“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.
Touring was relentless. In between it all, the Premier Talent Agency pushed The Tempests through a couple of multi-artist events, at The Mariners Festival, a USO show at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Then it was onto another at Trenton, New Jersey where a local promoter took all the money and nobody was paid. The dates also included an afternoon show backing Spyder Turner at University of Georgia, then with a planned Motown duet appearance the same night. Headliners Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had brought their own rhythm section, with The Tempests’ horn section backing them up. They were part of a sound check rehearsal which Tammi Terrell did show for – Tammi was complaining of a severe migraine that night, and that seemed not that unusual as she had suffered constant headaches since childhood. Within a year of the University of Georgia concert she was diagnosed with the brain tumour which would tragically prove fatal at just twenty-four years of age.
Another TV appearance came by way of the Kirby Scott Show at Baltimore, before settling for a while at the famous Sugar Shack nightclub in Boston. The venue is remembered now as a major venue where touring R&B acts of the 1960s and 1970s honed their skills, discipline and stamina to prepare for long periods of touring. Owner Rudy Guarino was older than many of the acts but was a big R&B fan. The Tempests were initially contracted for a week, but the boys impressed Guarino enough to extend their tenure to a month.
The Sugar Shack’s outward physical appearance was deceptive. In its position on Boylston Place near the Boston Commons park, the building was tucked away down a minor street with a plain façade, obscured for the most part by the adjacent theatre marquee. Inside, there was a lobby and bar, a “Show and Dance” area with tables, dance floor and stage; a partitioned space which could be opened for bigger events; and a dressing room with lockers for the performers. Jackie Wilson, James Brown, and blue-eyed soul singers such as Wayne Cochran and The Magnificent Men would rub shoulders. The neighbourhood was associated with prostitution, drug dealing and associated violence particularly in the next decade – but it was also the place to be in Boston where blacks and whites could enjoy R&B in each other’s company.
“Rudy told me Wilson Pickett had been at the Sugar Shack a few weeks earlier and had talked him into paying cash after the second show” says Van. “He still had two more shows to go but sneaked out through the back. Rudy was pretty upset about that. Even though you knew Rudy was in charge, he was a nice guy. Always helpful with practical local problems. Like when the speaker in my rig suffered water damage… we discovered it when we had arrived there and were unpacking. Must have happened in transit. Rudy suggested where to take it for repair. When we handed it in the guy at the shop he told us it would take five days to be ready. By the time Nelson and I had even got back to the Sugar Shack there was a call waiting for us to collect it that day. We soon realised Rudy was more than the boss. He had a lot of respect throughout Boston.”
“We followed Wayne Cochrane and the C.C. Riders on stage. Tommy Hunt came into the club a lot too. I think he had a couple of hits with Atlantic Records at the time. Whilst we were there, Rudy extended the club hours 8pm to 2am. I don’t know for sure but maybe Wayne’s and our popularity had some influence on this. When we told Rudy we couldn’t play six hours solid, he understood and agreed we could bring in another band to open for us and play a couple of hours before we came on.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a racially mixed band of the period, the members generally managed to avoid confrontation when on the road. “The only time we had an issue was in West Chester” remembers Nelson. “Someone approached Hazel and made some pretty nasty comments. Rick White took the guy and raised him four inches off the floor and that was that. I usually roomed with Hazel. We became very close, he was always a gentleman and that’s the highest compliment you can give to a Southerner!”
Van comments: “We even shared rooms with Hazel in deep Alabama. There was some respect. At the end of the day there was a bunch of us, and a lot of us were big, fit guys. I played football and could take care of myself. Nelson was taller than me. Rick White was selected for a professional Canadian football team. Yeh, you sure did come across some sorry-ass rednecks. But nobody was gonna mess with us. Even at the Blue Mist B-B-Q joint on Highway 49 at 3am in the morning!”
While The Tempests were playing a two-week stint around Ohio State University in Columbus, a photo shoot at Mirror Lake on campus for the impending LP cover was arranged by a photographer from Playboy magazine. The members would be lined up in powder blue tuxedos with bow ties, Hazel in yellow; all reflected in the lake. The most striking visual aspect of the cover to a purchaser is the sheer size of the group. Sleeve notes were provided by Ron Oberman, originally with the Washington Star as a staff reporter and pop music columnist, before moving to Mercury’s publicity department. The November 1967 issue of Billboard Magazine heralded the debut release of the new Smash LP entitled Would You Believe, with official release early 1968. Most of the studio recordings under the Smash contract to date were included.
“Regarding promotion, Smash ran adverts for the LP in the Hit Parade magazine. and other national music mags – like full page ads in Billboard and Cash Box. And don’t forget, we were still getting a lot of help locally from Jack Gayle, the programme director at Big Ways. When we were on the road between gigs we would stop at big and small radio stations to promote our singles and the LP. What was sort of amazing to us at first was how welcome we were at that time. And we had to do a lot of the promotion ourselves. Smash didn’t have an active A&R man in the South at that time that I was aware of.”
The third single Long Live Our Love / In The Cold Light Of Day appeared in April 1968, on the back of the LP release. Both sides were more orchestrated than the group’s usual horns-and-R&B approach and included a further horn player by the name of Eddie Grimes. Nelson had first met him in 1964 as a student at the University of North Carolina. Eddie had been called up to serve in the armed forces but had moved to Charlotte on discharge in 1968 and performed several times in the band. Long Live Our Love was being plugged by Big Ways and Billboard magazine in July 1968, beating Gladys Knight, James Brown and Cliff Nobles to the number one spot on the station’s Fabulous Forty charts. The flipside ballad In the Cold Light of Day was from the pen of Scott English and Larry Weiss, known more for Bend Me Shape Me and a host of other songs associated with certain US and UK bands of the time. Dramatic elements of Righteous Brothers style balladry were present; the arrangement was done by The Tempests, but strings added in New York. A kettle drum effect was achieved by using a mallet on the four time. “We didn’t have the real thing but it came out real nice”, remembers Van.
Whilst the Smash releases were doing the rounds, Nelson Lemmond decided to marry his steady girlfriend, Kaye. The boys were never that happy about the sartorial choices for performances (“those goddamn cheap, ill-fitting grey suits”) but a move to striped pants came in handy for Nelson to wear at the wedding. A road trip to Florida was planned for the honeymoon. “We put a bale of hay in the back of the car, and a whole fish on the carburettor. Nelson was getting concerned where the smell was coming from. He didn’t find it for about a week. We didn’t realise it’d take that long to get ripe!”
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.
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.
The Tempests were ready to take on the world, no doubt about that. Musicianship, vocal talent and enthusiasm for live performance were all there. What was needed now was a new industry link to point them solidly towards a fresh recording contract. Someone with local knowledge, connections, and production and promotion skills.
There was one individual who would fit the bill perfectly. Ted Bodnar, originally from Baltimore, Maryland and later Virginia, learned the meaning of hard work early on in his life through long hours at his parents’ grocery store. His wife Vicki provides an account of Ted’s early background:
“Ted lived on Wilkens Avenue as a child, in inner-city Baltimore. He loved city life; he and his family could walk to everything. Fines Hardware on the corner across the street, Dairy Bar at the end of his block to the left that had sandwiches, soup and ice cream, beauty shop, church, school. What wasn’t in a three block radius was a short bus ride downtown. His mom Barbara was a department store worker. His dad Theodore worked for a food wholesaler as their first outside salesman and had a route through Virginia. It was his father’s job which brought the family ultimately to Virginia to live. Around 1954 the family moved to Merrifield in Fairfax County, Virginia. His father called on an independent grocery store which was on his route. The owners wanted to sell the business and retire. His father bought the store and a house from them, then came home that night and told the family that they were moving to Virginia. His mother was devastated and cried for a year, but it was a good decision for everyone in the family.”
Ted worked at the grocery store after school and weekends from the time he was eleven years old. Stocking shelves, unloading trucks, and selling to customers, he continued working there until his twenties and his father had retired. The family purchased the building that housed the grocery store in 1969. That building would later become his second recording studio – and his first commercial facility.
Ted’s introduction to the recording and entertainment industry was via an electronics course after high graduation, and an informal partnership with the brother and producer of Link Wray.
“He met some of his first big entertainers at his parent’s store. Jimmy Dean and Patsy Cline would come in early in the morning after a late-night gig to get coffee and donuts. His mom had a snack bar in the back of the store that sold sandwiches she made fresh every day. There was also a small post office in the back that went on to become the main post office for that region in Northern Virginia. They cashed payroll checks for all the locals too. Teddy met his musical mentor and good friend Ray Vernon when he was about sixteen years old at Club Ozarks in Fairfax. They hit it off and became fast friends even though Ray was much older. Ray Vernon’s brother Link Wray was the well-known guitarist, who came up with the power chord approach which influenced later rock and roll legends like Led Zeppelin and The Who. I think their group name at that time was Link Wray and the Raymen. Ray, sometimes referred to Vernon Wray during his career, produced Link Wray’s early recordings. He taught Teddy to record at his home recording studio in Accokeek, Maryland. Ray always said that his student had surpassed him. After tutoring him for a while, one day he had to go out of town and left Teddy in charge. That was to begin his life-long love of recording and producing. He was present when Link Wray recorded Raw Hide and Rumble. Both songs were very well received. Teddy loved Ray Vernon and stayed close to him until Ray’s death in 1979. He went to Tucson for a time and made some appearances on the TV series Gunsmoke, and the Kris Kristofferson film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
“Teddy built his first studio over the top of his parent’s garage in Merrifield and started recording local groups. He also was one of the first individuals to promote local shows in the area. For several years he travelled to New York on a weekly basis and previewed groups for Premier Talent to book for shows at the Elks Club back in Fairfax. He ran a tight ship. If you left the show he wouldn’t let you back in. Many groups that he selected to perform at the Elks became big names like The Association, who had a song on the Billboard Top 100. When he heard them in New York six months earlier no one knew who they were. He had a good ear for talent and packed so many teenagers into the club that one night a foundation wall actually cracked! During the same time that Ted was throwing shows in Fairfax, he also promoted shows on the Wilson riverboat line which ran on the Potomac River between a port in Alexandria D.C. down to Marshall Hall and back. Wilson Pickett, Brenda and the Tabulations, James and Bobby Purify and Lee Dorsey were among the bookings.”
Reflecting on her own singing experience and working professionally with Ted Bodnar:
“My entry into the music business was through singing in church choirs and choruses as a teenager and taking dance for several years. When I met Teddy I started singing background vocals for him and continued to do so through the years. I also made costumes for his shows, did make-up, props, ran spot lights and cable for mics, wrote lyrics for commercials, and sang in shows we put together for local community events and shows. Teddy put me in the middle of the music business. I first worked on commercials he was doing on spec, usually along with a male singer. We’d put down three and four part harmonies, building one layer at a time. Teddy would mix them and then bounce them to another track. He would do this several times, so that it would sound like a choir when we were done. Teddy was a musical genius. To me he had an ear like nobody else. For final mixes, he had to use Altec Speakers at a decibel level that was painful to me, but he said music wasn’t just about hearing; you had to feel it for to be right. I bought him near field speakers some years ago and he would use them day to day. When he mixed though, it had to be the big guns. I have a decent voice but I also understood the technique required to record in the studio, and that was just from working with Teddy for years in the studio. I’ve seen many good singers and musically schooled people come in to the studio to work for him and they just couldn’t get the technique down. Good performing artists on stage don’t necessarily do a good job in the studio. It takes a long time to perfect things when you’re recording. It’s often boring, repetitive and hard for the creative person to do that and Teddy was a perfectionist when recording artists. He was a drummer as a teenager and in a marching band in high school and had a sense of pitch and timing. He really understood where the beat should be.”
Ted and Vernon Ray had an established a working relationship with Leonard Chess through providing his Chicago label and its subsidiaries with remote recordings they made of Moms Mabley, Pig Meat Markham and others. The first acts signed by Ted included Little Sonny Warner in 1966 and Bobby Parker. Whilst Parker didn’t fully fulfil his contract, Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte were used to record Warner, who previously had recorded with Big Jay McNeely on There’s Something On Your Mind. Ted’s success with Sonny Warner would be with Bell Bottom Blue Jeans, proving a national hit for Chess / Checker. The song went Gold.
Ted Bodnar initially came across The Tempests while touring with Little Sonny Warner in the Carolinas. They were selected as the local band to back up Sonny in Charlotte.
“Our new ten-member strong band were mostly still in their teens” recounts Roger Branch. “Hazel was a lot older than us. He was thirty-one years old when he joined, but we all seemed to gel. We practiced long and hard and were getting a lot of gigs. Our sax player Rick connected with a friend who knew Ted Bodnar back in Virginia. Through Rick we learned that Ted had heard of us. He came down to check us out, and was impressed enough to let us back Sonny and encourage us to record some demos.” Recording sessions were scheduled in at Edgewood Studios in DC, late 1966.
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.
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.
“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.”
Whilst new bass guitarist Van Coble was an only child whose birth father who was killed in service during World War II, his childhood was otherwise reasonably comfortable. His mother Helen, who was a nurse, eventually remarried. The musical talent came from his Helen Coble and her sister:
“My mother enjoyed opera and was blessed with a wonderful singing voice, although she never pursued it professionally. An aunt played guitar and kick-started my interest in playing the instrument. I remember family gatherings: Sunday lunch and singing around the piano during the holidays. I was given my first guitar at the age of ten as a Christmas gift…a Harmony Acoustic. I was also surrounded by country blue grass loving family musicians. But my thing was rock ‘n’ roll. I would stay up at night, listening to Little Richard and Buddy Holly on the radio. When I heard Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” I thought, hell I’m playing the wrong stuff! Next thing I know I’m buying a Fender guitar and amp. When I hurt my leg badly, I got a whole lot better at the guitar, having a lot of time on my hands.”
In his early teens Van performed with various groups. In the late ’50s he played regularly with Donnie Brooks and the Heartbeats, then with Jerry Boone and the Lazy Rockers. Performances were staged at events including the Fraternal Order of Police parties (FOP being a pseudo-union not short of controversy, particularly in later years), and at the Fireman’s Hall, a quirky medieval folly-like structure built by Charlotte firefighters, containing an assembly hall and six-story training tower. In the 1960s, WGIV events were held at the Hall, sponsored by WGIV and hosted by DJ Larry Keith. It quickly became known as a gathering place where young people could dance and listen to local bands. Musicians and singers would be paid $5-$15 each for performances. The Lazy Rockers were a staple at FOP events and the Hall, but also covered Myrtle Beach and had a long running stint at the Pecan Grove Supper Club (which would later become the first Go-Go club in Charlotte). Eventually the Lazy Rockers split up, and Van would continue perfecting his musicianship performing with different groups playing the local night club and frat party circuit. He played with Louis Gittens and the Corvairs until 1963. Gittens was a popular singer in Columbia and a favourite around the University of South Carolina.
Van first met The Tempests future drummer Nelson Lemmond when they were both in The Darnells. Like Van, Nelson was also an only child:
“My family descendants were immigrants who had settled below Charlotte around 1750 from Northern Ireland and Scotland. Through the generations they did fairly well to educate themselves. I was born in 1946. A real baby boomer. My father ran a successful appliance store for thirty years from the 1930s, and my mother was a primary school teacher. My childhood was a happy if lonely one – we lived in Indian Trail, a rural area outside Charlotte. It was a small town with no great wealth, though everyone knew each other and there were no class differences. You were judged by your character. By these standards, our family was well off. We lived on a farm bought by my grandfather. I still have the farm. Dad was constantly listening to jazz and I had two cousins who were also keen. Harvey Clay Nesbit was the essence of Carolina Cool, and Raymond Underwood who played trombone. Their attitudes influenced me more than anything. I listened to a lot of jazz and R&B and ended up collecting a lot of records in my youth. By the time I was ten years old my friend Henry Deere and I were going to see rock ‘n’ roll shows – Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, even Elvis among others. I liked sitting behind the bandstand and listen to the drummers. Being an only child I was used to the company of adults. As a musician, I was always the guy in the back working on the next set rather than chasing girls. Maybe I should have drunk more beer!”
Nelson was an active and educated man. As a native of Indian Trail he was the co-captain of Sun Valley High School football team, but music became a major part of both his young and adult life. His first drum lessons were taken at eleven years of age. By his teens he was in the Musicians’ Union, playing gigs with those a lot older than him. He would experience an extremely diverse range of musical styles, playing with a part-Sioux Indian who had a Lawrence Welk type band, other bands performing standards of the day, and of course plenty of rock ‘n’ roll. Nelson’s parents would take him to the gigs and collect him afterwards. One night coming home from town with his two cousins, they stopped by The Owl Club, to hear local band The Plaids play. Though nowadays a busy commercial setting, at the time The Owl Club was set in the countryside way outside of Charlotte on East Highway 74, now known as Independence Boulevard. It was a smoke-filled nightclub, run by an ex-boxer and gambler.
Plaids band member Ken Carpenter, recalls the early origins of The Plaids:
“Before Nelson joined us, I originally played guitar and sang with a band called the Rock-Olas formed in 1958. While playing on a Saturday night at The Owl Club, a skinny kid by the name of Jesse Smith walked in. Jesse had his Wurlitzer electric piano and Premier Amp in the back of his Ford Falcon and asked to sit in with us. The stage was small, so he set up on the floor and we started to play. I remember that he also had a great left hand and could play the bass runs. A plus for us because we didn’t have a bass player at that time. Being our first night at The Owl we weren’t sure what to expect. But it didn’t take long to see that this wasn’t your local country club. Big Al, from Taylorsville, N.C. owned the place. I guess the name Owl Club was partly because he was open until the early morning hours. We played that night and endured a couple of fights without getting our equipment destroyed. Big Al told me he really liked the guy on piano and asked how much it would cost me to include him in the band. After some financial negations we agreed on a price. Jesse became a member of The Rock-Olas that night.”
The Rock-Olas played together for a few months before undergoing several personnel changes. “We played for a couple of weeks with the new line up and felt it was time for a new band uniform” continues Ken. “We bought matching plaid jackets and tan pants. The band members were all into R&B and thought that The Rock-Olas sounded too rockabilly. So we decided on a new name – you guessed it – how about The Plaids!”
When Plaids drummer Larry Suster left the band to join the army, a vacancy arose, and Nelson Lemmond came on board – this was around the time he heard them play at The Owl and Nelson was about sixteen years old. Ken remembers the band lying about his age to get him in the club. The band grew in number from then on, picking up Denny Allen (on saxophone) on the way following performances they watched at Harwood Lakes Music Hall and Peppermint Twist Club, again on Highway 74. The band members worked well together and progressed musically. The Owl Club remained their venue for a short while until a police raid and subsequent citations for multiple alcohol related violations. On the last weekend there, the owners were arrested:
“When they were marched out Jesse Smith started playing the theme from Dragnet on the piano” says Nelson. “The next morning that was on the front page of The Charlotte Observer. It was the only time my mother ever interfered with anything I ever did in music. The newspaper stated that they had been charged with selling White Lighting bootleg liquor over the bar. When this came out, The Owl Club was pretty much closed down.”
Friday and Saturday nights at The Owl were now over but The Plaids had a contingency plan. Sunday nights were for The Jokers Lounge, one of the first lounges in Charlotte, located on Monroe Road. By 1962 The Plaids had put together a new song list and took to the road. They hooked up with the Hit Attractions booking agency, and Bill Lowery out of Atlanta, generating a lot of work from college parties. The next few years consisted of performing on the weekend in nightclubs and traveling the south east playing the beaches and college clubs, taking in just about every university throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. Their repertoire by this time included a mixture of genres but leaned heavily toward R&B, playing covers of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, James Brown and Solomon Burke.
Only one recording was made in the 1960s by The (Fabulous) Plaids: Let’s Learn About Love / I’m Coming Home (to You). Admittedly both sides were less representative of The Plaids’ earlier influences. The release came after the departure of Nelson Lemmond, when the band were looking for a new sound. Nelson had left for college by 1965:
“I had a spell with The Darnells, Bobby and the Pearls and a couple of other groups before I went off to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for my bachelor degree majoring in 20th century European history. Winston Churchill was my hero. If he didn’t stand up to Hitler in 1940 I would wonder what Western civilization would look like today. Anyway, whilst studying I still found time to start a band called The Seductives with Ellison Honeycutt, trumpet player Dave Norris and our lead singer, a black guy named Walter Morrow who was the only one who wasn’t a U.N.C. student. They were a bunch of great guys to be around. We were pretty popular around campus.”
Nelson and Van Coble would first perform together in Charlotte to play at Groove A-Go-Go and Winston’s Lounge as part of The Darnells. Other members included Jerry Jenkins (bass and vocals), Nelson on drums, Hymie Williams (trumpet), William Ford Price Jr (alto saxophone). “Hymie had played trumpet with Miller and Dorsey in the 1940s and was almost blind from the Korean War – unless he saw a good-looking girl! We were good friends, most between twenty and thirty years of age and were pretty decent players. Jerry later went on to record for Hi in Memphis. Music-wise we covered the Top 40 and R&B. Sad to say, we didn’t do anything in the studio” says Van.
Nelson fell ill at the end of the summer. After complaining of grumbling abdominal pains for around a week his symptoms escalated to require hospital admission. A ruptured appendix was diagnosed. During the post-operative recovery period the best option was to stay put on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina.
“After the semester started and I got stronger, I played with The Aqua Lads for about six months – this was before they did “I Remember”, their Goldbee recording. The following year I concentrated on my studies and then found myself travelling Europe for nine weeks during vacation. Hey, I even played drums in Yugoslavia! Our last stop was London. It was funny to hear a cab driver cursing in English!”
On his return from his travels, Nelson was looking for a new band:
“My love for soul music and blues was strong. I had known for a while that Roger had been looking for another possible recording contract and was short on band members. They called me having lost their drummer. I warmed to the idea pretty quickly. At the beginning of 1967 I brought up the subject of joining The Tempests with Van Coble and flute and baritone sax player Tom Brawley. Van was already very active musically, making reasonable money, and initially cautious but when he heard Hazel’s vocal talent that pushed it for him. It was a fairly quick process. Before we knew it we were rehearsing and auditioning for the Branches, and the rest of the band agreed: WE’RE IN!”
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.
You could say music was in the family genes. But it was country, not R&B, that first inspired the Branch children to pick up an instrument. John Roger Branch’s grandmother was a not-too-distant relative of the famous Carter family, and a pretty competent guitar player at that. When not policing the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, his father would avidly listen to Hank Williams, and also played guitar. It was only natural that eight-year-old Roger Branch would follow suit, with lessons provided by his father. Within a few years younger brother Mike would pick up the piano as his instrument of choice, and as a duo they would entertain family members and cousins at social events.
The seed was sown. Roger was in eighth grade at Junior High when he, Mike and two classmates formed The Larks. Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley and Elvis covers were flavour of the day. The Larks’ earliest performance was at Cordelia Park and the recreations building in North Charlotte, though they mainly played sock hops with a minimal entry fee that attracted a couple of hundred people. Jim “Buddy” Johnson recalls: “I was friends with Roger when the band started around 1963. I went just about everywhere they did to help with equipment. But I remember before that, there was a dancehall called Beatland at the corner of East Trade Street and Graham Street, above a cafe. Roger played in the house band on lead guitar. Mike ran the hat and coat check.”
The Larks were a short-lived affair, but Roger, Mike and some other friends, mostly from Garinger High, regrouped as The Tempest Band. The name was Roger’s idea, derived from the title of the Shakespeare play. Other members included Gary Hamilton (vocals), Kenny Baker (vocals), Milton Black (drums) and Freddy Short (bass guitar, shortly to be replaced by Manuel “Manny” Rojas). Thelma King, their art teacher, even made their first drum head.
The boys were spotted by singer James Arp during a performance at a sock hop at the Cavalaris Skating Rink. Arp already had a recording deal with Vallez Record Company in Lomita California and hired the band to back him on Let It Rock and Not Too Young, both to be recorded at Arthur Smith’s studio. “We were just young teenagers at the time, but we had dreams” says Roger. “Like other bands in the area, we would drive around the state trying to promote the Vallez record and get them to play it on air. In truth, the little radio stations loved to have folk stop by to talk about their music, maybe play the records you had brought with you, or discuss community affairs.”
Before long they came to the attention of a D.J. in Charlotte who would facilitate the launch of their career. Hattie Leeper was the first African-American female D.J. to work on a commercial station in North Carolina. She loved radio as a child so much that she was determined to make it in the industry. Around the age of fourteen, her mother would allow her to hang out around WGIV after finishing her school homework. Hattie would offer to make coffee for staff, answer the phone, file 78s for the DJs – just about anything to get a foot in the door. Soon she was promoted to sorting fan mail and managing contest lines. From these humble beginnings a slot was offered to introduce records when one of the station DJs failed to turn up at work one day; the station was not usually short of D.J.s. Rockin’ Ray on the night shift; Scott ‘Hot Scott’ Hubbs, Joy Boy and Pete ‘Hound Dog’ Toomey; they were all local celebrities.
WGIV lead veteran DJ ‘Genial Gene’ Potts had given Hattie the moniker Chatty Hatty because of her effervescent vocal delivery when on the air. Over a seven-year period she rose steadily up through the ranks. By the 1960s Leeper was an established household name and respected personality within the broadcasting community, presenting Sunday morning gospel shows, lost and found sections, the weather, community affairs as well as playing pop and R&B. In the very early days, local music charts were initially compiled not by sales, but by Hattie and her colleagues tallying listener’s mail requests for songs to be played on air. Much the same as many regional stations through the 1950s and 1960s, a certain amount of payola also played a part, although bribes were usually non-monetary – ‘gifts’ such as oriental rugs, airline tickets, meals, fruit baskets, handbags and even dogs were commonplace. Studio time to cut her own artists was another.
Leeper celebrated her tenth anniversary as a WGIV announcer in 1961. Plaudits were received from Sam Cooke, and from the offices of Atlantic, Roulette, King, Savoy, Vee Jay, Scepter and Old Town. Baby Washington, Joe Tex, The Delacardos, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and The Jarmels would perform at this and later anniversary events. When WGIV was eventually sold, Leeper moved to WRPL, then finally arrived at Big WAYS, covering weekends on air and working as an account executive. Her role as secretary of the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers also presented the opportunity to meet several label owners and industry connections from New York, Chicago and Detroit including Jerry Wexler, Berry Gordy and Florence Greenberg. Similar associations would prove useful for her other interests including the promotion / management of local upcoming artists from the Carolinas and surrounding areas.
It was Hattie Leeper’s connections with external organisations that would lead to a major label recording opportunity for The Tempests Band. Hattie had a portfolio of up and coming R&B artists with whom she had an interest in promoting, managing or both. Mike Williams was a favourite, ever since she had first heard him sing in a Charlotte club. Hattie had already secured recording time at Atlantic Studios for Mike and others.
“We knew Hattie as a D.J. from the local music community” says Roger. “She told us about Mike, a new singer she had met and asked if we would like to work as back-up band on a recording with him. We were two separate entities which people don’t always realise. Mike was a solo singer, not a formal member of our group. But he had a great voice and we were happy to take the opportunity.”
Toby Broom investigated Mike Williams’ background for the book Rhythm Message:
“….Mike William’s story started in Orangeburg County, South Carolina. Wendell “Mike” Harold Williams was born in August 1942 in Elloree, deep inside the Jim Crow segregated south. A single-track railroad bisects the small town of a few hundred and is set on flat, hot, wooded land and surrounded by endless fields of cotton, corn and beans. ‘Mike’ was a family nickname given to Wendell by his mother, Mamie Easterling. Although not married, Mamie and Harold Williams had a daughter before Harold Williams left Elloree for Los Angeles. Mamie then married Lee Hillard and they went on to have children of their own in a long and loving marriage. As a child Mike Williams loved to sing, dance and entertain. His cousin Buddy Williams recalls Mike singing in the cotton fields sharecropped by their grandfather as well as mischievously watering the picked cotton to make it weigh more come tallying up time. At Elloree Training High School, from where Mike graduated in May 1961, he was popular as a singer, performing in local clubs, his school and the Shiloh Methodist Church. His family recall how even as a teenager Mike Williams had an active social conscience. In an age hard to imagine now, black children were routinely prevented from attending school by local farmers dragooning them from school bus stops and even out of the school itself to work the fields. Williams often drove the school bus prior to attending classes and made sure that the children on his route got to school by outwitting the farmers waiting to intercept their young labour. Given the isolated rural economy and the racial barriers placed in their way teenagers in Elloree, as with much of the rest of the south, had three realistic options -with few exceptions it was college or the military for a few and the fields for the rest. Mike Williams’ life took a different turn. In 1961 aged just 19 he married his teenage sweetheart Gearldeen Brown. She had family in Charlotte NC and the couple started married life there. It was there that Mike was heard singing by Hattie ‘Chatty Hatty’ Leeper,. Although Mike and Gearldeen quickly moved their family home on to the economically more promising New York City (they settled in the Dunbar Apartments in north-central Harlem) under the management of Chatty Hatty, Mike pursued a semi-professional career in music constantly shuttling between New York City and the Carolinas. Along with touring and performing across the south, in 1965 he began a recording career with You Don’t Want Me Around backed with Something You Didn’t Done. The tunes feature rich Stax-like horn arrangements over a driving rhythm section tempo with Mike Williams’ distinctive high tenor doing its best with rather limited lyrics. Both tunes were released on the King label out of Cincinnati as a result of Chatty Hatty’s extensive contacts in the record industry, but failed to hit…”
By the summer of 1965, through her industry connections, Hattie Leeper had finalised things for the boys and potential contracts for other artists with Atlantic and other labels. Now on board as backing band, record executive and producer Jerry Wexler signed Mike Williams and The Tempest Band to their first major label deal.
At the same time Leeper also had black vocal group The Appreciations under her wing, who had come to her attention via impressive performances on campus and in local clubs. Members were students from Johnson C. Smith University, a small independent university originally founded by the Church to serve the black community in Charlotte. The line-up changed a couple of times but by 1965 consisted of 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). Having arranged an audition with a talent scout for Atlantic, Leeper advised them to come up with some original songs. Classmate Rosemary Gaines gave them Lonely Soldier and Afraid of Love. Toon penned Far From Your Love. With the recent addition of Lewis Dowdy from the JCSU choir to provide bass, they found themselves travelling to New York two weeks later to record at Atlantic studios.
Atlantic were impressed with The Tempest Band, Mike Williams and The Appreciations, though things didn’t quite turn out the way the JCSU boys wanted. Charles Harris remembers:
“We met Mike Williams and the Tempest Band in Charlotte. We played on the same gigs together and they were our back-up band a couple of times on shows together when Hattie had Mike and the Appreciations booked at clubs in Charlotte and Gastonia. I believe later they were also our back-up occasionally when the Hit Attractions Agency booked them, when we didn’t have our own band quite together. We did not meet Mike Williams or The Tempests Band at our Atlantic recording and didn’t really know them that well. However, Atlantic was very interested in our group. Our lead singer Melvin Robinson had a better voice than many singers during that time. But Hattie didn’t want both of her acts on the same label. She planned to put us on another major label, but for some reason wasn’t able to do so. That’s how our Afraid of Love and Far From Your Love ended up on Jubilee.”
Mike Williams with the Tempest Band recorded Love Have Mercy and Draw With Me for Atlantic, under the musical supervision of Jesse Herring. Personnel had changed significantly from the original high school set up. Roger expanded their horn section, a dominating feature of The Tempests’ profile throughout the rest of the 1960s. As well as the Branch brothers, Kenny and Manny, new additions included Bill Lynch (trumpet), Rick White (tenor sax), Jim Butt (trumpet), Bobby Farr, (tenor sax), Creed Smith (trombone, vocals) and David Reavis (drummer).
Love Have Mercy was released in October 1965. Despite initial high hopes, it failed to make much commercial impact. Lonely Soldier was ultimately recorded by Mike Williams, most likely under Atlantic’s in-house band and was without the Tempests Band. Charles Harris of The Appreciations comments: “The record Lonely Soldier was written for us by our friend and classmate Rosie. But Hattie was managing Mike already and decided that the song was suited more for a single artist than a group.” Mike would score a moderate Billboard and R&B Chart hit with this recording as writer Toby Broom notes:
“The track was released on Atlantic 2339 in June 1966. In a cover letter associated with promotional copies of the single to favoured radio stations and D.J.s, Jerry Wexler wrote: ‘We think that this is a most unusual record. It is very topical and will cause a lot of comment. It could turn into a real blockbuster.’ The context of Jerry Wexler’s remarks was of course the rapidly escalating involvement of US forces in the Vietnam War. In December 1965 there were 184,000 US military personnel in Vietnam; by December 1966 that figure had more than doubled to 385,000. While the sentiments of the lonely soldier are timeless and universal, it was little wonder that these lyrics found such an immediate resonance with listeners. Stories of the nightmarish experiences of loved ones were filtering back from south east Asia, and of course many faced the very real prospect of being drafted there themselves. The chronicling, musical and otherwise, of the disproportionate impact of the draft on the African-American community at a time of seething and roiling anger in urban and rural black America is the wider social context of I’m a Lonely Soldier and it takes its place alongside many other records of the period which are in similar vein. I’m A Lonely Soldier was reviewed by Billboard magazine on 11th June 1966 as “an exciting debut for the soulful singer with this wailing ballad”. The release went on to peak at #85 in the Billboard Hot 100 and #38 R&B Charts by 13th August 1966. The flip If This Isn’t Love, a mid-tempo dancer with a sophisticated arrangement stands the test of time also. Mike Williams was in demand as a touring singer on the back of I’m A Lonely Soldier for several years after its release, shuttling all the while between New York City and the Carolinas and taking in gigs across the south on the Chitlin’ Circuit. An insight into these years is provided by Dwight McMillan of The Exotic band who backed Mike Williams in shows across the Carolinas in towns like Greenville, Columbia and Charleston SC. Packing out clubs such as the Excelsior in Charlotte and a homecoming for the headliner, Club 521 in Santee, South Carolina, Dwight recalls Mike Williams as a top-shelf entertainer with stage charisma to burn and, above all, a very easy artist to work with. He recalls also packed houses and a vociferous female following for the handsome singer. In addition to touring Mike Williams also found time to DJ as ‘Mike the Master’ on WOIC Columbia, South Carolina.”
Meanwhile, back in North Carolina, the release of Love Have Mercy pushed Roger and Mike’s group on the road, with a subtle name change to The Tempests. Several student gigs followed, including the Wilmington campus at University of North Carolina. Opportunities arose to back visiting R&B and Motown artists when they came to town. Musician Ellison Honeycutt was recruited to the band temporarily:
“I had the good fortune to assemble and perform while at college with a fraternity-styled band called The Seductives. Think Animal House-styled formats and audience! We played 100% good old soul music, and we felt we played it very well. We settled into our own groove through 1966. About that time, I found that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to my studies and was having much more fun playing music and hanging out (think Animal House again). I returned to Charlotte in the summer. To avoid being called up for Vietnam, I sign up to the Air Force, and had ninety days until I had to show up. I wound up in Vietnam anyway, but that’s another story. I joined The Tempests for that brief period. For lack of anything to play since Mike played keyboards, Roger recycled an old trombone for me. I sang back-up and added the third or fourth horn to augment Jim Butt, Rick White, and whoever else made it to the gig – usually a guy called Jimmy Swacker. Manny Rojas was on bass and my cousin Dave Reavis was playing drums at the time. With Mike Williams moving on, we now had a new black singer to front the band, by way of Hazel Martin.”
The band were being kept busy:
“We spent so much time running around North and South Carolina doing shows” recalls Ellison. “I guess we backed up The Tams at least four times a month. Seemed like we were playing most nights of the week. I got to shine a little, playing the low F when The Tams would sing Untie Me. Their band was filled with a lot of wonderful people. One funny experience I recall was a gig where we played somewhere out in the woods near Fayetteville, N.C. (possibly the Williams Lake dance venue given its history of hosting R&B acts of the day). We were there to do our thing, as well as back-up for Clyde McPhatter. It was a huge room seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We played the first set, then began the second for Clyde by playing the riff for A Lover’s Question, to bring him onstage. Well…no Clyde. We kept on going for a minute or two. I looked back at my cousin Dave. He had lifted Clyde’s toupee during the break and had it stuck on top of his hair. We almost fell off the stage laughing, but eventually got the rug back to Clyde. He did his show – not amused and never acknowledged any of us. Don’t know why I remember that so vividly.”
The Tempests also frequently performed at the Park Center (now the Grady Cole Center) in Charlotte, located in the historic district of Elizabeth. These days the relatively inconspicuous building lies dwarfed by the adjacent Charlotte War Memorial Stadium and surrounding contemporary city skyline. Originally built on the site of the National Guard Armory after it was burned to the ground, the Park Center was home to boxing and wrestling championships. For a period in the mid to late 1960s however, the focus was on a series of musical events run by Ted Hall, to showcase national stars and to promote his Hit Attractions Agency regular bookings. The Tams and The Tempests often appeared together there, with the horn section being used to complement The Tams’ regular band.
The Tams and Temps pairing would also be used on Sunday nights at the B&G, a popular bar on Remount Road and West Boulevard. The Tams were one of the few regional black R&B vocal groups to break out nationally. Although originally from Atlanta, Georgia, their stomping ground was the Carolinas. The group adopted their name from what ultimately became their trade mark stage accessory, the Tam O-Shanter which was reputedly worn out of necessity as they couldn’t afford stage clothes for performing. The Tams’ first recordings appeared on Arlen in 1962 with Untie Me, reaching the Billboard R&B Top 20. A couple more releases on the same label followed, both fine examples of early group soul including the excellent Deep Inside Me which found favour with some latter-day soul music collectors. Further commercial success evaded them however, until a label transfer to ABC-Paramount in 1964. Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me was a slow burner on initial release. What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am would be the first national hit, benefitting from the distributing and promotional capability of ABC-Paramount. Reaching #9 in the US Pop charts, this recording set them off on a long road to international success with a string of pop-soul hits. Ironically Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me ultimately became their most instantly recognised song due to heavy promotion, multiple European and US re-releases through the late sixties and early seventies.
“The Tams were a great bunch of guys and a lot of fun after gigs too” says Ellison. “I have the fondest memories of Joe Pope, Sonny and the drummer we knew as Chocolate. He was pretty famous for his drum interludes in I’ve Been Hurt.”
Ted Hall also arranged bookings for The Tempests outside of Charlotte. Up to 1966 venues included Wilmington University campus where they backed up The Shirelles; Pines Casino near Asheville, and Castaways in Greensboro. Performing on stage in various venues alongside talented regional and national stars provided an opportunity to hone their musical skills. With a vital industry connection also now made, the Branch brothers minds’ were firmly set on hitting the big time, but Ellison Honeycutt’s tenure was always going to be short-lived:
“To cut a long story short, my ninety days were soon up and I had to leave for the Air Force. Within six months, the new Tempests band known for the Smash recordings would record Would You Believe. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Regarding what has been pretty much an obsession with writing about 1960s southern soul themes since I started over ten years ago, “House of Broken Hearts: The Soul of 1960s Nashville” was undertaken in an attempt to resolve a nagging omission. A fair chunk of my travels (both real and virtual) has been spent scouring the Carolinas, Virginia, Louisiana and a wee bit of Texas, to cover beach music, soul influenced garage bands and black vocal groups for “It’s Better To Cry” and then “Rhythm Message”. But I was always conscious that one particular southern state, Tennessee, was well overdue attention.
Among the most obvious musical centres in Tennessee would be Memphis and Nashville. These cities may be separated by a couple of hundred miles – no distance at all in US terms of course – but both have rich, unique and intriguing musical identities; to the casual observer, for culturally contrasting reasons. Memphis’ musical heritage is undeniable, and there is no danger of it being eroded by the passage of time. Indeed it is comforting that there is an abundance of literature celebrating all aspects of the Memphis musical tapestry whether it be Beale Street, Sun Records, Stax, Graceland and rock ‘n’ roll, blues or jazz. As a writer looking for an R&B ‘angle’, I also guessed that Stuart Cosgrove would maybe already have it covered as his next plan after “Detroit ’67” (no doubt adding a political slant to previous reference works by Peter Guralnik and the like). As it turned out, he certainly achieved that with “Memphis ’68”.
So then, what of Nashville? Well, much of its soul music history has until recent years been obscured by the city’s accolade as the country music centre of the universe. The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum proudly stand testament to that. But to say that “Music City” is synonymous with country music is (technically) a contradiction. After all, the term was coined when the Fisk Jubilee Singers came to UK shores to perform their spirituals in the presence of Queen Victoria as part of their university fund raising effort. This would set the scene for future decades of race music, which would only be quashed by eventual dispersion of the local African-American community. Activities to redress the balance from the 1980s onwards include Nashville musician Fred James’ efforts to roll-call blues and soul singers to perform again and in some cases even to recommence recording careers; and a highly praised Night Train exhibition by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, coordinated by museum editor Michael Gray. The CD spin-off from the exhibition was even a Grammy winner. And to this day, the artists from back in the day continue to sing, reminisce and be remembered by others who come to watch them perform regularly in a café off Murfreesboro Pike. But what does 1960s Nashville have to offer specifically to soul fans from the UK and European underground scenes? Some are no doubt aware of the huge catalogue of Sound Stage 7 and related releases. Enthusiasts of a different genre have long loved the Louisiana swamp blues which found their way onto Ernie Young’s Excello. But to some younger generations or to those on the other side of the pond, Nashville soul music output sometimes appeared a little disconnected from the rest of what was going on in the music industry at the time. Was the R&B ‘thing’ in Nashville was just a bit of luck with record industry leaders finding a brief niche with the national soul explosion? Truth is, it was there all the time. Everything just came together at the right time for soul music. As the back cover blurb of “House of Broken Hearts” explains:
“…In the 1960s an exciting, vibrant black music scene thrived on Jefferson Street and in surrounding neighbourhoods. Night clubs, bars and theatres provided a focal point for the development of R&B. Ingredients for success were all in place – home grown talent, venues, charismatic DJs and promoters, entrepreneurial record store owners, independent black owned labels, a radio station making hip soul music accessible to teenagers across the southern states, and TV shows which featured local R&B acts. It was even the time for white artists and musicians to experiment with black music; a crossroads where soul met country music. For a brief period at least, the future seemed bright…”
So, the purpose of “House of Broken Hearts” was to celebrate the individuals – not just the singers, but industry players, media drivers and record labels; bringing the spotlight once more back to this era. OK, so it’s written from a northern / rare soul enthusiast’s perspective. You’ll find the stories in there of Jimmy Church, Frank Howard and the Commanders, Freddie North, Johnny Jones and the King Casuals, Joe Simon, Jackie Beavers, The Spidells and many more. But you’ll discover more than a mere collection of biographies. It is story of dreams, exciting times, and harsh reality. Were it not for ill-planned urbanisation decisions which displaced the black community – and inevitably much of its musical culture – perhaps Nashville could have forged an R&B legacy comparable to cities of the north. Music City is long overdue recognition for its role in popularising soul as a genre. I hope you find this book cements part of the history with some thorough research and a whole lot of help from those veterans who still keep the flame alive. If you’re passing through Nashville, be sure to call by Carol Anne’s Cafe.
By its very existence, the soul scene has a responsibility to hold safe the history of the music it reveres. In various ways, much has been done to achieve this end; and not just through the physical support of soul nights, all-nighters, weekenders and Sunday chill-outs. Numerous websites and social media forums now provide the opportunity to discuss recordings, discographies, the soul scene, and to reminisce or banter about events and eras. Writers and researchers have documented the evolution – and devolution – of the northern soul scene, and have dragged former recording artists out of obscurity in their latter years to obtain first hand oral histories before they are lost forever. Even TV documentary makers, film makers and podcast interviewers have played a part.
But whilst it’s an important part of cultural reference, preservation of soul music history is not only about holding onto the past of our underground subculture. At the heart of the scene of course, is the record industry itself. Motivation and increasing effort is required to discover new recordings, from all eras of the music we love.
At the centre of it all, and for the soul music scene to survive – let alone progress – is the continued need for independent record labels to sustain the supply of legitimately re-released rare or previously unreleased recordings. It’s true that new discoveries are becoming much harder to locate these days; a logical consequence given fifty-plus years of detective work. Yet we are constantly surprised by what can still turn up, especially when it is material from artists who are familiar names on the soul scene. Diversity of collectors’ taste over recent years also helps. Luckily, there are a myriad of reissue labels who provide everything from traditional northern soul, to modern soul, latin soul, ballads, deep soul and more.
As years pass, there has been an increased desire among experienced collectors and DJs to make firm their lasting contributions to the scene. Giving back, in a sense. Independent label releases are one way achieving this end. Seeking out previously unheard recordings and presenting them to a record buying public is of course a process that in itself identifies and preserves history. Last year I interviewed Garry Cape and asked him about his drive for the long running Hit And Run imprint. The relatively recent passing of his good friend, legendary record dealer John Anderson made him reflect on issues of his own mortality: “…I’m sitting on all these unreleased studio recordings…if I go, and I hadn’t done anything with them, no-one would ever even know about them, let alone be able to enjoy hearing them. And that would be a real tragedy…”
One of the latest names to join the ever-growing family of indie soul labels is Soul Direction. Owner Alan Kitchener sees the label itself as a natural extension of his long established activities in record collecting and record dealing, since his initial introduction to northern soul as a young teenager in the mid to late 1970s. His first exposure to a venue catering to soul fans was at Coleman’s, a club somewhere down a Nottingham city centre alleyway. “The music just blew me away,” he recalls. “I remember walking through the door and the soaking up the atmosphere. The place was packed. You could feel the ceiling and floor bouncing from the music and the dancing. Gedling Miners’ Welfare club was a another local haunt.” Whether drugs or a revoked licenced for some other reason was the death knell, Coleman’s was eventually shut down. But now bitten by the bug, Alan had progressed to Notts Palais all-dayers, others events in Rotherham. Bradford and Fleet; and then onto what was to become a major influence: Stafford’s “Top of the World” all-nighters.
Alan Kitchener (Man From Soul / Soul Direction).
Even though he does not consider himself a ‘career’ DJ by any means, Alan has been frequently behind invited behind the decks. One of his earliest experiences came after an invite by Dave Raistrick to the Rock City events, one of a handful of progressive northern and modern soul clubs which helped drive a new record collecting phase after what many considered become a stagnant northern soul scene. Since then, further DJ opportunities came via the legendary Shotts all-nighters in Scotland, and in more recent years at various European and UK events.
The foray into the record dealing and label business was helped by a portfolio of long established US contacts; a network progressively developed since his first record buying trips to the US with long time pal Dean Anderson in the late 1980s. Up to that point, Alan had been buying regularly from the States, through contacts established via Goldmine, mailing lists and other sources:
“My parents didn’t have a phone. I had to run down to the phone box and slump 10p’s in like there was no tomorrow to order records. There had to be a better way. I just thought I needed to go to the US, and started talking to Dean about it. He had a cousin who lived in Boston where we could have a base to work from. So we just decided to go. We did Boston, then New York for about ten days, and later New Jersey. Initially it was mainly the dealers’ record stores, and then in later trips the huge Austin Record Fair. I’ve always been interested in searching for the unknown. What’s always excited me are sounds that are fresh to the ear.”
Stateside record buying trips have remained a regular thing for Alan Kitchener since then, with frequent visits across the states from the Carolinas to Texas, and everywhere in between. However the advent of the Internet would provide an additional route to sourcing both his personal collection and for stock. By the mid to late 1990s, eBay was still very much in its infancy. Alan’s print company would prove an advantage as the industry was already immersed in computer-based technology, and he was picking up records from eBay earlier than most. “There wasn’t a need to go to America quite as frequently as before. US sellers would be putting stuff on eBay when they clearly weren’t that savvy at that time about rarity or UK prices.” Now trading as Man From Soul, he has had a few healthy years as a full-time record dealer, building on the personal and business relationships secured within the scene and from the US.
Over the course of 2020 during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Alan had time to reflect on where he wanted to go with the new idea of the Soul Direction record label, in releasing rare and unreleased material. For the first release, Alan seized the chance to present Andrea Henry’s version of The Holliday’s classic Tony Hestor-penned “I Lost You”. Henry is a familiar name, not only among Detroit soul collectors but within the wider scene. Her first outing, as Ja Neen Henry, was a cover of Juanita William’s “Baby Boy” for the Mercury subsidiary Blue Rock. The mid tempo “I Need You Like A Baby” for MGM, recorded the following year has of course been a popular collector’s sound and all-nighter record. That was about it for physical releases, though previously unreleased material has appeared in more recent times, including the sublime “Time Fades Away”, available via the Groovesville Review CD.
So, secured from the vaults of Don Davis and taken from the original master-tape, Andrea Henry’s take of “I Lost You” made its first ever appearance on vinyl via Soul Direction (SD 001) in October 2020. For completion, “I Need You Like A Baby” seemed a logical choice and was licenced for the flip.
Further previously unreleased material, this time from Eddie Holman, quickly followed on the Soul Direction imprint in January 2021. Eddie’s singing talent was discovered in the mid 1950s at the tender age of eight. His first venture into the studio would be in the following decade for Cameo-Parkway and Bell, before hitting the big time with “Hey There Lonely Girl” for ABC; spending seventeen weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 charts and peaking at no. 4. Eddie’s live performing career has never let up, and he regularly appears on stage at soul weekenders and related events. Two previously unreleased Eddie Holman recordings were selected for SD 002, namely “Ready, Willing, Able” and “Too Young for Love”. The topside was recorded around the same time as “Stay Mine For Heaven’s Sake” and has elements of the melodic structure of that song, but with the up-tempo drive of his “I Surrender” a few years later.
Eddie Holman was an idol for Alan who, like many, grew up with his recordings forming part of the soundtrack of his youth on the northern soul scene. He has fond memories of seeing Eddie perform live back in the 1980s at the Top of The World and other venues. Needless to say the opportunity to release expose these newly discovered tracks on Soul Direction wasn’t one to be passed:
“Only recently this acetate was unearthed from the belongings of Philly producer, musician and songwriter John Stiles. ‘Ready, Willing Able’ was recorded at Virtue Studios in Philadelphia. Most likely Eddie had written and recorded the song as a demo intended for another artist. Funkadelphia originally offered a largely unedited version of the recording on iTunes in order to help the wife of John Stiles, who was having financial difficulties at the time. I started championing the track when deejaying at the Boat Club in Nottingham, after some discussions with Funkadelphia and a clean up of the raw track. Due to the lack of performance work for Eddie as a result of the Covid-19 situation, it seemed the perfect time to put it out on vinyl, to help the artist and the producer’s family.”
Eddie was keen to see a vinyl release of “Ready, Willing, Able”, and provided Alan with a number of other tracks to consider one as an option for the flip. “I opted for ‘Too Young For Love’; a raw mid-tempo and earlier sounding demo track, unknown until now but a nice contrast to the A side. It’s a win-win situation all round then: we have a nicely cleaned up version of ‘Ready, Willing, Able’, Eddie is happy, John Stiles’ wife benefits from the deal, and the soul scene gets to hear two great Eddie Holman songs previously unreleased on vinyl. Personally, I’m proud to have worked on this project.”
Alan is the first to admit that launching a new independent label has been a steep learning curve. Challenges include unpredictable external factors affecting scheduling. The Eddie Holman release had to be delayed a few weeks when the pressing plant closed completely, due to staff shortage issues related to Covid-19. Soul Direction has also drawn on the advice and expertise of others in the industry, including mastering, licencing and general advice from Ady Croasdell at Kent Records, Dave Welding at Soul Junction, Alberto Zanini at Cannonball Records and others who know who they are. The skills of young graphic designer Jordan Wilson have been called upon for the visual aspects; all ensuring the brand presents itself as a quality platform for rare and unreleased recordings.
“I’m always considering the best way forward with the label. I make my own decisions but not before I’ve taken advice from people in the industry I respect and who know what they’re talking about. The one thing I want to get across is that I don’t want the label to be all about me. This isn’t an ego trip. I’m there in the background as a driving force, but ultimately it’s about the artists and the songs.”
There has always been controversy surrounding new releases and reissues on the soul scene, especially on the northern soul scene, with questionable licencing permissions or provenance for the material released (something Soul Direction is keen to ensure never happens). But at risk of romanticising, I do get a sense of genuine appreciation within the record buying community for new and established labels that act with integrity and support the artists. As Alan says: “Having these previously unheard recordings in my possession, spending the time to track down the artist, forming bonds with them and agreeing contracts to release their almost forgotten songs gives me a great sense of pride”.
Soul Direction already has another clutch of recordings lined up for release and contracts signed, ensuring that it continues to play its role in the preservation of soul music history. I for one wish this label, and others who respect and support their sources, every success for the future.