Released in April '99, the self-financed It Must Be Love is one of the biggest surprises in last year's soul supply. The eight-piece, self-contained group out of the Washington D.C. area have made a CD that's going to sit firmly in my top-three of '99.
The manager, producer, vocalist and guitarist, Robert Owens, tells the story: "Me, the bass player (Andre Spears) and the keyboard player (Gary Aukard) used to play in a bunch of different groups. Seemed like every other year or so the three of us would come back together after playing with other groups. One year, I think in 1980, all three of us happened to live in the same neighbourhood and in the evenings we would always jam together. So we picked up on a drummer (Teddy Richardson) and the same year I ran into our lead singer, Jerome Mackall, at a club, and from there we just worked as a five-piece band. We did that for several years until I ran into Mr. Raymond Blake (organ) and Floyd Haywood (vocals). They came over to rehearse with us and went on to a show with us. They liked what was going on and they became members. Then about five years ago I ran into our female vocalist, Toni Love Matthews."
Hardway Connection is not a very common name for a group. "After dealing with a bunch of musicians and a bunch of bands, when I finally got this together I had a good feeling about us. I said 'I'm gonna name the band Hardway Connection, because it's been a hard time trying to get the right people together, who can work on the same wave-length'."
Even though It Must Be Love is their first CD, there's one album to their merit. "We had one out maybe about thirteen years ago. The name of that album was Excellent Girls, and it was on our label. Then back in '94 we took the first place in the International Blues Contest down in Memphis, Tennessee, and that's when we first started getting recognition."
The title track is an irresistible floater with Jerome Mackall sounding a lot like Jimmy Helms (a fine 60s and 70s solo artist, who later sang lead in Londonbeat). On Long Way Back, a soft bouncer, Jerome now sings not unlike Al Green. "Jerome does a lot of Al Green and Otis Redding material. When he's singing Otis, he sounds just like Otis, and when he's doing Al, he sounds just like Al."
The group writes most of its own material, but on four tracks here they have covered old material. All Night Blues was done by Dorothy Moore for her Malaco album, Feel The Love, and it was a small single hit for her in '90. Toni Love, who sounds like Doris Duke - that's how good she is! - turns the song into an impressive deepie. "I picked that particular one out for her, and she came out strong with that one - a little better than Dorothy was doing."
Roy C's unique '86 reading, Peepin' Through The Window, on which he proves that size does matter, is transformed into a light toe-tapper and renamed here Too Short (Peeping/Train). "That's one that I'm singing. When we are doing night clubs, they are always requesting me to do that song two or three times. Every time I walk off the stage, they want to look between my legs. I took a couple of Roy C songs (Peepin' and Leaving On The Morning Train from '82), combined them together and told a story using a little bit of my uncle's - Don Covay's - story I Was Checkin' Out She Was Checkin' In ('73)."
"Today Don Covay is doing better than he was about six years ago, when he had a brain tumour. He also had a blood vein busted in his head, and he was paralysed. He stayed in coma for about a year. He's paralysed now on his left side, but he's back talking. He's able to write, but I'm still working with him for a singing part. For the next CD that we are doing he's going to be co-writing on two or three songs. It'll come out probably sometime in April or May."
Somebody - with Jerome leading - is a nice soul ballad, which also has a strong Roy C feel to it. Down Home Blues and Stepping In combines two Z.Z. Hill favourites. "That's Mr. Downhome, Floyd Haywood. He did a couple of remakes this time, but next time around he'll be doing some real good original blues that we have on him. He's got a real strong voice, so we have three good vocalists. By the way, Floyd and Jerome - we call them 'the two midgets'. Both are about the same height, they're real short. A lot of times I put them out to do those Sam and Dave type moves. They work well together, and they also live together as room-mates for four or five years."
Find Me A Love is a swaying soul ballad with a fake 'live' audience on the background. "That was the only one that I took off from the Excellent Girls album and put on this CD. I might take the title tune, Excellent Girls, and put on the next CD. That album was a good album, but at the time we did it at a low budget and we did it mostly at home, so the quality wasn't as great as we have now. It was more like a learning experience for us. There were great tunes, and a lot of the clubs here still have it in their juke-box, and because of this new CD a lot of people are asking for it."
Funk And Blues is just what it says, and I'm So Glad is another thrilling deepie - similar to All Night Blues. Breakin' Up Somebody's Home takes us back to '72 and to Ann Peebles. "That's Floyd Haywood. We really didn't have that in mind to put on a CD. That particular tune we recorded about eight or nine years ago."
"The CD is doing pretty good here in the Washington area. Lately it has been spreading around the country, mainly down into the South-Eastern part like the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana. Right now I'm getting calls from overseas - Amsterdam, Japan and Canada."
The group has been and still continues to be a reliable ensemble for the visiting artists. "We've been backing and opening up for the Stylistics, Johnnie Taylor and doing things with Harvey Scales, Lee Fields, Percy Sledge and Chuck Roberson." The assistant manager, Raymond Blake, adds: "We've opened up for a lot of big acts , when they come into the neighbourhood - Roy C, Ruth Brown, Dr. John, Wilson Pickett and for a lot of blues artists."