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The Tempests (part 5): Hit Attractions

E. Mark Windle 13 June 2021

Whether it was the Branch’s decision or that of other members to extend the horn section in The Tempests is unclear. Personnel in the early days was fluid, though Jim Butt (trumpet) and Rick White (tenor sax) had already been with group for some time, and Jim had taken on responsibility for much of the horn arrangements. The bold, brassy statement was certainly a unique selling point for The Tempests. Three other individuals, Gerald Schrum, Ron Smith and Tom Brawley were added to the mix.

Gerald Schrum was a young teacher and talented saxophonist from a middle-class upbringing. His father was also a teacher from Gaston county and his parents focussed on good education for their five children. Gerald’s grandson Caleb Schrum recalls his grandfather commenting it was his junior high principal who coaxed him into becoming interested in the typical music of the day; for that region in the 1950s and 1960s including country, bluegrass, rock n roll, Elvis – and soul. The Branch brothers already knew Gerald as a friend, who was comfortable even at a young age playing sax solos at public concerts.

Ron Smith would become The Tempests’ second trumpet player:

“As a family we’ve lived between Kentucky and North Carolina most of our lives. Dad worked for a business called Kentucky Coal Mine Supply Company selling all kinds of stuff to support coal miners. He must have had an excellent salary as we never wanted for much at all. In fact it was my parents who got us all into music, mainly through their involvement with the Church and related religious organisations. I started to learn the basics when I was around six years old and took music classes through junior high school. My older brother Creed played the slide trombone. We were both in a band straight through until we graduated from high school. We loved all kinds of music – except country! I really had no favourites until Motown hit the world. The music of my time. My dad was transferred at one point to Bridgeport, West Virginia for work. Mom and dad had to buy me a car to bribe me into going. While there, my brother stayed in Charlotte and had joined the first version of The Tempests. On our visits back to Charlotte we always tried to make it to their shows as much as we could. I loved what I heard and was impressed with their showmanship. At that point, Creed played trombone and sang back-up and solo. I graduated from high school and we made the move to Charlotte after my dad got a further job transfer. I hung out with the band initially and did everything I could to be touch. After a couple of months one of the guys asked if I could sing to replace a band member who had just left. I was given a short try-out singing and playing the trumpet then they asked me to join the group. Oh… yeah!” The horn section was completed with Tom Brawley, a talented baritone saxophonist and flute player fresh from The Delmonicos, an early 1960s Salisbury-Kannapolis based R&B band.

Horn section. From left: Ron Smith, Tom Brawley, Rick White, Gerald Schrum, Jim Butt (Smash promo).

The Carolina and Virginia beaches and dance clubs which attracted vacationing teenagers were now hammering the soulful sounds of Detroit and Chicago and acts including Curtis Mayfield, his Impressions and Major Lance. Booking agents welcomed personal appearances by a whole host of travelling R&B stars looking for local bands to open or to back their performances. Although The Tempests’ membership had been pretty interchangeable up to now, as a unit they had a few years of performing experience under their belts, and regular disciplined band practice in Mike and Roger’s parents’ basement.

The boys were not short of bookings. “The first job I played with the band was February 1967 in Florence, S.C.” remembers Nelson. “It sticks in my mind as we saw a woman get killed running across the road as we travelled there. It was tragic. We played the Francis Marion Hotel that night, backing The Dixie Cups. Dr. John (a.k.a Mac Rebennack) was their musical director. The gig went well, but you need to remember some in the band were young men who liked to have a good time while working. At the end of the night our tenor sax Rick White was so drunk he passed out. When he hit the floor he hit a mic stand. Left a big circle on his forehead that lasted weeks.”

“Rick was always ignoring our two-drink rule at gigs and getting worse for it” says Van. “When we were on the road, a thousand drinks later he’d turn up at the hotel door with a towel over his arm and a tray of drinks, looking for the party. He drank so much that you’d think he’d pass out eventually, but nope! Party?! I told him he needed to get his ass in bed!”

Opportunities were presented to play intimate bar/function type venues as well as bigger facilities around Charlotte. The Cellar on East Morehead Street contained a large room with low ceiling, providing excellent acoustics, and which had a crowded but intimate and energetic air. An idea of the venue’s atmosphere can be sensed from the 1966 Live at the Cellar LP by Soul Inc., the Columbia, S.C. band who recorded the northern soul favourite What Goes Up Must Come Down. Here, The Tempests were able to showcase their own material.

From left: The author with Nat Speir, co-founder of The Rivieras outside The Cellar, Charlotte, NC (2013).

“We were booking through Hit Attractions, and played fraternity row parties from Mississippi to Delaware. We also did big shows at Charlotte’s Park Center and the Coliseum, plus U.S.O. shows” says Van Coble. “We stayed pretty busy. We were generally treated well, despite being a racially mixed band. We became good friends with The Tams – Joe Pope, Sleepy, Horace and the guys. Shared many a drink with them – they preferred brandy if memory serves me right. The bookings with The Tams were billed as The Tams and The Temps! We played with them so much that at one point people thought we were The Tams’ own band!”

The pairing of The Tams and The Tempests was in part the idea of Hit Attractions owner Ted Hall, plus The Tempests knew all their songs inside-out. Hall honed his promotional and booking trade from two individuals: Ted Kemp who organised U.S.O. events (and whose daughter Ted Hall eventually married), and local Jack Gilbert, a friend of Van Coble who worked in the clothing business and did some promotion. Ted Hall’s series of soul and rock and roll shows at the larger Park Center continued over the next couple of years. Local acts were needed to support the national names that were being billed. The Tams and The Tempests were ever-present with extra regional artists including Little Anthony and the Imperials, Eddie Floyd, Robert John, Gary U.S. Bonds, The Isley Brothers, Barbara Lewis, Jackie Wilson, Brenton Wood and others. Dependent on the occasion the boys were employed to back up several of these solo artists, complement the artists’ own band, or to play their own material.

Teenagers from the area would continually flock to these concerts and ‘Show and Dance’ sessions. As Tempests fan Jackie Freeman Panos recalls:

“I went to Park Center and the Cellar as a teenager in the mid-1960s. For me, growing up in the south in that era meant you learned to love Motown and R&B. When a group of cute white guys could play that kind of soulful music, the crowd – particularly the women – went wild. I ended up dating Gerald Schrum on and off for a couple of years. We girls had fake I.D. cards to get into the clubs. Back then the alcohol laws were different too. We could drink beer at eighteen years old, so it was the magic age to go socialize, hear music and dance. Both venues were dark, crowded and LOUD! Park Center had an elevated stage, in contrast to the Cellar. The ladies would wiggle through the crowd until we got on the front row during live band performances. Those were fun, memorable times.”

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