Cliff Edwards and his future wife Anne Ralph originally began as a duo act, playing covers of the popular hits of the day around the Montreal area. By the latter part of ’66 they were convinced by manager Kevin Hunter to form an actual recording group, and added Ralph’s younger sister Jacki to share vocal duties, Doug Gravelle on drums and keyboardist Gordie McLeod, and The Five Bells was born. Before long Mickey Ottier had replaced McLeod, and they continued touring the Canadian clubs for the next couple of years.
They landed a recording deal with Polydor, and released the Rick Neufeld-penned single, “Moody Manitoba Morning” to rave reviews in the spring of ’69. Their debut album DIMENSIONS followed shortly after, with Edwards serving as producer. Along with “Moody Manitoba Morning,” other tracks like the b-side “Big City” and their cover of The Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine” had them on the circuit over nearly the next year, moving up the ladder and playing ritzy hotels and nightclubs, eventually working their way into the US, including an 11-week run at the Copacabana in New York, and even played some dates in the Caribbean.
Wanting to spend less time on the road and more time in the studio, Edwards pulled the plug on the group for awhile, and once she’d married him, Anne Ralph decided to leave the business all together to concentrate on raising their expected child. But with Jacki Ralph and Gravelle still on board, they picked up guitarist Charlie Clark and Michael Waye on bass (both originally from the Maritimes), and added Frank Mills on piano and keyboards. Intending to take advantage of the new CRTC regulations that forced Canadian radio stations to play homegrown talent, they returned to Andre Perry Studios in Montreal. With Edwards still behind the mixing board, FLY LITTLE WHITE DOVE FLY was released in 1971, by which time Mills had come and gone, replaced by Dennis Will.
The record was a collection of syrupy covers of the likes of Bobby Darin (“Sing A Song Of Freedom”), The Beatles (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), CCR (“Proud Mary”) and Jose Feliciano’s “Rain,” as well as several songs written for the group, including the same version of “Moody Manitoba Morning,” “Stay Awhile” by Ken Tobias and the title track, one of three songs by fellow Canadians Marty Butler and Bob Bilyk.
The title track was the first single, quickly skyrocketing to #9 on the Canadian singles chart. This was surpassed by “Stay Awhile,” written by Saint John, NB native Ken Tobias. The song topped the charts at home and cracked the US Billboard’s Top 10. By the time the record had been certified gold in Canada, it had also become a hit in Australia, Japan, and the UK and sold over 4 million copies worldwide. The song also won the group an RPM Gold Leaf Award, despite some Canadian radio stations refusing to play it due to its presumed suggestive lyrics. They made countless TV appearances, including Johnny Carson, Jackie Gleason, and Merv Griffin’s shows, American Bandstand and Guy Lombardo‘s New Year’s Eve telecast to plug the album.
Before the year was up, Polydor’s subsidiary Columbia House decided to cash in on the group’s success again by re-releasing the same arrangements of the same songs in the same sequence. But this time the record was called STAY AWHILE. To confuse the record buying public more (and historians decades later), it even had the same jacket. Within a few weeks, Polydor re-released FLY LITTLE WHITE DOVE FLY, this time with a different jacket.
Before 1971 was over, LOVE LUCK AND LOLLIPOPS was on the stands, another collection of mostly covers and songs written for the group, including those from Mac Davis (“Half n’ Half”), Phil Spector (“To Know You Is To Love You”), Paul Simon (“Homeward Bound”), John Sebastian (“She’s A Lady”), and a Kris Kristofferson medley. But the album also featured Edwards’ “Easier Said Than Done” and a pair of tracks written by Mills.
Taking little time off, the band returned with STUDIO A in the summer of ’72, which featured much of the same sappy pop formula on covers that was predominant on the previous records, including the singles “Oh My Love” (a cover of Yoko Ono’s tune that naturally went gold in Japan) and a remixed cover of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Trying to show the band’s versatility, they also ventured into a country style mood by covering Don Williams’ “Lord Don’t You Think It’s Time.” But after sporadic tours around the globe, Edwards left the group by the end of the year to pursue a solo career, as did Gravelle and Waye.
The group was still under contract to Polydor, so Ralph kept the name going with the new lineup of herself, Clark on guitars and handling what used to be Edwards’ vocal parts, and new drummer Skip Layton and Will Cardinal (ex-Satan And The D-Men, Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks) as the new bass player. PISCES RISING came out in ’73, for which Edwards stayed on as producer, and so the album stayed true to the band’s signature sound, for the most part. But the addition of Layton and Cardinal also lent a funkier feel to the music, who convinced the rest of the band to cover the Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack song, “Baby I Love You.” Critics also praised that song in particular for bringing out a broader vocal range in Ralph than on any other Bells tune. But even though “He Was Me He Was You,” “The Singer,” and “Hey My Love” all faired respectable numbers, times were changing and label execs didn’t think the band was changing with them, and dropped them.
While Polydor was cashing in with THE BEST OF THE BELLS by the summer of ’74, Ralph resurrected the band, and continues to do so – sometimes with other original members, sometimes with whoever’s available at the time. Edwards continued as a solo artist and as a producer through the ’80s, until getting into the restaurant business. Layton and Cardinal both joined one of the many incarnations of Ocean in the mid ’70s.
Universal released a compilation under their 20th Century Masters umbrella in 2004.