Spectropop remembers

WALTER WARD (1940 - 2006)

Walter Ward, lead singer of the Olympics, the R&B group whose biggest hit was the 1958 novelty tune 'Western Movies', has died. He was 66. Ward, who last performed with the group in November, died at his home in Northridge, Los Angeles after a long illness.

Ward was born in 1940 in Jackson, Mississippi, and sang gospel with his father and three uncles as the Ward Brothers. The family moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Ward and his cousin, Eddie Lewis, formed the group, originally known as the Challengers, in 1954 while at Centinela High School in Inglewood. Another duo that the Challengers kept beating in local talent shows asked to join the group, so the new quartet called itself the Olympics after picking the name out of a hat.

At a time when America was preoccupied with western-themed movies and TV shows, 'Western Movies' told the story of a man who lost his girl to the horse operas on the tube. The song - complete with gunshots, ricochet effect and doo-wop harmonies - peaked at #8 on Billboard's pop charts. The group continued to place singles on the charts for eight years. '(Baby) Hully Gully' helped kick off a dance craze in 1960, and 'Big Boy Pete', released the same year, was the inspiration for the Kingsmen's 'Jolly Green Giant', while 'Mine Exclusively' and 'Baby Do The Philly Dog' both did well on the soul charts in 1966.

Tragedy befell the group when Charles Fizer, an early lead vocalist, was shot and killed during the Watts riots in 1965. Another singer, Melvin King, left the group after his sister was accidentally shot and killed about the same time, Lewis said in 1990.

Revamped versions of the group, which continued to include Ward and his cousin, failed to match earlier successes, but the Olympics found an enduring home on the oldies circuit in the US and overseas. Even though he had been ill, Ward continued to perform with the Olympics several times a year, last appearing at a Doo-Wop Spectacular in Long Island, New York. He is survived by a son, Dwayne, and two sisters, Bessie and Magdelene.

(Valerie J. Nelson, The L.A. Times)

Walter Ward, singer: born August 28th, 1940 - died December 11th, 2006