James ‘Shep’ Sheppard’s career began in St. Alban’s Park, New York, in 1954 when, in the fashion of the day, his vocal group was having a friendly competition with another group of youngsters from Queens who called themselves The Hearts.
Wally Roker, Vernon Seavers, and Albert Crump from Wilson High, with Robby Tatum from Jackson High, were enthralled by slightly older Shep, who spent his days at Food & Maritime Trades Vocational School.
By the end of the night, Shep had been nominated as lead singer of The Hearts. The new quintet made their first public appearance singing at Wilson graduation ceremonies.
After a teenaged girl group also called The Hearts made it onto records in January 1955, Shep and the boys started calling themselves The Heartbeats and worked at weddings and private parties.
A neighbour, William Miller – who lived across the street from Vernon Seavers – was working for Herald Records along with bookkeeper Blanche “Bea” Kaslan. Miller and Kaslan started their own label, Hull Records, and added The Heartbeats to the roster.
Their first release, Crazy For You, written by Shep and Miller, became a regional hit in New York and Philadelphia.
“All of us were still working at day jobs when Crazy For You came out”, said Roker. “I was working at Birdell’s Record Shop, the other guys were doing little odd jobs. Shep was still living at home. After Crazy For You, we were able to go into music full time. We did the Dr Jive shows, the Jocko shows, and hit the New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore theatres and all that stuff. At that time we idolised The Harptones with Willie Winfield, The Clovers, and The Five Keys.”
A few more records for Hull followed, and then Shep wrote A Thousand Miles Away. The story that he wrote his beautiful love songs with one particular girl in mind is true according to Roker. “Shep was really in love at the time with a girl who moved to Texas. She moved from Brooklyn to Texas and he was very broken up over it.”
Reissued on the bigger Rama label, A Thousand Miles Away eventually reached #5 on the R&B charts and #53 on the pop charts in early 1957. A follow-up, Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool, edged into the pop charts at #78 in July 1957. The group was becoming more polished and had high aspirations.
Sadly, James Sheppard had found solace in alcohol. He was a difficult man to work with at the best of times, and his drinking increased in direct relationship to the success of his group. This proved to be the death of The Heartbeats.
“We disbanded the group based on Shep drinking too much. We had problems with agents, promoters, record companies, everybody because of this. Shep was a beautiful person, he just drank too much.”
The rest of the group went to work at various jobs and Shep opened a restaurant in Jamaica but continued to sing solo on weekends.
The split in the group had left some very hard feelings between Shep and the rest of The Heartbeats, so much so that Shep never considered any of his former singers when he formed his second group.
He approached old friends Clarence Bassett and Charles Baskerville with the idea of starting a new group. Bassett and Baskerville had been in a high school group called The Videos which, by virtue of a second-place win on an Apollo Theatre amateur night, had made two records in 1958.
Their first, Trickle, Trickle, was a regional hit, but any momentum this record might have generated was lost when two other members of the group died.
After a year out of the “limelight”, Shep called his group The Limelites. It was an unusual all-tenor line-up that returned to Bea Kaslan early in 1961. Without a bass singer, the trio relied on Shep’s lead voice over two-part harmony.
Shep, determined not to be cheated out of publishing and composing royalties, insisted that all rights be shared between himself and Kaslan’s publishing company, Keel Music, BMI.
He had been unsuccessful in getting this arrangement when The Heartbeats were recording. Seed money for revitalising the Hull label was obtained from ABC-Paramount, who issued the first two Limelites records on their Apt subsidiary. Those initial releases ended in obscurity, but Hull was back on track.
Daddy’s Home was a logical extension of the journey that had started with A Thousand Miles Away and moved closer with The Heartbeats’ 500 Miles To Go. The “journey” took five years to complete but, in the interim, Rama Records had acquired the copyright to A Thousand Miles Away and this, in turn, had been picked up by Roulette Records and its subsidiary publishing company, Nom Music, BMI.
Nothing attracts the interest of copyright holders faster than a hit record and Daddy’s Home rocketed up the charts in 1961 to become the #2 pop hit in the nation. At last, Shep had the success he so desperately needed.
Having a huge pop hit kept The Limelites on the road with concerts, TV shows, and personal appearances all over the country. In July Ready For Your Love was on the charts, followed by Three Steps From The Altar and, in early 1962, Our Anniversary.
Shep (who took to calling himself “Shane” for unknown reasons) was still the same difficult person to work with as always, even though the hits kept on coming. A lawsuit filed when Daddy’s Home first hit the charts only made him more unpredictable.
The similarity between A Thousand Miles Away and Daddy’s Home was enough for Nom Music to sue Hull Records and Keel Music for copyright infringement. Because the later record was a hit, it was worth the trouble to go for the money.
Music fans may think the case was ridiculous – the songs are much different – but in a decision handed down in April 1964, New York Federal Court ruled that Daddy’s Home was copied from A Thousand Miles Away.
Since the older tune had been copyrighted in 1956, Nom Music was awarded all royalties from Daddy’s Home and a protective injunction against future use of the tune. Never mind that Sheppard had composed both songs, that bit of common sense had nothing to do with who owned the rights.
The embittered Shep began missing recording dates and personal appearance gigs with increasing frequency.
Despite strained relationships with his own group and other people in the music business, several remarkably fine ballads came from his pen and voice until the demise of The Limelites in 1966. Bassett recalled, “James was just too hard to get along with, so me and Charles gave it up. James gave everyone a hard time; the record company, the promoters, the bands, everyone. He did it until no one could put up with him.”
After the break-up of The Limelites, Baskerville sang with The Players and Bassett spent time with The Flamingos and Creative Funk, but the trio had reunited for revival appearances shortly before Shep’s death.
James Sheppard was murdered on 24 January 1970. He was found dead in his car on the Long Island Expressway, having been beaten and robbed. He was 24.
His death was noted by few, even in the music world. Nevertheless, he is still revered by all who treasure eloquent, soulful vocal group song.
Baskerville died, aged 58, on 18 January 1995 in New York. Bassett died on 25 January 2005, at the age of 68 from the complications of emphysema, at his home in Richmond, Virginia.
James ‘Shep’ Sheppard