The Tempests (pt.7): The Mercury-Smash Sessions Begin

E. Mark Windle. 2 August 2021

Mercury was a prominent player in the recording industry, owing much of its commercial success to astute activities of the founding fathers in the Chicago R&B and jazz recording industry through the 1940s and 1950s. The label had its ear to the ground and anticipated potential in exploiting the soul music phenomenon. Its subsidiary labels were by no means exclusively R&B orientated, but all carried some relevant artists. Smash, established in 1961, seemed right for The Tempests. Mercury executive Shelby Singleton was instrumental in bringing a southern flavour to the label; much Nashville and Memphis product was featured – country music and rock ‘n’ roll artists of course, but also R&B singers and musicians.

Charlie Edward Fach Jr. had taken over the reins of Smash after Singleton left in 1966. Around that time Fach and Singleton were both Tennessee based and worked primarily with Nashville artists. Their broader reach included dealings with James Brown, his band, and Bobby Byrd’s recordings for the Smash imprint following Brown’s dispute with King Records between 1964 and 1967. The vision held by Fach after Singleton’s departure was to continue to drive Smash more toward an R&B market, whilst still carrying other genres to ensure label stability.

Ted Bodnar took the demos of ten songs to New York and pitched them to Mercury. The label executives were hooked.

“Things were now solidified with our producer. We signed individual contracts with Ted” says Van. “We tidied the recordings we made later, back in Charlotte. We recorded Happiness, Ain’t That Enough, I Cried For You and Someday there. By March ’67 we were at Arthur Smith’s studios recording Would You Believe and You (Are The Star I Wish On).

Would You Believe was selected for a 45-rpm release on Smash Records. A frantic, up-tempo R&B affair, the song featuring a driving vocal by Hazel Martin, proclaiming all he has to offer his girl if she’ll be his. As a first release for the label, Would You Believe was a wise choice to showcase the talent of The Tempests. Original and danceable material, featuring a heavy horn section right from the opening bars, infectious rhythm and yet Hazel’s clear solid and mature vocal tone set them far apart from their peers.

Local Smash representative Jerry Goodman is sometimes linked to the local success of The Tempests, although Van recalls that he didn’t become involved with the band’s activities until further down the line:

“Jerry had become the Smash rep somewhere in the middle of our Smash recording period and wasn’t involved until after Would You Believe. I knew him as a kid as he lived down the street from me when we were younger. We could have had better support; at one point he told Nelson, Rick and me to our faces that he wasn’t going to promote our records. He was more interested in working with Billy Scott.” The Prophets (featuring Billy Scott) would release the beach music classic I Got The Fever for Smash in the spring following The Tempests’ Would You Believe.

The key to the success of Would You Believe in the south east was airplay via DJ Jack Gale and others at Big Ways. “Jack Gale was a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours kind of guy.  We backed up a lot of artists at his functions in and around Charlotte. He supported us by pushing our records,” says Van. Prior to the release of Would You Believe The Tempests had played several shows behind national artists at the Coliseum for Jack Gayle and Big Ways, in between their performances at Park Center and various college frat parties between Mississippi and Virginia. Would You Believe was released in July 1967 and received a lot of radio play from the deep south all the way up the east coast, through Boston and New York, and west to Ohio and Indiana. By August 1967 it reached the top five in the Big Ways singles charts – along with Aretha Franklin’s Baby I Love You, Wilson Pickett’s Funky Broadway and Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher. Minor breakouts also occurred in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The song appeared in the Billboard Bubbling Under charts and almost broke into the national top 100.

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Under their own steam, they arranged appearances on The Rusty Page Show. Rusty was a previous member of The Catalinas, a DJ and MC at the Park Center shows organised by Ted Hall and Hit Attractions:

“I started my broadcasting career on radio as a high school junior, doing a night time four-hour show, and later became the Morning Drive air personality from 1958 through to the mid ‘60s. The very heart of the developing Rhythm and Blues era. I moved onto television and became the sports director at NBC 6 in Charlotte. On that station I hosted a local dance show, which featured the most popular regional bands. It had such good ratings that Ted Hall and I developed what became a popular syndicated show called The Village Square. It was a weekly, sixty-minute young adult music show featuring national recording artists and the very best of the regional rhythm and blues groups from the mid to late sixties. When Ted booked the national acts for concerts, he booked maybe three or four at a time in southern cities for a tour. They would come to the city and the studio for their interviews and perform their current hit. I would travel with some of the acts to emcee their upcoming concert. That’s how we got the singers and groups on the show. At the same time I was the Master of Ceremonies for concerts performed around Charlotte itself. There were a good number of popular groups around at the time, including those which had recorded mostly original songs that had some regional success. A few made it into the Billboard Top 100. I was the host for most shows at the Coliseum and the Park Center, where The Tempests and The Tams performed together. The Tempests were consistently excellent, with great vocals and a tight band. In my opinion, with Hazel Martin on lead The Tempests were among the best of all the groups from the area, including The Embers and The Catalinas. They quickly got my attention; I became a big fan and got to know Van Coble and Roger Branch very well. I booked them on both the local dance show and The Village Square.”

WSOC-TV’s Kilgo’s Kanteen, a one-hour Saturday noon teen talk and music show, provided The Tempests with a further television performance opportunity. Broadcast by Channel 9 within a 100-mile radius of Charlotte, this was the city’s own American Bandstand and was noted for helping break down racial barriers, being one of the first of its kind to allow African-American students to appear in the studio with the white audience. Several bands and singers were featured each week and were often accompanied by the Kilgo Go-Go dancers.

Spurred on by the overnight success of Would You Believe, the band left Charlotte in the August for Falls Church, Va. A week was spent in Georgetown at a club called The Keg, then on to the Ohio State Fair. Bob Hope, Herb Alpert and also Smash labelmates Gary and the Hornets featured top billing along with The Tempests. Things quietened down for a while, until Ted Bodnar hooked the boys up with Premier Talent out of New York. Hit Attractions, who previously had control of the bookings around Charlotte, were unhappy with the move, effectively cutting them out of the loop financially. The following month Premier booked the Bowery Club in Columbus, Ohio.

“We were playing a gig at the Bowery right off campus at Ohio State University. We had just finished rehearsing. I picked up Roger’s guitar and started playing chords to a song I had been writing. As I put the guitar down Hazel hollered across the room “Don’t stop playing that song man!” Hazel had written some great words and melody to accompany the chords. And so I Don’t Want To Lose Her was born, all in about 45 minutes. What You Gonna Do was also written pretty quickly at a session practice in Roger’s basement at his family’s place.”

“Around this time Ted and Premier Talent wanted us to make Falls Church our base. They said it was closer to the better areas for bookings. We added another singer to the group for a while by way of Michael Wayne Deese. This was to help Hazel cut down on his stage time to make it easier on him. A lot of gigs were five hours a night when you added the sets up. The band would do a set, Wayne would do one, then Hazel, then both together. We did a couple more dates at the University of Delaware and the Anvil Inn at Kennett Square, Pa. Wayne was getting homesick and he left the band after we got to D.C.”

Plans were now afoot to follow their 45-rpm success up with a full LP. Mercury had originally called Ted Bodnar within three weeks of the release of the Would You Believe 45 to say they wanted the band to record and release a full LP, though the band still needed more material to commit to the larger venture.

“The next time we were in the Arthur Smith studio was for a monster session” says Van. “About sixteen hours long or more. There we did I Don’t Want to Lose Her, What You Gonna Do, Ain’t No Big Thing, Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind, anda cover of Sam and Dave’s You Don’t Know Like I Know.”

If You Don’t Know Like I Know  has a raw quality to some ears, this is because it was done in a single take; the band thought it was just a practice run. Ron Smith was paired with Hazel, in fitting soul-duo fashion.

Can’t Get You Out of My Mind / What You Gonna Do was the next single, issued late 1967. Van remembers “We based Can’t Get You Out of My Mind on a dance called The Frantic – wasn’t so much of a dance craze than someone having a seizure – you just couldn’t play fast enough! What You Gonna Do was another fast one. We based that on a Motown or Bob Kuban and the In-Men kinda thing. Hazel could always keep up though. We played them even quicker on stage. What a lot of folks don’t realise is that R&B acts often performed songs more up-tempo than the recorded versions. Just watch live footage of Stax artists and compare to the studio. Faster and ‘looser’ too.”

Within a two-year period, The Tempests had secured a producer and a recording contract, had three studio sessions under their belt, released two 45s, were booked everywhere for live performances, and were now about to release an LP.

Published by E. Mark Windle

Biographer, ghostwriter and freelance writer.

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