E. Mark Windle. 16 May 2021
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.”