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DEEP # 2/2016 (March)

  The Dramatics are back to a quintet again.  I had a nice chat with L.J. Reynolds about recent developments and future plans – both solo and group-wise - after which I contacted the newcomer in the group, Lavel Jackson, and learned about his achievements in music, mostly in Saginaw, Michigan.

  Further below inserted in reviews you can also read comments from Mickey McGill of the Dells and John Ward, the head of Ecko Records in Memphis.  The column closes with my review of a DVD, which coincidentally deals with the Memphis music scene.

Content and quick links:

The Dramatics: L.J. Reynolds & Lavel Jackson

New CD release reviews:
Regina Belle: The Day Life Began
CD Single: The Dells: Breakup No More
Rue Davis: Big Hip Woman
O.B. Buchana: Mississippi Folks
Terry Wright: You’re just Standing in a Good Man’s Way
Chuck Roberson: Over in the Woods

Reissue/Compilation CD reviews:
Various: Harmony of the Soul/Vocal Groups 1962-1977

DVD Review:
Various: Take Me to the River


  Saginaw is a city in Central Michigan with a population close to 50 000, and it is situated about 100 miles northwest of Detroit.  Serena Williams and Stevie Wonder were born there as well as one L.J. Reynolds, who at 20 replaced William “Wee Gee” Howard in the Dramatics in late 1972.  Talking about a small world, the latest member they brought on, Lavel Jackson also hails from Saginaw.

  L.J.: “I was living in Saginaw back in the ‘60s.  I started going to New York at 11...12 and I left Saginaw at about 17, and I haven’t lived there since.  Lavel Jackson was just a little bitty baby boy, when I first met him in Saginaw.  He walked around in diapers.  He’s got a brother named Raymond – they called him Monk - who I went to high school with.”

  The last time I talked to L.J. almost four years ago was right after the split-up with Willie Ford, and in the same article I introduced the late Ron Banks’ replacement, Leon Franklin.  You’ll find those interviews at

  L.J. tells about his re-acquaintance with Lavel after fifty years.  “I was looking for a second tenor for the Dramatics, a real natural one, and somebody told me about this young man.  Right now he’s kind of standing back there a little bit, and we’re bringing him out front.  That’s how I used to break all the entertainers before.  His first introduction to the public was on the Soul Train Cruise.  He had a great response.  Then recently he did with us the Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., the Beacon Theatre in New York and the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City.”

  “Lavel Jackson is a very talented singer and as a matter of fact he’s a great songwriter.  My previous CD Come Get to This did so well that I’m working on another solo project now and he’s got some songs I’m very interested in for my upcoming album.  So far I’ve recorded Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me and I Just Can’t Stop Dancing and Stop the War, Save the World.  I also re-recorded Key to the World and made it better than what it was.”  Key to the World has evolved into one of L.J.’s most requested songs.  Originally it was released on Capitol in 1981 (# 69-soul).  “I’m getting ready to shoot a new video in two months.  The video for Come Get to This became so popular that it just won’t go away.”

  “We’re also going to work on a Dramatics project.  I already have a single called Bad Girl.  It’s on a compilation CD from my record company (Motor City Hits, vol. 1).  That’s going to be the vehicle to that Dramatics CD.” (Interview conducted on February 29, 2016;


  Lavel was born on September the 2nd in 1963 in Saginaw, Michigan.  In the big family of six brothers and five sisters, Lavel actually is the only one to pursue a career in music.  Lavel: “Our household was listening to Motown and to the soul music.  My favourite singers were Al Green, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin... The Motown sound and the soul music of the 60s and 70s had a big influence on me.  However, wanting to be a singer happened in a concert I went to, when I was about 11 or 12.  My father took me to a B.B. King concert.  That was really when I got bitten to want to do my career in music.  My style of music has always been influenced by blues, r&b and gospel music.”

  “My first opportunity to sing publicly was in my neighbourhood church choir by the name of Prince of Peace.  Then I started singing in school choirs and from that point I joined bands.  I play the trombone, so I joined bands playing instrumental music.  One day a guy in a band heard me singing and asked me if I’d like to sing in front of the band.  I tried it, and the reaction from the band and the people that had come to listen to us was great.”


  “B.A.D. was the first band that I sang with.  It was a 5-member group.  We actually recorded and had a great song that was number one in our city, Stay Awhile.”  Released in 1985 on Sinban Records (JC 0029) out of Saginaw, Stay Awhile was a smooth ballad written by Lavel Jackson, Deon Weathers and Jeff Chandler and produced by the owner of the label, James Carpenter.  The flip was a funky dancer named Secret Admirer.  “We did a few shows in different places, where the song was played and doing really well.  We followed that with another song called All I Want Is You and had a number one song with that too.”  All I Want Is You (JC 0033; 1986) is another pretty group harmony ballad, backed with an instrumental.

  “We thought we were on our way, but it just didn’t work out, so I made a decision to start singing in nightclubs and the first opportunity to do that was with the group called the Crowd Pleasers.”  This 7-man group worked out of Columbus, Ohio, and prior to Lavel – actually almost ten years earlier - they had released a self-titled album on Westbound in 1979.  Kenneth “Babyface” Edwards was a member for a moment in the late 80s, and today there still exists an updated version of the Crowd Pleasers called CP2

  Lavel didn’t cut any recordings with this group, neither with Valentine, which was another nightclub group he worked with those days.  In Valentine he replaced Dezi Phillips, who went solo and released an album titled Kickin’ It on Tabu in 1989.  Dezi was the nephew of Jimmy Reed, and he too was born in September 1963 in Saginaw.  “I toured with Dezi for a brief period of time.  I didn’t get a chance to go into the studio with him.  We were actually working on some music for his follow-up project, but he passed away” (in 2009).


  “One of the guys from the B.A.D. band, Deon Weathers formed another group called Seville, and we got a recording contract with Motown in 1990-91.  We recorded a full album in Atlanta, but they never released the project.  We decided to take our masters and shopped with a couple of labels.  In general the music had started to change.  We were still trying to shop the band idea, but that just wasn’t working at the time and we broke up after that.  The music we cut in Atlanta was like the group Guy, or Bell Biv DeVoe, or the Bobby Brown sound... more dance stuff with a couple of ballads and more production-orientated music.”

  “I stayed in Atlanta for about four or five years, till 1995.  I was pretty much doing production work down there, like at Dallas Austin’s studio.  I was working with Al Haymon for his music production and record label.”

  In the late 80s and early 90s Lavel still had a few production deals with the Sinban label, including an urban r&b album with Trina Perry called Let’s Get It On in 1994 where Lavel appears as a co-vocalist, too.  “U Be U was a recording studio in Saginaw and I worked with them doing some production work, and I also did background vocals and hooks for some rappers’ songs.”  Gee Pierce was the owner of the studios and Lavel worked with Mack The Jack’A, Dangerous D, Fab Five Freddy, The Dayton Family and Top Authority, among others.


  In 2001 Lavel released his first solo CD, A Changed Man, and since then during the last fifteen years he has released as many as eight albums.  “All CDs were released under my self-created labels, Hymn Productions Inc. and F.B.T. Productions.  All CDs were written, produced and recorded by me.  I record, mix and master all my projects in my own recording studio.”

  You can admire Lavel’s high tenor voice in different moods and styles, although he tends to concentrate on downtempo, smooth music.  Rooted in melodic soul, he moves easily from Christian contemporary to urban neo-soul and hip-hop, even as far as using vocoders/talkboxes.  “I consider my music as urban/soul-gospel.  There’s definitely an urban flavour, but most of my music I call soul music, and then there’s the gospel influence.”


·        A Changed Man (2001)

·        Melodies from Heaven (2002)

·        The Christmas Album (2003)

·        Hip Hop Hymns (2004)

·        His Way (2007)

·        Watching Over Me (2008)

·        Sweet Soul Music (2010)

·        “Songs” (2012)

The latest release in 2015 is a single titled No Weeping.

  In recent years Lavel has performed with a 6-piece band called Soul Xpress, although lately he’s billed also as Lavel Jackson and the Soul Explosion.  “It’s pretty much the same group, except Soul Explosion is when I do original music.”


  The quartet of L.J. Reynolds, Winzell Kelly, Donald Albert and Leon Franklin is now strengthened by a new member.  “I got a call from a friend of mine, who lives in Atlanta, and he said that the Dramatics were looking for a second tenor.  I was hesitant to make the contact and I didn’t call for two days.  After I talked it over with my wife and she was behind it 100-% - ‘go for it!’ – I made the call.  I talked to the legendary L.J. Reynolds.  He asked me to sing over the phone and after I passed that audition he asked if I would like to audition with his group and I said ‘sure’.  He set up an audition and then he did another audition with the band.  He told me he really liked my voice and my attitude and he offered me the position.  The Dramatics is one of my favourite groups of all times, and it’s been an awesome experience.  I’ve been doing it for a little over month now.  The first performance was on the Soul Train Cruise in Cayman Islands – what a way to start a career with the Dramatics!”

  “I had a conversation with L.J. and I said that my first and foremost priority will be the Dramatics.  I’m a songwriter also, and being able to work with the Dramatics has allowed me to meet great groups like the Stylistics, Bloodstone, Enchantment, Ray, Goodman & Brown and New Birth, and I’ve been able to network and give original material for other projects.  L.J. has expressed interest in recording some of my music, not only for his solo project but with the Dramatics as well.  I’m excited just to be a Dramatic, and I’m going to let that be my primary focus.”

(; interview conducted on February 29, 2016).


  The Day Life Began (SH 5828; is Regina’s 10th solo album, and this time she co-wrote four songs out of ten on the CD.  One of them is a big-voiced, mid-tempo stomper called He’s Alright, which was put out as a single.  Similarly a lot of melisma is used on the slower The Day Life Began, which opens the set.

  Produced and mostly written by two Heavyweights musicians, Jamie Jones and Jack Kugell, along with Monte Neuble and Tim Stewart, the music is skilfully orchestrated.  They gain still more power by adding a loud choir in the mix on many tracks, and overall this inspirational r&b set musically bears a resemblance to Regina’s purely secular sets.  On some songs vocally she reminds me of Anita Baker until she lets loose and lets her spirit flow higher and higher towards the end.

  The vivid You Know How to Love Me is actually quite true to Phyllis Hyman’s ’79 hit, and another disco-orientated dancer here is Open Your Eyes.  Among six ballads the two jazziest ones are the twilighty You and the complex but fascinating A Night of Love, with strings, French horns and everything.  The intimate and melodic ballad - and another single - Be Careful out There closes the set in a mesmerizing way (


  I normally don’t review singles, which in the end may lead to the demise of this column, because in this age of streaming and downloading the album concept is fading away and only singles survive.  Now I have to make an exception though, because there’s a new release by my favourite group the Dells, a beautiful and soulful ballad called Breakup No More – simply gorgeous music!

  The baritone Michael McGill tells about the history of the song.  “This ballad was recorded probably in 1992, after Philadelphia International Records opted out of the Dells 2-year option.  Eugene “Lambchops” Curry and the Dells recorded this in a small studio in Philly.  Bunny Sigler was the co-writer.  Lambchops took the master and disappeared, resurfaced approximately three months ago, spoke with Chuck Barksdale, and we released it as a single.”

  “The emotional part is that Marvin Junior and Johnnie Carter are still working for us from the grave... and that hurts.  But we were elated to drop this gem.”  A couple of months ago on Caroline International Records/SoulMusic Records they have also released Freedom Means on CD.  The album was originally released on Cadet in 1971 (# 4-soul / # 81-pop) (



  Big Hip Woman is a light, quick-tempo dancer and Rue Davis’ recent southern soul hit, and on his latest album by the same name (Big Mouth Productions 9814) it’s actually one of only two uptempo tracks.  The second one is the smooth I’m Looking for the Real Thing, and here Rue features his old friend, Lil Buck.

  Produced by Carl Marshall, all ten songs were written by Rue, and this time he concentrates on laid-back, down-tempo material.  There are still two mid-pacers, though, the sunshiny and gentle The Love of My Life and You Knew What You Had, which features Jabo, the “Texas Prince of Zydeco.”  You can read about Rue’s past career at

  The six ballads are all melodic, some poignant and pleading.  A Woman Needs Love may bring Joe Tex to your mind, whereas the pretty Can I Hold on to Your Hand derives already from Rue’s Avanti period in 1997.  Give the Children a Chance has a social message to it, while the inspirational Forgive Them urges Rue to his strongest vocal delivery on this most enjoyable CD.


  Mississippi Folks (ECD 1163) is already Aubles’ 12th new CD for Ecko Records ( and as ever John Ward produced it, co-wrote some of the songs and played guitar on tracks.  However, this time they’re testing diversity in sound by adding both Caribbean beat to Tasty Girl and Tip It Up (both co-written by Henderson Thigpen), and funk to Ghetto Funk  and to a degree to the title tune, Mississippi Folks, which carries on where Mississippi Boy left off.  The song was written by Charles Matthews, presumably O.B.’s cousin.

  John Ward: “We felt like it was time to try a few different things on O.B. to see if anything would stick.  I’ve noticed a lot of changes in the market as far as what is selling in the last 3 or 4 years and I think the younger crowd may be mostly responsible for that.  There is definitely a trend away from more bluesy songs and the buyers seem to be more interested in more modern sounding or dance orientated tracks.”

  I’ve always liked O.B.’s singing, and this CD makes no exception.  Swing On is one of those easily rolling party songs, whereas Rooster Rooster Guinea Guinea, co-written by Rick Lawson, fulfils the basic blues quota on this CD.  Among the ballads, two stand out: a soulful swayer called You Don’t Want a Good Man and the powerful If We Steal Away, which was written by William Norris, aka Sonny Mack, who has his second Ecko CD coming out on April 15th.

  John: “We are continuing to release as many CDs as always, including the re-mastered I’ll Drink Your Bath Water Baby by Ollie Nightingale, which had gone out of print several years ago.  We’ll also have two new gospel releases coming in the next two months.”


  Similarly to the O.B. CD above, the next two records were also released late last year.  You’re just Standing in a Good Man’s Way (TWAC 302; is Terrence Wright’s third album, and even though there are no credits in terms of writers and musicians – and there are some real instruments playing – I believe that Terry wrote all ten songs on display.  Anna Coday is the producer.

  She Whooped Me Good is a quick-tempo single release and Make that Body Rock is the other party song on the CD.  The rest of it is quite mellow, which suits Terry’s “boyish” high tenor well.  We can enjoy the romantic Your Love Again, the smooth Tonight Is Your Night and the very slow and simple Anytime, with a wailing sax on the background.  The two still more soulful ballads are the melancholic and almost churchy title tune and another single release, the poignant I Done Lost My Good Thang.  In short – soothing, sentimental and caressing music (


  Over in the Woods (Cruise on Records, MUI-CD-10131/COR-004) is probably 17th album in Chuck’s career.  Produced by him together with LaQuentin Williams, Cruise on Records is based in Madison, Florida.  Frankly the two familiar songs on the set – Disco Lady and When Something Is Wrong with My Baby – are quite uninspired, but there are some goodies among the rest of original, self-written songs. 

  Some of them have been available before, and We’re Gonna Have a Party – a rip-off of Sam Cooke’s Having a Party – is one of them, and the swaying Do It All Over is another one.  No Lollipop Man this time, though.  The two ballads I liked the most were It’s Not over Till You Say We’re Through and the wistful She Was Your Wife, But Now I’m her man

  Look no further than for the southern soul indie CDs above.



  Harmony of the Soul/Vocal Groups 1962-1977 (CDKEND 445;; 24 tracks, 9 previously unreleased, 75 min; notes by Ady Croasdell and Tony Rounce) is a most enjoyable compilation with sweet, sophisticated and smooth group sound.  Among personal favourites there are I Destroyed Your Love by Special Delivery, the Blue Magic sounding Don’t You Make Me Blue by the Fabulous Determinations and two fully orchestrated ballads, Let Me Take Care of Your Heart by the Smith Brothers and I Just Can’t Get Over Losing You by Imaginations.

  The Dramatic Experience is a splinter group from the Dramatics, who in the line-up of William Howard, Elbert Wilkins, Arthur Phillips, Dupree Sims and Isaac Red lasted for two singles in the mid-70s.  Soon after that William “Wee Gee” embarked on a solo career, but returned to the Dramatics for three years in 1986.  The b-side of their second single, Someday Somewhere, is a classy group harmony ballad.

  There are also some demos on this compilation, and one is an early 60s Del-Rios reading of Won’t You Call, led by Louis Williams.  The Del-Rios released only three singles between 1956 and ’62 (, and somewhere in the can there’s still one track led by William Bell called The Other Side of Town.  Another nice demo is a cappella by the Mad Lads titled It’s My Fault.

  Other noteworthy groups on this fine set are the Pretenders, the Superbs, Brothers of Soul, Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces, the Steelers and the Turn Arounds.



  Directed by Martin Shore and narrated by Terrence Howard, the documentary of Memphis music is now available on DVD, too.  There’s an accompanying CD to this feature film released on Universal in 2014.

  Take Me to the River (Shout! Factory LLC, SF 16466; 2015; 100 min. + bonuses 35 min.) invites many legendary singers and players back to Memphis, where “Boo” Mitchell at Royal Studios produces new music on them together with young hip-hop artists.  After these sessions unfortunately some of these legends have passed, e.g. Bobby Bland, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite and Hubert Sumlin.

  I’ve never been too crazy about the idea of mixing the music of rootsy soul veterans with rap, but should it awaken interest in our music among younger generation then it serves a purpose.  In this documentary it was interesting to watch rehearsals for the sessions and all the chatting and reminiscing.  After all, many of these musicians hadn’t seen each other for years.  I also enjoyed archive footages of Booker T & the MG’s, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers performing.  It was equally nice to see Charles “Skip” Pitts, Charles Hodges, Teenie Hodges, Marvell Thomas, Ben Cauley, Kirk Whalum, Lester Snell etc etc at their work during this shooting.

  The most rewarding for me, however, were the interviews with William Bell, Al Bell, David Porter and Deanie Parker about the history of Stax Records and how it all came to an end.  You’ll find more information about the music, artists, musicians and movie-makers at  Among the tracks laid down at those sessions there are Otis Clay’s Trying to Live My Life without You, Mavis StaplesWish I Had Answered, Bobby Rush’s Push and Pull and William Bell’s I Forgot to Be Your Lover.

© Heikki Suosalo

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