A Collector of Songs—and Stories

Archivist Charlie Horner reveals the hidden history of Asbury Park’s long-lost R&B and jazz scene.

Charlie Horner amid the archive of recordings, documents and photos he and his wife maintain to preserve the "classic urban harmony" they love.
Charlie Horner amid the archive of recordings, documents and photos he and his wife maintain to preserve the "classic urban harmony" they love.
Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser

They started singing together as teenagers, harmonizing on street corners on Springwood Avenue in the heart of Asbury Park’s predominantly black West Side. Bobby Thomas sang lead. People told him he sounded like Sonny Til, the lead singer of the Orioles, the vocal group everyone wanted to emulate back then.

They called themselves the Vibranaires, and in the summer of 1954, the five singers piled into a car bound for Mastertone Studios in Manhattan to make their first record. Before they took off, a cop tapped on the window. He had other plans for one of them. The group had played the Asbury Park Armory the night before, and their baritone singer had stolen an upright bass from another band on the bill and pawned it. They left for the studio as a quartet.

“So now there’s only four voices, and they had to rearrange the whole harmony in the car on the way to New York,” says music archivist Charlie Horner, relating the story as told to him by Thomas, who died in 2012. The Vibranaires recorded four songs that day; “Doll Face” would be their first single on the After Hours label. “And that’s really the first rhythm-and-blues record to come out of Asbury Park,” Horner declares.

That anyone in Asbury Park was cutting records in the mid-1950s, almost two decades before Bruce Springsteen made his first one, might surprise those rabid local music fans who can trace the genealogy of every band that ever played the Upstage Club or the Stone Pony. It surprised even Horner, who knows more about what he likes to call “classic urban harmony”—early rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop and soul music—than almost anyone alive.

“As early as 1900, the West Side of Asbury Park had a reputation for being the place where all the hot music was,” says Horner. “I never knew it was there, and a lot of other people didn’t either.”

Horner and his wife, Pam, have assembled and maintain the Classic Urban Harmony Archives to celebrate and preserve the music he fell for as a boy. Their trove consists of 50,000 records, plus reams of documents, photos and memorabilia. It is likely the most comprehensive collection of its kind.

Long before Springsteen and his mostly white compatriots were playing the bars and clubs near the Asbury Park boardwalk on the east side of the railroad tracks that divided the historically segregated city, several generations of mostly black musicians were playing the Springwood Avenue joints on the West Side. It’s a hidden history that Horner has made his mission to resurrect, interviewing musicians for his newsletter and website, curating exhibitions, lecturing, contributing to music journals and helping to stage concerts.

“We’ve added a big chapter to the history,” says Don Stine, president of the Asbury Park Historical Society, which worked with the Horners on recent exhibits and concerts. “Nobody is more knowledgeable about this type of music than Charlie and Pam Horner—nobody. Without them, I don’t think we would have ever been able to adequately document this music.”

Charlie Horner was collecting before he even knew it, as he learned later from the baby book his mother kept. “On my second birthday she wrote something to the effect that, ‘Charlie has a collection of phonograph records’—she meant those colored-vinyl kiddie records—‘and he can identify every song when it’s put on by the second note.’”

Horner grew up in the Burholme section of Northeast Philadelphia and studied accordion long enough to learn to read music and understand song structure. He also learned that he liked listening more than playing. A relative who worked at a record-pressing plant brought him discarded 45s that he sifted through until he found gold. He recalls: “I put on this record, ‘Sindy,’ by the Squires on the Mambo label, a heavy R&B label, and I said, ‘Wow, what is that? It sort of sounds like the Platters, but it’s a lot cruder.’” He was 10, it was 1960—the record had been released in 1955—and his life’s path was set.

He started listening to the legendary Hy Lit, Jerry Blavat and other Philadelphia deejays who played the sound that had knocked him over. He tuned in to black stations (WHAT, WDAS) while working at a gas station and haunted record shops, thrift stores, flea markets and tag sales, building his collection. At Drexel University, he studied chemistry and made his radio debut, playing records from his collection on WKDU, the student station. In 1975, while attending graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, he started a weekly show on WXPN. It ran for the next 20 years.

After earning his doctorate in organic chemistry, Horner moved to an apartment in Piscataway and worked for the next 26 years for GAF, the building-materials company. He kept a house in Philadelphia, across the street from where he grew up. This became a home for his record collection and the place he stayed each weekend for his radio show. “The records wouldn’t fit in the apartment,” he says, “so the records got the house.”

After Horner and Pam married in 2005—she was a passionate fan of the music, too, and they met at a concert—some of the records moved into their home in Somerset. “You would think this is a lot,” he says, opening custom cabinets, one after another, revealing a library’s worth of 45s in orderly rows. “Because we can’t fit everything here, I started with ’50s R&B vocal groups, filed alphabetically, and what’s here is A through the beginning of H.”

The rest of the alphabet, and the remaining 90 percent of the collection—the other decades and genres, from wax cylinders and 78s of African-American quartet singing to 1960s soul LPs—is in storage, retrieved to display in exhibits or to consult when writing yet another article for the Horners’ newsletter or one of the music journals they contribute to. Both are retired now, Charlie from GAF, Pam from teaching. They also produce concerts. In February, they mounted a multi-act doo-wop show at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre. It was the first in what they hope will be an annual series.

“A lot of these singers are gone now, and the only people left to tell their story is us,” says Charlie, who has interviewed hundreds of musicians, including Bobby Thomas, who later sang with the Orioles and led his own version of the group after Sonny Til’s death. Thomas told him that there were great stories to be shared about the West Side scene.

The Horners dug back to the 1920s, when jazz pioneers like Fats Waller, Willie Gant and Donald Lambert played stride piano in the West Side clubs. In one incident, a young pianist named Claude Hopkins and his band found themselves stranded in Asbury in the summer of 1925 after losing a gig in Atlantic City and flipping their Buick in a ditch on the drive north. They wandered into the Smile-A-While Inn and boasted they were better than the house band. The owner let them audition. “He told them, ‘You’re right, I’m firing the band and putting you up there,’” Horner says. “Hopkins felt bad for the band leader who just got fired, but the owner said, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s local, he’ll get another job—that’s Bill Basie.’” Things turned out fine for both Hopkins, who later toured Europe with Josephine Baker, and for Red Bank’s Count Basie.

“I was just so pleased to find that there was somebody in this world who thought that it was worthy to remember the significance of the black musicians of the West Side,” says 90-year-old Clifford Johnson, an Asbury-born jazz saxophonist who played all the clubs along Springwood Avenue, from Big Bill’s to the Turf Club, and whose sax has been featured in exhibits Horner organized. “Long before Bruce Springsteen or any of those guys—and I’m not saying anything derogatory about them, they’re great—if anybody wanted to hear good music, they came to the West Side of Asbury.”

Among the musicians who emerged from the West Side in the 1960s was Lenny Welch, whose version of “Since I Fell for You” hit number 4 in 1963. Then there were the Broadways, whose occasional sax player was Clarence Clemons; and Billy Brown, who had big hits with the Moments and Ray, Goodman and Brown after he left the Broadways.

“The West Side guys had a strong influence on what became known as the Sound of Asbury Park,” Bruce Springsteen told the Asbury Park Press in 2011, when he and Southside Johnny, along with other East Side musicians, joined some West Side stalwarts at an impromptu reunion concert at the Wonder Bar. “There was a moment when the scenes crossed and I opened for the Broadways.”

The end came quickly. “Right after the riots, the whole avenue just burned up,” says Ronald Coleman, one of the Broadways, referring to the riot in the summer of 1970 that left much of Springwood Avenue desolate and vacant. “But Charlie started digging into it and he really brought it all back.”

Horner does not have a 45 of “Doll Face”—he has seen one sell for $2,500—but he has Bobby Thomas’s own 78 rpm pressing of it, which was left to him after Thomas died. He has Thomas’s Silvertone guitar, too, with the amp and speaker built into the carrying case. And he has the stories.

Kevin Coyne is a freelance writer and teacher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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