Saturday, June 17, 2023

Frankie Gem, Ted Ramirez & The Crystals (Galesburg)

In early 1961, 26-year-old singer Frank Hilligoss aka Frankie Gem of Galesburg, Illinois released his first single, "Return To Me," on the USA label.  The record is perhaps most notable however for the instrumental on the flip side, "Crystal Rock," performed by Gem's backing band at the time - The Crystals.

The Crystals formed around 1960 and performed in Galesburg on their own as well as Gem's backing band.

The group's band leader was guitarist Ted Ramirez (pictured second from left), who was also from Galesburg.

Ramirez is credited with writing "Crystal Rock." (His last name spelled Rameriz on the USA record).

Other members of the group included Jim Sward on drums, Jim Ponce on bass, Joe Padilla on guitar and Ed Padilla on sax, piano and bongos.  Gem is shown on the far right.

Dick Hendrickson (not in photo) was an earlier drummer for the group and may have played on the record.  

The USA single appears to have been recorded at Fredlo Recording Studios in Davenport, IA.  There is no catalog number so it is difficult to determine the recording date.  Unlike the USA 45, the acetate is credited to The Crystals.

Special thanks to Marty Hancock for the information and scans!

A few months after the single on USA, Frankie Gem recorded and released another single, this time on Ardore Records out of Chicago.  According to an article in the Galesburg Register-Mail, Gem recorded the single "in cooperation with a Chicago orchestra."

The single included "Without A Girl," a tune written by Gem and  Larry Hilligoss, along with a cover of "My Love."   

The Crystals, it appears, were no longer playing or recording with Gem.   They did continue to perform on their own around Galesburg until late 1962.

As for Frankie Gem, he continued to sing and perform around Galesburg for the next several decades, recording at least two more singles along the way.  

For many years Gem was backed by another Galesburg group called The Avenue Chasers aka The Chasers.  The main members of the group included Don Bitts on bass, Frank Mangieri on accordion and Bill Ballard on drums.  Other area musicians appear to have sat in or joined them at different times, including Ted Ramirez on at least one occasion.

In 1967, Frank Gem & The Chasers recorded a cover of Leiber & Stoller's "Loving You" at the Fredlo Recording Studios in Davenport, IA.  The single was released on Le Mann Records.  The b-side, credited only to The Chasers, was a version of the instrumental "A Taste of Honey."

In 1968, details of a collaboration between Gem and a Chicago songwriter were mentioned in Billboard magazine: 

Barbara Ruth reports that her Italian-flavored tune "Sofia Mia" is to be recorded by a Galesburg, Ill. (her home town), group called Frank Gem and the Chasers on either Hickory or Dot.  

It is unclear whether that recording was ever produced.  In 1971 however, Gem recorded a single for Nashville-based Action Records.    This included two songs written by Gem and Larry Hilligoss, "Foolish Love" and "Come In Blysville."

By the mid-1970's, Gem was performing the lounge and supper clubs of Galesburg as the Frankie Gem Trio.   By the 1980's he dropped Gem and was often billed under his given name.

Frank Hilligoss passed away in 2020.  According to his obituary, "he never gave up on his music and continued singing his entire life, bringing joy to all those who listened."