Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in Broadside, the magazine of the Library of Virginia, Summer 2008.
Approached by MGM to record a “beat-ballad” version of his 1951 hit, “It’s All in the Game,” Tommy Edwards went into the Metropolitan Studios in New York City on June 9, 1958, and laid down several tracks. He had not recorded any material during the previous 32 months, and the session, reportedly the last one remaining on his contract, was likely his last opportunity to salvage his career.
1946 clipping advertising Edwards’s performance at the Band Box (Baltimore).
Courtesy of Harriet Edwards Smith and Janet P. Wheeler
After moving from his native Henrico County to New York early in the 1940s, Edwards enjoyed his first success as a songwriter in 1946 when “That Chick’s Too Young to Fry” became a hit for Louis Jordan. Early in the 1950s, Tony Bennett released “One Lie Leads to Another” and country star Red Foley recorded “Paging Mister Jackson.” Edwards recorded pop, blues, and jazz-flavored material for Top Records and National Records late in the 1940s before signing with MGM Records in 1950. In 1951 his recordings of “The Morning Side of the Mountain” and “It’s All in the Game” made Billboard’s pop chart, and his recording of “All Over Again” landed on the “Race” chart. Other songs did well, but his popularity had waned by 1954. He ceased recording late in 1955, and in 1956 a Chicago columnist referred to him as a “soft-singing romanticist who is good and not too successful.” His nightclub appearances became infrequent. To get by, he borrowed money from publishers and friends in the music business. Late in the decade, his career reached a dead end.
Edwards’s comeback proved a spectacular success as the reprised version of “It’s All in the Game” not only rescued his stalled career but also produced what The Encyclopedia of Popular Music has hailed as an “indisputable classic of its era.” The recording topped the Billboard chart for six weeks, spent three weeks at number one in the United Kingdom and a week atop the Australian chart, and also rode high on the charts in Canada. It sold a reported 3.5 million copies, earning him a gold record. He charted an additional 13 songs and released as many albums before his death at age 47 in 1969.
In the years since, “It’s All in the Game” has been featured in compilations of 1950s-era recordings, his catalog has appeared in various “greatest hits” packages, and his signature song has been covered by a long list of popular recording artists.
A longtime fan, I asked for the assignment when Edwards’s biography was approved for inclusion in the Dictionary of Virginia Biography (DVB). Too few Virginians, I believed, realized that he was a native son and, for all his fame, very little was known about his life and career. The approaching 50th anniversary of his million-selling record was, therefore, an opportune time to publicize his Virginia roots and his overall contribution to American popular music.
Edwards and his sister Harriet at a Prince Edward County park in 1953.
Courtesy of Harriet Edwards Smith and Janet P. Wheeler
I began researching his biography by first creating a discography, focusing particularly on his obscure recordings for the Top and National labels. Collecting biographical data from a wide array of sources, I also reviewed numerous issues of Billboard, Variety, and Cashbox magazines, verifying chart positions and noting personal appearances and record reviews. Hoping to examine personal papers and conduct interviews, I attempted to contact descendants of the immediate family, but they had left the state many years before, their whereabouts unknown.
As the biography took shape, the project evolved into a personal pursuit. To write about the music in an informed way, I acquired 78- and 45-rpm recordings and long-playing albums. I also began thinking of a permanent, public way to commemorate Edwards’s career, and in the summer of 2007 applied to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for a historical highway marker summarizing his accomplishments. The marker text was approved in December and installation is scheduled for later this year [Editor’s note: The marker was installed in 2009].
Meanwhile, I made a startling discovery. In 2004, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached a settlement with major corporations that owed more than $50 million in royalties to recording artists, past and present. Edwards’s name was at the top of a published list; his estate was owed a considerable sum of money.
Virginia Historical Highway Marker S 31-a, Tommy Edwards, 1922-1969.
Image courtesy of Bernard Fisher, April 7, 2010. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=29573
With a sense of urgency, I resumed efforts to find the family and was met with another surprising development: an older sister was still living. After contacting the family by telephone, I traveled to North Carolina in September 2007 to interview Edwards’s sister and a niece. I also talked with a nephew in Maryland.
I remained in contact with the family, apprising them of my progress and plans for publicizing Edwards’s career. Before long I was updating them on another direction that my research had taken. While examining materials in the Library’s archives, I learned that Tommy Edwards’s father, Thomas Jefferson Edwards, for whom Tommy was named, had a significant career as an educator and administrator. After eight years at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, Edwards left in 1914 to become superintendent of the “Virginia Manual Labor School for Colored Boys,” a statewide facility in Hanover founded in 1897 and taken over by the state in 1920. In 1928, he resigned to teach in Henrico County. His progressive leadership at the Hanover school convinced DVB editors that he also qualified for a biography in volume four.
To advertise Tommy Edwards’s career further, I began assembling a multimedia presentation as part of the Library’s “Mining the Treasure House” lecture series. Scheduled during Black History Month, the February 2008 event featured music and video clips plus images from published and family sources, all woven together by a detailed narrative. In the audience were members of the Edwards family and members of the Quioccasin Baptist Church, where the family had worshipped. A reception was held afterward for out-of-state guests. The Henrico Citizen provided generous coverage of the event.
In identifying Virginians who have made a significant contribution to the state’s history, the DVB takes particular notice of those who have been left out of the historical record, such as women, Native Americans, and African Americans. It was gratifying, therefore, to see Edwards’s family members and friends in attendance.
Family members Lloyd Peace (nephew), Harriet Edwards Smith (sister), and Janet P. Wheeler (niece) attend tribute event in February 2008.
Their enthusiasm was perhaps best expressed by an Edwards relative who wrote a gracious note thanking me “and the Library of Virginia staff for the magnificent tribute for my cousin Thomas ‘Tommy’ Edwards.”
Early in my research, I discovered that Edwards had been buried in an anonymous grave in the Quioccasin Baptist Church cemetery, but I scrapped plans to organize a fundraising event for a marker identifying the location of the gravesite after I located the family. In April, I was asked to act on their behalf in arranging for a headstone that one day would proclaim the resting place of one of Virginia’s most successful and enduring recording stars. Seeking official recognition of such, I provided the office of [then] Richmond mayor L. Douglas Wilder with a detailed summary of Edwards’s career and requested a proclamation honoring his achievements. Mayor Wilder signed a proclamation on 15 October 2008 declaring it “Tommy Edwards Day” in tribute to Edwards’s more than 20 years in the music business and his continuing celebrity.
After all this time, Tommy Edwards has made yet another successful comeback.
–Don Gunter, volunteer and former DVB editor