It’s Better to Cry: The Appreciations of Charlotte

E. Mark Windle 20 November 2020.

The Appreciations’ recordings are well known within rare soul record collecting circles, with tracks such as “I Can’t Hide It” and “It’s Better to Cry” played and loved on the northern soul scene for decades. Despite that, the group’s history was virtually unknown until 2013, other than that they were a vocal group from North Carolina and had some kind of connection with Detroit. A year’s worth of searching to identify group members, their manager, events and photographs for my first book It’s Better To Cry finally resolved things.

Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, NC is a small independent university, originally founded by the Presbyterian Church to serve the local black community. In February 1965 students Charles “Fever” Harris (lead vocal, first and second tenor), Oscar Melton (lead vocal, baritone), James “Toon” Debeuneure (vocal, second tenor), Melvin Robinson (lead vocal / first tenor) and later Lewis Dowdy got together to form a vocal group to play on campus and in venues throughout the Charlotte area. Horace “Nick” Nichols (lead vocal) and James Ardrey (baritone) covered for Melvin and Oscar whilst they were in military service. Two other members, Lee Webber and Artie Brown, had brief spells with The Appreciations although they do not feature on any of the recordings. Four releases in all are associated with the group, with at least three of interest to the northern soul scene.

Charles opens the tale: “While I was out of school one semester, my former room mate came home for a weekend. He was raving about a student from New York City who had taken the freshman talent show by storm. He said that he stole the talent show by singing “I Stand Accused” recorded by Jerry Butler and that he actually sounded better than Jerry. Of course, I found this hard to believe and could hardly wait to get back to school the next semester to hear this guy. When I returned to JCSU the entire campus was buzzing about Melvin Robinson. I introduced myself to Melvin Robinson and Oscar Melton and asked if they would be interested in forming a group with me and my room mate Toon, to give some competition for the popular on-campus group The Hopes. Prior to this, each of us had performed as single vocalists. We got together after a few days; Melvin had the best lead voice and was chosen as the primary singer for the group. Initially the decision was to name the group The Inspirations. After practicing for about a week we were able to determine the vocal parts. The Inspirations appeared on a talent show at JCSU and stole the show from The Hopes. The next day everyone on campus was talking about the lead singing and the harmony that we had. Our first song performed as a group was “I Only Have Eyes” as recorded by The Flamingos. Within a couple of months our popularity began to spread beyond the campus into the city of Charlotte. We sang at a couple of clubs. All of our performances at that time were acapella.”

Charles remembers Toon contacting a number of local radio stations in the area. Radio DJ Hattie Leeper was impressed after hearing them audition. Hattie had started radio work back in the 1940s at the WGIV station in Charlotte. She was initially taken on as a hired help when she was about 14 years old, but over a seven year period rose up through the ranks to DJ whilst pursuing higher academic education at the same time. She became widely known and respected as the first black female DJ in the Carolinas. By the late 1950s “Chatty Hattie” Leeper was a household name. In the following decade she extended her skills to song writing and promoting national R&B acts including a pre-Smash version of The Tempests (called The Tempest Band), and Mike Williams of  “Lonely Soldier” fame. She even ran her own “Stack-O-Records” music store in North Charlotte on Pegram Street for a while before going back to school for her Masters degree. From Hatty’s autobiography Chatty Hatty: the Legend it is clear she had strong relationships with a range of local and national artists but also DJs, studios, producers and label owners from the west coast, New York, Chicago and Detroit. Associates included Berry Gordy, Jerry Wexler, Florence Greenberg of Scepter and many others.

Hattie agreed to promote and mange the group. Her role as secretary of the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers was useful in developing connections to get The Appreciations noticed by some major players in the business. Within a couple of weeks Hattie had arranged an audition for talent scout with Atlantic Records. “We were advised to come up with some original songs to record” says Charles. “None of us had any experience in songwriting. A classmate called Rosemary Gaines approached us with a song she had written entitled “Afraid of Love”. She played and sang it for us. We liked the song. Hattie advised us that we would need another song for the “B” side. Within a few days Toon penned the song “Far From Your Love”. Chatty informed us that the talent scout would come back to hear the songs. During the audition, the scout suggested to hire someone who could sing a bass part, to give the background some bottom. We approached one of our friends, Lewis Dowdy, who sang bass in the JCSU choir about accompanying us on a recording session to sing bass. Two weeks later we were in the Atlantic Records studio in New York City recording both songs. The music arranger liked the job that Lewis did and advised us to consider adding him as a member of the group. We became a five-man group. Before the record was released we discovered that a gospel group had a patent on the name The Inspirations, so the we changed to The Appreciations. Atlantic wanted to sign us for “Afraid Of Love” / “Far From Your Love”, but Hattie didn’t want both groups on Atlantic (a decision which Charles says both the group and Hattie later regretted). These tracks were released on Jubilee in April 1965, and on release did make some noise in Charlotte and other cities. The boys, along with their backing band drawn from the best musicians in Charlotte, were booked for a number of public appearances across the Carolinas and Cleveland, Ohio for the rest of the year.

Their next recording was “I Can’t Hide It” / “No, No, No” (Aware 1066). Hattie set up Aware for this sole release. The tracks were recorded in 1966 at the Golden World / Ric Tic Records Studios in Detroit. The group liked the Motown sound and wanted to be part of it. Willie Mitchell (band leader, producer, wind and keyboard player) coached and arranged the session and, according to Charles, played baritone sax. Mitchell is perhaps more associated with Memphis than Detroit. In reality however he wrote, produced, arranged and recorded a number of tracks for Lee Rogers, Buddy Lamp and others  on Detroit labels such as Wheelsville, Premium Stuff and D-Town, either from his Memphis base or in Detroit itself. The Aware release enjoyed some success in the south east and mid-west regions.

Up to that point The Appreciations’ ‘bread and butter’ work was confined to weekend campus frat parties mainly because they were still students at JCSU. However the success of their first two records allowed them to play in the summer break on the military bases of the east coast and Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach, Virginia Beach and Florida.“We also had some challenging times” says Charles. “There were times we were broke with hardly enough money to get to the next gig. There were times when we were refused accommodation or some would have too much to drink at a frat party and use racial slurs or get aggressive. Once we underestimated travel time and were two hours late for a show. We barely had enough money to get there and were depending on the money we would get paid. We arrived at the auditorium and started to rush to unload the equipment to get the band set up. A woman came out and said “you boys get right back in your bus and go back where you came from. We’re not paying you one red cent”. We’d travelled over 600 miles to that gig.”

By late 1966, Melvin and Oscar were drafted or enlisted into military service, which would take them out of performing for two or three years. They were replaced by Horace “Nick” Nichols as lead vocal and James Ardrey as baritone vocal. The Appreciations’ next recording was to be “She Never Really Loved Me” / “Place in My Heart” (Sport 108). The instrumentation was laid down in Memphis with once again Willie Mitchell’s involvement, the vocals for both tracks were recorded in Nashville, and final mixing possibly occurred in Detroit. Sport was a New York distributed label of primarily Detroit artists and producers founded by Andrew ‘Shelley’ Harris. The label ran from 1967 to 1968. Some of the luminaries who produced and arranged on the label included Joe Hunter, Lorraine Chandler and Andre Williams, all big names in Detroit soul circles. Artists included The Four Sonics, Tony Daniels, The Master Keys and The Dramatics. The Appreciations’ second Sport recording was “It’s Better to Cry” (Sport 111). For many years it was rumoured that the instrumental backing for the track was facilitated by The Tempests. This seemed plausible as Hattie Leeper was also manager at the time of Mike Williams who recorded the Vietnam war song “Lonely Soldier”. The Tempests Band had backed Mike Williams and also The Appreciations on some live appearances. However, Charles dispels the myth:

“In 1967 we recorded ‘It’s Better to Cry’ and ‘Gimme Back My Heart’ at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, NC. Both songs were released on Sport Records. The studio band was Moses Dillard and The Tex-Town Review from my home town in Greenville SC. Moses was a couple of years behind me in high school. As a matter of fact “Mose”, as he was called, arranged the music for the songs right there in the studio during the session. James “Toon” Debeuneure provided the lead vocals for both songs on this recording session. “It’s Better to Cry” put us on the map locally for a while. We were booked by Ted Hall’s Hit attractions agency, the young entrepreneur who dominated the market for the beach music bands at the time.”

Despite its popularity in the south east, the scarcity of ‘It’s Better to Cry’ on 45rpm appears to be related to a simultaneous release of another record on the same label, The Four Sonics “Easier Said Than Done” (another northern soul favourite). Sport had signed a distribution deal with Amy-Mala-Bell around the time of release of the two records. Amy may have put out the Four Sonics on Sport 111 to follow up on a previous release by this band, whilst locally Sport had released the Appreciations on the same number. Thus The Appreciations track may have been withdrawn shortly after its release. The credited writers of “It’s Better to Cry” were New York based David Blake and Frankie Nieves, from Phil Medley’s Starflower Music Company. Frankie Nieves brought out his own very different latin soul take of the track, on the 1968 Speed LP “The Terrible Frankie Nieves”. When Blake was asked a few years back on Soul Talk (www.raresoulforum.co.uk) about ‘It’s Better to Cry’ he claimed he didn’t know anything about it ending up on Sport until the 1990s. David Blake also produced the previously unreleased Johnny Watson version which eventually saw the light of day in the 1980s on Valise.

By 1969 the group were still dreaming of becoming national stars. Charles recalls how they held their own when appearing on stage with other big visiting acts like Marvin Gaye, The Delfonics, and The Manhattans, but The Appreciations just couldn’t get the right material. Things were changing. Melvin and Oscar had returned from the military. Melvin rejoined the group but now it was Nick’s turn to be drafted. Plans were to go to Chicago or Philadelphia to access professional songwriters and arrangers, but Toon and Lewis decided they would quit the group, due to family responsibilities. Melvin also left the group unexpectedly and went to New York. Oscar decided he would complete his college degree and was not going to continue in The Appreciations. “We all remained friends” says Charles. “The only regret that we all had were that none of us ever received any royalty payments. I don’t recognise the names of the people claiming credit for writing a couple of the songs and I have no idea how their names ended up on the credits.  We had good times together. Some led successful lives after the group. James “Toon” Debeuneure had a successful corporate career. He gave it up and went back to school after he was in his fifties to get a Masters in Education. He did that in order to contribute to the African American kids in the Washington, DC inner city schools. Tragically on 9/11 Toon was killed while chaperoning his fifth grade students on a National Geographic trip to California as a result of winning an essay contest. Their plane was crashed into the Pentagon. Lewis Dowdy earned a PhD in Psychology. He taught and counselled students at Johnson C. Smith University and currently is a professor of Psychology at Barber Scotia College in Concord, NC. Oscar Melton became a manufacturing electronics technician within the contractor sector for the defence industry. As of 2013 he was retired and lives in Baltimore, MD. James Ardrey owned a construction business in Washington, DC. Horace “Nick” Nichols lives in Charlotte, NC. I spent forty years in positions of supervision and management roles. I retired from Michelin Tire Corporation in 2007 after a 30-year career and live in Simpsonville, SC, a suburb of Greenville. I dabbled in real estate investment and spend a lot of time with my five grandchildren. I sang with a local group here in Greenville beginning in 1998 called The Viverhearts. I was one of the lead singers and first tenor. I had a bad case of bronchitis which damaged my singing voice and left the group eventually because my voice was shot. Now I just sing in the shower when no one is around to hear a bad note!

Copyright E. Mark Windle (2020, 2013). This article is modified excerpt from the book It’s Better To Cry.

Published by E. Mark Windle

Freelance writer, biographer and soul music lover.

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