked passion of his voice to assume the forefront. Soul singers such as Sam Cooke would pick up the torch, and vocalists such as Roy Orbison and Johnnie Ray also experimented with infusing traditional pop with soul, blues, and rock influences.
The Platters remain pioneers in early rock as well as soul, foreshadowing a change in modern music and hinting at the rebelliousness that would permeate the burgeoning youth culture.
The clip below shows the Platters' stirring television performance of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," but unfortunately cuts off at the very end. For the entire song, listen here.