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Fred Parris, creator of a doo-wop classic, dies at 85
His “In the Still of the Night” (originally “Nite”), recorded with his group the Five Satins, came to define a sort of dreamy 1950s nostalgia.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Fred Parris, who was a lovestruck 19-year-old missing his fiancee while serving in the Army when he wrote one of pop music’s most enduring songs, the wistful doo-wop ballad commonly known as “In the Still of the Night,” and recorded it with his group The Five Satins in 1956, died Jan. 13 in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 85.

His current group, Fred Parris and The Five Satins, posted news of his death on its Facebook page, saying only that he died after a short illness.

Over the years Parris varied the story of his signature song a bit, but this was the gist of it: He had met the “girl of my dreams,” as he put it, at the Savin Rock amusement park in West Haven, Connecticut, in 1954, and by the next year they were engaged. On the train ride back to his Army base in Philadelphia after a particularly nice visit with her, he reminisced about their first night together and began thinking about lyrics and tunes.

“When I arrived at camp, I went straight to the day room,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 2004. “There was a piano there, and I started playing the chord in my head and the words in my heart.”

But soon he had to report for his shift. That’s when the song really came together.

“Before I realized it,” he said, “it was time to go to guard duty. It was a cold, black night, and the stars were twinkling.”

The result was a song that was originally titled “(I’ll Remember) In the Still of the Nite,” to distinguish it from Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night,” said Ralph Newman, an R&B historian who filled in some of the details of Parris’ life. In February 1956, again on leave from the Army, Parris and three pals, backed by some local musicians, recorded the song on a relatively primitive two-track system in an echoey, frigid basement room at St. Bernadette’s Church in New Haven.

Somehow they captured acoustical magic.

“Because we did it at the church,” Parris said in a 2013 interview with the Florida radio show “Doo Wop Revival,” “I think the song was blessed. And so was I.”

Although it was originally only a minor hit, “In the Still of the Night” (as the title is now commonly rendered) achieved doo-wop immortality over time, thanks to cover versions by Boyz II Men, the Beach Boys and others; its use in “Dirty Dancing,” “The Irishman” and other movies; and its tuneful timelessness. Newman, a former editor of the R&B history magazine Bim Bam Boom and a former executive director of performing rights administration for Broadcast Music Inc., traced the record’s slow ascent.

“After this icon of vocal group harmony was recorded and first released by the local Standord record label in New Haven, the master was leased to the larger Ember label, which in 1956 landed it on Alan Freed’s nightly radio show on WINS in New York,” he said by email. “There it became, for years, the No. 1 listener-requested song of the period, with which Freed often closed the show with a long list of dedications, and went on to become the perennial No. 1 song on oldies stations around the country.”

Parris kept writing, performing and recording for more than a half-century with an ever-changing lineup, mostly under The Five Satins name. When the oldies boom hit, the song came to define the doo-wop era. Critic Greil Marcus included it in his 2014 book, “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs.”

“Though he continued to record new songs well into the 1980s,” Marcus wrote, “Parris and different versions of The Five Satins never played a show, whether in clubs around New Haven, for rock ’n’ roll revival concerts in New York, on PBS doo-wop fundraisers, without ‘In the Still of the Nite’ being the reason the audience was there at all.”

Newman said he once produced a show featuring The Five Satins on the excursion ship the Bay Belle.

“At that time I asked Fred whether he ever tired of singing that song, night after night, year after year,” he said, “to which he replied: ‘No way; I never stop loving doing that song for people who tell me that it occupies a special place in their lives. I consider it a privilege.’”

Frederick Lee Parris was born March 26, 1936, in Milford, Connecticut, to Ferdinand and Edna Parris, Newman said. Parris grew up in the New Haven area and attended Hillhouse High School. He was a decent baseball player; an entry on The Five Satins in Jay Warner’s “The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History, 1940-1990” says he once had a tryout with the Boston Braves.

Apparently he was a better singer than ballplayer, and he was in several groups before forming The Five Satins. One, which he formed with other Hillhouse students, was called The Scarlets; in 1954, that group recorded “Dear One,” a song Parris had written, for the Red Robin label, and it received some airplay in the New York market.

The Scarlets cut several other records, but in 1955, military service split up the group. Parris ended up in Philadelphia and, during trips home to Connecticut, formed a new group. He admired a group called The Velvets and “liked the idea of something soft and red,” as the Billboard book put it; he chose the name The Five Satins.

But despite that name, Newman said, there were only four Satins at the 1956 recording session: Parris, who sang lead on “In the Still of the Night,” Al Denby (low tenor), Eddie Martin (baritone) and Jim Freeman (bass). The group, usually with five members, continued on, even recording a minor 1957 success, “To the Aisle,” with Bill Baker singing lead because Parris, still in the service, was stationed in Japan. Two other records made the Billboard charts in those early years with Parris as the lead singer: “Shadows” (1959) and “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1960).

Parris, when telling the story of “In the Still of the Night,” usually didn’t identify the young woman who inspired the song, although in the Smithsonian article, he said her name was Marla. In any case, there was no marriage; shortly after he wrote the song, he told the Hartford Courant in 1982, “she went to California to visit her mother.”

“She never came back,” he said.

The song endured, and for a time, Parris and various versions of the Satins toured on the strength of it, but in the mid-1960s, the British Invasion shoved the doo-wop era aside. He told the Courant that over the years he worked at the Olin and High Standard gun-making plants in Connecticut and delivered food at Southern Connecticut State University.

“You do a lot of stuff to eat,” he said.

Beginning in the 1970s, he tapped into the rock ’n’ roll revival market, performing at oldies shows, and in 1982, for the first time in more than 20 years, he and the Satins landed briefly on the charts again with “Memories of Days Gone By,” a medley made up of snatches of “Sixteen Candles,” “Earth Angel” and other classics, including, of course, “In the Still of the Night.”

Parris was married several times, most recently to Emma Parris, who survives him. Other survivors include three children, Shawn Parris, Rene Parris Alexandre and Freddy Parris; and eight grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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