Maurice Williams was 15 and singing in his church choir Sunday mornings and wooing his girlfriend Saturday nights in his hometown of Lancaster, S.C..
Her curfew was 10 p.m., but he wanted her to stay, just a little bit longer. He tried his best to convince her that her parents wouldn’t mind.
She went home anyway. The next morning, Williams set his teenage blues to rhythm. He called the song “Stay.”
“Stay, just a little bit longer.
Please, please, please, please, please tell me that you’re going to.
Now your daddy don’t mind and your mommy don’t mind,
if we have another dance just one more time.”
He recorded the song a few years later in 1960 with his group, The Zodiacs. He was their lead singer. It entered the Hot 100 on the Billboard charts in October, and on Nov. 21, 1960, it hit No. 1. The doo-wop ditty kicked Ray Charles’ Grammy-winning “Georgia on My Mind” out of the top spot. A week later, it was knocked off by Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
“I thought the top 10 was big, but when we hit No. 1, oh man, we were superstars,” Williams said during a recent interview at his home in northwest Charlotte.
A few weeks later, the group traveled to Philadelphia to perform their hit on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”
Fifty-five years after its release, “Stay” has sold more than 10 million copies. The song has been covered by The Hollies, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne.
There is a disco version, a reggae version and a recording by a Serbian rockabilly artist named Komandant Adam.
“We had so many covers of ‘Stay,’ it’s hard to keep up with. My favorite was The Four Seasons,” Williams said. “I was big fan of the Four Seasons. When Frankie did ‘Stay,’ I said, ‘Wow!’ That blew my mind.”
At 97 seconds, “Stay” is the shortest recording to ever reach the top of the Billboard charts. Williams says: “It was Al Silver of Herald Records who told me to make it short to get more airplay.” It worked.
An iTunes review deftly sums up its appeal: “Stay by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs is as essential and urgent as great doo wop gets, sounding both dreamy and insistently sexy as Williams begs for one more dance, and it’s admirably efficient: at one-minute-and-thirty-seven seconds, it doesn’t give itself a chance to wear out its welcome.”
Though Williams sang the lead vocal, it was Charlotte resident Henry “Shane” Gaston who stole the show with his memorable falsetto.
“There wouldn’t have been a ‘Stay’ without Shane,” Williams told me. “The high part made the song – Lord knows that.”
Gaston remained with the Zodiacs many years before working as a truck driver for The Charlotte Observer. He died in August.
Williams still receives royalty checks on a regular basis. Of his financial situation, he says, “I’ve been blessed, truly blessed.” He and wife Emily have lived comfortably since 1966 in a turquoise, split-level home.
Williams credits record executive Ernie Young of Excello Records for encouraging the young singer to hold on to the rights to his songs. “He was a Christian-hearted man, and he started teaching me publishing, holding on to your songs. The more people record it, the more money you make.”
When the song was featured in the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing,” Williams said that brought “Stay” to a new, younger audience.
“A rebirth,” he called it. The movie soundtrack has sold more than 11 million copies.
Fans around the world have posted their own video versions on YouTube: jazz, country, a capella and beach music renditions, just to name a few. At 75, Williams considers himself “sort of” semi-retired. “I still have my band and we do a lot of doo-wop shows. I like to perform, cause I like people.”
He’s the last member of the original Zodiacs. With the current line-up of singers, “Peewee” Smith, Ron Henderson and Leon Weaver, the band performs covers of ’50s and ’60s songs in addition to Williams’ songs.
This summer, Williams returned to the studio to record “Stay” just one more time. He needed someone to sing falsetto, so he brought along a fellow member of the choir at New Emmanuel Congregational Church, 10-year-old Luke Balbosa.
During an interview at the recording session, Luke said he wasn’t aware that so many famous people had also recorded “Stay.”
“I feel really touched that God made me one of the people to be in this group of people that sang this song,” he said.
The duo even made a video. Williams sat behind the keyboard as Luke tapped on a tambourine.
Maurice calls the new version “Stay (2015).” It was released on iTunes on Oct. 23. The song that America can’t get out of its head is going to keep on staying.
And whatever happened to the girl that got away? Williams won’t reveal her identity.
But his wife of 54 years, Emily, joked, “I”m glad she didn’t stay.”