Reese Palmer, the leader of the Washington-based doo-wop group the Marquees, which in the late 1950s featured singer Marvin Gaye and accompanied Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Billy Stewart on records, died Oct. 27 at Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton. He lived in Temple Hills.
Mr. Palmer was 73 and had prostate cancer. His death was confirmed by the Marquees’ manager, Gayle James.
The Marquees formed in the mid-1950s in a public housing project named the East Capitol Dwellings. The group included friends from Cardozo High School: Mr. Palmer sang tenor; Gaye (then known by his real name, Marvin Gay) also sang tenor; and Chester Simmons was the baritone-bass. They were later joined by baritone James Nolan.
The Marquees appeared in talent shows at the Lincoln Theatre and rehearsed in a basement recording studio at singer-guitarist Diddley’s house on Rhode Island Avenue NE.
Diddley brought the group to New York, where it recorded “Wyatt Earp” (1957), a novelty song with Mr. Palmer on lead vocal. The group also accompanied future soul star Stewart, a friend from the District’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood.
The records were not hits, but a fortuitous encounter with another entertainer brought the group a fresh burst of success.
Simmons moonlighted as Diddley’s chauffeur. One night, he drove Harvey Fuqua, lead singer of the Moonglows, to a show at the Howard Theatre. Fuqua told him that the Moonglows were about to break up.
“Even though he was performing with the old Moonglows at the Howard, he let us know that right after this gig, they were out and we were in,” Mr. Palmer recalled in David Ritz’s book “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye.” “Harvey was sneaky like that. Between shows, he’d be rehearsing us to death.”
With Fuqua, the Marquees recorded as Harvey and the New Moonglows. Gaye did his first recorded lead vocal on the song “Mama Loochie” (1959).
The Marquees also served as resident back-up singers at Chicago-based Chess records, notably contributing the “uh-huh-huh, woe yeah” chorus to Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” (1959) with singer Etta James.
By late 1960, things had soured. Mr. Palmer and Fuqua disagreed over money and songwriting credits. Fuqua was more focused on a record label he owned, Harvey. When the label merged with Berry Gordy’s Motown, Fuqua became a Motown producer and brought Gaye into the fold.
Mr. Palmer returned to Washington, where he worked as an attendant for Colonial Parking. In his spare time, he coached a youth football team.
Reese Palmer was born in Washington on April 9, 1938.
His first marriage, to Wilhelmina Daugherty, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Barbara Palmer of Temple Hills; a daughter from his first marriage, Jackie Thompson of Capitol Heights; two daughters from his second marriage, Michele Jones and Kimberly Palmer, both of Temple Hills; two stepdaughters, Donna Posey of Arlington County and Sharon Thompson of Temple Hills; 17 grandchildren; 18 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-granddaughter.
As he held other jobs, Mr. Palmer never stopped singing. In 1982, he joined the Orioles, a doo-wop group in which he was the harmony tenor for the next 19 years. In the past decade, he led a new incarnation of the Marquees and had recently completed several songs for a CD.