Fred Parris, frontman for The Five Satins, a doo-wop group whose smash 1956 ballad “In the Still of the Night” became an enduring standard and was prominently used in movies including Dirty Dancing and The Irishman, died Thursday after a brief illness. He was 85.
“I never expected it to have so much of an impact,” Parris told the New Haven Register in 2014. “I didn’t know if they were going to listen to it 15 minutes later, let alone 50 years.”
On Feb. 19, 1956, Parris and one of his bandmates, Al Denby, were at home on military leave in New Haven, Conn., when they recorded “In the Still of the Night,” produced by Marty Kugell, in the St. Bernadette Catholic Church basement. It was the heart of the doo-wop era, when groups such as Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and The Platters were scoring radio hits and New Haven had its own Nutmegs, Chestnuts, Pyramids and Desires.
“It was what you had back then when young kids were singing on street corners,” Jim Freeman, a former Parris bandmate, told The Ringer in 2019 after The Irishman came out. “It was just honest street music.”
Parris had written the song in Philadelphia while on guard duty at a U.S. Army base. “I started writing songs, which I hadn’t really planned on doing,” he said in a NAMM oral history video. “I heard the other songs that groups were recording and I just tried my hand at it.”
The Five Satins hadn’t expected “In the Still of the Night” to take off, and by the time that it did, hitting No. 3 on the R&B charts and No. 24 on the pop charts, Parris had returned to active duty in Japan. Another singer, Bill Baker, had to take his place at performances until he returned. The hit would chart three different times on Billboard‘s Hot 100, in 1956, 1960 and 1961.
“That song changed my life,” Parris told the Register.
The song was interpolated in Ronnie Milsap‘s “Lost In The Fifties Tonight (In The Still Of The Night),” a No. 1 hit on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart in 1985. That genre-crossing update brought Parris and co-writers Mike Reid and Troy Seals a 1985 Grammy nomination for best country song.
Born in New Haven, Parris grew up listening to big-band star Glenn Miller on the radio before discovering R&B music through family members’ records. He delivered newspapers as a teenager and, in high school, joined a group called the Scarlets, for which he wrote a regional hit called “Dear One.”
After “In the Still of the Night,” the Five Satins performed on bills with other top stars of the day, from Dion to Gary U.S. Bonds, and scored follow-up hits including “The Jones Girl,” “Wonderful Girl” and “Oh Happy Day,” some of which they’d recorded during the same New Haven church basement session.
Later, Parris sang in other groups, including Fred Parris and the Restless Hearts (“Bring It Home to Daddy”) in the ’60s and Black Satin in the ’70s. The Five Satins’ lineup changed frequently over the years, as was the case for many doo-wop groups, with several of the originals reuniting for their Rhythm & Blues Foundation Hall of Fame induction in 1998. Parris sang for years in oldies shows and, in one of his final Facebook posts on New Year’s Eve, wrote: “Entertaining you and meeting you thru the years was a pleasure.”
Of “In the Still of the Night,” he said in a 2013 interview with WJCT of Jacksonville, Fla.: “Because we did it at the church, I think the song was blessed. And so was I. It lasted a long, long time.”