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In 1957, Cardozo High School graduate Reese Palmer put together a singing group called The Marquees with three others including Marvin Gaye. On April 2 of this year, the 73-year-old Palmer sang at Marvin, the restaurant/bistro on 14th Street, on Gaye’s birthday. But Palmer’s health has since taken a turn for the worst. He’s received chemotherapy for bladder and prostate cancer, and is now in Southern Maryland Hospital, in Clinton, Md. This Sunday, the Eclipse nightclub is hosting a benefit concert for him with a who’s-who of D.C. R&B royalty, including The Jewels, Velons, Clovers, and Pookie Hudson’s Spaniels.
Never heard of the Marquees? They weren’t around too long in their original incarnation. By fall 1957, Bo Diddley’s manager Phil Landwehr was representing these street-corner crooners, and got them signed to Columbia’s Okeh subsidiary where they recorded five songs, including “Hey Little Schoolgirl” and “Wyatt Earp.” Alas, Okeh got bored with them by 1958 and released The Marquees from their contact. They soon became singer Harvey Fuqua’s backing group, the new Moonglows, and headed to Chicago where they recorded some songs for Chess and backed up Chuck Berry on several songs. By 1960, that wasn’t working out either, and Palmer returned to D.C. and worked dayjobs as a truck driver and parking attendant while still singing when he could.
Palmer continued to warble and do choreographed dance moves locally with a number of groups that wear matching suits, most notably Diz Russell’s Legendary Orioles and the new Marquees. With the Orioles from the ‘80s through 2004, the now-white-haired Palmer was known for his using his tenor as lead and for backing harmonies on a mixture of doo-wop and ’50s and ’60s R&B classics. His dancing remained impressive, as well. The Orioles performed at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage several times and at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. In the late ’80s Palmer put together the new Marquees with the aid of vocalist and future manager Gayle James. Since 2004, they’ve been his sole group. In 2009 they released the album Continuing Journey. Palmer and the new Marquees can also be seen in the 2010 film documentary My Brother Marvin. James, who says Palmer has been like a “big brother” to her, notes the group was working on a new album called Naturally.
James somberly adds that while Palmer has health insurance, he has “minimal income” and no life insurance. While she hopes the benefit money won’t be needed soon for a funeral and burial expenses, she acknowledges that this a possibility. She says that D.C. has been so “full of love” for Palmer that she has had to turn down some artists who wanted to appear. While Palmer’s health won’t allow him to be at the show, she hopes for a recovery and says she “prays for better times but things are not looking so good now.”
The benefit for Reese Palmer takes place Sunday at 4:30 pm (doors open at 4) at the Eclipse, 2820 Bladensburg Rd. NE with the Marquees; Legendary Orioles; Velons; Jewels; Pookie Hudson’s Spaniels; Clovers; Peaches & Herb; Skip Mahoney & the Casuals; Al Johnson; the Fonics; DC’s Finest; Dynamic Superiors; Royal Height; Commitment; H.A.L.O.; Captain Fly ;and more. $25-$30. You can buy advance tickets from Gayle James ,( 202) 704-1040); Beverly Lindsay-Johnson,(301) 839-2233; Roadhouse Oldies, ( 301) 587-1858; Memory Lane Records (301) 568-5032; and Bab’s Records (301) 736-6583.