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).
E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and as a writer for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact: via this site or email@example.com
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.
Gallatin is a tiny rural town in Sumner County, a mere thirty miles from Nashville. Author Ken Abraham noted in More Than Rivals that Gallatin was a typical segregated main street southern town in the 1960s, with segregated drinking fountains, parks and pools and engagement in sports activities. Working class families of both races did interface to some extent, finding themselves experiencing common financial hardship and living conditions, though blacks typically held the lowest paid jobs available in the area. African-American entrepreneurship did gradually create community based services such as taxi services, dry-cleaners, barber shops and restaurants, schools and churches.
However, despite a desegregation ruling of schools in the mid-1950s, full integration in Sumner County wasn’t enforced until 1970. With very few exceptions, black students attended the all-black Union Elementary School, and Union High School from 9th grade upwards. Important for Gallatin’s contribution to R&B and soul music was Randy Wood’s record mailing and label empire. Wood, who would later be owner and president of Dot records, had an interest in making radio sets as a child, and was enlisted as a radio engineer in the military services during the Second World War. After he was discharged, he settled in Gallatin to open an electrical equipment store, which sold a few records initially as a side line. He quickly saw the potential in catering for white teenagers coming into the store looking for R&B records. The focus of his business turned to mail order. By the early 1950s Randy Wood started his own record label, Dot, recording country, gospel and R&B singers. Through the 1960s, collaborative working with WLAC radio programmes also meant most records plugged on the station would be available for mail order largely from Randy in Gallatin, or Ernie Young in Nashville.
The Gallatin-based Southern City label may have had limited output, but was one example of how the town’s black community was able to combine local musical talent (singers, producers and song-writers) within a business enterprise. The Paramount Four vocal group are of particular interest to the northern soul scene and to deep soul collectors.
Baritone Caldwell Jenkins Jr. (b. 1943) was born and raised in Gallatin: “I was born into a poor family and lived in a city which didn’t provide many jobs for black men. My family was a Christian family with different denominations between us but that did not seem to matter. My mother, aunts and uncles were always singing in churches and gospel groups. My aunt and uncle were part of the Straightway Gospel Singers. As a child I developed my interest in music at church, in high school and by listening to the family and the radio. The Paramount Four initially consisted of myself, William Earl ‘Cat’ Turner (lead vocal; b. 1943 d. 2012), Sonny Brown (bass vocal) and Robert Lee Alexander (tenor/lead). We went to school together in Gallatin. Brown and Alexander were drafted to the military before we started recording, and so we picked up James Wallace Simpson (tenor) and William Ellis Johnson (bass).”
Cat Turner graduated from Union High School, Class of 1961, and was enlisted in the United States Air Force where he was a part of a traveling singing group for a year before he was honourably discharge and returned to Tennessee.
“Motown was the big ticket at that time” Caldwell continues. “We all wanted to be the next group to make a name for ourselves. There was a club on every corner. The Paramount Four performed at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville and at clubs and colleges in and around Tennessee and Kentucky. Harold and Jean Gilbert who set up the Southern City label were also from Gallatin and went to the same school as us. We had hoped we could all make it together, and they asked us to appear on their label.”
“Harold and I knew each other since 1st grade” remembers Jean Gilbert. “His family had moved from Murray, Kentucky to Gallatin. We were always together from elementary school through high school to graduation. I was from a musical family – my mother sang, and my Daddy was the minister. I developed a desire to sing in the church and play piano.”
Likewise, Harold Gilbert was from a musical family. His sister would teach him how to play the piano and organ, and by high school he was also a competent trumpet player. Hal and Jean had already been played together in a high school band at sock hops and proms. In 1958, just after Hal’s father death, they married.
The couples’ first recording as Hal and Jean was a take on James Brown and the Famous Flames’ 1959 hit “Try Me”, appearing on a local custom label (Miki 1313). The flip “You Better Change” was reminiscent of Ray Charles’ R&B song “What I’d Say”. The Miki 45 drew enough interest to receive a three star popularity rating by Billboard in April 1963. Their chance with a major label came with “Hey You Standing There” / “Don’t Tell Me Lies” (Capitol 5041), released later that year. Billboard assigned a ‘four star’ popularity rating. Hal was inspired to set up his own label.
“His family had a restaurant and he had a small recording studio there” says Jean. “That’s how Southern City got started. The Paramount Four were Union High School students like us. Harold didn’t find them, they found him. Wherever Harold’s combo group would be playing and they would ask to sing. They didn’t have any gigs or original songs at that time. So when he found out they wanted to record, he wrote some material and recorded them. William Turner was their lead vocalist, but all of them were leaders in their own right. Each one of them bought the same amount of talent to the group.”
Southern City Records and the publishing company Hitsburgh Music Co. operated at 157 Ford Avenue, Gallatin, TN 37066. The first record for the label would be the instrumental “Blue Tears”, with Hal billed as ‘The Trumpet King’, cut with ‘Blues Queen’ Jean’s “I’m The World’s Gift To Man” as the flip (Southern City 1110).
The second Southern City release would be The Poodles “Step By Step” / “I Got A Good Thing (When I Got You)” (Southern City 1111/1112). Jean Gilbert has confirmed the Poodles were a girl group out of Murray, Kentucky; consisting of sisters Marilyn and Sue Cogdill and their cousin Sharon Cunningham, from Harold’s hometown. He knew they wanted to sing and wanted a hit record so he encouraged them to record. The low-fi recording of “Step By Step” is explained by the fact that it was only ever intended to be a demo, recorded in a Gallatin studio. Hal Gilbert’s plan was to re-record at a Nashville studio and had a string of other songs planned for them. In the end however, this was to be their only release.
No 45 release against catalogue number 1113 exists, and it is unclear whether this number was assigned to material which may have been recorded but unissued. “You Don’t Know (Till It Happens To You)” backed with “I’ve Made Up My Mind” (Southern City 1114 / 1115) by the Paramount Four was recorded in 1967 in a long forgotten studio in Nashville. Harold Gilbert provided the musical arrangements and played on both tracks. The Fantastic Dukes, comprising local musicians from Gallatin, Lebanon and Murfreesboro were the group’s regular back-up band when performing, and also provided the instrumentation on the session. Cat Turner sang lead on both sides. Robert “Bobby” Brinkley, credited with co-writing “You Don’t Know”, previously had a minor hit with a version of “Tobacco Road” (Monument 45-803). He also recorded the self-penned soul rarity “Would It Matter” in 1964 with The Squires (Squire S-602). The Detroit influence is very evident on “You Don’t Know”; a comparison to The Temptations’ “I’m Losing You” (released the previous year) -reinforcing Gilbert, Brinkley and the group’s desire to emulate the Motown sound. The contrasting flip is a searing emotional deep soul effort, set at a funeral pace and peppered with vocal harmony. “You Don’t Know” did receive some airplay on WVOL and WLAC and was distributed via Randy Woods’ Gallatin record store as well as Nashville outlets. The eventual pressing run quantity is unknown but clearly low given its persistent rarity to this day.
In the UK, the exposure of “You Don’t Know” was associated with DJ Pat Brady. The record was initially covered up as the “Lost Souls” and played on the northern soul scene in the mid to late 1980s. The ballad flip also appeals to some collectors in the US associated with the low rider scene.
Sometime after the recording, Cat Turner was involved in an accident, leaving him out of the group whilst they performed throughout Tennessee with Caldwell as lead. Cat who had married in 1964, had a family to look after and was now a carrier for the US postal service. Eventually the group returned from their travels to the studio in Nashville around 1970, this time under the direction of Bob Holmes. “There were some bad business deals made by people involved with the Southern City release” says Caldwell. “The Paramount Four and the label suffered for it. Our record was blackballed and the radio stations stopped playing it. The group had some dates with Bob Holmes from earlier shows, and he knew about the problems. That’s how ‘Sorry Ain’t The Word’ came about.”
Caldwell Jenkins took lead on this track and also on a ballad called “You Must Leave Her Because You Love Her”. These recordings remained unreleased until both eventually surfaced after Kent Records in the UK secured the masters. “Sorry Ain’t The Word” was released as a 45 initially in 2010 (31st Kent Anniversary Special 6T 26) then more recently (Kent Select; City 021). “You Must Leave Her Because You Love Her” has appeared on CD “Deep Shadows: The Best Of Kent Ballads” (CD KEND 342). Caldwell reports that no other tracks were recorded by the group.
Surviving members at the time of writing other than Caldwell include William Johnson and James Simpson, who all live around Nashville and Gallatin. Cat Turner spent thirty-four years in the US postal service as a supervisor, though he continued to perform as part of Bill Turner and the Marksmen. He passed away a few years ago, aged sixty-nine years. Caldwell Jenkins continues to sing with Cat Turner’s younger brothers in a gospel group called the Turner Brothers.
Harold Gilbert would continue both the label and publishing company in later years, though the Southern City label lay dormant until 1975 when the odd ball release by The Fox Sex “Got To Get Back In His Arms” / “(You Know) I Really Love You” (Southern City 1116), recorded in Hendersonville would mark the final release.
Jean Gilbert continues: “As the duo Hal and Jean, that put us in the company of other singers and musicians. Whenever they would have a Rhythm and Blues show in Nashville and surrounding areas our manager would get us on the billing with the likes of Dionne Warwick, Jackie Wilson, The Fascinations, The Chiffons and others. Harold also got us some engagements himself. It was all coming together, but I got really tired and dropped out. Harold found some new singers and he was able to carry on. I went back to doing what I really enjoyed doing; singing in church.”
Hal (again with Bobby Brinkley) appeared on the writing credits of Willie Hobbs’ blues / deep soul recording “(Please) Don’t Let Me Down” in 1972 (Seventy 7 77-113). He continued with the publishing company Hitsburgh Music Co. as the final business focus, catering for gospel and country music. Hal Gilbert passed away in December 2014.
This article originally appeared in the book House of Broken Hearts by E. Mark Windle. Copyright E. Mark Windle (2018, 2020)
COVID and lockdown has given the soul music community a lot of time to reflect on the state of the scene; not only on how the pandemic is shaping the social landscape, but also on changing musical directions. Regardless of individual sub-genre preference, the constant for many is the need to access rare, newly discovered and unreleased recordings. More than ever then, the independent record label industry is an essential vehicle bringing new music to the people, whether in the form of previously unissued sounds from previous decades or more contemporary recordings. With that in mind, August saw the release of Ike Perry and the Lyrics’ “God Must Have Sent You To Me” / “I’m Just A Man”, representing the inaugural vinyl release of the new Scottish label, North Broad Street Records.
On the basis of that release and insight into the abundance of other material already lined up, there is little doubt that North Broad Street Records will prove to be a serious contender in the independent soul label game. The intention is to present an extensive catalogue of previously unreleased material, sourced from acetates and master-tape, alongside very occasional re-releases of rare 45s from the soul arena. Let’s be clear, there are strictly no pigeonholing or restrictions on sub-genres here, just damn fine soul music. The label has already secured enough recordings to keep busy for years, and is committed to continuing the search for yet more elusive and exclusive product. Project manager Colin Law and director John Buckley are keen to stress that the artists, producers and writers will be recognised, respected and looked after as far as possible.
Colin and John are familiar names on the soul scene. Colin’s prominence as a DJ on the rare soul scene is undeniable. He recalls his love of the genre starting at age fifteen. Later, Clouds, Edinburgh and the Casino’s 6th Anniversary would provide all-nighter initiation; from then on he was well and truly bitten by the bug. DJ spots were soon secured at the Yarmouth weekender, Glenrothes YMCA, then Shotts, Blackburn, Whitchurch and Mexborough. Stateside trips with Jock O’Connor to Miami and numerous others with Guy Hennigan through the 1980s and early 1990s were a continual source of rare soul, new discoveries and opportunities for networking. Pre–internet, things were done the hard way; arm yourself with a copy of Goldmine and search out potential treasure chests from the classifieds and private ads. Great finds often came via a combination of luck, educated guessing and blind buys; but the trips were also an opportunity for networking with artists and old industry players.
John’s introduction to soul came around the late sixties and early seventies, when he was drawn into the developing scene as a young teenager. Musical influences as a teenager included Motown, commercial soul sounds of the day and a chance backstage encounter with First Choice, who were hitting the big time with “Armed And Extremely Dangerous”. By the mid 1970s he was frequenting the Sombrero and the Casino. These venues provided the motivation to organise soul nights and all-dayers with Neil McKillop in and around his East Lothian hometown. In the following decade, family responsibilities and business activities intermittently kept him away from the scene but the love for the music remained. In the 1990s there was a return in force:
“I’d explore around New York and Chicago on record-hunting trips from my other base in Florida” says John. “I was picking up some ‘northern’ sounds but also more deep soul, funk, mid-tempo, modern and crossover. Of the big venues, the Mecca had informed my taste; I felt that at least at one point in time there seemed to be was more musical diversity there than what I had experienced at the Casino. I was never a fan really of 100mph stompers or the pop of Wigan when it was at its worst.”
The idea to create a record label initially cropped up while Colin and John were on a record-hunting trip last April. By the turn of 2020, it had become a serious topic of conversation.
“We were both into the same kind thing, including under the radar or completely obscure mid-tempo and crossover” says Colin. “I already had a few acetates in my collection and we had just picked up the Ike Perry stuff. The label idea was a natural progression from my whole DJ experience and the record hunting; I’m always looking for something new. For me, North Broad Street is another way I can share these recordings with like-minded people. The whole concept just grew arms and legs. The recent lockdown because of COVID actually gave us the chance to push ahead with it – we got the label design and website sorted and started going down the pressing route. John and I are in this together as a 50:50 working partnership. We each have our own ideas and input for the label and the releases but we communicate well. There’s no stifling of ideas.”
Why North Broad Street? Those in the know will be aware 1618 North Broad Street was the home of Frank Virtue’s Virtue Studios, the legendary Philly outlet of so much quality soul through the 1960s and beyond. Indeed, one wall of the studio in Dalkeith where the Underground Grooves show is produced (another brainchild of the guys) presents floor-to-ceiling photographic imagery of Virtue. Whilst they can’t recall exactly why the name stuck, John had originally come up with the idea of using a studio address. Colin had also already visited Virtue with DJ and collector Guy Hennigan on a US trip in the late 1980s.
The boys go to great pains to emphasise that quality must always prevail in the recordings selected for the label, the re-mixing, vinyl pressing and aesthetic presentation of the final product. They are also keen to ensure catalogue diversity and one that reflects their own tastes. Northern, sweet soul, crossover, modern, soulful disco, funk, deep and ballads – as long as it’s soulful, nothing genre wise is off-limits. Pressing runs will be limited to 350 copies per release.
Regarding the featured artists: Isaac “Ike” Perry first started out with the Five Lyrics, a doo-wop group who first recorded for the Berkeley, California label Music City. They then appeared on Mama (Isaac’s own Cleveland-based imprint). As Ike Perry and The Lyrics, they played the circuit well into the next decade, appearing on various New York and Dallas labels while performing on the road. For the first release on North Broad Street Records, Ike’s return to the studio in Cleveland in the early 1970s was represented, when he recorded some tracks which had originally been conceived in the previous decade. “God Must Have Sent You To Me” is a crossover dance floor winner, and is backed with the sweet soul sound of “I Am Just A Man”, demonstrating the close harmonies of The Lyrics.
So, what’s next? As a taster, the follow-up scheduled for release before Christmas features a Brill Building song-writing pair:
Rose Marie McCoy found her niche in the mid-1950s as a songwriter, producer and publishing company owner. One of the few entrepreneurial, independent and highly respected women of the time in her industry, Rose spent the 1960s largely based in the offices of New York’s Brill Building. At one point she would commute fortnightly from her Brill Building office to Detroit as lyricist for Golden World, Revilot and other local labels, with credits appearing on the iconic “Our Love is in the Pocket”, “I’m Spellbound” and many others. In typical Brill Building style, Rose also partnered with the musicianship and composing talents of Helen Miller, who was also notable for song-writing collaborations with soul artists including Freddie Scott, Tommy Hunt and Chuck Jackson at Scepter-Wand, and Timi Yuro. Rose and Helen would work together through the rest of the decade and into the mid seventies; providing songs for Barbara Lewis, Lenny Welch, Maxine Brown, Jerry Butler, Sarah Vaughan and others. For the next North Broad Street project then, the lush, early ballad “Teardrops and Heartaches” is presented from this dynamic duo. Sourced from a McCoy–Miller songwriter acetate, this recording was likely intended for another artist. The demo is a soulful interpretation of a song originally written by Rosalie Long, and may well have been the precursor for the 1970 New Directions LP track on Neptune, featuring Terri Bryant, or for another artist.
“For the flip of the next North Broad Street release, we’ll be featuring a track with tragic surroundings that touched our hearts” says Colin. “Bruce Cloud had a few top northern soul sounds, including some recordings on Era and the popcorn / R&B / mod winner “Soul Mambo”. The song in question here is “Where Did We Go Wrong”, from one of his last visits to the recording studio. Around this time Bruce had become disillusioned with the music industry, and had run into financial and personal difficulties. He suffered severe mental health issues, which ultimately led to suicide. His story has a personal resonance for me. I lost my best friend through mental health issues; someone who first introduced me in to this wonderful music scene. North Broad Street Records will be supporting the UK charity MIND financially through this next release.”
Other future projects for North Broad Street Records include rare and unreleased recordings from Tony Hestor, Mack Rice, Cynthia and the Imaginations, Johnny Gilliam, The Passions and Billy Kennedy to name but a few.
Rather neatly, North Broad Street adds a further dimension to the unleashing of rare and unissued soul through their fortnightly soul show. The label’s activities come under the banner of John’s media company A State of Mind. Underground Grooves is broadcast from the State of Mind podcast and recording studio based in Dalkeith, featuring Colin, John and invited guests. As well as vehicle for promoting their own new releases, it intends to cover soul music in all its forms, including releases from other contemporary / retrospective independent labels.
With these exciting projects, North Broad Street is a welcome addition to the eclectic, soulful family of long standing and more recently established indies making their mark such as Cannonball, Hit and Run, Hayley, Soul Junction, Diggin’ Deep, MD Records, Hayley, Big Man Records and others. Given the current global crisis and concerns regarding the future of our soul music scene venues, rest assured that all these entrepreneurs are helping to shape and drive the new phase. Recently there appears to be a genuine upward shift among the wider soul music community for appreciation of independent label output, with customers valuing not only quality but also the collectability of releases. On occasion, even encouraging us to think musically outside the box. A cliché hard to avoid these days, but our new normal perhaps?
The passing of Edwin James Balbier a couple of years ago went virtually unnoticed in UK northern scene circles: indeed few outside of the industry will recall his name. Yet, this individual would be the unwitting driving force behind one of the most popular (if brief) soul re-issue label imprints of the 1970s, even if it was the company’s younger soul music enthusiast employees who shaped the nature of the label arm of the operation.
Balbier’s initial interests did not lie in soul music, but more generally in the oldies market. Born in 1930, the Philadelphian had an early career in the US Air Force, then turned to retail and wholesale record business in Philly in the 1960s. Balbier arrived on UK shores in 1971 with his familial entourage of nine children to explore making a living in record importing and sales. The move to Manchester in 1971 wasn’t an overnight success, but he was a determined man with a strong work ethic and a desire to provide the best for his large family.
“Global Records was one of the first companies to import records into the UK” comments Rick Cooper, one-time employee of Ed Balbier’s empire. “Ed owned a couple of record stores in Philly in the early 60s. By the mid-60s he was a distributor of indie labels and then moved into the oldies and deletions business. Somehow, he must have found out that his warehouse full of old records was worth more in the UK than the US. Maybe UK collectors started turning up at his warehouse. Global was set up in a small basement on Corporation Street in Manchester city centre. His eldest son Eddie Jr. stayed in Philly keeping the house going and the warehouse operating. Ed never set out to specialise in northern soul. His main business was country, rock and pop albums and oldies singles. However he knew it was worth employing someone who could pick the titles that were in demand. Derek Howe was one of the first to work there, then Barry Tasker and Richard Searling. Barry was one of the best DJs in the early days and gave Richard his big break at Manchester’s Pendulum Club. I landed a part time job at Global and was full time by 1973. By then Balbier had moved to larger premises on Princess St. and finally to the whole basement of an office block off Oxford St. This was about the size of a football pitch and could hold a huge number of records.”
Global’s first priority was to establish the importing side of its business:
“Balbier would go to the States every five or six weeks. He’d stay in Philly and use the warehouse as a collection and packing facility. Two or three times a year he would send a container by sea freight instead of the usual air freight. These would be filled with anything he picked up cheap, both singles and albums. I don’t know where he bought them from but was probably smart enough not to buy anything that had already been picked clean. The singles always had some great stuff but not massive quantities. I wouldn’t have time to play every unknown title so probably missed some good stuff. Also northern soul was still a fairly narrow genre so even playing everything I couldn’t have predicted the future moves through mid-tempo, beat ballads, R&B and funk-edged soul. The best container had multiple copies of Eddie Spencer, Tobi Lark, Mikki Farrow, Jimmy Soul Clarke and most of the Miracle label. ‘One-offs’ I remember were the International GTOs, Gwen and Ray, and Michael and Raymond. I got quite a few unknowns but just kept them rather than selling them to DJs. Several of these eventually received plays at Stafford all-nighters and beyond.
Rick Cooper (right) at the TK studio in Miami (1977) with Francis “Mr Tee” Thomas (photo courtesy of Rick Cooper).
I went to the States with Balbier a couple of times. This should have been a dream come true but was very disappointing. I would have to get up very early, be driven up to eighty miles to huge warehouses full of albums, spend eight hours sorting boxes looking for country and rock music, then get back late at night, exhausted. On my last trip with Global to the States, I was sent on my own. Another employee called Will, was already there. He was living in the Philly warehouse, sleeping in a tiny little room with instructions to never leave after dark. I flew in and was met by Ed’s son. As it was late, I stayed with him that night at the family house in the suburbs. Next day I got the train to inner city Philly to meet Will. As I was leaving the train station a young man approached me, asking the time. Being a young naive Brit I stopped to tell him. He grabbed my jacket, pulled out my wallet, took the contents and calmly walked off. No guns, knives or any violence so I wasn’t too bothered especially as it wasn’t my money he took. I got to look through books of mug shots at the police station and ride around in a cop car looking for the guy, but we didn’t find him. The warehouse work involved a ten- or eleven-hour day sorting albums with hardly any time to look for singles – even though there were thousands. Also it was February and -15C at night. All I wanted to do was keep warm with a beer in that tiny office. Looking back I should have spent time going through some of paperwork and files.”
Back in Manchester the imported sales were doing well. Record collectors would turn up at the huge basement location to pick up old recordings and to see what had just been imported, and mail order facility was provided. An occasional mail order list was available for customers with around a dozen pages of singles and albums. Ed Balbier focussed on the numbers end of the business, whilst day to day sales and customer contact were left to his employees. Balbier quickly become suspicious if any large orders were received. Panicking that the product was under-priced, items would routinely be marked as “out of stock” until the next list, by which time the price tag would be increased.
“The titles in large quantities were listed for wholesale to shops and northern titles listed on a ‘specials’ list. There was also loads of other stock that was lying around. Some of this had been roughly sorted by artist for unlisted collectors’ stock. The idea was that if someone asked what they had by, say James Brown, it was easy to find a large selection. This proved handy when something started getting played by a known artist on the northern scene. I got “Landslide” as soon as Ian Levine played it by simply going to the Tony Clarke section. Same for The Coasters’ “Crazy Baby”, Gene Chandler’s “Mr Big Shot” and The Van Dykes on Mala. Barry Tasker and Richard Searling got plenty of good stuff before me, so it was really when new stock arrived that I got the best records.”
So to the label arm of Global Records. Back in the 1960s Balbier was not entirely unaware of the soul music market as he distributed a number of independent labels back in Philadelphia, including stock running into the thousands of The Precisions’ “If This Is Love” on Drew. Balbier’s professional connections with Bernie Binnick, owner of Swan Records would be the root of the inception of Global’s foray into label releases and the eventual Cream imprint. Ed had acquired some Swan material from Bernie on ¼” mono tapes and ½” studio masters. Rick Cooper took the tapes to a former BBC sound engineer in Altringham who had facilities to deal the ½” tape. The engineer mixed the material including some instrumental versions of particular tracks and pressed up some 2-3 acetates of each track.
Global’s first two pressings replicated the Swan logo, as part of the requirement of the agreed licencing contract. These were The Guys From Uncle “The Spy” (UK Swan S-4240), a popular Wigan Casino instrumental at the time, and The Modern Redcaps “Never Too Young To Fall In Love” (UK Swan S-4243).
As these sold well, Ed Balbier supported Rick’s idea to set up a label dedicated to releasing further content. There was still Swan material left to utilise, and a new label imprint meant that sourced from other labels could be considered. With that, Cream was born.
Swan output was further represented via Eddie Carlton “It Will Be Done” (Cream 5001), which was mixed from a four-track session master tape. The instrumental version was chosen to replace “Misery” which appeared on the original 45. Cream 5003 would complete the Swan product, featuring The Jaywalkers’ up-tempo “Can’t Live Without You”, and on the flip, an instrumental version of Sheila Ferguson’s “Heartbroken Memories”.
James Fountain’s “Seven Day Lover” (CRM 5002) would be Cream’s biggest seller. Rick felt the time was right to choose this as the inaugural release. In many ways a ground breaker for the northern soul scene with its heavy funk bassline, it was near the peak of its popularity with the original Peachtree format being played by DJs at various events across the country. The time was also right to market a legitimate reissue as demand had not been affected by bootlegging.
Courtesy of Rick Cooper.
“William Bell owned the Peachtree recordings. He wasn’t exactly hard to get a hold of, being a public figure. I contacted him by letter, we drew up a contract. The contract was fairly simple. He confirmed he had the right to licence out the recording. Global agreed to pay an advance and an amount per record when sales had covered the advance. The rights were exclusive for three years. We started pressing and did lot of promotional work was done on this one. Advertisements were placed in Black Echoes and Black Music magazines. We even tried to get national distribution through the major labels, including CBS. In the end they didn’t want to commit, so we supplied directly though Global. Some high street shops picked it up also, like HMV and Boots. The first pressing run of 5000 sold within a week, so we followed it up with another 5000, and then another 2-3000. We must have sold up to 11000 in the end.”
Courtesy of Rick Cooper.
Enter American #2; Irving Weinroth. Irving, a local Judge and his son had been co-owners of the US Party Time label in the 1960s, which had featured the Showstoppers on “Ain’t Nothin’ But A House Party” and The Four Perfections “I’m Not Strong Enough”. Both groups were known on the UK northern soul scene for these recordings and would make easy choices for release.
“He was the person I dealt with for leasing The Showstoppers and The Four Perfections” says Rick. “At the time Irving was out of the record industry. He told me that the Party Time label had been set up for his son some years before. I guess Irving provided the money to try to get his son into the record business. I met him at the North Broad St. warehouse in Philly. He mentioned the producer listed on the Four Perfections record, Kip Gainsborough, was a made-up name from Kip their dog and the street they lived on. Maybe they did this to hide some-one under contract to another label, who knows. He gave me a copy of the Four Perfections and a couple of unreleased Showstoppers tracks. The instrumental version of “I’m Not Strong Enough” on the flip of the Cream release was mixed at Grand Prix studios by Walt Khan, the producer of Life’s “Tell Me Why”.”
Johnny Jones and the King Kasuals’ funked-up version of “Purple Haze” would see a simultaneous release in 1976 on both UK Brunswick and Cream:
“Around the same time, “Purple Haze” was becoming popular in the northern clubs. The original US Brunswick stated it was a Peachtree record, produced by William Bell, not a Peachtree recording (the usual term). We felt this inferred that Peachtree retained more ownership than merely producing the record. I asked William if we could licence “Purple Haze” for release on Cream in the UK. He told us he had owned the recording, so we exchanged contracts and had the record pressed. About two weeks later Decca issued “Purple Haze” on UK Brunswick. We sought legal advice and informed Decca that we had exclusive rights to release the record, through William Bell. The only way we could prove this claim was to refer to William Bell’s contract with US Brunswick. I phoned him and said he’d try to find it. Time was running out as Decca was already selling their record as well as threatening a court injunction. I was on the phone to William Bell every day for about a week to see if he had found the contract. Eventually we decided to withdraw our release of the record as the contract couldn’t be located. I don’t know if Ed Balbier sorted the money side with Bell, maybe he refunded the advance. Whatever, I don’t remember any animosity between Global and William Bell.
One of the DJ’s from Amsterdam used to take any deep soul stuff I had at Global. Millie’s records bought loads. Loads of the stuff sold by Global to the Netherlands was originally surplus stock we’d bought from John Anderson’s Soul Bowl. I was sent three or four times in the mid 70’s to Norfolk in the largest van you could drive without an HGV licence. John Anderson took me to what looked like an old village primary school a few miles out of King’s Lynn. This was packed with 45’s. We loaded up the van as much as possible paying about 1p per disc. Back at Global I’d play through them and send samples off to customers in Holland. They would order hundreds at 75p each. We must have got tens of thousands of records from Soul Bowl but not one was in any way ‘northern soul’. John must have been the most thorough dealer of them all. Most people would have let a few slip through. One load was the remains of his Sue/Symbol/Eastern label buy. We also approached William Bell again for a contract to press one thousand copies of Mitty Collier’s “Share What You Got / I’d Like To Change Places” (UK Peachtree P 122) from the original master tape, to sell to the Netherlands. A few copies of that ended up in HMV in Manchester, the rest went to Millies.
Courtesy of Rick Cooper.
“I left Global after a disagreement with Ed Balbier just after The Showstoppers’ record came out on Cream” continues Rick Cooper. “I’d done the work on the record. It was getting good reviews in the music press and I had been busy sending out promos. Ed then told me that the record, and all previous releases on Cream, were to be sold at the top price charged for US issues and not the same as the usual UK label price. From memory I think this would be 75p instead of 59p. This would mean the price in the shops would be at least £1.25, same as US pressings. This to me was crazy as the whole point of setting up the label was to get records into the big chains such as Boots, HMV, Smiths and Woolworths. They would have never allowed one label’s singles to sell at higher prices. If Ed wanted the higher price it would have been simpler just to get the records from the US via the owner or label. We did this for plenty of titles- Carstairs, Oscar Perry, Nasco, Jamie Guyden etc. These sold well in specialist shops but were not really worth issuing on Cream. This is how Inferno, Grapevine, Selectadisc and Black Magic worked it with their records, so I couldn’t understand why Ed thought he could do it differently. We also stocked The Showstoppers’ original record in large quantities at Global, so what was the point of the Cream release. Seemed bloody stupid. I left Global in 1976 and sold most of my own collection to fund a trip to the States. Global would eventually close in the late 1980s. Yanks was the name used for the retail part of the Manchester warehouse, situated in the same premises but set out more like a shop with records in racks. His son, Gregg, was more involved with this but this was after I’d left. Roger Banks helped Ed sort out and price up the stock as northern started its comeback”
So, the epilogue: Much of the remaining stock and tapes were eventually sold to Rollercoaster Records, where Dave Flynn remembers initially stored the stock in an artic lorry trailer in a field before moving indoors to a low-ceiling basement , underneath a ladies clothing store in Cirencester. Robinson’s Records also apparently accrued some of the stock. Ed Balbier returned to the US, around ten years after his first wife Anna had passed away. He retired from the business in the 1980s, settling in Denver, Colorado but still took the time to travel the world. He passed away in September 2018, aged 87. His obituary reads: “Edwin is survived by his second wife Gloria, his nine children, eleven grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He will be remembered for his demanding work ethic, love of travel and decaf mocha!”
Copyright 2020 E. Mark Windle and Soul Music Stories e-zine.
Acknowledgements: Rick Cooper, Richard Searling, Pete Smith, Roger Banks, Neil Rushton, Ian Cunliffe, Dave Flynn, Dave Moore. An earlier article on the Global / Cream history also appeared in Soul Up North magazine (editor Howard Earnshaw).
Among other genres, Elvis Presley was informed by the blues. Even as a young teenager, the songs he heard on Beale Street were a source of significant musical inspiration. And it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that his interpretation of Arthur Crudup’s blues number “That’s All Right” helped kick-start the teenage rock ‘n’ roll revolution. But if that’s true, then “Hound Dog” provided the pace. It was almost inevitable that Elvis’ take on the song, which sold ten million copies worldwide, would overshadow the original version and the story of the woman who originally recorded it.
“Big Mama” Thornton was a fiercely independent woman; often described as intimidating due to her physical frame and demeanour. Her personality may well have been a result of nature and nurture, given her difficult childhood and early adult years. In the context of the 1950s for a black female singer to break from the gender stereotype and stand out in a male dominated industry, a no-nonsense disposition was surely essential. In many ways, Thornton was a pioneer.
Willie (born Willa) Mae Thornton was born in 1926 in the tiny rural town of Ariton, seventy miles from Montgomery, Alabama. This was a time when gender rights barely existed and racial oppression in the areas was the norm. First exposed to music via spirituals and gospel music at her father’s Baptist church, she learned to sing and play the harmonica and drums. Willie Mae had to compete with six other siblings in the household, and left home at fourteen years of age after her mother died prematurely, taking up menial jobs at a local drinking establishment. One evening she was given the opportunity to substitute for a local singer who failed to turn up, and her love for the blues developed from there. Big Mama Thornton hit the road with Sammy Green’s Georgia-based Hot Harlem Revue for the next eight years.
After a relocation to Houston, Thornton was signed to Peacock. Label owner Don Robey was known as a ruthless businessman, yet aspiring singers would continue to flock to the label in the knowledge that Peacock and its subsidiaries had the biggest roster of gospel and blues acts in the south. Robey’s connections also ensured excellent national record distribution. During her tenure with Peacock there was the opportunity to perform in R&B package tours across the country with Junior Parker, Esther Philips and others.
The 12-bar blues song “Hound Dog” was recorded under the studio supervision of song-writing duo Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller. Stoller was approached by Johnny Otis, who’d been tasked by Don Robey to find a hit for Thornton. Leiber and Stoller found her a formidable character:
“In her combat boots and oversize overalls, she was pretty frightening. There was something monstrous about Big Mama, but I wasn’t looking at her that way. We saw her as the perfect instrument for deadly blues that we relished. We knocked the song out in a couple of minutes; it just happened like lightening. We knew as they say in the south, that this dog would hunt. ‘Hound Dog’ had just the right amount of country-funk that the lady embodied.”
It reached number one in the Billboard R&B charts in 1953 and stayed there for seven weeks; a perfect vehicle for Big Mama’s growling vocal delivery. Half a million copies were sold in the first three months alone but there was little financial reward—a trend running throughout the most of her career. Even Leiber and Stoller didn’t initially benefit. Johnny Otis put his name to the song as composer and had falsely informed Don Robey that he had power of attorney to sign for Leiber and Stoller. As Leiber and Stoller were underage, their parents signed a new contract with Robey, and a cheque was eventually received for $1,200. It bounced. The situation was remedied for the song-writing duo three years later however, when a young white rock ‘n’ roll singer from Memphis recorded the song and “Hound Dog” hit the stratosphere.
That song would be Thornton’s musical peak in terms of Billboard chart success, but it wasn’t the end of her singing career. She tried out a number of record labels around L.A. and San Francisco in the 1960s and took on a European tour with the American Folk Blues Festival while under contract with the Arhoolie label. England embraced visiting blues singers, through an appreciation of the genre by home-grown bands like The Rolling Stones, The Animals and the Yardbirds. Thornton was among the first female US blues singers to perform there.
Three albums were released on Arhoolie, with the final one “Ball and Chain” presenting the title track and an up-tempo version of the spiritual-cum-underground railroad song “Wade in the Water”; the 45 format of course an in-demand R&B collector’s item. “Ball and Chain” was an original Thornton composition but once again the song was popularised by another singer; Janis Joplin. Joplin did acknowledge Willie Mae as a major influence, crediting her as the writer, and contrary to what is frequently reported in other bios, some royalties did come her way. Through the 1970s Willie Mae took part in more live tours including the American Folk Blues Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, appearing alongside Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and other blues masters.
“Sassy Mama” was her final album, recorded for Vanguard Records in 1975. She continued to perform until the end of the decade, but inevitably the physical consequences of alcohol dependency which ran through most of her adult life would start to take hold. For the most part, Thornton didn’t perceive it as a “struggle” against alcohol. But she suffered progressive issues related to liver disease and her large frame, losing over 200lbs through illness and finally succumbing to a heart attack on July 25, 1984 in Los Angeles. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in the same year.
Copyright 2021. E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and as a writer for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact: via this site or firstname.lastname@example.org
“To us, back in 1968 Nashville was all country. Not a place for our stuff” recalls Gerald Fleming of Georgia’s Athens Rogues. “Especially the soul part. Producer and musician and label owner Pete Drake really took a huge chance on us. We guess we were the first of our kind; the thing that made us stick out was that we were a rock ‘n’ roll and soul band, made up of a bunch of white kids from Athens, with a recording contract out of Nashville!”
Athens Rogues were founded circa 1967, with most members former High School pals including Gerald Fleming (lead vocal, keyboards), Glenn Brown (vocal, lead guitar), Jim Cleveland (vocal, rhythm guitar), Bill Walker (drums), Dennis Carter (bass), Terry McGee (trombone), John “JB” Barrett (trumpet), and Larry Moor (saxophone). Pre “Athens” Rogues included David Woods on saxophone and vocals. Prom bookings and University of Georgia frat parties a speciality.
“JB (on trumpet) and I were close friends at Athens High. I graduated a year before him. We were both trumpet players in the high school band. I went on to the university and into the college band on trumpet, actually my primary instrument for years. I didn’t see the guys for a bit. New scene, you know. JB and the guys and I had never played together in any other setting other than academic at that point. I had been performing with a band throughout my high school years that was very successful regionally. That band had been initially built by my brother Horace, who was five years my senior and a killer trumpet player/singer, called The Rhythm Rockers. The Rockers were working every week and booked as much as a year in advance – that was pretty awesome back then, and I felt like I was swimming around in money. Then, after a four year run, my brother decided to drop out of The Rhythm Rockers to pursue his PhD up at Vanderbilt. BAMM! End of that. There I was with a ton of gigs and connections around the region, but with a band that no longer had its signature sound.
My mom had mentioned that Johnny and some of the old band guys had been practicing at the navy school, and that they had a bunch of horns. She suggested maybe I could talk to them about siding for me with The Rhythm Rockers while I looked for a replacement for my brother. JB and the guys had sounded pretty good, raw as hell but good, and I had always liked the ones of Johnny’s guys that I knew. They had a different sax man jamming with them, David Woods, who is one of the really good guys you meet in life. Playing rock ‘n’ roll would be fun. I loved horn sections. I wanted a chance to play keyboard, write big arrangements and had a pretty advanced keyboard rig for the day, as I was training at the time to play classical piano. We started a dialog about the possibilities and the next thing you know I made an arrangement with the cats that played for me in the Rhythm Rockers. I gave them a ton of gigs and let them keep the name until done. That saw the birth of The Rogues, as we were called then. The “Athens” delineation came later.
You remember the highlights the rest of your life. But mostly the good parts. It’s easy to remember some of The Rogues stuff because of the rather surprising chain of events in such a brief period of time. Whereas we were not the most gifted of bands, we played well together, booked well, were quite popular, were not afraid to explore and had the good sense to stay in the studio as much as possible. Rehearsal was just a matter of course in everyday life. Not long ago, somebody suggested that we were one of the first of the significant American “garage bands”. Quite often the practices turned into gatherings. Toward the last days of the band there were more than a few that became large, crazy orgy-type gatherings no less; hard to do those in a garage! But our sound was pretty good for its day because of the time we spent together.
“We recorded some demos at a local studio owned by Jerry Connel and John Harold called “Project 70 Sound” (you think a really forward-looking name in the `60s!). That’s where “She Could Love Me” and others took shape. We had made some demo tapes at the University of Georgia School of Journalism. Those tapes were absolutely horrible. Wasn’t the school’s fault. We used an “after-hours-free-time-with-whatever-student-can-turn-the-machines-on” type approach. Not exactly a masterpiece of engineering but it did start something in Athens. The Athens music breakout was now in the making. Not bad overall, The Rogues were recording and now everybody wanted to join in!”
On a freezing January morning in 1968 Gerald, JB, Jimmy Cleveland and Dennis Carter packed their equipment and a demo tape and made the 260 mile trip to Nashville. A full day was spent making cold calls to just about every producer and publisher’s door on Music Row, attempting to garner interest from any record label and getting doors slammed in their face at each music house . The boys started big with the likes of Columbia and RCA who failed to show any interest. Twelve hours later, as light was fading, they turned up at Pete Drake’s Stop Records. Pete took pity, and gave them a chance to play their demo tape. The first few bars of “She Could Love Me” bowled him over (to be rediscovered and revered on the UK rare / northern soul scene and the US beach music scene, of all things, some thirty-five years later).
“On our first trip into Nashville, when we had showed up at Window Music that night, Pete had fallen in love with my car” says Gerald. “I had that 428ci Ford Torino. Boy, did he think that was a great ride! We ended up in this huge parking lot somewhere near the park, cutting doughnuts and doing burnouts and just being…kids. So, about a week after we got back to Athens, Pete gives me a call and says, “You inspired me to give myself a present. I’ll show it to you when you get up here.” When we rolled back into Nashville for the sessions, we met Pete at the studio first thing…and there he was, timed perfectly for our arrival, cutting doughnuts in the parking lot of Starday in a brand new pearl blue Oldsmobile.”
Two months later Drake took the band into Starday Studios in Nashville to record three tracks: “She Could Love Me”, “Sally, Sally From Tin Pan Alley” and “ESP: Extra Soul Perception”.
“The sessions were held at Starday Studios in Nashville. Just a simple layout there. Brick building with an upstairs apartment, which, I believe we spent the session time in for practice and crashing. Pete brought us “ESP: Extra Soul Perception” (clever back in that day…haha!) and it was this horn jam. It was hot!”
The final recorded version of “She Could Love Me” required a three part harmony but as Gerald was on lead vocal, Glenn and Jim needed another singer. The session for “She Could Love Me”, “Sally, Sally from Tin Pan Alley”, and “ESP” was cut on 4-track. High-quality tape tracks, but still only four, so choices were limited on how many times you could stack parts, and whereas Dennis and Bill could sing…during a national emergency perhaps…you really wouldn’t want to go there, and we desperately needed three-part back-up vocals to help beef us up. So, that meant either utilizing a tracking technique called “ping-ponging”, which allows adding tracks but greatly reduces fidelity, or settling for two-part backup harmony since I would be singing the lead at the same time and, consequently, not available. Meanwhile, this young guy I took for about thirty and dressed as we had become accustomed to seeing the studio cats in the city dress… you know, Nashville 60s hip, a bit of coin in his threads and nice boots…had been hanging out in the main studio with Pete and us and the engineer, and Pete had introduced him to me as “one of Elvis’s singers”. Later in the day when tracking decisions came to bear, and, when asked, the guy said, “Oh, hell yes! I’d be truly honoured to sing with you cats! Whatcha want me to do, Pete?” What a cool dude! He just fitted right in like we’d been on the road together.” Gerald only recently realised that the individual was Neal Matthews Jr. – one of Elvis’ Jordanaires.
“In the end, we were gone in a flash, but at least we had the distinct honour of having been produced by Pete Drake. White boys doing black boys’ music in the Deep South in the sixties …in Nashville! Are you out of your fucking mind? There were ‘names’ for kids like us. But it was Pete Drake who had the balls, not us. We were the first to break out of Athens, Georgia. Athens Rogues had gotten a major producer and a contract in Nashville, playing soul and rock ‘n’ roll no less and had done it in record time! We may be all but lost to mainstream music history, but we know what happened on that crazy day. Important to remember too that the groups and the music were just a reflection of the time. Kennedy had died right in front of us. America was in a war we didn’t even understand. The world was on fire. Under the boardwalk you didn’t think about the distinct possibility of death under the palms of some distant beach. And so we sang “I Love Beach Music”, and did the Shag under the moonlight out on South Myrtle and down on Panama Beach and Lauderdale, and had babies because of those nights, and in some elusive way began defining the boomer generation of the south. Those times saw the beginning and the ending of the American Camelot.”
“She Could Love Me” did enjoy some local radio time, but sales success were limited. By 1969 The Athens Rogues had disbanded.
“I know that John Barrett is alive and well and in North Georgia up in the glorious Great Smoky Mountain area. Terry McGhee and I spent future time together musically, both in the University of Georgia concert bands as well as in one of the cutting-edge next-gen horn bands after the Rogues. He was an ace T-bone man, and I recruited him into “Nickels and Dimes”, my ensuing band and possibly the best rock horn-band in the south at the time. Terry is now a successful MD. Glenn Brown is an influential attorney here in Athens, GA. Jimmy Cleveland is sales rep with one of the major firms of our fair city. I’m not certain about the rest of the guys. Johnny says everybody’s still hale and hearty. I suppose that’s pretty amazing in itself. Pete passed away years ago, and the world is less for his passing and a damn-site better for his having been here! He smoked too much. It hurt him. He was 55 years old when he died. Pete had vision. He was a kind and generous person and a gifted musician and producer. I am honoured that he was the first producer to sign me and I am humbled that he was my friend. What he did with the band in Nashville was a brave thing in 1968, even if you were Pete Drake! Back then Pete was established, but you must remember that he was not yet the legend he was later to become. Frankly, in the eyes of some of the Nashville old guard, he was considerably outside the dotted lines with us. And Nashville could sometimes eat its own young.
I’m the only one of the band that made the trade a career. To say that I was fortunate would be perhaps the understatement of the century. Not only did I get to play and record with a host of killer bands and solo artists over a 50 year career, but I was allowed to be the proverbial “fool and his cheque book” without any detectable ill-consequence that I can tell (while working for the passion of my life! And, believe me, one would have to hate life to hate that life!). Because of the brief shine of The Athens Rogues I had established just enough reputation in the Atlanta studios to be considered for projects, particularly writing, arranging, recording and gigs, within a pretty tight music inner circle that led me to a gate-opening gig with another East Coast legend group Bits and Pieces and also Classics IV. After that, I kinda picked my situations as a free-lancer, although I did stay for a year or two here and there. I have very few useful or marketable skills in the basic sense of the terms, but I have lived in eight different countries, been cast in “Smokey and the Bandit”, studied sword in America and Japan and became a sword master and sandan (a 3rd degree black belt in kendo), and was involved in some heady Formula 1 R&D related work.
Whatever is said of me I would like it known somewhere along the way that I am extraordinarily grateful that anyone…anywhere…would care to reflect on what little we did back in the day when we scarcely knew what we were doing at all. I want to think that somehow what we did escaped the vulgar and the base, because I know that what we did in those early days of a song like “She Could Love Me” was of pure, and quite often innocent, intent. Jeez! We were kids. Funny thing about the Rogues was, we were really good kids. We loved our moms. We had cute little girlfriends and we drank a bit but didn’t even mess around with drugs or the groupies…yet. And to think…I have been allowed to travel this journey my entire life!”
Regarding the Stop label itself; in 1973 co-owner and songwriter Tom Hill went into partnership with Moe Lytle to set up Gusto Records (selling Stop to Gusto), another Nashville label. These days Gusto is known as the largest independent reissue label in the States, owning much of the back catalogue of King, Starday, Federal, Wand, Scepter and Musicor, and even owns the long running Starday Studios where reformatting and new recordings continue to be made today.
This article is an excerpt from “House of Broken Hearts” by E. Mark Windle, available to order from the new book section.
For Roger Branch, original founder of the sixties R&B band The Tempests, New Orleans had an attractive pull for studio engineering and production work. Like most musicians in the South, there was a deep affinity for the city’s musical cultural vibrancy. Branch had already forged professional links with key industry figures there like Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, from his early days as an engineer at Reflection Sound back in North Carolina.
Toussaint and Sehorn had already been working closely some ten years before Roger had first connected with them in the early 1970s. Toussaint’s musicianship had helped define the Nola R&B sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a consequence of him feverishly absorbing the milieu of country music, blues, Creole rhythms and of course the honky-tonk piano which had initially put New Orleans on the musical map. As a musician, song writer arranger and producer, Allen Toussaint was the driving force behind many hits of the day, during the same time that The Tempests were doing their thing on the east coast. Indeed, his career and influence has continued through popular music over the last five decades.
Toussaint had come from a poor but musical background, heavily influenced by his parents, neighbours and other musicians who visited his family home. As a young adult he developed keyboard and producing skills and played with most of the major artists of the day in New Orleans, until an RCA talent scout picked up on his potential. Toussaint’s first true foray into the commercial world was as Joe Banashak’s producer and A&R man in 1960, giving Banashak’s Minit and Instant labels a string of hits which typified the early to mid 1960s New Orleans R&B sound.
Toussaint met Sehorn after returning from a two-year draft in the US army; Sehorn was a Carolinian who played guitar in various bands at college before securing a position with the A&R team at Fire and Fury Records in New York. Their initial professional collaboration was when Sehorn brought Toussaint in for some Lee Dorsey sessions. After both labels closed, the pair moved to New Orleans to form Sansu Enterprises and Sansu Records, Tou-Sea, Deesu and other imprints. With Toussaint as songwriter, pianist, and producer, and Sehorn’s industry knowledge, Lee Dorsey was brought back into the studio. Licensing to the Bell subsidiary label Amy ensured that Ride Your Pony, Working In The Coalmine and Holy Cow benefitted from national exposure and distribution.
Cash and acclaim started to roll in, but Toussaint and Sehorn were in danger of becoming victims of their own success. The list of hits was growing, yet the pair were still having to depend on other recording studios around the city such as Cosimo Matassa’s studios and facilities outside of Louisiana. The need to operate their own studio for convenience and to facilitate more control of production was clear.
By 1973, a contract with Warner Bros. for composition, production and recording work enabled Toussaint and Sehorn to finance and build Sea-Saint studios on an old service station site at 3809 Clematis Street in the Gentilly area, on New Orleans’ East Side. Work soon poured in, from local sources but also from national labels wanting to use the the contemporary recording facilities they had just installed. The major labels were the ones that would keep Sea-Saint afloat financially, and the studio targeted its services towards them. Sea-Saint rapidly became associated with numerous national hits across soul, pop and country music charts. The 1970s saw in Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, a couple of albums by Paul McCartney and Wings, and a series of Billboard chart smashes by Glen Campbell, Paul Simon and Joe Cocker.
Sea-Saint formally joined forces with Cosimo Matassa when he closed one of his studios in 1978, and their services could now be offered to a wealth of R&B producers resulting in further seminal recordings by Bobby Powell, Lee Bates and Tony Owens. The 1970s may have represented the peak of Sea-Saint’s success, but the studio remained active through the 1980s and beyond. Whether pop, rock or R&B artist, it was a longtime go-to for anyone after quality recording facilities, engineering and production.
Roger Branch’s connection with Toussaint and Sehorn started when Sansu Enterprises first started using Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte for production and engineering duties as early as 1971, whilst Sehorn and Toussaint were waiting for Sea-Saint studios to be constructed. Eventually Roger Branch Branch also made the move there. A background in electronics served him well; Sea-Saint studios needed an individual with technical know-how as well as musical ability. And so, a position at Sea-Saint was secured in 1990, initially as a sound engineer to work on New Yorker Willy DeVille’s new album. The ex-Mink Deville lead singer was moving into a new creative phase, drawn to explore the latin, blues and soulful roots of old New Orleans. This culminated in Victory Mixture, a project initially started after a conversation about the possibility of covering old delta songs and a session playing old 45s together of Louisiana artists between DeVille and his friend Carlo Ditta. DeVille called in Earl King, Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint for the project.
Sea-Saint would also be the location for a latter day professional reunion for Roger, and Tempests’ bassist and drummer Van Coble and Nelson Lemmond:
“Even though The Tempests had disbanded, some of us worked on projects every few years” Nelson comments. “Probably the most fun was doing a promotional album for Camel cigarettes in the late 1990s. Through my point-of-sale advertising company I’d done a lot of work with R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company, with shop displays and billboard signs. I kept telling them that I had a band in mind who sounded fantastic and we should record them for their advertising. Eventually they gave in. They said, “here’s a piece of money, now go do some demos – but shut the f**k up”. I got Van and Nat Speir from The Rivieras working on writing some material and called Roger Branch so we could get a few local musicians together. A month was spent on that album at Sea-Saint. We stayed at the Pontchartrain, one of the great old hotels in the centre of New Orleans. Up at around 11am for the recording sessions, go eat at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and then over to the studio to work through until 2 or 3am. Then back to the hotel for some turtle soup and gumbo. Initially we looked at the idea of using all-star New Orleans line up, including Fats Domino. Marshall Sehorn and I woke him out of bed at noon one day which he didn’t thank us for. In the end though we wanted the project to seem like it was featuring one band. A bar band was used that played on Bourbon Street. Luther Kent was the singer who played with Blood, Sweat and Tears when David Clayton Thomas left. Luther had a big blues band called Trick Bag – when B.B. King or Bobby Bland came to town they would back them. For the camel session, Allen Toussaint played on some of the songs to help us out. On the first day the rhythm section was having a real problem with tempo. Very politely Allen asked if he could sit in. Well, he immediately straightened everything out. The guy was a genius.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it made global news, and instantly wiped out what was more than a century-old musical and cultural heritage. The storm surge and Mississippi levee failure had catastrophic effects. Fifty-three breaches occurred in what were often ill-designed and constructed flood protection barriers. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, and water levels remained high for weeks after the storm. The death toll attributed to the violent effects of the storm is still disputed but placed conservatively between 1000-1500 in New Orleans area alone. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless, forced to move from the area, and many were either unable or did not wish to return. Given that more than half of New Orleans residents prior to the storm were African-American, the impact on the black music industry was devastating. On 28th August 2005, Sea-Saint Studios was destroyed. Allen Toussaint found himself without a home, a business and most of his possessions. Like thousands of others in the immediate aftermath, he initially sought a place of safety at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, relocating in the longer term to New York before eventually returning to New Orleans.
Roger Branch continued to work in New Orleans. “Four feet of water flooded the ground floor and Katrina had damaged the Sea-Saint building beyond repair. But by a stroke of luck, I had a place – originally an office – on the other side of town. It was situated in an elevated position. Although only a few blocks away from the Mississippi River, it avoided damage by Katrina, other than some roof damage which we quickly repaired”. Those office premises would become Oak Street Recording Studio, which to this day continues to record new and established artists.
The effects of Hurricane Katrina didn’t deter Toussaint from picking up his career again. Within six months he performed on the David Letterman Late Show. Offers of a number of live performance opportunities around New York were accepted before he eventually returned to a rebuilt, smaller New Orleans. He recovered financially to some extent when approached by advertisers for use of his song Sweet Touch of Love in what would become an award-winning TV advertisement. Toussaint continued to support the revived New Orleans music scene. He was already inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998; by 2013 Toussaint was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The National Medal of Arts awarded by U.S. President Obama was the icing on the cake.
Copyright E. Mark Windle; 2022, 2017. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and as a writer for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact via this site or email@example.com.
“Looking back, I’m really proud of what we achieved in the 1960s” drummer Nelson Lemmond once told me. “As The Tempests, out of Charlotte, North Carolina, we made some great R&B and played with some great talent too. We never got a chance to perform with Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. But pretty much everybody else in between. At the end of the day though, by the late ’60s, the atmosphere was changing. Otis had been killed in a plane crash in that lake in Wisconsin. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. Civil unrest was everywhere and there was a militant air, even in North Carolina, often considered one of the more progressive areas of the south. People ended up taking sides.”
Lemmond’s comments echoed previous remarks made by other session musicians and singers through the south, including those at Stax and other studios where white and black musicians and singers previously rubbed shoulders. The 1970s marked now dramatically changing times in the south and throughout the USA. The cusp of the two decades witnessed political unrest through Vietnam War and internal racial tension, demonstrated through riots in Detroit and other urban areas of the north. The musical landscape was also changing. Soul music was evolving. Hard hitting funk became the new musical voice. In the south, artists such as Chicago, Allman Brothers band and southern rock were now popular choices with white radio listeners. Other events happening around the country would also affect R&B programming. Nashville’s WLAC was changing its format. John Richbourg, the purveyor of soul who influenced so many local radio stations across America and including the Carolinas, was to leave in disagreement with the new radio policy. Within a couple of years, the final nail in the Nashville R&B coffin was displacement of the black community to make way for new urbanisation projects, dispersing black culture and music.
The beginning of the new decade saw a dramatic wane in popularity among the white record buying audience for soul music. There would still be clear pockets where the R&B industry would thrive, but these were primarily in the cities of the north and the west where the symbiotic relationship between funk and politics existed. In the south studios had their own issues. Socio-political evolution, revolution, and demand for racial identity bled through musical directions and created a true cultural divide. Bridges built via integrated bands and musicians through the mid to late 1960s were largely burned. Many small white-owned studios of the south would turn their focus to country music and southern rock.
There were some exceptions of course. To survive in the industry, independent studios did have to cater for new musical styles and artists but some, like Charlotte’s Reflections Sound Studios felt it was foolhardy to discard relationships with previous key industry players and artists from the black community, and would still be worth of keeping one eye on the residual R&B market.
Wayne Jernigan was the studio’s creator. He had previously enjoyed popularity and some financial success as the drummer with Ernest Tubbs’ country band. Travelling on the road however had put a major strain on Jernigan’s relationship with his wife, so they took the plunge and moved east from Nashville to Charlotte to start anew, with plans to build a studio. Reflection Sound Studios opened in 1969. Jernigan initially struggled to get studio off the ground recording music only. It also become a place for hire for commercials, jingles and film audio tracks at least until business momentum secured its survival. Paul Scoggins, owner of Paul’s Lounge on the same street which featured several local and national acts, joined forces with Wayne as a silent partner with Jernigan’s production company. Ultimately the studio didn’t save Wayne’s marriage, but the facility would enjoy more than forty years of steady recording success via R&B and mainstream artists such as James Brown, Whitney Houston and Kenny Loggins.
Back in the very early 1970s, Wayne Jernigan would perform multiple roles at the studio including management, production and as session musician, but realised a team of similarly talented individuals was needed for the studio to function effectively. With that, Tempests co-founders Roger and Mike Branch came on board as sessions musicians and to learn some production skills along with Don Strawn, ex-engineer from nearby Arthur Smiths’ studio.
The late Steve Calfee, guitarist, singer and songwriter with the band Lost Soul (who recorded northern soul collector favourites “Secret of Mine” and “I’m Gonna Hurt You”), remembered his time at Reflection Sound:
“About 1972 I was performing in a band that was supposed to become the back-up guys for what eventually became The Intruders, the R&B group. That bit didn’t work out unfortunately. Anyway, we went to Reflection Sound to cut some tracks for a demo, and to add tracks for a guy called Ronnie Arthurs, who I believed performed and recorded as King Arthur. He was repairing a boat behind the studio for Paul Scoggins during his down-time to pay for the sessions. Wayne Jernigan was our engineer. Roger Branch was in and out at various points. The studio was located right on the highway at the time. As you walked in the front door there was a hallway, a waiting area with some couches and a chair or two. The control room was about twelve by twenty feet and looked out on the studio floor. Across the south end there was a raised stage area along the wall and the main studio floor, with baffles for sound isolation.”
The Cannonball song “You Keep Telling Me Yes” which enjoyed some popularity on both the beach music and the early northern soul scene was recorded at Reflection Sound Studios. Songwriter and Cannonball member Joe Crayton Clinard Jr. recalls:
“Roger Branch was always around the studio. We recorded three tracks there as Cannonball. I think he may have been working the board with Wayne Jernigan on “No Good To Cry”, “Sunny Day Today” and “You Keep Telling Me Yes”, though that was recorded at a separate session. Everything thing was quick in and out in those days to save money.”
Jeff Ayres was on the inside: “I recorded at Reflection Sound in ‘74 with Roger. I was probably twenty years old at the time and knew very little about the professional recording process. The thing I remember most was the vintage 414 microphone….or at least vintage now…and how much I loved the sound of that mic. Also remember sleeping under the console while Roger was mixing one of our tunes at three or four o’clock in the morning. Does it really take that long? I found out in later years …it really does take that long!”
Marshall Sehorn, who was originally from North Carolina, and industry partner Allen Toussaint were using Reflection Sound as an interim facility to record some of their own label artists and to edit pre-recorded material whilst waiting to finance their Sea-Saint Studios project in New Orleans. Roger Branch already knew Sehorn and Toussaint through an introduction some years earlier by a Smash representative during promotion of The Tempests recordings. Ron Henderson and Choice of Colour, Wilbert Harrison, Eldridge Holmes and Aaron Neville were among those artists.
A characteristic of Reflection Sound was the multi-talented nature of its studio personnel and artists, as demonstrated by the latter-day discovery by the UK northern soul scene of Choice of Colour’s Your Love recording for ABC APT. The song was co-written and produced by Roger Branch. Washington-born lead singer Ron Henderson (ex-singer with The Orioles, The Spaniels and The True Tones), would not only record his own material with Choice of Colour but would also be employed as backing singer and writer for other artists.
The studio would attract other artists from neighbouring states to utilise the facilities. Arthur Freeman was one example, originally recording “Played Out Playgirl” years earlier on the custom label Regal in Florida. Freeman would re-record it with better quality production at Reflection Sound. Jernigan was in the habit of shopping demos around of their in-house productions to other labels, but for this recording struggled to find an interested label. Reportedly a desperate result of a financial deal with a local adult movie cinema owner, the 45 appeared first in 1971 on the ultra-rare Asta Arts imprint, then received a much wider distribution shortly after via the long running Nashville label Excello.
Local black singers were represented at the studio by Louis King, who previously appeared as King Louie with the Court Jesters on ‘Doc’ Johnson’s Wilmington Mockingbird label (which also featured The Generation’s version of The O’Jays “Hold On”). King had most likely been brought to Reflection Sound by Scroggins due to his appearances as a popular act at Paul’s Lounge. On these recordings Roger’s backing band would bring horns and a funk groove to the proceedings to support Louis’ competent baritone vocal.
What was effectively the Reflection Sound house rhythm section adopted the name of Backyard Heavies, for ensuing Scepter releases in 1971 and 1972. Consisting of Roger (guitar), Mike (keyboards), Stan Cecil (keyboards), Mike Russell (bass) and Paul “Mickey” Walker (drums), the band recorded the competent funk instrumentals “Soul Junction” / “Expo 83”, and “Chitlin’ Strut” / “Humpin’ ” ; released as respective 45s. One final recording, Just Keep On Truckin’ was released on Hot Line, a subsidiary of the Cutlass label and essentially a Branch-Sehorn collaboration. Neither the Scepter nor Hotline 45s achieved any particular commercial success. However latter-day hip-hop producer Pete Rock and artist Kanye West would acknowledge the Backyard Heavies through sampling elements of Expo 83 in their respective works, namely “The Basement” and “Runaway”.
Inevitably, beyond the mid ’70s, the nature of work at Reflection Sound would change as would its location. It was now southern rock and mainstream pop which would guarantee its future. One of the studio’s biggest commercial associations would occur in the next decade, when Georgia college band R.E.M. worked on their Murmur and Reckoning LP projects, shooting them to global and long lasting fame. At that point the studio had long since been upgraded to new premises on Central Avenue. That, however, is another tale.
This article is a chapter excerpt from the book The Tempests: A Carolina Soul Story by E. Mark Windle, available to order at A Nickel And A Nail