In 1955, the members of the group were high school students attending Jamaica High School in Queens, New York. The group initially formed around the idea of writing a political campaign jingle for Jamaica High School's Independent Party, an unpopular group of students "made up of people who were typically also-rans in all the school activities", which included future members of the Cleftones. With this aim, Herbie Cox (lead singer), along with classmates Charlie James McGhee (first tenor), James L. Tucker (second tenor), Warren Corbin (bass), and William "Buzzy" McClane (baritone) changed the lyrics to "Gee", a then-popular rhythm-and-blues song by The Crows. Performing their version of "Gee" resulted in making the Independent Party popular and winning the school elections. The group began performing locally as "The Silvertones" in a variety of neighborhood concerts, such as at Hillcrest Jewish Center Day Camp in Queens, New York. The hit song "Gee" was originally produced by "gruff music industry legend" George Goldner, who also signed the group, now renamed "The Cleftones", to a recording contract in 1955.
In their first effort as professional musicians, Corbin and Patterson wrote "You Baby You," which became a hit in 1955. Herb Cox then wrote "Little Girl of Mine" and "Can't We Be Sweethearts," for the group. However, after a few minor hits (Why you do me Like you do & See you next year) their next major hits would not come until years later. In 1961 the 2nd generation of The Cleftones included Herb Cox, Charlie James, Warren Corbin, Gene Pearson (Baritone from the Rivileers that replaced baritone William "Buzzy" McClane), and new addition Pat Spann, the first and only female to sing with the group. They reached #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with "Heart and Soul," a rearrangement of a 1938 song of the same name. The group followed that song with "For Sentimental Reasons" (1962), a rearrangement of a 1936 song of the same name. However, the British Invasion of the mid-1960s took the audiences of the Cleftones and other doo-wop groups. The Cleftones broke up in 1964, three years after their "Heart and Soul" greatest success.
In 2000, tenor Berman Patterson characterized his experience with the Cleftones:
It seemed like everybody and his brother had a singing group back in the '50s. I think we caught on because we didn't have that stereotypical rhythm-and-blues sound. We were bubblegum. Something bouncing and refreshing. But I'll tell you this: Once you got popular, you were expected to work. I can remember playing five shows a night at the Apollo Theater. We went on every hour and were paid $500 to split five ways.
Songs featured in selected films
- "Can't We Be Sweethearts" appeared in the film Goodfellas.
- "Heart and Soul" appeared in the films American Graffiti and Mischief.
- "Little Girl of Mine" appeared in the film A Bronx Tale.
- "Lover Boy" appeared in the film Drive.
- "My Angel Lover" appeared in the film Susie Q.
- "Golden Oldies Take Stage At Chasco Fiesta", Tampa Tribune, April 4, 2008, sec. Pasco, p. 3, retrieved February 1, 2013
- Wayne Robins (January 18, 1991), "Pop Music Carnegie Hall's Hosting The Cleftones Rocking Since A '50s Romp", Newsday, sec. Part II/Weekend, p. 91
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine (2003), Vladimir Bogdanov, ed., All Music Guide to Soul: The Definitive Guide to R&B and Soul, Hal Leonard Corporation, p. 141, ISBN 0879307447, retrieved February 2, 2013
- Garret Mathews, (January 14, 2000), "Times Have Changed For 'Sam' Samudio, Berman Patterson", Evansville Courier & Press, sec. Metro, p. B1