Herb Reed and William Lee Miller have almost nothing in common, other than that their obituaries appeared side by side in yesterday’s newspaper. Reed was the last living member of the original Platters, the 1950s pop group that recorded “The Great Pretender,” “Only You” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” They were one of the first so-called crossover groups, whose songs appealed to both white and black audiences in an era when “race music” was banned in much of the South. We now call it “rhythm and blues.” Miller was a historian who wrote popular books abut the national debate over slavery. In addition to biographies of Abraham Lincoln, he wrote Arguing About Slavery, the story of the “gag rule,” which forbade any petition about – or even discussion of – slavery on the floor of the House of Representatives. Congressman and former President John Quincy Adams spent the last years of his life fighting and finally repealing the rule.
Almost 120 years separated the introduction of the first gag rule in 1836 and the release of “The Great Pretender,” the Platters’ first number-one hit, in 1955. A lot had happened in between: The Civil War; the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the South after a brief interlude of Black progress; the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education mandating public school integration. And yet, despite the Platter’s enormous success across racial lines, they still had to play for segregated audiences in the South. “There was still so much prejudice everywhere,” remembered Reed. “How could you enjoy it?”