Followers of Tacoma’s rock-and-roll history know the familiar names – the Fabulous Wailers, the Sonics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes and the Ventures. But there was another group that is often overlooked because they left their mark before rock and roll was even a term.
They were the Barons.
The mid-1950s was a transitional time for music, with the shift from the big-band and doo-wop sound of the post-war era to edgier tunes that would later become known as the pioneering genre of rock and roll. The Barons were, unfortunately, a band that focused on crisp vocals and tight harmonies common to doo-wop that could no longer find a lasting following in the changing ears of listeners, particularly since the Northwest had only a handful of live venues where they could showcase their talents.
The Barons were a band that was simultaneously before their time and behind the curve of the music scene.
William Gold, Sterling “Stokey” Wilford, Carl Charles and Malcolm Parks formed the Barons while they were in high school. The neighborhood friends had met in the choir risers of Tacoma’s Bethlehem Baptist Church, while they attended Lincoln and Stadium high schools. They quickly started practicing in their living rooms and garages. They adopted the name the Barons as a reference to the local lumber barons and focused on rhythm and blues music, both cover tunes and original songs often written by Gold.
The band drew their inspiration from the tunes they were hearing on the radio show of Fitzgerald “Eager” Beaver, who owned a Seattle record store that focused on music by and for the area’s African American community.
The legendary Century Ballroom and Evergreen Ballroom also offered concerts a few times a month to fuel the local music scene and hosted the occasional traveling act. Tacoma’s Eastside neighborhood was then home to Club 24, where teens from the community could dance every Friday night. They could also experiment with the venue’s recording system. The Barons used that system to record demo tapes that they would shop around to record companies as they searched for a record contract.
That day came in early 1955, when Modern Records invited the Barons to their California studios to make a record. The band missed a few days of high school to travel to Culver City only to learn that their recording slot in the studio had been given to another act. Far from home and spending money they couldn’t spare, the group contacted the cross-town rival record studio Imperial Records. The company represented giants of the industry, including Fats Domino and Big Jay McNeely. The Barons landed a contract the same day. The group recorded six tracks in a single day – February 9, 1955 – that were co-credited to Gold and Imperial’s recording guru Eddie Ray.
With a debut single that included “Eternally Yours” and “Boom Boom” to promote, the Barons were quickly booked for a show, opening for Fats Domino and got some national radio airtime. They earned enough money to return to Tacoma. But the single didn’t gain traction with listeners, overall. That success came with their follow-up single in mid-1955. That recording featured “I Know I Was Wrong” and “My Dream My Love” that became hits with East Coast disc jockeys.
In an effort to capitalize on that success, Imperial Records rushed out a third single in the fall of 1955. It featured the songs “Cold Kisses” and “Searching for You” that saw strong sales in West Coast markets. Concerts were planned and magazines like Jet and Ebony wrote that the Barons were the next big thing in music. It seemed their star was on the rise.
The Barons returned to Imperial Records’ studio to record new material in early 1956 as “I Know I was Wrong” landed on the Billboard charts, topping off with a number 14 spot for the rhythm and blues category.
Their fourth single, “So Long My Darling”/“Crying for You Baby,” reached record stores and radio stations in the spring and was followed up by their fifth single “Don’t Walk Out” and “Once In A Lifetime” in early summer. Both failed to build on the success the Barons had found just months earlier. Plans for future singles vanished.
The Barons returned to Tacoma and landed a few gigs at high school dances and at local shows at the Spanish Castle and the Brown Derby. But their fame had faded just as fast as it had formed.
The lack of shows and the growing concerns from their parents led to the Barons disbanding in 1957. Mentions of the band are largely lost to history, even references that list the group often attribute it as a band from New Orleans instead of Tacoma because the Barons name was used by numerous bands around the nation during that time. Imperial Records even made contracts with a second “Barons” group just a few years later.
The Barons simply faded into history.