Soul man Charles Spurling
A Portrait of Charles Spurling
There was a time when no one in their right mind messed with Charles Spurling. James Brown tried it once, and ended up picking himself off the floor. “I dusted his butt,” laughs 72-year-old, Cincinnati-born Spurling, whose main claim to fame rests on co-writing, with Hank Ballard, Marva Whitney’s much-sampled funk classic, “Unwind Yourself,” in 1967.
Spurling says that he was involved in an altercation with the Godfather of Soul because he’d had a bloody fistfight with Brown’s group, the Famous Flames. “We was at a motel, Hank Ballard and I,” explains Spurling, a personable, straight-talking character. “I was down there for four days writing these songs for Hank. The Flames came in with James’s right-hand man, who arrived with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist carrying about $156,000. James Brown had told him to pay me for songs I’d written for Hank. I played the songs and then the Flames started arguing with each other. They wanted the songs for themselves and were saying, ‘No, I want this song, man!’ When it was time for me to go, and them to give me my money, they didn’t want to pay me. They wanted to keep the money for themselves. At first I thought they were bullshitting, but I knew they were serious when they tried to throw me out of the sixth floor window of the hotel.”
Looking back, Spurling can laugh at the situation, but in 1968, when it happened, he thought he was going to lose his life. Fortunately, his trusty guitar—the one he’d been playing and writing songs on since the age of nine—came to his rescue. “That guitar saved my life ‘cos I had stretched it over the window and it stopped me falling out. Then I swung it around and I popped this guy on the head. Blood went everywhere. Then I just started on all of them. Eventually the police came, but the Flames paid them off to keep quiet. They had hickeys on their head, blood and everything, but they wasn’t worried about me beating them up. You know what they was worried about? Mr. Brown. They said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to perform tonight.'”
Evidently, the Famous Flames tried to conceal what happened from James Brown, but a couple of weeks later, Spurling was summoned to Mr. Dynamite’s office for a showdown. The Godfather had found out and wasn’t pleased. “When I met him, he said, ‘Who in the hell do you think you are, beating on the Flames like that?'” But Spurling, who was raised in a tough neighborhood and was a keen amateur boxer—he’d even sparred with Muhammad Ali when he was known as Cassius Clay—wasn’t in the least intimidated by Brown’s fearsome reputation as a hard man. He had witnessed Brown resort to violence before.”I had seen James whup people on his staff: one was a program director and another one was a DJ”—but he wasn’t fazed. He said to Brown: “Wait a minute. Let me tell you something right now. I ain’t no goddamn Flame. Okay? I’m a man who’s been screwed over and messed over and I don’t take no shit from you. I need my damned money!” Incensed, the Godfather of Soul got out from behind his desk with the intention of flooring Spurling, but the songwriter stopped Brown in his tracks with a few choice punches. “James was a boxer, but didn’t know I was a boxer too,” laughs Spurling.
Ironically, after Brown found out the truth of what happened in the motel, he decided to give Spurling a job on his staff: “He came and got me to be his head A&R man for his James Brown Productions, because when he checked out everything, he found that I was honest, and that’s why he gave me the job—’cos he couldn’t trust nobody to work for him.”
At that point, Spurling put his own recording career—which had begun at King Records in 1967—on the back burner and channelled all his energies into working for James Brown. “I worked for him for about four or five years,” recalls Spurling. Ultimately, though, some of the unsavoury methods employed by Brown to stay top dog and keep his minions in line took its toll on Spurling and he quit: “I was tired of people just backstabbing and doing all these things just to stop somebody else. To me, that was just like Hitler. That’s the way I looked at anybody who was wrong.”
Charles Spurling’s clear notions of right and wrong came from the moral values instilled in him by religious parents when he was growing up in an impoverished area of Cincinnati in the ’30s and ’40s. He was the only boy of seven children. His father played guitar and sang with a local gospel group called the Bethel Spirituals. Life got tougher when his father left and his mother got ill: “My daddy left me and my mom when I was nine. She was blind from sugar [diabetes] and they amputated her legs. Everybody else had moved out and my brother-in-law bought me a guitar. That’s where I started. I had plenty of time with my mom. I had to stay and take care of her. My mom couldn’t read and I didn’t get a chance to go to school because I had to get three jobs after my daddy left to keep us from losing the home.”
Spurling lived in a neighborhood called Lower Sub, which was part of Lincoln Heights, and when he was a teenager, joined a gang whose rivals included the Isley Brothers. “The Isley Brothers lived in the Upper Sub,” recalls Spurling. “Upper Sub had new projects, running water, and they had electric. We had an outside toilet and lanterns. And no sidewalks—just dirt streets. So it used to be the Lower Sub that I lived in and they lived in the Upper Sub, with all the luxuries. And that’s why we always used to fight each other, for those simple reasons. All of us had gangs back then. But it was good gangs—it wasn’t like drive-by shootings and things like that.”
Local rivalry extended to musical duels: “I had a doo-wop group called the Swans at that time, when I was thirteen years old. The Isley Brothers would be under the streetlights and we’d be on the street across from them. They’d sing a song and we’d sing a song. Those were good days.”
Several years later, in the early 1960s, Spurling played guitar with an R&B group called the Holidays. He then tried his luck by moving to Detroit, where he knocked on the doors of Motown and Golden World to no avail—though he did meet Smokey Robinson.
Undeterred, Spurling moved back to Cincinnati. That was 1965, and by then, the singer-songwriter was married with five children. By chance, he heard an aspiring singer that changed the course of his career. “I thought it was a girl,” remembers Spurling, “because the range in his voice was so high. A guy next to me said, ‘No, that’s a guy. His name is Junior McCants.’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like to meet him,’ and at lunchtime he introduced me to the guy and I told him he had a nice voice. Junior already had a contract with King. He came to my house that evening for a rehearsal and he said, ‘Man, all I want you to do is write me a song.’ The first song that I wrote and got credit for was Junior’s ‘The Boy Needs Someone To Love.’ His record company’s owner, Mr. Syd Nathan, was really crazy about Junior, and so that got me in the door at King. I became a songwriter with them. Once Mr. Nathan hired me, I started writing for just about everybody that belonged to King.”
More importantly, perhaps, Spurling was allowed to cut his own records for the company, and issued five singles, of which the driving, Motown-esque “She Cried Just A Minute”—released in 1967—has achieved cult status on the UK’s Northern Soul scene. (Original copies of the 45 can exchange hands for three hundred dollars.) Says Spurling about the song’s inspiration: “I had this woman, and every time I wanted to make love, she said, ‘Just a minute.’ She was always putting me on hold. So I decided to write a song about it. That’s a true story. She was the same girl that inspired ‘Ball Of Fire,'” as recorded by Connie Austin and Marva Whitney.
Backing up Spurling on the session was a teenage group he had discovered in Cincinnati that included bassist Bootsy Collins and his brother Catfish on guitar. They would later become the Pacesetters and, in 1970, the nucleus of James Brown’s backing band, the JB’s. “I was riding through town and I heard these guys practicing,” recollects Spurling. “I just stopped, parked, and listened to them. And I said to myself, ‘All these guys need is a little bit of coaching.’ So then I went in, introduced myself, and sat down and listened to them. They was at their mother’s home. We ended up on the road for three years.” When Syd Nathan asked Spurling to assemble a studio house band for King, the singer-songwriter knew who to call up: “I said, ‘Mr. Nathan, I know some guys who had been with me for three years. We’re tight and they’ll play anything.’ He said, ‘I’ll leave it up to you because if they play like you, these guys are good.’ So then I went and found Bootsy and them.”
Spurling used another Ohio band, Dayton’s the Untouchables, on some King sessions—they later morphed into the Ohio Players—and also nurtured a white band called the Dapps, which James Brown took under his wing.
Syd Nathan took a shine to Spurling and wanted to groom him for an executive’s job in the company. Consequently, Charles Spurling was promoted to head up King’s A and R department and began earning good money. But just as Spurling was making impressive progress up the ladder at King, his mentor Syd Nathan died. “I learned a lot from Mr. Nathan,” says Spurling. “If he had never died, things would have been different. I was offered the world. I was just moving up into power. So when he died, it hurt me real bad.”
As mentioned earlier, after leaving King, Spurling worked for James Brown before slipping off the radar in the 1970s. “I decided I couldn’t take being ripped off any longer and I just quit,” he says. Spurling also says he helped nurture the early careers of singer Randy Crawford and Carmen Electra, before she became Prince’s protégé. After being out of the music business for more than thirty years, Charles Spurling recently decided to get back into the fray: “Bootsy [Collins] bought me a keyboard and I’ve started back writing now [that] my kids are fully grown. I made a promise to the Almighty that I was going to stick with my kids until the last one graduates, and I did that. They’re doing real good, so I decided to get back into writing and arranging.”
By a curious stroke of fate, Spurling has just teamed up to record with a singer he says he originally discovered after a visit to Kansas City in 1967. Her name? Marva Whitney. “I brought her to King,” explains Spurling, “and the second day she was here, James Brown took her away from me. There was a guy named Bud Hobgood, and he was James’s right-hand man. I heard him telling James: ‘Charles Spurling has found another lady. She looks good, sings good, and she’s got everything.’ The next thing I know, Bud Hobgood says James wanted Marva on his productions, so that’s how she got started with him, but she could have gone farther if it wasn’t for James Brown. He stopped everybody.”
Spurling did provide Whitney with a couple of songs, though. One of them, “Unwind Yourself,” released by King in 1967, was the Kansas chanteuse’s first genuine foray into funk territory. Says Spurling: “I wrote ‘Unwind Yourself’ for Hank Ballard in ’65. After I wrote the song, Hank let Mr. Brown hear it. I didn’t know too much about the business then, and the next thing I know, this song came out and it was a big seller for Hank. After James got Marva, he put it out again with her. I liked both versions of it, but on Marva’s version, James’s horn section was much better.”
The Marva Whitney version became sought after by collectors during the late-’80s rare groove revival and was sampled by a myriad of hip-hop and dance acts—the opening horn riff was most famously used on Chad Jackson’s “Hear The Drummer (Get Wicked),” a top three UK chart hit in 1990. Even so, Charles Spurling has not benefitted financially from the song’s popularity. “It makes me feel good that people still listen to it, but I still don’t get any money,” he laments. “I had this lawyer who was supposed to be looking into it, but I found out that he was a bigger crook than everybody else.”
These days, the man that his friends call “Little Quincy,” after legendary producer Quincy Jones, is more philosophical than he used to be. Time seems to have mellowed him. Open heart surgery, which he experienced a few years ago, has also made him take stock of things. “I might be broke,” he says, “but in my heart and mind, I’m not. I’m proud of everybody I’ve helped. James Brown was a shrewd business man and I’ve learned a lot from him but never picked up any of his habits. Maybe that’s why he was a millionaire. If I’m going to be a millionaire like that, then I don’t want to be one. I’ve been screwed all these years but I never screwed anybody. I was a dangerous man when I was younger about that. I really wanted to kill somebody. But thanks to the Almighty and my mom, I’m a different man. I hear my mother say ‘Charles, you know better than that.'”
Now that Charles Spurling’s priority is music once again, he’s determined to make his mark in the 21st century. Songwriting, he says, is as natural to him as breathing: “All I’ve got to do is find a chord structure that I like, or a drumbeat that I like, and from the time that I was born to now, I can write songs just like that. It’s like starting all over again.”
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