E. Mark Windle. 27 May 2021
The backing of Mike Williams and a record release on a major label, even if not more than a regional success, had given the Branch brothers a taste for what could be, and they were shooting for a recording contract. Within a short few years, the group had progressed from a school band playing for kicks, to rubbing shoulders with established R&B acts, both young and old, and performing in venues around the Carolinas. Soul was the new buzz word for teenagers across America – hip music accessible to both white and black audiences, thanks to WLAC, WGIV and other radio stations whipping up a feeding frenzy for R&B and running local soul top 40s alongside the national Billboard R&B charts. It was now the mid-1960s. Rock ‘n’ roll had given way to new sounds and the vibrancy of a new musical era was undeniable. Soul music, Motown, the British Invasion and Beatles were inspiring a wave of young teenagers to pick up their guitars and sing. High school and college bands were determined to get their fifteen minutes of fame. The Branches were already a few years ahead of most of their competitors. Now was the time to grasp the opportunity presented.
By early 1967 drummer David Reavis, bass guitarist Manny Rojas and other members had departed from the group. Additions to the band were required to complete the profile for the what was to become the high point of success for The Tempests. The recent collaboration with Mike Williams had firmly planted the idea of an African American R&B singer to front the band in the mind of Roger Branch. The idea of white musicians behind a soulful black singer was not new of course; indeed there were already a few integrated bands in the area, no doubt partly driven by what was going on at Stax. But The Tempests’ vision would be for a uniquely bigger, louder, brassier sound to augment soulful vocals.
Hazel Martin was perfect for filling the front man vacancy. He came from a family of four children and had been raised in hardship. Tragedy had struck the Martin household at an early age, with the passing of Hazel’s father and a sister who died aged fifteen, leaving their mother to raise her children single-handedly for a lengthy period. Hettie James Martin, Hazel’s second wife, had first met Hazel as a teenager:
“Hazel started singing at West Charlotte High School on a seventh-grade music programme. We went to different high schools. I first saw him perform with a group at the Y.M.C.A. in Charlotte around the time he graduated from school in 1954. Hazel was a member of The Calypso Four, a vocal group he formed with some school friends. Through the late 1950s to early 1960s he could also be found singing at a couple of specific clubs, the Excelsior and the Hi-Fi, on Charlotte’s west side. Hazel’s mother initially had to chaperone him there because of his young age.”
These days the Excelsior Club, located on 921 Beatties Ford Road lies is in a state of limbo. Its flagging physical condition now contravenes several building regulations and risks permanent closure, despite a long-running fight by the local community and its owners to preserve it as a venue of historical interest. Back in its day (which in reality spanned several decades) the Excelsior was a major hub for live entertainment. The Art Moderne style building was a 1950s conversion of what was originally a domestic wooden frame house, erected in the middle-to-upper income black area of Washington Heights. The suburb itself was created by a group of investors led by Walter Alexander and black businessman C.H. Watson in 1913. The Excelsior served as a meeting place for fraternities, politicians, dignitaries, and charitable organisations to discuss affairs affecting the black and wider communities. Regular meetings were held by the 100 Club, a non-profit fund-raising organisation who raised $50,000 for Johnson C. Smith University – the black college attended by members of The Appreciations. The Excelsior’s secondary function as a social club commenced in 1944. Notable appearances included those by Nat King Cole and James Brown. The Hi Fi Supper Club, located in the same neighbourhood on Estelle Street was a large barn with a horseshoe-shaped bar and a stage in the back, and hosted travelling acts such as Ike and Tina Turner when they were in town.
Fresh out of the US Navy, Hazel Martin would appear at both clubs; along with young musician and singer Wilbert Harrison. Sometimes they were would perform as solo acts; other times as a duo or part of a group. Through their live performances the pair quickly built a reputation among the club patrons. While the fine detail of events in the mid to late 1950s is not clear, between day jobs Hazel would return to these venues to perform – Hazel likely longer than Wilbert, as Wilbert was reported to have run off with the group’s equipment. A few years later Harrison’s name would be added to the string of artists associated with Kansas City, way before the song was immortalised by James Brown. Harrison became a skilled piano, guitar harmonica player and drummer. Largely under the supervision and support of Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, Wilbert Harrison’s recording and performing career would wander through the 1960s and 1970s between New York, New Orleans and Charlotte.
Oral history archives held by the J. Murray Atkins Library, University of North Carolina, indicate that music teacher and band leader Johnny L. Holloway was a prominent fixture at various local night clubs and dinner clubs in the area. Holloway was raised in Durham N.C., though he moved to Charlotte in the mid-fifties after qualifying as a teacher. He quickly secured a position at West Charlotte High School as the musical director, around the time of Hazel Martin’s graduation. In their spare time, Johnny and his twelve-piece jazz band The Hi Tones were known for informal jam sessions at the Excelsior and the Hi Fi. Knowing Hazel personally, Johnny would often invite Hazel to take the microphone during these sessions. “I don’t recall dad mentioning that there were any particular musical influences within the family” says Hazel Martin Jr. a son from Hazel’s first marriage. “But a big childhood memory I have was that he loved and was always surrounded by music. He was often referred to as The Voice from his frequent performances on the local black club scene at the Excelsior and Hi-Fi”.
Hazel temporarily moved north to Harlem to seek work, and was hired to load and unload freight train cargo on the New York docks. For reasons unknown, he soon returned to North Carolina. Meanwhile, The Tempests were desperate for a good lead R&B singer to front the band. Roger asked his father, in his capacity as an officer on the Charlotte police force, to locate a local singer named Hazel Walker. The story goes that he came back with Hazel Martin by mistake – a true blessing. Hazel was older than the rest of the boys, had a maturity about him, club experience and a seasoned vocal which would surely take the group far.