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.
Of course, history books are full of how African American racial and cultural identity was suppressed in the southern states of the US. Even North Carolina, often perceived as one of the more ‘progressive’ states of the South, was not entirely exempt from a reputation of hostility toward black communities. In the 1960s, this was particularly demonstrated by the presence of the Klan’s largest chapter based in Salisbury, NC, who exploited and groomed poorer white communities from rural areas, where some generations were still reeling from the repercussions of the Great Depression decades earlier. In more urban areas, the door wasn’t always open either, even after the landmark Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964.
That said, a deeper dig reveals that, even well before the Civil Rights Act, in some other sections of Carolinian society there was a simultaneous embracement of elements of black culture – in particular, music. Somebody once said “if you’re from North Carolina you may as well be a Yankee”. An implied reference to tolerance and liberalism perhaps, the essence of which may well now be blurred due to social and political division in recent years. But go back sixty years ago; when black music became widely accessible to a young white audience, largely for the first time. Granted, this was partly a simple reflection of the national post-rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and of increasing social and cultural awareness. But in the south eastern states, there was also a direct influence from the rich African American musical heritage which immediately surrounded them.
“We were all what you would call middle-class white – our neighbourhoods looked like Beaver Cleaver’s from the 1960s TV show” says Nat Speir, founder member of the Charlotte-based group The Rivieras. “But in we were always very conscious of the race issue and the sensitivity of our black acquaintances. We talked about this a lot with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions when we worked with them. Some of my friends’ parents invited four young black men from the Bedford-Stuyvesant project in New York to come and spend a summer with us in our homes, sponsored by an ecumenical group. They were singers too – fancying themselves as younger Little Anthony and the Imperials, or The Manhattans. We gigged together for about four months and we learned a great deal from each other. Yes, there were lots of tricky situations with these guys and with some of the national acts on the road. But booking agents protected the groups somewhat. They wanted to make money. Also Charlotte wasn’t like Mississippi. It was usually cool in Charlotte, or Greensboro, or Columbia – not everywhere was though in the early to mid 60s. The larger cities and towns were segregated in many ways. But there were many ways we did interact. Middle class whites wanted black music. Some folk find this hard to understand. Why would the Charlotte Country Club Deb Ball want Hank Ballard instead of The Beach Boys for their entertainment? But I was right there every chance I got. I heard and got to know many R&B and soul acts in those places. On my turf of course. I doubt I would have been welcome on their’s. And that’s fair.”
The Rivieras, with Georgia Hand, at Tanglewood Country Club, North Carolina 1967 (image courtesy of Nat Speir).
To fully appreciate how R&B and soul music took hold in the Carolinas, it is impossible to avoid a short history lesson; an exploration of how black music arrived in south east, its development in accordance with wider national trends in popular music, and cultural channels (live performance, dance and radio) which facilitated exposure to the masses – not only to black communities, but in many cases for the first time, to a white, predominantly teenage audience.
In times before and during the Civil War, slaves would be a higher prized asset for internal trade if they had specific skills. Many would be taught to play guitars, fiddles and banjos to entertain their white slave masters in their households and at society functions. Life of course remained very far from perfect following ‘official’ emancipation from slavery. However one effect of freedom was the lateral migration and formation of clusters of close knit communities in the south east. Convergence of talent was inevitable. Musical skills developed by the elders in their former period of enslavement would be passed onto the next generations. Local influences outside the immediate community would also be absorbed into the mix. New styles such as the string plucking and rhythmic bass patterns of the Piedmont blues would emerge.
Meanwhile, ongoing racism, social oppression, poverty, and the advent of two World Wars were major drivers for mass migration of blacks up the east coast. Munition and clothing orders for armed forces provided some opportunities for work in New York. With many musicians settling in Harlem, a fusion of further styles occurred. Over two million members of the black communities in North Carolina travelled north between 1900 and the 1940s. Many never returned south; others brought new musical approaches back to their old communities. Southern states could almost be identified by musical genre at this point: North Carolina of hip jazz and gospel, and South Carolina with more rural roots of country, bluegrass, blues and spirituals, in line with Kentucky and parts of Georgia.
The rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950s would mark the first major interface of inter-racial musical appreciation among teenage America. Historians usually focus on delta blues, the fusion of musical styles from different cultures in New Orleans, and musicians – black and white – from along the Mississippi River up to Memphis and beyond. Where generations of parental conservatism and cultural and musical naivety existed within many white households, this was being progressively eroded. Parents and children of all ages could not ignore the rapid pace of social, political and musical change around them. Many teenagers were tuning into the likes of Chuck Berry – and their white heroes too – playing the Devil’s Music. The scene was set for the next decade of teenage rebellion, social conscience, student lunch counter sit-ins and MLK marches.
By the 1950s kids (black and white) in the Carolinas were tuned into to national blues and doo-wop acts. Artists like The Clovers, The Five Royales and Clyde McPhatter were particularly popular. Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith was a household name in the Carolinas. Smith was a talented country music composer, guitar player, fiddler and radio presenter (incidentally, also the original writer of “Duelling Banjos”, used in the 1972 film Deliverance). His own career rocketed after the Second World War with his Calling Carolina radio show and the Arthur Smith Show on the Charlotte NC WBTV. The genre associated with Smith as a musician may have been a million miles away from race music, or race-influenced music, but through his talent hunts, he discovered doo-wop acts in the 1950s such as The Embers, Harry Deal & the Galaxies and Maurice Williams who would go on to become big beach music names of the next decade and beyond. Other TV shows also followed suit, particularly around NC, as a showcase for teenage music and dance talent. Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, would be a point of convergence for singers and groups wanting to record R&B and soul, and pop music through the 1960s.
Letter courtesy of Bob McNair.
Bob McNair, a white North Carolina resident, has been a music fan for pretty much all of his adult life. Brought up in Sanford and now residing in Winston-Salem NC, he recounts his earliest memories of his record buying days. “I distinctly remember my very first 45 record purchase” says Bob. “In 1961, my friend Billy Neal and I combined funds (50 cents each) to buy “Blue Moon” by The Marcels at Buchanan’s TV-Appliances-Music store in Sanford, NC. Buchanan’s had a fully stocked record shop inside of the appliance store. The place was sound proofed with thick double paned glass so that you could crank up the volume on the high end stereo system with a manual turntable. The little shop was loaded with all the current 45s and LPs of the day including pop, rock, soul, country and black gospel. Mr. Buchanan had a private airplane and he would fly with his wife weekly to Charlotte to stock up on the latest releases and hot sellers. I worked in the shop sometimes on the weekends. Often for free, or for a couple of records. Black kids would come in to buy the latest R&B, soul and black gospel, like the Blind Boys of Alabama. I really dug this music and was exposed to songs I might never have heard otherwise. Screw Pat Boone, the Beach Boys and the Beatles! We wanted James Brown, Joe Tex, Booker T. & the M.G.s, The Temptations, The Tams, Wilson Pickett, The Showmen, Gene Chandler, The C.O.D.s and many more. That was the beginning of a lifetime of loving soul music.”
Only a couple of dozen stations existed in North Carolina until after World War II when FM was introduced. An increase in approved licence applications commenced in the 1950s, with radio stations bringing rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop and eventually soul to a whole new younger listening audience, attracted to late night R&B programming. Certain radio stations in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia were essential in exposing black and white teenagers to race music during the late 1950s and 1960s. WGIV (We are GI Veterans; a patriotic nod to the end of World War II) was a culturally integrated station serving the metropolitan area of Charlotte. In the late 1940s Francis Marion Fitzgerald, founder of the station and owner of the Publix Broadcasting Service of Charlotte Inc., had arrived at the then unique concept of a station focused on or inclusive of the African-American community. The idea was effectively a response to an untapped commercial opportunity, much in the same way as WLAC operated in Nashville. WGIV adopted an integrated approach both in its employee profile, business affairs and music programming, a unity symbolised by the station’s logo of a white hand shaking a black hand. Whilst later in the decade the inter-racial ideology of the station would be marred by rising in-equalities at work and national race issues, for most of the 1960s WGIV was well placed to play emerging R&B recordings and were actively involved in auditioning, promoting and managing local acts.
WAYS radio station, located at 400 Radio Road, had also been around since the 1940s and broadcast at 610 AM. Prior to Stan and Sis Kaplan from Boston buying the place and licence for $550,000, the little white building was physically deteriorating, and its programming held little interest for young people in the area. In their eagerness to appeal to teenagers, the Kaplans renamed the station Big WAYS and in spring of 1965 opened with a top 40 chart format featuring pop and R&B. No expense was spared in obtaining top personalities, charismatic D.J.s and attractive competitions to engage a new audience. The $1000 treasure hunts presented by D.J. Jack Gale went down well, though perhaps more with the listeners than the local police force who had to contend with individuals digging up fields, gardens and plots around the city. WAYS would also support local concerts and became the local leader for young radio listeners. The station was sold some thirty years later, along with its FM counterpart, for over $13 million.
Other stations played their part, such as WBAG where D.J. Jim Conklin reputedly broke The Showmen’s 39-21-46 on air, now considered a beach music classic. However, local stations were also receiving heavy competition from Nashville’s WLAC, which was continually pumping out blues, soul and R&B. A never-ending supply of material would be played by white D.J. John ‘R’ Richbourg via the symbiotic relationship with sponsors Ernie Young and Randy Wood, both owners of vinyl record mail order companies and record label involvement. WLAC initially ran a community orientated news schedule but changed its policy when another competitor WSM was gaining popularity in playing country music. WLAC had a 50,000-wattage broadcasting capability, enabling twenty-eight states to receive a signal; even reaching parts of Canada and the tip of Southern Florida. The whole of the eastern seaboard was easily covered. The initial intention of WLAC’s new programming was to serve the relatively untapped black community market across the major cities and the deep south. As race music became labelled R&B, John Richbourg and colleague Bill Allen would run their respective slots promoting recordings by Nashville and national black artists. These shows would be broadcast at night time when the signal was strongest and coverage by WLAC had, in a literal sense, far-reaching effects.
The Showmen, performing at the Torch, North Carolina in 1967, toward the end of their recording period with Swan (photo courtesy of Bob McNair).
The national dance of South Carolina, the Shag, has also played a part in sustaining the interest in R&B through the decades in the region. Enthusiasts and academics have long argued over the origins of the Shag and the changing musical scenes which surrounded it. There does however appear to be consensus that several seemingly unrelated factors came together to form the post-war Shag phenomenon, including the presence of the military, radio, and Big Bands. One legend states that jump blues was the first trigger, played by returning merchant seamen to a largely white audience at Jim Hanna’s Tijuana Inn at Carolina Beach in the late forties. Another story, from the same era, goes that a young man named Harry Driver was captivated by the race music of Buddy Johnson Orchestra whilst attending the Wilmington Armory Dances. In awe of the improvised Jitterbug and Lindy Hopping he witnessed by local youths and servicemen on shore leave, Harry was reportedly one of the first to add in additional ‘whip’ steps and the dance and scene blossomed from there. Other neighbouring centres quickly became synonymous with the Shag, most notably the popular summer seaside resort of Myrtle Beach, and vacationing teenagers. Over subsequent decades, the Shag scene evolved and encompassed a range of new musical styles, though its major association remains with early R&B of the late 1950s and then soul music of the 1960s.
The domino effect following the delivery of soul via the air-waves in the early to mid-1960s was inevitable. Along the east coast a new enthusiasm was born for emerging R&B recordings, much as had happened for rock ‘n’ roll some five years earlier. Vacationing teenagers were now being treated to exciting soul-orientated Show and Dance nights in the beach pavilions. Away from the coast, clubs throughout the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia featured similar live acts. Booking agents, perhaps most notably Ted Hall and his Hit Attractions company were kept busy, booking Motown artists and other national acts for venues around Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, Greensboro, Williams Lake, Winston-Salem and others. College students and high school classmates also wanted in on the action, forming their own bands so they could emulate the sounds they loved and create their own brand of soul. Talent agents quickly sought these out to add to their list for hire at high school sock hops, country clubs and frat parties. Bands which would also prove invaluable for opening sets or as backing bands for visiting solo artists and vocal groups.
On the face of it the underground rare soul scene of the UK, Europe and beyond seems geographically and chronologically disconnected to the Carolinas’ musical quirk of history, yet it has been part of it’s preservation. Releases by The Embers, The Tempests, The Spontanes, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Prophets and others from the eastern seaboard have been popular on the soul scene for decades now. Recordings have been ‘re-discovered’ and given a second lease of life; others unearthed for the first time. Record collectors, indie record labels, dancers, and writers have all been inspired explore the sounds and stories of these recording artists; providing wider global exposure for what in truth was largely a regional entity. But that’s another story.
Copyright 2020. Modified excerpt from the book It’s Better To Cry by E. Mark Windle.
While undertaking some book research a few years ago on Nashville’s R&B music industry, I remember being drawn to a very competent cover of Barbara Lewis’ iconic 1963 recording “Hello Stranger”. The version in question was by Alpha Zoe (Hall), a young teenager who had just been plucked from nearby Gallatin to record the song at Nashville’s Columbia studios for Hit Records, with virtually no preparation – and within days of the original chart release. After tracking Alpha-Zoe Hall down, the next few months were spent interviewing her about her upbringing, career, and life events. The former singer was now her 70’s, and out of the music business. But as part of the general quid pro quo she mailed me the script of a presentation she had just delivered to her local baptist church. Marking Black History Month, it was written as a retrospective during a period of hope, and in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as the first African-American president of the United States. It was an illustration of her experience as a young black girl in the times of Jim Crow law, and a perspective on how she felt her race and society has progressed since then. Take or leave the religious element; the core message is poignant. Of course, Obama is no longer president – and to many it feels like the last four years of office by his presidential successor have undone decades of progress, leaving the US very much politically, culturally and racially divided. Hopefully, the next four will redress that.
A presentation by Alpha-Zoe Hall to the Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee; February 8, 2015:
“Good morning. I hope everyone can see this sign. I went to the UPS store yesterday to have my Colored Waiting Room sign bubbled wrapped for safe transport to church. A young white man, maybe in his twenties, helped me. When I took my sign out he did a double-take. He looked at me and said “I’ve heard of things like this but this is the first time I’ve ever seen one. I don’t know how people could have treated people like that then. Mam, I’m so sorry.” I told him “Honey don’t you feel no ways sad. It was the grace of God and signs like this that made us the strong people we are today.”
Just like that young man, some of you here may not have seen a sign like this before, except maybe in pictures. Some might not even know what it means. And some, like myself, grew up during the period when signs like these were everywhere. At entrances, exits, water fountains, restrooms, waiting rooms and halls. After Lincoln ‘set us free’ – so they say – Jim Crow laws were passed to make it illegal for any business or public entity to allow colored and white people to sit, eat, marry or associate with each other. Thus the birth of the colored signs.
I first saw the sign when I was a little girl walking through Lincoln Station downtown. Union Station was a huge, beautiful building with marble floors, long polished wooden benches with cushions and big brass lights. I was awe struck. Then we went through the door where the sign was hanging. The room in which all people of color had to sit was half the size of the choir stand here, and had just one, hard bench. The room was packed with people and a man got up to give my mother a seat. Well, I was really ticked off because I could see all the empty seats elsewhere in the station. I kept asking my mother why I had to stand up because there were lots of seats out there, until she pinched me and told me to hush.
So, the signs. They were meant to keep us in our place, by repressing, intimidating, humiliating and making us feel less than human. They said we were ignorant. But I believe we were smart and waiting our time. We knew how to act in order to survive. We believed God did not give us any giving up bones, so we obeyed their signs. We were meek but not weak, string but not violent. Our backs were bent but not broken. We turned to our churches and preachers. We loudly sang spirituals with messages of hope and we gave vent to the Holy Spirit who gave us strength to obey the signs. We may have been obedient, but we were no Uncle Toms.
I believe God answered our prayers. He opened a door, and out stepped the generation of the Negro. While obeying the signs, colored people had become Negros. They had not counted on our ability to grow and triumph over adversity. The sign did not impede our progress. It was just a designation, not our destination. We had become doctors, lawyers, educators, nurses, inventors, business owners and politicians. The majority of us may still have been in low paid jobs, but we were not subservient and in the evenings many of us went back to homes that we owned. We built schools of higher learning and established services to provide better opportunities to our people. Yet we looked up, and the signs were still there. And still we prayed.
Again, God opened another door and out stepped the generation of Black people. Those Black people looked at the signs and said “these signs have to go. We have contributed too much to society to be treated as a second class citizen.” So we marched, and prayed, protested, had sit-ins, suffered toils, snares and demeaning treatment. Still we prayed. We instilled pride in our young people and gave them role models. We fought for and won the vote to change the Jim Crow laws. God, in time, had changed the hearts of men, and the signs were taken down.
And then once again another door was opened and out stepped the African-American. A generation of people living, enjoying and demanding the things of life that colored, Negro and Black people had dreamed, hoped and prayed for. A generation standing tall on the bent backs of their ancestors.
Remember that little girl fussing because she had to stand in the room with the Colored Waiting Room sign while there were seats in the big room? Well, years later, that same girl, me, walked into a booth, pushed a button and voted for a man of my race who became the president of these United States.”
Copyright E. Mark Windle / Alpha-Zoe Hall (2020, 2015).
The Appreciations’ recordings are well known within rare soul record collecting circles, with tracks such as “I Can’t Hide It” and “It’s Better to Cry” played and loved on the northern soul scene for decades. Despite that, the group’s history was virtually unknown until 2013, other than that they were a vocal group from North Carolina and had some kind of connection with Detroit. A year’s worth of searching to identify group members, their manager, events and photographs for my first book It’s Better To Cry finally resolved things.
Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, NC is a small independent university, originally founded by the Presbyterian Church to serve the local black community. In February 1965 students 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) and later Lewis Dowdy got together to form a vocal group to play on campus and in venues throughout the Charlotte area. Horace “Nick” Nichols (lead vocal) and James Ardrey (baritone) covered for Melvin and Oscar whilst they were in military service. Two other members, Lee Webber and Artie Brown, had brief spells with The Appreciations although they do not feature on any of the recordings. Four releases in all are associated with the group, with at least three of interest to the northern soul scene.
Charles opens the tale: “While I was out of school one semester, my former room mate came home for a weekend. He was raving about a student from New York City who had taken the freshman talent show by storm. He said that he stole the talent show by singing “I Stand Accused” recorded by Jerry Butler and that he actually sounded better than Jerry. Of course, I found this hard to believe and could hardly wait to get back to school the next semester to hear this guy. When I returned to JCSU the entire campus was buzzing about Melvin Robinson. I introduced myself to Melvin Robinson and Oscar Melton and asked if they would be interested in forming a group with me and my room mate Toon, to give some competition for the popular on-campus group The Hopes. Prior to this, each of us had performed as single vocalists. We got together after a few days; Melvin had the best lead voice and was chosen as the primary singer for the group. Initially the decision was to name the group The Inspirations. After practicing for about a week we were able to determine the vocal parts. The Inspirations appeared on a talent show at JCSU and stole the show from The Hopes. The next day everyone on campus was talking about the lead singing and the harmony that we had. Our first song performed as a group was “I Only Have Eyes” as recorded by The Flamingos. Within a couple of months our popularity began to spread beyond the campus into the city of Charlotte. We sang at a couple of clubs. All of our performances at that time were acapella.”
Charles remembers Toon contacting a number of local radio stations in the area. Radio DJ Hattie Leeper was impressed after hearing them audition. Hattie had started radio work back in the 1940s at the WGIV station in Charlotte. She was initially taken on as a hired help when she was about 14 years old, but over a seven year period rose up through the ranks to DJ whilst pursuing higher academic education at the same time. She became widely known and respected as the first black female DJ in the Carolinas. By the late 1950s “Chatty Hattie” Leeper was a household name. In the following decade she extended her skills to song writing and promoting national R&B acts including a pre-Smash version of The Tempests (called The Tempest Band), and Mike Williams of “Lonely Soldier” fame. She even ran her own “Stack-O-Records” music store in North Charlotte on Pegram Street for a while before going back to school for her Masters degree. From Hatty’s autobiography Chatty Hatty: the Legend it is clear she had strong relationships with a range of local and national artists but also DJs, studios, producers and label owners from the west coast, New York, Chicago and Detroit. Associates included Berry Gordy, Jerry Wexler, Florence Greenberg of Scepter and many others.
Hattie agreed to promote and mange the group. Her role as secretary of the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers was useful in developing connections to get The Appreciations noticed by some major players in the business. Within a couple of weeks Hattie had arranged an audition for talent scout with Atlantic Records. “We were advised to come up with some original songs to record” says Charles. “None of us had any experience in songwriting. A classmate called Rosemary Gaines approached us with a song she had written entitled “Afraid of Love”. She played and sang it for us. We liked the song. Hattie advised us that we would need another song for the “B” side. Within a few days Toon penned the song “Far From Your Love”. Chatty informed us that the talent scout would come back to hear the songs. During the audition, the scout suggested to hire someone who could sing a bass part, to give the background some bottom. We approached one of our friends, Lewis Dowdy, who sang bass in the JCSU choir about accompanying us on a recording session to sing bass. Two weeks later we were in the Atlantic Records studio in New York City recording both songs. The music arranger liked the job that Lewis did and advised us to consider adding him as a member of the group. We became a five-man group. Before the record was released we discovered that a gospel group had a patent on the name The Inspirations, so the we changed to The Appreciations. Atlantic wanted to sign us for “Afraid Of Love” / “Far From Your Love”, but Hattie didn’t want both groups on Atlantic (a decision which Charles says both the group and Hattie later regretted). These tracks were released on Jubilee in April 1965, and on release did make some noise in Charlotte and other cities. The boys, along with their backing band drawn from the best musicians in Charlotte, were booked for a number of public appearances across the Carolinas and Cleveland, Ohio for the rest of the year.
Their next recording was “I Can’t Hide It” / “No, No, No” (Aware 1066). Hattie set up Aware for this sole release. The tracks were recorded in 1966 at the Golden World / Ric Tic Records Studios in Detroit. The group liked the Motown sound and wanted to be part of it. Willie Mitchell (band leader, producer, wind and keyboard player) coached and arranged the session and, according to Charles, played baritone sax. Mitchell is perhaps more associated with Memphis than Detroit. In reality however he wrote, produced, arranged and recorded a number of tracks for Lee Rogers, Buddy Lamp and others on Detroit labels such as Wheelsville, Premium Stuff and D-Town, either from his Memphis base or in Detroit itself. The Aware release enjoyed some success in the south east and mid-west regions.
Up to that point The Appreciations’ ‘bread and butter’ work was confined to weekend campus frat parties mainly because they were still students at JCSU. However the success of their first two records allowed them to play in the summer break on the military bases of the east coast and Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach, Virginia Beach and Florida.“We also had some challenging times” says Charles. “There were times we were broke with hardly enough money to get to the next gig. There were times when we were refused accommodation or some would have too much to drink at a frat party and use racial slurs or get aggressive. Once we underestimated travel time and were two hours late for a show. We barely had enough money to get there and were depending on the money we would get paid. We arrived at the auditorium and started to rush to unload the equipment to get the band set up. A woman came out and said “you boys get right back in your bus and go back where you came from. We’re not paying you one red cent”. We’d travelled over 600 miles to that gig.”
By late 1966, Melvin and Oscar were drafted or enlisted into military service, which would take them out of performing for two or three years. They were replaced by Horace “Nick” Nichols as lead vocal and James Ardrey as baritone vocal. The Appreciations’ next recording was to be “She Never Really Loved Me” / “Place in My Heart” (Sport 108). The instrumentation was laid down in Memphis with once again Willie Mitchell’s involvement, the vocals for both tracks were recorded in Nashville, and final mixing possibly occurred in Detroit. Sport was a New York distributed label of primarily Detroit artists and producers founded by Andrew ‘Shelley’ Harris. The label ran from 1967 to 1968. Some of the luminaries who produced and arranged on the label included Joe Hunter, Lorraine Chandler and Andre Williams, all big names in Detroit soul circles. Artists included The Four Sonics, Tony Daniels, The Master Keys and The Dramatics. The Appreciations’ second Sport recording was “It’s Better to Cry” (Sport 111). For many years it was rumoured that the instrumental backing for the track was facilitated by The Tempests. This seemed plausible as Hattie Leeper was also manager at the time of Mike Williams who recorded the Vietnam war song “Lonely Soldier”. The Tempests Band had backed Mike Williams and also The Appreciations on some live appearances. However, Charles dispels the myth:
“In 1967 we recorded ‘It’s Better to Cry’ and ‘Gimme Back My Heart’ at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, NC. Both songs were released on Sport Records. The studio band was Moses Dillard and The Tex-Town Review from my home town in Greenville SC. Moses was a couple of years behind me in high school. As a matter of fact “Mose”, as he was called, arranged the music for the songs right there in the studio during the session. James “Toon” Debeuneure provided the lead vocals for both songs on this recording session. “It’s Better to Cry” put us on the map locally for a while. We were booked by Ted Hall’s Hit attractions agency, the young entrepreneur who dominated the market for the beach music bands at the time.”
Despite its popularity in the south east, the scarcity of ‘It’s Better to Cry’ on 45rpm appears to be related to a simultaneous release of another record on the same label, The Four Sonics “Easier Said Than Done” (another northern soul favourite). Sport had signed a distribution deal with Amy-Mala-Bell around the time of release of the two records. Amy may have put out the Four Sonics on Sport 111 to follow up on a previous release by this band, whilst locally Sport had released the Appreciations on the same number. Thus The Appreciations track may have been withdrawn shortly after its release. The credited writers of “It’s Better to Cry” were New York based David Blake and Frankie Nieves, from Phil Medley’s Starflower Music Company. Frankie Nieves brought out his own very different latin soul take of the track, on the 1968 Speed LP “The Terrible Frankie Nieves”. When Blake was asked a few years back on Soul Talk (www.raresoulforum.co.uk) about ‘It’s Better to Cry’ he claimed he didn’t know anything about it ending up on Sport until the 1990s. David Blake also produced the previously unreleased Johnny Watson version which eventually saw the light of day in the 1980s on Valise.
By 1969 the group were still dreaming of becoming national stars. Charles recalls how they held their own when appearing on stage with other big visiting acts like Marvin Gaye, The Delfonics, and The Manhattans, but The Appreciations just couldn’t get the right material. Things were changing. Melvin and Oscar had returned from the military. Melvin rejoined the group but now it was Nick’s turn to be drafted. Plans were to go to Chicago or Philadelphia to access professional songwriters and arrangers, but Toon and Lewis decided they would quit the group, due to family responsibilities. Melvin also left the group unexpectedly and went to New York. Oscar decided he would complete his college degree and was not going to continue in The Appreciations. “We all remained friends” says Charles. “The only regret that we all had were that none of us ever received any royalty payments. I don’t recognise the names of the people claiming credit for writing a couple of the songs and I have no idea how their names ended up on the credits. We had good times together. Some led successful lives after the group. James “Toon” Debeuneure had a successful corporate career. He gave it up and went back to school after he was in his fifties to get a Masters in Education. He did that in order to contribute to the African American kids in the Washington, DC inner city schools. Tragically on 9/11 Toon was killed while chaperoning his fifth grade students on a National Geographic trip to California as a result of winning an essay contest. Their plane was crashed into the Pentagon. Lewis Dowdy earned a PhD in Psychology. He taught and counselled students at Johnson C. Smith University and currently is a professor of Psychology at Barber Scotia College in Concord, NC. Oscar Melton became a manufacturing electronics technician within the contractor sector for the defence industry. As of 2013 he was retired and lives in Baltimore, MD. James Ardrey owned a construction business in Washington, DC. Horace “Nick” Nichols lives in Charlotte, NC. I spent forty years in positions of supervision and management roles. I retired from Michelin Tire Corporation in 2007 after a 30-year career and live in Simpsonville, SC, a suburb of Greenville. I dabbled in real estate investment and spend a lot of time with my five grandchildren. I sang with a local group here in Greenville beginning in 1998 called The Viverhearts. I was one of the lead singers and first tenor. I had a bad case of bronchitis which damaged my singing voice and left the group eventually because my voice was shot. Now I just sing in the shower when no one is around to hear a bad note!
Copyright E. Mark Windle (2020, 2013). This article is modified excerpt from the book It’s Better To Cry.
William Everett Justis Jr. (1926-1982) was an example of a key industry player who bridged the gap between rock ‘n’ roll, pop and R&B in the 1950s and 1960s. Justis would play a pivotal part in developments at Sun records in Memphis. Graduating from Tulane University, New Orleans, the accomplished jazz trumpet and saxophone player was given a short but significant career at Sun during the 1950s. He would work on sessions and arrangements for Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others, discovered Charlie Rich, and even scored a hit with his own rock ‘n’ roll sax and guitar driven instrumental “Raunchy”. The record remained in the top 40 pop charts for fourteen weeks, and secured Justis a place at Sun for the next few years. With a wealth of experience behind him and collaborations with a number of country and rock ‘n’ roll artists who were receiving national, even global recognition for their work, Justis was determined to make a success of his own career in different elements of the industry.
Professional differences with Sun provoked an eventual split from the label and led to the creation of his own publishing/production company: Tuneville Music. Justis’ initial intention was to use Tuneville as a platform to independently, write, produce and arrange for other artists in the Memphis area. He also dabbled briefly with his own Play Me label to release his own material but this venture was short lived. Within a year, and possibly with the encouragement of Fred Foster at Monument, operations would be relocated to Nashville.
The early to mid-1960s in Nashville would prove a busy time for the sax player and producer. As an artist he recorded several instrumental 45s and LPs on the Mercury subsidiary Smash, which had varying levels of success on the US pop chart. Through Tuneville, he continued to arrange and produce other recordings for a variety of pop and R&B labels. This often included matching artists to songs, which at least on paper may have seemed incompatible, but actually worked musically. As an example country singer William Edwin “Ed” Bruce was given “See The Big Man Cry” (Wand 140). Bill Justis applied a big city soul arrangement, resulting in a vocally powerful and orchestrated recording which the listener could easily imagine was destined for label mate Chuck Jackson. “See The Big Man Cry” would become a much bigger country hit for Charles Louvin a few years later.
Justis and Tuneville were closely associated with two major labels: Mercury and Bell. Larry Uttal, the previous owner of Madison Records, had procured Bell and its subsidiaries Amy and Mala in the early 1960s. He initially left Bell dormant, utilising Amy and Mala as outlets for pop and R&B recordings. Ronny and the Daytonas, who were managed and produced by Bill Justis, scored massively for Mala with their pop hits “G.T.O.” and “Sandy”. Uttal revived Bell in 1964. Regarding the Justis-Bell connection, two artists of particular interest to the 1960s soul record collector are vocal group The Hytones and Sandra King.
In 1963 Eddie Frierson (baritone), Freddie Waters (lead vocal, d. 2000), Arthur “Skeet” Alsup (tenor) formed a group which was later to become The Hytones (also known as The Hy-Tones). All three were students at Cameron High School. Freddie Waters’ father was a Baptist minister. Freddie started singing in his father’s church in Cookeville, TN. After high school graduation from Cameron High he joined the army as part of the entertainment corps, then joined the group when he was discharged.
Within a year of forming as a group, Bob Holmes took them on as manager, and when he was hired as musical director for Night Train he brought The Hytones to the TV show. They would appear on a number of episodes, as themselves and on backing vocals for Peggy Gaines on “One Step”, Sandra King on “Leave It Up To The Boys” and others.
The Hytones’ first vinyl recording was “You Don’t Even Know My Name” (Southern Artists 2023), produced in 1965 and penned by Bob Holmes. Label credits indicate a relationship between the recording and Bill Justis/Tuneville Music Publishing, although whether Bob was a staff writer for Tuneville is unknown. Buzz Cason, who was a paid employee of the company at that point has no recollection. The song almost appeared simultaneously on Bell as catalogue number 627. The Hytones’ recording on either label has remained exceedingly rare; reportedly only one hundred copies on Southern Artists were pressed. Although largely remaining a collector’s favourite only on the northern soul scene, it was popular at Stafford Top of the World all-nighters in the UK in the 1980s when played by DJ Pat Brady, covered up as Lee Otis Valentine and the Lost Souls “I Love You Just The Same”. The second 45 was for Abet, titled “I Got My Baby” (A-Bet 9415), however there is more interest on the soul scene for the flipside “Bigger And Better”. “Bigger And Better” was known to a few soul collectors in the UK in the mid-1970s, though it’s popularity increased in the following decade when there was underground interest for mid-tempo soulful dancers. The record is now a highly sought-after rarity on the northern soul scene.
Sandra King (now Sandra J. Stewart) was sixteen years old when she recorded “Leave It Up To The Boys”:
“I was born Sandra Jean Eubanks in Nashville, 1948, to Lillie McDowell Eubanks Stallworth and Buford Eubanks” says Sandra. “I was one of five children. My grandmother started me singing at age six in church. I hated it because she made me sing “In The Garden” constantly! My grandparents had four daughters and thirty grandchildren. Most are musically oriented. I always liked harmony groups. My mother, older sister Andrea and I always sang together and had beautiful harmony. My mom was part of the gospel group “The Aires of Harmony” which later became the name of the family gospel group.”
Sandra was first spotted by Bob Holmes as he visited local school talent shows, searching for young artists. On one visit to Cameron High he observed Sandra and her best friend Clarice performing on stage:
“We were always performing “Me And My Shadow” and “Be A Clown”. Clarice was taller than me and made the perfect shadow! We were to be part of a group but Bob Holmes decided to have me solo. He became my manager. My voice was more commercial I guess. Each time I went for a session, Bill Justis was there. Bob was known for changing artists’ names. I don’t think The Hytones were actually called that until they started recording. He wanted to call me Erma King! I said NO – no one will know who I am. So they let me keep my first name. I recorded “Leave It Up To The Boys” at the Tuneville studio located on Music Row. The flip side, “Please Heart” was written country, but not my style, so we changed it to fit my voice. Bill would always say “give me some of that funky sound”. The song was played a lot on WVOL radio by DJ Gilly Baby. I was a regular on WLAC TV; Night Train to Nashville aired on Friday and Saturday nights. Everywhere I went guys would start singing and it was sometimes embarrassing. I remember being the youngest when we travelled by revue bus to city after city. I didn’t like being on the road as I was away from family and friends. They wanted my mother to let me move to New York but sixteen was too young and I had seen enough of the business to know it was not for me.”
“Leave It Up To The Boys” (613) was recorded with The Hytones and The Tydes (a.k.a Tides) on backup vocals:
“The Hytones were friends of mine even though they were older. We always performed at the same high school talent shows at Cameron High during the 1960s. Eddie Frierson still resides in Tennessee and owns a barbershop in South Nashville. I saw him the last time we had a reunion at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Tides were best friends; there were three of them though only Linda Page and Linda Everett are on film (Margaret Walker does not appear).”
Sandra remembers there were several late night recordings for Night Train and performing backup for the other entertainers. Most of the time she would only be in the studio with the musicians. During the weekends however, artists such as Jimmy Hendrix, Jackie Wilson and others, would stop en-route to other cities to perform and to record at WLAC. Bob Holmes would also use his singers for commercial jingles for various advertisements. Though she provided soprano backup on the recording of “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” by Patty Page, Sandra didn’t sing with any other groups at that time. She would temporarily step out of the spotlight, being drawn back to the church and taking on the responsibility of raising a family:
“In the late 1960s I started to lose the passion for singing commercial R&B and gradually went back to the church, breaking my contract with Bob Holmes. In the fall of 1968 my son was born. For a short while I was the opening vocalist for The Tyrone Smith Group – my husband at the time played trumpet. While working for the president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, I became a member of The Meharry Singers. I remarried in 1981 to Richard G. Stewart, Jr. I left Nashville in the spring to accompany my husband to California. I had two children; my son James Tauri (from a previous relationship) and daughter, Tanesha Shyvonne Stewart. Tanesha is now a lead soloist on the new AIDA Cruise Ship. People would hear me sing at churches throughout the country (because Richard was a Navy JAG officer and we travelled frequently) and ask if I had ever performed professionally. It was not until a re-release of “Leave It Up To The Boys” that people became aware of my career. Because I started using my married name and I had stopped using my recording name, no one outside Nashville knew my story. As I matured, I started to miss being on stage. Now, I pick and choose if I want to perform.”
The two 1965 releases on Bell by Sandra King and The Hytones were pretty much the full extent of the interconnection between Bob Holmes, Bill Justis and Tuneville, other than the Avon’s “Just As Long As I Live” (Sound Stage 7 45-2561) which came out a year or so later. Justis continued to arrange for major country singers of the day as well as on his own recordings for Mercury subsidiary Smash. In time his career moved toward the cinematic industry; contributing to Elvis film soundtracks, then later created scores for popular films such as Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper.
Regarding The Hytones: Freddie and Eddie performed as a soul duo for a while. Freddie’s career was advanced further when Ted Jarrett and Bob Holmes added him to the roster of their new Ref-O-Ree set up. Six 45s ensued. “Singing A New Song” (Ref-O-Ree 716) in 1969 provided a regional hit for Freddie and received further distribution on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label the following year (Curtom 1952). Other releases through the 1970s included his “Groovin’ On My Baby’s Love” (Stax 0246), released just prior to Stax folding; and the ballad “I’m Afraid To Let You Into My Life” for October records (October 1011). Freddie continued to perform live, on occasion solo and also with The Jimmy Church Revue. His last vinyl release was the LP “Just Enough To Get Me Cool” for the Edinburgh-UK based Move label in the mid 1980s, though he continued to record soul and contemporary blues into the 2000s. Freddie Waters’ last work was the “One Step Closer To The Blues” CD, released posthumously. Skeet Alsup moved to Michigan to work on the car plants in the early 1970s, and was later reported to have been killed in a hit and run incident in Detroit.
Over the last decade or more, a number of masters of previously unreleased Nashville material, including some by The Hytones, have been unearthed by UK-based Kent Records . “Good News” (Kent TOWN 141) was released in 2008 to meet northern soul scene demand after the limited release 100 Club copy (100 Club 29th Anniversary 6T-24). A 10 inch acetate of “Good News” appeared on eBay via a Nashville seller in 2012, containing the flip “Love Is A Strange Thing” which was recorded previously by Freddie Waters on Ref-O-Ree. “Good News” then may have been destined for the label, recorded circa 1968 or 1969. The acetate (which sold for just under $2000) comprised the original backing tracks but with different vocal takes. The latest discovery at the time of writing is “Runaway Girl” leased to Kent via permissions from Eddie Frierson (Kent 37th anniversary special 6T 32), released in 2016.
This article also appears in the book House of Broken Hearts: The Soul of 1960s Nashville by E. Mark Windle (copyright 2018, 2020).Photo courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville.