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Music / The Ink Spots

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"I don't want to set the world on fire..."
Bill Kenny sings a song associated in the popular consciousness with something that wouldn't be invented for another four years.

The Ink Spots were a hugely popular and influential African-American vocal group active for 20 years (1934–54), who were an important forerunner of later rock and roll, Doo-wop, and rhythm & blues acts, as well as one of the first all-black musical groups to gain widespread popularity with white listeners.

The group started out as "King, Jack and Jester" in 1933 with Deek Watson, Jerry Daniels and Charlie Fuqua. The following year, Hoppy Jones joined and the now-quartet became "The 4 Ink Spots". Their first recordings were issued in 1935 on Victor Records to little success.

Daniels was replaced in 1936 by Bill Kenny, whose unusually high tenor voice would lead the group to major success. It was around that time they moved to Decca Records, for which they would record for the rest of the original group's existence.

In 1939, the group began a 13-year string of hits with "If I Didn't Care", which reached #2 on the charts and sold over 19 million copies, making it the 9th best-selling single of all time. That string continued into the 1940s and early '50s with chart-toppers like "Address Unknown" (1939), "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)" (1940), "The Gypsy" (1946), and "To Each His Own" (1946), as well as other big hits like "My Prayer" (#3 in 1939), "Maybe" (#2 in 1940), "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" (#4 in 1941), and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (#2 in 1943). The group also teamed up with Ella Fitzgerald in 1944 to record songs like "I'm Making Believe" and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall", both of which also topped the charts.

Along the way, the group had some lineup changes. Fuqua was drafted in 1943 and was replaced by Bernie Mackey, then Huey Long before returning in 1945. Jones died of a cerebral hemorrage in 1944 and was replaced by Cliff Givens for a few months, then by Bill Kenny's twin brother Herb until 1951, when the group's valet Adriel McDonald took over while Herb went on a solo career.

With the death of what was a father figure of sorts for the group, infighting between Bill Kenny and Watson reached a breaking point and the latter left in 1944 to form his own group. The first of many legal battles over who could use the "Ink Spots" name ensued, with the final judgment being that Kenny had the rights on the name. Watson called his new group the Brown Dots and his place in the Ink Spots was taken over by Billy Bowen, who was himself replaced by Teddy Williams in 1952, then by Ernie Brown a few months later, then by Henry Braswell in 1954.

Charlie Fuqua left in 1952 to form his own group, which had to be named "Charlie Fuqua's New Ink Spots" by court order but went under the "Ink Spots" name regardless. His place was taken by Everett Barksdale, then by Jimmy Cannady the next year.

The original group officially disbanded in 1954, with Bill Kenny going on to a solo career. However, that was far from the end for the "Ink Spots". Fuqua still had his "Ink Spots" group, and Watson started using that name in 1952. Those groups had some of their members break off into their own groups, which had some of their members break off into their own groups, and so on... it quickly got messy, with several groups claiming ownership of the name and lawsuits aplenty, to the point the name was declared to be in the public domain in 1967 due to its overuse.

Ersatz Ink Spots aside, the original group mostly faded into obscurity until 2008 when several of their songs were included on the soundtracks to the wildly popular video games Fallout 3 (their song "Maybe" had already been used for the opening and closing cutscenes of the first game, but it was 1997; computer games weren't quite "mainstream" just yet) and BioShock (followed soon after by their immediate sequels). This established them as the go-to guys for any video game looking to create a "retro" atmosphere, whether taking place in mid-20th century Film Noir times or said era's vision of the future and they've appeared in many titles from different publishers since.

As an aside, only one of the members of the actual band, Huey Long (no relation), lived to see any of this revived popularity, dying in 2009 at the ripe old age of 105.

Members of the original (1934-54) group (founding members in bold):

  • Everett Barksdale — baritione vocals, guitar (1952-53, died 1986)
  • Billy Bowen — tenor vocals, guitar (1944-52, died 1982)
  • Henry Braswell — tenor vocals (1954)
  • Ernie Brown — tenor vocals, guitar (1952-54)
  • Jimmy Cannady — baritone vocals, guitar (1953-54)
  • Jerry Daniels — tenor vocals, guitar, ukulele (1934-36, died 1995)
  • Charlie Fuqua — baritone vocals, guitar, tenor guitar, ukulele (1934-52, died 1971)
  • Cliff Givens — bass vocals, cello (1944-45, died 1989)
  • Bill Kenny — tenor vocals (1936-54, died 1978)
  • Herb Kenny — bass vocals, cello (1945-51, died 1992)
  • Huey Long — baritone vocals, guitar (1945, died 2009)
  • Bernie Mackey — baritone vocals, guitar (1943-45, died 1980)
  • Adriel McDonald — bass vocals, cello (1951-54, died 1987)
  • Ivory "Deek" Watson — tenor vocals, tenor guitar (1934-44, died 1969)
  • Orville "Hoppy" Jones — bass vocals, cello (1934-44, died 1944)
  • Teddy Williams — tenor vocals (1952)

Note about the cello: the original cello player, Hoppy Jones, plucked it like a string bass. His successors only mimed playing it but still held one because Jones' cello was seen as an integral part of the group.

It's All Over But the Troping:

  • Captain Ersatz: While the first case of an imposter Ink Spots group dated back to 1940, the number of such groups exploded in the wake of the original group's disbanding in 1954 to the point the name had to be declared public domain in 1967. While the above-mentioned Deek Watson and Charlie Fuqua groups obviously have ties to the original group, the vast majority have no legitimate lineage to it whatsoever despite what their members may claim. Impostor groups often have a very old member who pretends to have been a member of the original group.
  • In Name Only: The last few recordings the Ink Spots issued on Decca in 1951-53 are actually solo Bill Kenny recordings. Some use an orchestral backing far removed from the usual Ink Spots sound while others have a sound closer to the classic recordings. Some even have Kenny do a bass recitation to further the illusion these recordings were by the whole group. The rest of the group only played with him on live dates during that time.
  • Large and in Charge: Bill Kenny, the band's lead singer, had to be at least 6'6" and dwarfed the rest of the group who barely even came up to his shoulder.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: Nothing says pre-Kennedy administration like I - #idim - ii7 - V7.
  • Must Have Caffeine: The aptly titled "Java Jive". Appropriately, it's slightly faster paced than most of their songs.
  • Perfume Commercial: The Ur-Example of such, the "Share the Fantasy" ad for Chanel No. 5 (directed by Ridley Scott back in 1979), uses "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire".
  • Recurring Riff: Many of the band's songs, particularly ballads, are introduced by the same distinct guitar riff.
  • Set the World on Fire: Inverted with "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" — they just want to start a flame in your heart.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Magical Maestro: After the singer's face is sprayed with ink, causing an unfortunate Black Face gag, he starts singing in the voice of The Ink Spots, referencing the fact his own face is now full of ink.
    • Redd Foxx, one of the co-stars of Sanford and Son and its spin-off Sanford, would often sing "If I Didn't Care", noting it as one of Fred's favorite songs. Whenever he sang "If I Didn't Care", Foxx had the royalties taken out of his own salary out of love for their music, and NBC choosing not to personally pay for the rights.
    • The original trailer for Blade Runner featured prominent use of "If I Didn't Care". The song quite blatantly clashes with the imagery.
    • Manhattan: "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire'' plays during Charlie's atomic nightmare sequence.
    • The Simpsons: The Treehouse of Horror XVII episode has Kang and Kodos invade Earth in the third segment, "The Day the Earth Looked Stupid". Jumping forward to three years later, Springfield is in ruins and the aliens wonder why they were not greeted as liberators, as they planned the invasion to rid Earth of "weapons of mass disintegration" which they refer to as "Operation Enduring Occupation" (in a clear reference to the war on Iraq). The segment ends with the camera pulling away from the smoking ruins of what was once Springfield, as "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" plays.
    • A staple of the Fallout games:
      • Fallout: Setting the trend, the game's introductory cinematic begins with a close-up on a TV flashing classic 1950s images and icons, while "Maybe" plays. Slowly, the "camera" pulls out to reveal the TV set is in the midst of a landscape utterly devastated by warfare. For added irony, "Maybe" is played again in the ending. Y'know, as the Vault Dweller is exiled from the home they just saved, and marches depressingly into the wastelands... alone.
      • Fallout 3: The most famous of these by far, deliberately echoing the sequence from the first game. The camera focuses on a radio on a bus, as "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" cues up. It pulls back to reveal that the bus is a wreck, with debris scattered everywhere, and pulls further back to reveal that it's in the middle of the burnt-out ruins of Washington, D.C. The song cuts out as a Scare Chord plays, announcing the arrival of a Brotherhood of Steel soldier in full Power Armor. (Worthy of note: Black Isle wanted "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" for the original game's opening, but couldn't get the rights, which is why they used "Maybe".)
      • Fallout 4: "It's All Over But the Crying" is used for the first half of the first trailer, following a dog investigating a bombed-out house, the image overlapping (through static) to scenes with the family that lived there Just Before the End.
      • While not actually an Ink Spots song, the version of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" featured in Fallout 76 adds the band's signature guitar riff at the beginning of the cover by doo-wop group Spank.
      • Several other songs also feature on the in-game radio stations from 3 on: "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" and "Maybe" in Fallout 3, "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" in Fallout: New Vegas, "It's All Over But the Crying" and all of the aforementioned songs in Fallout 4, and all of the above plus "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)" in Fallout 76.
    • The Walking Dead: The cold open to "The Grove", with "Maybe" playing on the soundtrack, is very much in the style of the original Fallout, going from a wholesome kitchen setting to reminding that there's a zombie apocalypse underway. You almost expect Ron Perlman to narrate how war never changes when the opening credits roll.
    • "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" was used as the credits theme for the animated short "Logorama".
    • One mystery in Killed Until Dead has a prankster playing tricks on the suspects. One such prank is a fake Ink Spots record that drips literal spots of ink.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The video games that Ink Spots songs appear in tend to be very violent, often to the point of absurdity, as well as very cynical about the culture of the era they portray and are bound and determined to milk Bill Kenny's dulcet tones for all the irony they're worth.
  • Spoken Word in Music: Every one of their songs has a monologue in deep bass tones.
  • Strictly Formula: The group's ballads (such as "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire", "If I Didn't Care", "Maybe" and others) all use a format that Bill Kenny called "Top and Bottom": begin with a I-#idim-ii7-V7 guitar intro, have the tenor singer (the "top") sing a chorus, follow with the bass singer (the "bottom") reciting another chorus, then finish out with the tenor again.