The number of truly long-standing and outstanding vocal groups, who were formed many decades ago and who still today remain active and have some of the original members in their line-up, isn't that big anymore. Although the history of the Masqueraders doesn't stretch as far back as to the early 50s, nevertheless their career is a remarkable one. For one thing, who would have thought that a singing group that was started in Dallas, Texas, in the early 60s would be an up-and-coming group to be reckoned with in 2001?
The name “The Masqueraders” also derives from the early 60s, when - according to Robert Wrightsil - “we could sing everybody else's songs, and we could do it just like them or better.”
The birth of the group goes still further than that, to the late 50s. Robert: “Charlie Moore - who deceased in '99 - and I went to TC Haskell school together in Dallas, Texas. We started in the first grade together, separated around the fourth grade, but got back together in the eight grade and put up a group together called the Stairs. So Charlie and I are the originators of the group. That was in '57.”
Robert Lee Wrightsil (also known as “Tex” , since he came from Texas) was born in Dallas on May 2nd in 1944, and still today he is one of the three performing and recording Masqueraders. He sings tenor in the group and lives now in Memphis, Tennessee. “I used to sing a lot, when I was a kid. After that I started some stuff at school in the fourth-fifth grade. After that Charlie and I got together.”
Robert: “After Charlie and I got together, we recruited Johnny Davis. We were all still in elementary school. Johnny told us that his older brother Lawrence, who was in high school, sings first tenor, so we got him. I knew that Little Charlie Gibson could sing bass, so we recruited him. I was singing baritone, Charlie was doing lead, Johnny was first and Lawrence second tenor, and Charlie did bass.”
The Stairs recorded their very first and only songs for Alvin Howard's small label out of Dallas called Sound Town in the late 50s. Robert: “I remember a couple of songs - 'I got a girl and her name is Flossie Mae', sort of like a Coaster type of tune, and the uptempo Caveman Love that, I think, Alvin gave us, but I don't remember exactly, when we recorded them.”
After two years Lawrence and Johnny left. “Lawrence and Johnny didn't sing in other groups after they left the Stairs. What happened was, Lawrence got angry. Because he was the oldest, he figured that he had the best say. We disagreed on some thing and nobody went along with him, so he quit. I started singing second. Later he wanted to come back to the group, but I wouldn't give second back to him, because I could sing second better than him. After that Johnny quit. 'If my brother can't sing, I don't wanna sing either.' And I started singing first. Little Charlie joined the army in '61. He was short, about 5 ft 2.” Of the three, only Little Charlie re-joined the group later in the 60s.
THE NEW DRIFTERS
Robert: “We were always on the look-out for better singers. At the time everybody else had left and Charlie and I were looking for somebody to replace them, Charlie ran across Lee Westley Jones. Lee had a sweet lead and tenor, so we recruited him.” Lee was working as a valet at the time.
Those days also Harold “Sundance” Thomas, the second of the three members today, joined the line-up. Harold Larry Thomas was born on October 1st in 1942, and also resides in Memphis now. Sundance comes from the movie role, Butch Sundance. “I was born in Dallas but raised in Paris, Texas, because my grandmother lived in Paris and my mom went back down to take care of her. I grew up in Paris till I was about in the eleventh grade. I was mostly influenced by a lot of gospel music. My mom was singing in the choir at the church, so I just kinda picked it up from her.
“When my grandma died, we moved back to Dallas. I was interested in starting a group already in Paris, but there wasn't enough real good talent down there, so when I got to Dallas there was plenty of guys around that wanted to do something. I was walking home from school one day and I heard Lee playing the piano and harmonize. I didn't know it was him. It sounded like a record. Lee was about fourteen-fifteen years old at that time. So I walked up to the door to get the name of the record, because I liked it, but it was him. He had a couple of guys around him. That was his little group there. I also had a little group - we didn't have a name - and I had my cousin sing with me. Eventually after that we met up with Charlie and Tex. At that time they had a full group with five guys. That was like in '59.”
A little later also the third member of the present group, David “Cowboy” Sanders Jr., came along. He stays in Dallas, Texas, these days. He got the nickname Cowboy, because he always liked to wear a cowboy hat and boots, so he looked like a cowboy. “I was born on December the 28th in 1943 in a little town called Denton, Texas. My grandfather was a Baptist minister, and I - like all my family - was always singing gospel. I was singing gospel with a group of guys. First it was my brothers, before we moved to Dallas. Then with other guys I started a group in Dallas, so I was singing gospel, when I met Charlie. I guess, that was in '59. They were the Stairs then. I brought myself, Willie Charles Gray and a guy named Robert Cox. We had a group. We just had handpicked a couple of other guys. Robert Cox wanted to show off my singing abilities, so he took me to Charlie's house - me, him and Willie Charles Gray. They liked me and they liked my group, and Charlie wanted to recruit me to sing with him, but I
just didn't want to break my group up. So they got Charles Gray instead of me. I wouldn't go with them then.” David joined the group later in '61, when they hit the road as the New Drifters.
Willie Charles Gray replaced Little Charlie Gibson (who went to army) as their bass singer, but after working with the boys for awhile he later formed Charles Gray & the Panthers (I Found A Love / Don't Do It on Village in '64). Willie didn't sing on any of the group's recordings, neither did he tour as the New Drifters.
David: “That was like '61 - '65, when we went on the road as the New Drifters. That was myself, Deano, Charlie and Robert. The one, who really put that together, was Deano. So, in return, when we needed a singer in the 70s to replace Harold on the road - Harold went to college then - I called Deano.”
Deano's real name is Orberdean Deloney, and the reason, why Harold Thomas wasn't in the line-up for the New Drifters (even though he started with the boys as one of the Stairs in the late 50s), was that he was doing his military service those days. Harold: “I was in the Marine corps. I went in '61 in July and came back in '65. When I got out, I met Deano. Deano was hanging around Dallas. He was playing some clubs - he played bass - and he was a real good singer. When I got back, Deano left and went on his own. He probably went to Houston, where he lives now.”
Also Lee Westley Jones hadn't abandoned the guys. Robert: “Lee was in the group as a lead, but he didn't go on the road with us. We played in small towns and in several clubs around Dallas.”
In the early '64 the group released Man's Temptation - a song turned into a small hit by Gene Chandler in the fall of '63 on Vee-Jay - on a local MK label. Robert: “We were also called the Masqueraders by then. We hadn't heard that song, and we didn't know that Gene Chandler had recorded it.” Harold: “MK was Scotty McKay's label. It was a small label in Dallas, Texas. Scotty was a white guy around Dallas, who was trying to get into the music industry. He had heard us at some talent shows. We were a pretty good possibility for him. He had a band there and he did a pretty good production on us. I was in the Marine corps at the time, but I came home on furlough, when we recorded Man's Temptation.” Lee Jones sang lead, Harold first tenor, Robert second tenor and Charlie baritone. Due to Scotty's limited resources, the single, however, didn't go anywhere.
The second release from the group appeared on a label called Soultown. Talk About A Woman, a bit like an Impressions kind of a song - backed with a mid-to-uptempo ditty called That's The Same Thing - was by a printing error credited to the Masquaders. Harold: “We did that like in early '65, when I got out from the Marine corps and came home. Alvin Howard had been up in Detroit over at Motown and he came back and created a label. He was all fired up about it. So we put together Talk About A Woman and That's The Same Thing and put it out on Alvin's new label called Soultown.”
The line-up on the single was Lee Jones, Robert Wrightsil, Charlie Moore, Little Charlie Gibson (who by now had re-joined the group for a short spell) and Harold Thomas - but no David Sanders in sight. David: “At that time I was also doing a lot of solo stuff around town with given bands. I did a lot of blues, gospel and stuff like that, but there were no solo recordings.” David, however, got back with the boys, when Little Charlie left for good and when the line-up became more or less permanent (Robert, Charlie, Harold, David and Lee), as the group made their trip to Detroit. Harold: “Little Charlie didn't sing with us anymore. I think that David came in and took his place. Little Charlie might have been on furlough at the time, when we did Talk About A Woman. I can't remember, what happened with Little Charlie.”
Harold: “After we put that one single out on Soultown, we left at the end of May in '65 to Detroit.” David: “We didn't have any money, so we borrowed some - enough for a flight one way.” Robert: “Alvin Howard had worked in Detroit and he told us about Motown and he said he had talked to Mickey Stevenson and if we went up there, we'd get a deal. But when we went to Detroit, Mickey Stevenson was gone and nobody knew that we were coming, so they put us with James Dean to audition. They turned us down. They said they weren't gonna stop writing for the Four Tops and the Temptations to write for us. Here we are in Detroit. We're stranded, with no way home.”
Lee, Robert, Charlie, Harold and David were adviced to look for a gig at a club called Twenty Grand in Detroit, where they actually did perform several times. Robert: “When we left Motown, we walked from the West side to the East side, because that's where Twenty Grand was. It was a long way, man. On the way there was a big two-storey house with a sign “La Beat”. In the middle of the floor we saw a microphone. Somebody said 'that looks like a studio. Let's go and see, if there's anybody in there'. We went to knock on the door and told that we were a singing group from Texas and we would like to audition for them. We started singing and the guy asked, if we could wait till the owner of the studio, Lou Beatty, got back. He owned a construction company, the studio and some motels. Next Monday we went back to La Beat and met with Mr. Lou Beatty, and he told us that he would give us an apartment in the basement of one of his motels and that he would give us enough money, so we went for it. That sounded real sweet to us at the time.”
The first single on La Beat in '66, A Family, was released also on Tower Records. Robert: “I think Tower was a subsidiary of Capitol in Canada. A Family was a song that Lou Beatty wrote. He was a religious man and he was a family man. He thought that the world needed something that made sense, and family made sense to him. It's almost a spiritual song.”
David: “Lou Beatty was such a nice guy. They wanted to call us a gospel group, because we had that song out, A Family. They didn't know, which way to play it at the time - play it on gospel or r&b - so we didn't get a lot of promotion over there.”
MODERN DAY WOMAN
Their five follow-up singles on La Beat Records in '66 and '67 were mostly produced and written by Lou Beatty and the three Brothers Of Soul members - Fred Bridges, Robert Eaton and Richard Knight - who were to have a Detroit-based hit on their own in '68, I Guess That Don't Make Me A Loser, on Boo Records. David: “They were three guys that we met at La Beat. They were producers and they wrote some of the early stuff that we recorded - I Got The Power, One More Chance.”
The Masqueraders also did a lot of background work for other La Beat artists (Lester Tipton, Al Williams etc.) - most notably for James Shorter, who in '66 recorded for La Beat the original version of Modern Day Woman, which the group covered for their '77 Love Anonymous album. The song was written by James together with Don Eberhart. David: “We loved that song. James Shorter and Don Hart had a duo, and they had something out that we helped them to promote, because we thought they were such great songwriters and would be famous.”
Among the six other songs the group recorded for La Beat there were such uptempo cuts as I'm Gonna Make It, How (Can I Go On) and I Got The Power, one mid-to-up-pacer called Together, That's The Only Way and two ballads, Be Happy For Me and One More Chance. One single was released with an alternative b-side called Be Happy For Me by the L.P.T.'s, which was an instrumental by La Beat Production Team. The L.P.T.'s also appeared on Lou Beatty's other label, Mary Jane, alongside Willie Wilcher, the Arabians and the Natural Looks.
After one year in Detroit the group decided to head back down South. Robert: “We left, because we weren't making any progress. We felt that at the time we had outgrown La Beat Records and we wanted to be in the big time. At the time Memphis was happening, so on the advice of Alvin Howard we went in and talked to Chips Moman.”
David: “Chips was a salesman. He had a good ear for music. He was a pretty decent fellow - made a lot of promises that he couldn't keep, but we didn't worry about that. During that time we had learned to write. We put together like fifteen or twenty songs and we'd rehearse every day. On our way back from Detroit we stopped in Memphis. We were trying to get with Stax.” Harold: “Alvin had told us to stop by American, and so we did. They told us that Chips wasn't there, but they would call him. In the meanwhile Bobby Womack said 'let me hear, what you guys got'. So we did a couple of songs for him, and Bobby and Darryl Carter liked them. Bobby said 'look, there's no need for you guys go over to Stax. Why don't you just stay right here at American, cause you've got a great opportunity over here'.” Robert: “Bobby, who was in the studio playing his guitar, told us that we'd probably get lost in the shuffle over at Stax, because they had so many artists on their roster but they really didn't have that many artists at American. So we stood a better chance making it there. We took his advice and stayed. After we auditioned to Chips, he gave us a contract.”
The group signed with Penthouse. Harold: “Penthouse was a mother company to AGP. AGP had not been established, when we got there.” AGP was Chips' label, an American Group Production.
LET'S FACE FACTS
At American the group not only had their own releases, but also did some background vocals for other artists like Arthur Conley (Sweet Soul Music), Wilson Pickett (I'm In Love) and the Box Tops (on their '68 Cry Like A Baby album). David: “We met Elvis, King Curtis, Joe Simon, Wilson Pickett and people like that. Wilson was very calm in the studio. He was a very positive person. He was very much laid-back. When we travelled on the road, he played a little more vibes. We would do a lot of background stuff. As a matter of fact, that's how we survived in Memphis at the time. We were also writing songs.”
One of the artists they wrote songs for was Sam Hutchins. Harold: “We discovered Sam in Dallas and we took him with us as an extra. But because he had a great voice, Chips wanted to record him as a solo artist. So we proceeded to write some songs for him. We also did back-up on his records. He was part of our show. When we traveled, he opened for us.”
Sam had solo singles out on Mala and AGP in '68 and '69 (I Can't Stop Cryin'/ I Can Make You Happy, I'm Tired Of Pretending/Dang Me, Big D Breakdown/ I'm The One For You). Robert: “Sam is still in Dallas. He drives a truck.” Another artist they wrote songs for those days was Roosevelt Grier.
The first single in '68, a deep and aching ballad called Let's Face Facts, was produced by Chips Moman and backed with a Four Tops type of a song titled I Don't Want Nobody To Lead Me On, which actually was meant to be the A-side. Let's Face Facts, with Lee Jones leading, was recently reissued on a Kent compilation called When A Man Cries ('99). It has the same backing track as James Carr's I Gotta Go, which correctly was credited to H.L.Thomas and L.W.Jones, Jr.
Let's Face Facts as well as the next, self-written single - a soul slowie titled Sweet Lovin' Woman (also on the When A Man Cries comp) backed with an uptempo Do You Love Me, Baby - were released on the Wand label. Harold: “Chips was cutting Ronnie Milsap at the time at American, and Florence Greenberg was also in the house, when we were there. We were just waiting. We had already recorded I Don't Want Nobody To Lead Me On, Let's Face Facts and Sweet Lovin' Woman. Chips didn't know what he was gonna do with us at the time, but Florence came in with Ronnie Milsap, and Chips made a deal with her to release those two singles.”
I AIN'T GOT TO LOVE NOBODY ELSE
The next single, a soulful beat ballad called This Heart Is Haunted (appeared on a recent Goldmine compilation named Deep Soul Inferno), was released on Larry Utall's Amy Records under the title of Lee Jones and the Sounds Of Soul. Harold: “Between the transition of our staying with Wand and Larry Utall, who had Bell Records, we had come up with some more tracks. Chips was really excited. We were already hooked up with Wand as the Masqueraders, but Chips figuring himself to be a smart business guy wanted to release more material on us. He did it by releasing it under the name of Lee Jones and the Sounds Of Soul. It was little odd, but it was just a one-record deal.”
The single was produced by Tommy Cogbill. Robert: “Tommy was a studio musician, a bass guitar player, plus he would produce us some things. Actually he's the one that got us a hit. We'd give Chips our best song and he'd say he didn't like it. We'd give Tommy our best song, and he'd record us.”
Here Robert is referring to a deep ballad called I Ain't Got To Love Nobody Else, which turned out to be the first big hit for the group (# 7 - r&b / # 57 - pop) in late '68. Chips gave also this record to Larry Utall, who now put it out on Bell. David: “Most of the songs we cut were done as demos. That's why we never had an album during that time, because when we were recording it was meant for someone else to record. I Ain't Got To Love Nobody Else was for us, but at the time, when we did that song, Chips really didn't like it. Tommy Cogbill did the production on that. A DJ came by to listen to some of the stuff in the studio, liked our record and thought it was a hit, so they put it out and it took off.” Robert: “We did a lot of work on that particular song. It was a song that took us to the Apollo. We worked many venues in New York, Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia and other places.”
I'M JUST AN AVERAGE GUY
Their follow-up ballad, I'm Just An Average Guy - also self-written and also produced by Tommy Cogbill - went only to # 24-r&b with no pop-show. This time the song appeared on Chips' own AGP imprint. Robert: “Chips thought he could make more money by us being on his label, but he didn't know how to promote.” Harold: “I believe that Chips jumped the gun and told Larry he wanted to put us on the AGP label and I think it kinda frustrated Larry. Larry liked black groups. His people were set up to promote black music. When I Ain't Got To Love Nobody Else hit into the hot-100, Chips got excited and told Larry that 'for the next single I want to put the group on my label'. The conflict came, when Chips put us on AGP but still wanted Bell Records to distribute it. Average Guy was such a great record and we were still hot behind I Ain't Got To Love Nobody Else, but we didn't get any push on Average Guy.”
Next two singles on AGP in '69 flopped. A big-orchestrated, self-written beat ballad titled Say It backed with a Wayne Carson Thompson dancer, The Grass Was Green, was once more produced by Tommy Cogbill. Love, Peace And Understanding was an uptempo dancer with a country-tinged Tell Me You Love Me placed on the flip. Harold: “We didn't have a distributor. Larry was just frustrated. After that Chips - to make amends with Larry - agreed to put us back on Bell Records, but it was over. Larry was already heart-broken.”
The two farewell Bell singles in '70 were still produced by Tommy. How Big Is Big by Joe Levine was a melodic, poppy mid-pacer, whereas the group-written Please Take Me Back was a pleading deepie. The final release, Steamroller, caught the ear of another Memphis resident. Robert: “We didn't like Steamroller, but Elvis heard it the way we were doing it, and he liked it.” David: “We met Elvis at American studio. He was a very quiet like person. We had cut Steamroller and Elvis heard it. They were trying to get Elvis record there, so they were playing him a lot of different songs.”
Harold: “Chips and Don Crews, who were the owners of the American Group, busted up, and we left. That was in 1970.” Robert: “We went back to Texas and had a little work.”
WAKE UP FOOL
While the boys took regular jobs, they didn't forsake music altogether, but had three singles released in '71 and '72 on their own Dallas-based label called Stairway. David: “It was just local stuff. It was good stuff, but we just didn't have money to follow it up.”
First they released a ballad called Let Me Show The World I Love You, which had its backing track called Masquerader's Theme on the flip. The uptempo The Truth Is Free (pt.1/pt.2) followed, and the third single was a combination of the first two. (A song known as Wear My Ring is actually Let Me Show The World I Love You).
Harold: “They did real good locally. We didn't know a lot about the industry. We had met with a distributor, who had several shops in the area. We called him and told that we had cut a record, and he gave us the money to press it up. We only got five thousand records pressed up, but we sold most of them. We also went to a big, three-state distributor out of Dallas, Texas, and they said they would distribute it for us. The radio stations started playing it, and then somebody got pissed off about it and they took it off.”
Lee Jones, however, wasn't on those records anymore. Jones had turned into Hatim. Harold: “Lee had become a muslim, and he said he didn't want to sing anymore. Lee was still with us, when we next went to Royal. He said he would help us, but he just didn't want to sing, so we took Sam Hutchins and went on with him. Sam was right there, and we just told him that we needed a five-man group. That's how we cut those singles on Hi Records.”
In 1973 the group returned to Memphis. They hooked up with Willie Mitchell to record two singles at Royal Studios for Willie's Hi label. Robert: “Darryl Carter at American went over to Royal, producing over there, and told us to come down.” Harold: “Darryl and Willie had been talking about us, and if we weren't with anybody at the time, then we could come down there and we could probably get something going. When we got there, Willie just kinda stepped aside and let Darryl produce us” (although on the singles it says 'prod. by Tom Cogbill').
The first single offered a ballad titled Let The Love Bells Ring (backed with a Darryl Carter mid-pacer called Now That I've Found You), but it was the second one, a gospelly beat ballad by the group named Wake Up Fool, that is usually hailed as their best Hi moment. Here Sam Hutchins takes the lead for the first time. However, after those two singles they were free agents again. Robert: “At Hi they were basically just concentrating on Al Green, so we got lost in the shuffle.”
BABY IT'S YOU
Those days one of the founder members, Charlie Moore, got so sick that he had to leave the group. He had bronchitis, asthma and emphesymia, and his smoking only made it worse. On the other hand, Lee Hatim (aka Jones) came back, so in 1974 the line-up was Robert Wrightsil, Harold Thomas, David Sanders, Lee Hatim and Sammy Hutchins. Harold: “Lee had had a chance to get over the newness of the Islam. He had been in it for about three or four years. Then we got with Isaac Hayes. That was a big jump from Chips Moman and Willie Mitchell. Isaac had Shaft. He was really hot, plus he was starting a brand new company, Hot Buttered Soul, and he was going to be distributed by ABC Paramount. So we talked to Lee and asked, if he wanted to be a part of this, and he said 'yeah'.”
The group got in touch with Isaac Hayes through mutual friends. Harold: “Eula Jean Rivers, who used to be with the Charmels, was instrumental in helping us get with Isaac. She passed away in September last year. At that time she was hooked in with Isaac. As a matter of fact, she was married to Skip (Charles Pitts), who was the guitar player to Isaac - did the guitar thing on Shaft. Another one was a musician called Mickey Gregory, who was a trumpet player. We had told Mickey that there was a song on one of Isaac's latest albums that didn't have any lyrics in it and we thought that we could write some lyrics to it for him. Mickey took us to the HBS studios and laid it onto the track. At the time Isaac was in Hawaii, but he called Isaac over there and played it to him. Isaac wanted to know, who those guys were, and Mickey told him they were the Masqueraders, and Isaac asked 'the same guys, who did I Ain't Got To Love Nobody Else and I'm Just An Average Guy - I want them guys'. That's how we came to be with Isaac.”
David: “Isaac was a very, very nice person. Isaac played horns - a lot of people don't know that - and he sang bass on a few tracks with us. He also played keyboards.”
Those days for a short spell the force behind the New Drifters in the first half of the 60s, Deano aka Orberdean Deloney, came back to replace Harold Thomas. Harold: “I went to college, and I had to get a couple of my kids off to school. I was also involved in 'The Goals For Dallas' that was a committee, who planned ahead fifteen-twenty years in the future. Deano replaced me, but he's not singing on the Everybody album at all. He only toured on it. After we had recorded the album, Isaac's people wanted to change the agreement and I didn't go along with it. People see Deano's name on the album, but that really was a bad mistake on Hot Buttered Soul's part. They really messed it up. I didn't sue, because I didn't think that was the right way to do it, but I should have, because they would have straightened it out.”
The first single in '75 was a newly arranged, almost unrecognizable cover of the '62 Shirelles hit (by Bacharach-Davis-Williams), Baby It's You (# 76 - soul). This slowie was backed with an almost inspirational beater called Listen. Harold: “It was our idea to cut Baby It's You. We had been performing it and kinda messing around with it.” Robert: “Lee worked up with the arrangement and all those chords. Actually it was so unlike the song we were doing that we should have gotten writers on it.”
The succeeding album - the very first one since the group was formed eighteen years earlier - Everybody Wanna Live On, was produced and arranged by Isaac, recorded at Hot Buttered Soul recording studio in Memphis and orchestrated by Lester Snell. David: “Lester was a very beautiful person, very spiritual and a very nice family man. As a matter of fact, I see him a lot now, when I'm here in Memphis. He plays in the church, where Harold goes to. A great engineer, too - a lot of people don't know that.”
Rhythm and horns were provided by the Movement, strings and other horns by Memphis Symphony Orchestra and all the songs, except Baby It's You, were written by the Raders. Harold: “We had all contributed to the material that was written for that first album, also Eula Jean Rivers. Instead of putting all six names on each song, Isaac just put the Raders. That was just a short of the Masqueraders. We made a notation with BMI, so that they would know the Raders, too.”
THE TRAVELING MAN
From the lot of nice and catchy movers (Everybody Wanna Live On) and fine harmony ballads (Honest And True) for the next single they picked up a classy ballad titled (Call Me) The Traveling Man (# 32-soul / #101-pop), backed with a dancer called Sweet Sweetning. The third single culled from the album was another quality slowie, Your Sweet Love Is A Blessing, which was flipped by a heavy mid-pacer named Please Don't Try (To Take Me Away To The Sky), but it didn't chart anymore.
Between the albums the group was approached by Mr. Kenny Gamble. Robert: “We had a hit from the Everybody Wanna Live On album, The Traveling Man, and it was number one in Philadelphia. They had two number one records at the same time - ours was number one together with Rufus and Chaka Khan (Sweet Thing). We played one club there for a week, and Kenny came to see us. He came into the dressing room and he told us that 'you're the baddest cats that I've heard', and he had the O'Jays, the Intruders and others - so that's saying something. Then he invited us into the studio, but we didn't go, because we were loyal to Isaac and we had a hit. But had we known that Isaac was in the process of filing bankruptcy, we would have went to Kenny.”
The second HBS album two years later, Love Anonymous, didn't produce any singles. Robert: “Actually that was a contractual thing. We had to give him another album.” Again produced by Isaac, arranged by Isaac and Lester Snell, recorded at HBS studio and backed by Movement and the Memphis Strings, for discos there's the jolly title track, but the cream cuts are the three gorgeous ballads - doowopish Love Between A Woman And A Man, Can't Nobody Love Me Like You Do and the truly beautiful and melancholy It's A Terrible Thing To Waste Your Love (by Lee Hatim). A cover of James Shorter's '66 La Beat recording, Modern Day Woman, opens the set.
The ten-minute Runaway Slave by Lee Hatim reminds a lot of the sound Norman Whitfield was creating those days. Harold: “We really did the arrangement on that. Isaac's musicians always played the music. Lee was our musician at that time. That's the way it was originally arranged. The guys heard him play and they just got on it. When Isaac heard it, he had to change the lyrics around a bit and make it less race motivated. He didn't want to get in trouble about it.”
Harold wrote a light and poppy dancer titled The Bicentennial. Harold: “The song came out like that. It was a happy song. It really was supposed to be a song of celebration.”
After the fall of Hot Buttered Soul, the group was on the loose again. David: “There were times with Isaac, when we felt we weren't properly promoted. Our song, The Traveling Man, was number one all over the country, but we weren't getting a lot of monetary aid. When Isaac filed bankruptcy, we couldn't go into the court, because we were on tour. So it was rather tricky.”
In the late 70s the group cut some sides (Good Hearted People, Oh My Love, Paradise, Oughta Mean Something, Don't You Ever Take Your Love Away, Saving My Love, Love Of My Life) for the Pathfinder label, but they remained unissued. Harold: “We went with Paul Zelesky and recorded that music, and we were really trying to get with Pathfinder, but they folded. They had about six or seven different acts. They were also trying to work as a management company. They called several record companies to come in and check the material out.” One of their acts was Ollie Nightingale, who the group backed on his I'm In Love single in '78.
David: “We were trying to get Elliot Clark, the manager of Pathfinder, to sign us to a record deal. We put together a show-case and a lot of record companies got interested in it, but we had poor management.” Robert: “I'm pretty sure they're going to release those songs in the can once they find out that we're doing something.”
Harold: “In '79 I recorded a gospel single called Get On Up And Serve The Lord. It's on my own Gospel City Records label. The b-side was called Be Kind To Somebody Today. I released it locally, but I couldn't get anybody to distribute it.”
Finally the group struck a deal with Ilene Burns' Bang Records in '80. Harold: “Jerry Victor got us through to Ilene. She loved our demos. She had a producer there in the staff, whose name was James Stroud. He was a white guy, who had produced Misty Blue on Dorothy Moore, so he had some experience with black music and he was a good drummer, also. He tried to reproduce the demos that we had and that we had cut in Memphis with some of the best musicians around Memphis at the time. We cut it as a low budget thing, so we really didn't call it a session, but it was great music. James tried to reproduce that demo. It didn't happen, but he did a pretty good job.” David: “We had used Memphis musicians. As a matter of fact, we used some of the same people that Isaac had. At Bang they couldn't match up with our tracks.”
Their eponymous album was produced by James Stroud, “recorded” in Atlanta and all nine tracks were written by the group - for the most part by Lee Hatim. There are only two slowies on display, soft Into Your Soul and a melodic, country-tinged ballad called For The Sake Of Pride. The rest of the repertoire leans heavily on disco and funk. Robert: “That was what was happening at the time.” Harold: “Disco was coming in real strong, so James was trying to reproduce it as disco as he could. We put a lot of effort into that album, but somehow it lost some of the soul that Ilene had heard. It never really got a good play. After that James left Atlanta and went to Nashville, where he's doing great in country music now.”
An energetic beater called Desire hit the charts (# 38-soul) in the spring of '80, but the follow-up, a gently bouncing disco dancer titled Starry Love, flopped, which also meant bye-bye to the company. Robert: “They also wanted us to give them the publishing.”
Harold: “After the Bang album didn't happen, everybody got disenchanted, and we weren't making any money. After Isaac's bankrupt and Bang everybody thought we should take a break. We decided we would come back later. Robert: “We all kinda went our separate ways, but we never did quit. We might have been inactive, but our hearts and soul were still in the group. We refused to let the group die, because we felt we had something that nobody else had..”
After the Bang album, Lee and Sam started driving trucks, Harold took a job in postal service and Robert had a beauty salon and a store, which works as a club now. David: “I did few jobs during the time, but most of the time I was performing music by myself. I was with a group called Bexar Street. That's the name of the street that's down here in Dallas, where David “Fathead” Newman came from. I was doing vocals, Willie Rose plays horns and we have a bass guitar and a keyboard player. Basically, that's how I survived.” Harold: “We waited on Lee and Sam to come back, but we finally realized that they weren't coming.”
WHEN TROUBLE CALLS
In the 90s, besides doing some background work (J. Blackfoot, Shirley Brown, Lynn White), the group in the line-up of Robert, Harold and David released new material on their own TNT label - a pretty season song called Merry Christmas and an impressive ballad named When Old Man Trouble Calls (which was recently reissued on the Hayley Presents 15 Soulful Serenades compilation). The name, TNT, comes from Texas and Tennessee. The group wanted to hook the two states together. During Texas' battle with Mexico in the 1800s, many Tennesseans (Davy Crockett and others) came to help Jim Bowie at the Battle of the Alamo, and the group wanted to pay respect to that fact.
In the mid-90s the group did back-up vocals for two James Carr tracks - It's Sweet On The Back Street and a (recently released) remake of Dark End Of The Street - which were produced by Quinton Claunch with some help from John Ward. Harold: “The guy that owns the studio, Doug Easley, was the one that really hooked us up with Quinton Claunch. We did our vocals later, after James had put his voice on.”
In 1999 they began to perform every now and then beginning with the Luther Ingram benefit concert in Memphis. In 2000 Harold retired from the post office and the group began a full-fledged attack on the music industry performing every chance they get. They now appear weekly at Blues City Cafe on Beale Street. Robert: “Earlier this year we played Chicago with the now a cappella El Dorados. Jerry Butler was the MC.” David: “We're gonna always be basic with three of us and a keyboard, which Harold plays. We might add a guitar player and horn players, because we like that sound. We like big sound on some of our songs, but with the musicians that won't rehearse and don't act right on the road or won't show up it's difficult. We've been through that. We think we're blessed, because we don't need that now. People love our singing so much that it's unbelievable.”
Harold: “We met Lisa Marie Presley at the Church of Scientology, when they opened the mission in Memphis. We had a song called He's The Father Of Lisa Marie, and we had an opportunity to sing for her at the mission. She liked it. At that point - I think it was '96 / '97 - we decided we're gonna go ahead with the three and not wait around anymore on the other guys. If they decide they want to come on later, they're welcome.”
Earlier this year an old friend, Darryl Carter, had arranged a new recording session for the trio in Chicago at Otis Clay's studio, but then David got the flu and they had to cancel the date. The idea of recording in Chicago still exists, but more recently they've also talked to many Memphis entrepreneurs - such as William Bell (of Wilbe) and Onzie Horne (of the House Of Blues studios) - about the possibility to cut some fresh sides at home. Their latest recordings were two tracks - It's My Religion Too and How The Mighty Have Fallen - on William Ellis' recent CD. Besides singing and playing bass guitar, William also writes for a major newspaper in Memphis called Commercial Appeal.
The growing interest in the group after they decided to come back for real just goes on to show that there's a genuine need for skilful harmonizing and emotional singing. David: “We're greater than we ever have been. We're more confident and we sound better. We're hot!!! We're good!!! And we're ready for Success.” Heikki Suosalo