The doo wop era of the 1950s and 60s produced many groups such as The Counts, comprised of five Indianapolis teens. Robert “Chico” Penick was one of them.
While 16-and 17-year-olds, The Counts signed with a recording company and their first recording, “Darling Dear,” made it to No. 6 in the nation on the Billboard R&B chart.
“We had a lot of fun. We performed in many places, including the Apollo Theater in New York,” said Penick. “We were in a show with Roy Hamilton and once we performed with Count Basie Orchestra backing us up.”
Penick said they met as members of the Crispus Attucks High School choir. They began practicing at each other’s homes and called themselves the 5 Diamonds. Soon they were performing for school and community events.
The members were Chester Brown (tenor lead), Robert Wesley (second tenor) Robert Young (baritone and the writer of their songs), James Lee (bass) and Penick (first tenor). They remained together for more than 40 years.
Their big break came when they impressed someone while singing at a dance at the Madam Walker Theater on Indiana Avenue, an area known nationally for quality live entertainment.
They were introduced to Mel Herman, who operated a distribution company in Indianapolis. Herman became their manager and he introduced the group to Randy Wood, who owned Dot Records based in Gallatin, Tennessee.
Penick said most of their recording work was done in someone’s garage or Wilkins Studio in Indianapolis. The Jimmy Coe Band, another popular local group, played for their recordings.
Like many young groups of that era, The Counts trusted their recording company and unknowingly relinquished rights to their music, said Penick. They would later learn that the authorship of one of their songs was wrongly credited to their manager’s 2-year-old son and another song was wrongly credited to the group’s road manager. The actual writer was The Count’s Robert Young, said Penick.
“The music business is crooked. There were probably a lot of groups that made hits and didn’t get paid anything,” said Penick. “We hired lawyers and sent them to California, but we never heard a thing,” said Penick.
Wood sold Dot Records in 1957 for $3 million to Paramount Pictures and it was later sold to ABC. The company recorded well known artists such as Pat Boone, Eddie Fisher, Liberace, The Andrews Sisters and Louis Armstrong.
Penick said he has no regrets. He grew up on Indianapolis’ Westside on Bright Street with his parents and four brothers, including one who was also a musician. He attended School 4. At Crispus Attucks, he played trombone and was drum major for the band.
“I just loved music,” he said.
Penick said his brother, Bill, who is a saxophonist, was his inspiration. Bill has played with a number of prominent local entertainers, including Mary Moss and the Hampton Brothers.
Penick said he never married but has a son, Ramon. He worked at Imperial Packing, an Indianapolis company which made record jackets for RCA, Columbia, Epic and other recording companies.
Penick said he still loves music. Unfortunately, The Counts never made a dime from the sale of their recordings. The only money they were paid was $150 apiece for each live performance, Penick said.
Copies of their songs are still distributed. Today, Penick is 80 years old and still performs for residents at American Village where he lives.
“Music has been my life.”