A young Florida quartet crowned as International champion in Philadelphia in 1961 was destined to become one of the most popular, active and long-lived in the Society's history: the Suntones. Formed less than three years earlier, the quartet sang for over 25 years, averaging 40 annual shows - more than 1,000 performances. It produced ten record albums and pioneered such show-business touches as individual microphones and a tall stool for each singer.
Original members of the quartet were Gene Cokeroft, tenor; Bob Franklin, lead; Bill Wyatt, bari; and Bill Cain, bass. Harlan Wilson replaced Wyatt before they won the championship, and that foursome stayed together until Drayton Justus, former lead of the Gentlemen's Agreement, took over the lead slot when Bob retired in 1980.
Next to the Buffalo Bills of The Music Man fame, the Suntones probably were the Society's best-known quartet, thanks mainly to their long run on Jackie Gleason's television show of the '60s. The quartet made numerous appearances and worked behind the scenes, providing background music and other services, for as long as the show originated from Miami.
- Tenor: Gene Cokeroft
- Lead: Bob Franklin
- Bari: Harlan Wilson
- Bass: Bill Cain
- Lead: Drayton Justus
- Bass: Todd Wilson
- Bari: Bill Wyatt
Represented the Sunshine District.
- 1959 1st
The Suntones researched and written by Grady Kerr
The Suntones performed from 1957 to 1985 and along the way recorded 10 albums and shared the bill with such greats as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Mike Douglas and The Four Freshmen.
The Suntones began as a Miami "chapter quartet" in 1957 with Gene Cokeroft on tenor, Clark Bell singing lead, Bill Wyatt on baritone and Danny Whipple. Like many quartets they cut their teeth on good old barbershop songs and did them very well.
But soon families and draft boards took their toll on the original members of the Suntones and forced several personnel changes. In November of 1958 they were looking for a new bass.
Into a chapter meeting walks Bill Cain. He sang a song with Gene and Bill and the new lead Bob Franklin. And they were impressed. They rehearsed nine nights in a row and entered the district contest.
The Suntones placed second and were the surprise of the weekend. The very next year, 1959, the quartet qualified to compete at their first International Contest. Despite Bob having the flu they placed 24th in Chicago in '59.
That fall they won the first district championship of the newly formed Sunshine District. It was during that weekend they first met future Suntones baritone Harlan Wilson.
One reason for their popularity was their innate ability to precisely tune very tight chords. This had inspired Bill Wyatt to write some wild and crazy arrangements.
In the spring of 1960, Wyatt had to withdraw from the quartet so they called Harlan in West Palm Beach.
The quartet burned up the Florida Turnpike every other night for six weeks to win the right to represent the Sunshine District in Dallas that summer. They traveled to Dallas for the 1960 Int'l and did very well placing 8th.
They were also attracting the attention of the barbershop world, earning new fans and becoming one of the favorites to win "someday".
In addition to singing the traditional barbershop style, the quartet really enjoyed singing more modern arrangements like those of the Four Freshmen.
They traveled to the 1961 International held in Philadelphia. After the quarter-finals the Suntones had the audience on their side by singing A Little Street Where Old Friends Meet and You're Nobody's Sweetheart Now. In the Semi-finals they performed Oh, How I Miss You Tonight and Mother Machree
Call it luck, destiny or a little bit of both, the Suntones were picked to sing LAST in the top ten final round of competition Saturday night.
The audience reaction was unexpected by the quartet. It was clear The Suntones were a cut above and the audience and judges knew it. Everyone would later discover that they would rack up a 343 point winning margin.
They ended the contest that year with a song that would become one of their trademarks - Bye, Bye Blues.
Saturday night they got to sing one more song and accept the trophies. They decided to sing the modern, I Had the Craziest Dream Last Night.
In hind sight, Gene says they probably could have selected a better song. So after being up all night singing they headed home in a sweltering hot, chartered, four prop Lockheed Constellation … still on cloud nine.
As with all International Quartet Champions, they were crowned, celebrated, cheered and treated like celebrities and sent home.
Here is where some gold medal quartets begin to slowly but surely disappear. For the Suntones, this was only the beginning.
They decided they might as well do this thing up right. This resulted in setting new standards and becoming innovators. The quartet produced recordings as often as possible. This created a very impressive library. They carried their own sound system to bookings and performed with individual hand held microphones. They also expanded the exposure of barbershop quartets with a proactive management mindset and sought professional bookings outside of barbershop circles.
Their heavy scheduled also forced them to improve and perfect their presentation. It was hard work that paid off. One example? The Suntones were soon found singing at New York's Plaza Hotel on the same bill as Benny Goodman.
In 1966 when Jackie Gleason moved his popular TV variety show to Miami he wanted a barbershop quartet. The Suntones got the gig and appeared several times on Gleason's show. Gleason loved the Suntones. Thanks to their national TV appearances made them even more popular with the public and of course increased their bookings. To have the Suntones on your show was a coup. They were the "hottest" quartet in the Society.
They also appeared before millions of viewers on several nationwide broadcasts of the Orange Bowl Parade.
This national fame enabled them to also share the stage with such stars as Danny Thomas, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Mike Douglas, Louie Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Eddy Arnold, Kate Smith, Joe Williams, Bobby Goldsboro, President Gerald R. Ford and The Four Freshmen.
The Suntones set themselves apart by introducing new songs into their performances such as Glen Cambell's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", Jack Jones' "Lollipops and Roses", Andy Williams' "Speak Softly Love" and this one by David Gates and Bread.
They were also popular for their Monster Medleys. It was their close friend Walter Latzko who created these 10-minute productions. Few quartets could have done them and Walter didn't pull any punches. They were tough. They were also crowd pleasers.
I can remember them opening up their set standing up stage, on the top row of the empty chorus risers in a striking silhouette. Each had individual hand held mics and stood even distances apart almost filling up the near empty stage. The silence was broken with the opening chords of the Sound Of Music Medley.
It was about here they would walk down stage, off the risers, the lights would come up and they would meet at the quartet position as the curtains closed behind them.
It was truly magical
The other monster medleys were Fiddler On The Roof, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story. These medleys were and still are favorites of everyone who experienced the Suntones.
Each member of the quartet were outstanding performers in their own right, well seasoned and often appear on lists now days of "My dream quartet member would be".
Bill Cain's bass was always fun, Baritone Harlan Wilson's smooth style matched his good looks, Gene Cokeroft tenor was full voice and very distinctive and super lead Bob Franklin was all of that, just super.
In 1979 Bob decided to leave the group due to some vocal problems. It was a shock to the barbershop world. Most doubted another great lead could be found but then, they found him. Drayton Justus joined the Suntones. Drayton had won his gold medal in 1971 with the Gentlemen's Agreement. He brought with him years of experience, and great voice and this trademark song.
The Suntones never missed a beat and they continued to perform for another five years.
Their final performance was in January of '85 in Montclair, NJ during a special tribute to arranger Walter Latzko.
Since then there have been only a handful special appearances like their 30th anniversary performance at the 1991 Sunshine District Convention.
Well, Where Are They Now?
Drayton Justice is still singing and served the Society as International President.
The great bass Bill Cain suffered from cancer and lost the battle July 31, 2004 at the age of 71.
Gene, Bob and Harlan have returned to the stage singing limited bookings with a rookie on bass, Todd Wilson.
These old friends gave us quite a thrill over the years. The Suntones showed us how it could be done professionally and raised the bar for all that followed. They were certainly ahead of their time and innovators in almost every area of quartet singing.