He may not have enjoyed the same name recognition as his bandleading brother Buddy, but Hiram Johnson did have his own claim to fame: he formed a self-named label in New York in 1957 with Buddy's publisher Jim McCarthy and had success with his first release by The Dubs. The Shells were his next major discovery. Led by tenor Nathaniel 'Little Nate' Bouknight, they hailed from Brooklyn and displayed the classic New York street corner sound on their haunting debut, Baby Oh Baby.
Johnson and associate Walter Coleman shared writer's credit with Bouknight on the atmospheric ballad, pianist Cliff Driver leading the combo. Pressed up with another ballad, What's In AnAngel's Eyes, on the flip (some pressings had it What In An Angel's Eyes), Baby Oh Baby was issued during the summer of 1957. Despite distribution from George Goldner, it didn't hit. Neither did their followup, pairing the ballad Don't Say Goodbye with a bubbly Pleading No More. The Shells moved on to Goldner's End logo for 1958's Sippin' Soda b/w Pretty Little Girl and Shooma Dom Dom b/w Whispering Wings the next year. Bouknight split to form Little Nate and The Chryslers, who waxed Someone Up There for Johnson in 1959. Roy Jones sang lead on The Shells' She Wasn't Meant For Me for Roulette the same year.
Young New York doo-wop collectors patronized Slim Rose's Times Square Record Shop in Manhattan in 1959. New Jersey high school students Donn Fileti and Wayne Stierle took it further; they haunted the halls of 1619 and 1650 Broadway, where countless tiny R&B labels were headquartered, searching for caches of obscure doo-wop 45s that they'd buy and resell to Rose. Sometimes they'd convince a label owner to repress a revered oldie so Slim could stock it. Such was the case with The Shells' Baby Oh Baby. Airplay on Alan Fredericks' popular 'Night Train' radio program got the ball rolling, and before long The Shells had themselves an out-of-left-field national hit that charted at the end of 1960 and made it to an amazing #21 pop early the following year.
The Shells didn't even exist by then. Little Nate assembled a new lineup (first tenor Robert Nurse, second tenor Randy Alston, baritone Gus Geter, and bass Daniel Small) and rebooted their recording career with a series of fresh singles for Johnson, now run by Jim McCarthy (Fileti and Stierle produced 1961's Baby, Walk On In). The Shells recorded for Stierle into '62, but the kind of once-in-a-lifetime luck that briefly shone on them couldn't be replicated.