E. Mark Windle 29 August 2021
“We were always messing around” says Nelson Lemmond. “At one point, Ray Alexander had joined us to replace Jim Butt who quit to go to college by late 1968. Ray’s a talented musician; one hell of a trumpet player and had been with The Rivieras before us. In much later years he arranged horns for shows with The Four Tops and The Temptations. He liked to kid around though back in the day. In Baltimore we stopped at a hotel for the night. The next day we were due to go on the Kirby Scott Show on WBAL-TV, a real big deal. We were due to appear on it with The Fantastic Johnny C of Boogaloo Down Broadway fame. Well, Ray hid Hazel’s dentures at the hotel room as a joke. Boy, was Hazel mad! He refused to go on the show. Ted Bodnar had to spend the next day getting Hazel’s dental work sorted, and eventually we went on. Ray didn’t have the balls to admit it was him until some twenty years later.”
Van recalls another night when they played at the prestigious Hotel Roberts, situated on the edge of the Mafia-run red light district later known as the Combat Zone in Boston, Massachusetts. “We were strictly informed to be on our best behaviour. No messing around or there’d be consequences. But Ray was hooked on Screwdrivers at the time – Vodka and O.J. We still had the two-drink rule – you can drink as much as you want after the gig but no more than two during the performance. Ray basically didn’t stick to it; I had to pick him up and carry him through the Combat Zone. Eventually I got him in the elevator then he just… let go. Mess everywhere. I’m thinking I hope to hell nobody sees this!”
“We did countless colleges and frat events from Kentucky to Alabama, and up north too. Bill MacPherson, a Rock Hill, South Carolina native was one of the last horn players to join us. Rick White had recruited him to join the band on the road when we went north east. We played so many shows we ran out of our money. Things became tight pretty quickly. We were living on cheeseburgers and washing socks and underwear in the bathtub where we were staying. The whole experience really took a toll on us. Eventually we just wanted to get back home where we could be with our families and go back to what it was like before, working a day job and playing locally in the Carolinas. This is the sort of thing that finally tore the recording group apart.”
The hectic schedule was not the only factor beginning to turn things sour. “Radio stations that broke Would You Believe included Big Ways Top Forty station and others that stretched between Mississippi and the eastern seaboard, including WABC in New York. But we just couldn’t get any airplay on the west coast. I guess weak promo guys couldn’t get it done there. I never saw any numbers on the LP sales” comments Van.
Problems were also arising between group members. Issues stemmed largely from arguments over financial agreements, publishing rights, and the running of The Tempests.
“Minimum wage in those days was little over a dollar an hour, but I was working hard on the day job, plus making good money in other areas of music before I joined The Tempests” says Van. “I was paid $25 to play behind James Brown and the Famous Flames’ on Prisoner of Love at the Hi-Fi Club. The Darnells club gigs paid on average $80-$100 per week. I thought the world of Louis Gittens. He always looked after me and gave me my first decent paying regular gig of $200 per week in the early sixties. Now, with The Tempests, a lot of negative things were happening. Arguments within the band and the demands of touring. Getting our hands on our money was tricky. We were being paid by check and getting them cashed when you were on the road was difficult. Then there were questions as to how the rest of the money was divided. Premier Talent took their cut of ten percent. The local booking agency in each city got ten percent. Ted Bodnar was also supposed to get his ten percent off the top, but he supported us all the way and never took his share. In fact at one point his mother even cooked and fed us from the family grocery store.”
For a while, the music continued. Ted had the notion of recording a live session on The Tempests, possibly destined for another LP release. A night at the Pour House on Charlotte’s west-side was selected. Van and Nelson reckoned at least twenty or thirty songs were performed that evening in late 1968. Typically, three or four sets of ten songs would feature in the show, including at least two performances of Would You Believe. The sets would be a combination of original and covers of Stax songs, Darrell Banks, Walter Jackson and other material, plus backing guest solo singers on nights where this was required.
To this day, the Pour House unreleased tracks are still unheard and the master-tape, if it still exists, remains untraceable. Another unreleased track was Our Love Will Overcome Everything. Van recollects this was probably one of the best tracks they made. It was a Doc Pomus composition, with The Tempests giving it a fatback R&B beat, Stax style. Female vocals were added to the mix by Ted Bodnar in New York. When asked by Van and Nelson repeatedly about it in later years Ted just replied he couldn’t find the master. “Maybe he would have had trouble with Pomus releasing our version. Who knows”. The song was also covered a few years later by Louis King, though did not appear until 2002 via the Grapevine CD Carolina Soul Survey: The Reflection Sound Story, a compilation of released and unreleased material.
One final 45, Out of My Life, was released in November 1968. The flip, Way To A Man’s Heart did not feature Hazel, but another black singer called Otis Adams on lead vocal. Adams was a relatively unknown local singer and performer from Charlotte and his appearance on the recording reflected the turmoil at the time among personnel in the group. This would be The Tempests’ last vinyl release for Smash / Mercury. Enthusiastic efforts were made to push Out of My Life by local DJ Jack Gales, but Mercury failed to support it fully. The band continued to play various venues throughout the Carolinas, including the Embers Club in Raleigh, the Stingray Club in Newton and the legendary Coachman and Four, Bennettsville, SC. One of their final performances was on Carolina Beach at the Ocean Plaza Ballroom on 11th April 1969, billed with The Embers.
The boys had finally had enough of heavy touring. Things were combusting internally as a consequence of musical differences, arguments about money, responsibilities to the day job, and for some, new commitments such as starting a family. Due to teaching commitments Gerald Schrum had already ceased touring with The Tempests after the Columbus trip (although he continued to play locally and appear on the majority of their Smash recordings). By early 1969, the band had essentially split in two.
Van, Nelson, Tom and Hazel had pulled out and the Branch brothers went their own way. Sixteen-year old David Butler, who had been playing for a couple of years prior in high school bands, was recruited by the remaining band members: “I got the opportunity to join the boys in the wake of a major break-up. The rest of the band wanted to continue, so they added me on keyboard and Gerry Dionne on bass guitar. Van switched to lead guitar. We also had original members Nelson, Eddie Grimes, Tom Brawley and for a while Hazel Martin. We picked up ex-Plaids Hymie Williams for trumpet. Hymie was the oldest of the group, forty-nine years old at the time as I recall. I just read that he passed away just a few years ago, so he must have reached his mid-90’s. We played in that configuration for about a year. We adopted a new name: The Holidays.
(To be continued…)