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THE EBONYS

  One group that really deserves to be called “unsung” is the Camden, New Jersey based Ebonys, who were the forerunners and perspective candidates to become a super-group under Kenny Gamble’s and Leon Huff’s newly-founded Philadelphia International Records in the early 1970s, but there were too many obstacles in the way.  You can read the Ebonys story with interviews below and – what’s most important – there’s also a new and impressive CD to enjoy. 

  It’s Forever is a magnificent work of soul balladry.  This smooth love song has a beautiful and memorable melody, it is richly orchestrated and the vocal interpretation is as powerful and soulful as it gets with a pleading gruff baritone and a soaring high tenor sharing lead and the rest of the group creating impeccable harmonies in the background.  Filled with emotion, it’s one of the hidden masterpieces of our genre.

  The very performer, the Ebonys is no less remarkable in terms of vocal skills and ability to create suitable drama around the song.  It’s no wonder that the group is often compared to the Dells, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Originals and similar heavy-weight vocal ensembles. 

But the Ebonys got lost!  There were many unfortunate coincidences and episodes along the way like unprofessional management, indifferent attitude, drug abuse and double-crossing, which caused a lot of frustration.  However, now the founding member, David Beasley, is about to lead his new group into their second coming.

BACK IN MY ARMS

  David was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1949 and he’s the high tenor voice in the group.  David Beasley: “We started in high school.  We sang in high school choirs and then we had talent contests.  I got the rest of the group together: Jennifer Holmes, Clarence Vaughan and James Tuten.  We called James ‘Booty’.  I put the quartet together, and after school we started singing in clubs, when we were old enough to do that.”

  The very first female singer in the group was a girl named Dee Dee, but she was soon replaced by Jennifer, David’s girlfriend at the time.  Clarence’s nickname was “Jingles” and James “Booty” Tuten was that distinctive baritone voice in the line-up.

  Norman “Butch” Ingram became a bass player in a 9-piece family group called Ingram, which initially was called the Ecstasies, but used later also such names as the Ingram Kingdom and the Ingram Family.  They made some waves in the 70s on Excello and H&L labels and still in the 80s on Mirage.  In the 80s Butch turned into a notable producer with such artists as Philly Cream, Barbara Mason, Brandi Wells, Ronnie Dyson, Major Harris and Blue Magic.

  Butch Ingram: “I went to high school with David Beasley.  We had a good friendship.  I was with him from the beginning of the Ebonys.  We were two groups from Camden – the Ingram Brothers and the Ebonys.  They would do their thing and we would do our thing and occasionally we would come together and do some things together.  We all went to the same high school together – Jennifer, ‘Jingles’, ‘Booty’...  Jennifer came up with the name ‘the Ebonys’.  They were rehearsing in her living room, and she was reading the Ebony magazine, suggested it and everybody agreed.”

  The first released single by the Ebonys – or the Ebony’s, as it reads on the label - was a mid-tempo jam with a big production called Back in My Arms on the Avis Records.  Led by a high tenor, distantly it bears a resemblance to the Temptations sound of the day.  It was written and co-produced by Ray Sharp, who incidentally was the artist on the second Avis single named Many a Man.  That label carried a New Jersey address, whereas the preceding Ebonys single had a Philadelphia address for Avis on it.  Back in My Arms was backed with another high-voiced, mid-tempo number titled I can’t help But Love You.

  David: “I remember that one and I remember Ray Sharp.  That was way back when we first started  

- in 1969, I think.”  There exists one more 1969 single credited to the Ebonys - Can’t Get Enough/Don’t Knock Me - on Soul Clock, but David has never heard of it before, nor of the people who were involved in producing it, so there must have been another Ebonys in the Los Angeles area those days.

YOU’RE THE REASON WHY

  The group auditioned for Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble, but was turned down at first attempt.  David: “I found out that it’s very important, who you know.  We were new.  We were coming in.  We hadn’t established ourselves, but we thought we had all the pieces together.  When we got there, they did turn us down.  Eventually we hooked up with a guy named Gerald Wilson.  He owned a bar and a supper club.  He became our manager and he knew Huff personally.  So he took us back to Gamble and Huff, and we sang the same songs... and they signed us.”

  The first PIR single by the Ebonys is actually the first Philadelphia International Record that you could call a hit.  In early summer of 1971 a powerful soul ballad named You’re the Reason Why climbed up to # 10-soul and # 51-pop.  Recorded at Sigma Sound Studios and backed by MFSB, the song was written and produced by Gamble & Huff and arranged by Thom Bell.  ”Gamble and Huff would treat us good.  They taught us a lot.  They helped create our sound.  Thom Bell was a perfect gentleman.  He did everything professionally, and he took care of the business.”  On the flip there was a driving and compelling dancer called Sexy Ways, co-written by Carl Gilbert and arranged by Bobby Martin.

  The second PIR single, another melodic and dynamic ballad called Determination, didn’t quite repeat the success of its predecessor and stalled at # 46 on Billboard’s soul charts.  It was backed with a heavily rolling, almost sing-along type of a jam titled Do It, written by Bunny Sigler and Phil Hurtt.  “Bunny and Phil were great, fantastic.  We learned so much from working with the people that Gamble and Huff introduced us to, and we were lucky to work with Bunny Sigler.”

  For the holiday season at the end of 1971 they still rush-released a ditty shortly titled (Christmas Ain’t Christmas, New Year’s Ain’t New Year’s) Without the One You Love, which the O’Jays had recorded two years earlier.  “It was Gamble’s and Huff’s idea.  We had heard the song before, but when we put our vocals on it, it turned into an Ebonys song.  We did the vocal arrangements for the quartet.  It didn’t get as much promotion as the O’Jays did and a lot of people haven’t heard it.”

IT’S FOREVER

  I’m So Glad I’m Me is another irresistible dancer from the pens of Gamble & Huff, and now Thom Bell’s arrangement is already very close to the classic airy Philly sound that for instance the O’Jays hits are famous for.  For some strange reason the single flopped.  “We didn’t have a lot of things that we were supposed to have.  We didn’t have a proper management.  Gerald Wilson was a bar-owner.  There were no booking agents getting you gigs.  We never sang in New York – believe it or not! – and we had quite big records there.  We just were not handled the right way.”  Do You like the Way I Love on the b-side was a similar sunshiny dancer.

  After refraining from releasing further Ebonys singles for over a year, PIR finally put out the gorgeous It’s Forever, which became a signature song for the group.  Written by Leon Huff alone, produced by G&H and arranged by Bobby Martin, the single reached # 14-soul and # 68-pop in the summer of 1973.  “That’s like a split on lead.  I’m doing half of the lead and ‘Booty’s doing half.  After that record things picked up for us as far as working, but we never could get outside.  We never worked in Atlantic City and other cities, where we were hot and where we should have worked to push the records.  We did pretty good as far as the records were concerned, but we didn’t do the big shows we were supposed to do.”

  In the afterglow of the success of It’s Forever, PIR decided to release the Ebonys’ first album in the latter part of 1973, and eight out of the nine tracks on display were either past or future single sides.  The only non-single track was called I’ll Try, but what a track it was! – an over 6-minute long deep soul ballad in the best Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes/Teddy Pendergrass vein.  The song was written by Leon Huff, John Whitehead and Gene McFadden and arranged by Lenny Pakula.

I BELIEVE

  I Believe is a standard that was rooted in the Korean War and first interpreted by Jane Froman in 1953 and then turned into a big hit by Frankie Laine the same year.  The Ebony’s full-blooded gospel-fused version is one of the most terrific ones there is.  Arranged by Ronnie Baker, it notched up to # 34-soul in early 1974.  David: “That was Leon Huff’s and Kenny Gamble’s idea to record it.”  On the flip they placed a vivid dancer called Nation Time, a sort of social roll call.

  The last PIR single in 1974 is also called a “steppers classic.”  Life in the Country (# 69-soul) is a laid-back number written by Theodore Life, Phil Terry and Talmadge Conway, and T.G. Conway also arranged it.  David: “That was the one I did the lead on.”  The somewhat similar Hook up and Get Down was chosen for the b-side.

  The Ebonys’ PIR period is available on a couple of CD compilations.  Collectables Records released a 14-track Golden Philly Classics in 1995 (including the Christmas song), on Legacy they released the self-titled CD in 2003 and Forever - Philly Soul Gems was released on the U.K. Shout label in 2010 (http://www.soulexpress.net/deep110.htm#ebonys).

  David: “We cut a second album with Gamble and Huff, which was a great album.  We had some big songs on there, but it never was released.  I guess it was about eight tracks, maybe nine.  Gamble and Huff wrote those songs.  Victor Carstephen wrote one song, and Jennifer had a song on there.” 

  “Kenny had a problem with ‘Booty’ Tuten.  He got involved with drugs, and just before the release of our album Kenny just ended our contract.”  David had actually been preparing John Whitehead to replace “Booty” in the line-up.  “I had him ready to go.  I taught him the routines and songs, but ‘Booty’ went back crying to Gerald Wilson and Gerald took him back into the group.”

MAKING LOVE AIN’T NO FUN

  Next Gerald took the group to Buddah Records, where in late 1976 the Ebonys charted for the last time with Making Love Ain’t No Fun (without the One You Love).  This nice Philly disco floater was produced and arranged by Norman Harris and he also co-wrote it with Allan Felder.

  This song, however, didn’t appear on the ensuing Buddah album, Sing about Life, which was Tony Camillo’s show.  He produced and arranged the set and wrote three uptempo songs for it.  One down-tempo number that he co-wrote with Mary Sawyer is called Waiting for the Last Goodbye, and this melodic soul ballad features some strong singing from Jennifer.  It was re-released, when Jennifer later became a member of Creme D’Cocoa, and also Sandra Richardson cut the song.

  Another classy song that Tony Camillo later covered with Creme D’Cocoa was a poignant soul ballad named Mr. Me, Mrs. You – written by H.B. Barnum and Robert Young – but Tony had produced this song already on Ronnie Williams in 1974.  David is leading on a sweet and pretty ballad named (I’ll Know) When True Love Really Passes By, a Les Reed – Roger Greenaway song that we know also by the Drifters, and the only song that “Booty” Tuten is leading on this album is the often-covered Mann & Weil ballad Nobody but You.  “’Jingles’ did the production on that.”

  Another big-voiced ballad that Jennifer is leading on is If You’re in Need, which was written by Zane Grey and Len Ron Hanks and which was also recorded by L.T.D., Mystique and Lenny Williams, among others.  The soft and sweet A Love of Your Own derives from the repertoire of Average White Band.

  The rest four tracks are all up-tempo numbers and they include the second and last single off the album, a lesser disco dancer called Neighborhood Gossip backed with the funky Laughing, both written by Tony, who also wrote another fast dancer, Sing about Life.  The opening track on the album is also a quick-tempo mover titled One Thing on My Mind, which was first cut by its co-writer Evie Sands in 1975.  The Sing about Life album was cut at Venture Sounds in Somerville, N.J., and it was reissued in a CD format in 2012.

  David: “There was no promotion on that album.  We never were anywhere.  We never performed any of those songs on the stage.”  In 2004 in Japan P-Vine Records (24135) released an Ebonys compilation entitled Close to You with six tracks from the Sing about Life album and six tracks from those same Tony Camillo sessions that were, however, left in the can – C’est Le Rock, Close to You, Can’t Sit Down, Rock the Night Away, Hot in the Street and The Proof Is in the Pudding.  Listening to these outtakes now, it’s no wonder that they were not released at the time.  David: “They tried to cross us over to the pop side, and they wanted me to do more singing.  Then ‘Booty’ started having problems with his voice because of the drugs, so a lot of the stuff they couldn’t use anymore.”

  The Ebonys disbanded de facto in 1976.  Jennifer joined Creme D’Cocoa with three ex-members of the Ambassadors – Herley Johnson, Bobby Todd and Orlando Oliphant – and she sang on their Funked Up album in 1978 on Venture Records, produced by Tony Camillo and Cecile Barker.  Today Jennifer sings only in church in Camden County.

  James “Booty” Tuten died around 1993-94.  David: “’Jingles’ started working for the county, and he worked for the county for the past thirty years.  He’s retired now.”  Besides working in the sewer department in Voorhees Township in Camden County, David also embarked on a solo career during weekends.  “I was singing in Atlantic City.” 

THAT’S FOREVER

  Classic soul music revival in the late 1990s awakened an interest also in the Ebonys, and in March 1997 David reformed the group.  Since Jenny and Clarence “Jingles” and “Booty” were not available anymore, he organized auditions and picked up William “Smoke” Howard, Herley Johnson and Romana Lynn Smith to accompany him.  A native of Bristol, TN, “Smoke” had earlier fronted and worked with such groups as the Fabulous Nu-Tones out of Tennessee, Black Smoke out of South Jersey and Asphalt Jungle out of Camden, N.J.

  Herley Johnson was the ex-Ambassador, who joined Creme D’Cocoa with Jenny, and the new lady - alto soprano Romana Lynn - was crowned Miss Black New Jersey in 1992.  She also has a career as a background singer.  David led the group.  “It was alright; couldn’t compare to what it was before, but it was alright.  We did a lot of cover songs, show songs, standards... all kind of things.”

  There were constant changes in the line-up those days.  Soon after that the group consisted of David Beasley, William “Smoke” Howard, Nate Cephas and Toni Calloway.  David Beasley more or less retired in 2001.  “I came down with vertigo.  I sang for a few years after that, but it started bothering too much, so I had to stop.”  Butch Ingram: “After Booty passed away, Beasley hired “Smoke” Howard to do some things that they had booked.  “Smoke” Howard did those gigs and not long after that David Beasley started getting ill.  For a long time they didn’t know what it was.  When he was standing on stage, he would get dizzy.  There’s another guy in the group Tru – his name is Jimmy Williams – he took David’s place until David got himself together.”

  In 2003 they released a CD on Swing City Records entitled That’s Forever.  At that point the line-up included William “Smoke” Howard (baritone), McKensey Crawford (1st tenor), Nate Cephas (2nd tenor) and Lorna Dixon (alto soprano).  The title song is almost like a dead-ringer for It’s Forever – both in melody and the song structure.  David was still in the background those days.  “Smoke and Nate had the song and they asked me to record it.”  Other soft down-tempo songs on this smooth CD included When the Love Is Gone, You’re All I Need and I Like When we’re Alone.  There were eight tracks altogether but - considering instrumental tracks and mixes - only five songs.  The men behind Swing City Recording Enterprises were Smoke and Nate.

  After that it was almost impossible to keep track of the changes in line-ups.  At different times you can spot such names as Stanford “Stanley Soul” Laws, Johnny Smalls, Tony Strong, Toni Ford, Phyllis Love, Johnny “Flash” Ware etc.  There even may have been another group besides the one that “Smoke” was leading those days.  David Beasley: “There were groups, who were trying to make money of the Ebonys name.  Everybody’s trying to recapture what we had.  We were poor kids out of Camden, and we had talent that these groups today don’t have.”

  In “Smoke’s” group that David assembled in the first place in the 1990s, McKensey Crawford was replaced by Ken Chaney in 2012 as the 1st tenor, the 2nd tenor Nate Cephas was replaced by Ray Keniebrew in 2015 and in 2013 Geneva “Neva” Wilks replaced Lorna Dixon.

  In 2005 a track entitled That’s What Love Does by Vincent Montana, Jr. & the Philly Sound Orchestra featuring William “Smoke” Howard on Philly Sound Works (PSW 12001) became popular in clubs and in 2010 on Swing City they released Smoke’s dance-orientated solo album called Give Me Your Heart, where the standout track was a soul ballad called Deeper.

TWO SETS OF EBONYS

  As so often happens with these classic soul groups, foul play takes place.  David Beasley: “I grew up with ‘Smoke.’  When I picked him up, he had nothing going on for him at all.  He was singing around at that time trying to make it.  I put the group together and on daily basis kept their career alive.  When I left, ‘Smoke’ just got other people that kept singing in the group.  When I retired, he went behind my back and registered the name The Ebonys (https://trademarks.justia.com/853/69/the-ebonys-85369748.html).  I had it registered in New Jersey, and I thought I was covered.”

  Butch Ingram: “’Smoke’ went to Washington D.C. and registered the name to himself, which was a very rotten thing to do.  David wasn’t able to sing, but when they diagnosed the disease and gave him medication and he started singing again he hadn’t the right to use the name.  We told ‘Smoke’ that that was a really lowdown thing to do.  We’re getting ready to go to court, because David is the original singer, and I was there when David Beasley formed the group - so it is his group.”

  David: “We broke up with Smoke about six or seven years ago.  We’re not friends anymore.  To go behind my back and steal the name like that – that was a terrible thing he did.”

  Luckily in 2015 David and Butch put together a group called David Beasley’s Fabulous Ebonys, and Butch produced and arranged their new CD, Anything That You Want, on his Society Hill label.  I say “luckily”, because when listening to some of the recent singles by Smoke’s group – such as You and I are Friends, What Did You Do Today, Christmas Is in the Air, the Ebony Shuffle – and comparing them to the tracks on the Anything That You Want CD, it’s obvious that vocally Smoke’s group is inferior. 

DAVID BEASLEY’S FABULOUS EBONYS

  Released in November 2015, recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia and featuring the Ingram Brothers Band – Johnny on drums, Timmy on percussion, Billy on guitar, Butch on bass and Jimmy on keyboards – the sound is rich and full.  David sings on a couple of tracks, and the other members of the current group are Michael “Mack” McIntosh, Michelle “Cookie” Weldon, Adrian “AJ” Jackson and Lenny “Slim” Harrington.  In this line-up Mike is the high tenor voice.

  For this new album they’ve revived four Ebonys songs from the golden PIR period.  The three impressive hit ballads – It’s Forever, You’re the Reason Why and Determination – are vocally almost like a throwback to the glorious 70s, and Do You like the Way I Love You is an airy Philly dancer.  The slow title tune with impressive vocal interplay comes from the pen of a singer/songwriter by the name of LaVon Donnie Tatem.

  You Know How to Make Me Feel So Good is another Gamble-Huff composition that Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes recorded with Sharon Paige on their 1975 album Wake up Everybody, and later this soft and romantic ballad was covered, among others, by Collins and Collins and Jean Carne with Glenn Leonard for Butch’s Society Hill label.  Presumably they’re using the same backing track here as on that Glenn’s and Jean’s 2011 recording.

  Written by Bunny Sigler, Do You Get Enough Love became a number one r&b hit for Shirley Jones in 1986, and here this dreamy song with a hooky melody is nicely covered by Michelle.  She also comes up with a delightful high-pitched version of the midtempo Love Will Follow, which Kenny Loggins co-wrote and recorded in 1985 for his Vox Humana album.  Loving You Is Mellow is another midtempo song, which Major Harris cut in 1975.  This “mellow” song was written by Bobby Eli and Terry Collins and Bobby also co-wrote with Len Barry a disco hit called Love Town for Booker Newberry III in 1983 (# 46-r&b on Boardwalk), which is conscientiously covered here.

  Butch: “The Ebonys did have an identity.  They had a sound, and we’re trying to keep that.  I don’t produce records.  I produce artists.  I’m doing this with David to keep him involved, because it’s his group.  That’s why we put David Beasley’s name on the CD, so that everybody would know.”

  David: “I would like to thank all the fans for what you’ve done for the Ebonys, for keeping our name alive all these years.  I really appreciate it.”


THE EBONYS -

DISCOGRAPHY

SINGLES

The Ebony’s:

Avis 1001) Back In My Arms / I Can’t Help But Love You (1969)

The Ebonys:

PIR 3503) You’re The Reason Why (# 10/51) / Sexy Ways (1971)

PIR 3510) Determination (# 46 / -) / Do It

PIR 3513) (Christmas Ain’t Christmas, New Year’s Ain’t New Year’s) Without The One You Love / part 2, instr.

PIR 3514) I’m So Glad I’m Me / Do You Like The Way I Love (1972)

PIR 3529) It’s Forever (# 14/68) / Sexy Ways (1973)

PIR 3541) I Believe (# 34 / -) / Nation Time

PIR 3548) Life In The Country (# 69 / -) / Hook Up And Get Down (1974)

Buddah 537) Making Love Ain’t No Fun (Without The One You Love) (# 83-soul) / part 2 (1976)

Buddah 576) Neighborhood Gossip / Laughing (1977)

ALBUMS

THE EBONYS (PIR 32419; # 33) 1973

Hook Up And Get Down / It’s Forever / Life In The Country / Sexy Ways // I’m So Glad I’m Me / I’ll Try / Nation Time / I Believe / You’re The Reason Why

THE EBONYS SING ABOUT LIFE (BDS 5679) 1976

One Thing On My Mind / A Love Of Your Own / Neighborhood Gossip / Mr. Me, Mrs. You / If You’re In Need // (I’ll Know) When True Love Really Passes By / Sing About Life / Waiting For The Last Goodbye / Nobody But You / Laughing

THAT’S FOREVER (Swing City Records 13317) 2003

That’s Forever / When The Love Is Gone / You’re All I Need / All Of My Life / I Like When We’re Alone / That’s Forever (Wedding Bells) / That’s Forever (instr.) / When The Love Is Gone (instr.)

DAVID BEASLEY’S FABULOUS EBONYS (Society Hill 942 325 842-2) 2015

Anything That You Want / Do You Like The Way I Love You / You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good / It’s Forever / Do You Get Enough Love / You’re The Reason Why / Love Will Follow / Love Town / Determination / Loving You Is Mellow

(Interviews conducted on June 16, 17 and 22 in 2016; acknowledgements to David Beasley, Butch Ingram; Marc Taylor and Derek Anderson).

© Heikki Suosalo





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