05/15/20 Articles

Natural Selection: Betty Wright says music chose her

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Betty Wright says music chose her: simply being in the right place—a record shop—at the right time—in front of a group of songwriters that included Clarence Reid. Betty thrived in the bustling Miami music scene, working with the great artists in the community, from Willie “Little Beaver” Hale and Jaco Pastorius to Harry Wayne Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band. And Betty Wright has naturally sustained relevance through the years by writing for, singing with, and mentoring a grip of high-profile female talent.

 

Betty Wright photographed by Bruce MacCallum.

 

Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is more than one of the top live soul albums of all time; it’s a juicy piece of foreshadowing, and a glimpse of things to come. When Cooke and company took the stage in Miami that January night—no, the Harlem Square Club wasn’t in Harlem—the audience was right there with them, ready to devour every impassioned note out of Cooke’s mouth and every ecstatic scream out of King Curtis’s horn. The Miamians who showed for Sam were hungry for a scene of their own—listen to them oohing and aahing along to “Chain Gang” and their frenzied responses to Cooke’s call on “Nothing Can Change This Love”—and, about a half-decade later, they got it.

Between the late ’60s and late ’70s, Miami produced a coterie of potent R&B notables including Timmy Thomas, Little Beaver, Clarence Reid (aka Blowfly), Latimore, George and Gwen McCrae, and KC and the Sunshine Band, all of whom recorded for Magic City music impresario Henry Stone’s various labels. But at the center of the scene was Betty Wright, the tough, stirring voice behind hits like “Pure Love,” “Tonight Is the Night,” “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” and “Clean Up Woman.” Despite immeasurable talent and an unmatchable work ethic—one that led her to become the first Black female artist to earn a gold record on her own label—Wright’s story is one of effortlessness and, perhaps, destiny. “Music chose me,” insists Wright. One would be a fool to argue.

Born in Miami on December 21, 1953, Betty Wright wasn’t just the newest member of the family; she was the newest member of the band. Betty, her mother, and her five older siblings made up the Echoes of Joy, a gospel group that played on bills with kindred spirits like Shirley Caesar and the Staple Singers. They mostly toured around South Florida, but made it as far north as Jacksonville.

“I was born into a family that were already singing gospel,” recalls Wright. “My mom said that one night she was getting ready to go to bed, and she prayed for a name for her children that she was rearing in church and in music, and that was the name that was whispered to her: Echoes of Joy. And so when I was born, I was just one more…echo! [laughs] My brothers and my sister and myself, we sang at the churches, and the schools, and the halls, and whatever functions in South Florida.”

The Echoes did some recording in 1955, cutting classics like “Toiling On” and “Down by the Riverside.” Two months shy of her second birthday, Betty contributed vocals.

“When I tell people the story of the session, my mom used to say, ‘Oh, somebody told you that, girl. Somebody told you that,’ ” says Wright. “I said, ‘Mom, I can remember y’all stacking the big phone books. Stacking ’em up in this chair and saying, ‘If y’all let that baby fall! If y’all let that baby fall!’ And I was right up to the microphone like it was mine. No problem.”

Betty’s mother, Rosa, was all business. A voter-registration organizer in her Liberty City housing project, and later one of the first Black nurses at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, Rosa knew that noise was joyful, but that it was also hard work, and practice. 

“My first memory of learning any songs was my mother standing in front of us with something in her hand,” remembers Wright. “I don’t know if it was a ruler. I don’t know if it was what we call a switch. But I can remember her saying, ‘Go to the bathroom and go get some water. Because you will be singing. For the next hour.’ ”

At home, the Wright siblings were forbidden to listen to anything but gospel radio or their mother’s record collection. But the ’60s seeped in, and soon Betty was grooving to the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, the Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas. Despite aspirations of being a lawyer or a physical-education teacher, music wouldn’t leave Betty alone, and, in 1966, she found herself winning a secular-radio contest. As the winner, her instructions were to go down to Johnny’s Record Rack to pick out some wax to keep. She went to Johnny’s for a record, but left with a record deal.

 

Betty Wright photographed by Bruce MacCallum.

 

“Music chose me,” declares Wright. “I didn’t choose it. I was standing in a record shop one day singing. ’Cause I won a ‘guess that tune’ contest. And the prize is you go to this record shop, and select out of the top twenty from this radio station. Back then, the song I loved was called ‘Summertime’ by Billy Stewart. And when I was standing in the shop, the girl said, ‘Well, I better play it for you, ’cause sometimes these records scratch.’ She put it on, and as soon as it started, I started singing along with it. I was drawin’ a crowd. My cousin and I were standing there, and before I looked around, everybody from the front of the record store had come inside to see me sing. And this guy came from out of this back door. And he said, ‘Who was that singing?’ And they pointed to me. And he said, ‘Can you sing that whole song, all the way from the top? With all the effects, the way he does it?’ My cousin said, ‘She can sing anything.’ She put the record back on. I sang the record. The man says, ‘Listen, I wanna record you.’ That simple. No long story. No ‘I came and I auditioned.’ None of that. I don’t have that story. I just was singing in a record shop. Guy heard me. Said, ‘I wanna record you.’ ”

As luck would have it, the guys who heard her that day were Miami songwriters Paul Kelly, Willie Clarke, and Clarence Reid. In 1967, after about a year spent convincing Betty’s mother that her youngest child wouldn’t become a drug addict if she got into the soul business, Clarke and Reid recorded and released the first four songs under Betty Wright’s name. “Good Lovin’ ” b/w “Paralyzed” was released on Clarke’s Deep City Records; “Mr. Lucky” b/w “Thank You Baby” was issued on Clarke’s Solid Soul label. All of the songs were products of the Reid/Clarke songwriting partnership except for “Good Lovin’,” which was written by Reid, Clarke, and Johnny Pearsall, owner of Johnny’s Record Rack and co-owner of Deep City. These 45s spread the secular Betty Wright gospel as far as Georgia and the Carolinas, and led to shows with Stax vocalist Mable John. But most importantly, they grabbed the attention of Henry Stone, who was scouting for Alston, the label he had just started with fellow producer Steve Alaimo.

“The first time I went there, they couldn’t stand me,” admits Wright about her first visit to Alston. “They thought I was horrible. Thought I couldn’t sing. I was mad. I didn’t wanna leave the softball game. I had a mountain of hair. So all I looked like was a rail with hair. With one pants leg rolled up and one down. And I don’t think they really were interested in no little tomgirl singing. And then two weeks later, I went in a dress, with my hair combed, and they signed me. So go figure.” 

Betty’s first album for Alston—her first album, period—was 1968’s My First Time Around. Officially released on Atco, with which Alston had a distribution deal, the LP spawned a pair of Betty Wright classics: “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” and “He’s Bad, Bad, Bad.” The dazzling “Girls”—which advises young women to curb any manlike sexual appetites they might have—has been given new life in recent years: its deep, desperate horn riff became the hook for Beyoncé’s 2006 hit “Upgrade U” (a sample of the track also shows up in a 2011 song by the Lonely Island, Andy Samberg’s comedy trio). Betty likes Beyoncé’s track so much she’s incorporated a snippet of “Upgrade U” into her own recent performances of “Girls.”

On the strength of “Girls” and My First Time Around, Stone scored Betty a slot on a 1969 James Brown revue. Alongside acts like Honey and the Bees, fifteen-year-old Betty sang “Girls” and “Pure Love” every night, warming folks up for the Godfather. After about a month and a half, though, Betty left the tour. “I didn’t last very long, but that’ll be in my book,” says Wright with a laugh, referring to her projected autobiography. “Most tours then were anywhere from two to three months. And I think I lasted half of that. I was glad to be able to perform to those audiences that James commanded. And I was blessed to be asked to do it.”

Next up for Betty was 1971’s “Clean Up Woman,” the song that made her a household name in soulful homes. Composed by Reid and Clarke, and taken to number six on the pop charts by Betty’s bold, funky vocals, “Clean Up Woman” warns women not to throw their men away so easily, as there’s always another woman waiting in the wings. So infectious it hurts, “Clean Up Woman” has left its stamp all over popular music, having been sampled by everyone from Sublime and Afrika Bambaataa to Mary J. and G. Love.

“Clarence Reid’s a genius. Clarence Reid’s a genius. Clarence Reid’s a genius,” says Wright about “Clean Up Woman.” “Pretty much what I have to say about that. Except I still wish he would’ve come back with that bridge that he told me was gonna go walk and write and never came back. But I guess it was enough! I rode the crest of a wave that was made for me, and I will forever be grateful. Because some people never get one like that. I can sing ‘Clean Up Woman’ for thirty minutes and nobody complains. If I sing that, I’m good.”

Also responsible for the success of “Clean Up Woman” is guitarist Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, whose six-stringing on the track inspired funk guitarists the world over to get back in the shed. Betty’s first memory of Beaver, though, is as the featured vocalist with saxophonist Frank Williams’s band.

“I was a little girl, and there was a band playing in a club in Miami called the Knight Beat,” remembers Wright. “And [Beaver] was playing in this band called Frank Williams and the Rocketeers. And I thought he sang like Aretha! Oh my goodness. He was singing a James Brown song, and he did one of those high whooohooos! He always had it. And then of course, by the time I had gotten to Deep City, he had that record, ‘You Got to Be a Man.’ So he was well on his way.”

Betty and Beaver also worked together on Beaver’s Party Down LP, released in 1974 on Stone’s Cat Records. On the supremely danceable “I Can Dig It Baby,” written by Beaver, Betty, and Clarke, the Miami crew was joined by a then unknown Jaco Pastorius—credited on Party Down as Nelson “Jocko” Padron—whose dancing, burbling bass lines propelled the track to new heights of funkdom. Betty remembers Jaco well, and is still shaken by the Florida musician’s untimely death.

“[Jaco’s] favorite song in the world was ‘Clean Up Woman,’ ” says Wright. “He loved ‘Clean Up Woman.’ He loved Beaver. And I would always say [to Beaver], ‘Mannn, Jaco asked about you.’ And when I got that call that Jaco was dead… Sometimes, it’s just…you die for the music. When the music changed, and everything got very stereotyped, and blocky, and disco-y, I think those real musicians just died with the music.” 

Though “Clean Up Woman” was an early peak, the rest of the ’70s were good to Betty. In 1975, Betty’s “Where Is the Love”—a tune she cowrote with Clarke, Harry Wayne Casey (aka KC of KC and the Sunshine Band), and Sunshine Band bassist Richard Finch—won Best Rhythm & Blues Song at the Grammys; ’78 saw Betty rocking with Alice Cooper on the shock-rocker’s “No Tricks” single; and ’79 found Betty opening a world tour for Bob Marley. But the ’80s started with a real bang: when Alston shuttered around the start of the decade, Betty signed with Epic and went to L.A. to record her first major-label album. In La-La Land, Betty kept running into Stevie Wonder, whom she had met earlier through her guitar-playing brother Phillip, a member of the Motown family (he was one of Junior Walker’s All-Stars). Betty wound up on the sessions for 1980’s Hotter Than July, singing backup on “Happy Birthday” and “All I Do”; Wonder returned the favor by cowriting the bouncy, island-flavored “What Are You Going to Do With It” for Betty’s first Epic album, 1981’s Betty Wright.

“His process is very different, because he has so much music in him, you just gotta be ready,” says Betty on writing with Wonder. “I couldn’t come in there half-steppin’. I couldn’t come in there on my way to the note. I had to come in there on the note. You don’t come to him with a whole bunch of foolishness. He likes to have good fun, good food, and, boy, listen, you get him some fried chicken, you his best friend. We always had those conversations where I don’t care how I disguised my voice, I said [in British accent], ‘Hello, may I speak to Stevie?’ [in Stevie’s voice] ‘Hell, country Betty Wright!’ He knows you by your wrists. He holds your hand and feels your wrist. He’ll say, ‘Mmmhmm. Hey Tito. Hey Jermaine.’ He’s something. God gave him something extra. I’ll tell you that.” 

Betty continued recording her own albums into the ’80s and ’90s, but she also became something of a mentor to a new generation of female artists. You can find Betty singing backup and/or producing on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Angie Stone’s The Art of Love & War, J.Lo’s On the 6, and Joss Stone’s The Soul Sessions, for which Ms. B. assembled a crack band: Little Beaver, Timmy Thomas, Latimore, and Jeanette Wright, Betty’s sister and an original member of KC and the Sunshine Band.

“When I hear Angie Stone say, ‘Black brother. For your information, a lot of our brothers got education,’ ” says Wright. “When I hear her being that person to stand up for her man. When I hear India.Arie saying, ‘I am not my hair,’ and saying, ‘I’m not like the other girls in the video. No matter what, I’m good. I’m cool.’ And to hear Erykah saying, ‘This dress I’m wearing? I paid seven dollars. But I made it look good, ’cause I’m clever.’ Those kinds of songs, to me, are the essence of who Black women are.”

In 2011, after a decade away from releasing her own music, Betty came back big with Betty Wright: The Movie, a sharp slice of soul coproduced by Questlove and featuring members of the Roots on some tracks. “Surrender,” off The Movie, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category, but lost to Cee-Lo’s “Fool for You.”

“When it came out, I didn’t know a whole new nation was gonna be gravitating towards it,” says Wright of The Movie. “I have fans, and I thought my fan base would jump to it, but then came the hip-hop nation. Saying, ‘Oh my goodness, we love this.’ And I guess, in essence, it’s because most hip-hop is really a derivative of soul music and R&B. So it was like feeding them the pure when they had been used to a derivative.”

Since committing to music in the late 1960s, Wright has strived to be heard: as a singer, writer, producer, and businesswoman. As she gets older, though, it’s important to her that she’s listened to not only as a voice of soul, but as a voice of experience.

“One thing I remember [from] working with Lil Wayne, and sittin’, talking with Baby, Baby would always say, ‘Tell us again how they didn’t wanna pay no royalties, they just wanna buy you a car, and you still don’t have no money,’ ” says Wright. “And I believe to this day that’s how he got to be such a mogul. Because he was determined to not let it happen to him. And I thank God for being a mentor to a lot of these artists so that they don’t have to repeat those horror stories. And once again, because somebody will read the article, and they’ll say, ‘Well, oh my God! She did this and she did that. Oh, how ungrateful can you be.’ I’m just talking the real. And if I gotta apologize for how I feel, then I ain’t real. I meant it. That’s what I said, I said exactly what I meant. I’m gonna keep teachin’ ’em not to go pick a bale of cotton and hand somebody the bale.”.

04/20/20 Articles

Sayonara, Ryo Kawasaki

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Ryo Kawasaki at his home in Tallinn, Estonia, 2018. Photo by Manon Anglade.

 

After having explored the world physically and musically through songs such as “Montevideo” and “Hawaiian Caravan,” the globetrotting guitarist Ryo Kawasaki has left for a last trip to the stars.

His thirst of knowledge wasn’t only relative to geography, but also in the field of technology where he blended both of his passions in creating the guitar synthesizer.

From Japan to the U.S. (and most recently Estonia), Kawasaki never stopped seeking ways to master his instrument by crossing as many boundaries as possible. That’s what we’ll remember of the musician who never saw himself playing jazz but “fusion.”

The following is from my interview of Ryo at his home in Tallinn in 2018.

Safe travels, Ryo (1947–2020).

 

 

 

Did your family background (a multilingual mother and a father who was a diplomat), allow you to feel free in terms of studies, that ranged from music to astronomy? 

My mother wanted me to study piano and ballet when I was little, but I thought that piano was meant for girls. So I started learning solfège and violin before elementary school, and in result, I read music better than text. That was a very good foundation, what developed my hands to later play ukulele and the guitar. Being very curious about how things worked, I first got interested in astronomy because I wanted to understand what life was about. I made my own telescopes and was fascinated by electronics as well, for example by asking myself how a lamp or radio worked. My father was only listening to the American radio station called FEN (Far East Network), so I listened to learn how to broadcast music. They played a lot of jazz and Hawaiian music that I really enjoyed, what made me pick up the ukulele. I was also into singing at that time, imitating Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, what triggered my melodic sense for my future composer career. There were three student clubs in my high school that I all integrated: the radio one, the jazz band, and the basketball team. Left the ukulele for the guitar at fifteen, when I started playing in a jazz ensemble in which I was both bassist and guitarist. I got pretty good at it quickly and became a member of the senior club, where a clarinetist discovered me and asked me to join his band. I already was a professional as I could read music, improvise, play gigs, and it was also at this young age that I built my first primitive synthesizer.

 

Miho Kei & Jazz Eleven’s “Mizaru,” featuring Ryo on electric guitar.

 

Building a synthesizer in high school before starting to work as a sound engineer, is it safe to say you found a way to mix both of your passions?

I studied quantum physics for four years due to my [desire] of becoming a teacher, but my activity with music then got more dominant than the rest as I formed my own band. This launched my musician career, as a record producer came to one of our shows and offered me to make an album, just before my graduation. One of the best arrangers of the company was hired, so he organized the recording session and chose all the orchestra that would back me. I was reading all the arranged music without any problem, so the people playing with me thought I could make a good studio musician myself. That’s how I started getting called every day to record from nine o’clock in the morning to midnight, 24/7/365. The money for it was good, so I jumped at the chance and ended up doing this for three years. I was highly demanded, so I had to learn pretty much any styles of music, from covers of Jimi Hendrix and Santana to some Wes Montgomery type of jazz and even Japanese pop!

So what were you considering yourself after playing all these different genres?

I played fusion, never considered myself as a jazz guitarist. I could play jazz, but that’s not what I was interested in back then. I liked rock because it was more powerful, flashy and sexy, also attracting a bigger audience. But I enjoyed the complicated and more sophisticated part of jazz. It’s intellectual music in which you can improvise spontaneously, the opposite of rock that uses only two or three chords; that was boring for me. So I started mixing both of them, adding more wildness and loudness to jazz. 

 

Inside Ryo’s Tallinn home, 2018. Photo by Manon Anglade

 

By the age of twenty-five, you had pretty much played with all the greats of Japanese jazz, starting with Jiro Inagaki’s Soul Media to Takeshi Inomata & Sound Limited. Was this prolific debut beneficial as a young guitarist?

That was called crossover music, neither rock or jazz. It was trendy for jazz musicians like Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, or even George Benson to do covers of pop songs instrumentally. This would enlarge their crowds and market sales. Anyway, I became a member of this first generation of jazz-rock musicians in Japan, made several records with them, and we even had a regular TV show. At the same time, I formed my own band and got us booked for gigs personally, by knocking on the doors of Tokyo’s main clubs. When I released another solo album, I became number three in Japan’s top guitarists at only twenty-three years old. This was it for me, I had nowhere else to go and nothing else to explore and didn’t care in becoming number one or two. With a little luck, I got to play with famous musicians from the U.S. such as Jimmy Smith, Joe Henderson, or Roy Haynes. I felt something different with them than with Japanese players, so it didn’t matter how much money I was making or how popular I was because I wasn’t developing myself anymore. I was playing American and not Japanese music anyway, I thought—[and that’s] what led me to move to New York.

 

 

Did you move to New York intentionally because you were feeling you had explored all your country’s music scene? That you needed some kind of revival?

I had always wanted to go live in New York, plus my father was one of the first Japanese pioneers who went to America. He graduated in Springfield’s university before becoming a diplomat. On the other hand, my mother grew up in Manchuria where the official language was Russian. My environment was full of Americans and Russians due to my parents’ friends, so even though I was educated in Japan, I never considered myself Japanese. I first went to Los Angeles when I came to the United States, to see the Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo perform. Then I went to Pittsburgh where a friend lived before finally settling in New York. I was very close friends with Teruo Nakamura, who wasn’t recognized in Japan because he started playing bass and became a professional in America. Only a few days after I arrived, he offered me to play at the Newport Jazz Festival with Joe Lee Wilson who was looking for a guitarist. And a couple months later, as I was walking back from the grocery store to my apartment, I noticed someone waiting in front of my door who turned out to be Gil Evans! I invited him in and he told me he needed a new guitarist in his band for the album The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix, that had been postponed after Jimi’s death in 1970. Actually, I never asked him how he found me! [laughs] We had a friendship of fifteen years after our first meeting and never talked about it. He was also a mentor for me and always welcomed demo tapes of my compositions when I needed constructive criticism from a respected musician such as him. I played with both Gil’s and Chico Hamilton’s bands until 1976, when I got contacted by a producer from RCA to make an album. This [1976’s Juice] became the first recording from a Japanese artist on a major label in American music’s history. Soon after, I received a call from Elvin Jone’s wife who offered me to join his band…

 

 

Could we say the scientist caught up with the musician during the 80s, as you invented your own guitar synthesizer, created computer programs, and even produced electronic music?

I was getting more interested in making all tracks and orchestration with machines. You could say I was swapping around my interests! I started developing my guitar synthesizer, incorporating drum machines, bass machines, and guitar sounds. Then this company called Fostex invented this quarter-inch eight-track tape machine in the early ’80s, and they wanted me to test it, due to my reputation as an engineer. They gave me multiple of their machines resulting in a record entitled Ryo, which was a very challenging project. I was also into classical guitar during that period, playing some on “Adagio From ‘Concierto De Aranjuez'” while the rest of the song was done with the guitar synthesizer. I did another album in the same way in 1983 before quitting music and focusing on the Commodore 64 computer. I learned how to program and created a prototype of a music software, that was presented in a convention of computer companies in Japan. A factory from Wisconsin found my display interesting and offered me a contract to make three softwares for them. It was then that I started programming house music in pressed 12-inch singles, the most appropriate genre to experiment the midi program I’d wrote. Founding my own record label [Satellites Records], I had to do every tasks by myself including pressing the singles and shipping hundreds of them physically! Also, I had to attend parties each night to study people’s reactions and observe what kind of intro or break they would jump up to.

 

 

As a musical innovator yourself, what was your reaction when discovering you had been sampled multiple times by producers during the rise of hip-hop in the ’90s? 

Any recognition is welcomed, especially when it’s associated with royalties! Puff Daddy’s album sold two million copies worldwide, and I touched four cents for each record sold, what made around eighty thousand dollars. There’s also Kool G Rap, who used one of my songs in 1995, but not all artists asked for authorizations, so I only knew about it when I discovered internet in 2001. I tried to litigate for them to pay something back, but there’s a statute of limitations that’s different in each state. There’s a discovery rule that leaves a period of two years to make a claim, starting when you found out about it. But in New York it’s based on the release date, so if it came out in 1995, my right expired in 1997. I ended up failing, as I spent thousands of dollars on a lawyer for nothing to happen.

 

“It’s a Shame (Da Buthers Mix)” from Kool G Rap, sampling Ryo’s “Bamboo Child” (1976).

03/17/20 Articles

The Wild Life of Graham Dee

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It’s springtime in the South West of England. The sun has set and there’s a cool English chill in the air. Just yards up the road from the Dorset hamlet of Shitterton lies the serene and picturesque village of Bere Regis. On the main thoroughfare, in the centre of the village, is a grade II listed public house called the Drax Arms, a building—having stood for hundreds of years—that is threatening to shake to the muted thrust of live music audible from within. Through the misted canted bay windows a trio of guitar players can be seen. Out front there’s the chalkboard headliners Melody Men with unsung hero Graham Dee stood to the rear; a flat-cap-and-neckerchief-wearing seventy-something playing a solo on his polished, sunburst-hued Fender-Strat. The local punters—some enraptured by the music, others talking amongst themselves—raise their pint pots of Badger Ale in merriment, seemingly oblivious to the pedigree of the featured musician standing before them. As a London-born pioneer of the ’60s British soul sound, Dee has traveled the world in the name of music, living in both the U.S. (Los Angeles, Nashville, Muscle Shoals, and Wyoming) and the Far East (Japan and the Philippines) before laying his cap back home, in the country where he was once dubbed “Mr. Tin Pan Alley” by his peers.

 “Now I’m in Dorset, or as they say here, Darrrrhsett!” Dee quips, affecting a Wurzel Gummidge West Country accent. “I was working locally in the odd pub gig,” he adds, back in familiar territory as a cockney. “But what I really want to do is go back and do some proper gigs on the road. Just earlier today I was checking out a new bass player; we ran through a song Brian Potter and I wrote called ‘Daughter of the Sun’ [a freakbeat B-side recorded by South African soul singer Sharon Tandy], and I thought he did really well; nice guy, good attitude.” The casual way Dee assesses the musician’s professional attributes (just five minutes into the interview) betrays his natural inclination to produce. Production being just one aspect of a career that is the focus for a new retrospective on Acid Jazz Records, entitled Carnaby Street Soul West Coast Vibes. 

Curated as a tribute to Dee’s all-rounder efforts as a songwriter, producer, musician, A&R man, and artist, the compilation works as a companion to the musical milestones and the happenings in Dee’s career thus far; featuring rare mixes from his duo of ’70s solo albums on Pye Records and the lost gems “Sampaguita” and “Carrie,” songs Dee originally recorded for a third, shelved album—a lone yacht-rock/soul project. The rest of the lineup is augmented by selections from Dee’s vast catalog of productions, including “Soul Ride (Acetate Mix)” by Mike Berry, the charming “I Just Want to Be Your Friend” by Mick’s Bunch, and the brilliant horn version of Maxine’s mod favorite, “A Love I Believe In.” Tunes recorded by Dee whilst he was an A&R man at Atlantic Records, a position he held despite the infamous stories of high jinks that have gone down in the folklore of the U.K. music industry—tales of Dee damaging studio equipment and inadvertently terrifying staff with a bow and arrow. 

“I think the hunting bow thing was one of the landmarks of embarrassment of my life, a real cringeworthy moment,” says Dee now, the contrition perceptible over the phone. “I did get into trouble for it, but it wasn’t actually the reason that I left. These silly things I did, like the bow and the fast-draw revolver thing as well…” (Which is when Dee damaged the label’s studio equipment with an unintentional discharge of his pistol.) “…my bosses were actually very forgiving of me. Roland Rennie, the managing director at Polydor [who signed the Bee Gees], he was a wonderful man and was always tolerant of the strange things I did. I was just a bit wild, I suppose.” 

It was the early ’70s, and the story goes that Dee had purchased a hunting bow from Lillywhites, a sports shop on Regent Street in London’s West End, but, unable to resist trying it out before he got home, decided to give it a go in his office. 

“I was a member for a little while with the Hampstead Bowmen and used to shoot from a longbow but had never had a hunting bow. So I went to Lillywhites, and the salesmen was a man called John Waller; he was the guy that did the Strongbow Cider TV adverts and looked after the armory at the Tower of London—incredible man. Well, he sold me this wonderful hunting bow, and so knowing me, wanting to be a flash git, I called in one of the other A&R guys and put a target under my desk, a box full of cardboard, newspapers and all sorts of rubbish, and I knelt down with the bow to shoot, but I didn’t realize how powerful it was,” Dee says, his voice rising in bewilderment. “It was tremendously powerful, and it soared straight through the whole lot into the radiator. Water started flying out everywhere, the secretary ran in panicking and I had to try and hold my finger over the faucet of the water as my suit got absolutely covered. The maintenance man, Kenny West—a lovely bloke—well, he couldn’t find the key to shut off the radiator, so eventually had to go down into the basement to try and switch off the whole system, which after a while he managed to do. I’m still embarrassed by it all now…” Dee pauses, having relived the trauma. “It really wasn’t funny.” 

Less cringe-worthy were the landmarks that saw Dee progress from a qualified gardener to being hired as one of the eminent session guitarists residing in the British Isles. Born in 1943 in Whitechapel, East London, during World War II, baby Graham’s parents had already survived the blitz. Despite being diagnosed as disabled with a neuromuscular disorder from a young age, Dee learned to master the guitar to the point where he was able to ditch the day job in horticulture and play full-time, his proficiency often compared to that of his contemporary Eric Clapton. Joining the Laurie Jay Combo, he backed luminaries such as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Gary “U.S.” Bonds, and later turned out for Van Morrison’s band Them. He also sessioned in the studio with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, pre-Led Zeppelin. It was the ’60s; session work was plentiful, and London was swinging. 

“I was absolutely knackered,” says Dee, who was doing a lot of freelance work. Playing gigs at night and recording by day. “In ’64, I formed a band called the Quotations with Brian Potter [writer of the ’70s pop-soul classics “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” for the Four Tops and “The Love I Never Had” for Tavares], and later that year we backed Carl Perkins and Tommy Tucker on the Animals tour.” 

Dee also played with Pink Floyd, filling in for an absent Syd Barrett on an event called “Freak Out Ethel” at the Seymour Hall in Marble Arch. 

“I’d never heard of them; they weren’t famous then,” says Dee, who confesses that he can’t quite recall who was a part of the lineup at the time. “I know Syd wasn’t there. What I do remember was that they had this slide thing with a projector, projecting an oil in water effect. I looked down and saw all these bubbles going across my body. I’d never seen that before.” 

Gaining a reputation for his stellar studio work, Dee got a gig as an in-house producer for the Polydor record label after a chance meeting, bumping into Donovan’s producer, Terry Kennedy on Oxford Street. 

“I had a record out by Waygood Ellis that I had coproduced with Paul Clay called ‘I Like What I’m Tryin’ to Do.’ Terry had heard the record, and asked me, ‘Did you ever think of being a producer for a record company?’

“And I said, ‘Well, no not really, I can’t see myself doing that… I’m not the office type of guy, y’know?’ But I was having a bad time financially, so I went to the interview anyway.”

Dee got the job and moved to new digs in Waterloo, renting from a trampoline artist who was part of the Schaller Brothers cabaret act. 

 “I think I was dossing around and needed to find somewhere to live,” Dee recalls. “It wasn’t always easy to find gigs at that time, but the receptionists at Polydor, Carol and Maureen, knew somebody who use to be on at the Palladium quite often, and he had a room in a little Georgian terraced house on Roupell Street. On a nice day, I’d walk across Waterloo Bridge into town to the Polydor offices via the Strand and up.”  

In Britain, Polydor distributed the legendary U.S. Black-music label Atlantic Records, and whilst Dee would continue to produce for Polydor, he also joined the Atlantic Records A&R team when music exec Frank Fenter took charge—Fenter being the man credited with discovering Led Zeppelin, and breaking Sam & Dave and Otis Redding in Europe.

Dee was still working with deck-chair harmony group Tony Rivers and the Castaways when he began working for Fenter at Atlantic, producing their groovy “Tomorrow’s Children.” 

“There’s an interesting story on that one,” says Dee. “The beginning of ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ was in Hebrew, and I don’t know what gave me the idea—changing the world perhaps, kind of like the eco-thing now, I guess—but for some reason or another I got hold of one of the top Rabbi’s in London, a chief Jewish interpreter to help me with the words, but I had to catch this guy early, so I got to the office at about 7:30 a.m. and a security guard let me in, and as I walked through I remember the cleaning lady was there, wearing a loose smock type dress, like a loose tunic, just wandering around reception. So, I walked by and said ‘Morning!’ and heard this voice say ‘Morning!’ back. She was very nice—had a lovely smile, but it didn’t occur to me that it was an American accent. Anyway, I get to my office and I can hear my boss Frank Fenter in his [office], so I was like, ‘Eh? What’s he doing here?’ No one at a record company ever came to work before eight, so I went to him and said, ‘What you doin’ ’ere this early, Frank?’ And he said, ‘I had to get up early to the airport and pick Aretha up.’ So that’s how I met Aretha Franklin. One of, if not, the greatest singer of all time and there I was thinking, because of her tunic, that she was the cleaning lady!”

Like the Queen of Soul, it was another act from Detroit—Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell—who would inspire the songwriting team of Dee, Potter, and soul singer Donnie Elbert to compose the finger-snapping, lovebird concerto “The Bitter with the Sweet.” Originally intended as the single, the song was unceremoniously dumped to the B-side when record company brass preferred the more-up-tempo “Two Can Make It Together” instead. Tony Blackburn—the top soul-jock in the country at the time on Radio 1—concurred, making “Two Can Make It Together” the ‘Record of the Week’ and earning the fledgling duo an appearance on Top of the Pops.

“That’s when it all fell apart,” says Dee, who left the label after the release had narrowly missed being a hit, and around the time Polydor and Phillips amalgamated into PolyGram (shortly after the aforementioned episodes with weaponry). 

“Brian [Potter] had already buggered off and left me and scored a number one hit in the U.S.,” Graham laughs. “Writing with Dennis Lambert, they had a thing called ‘Don’t Pull Your Love Out’ [by] Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. Also, Frank left, went and started Capricorn Records with [former Otis Redding manager] Phil Walden in Georgia.” 

One of Dee’s finest productions of the era, Maxine’s brilliant “A Love I Believe In” never saw the light of day, and the Tony & Tandy follow-up that Dee had begun to record remained unfinished. 

 “Sharon Tandy had a bit of a breakdown,” says Dee. “She was struggling with things, and that’s when it all went to pot for us at Atlantic.”

With a one-way ticket to America, Dee climbed aboard a Dan-Air flight destined for New York, only for the plane to get diverted to Boston instead. 

 “I went out to see Brian, but when I got to America I spoke to Frank, who had already established the Southern rock label Capricorn Records, and he was like, ‘Don’t go to L.A.; come down to Georgia and stay with us for a little bit.’ So I caught a Greyhound bus and headed straight for Macon.” 

It was April in Georgia, and Capricorn put Dee up in one of those old colonial houses, where the trees had hanging moss, peaches, and there were watermelons growing in the garden. 

“I shared this house with the Allman Brothers Band, and I used to just sit there and jam with a guy called Dickey Betts,” Dee recalls, adding, somewhat as an afterthought, “Oh… and Duane Allman too, he was this great slide-guitar player.” 

Without enough session work to keep him busy in Macon, it was the ’stache heavy, bespectacled Swampers drummer Roger Hawkins who suggested Dee try his luck over the state line in Alabama at the Muscle Shoals studios. There he formed a songwriting partnership with a then promising writer named Phillip Mitchell (before he added the Prince to his name), the guy who penned Mel & Tim’s “Starting All Over Again.” 

Dee’s American adventure continued into the mid-’70s. He hitchhiked out West to California on the back of a Harley Davidson with a Hell’s Angel, witnessing an initiation on the muddy banks of the Mississippi. After returning to London to sign a deal with United Artists Music Publishing, he was soon back in Los Angeles to hear his Brazilian-influenced song “Sampaguita” being recorded by Blue Note Records artist Moacir Santos.

 

 

“I was there in the studio in L.A. when they recorded ‘Sampaguita,’” Dee recalls. “With [drummer] Harvey Mason, [guitarist] Dean Parks, [sax man] Jerome Richardson, [and] Dale Oehler the arranger [and producer]—it was a wonderful session, real L.A. boys. Instrumentally it was great, but I always felt somehow the recording didn’t quite cut it.” 

Returning to England, Dee signed a contract with Pye Records as an artist, releasing two solo albums that refreshed his unique, pop-influenced Brit-soul sound. First in ’77, he coproduced the wistful Make the Most of Every Moment with Gerry Shury, a former collaborator with whom he had composed the gorgeous instrumental “Sea Music” (also known as “Gerry’s Theme”). Then, in ’78, there was the Graham Dee and Richard Niles–produced follow-up Somethin’ Else, which included the yacht-rock masterpiece “Another Night Alone” (also the opening selection to the new collection).

“Gerry Shury…my old mate,” says Dee at the mention of his friend, who tragically died in a car accident not long after the debut album was released. “It was the biggest shock. ‘Gerry’s Theme’ is actually very emotional for me, you know?” Graham pauses, his voice choking up for a second. “Gerry was my hero; he was a wonderful Hammond player, wonderful arranger. He could write a symphony on a bus; it was such a great loss.” 

In 1979, and after two albums, Dee was dropped from Pye Records. 

John Velasco, Dee’s manager, went to work for CBS and Pye didn’t like artists without management. 

“I was caught up in the politics, and I think I was a bit of a problem for them.” The label preferred the more middle-of-the-road approach of his debut to the jazz-funk grooves of the follow-up, a sound they felt they would be a hard-sell to the housewife demographic. “Whilst I love what Niles did, I always felt Somethin’ Else was too good for my voice.” Dee admits, “I was a singer-songwriter, not—and I emphasize not—a singers-singer.” 

Returning to the Pye Studios without a contract, Dee went into the “Sampaguita” sessions in Pye 2, the basement studio, determined to get back on track creatively. Stan Getz was recording in the same building and, hearing Dee’s largely acoustic take (except for the bass) of the song, expressed his appreciation.

“I did ‘Sampaguita’ with the London boys,” says Dee, who becomes more animated when he talks about the musicians he’s worked with. “DeLisle Harper from the Olympic Runners was on bass; Godfrey Wang, one of my closest friends, was on the keyboards; drummer Robbie Tate, who was in Long John Baldry’s band; Colin Pincott played guitar; Nigel Martinez on percussion; and Yusef Allie on nylon-strung guitar—fantastic musicians.”

Also included on Carnaby Street Soul West Coast Vibes is the previously unreleased “Carrie,” a West Coast–influenced, yacht-soul highlight—the humidity of the verses alleviated by the falsetto-led, float-on-summer-breeze chorus. However, despite the quality of the tracks—arguably Dee’s finest solo work to date—no new contract was forthcoming. 

 “I ran myself into bankruptcy doing that record,” Dee states. “It was a very sad year for me—my wife and I split up, and my father died as well, all in the same year. I really went to pieces after that and the ’80s were a blur.”

Practicing martial arts in the Far East, working on a ranch in Wyoming, and doing forestry back in the U.K. in East Anglia were just some of the activities Graham pursued in the decades that followed. His musical endeavors enjoying a reappraisal when Acid Jazz sought him out in the early 2010s to reissue his work from the ’60s and ’70s, first with The Graham Dee Connection – The 60s Collection, before putting out his Pye solo albums. 

“I gather singer-songwriters from that era are very popular in the Orient,” says Graham, referring to the white squall of the yacht-rock boom. “I know because my albums were pirated out in Korea and they were selling like hotcakes!” 

Playing pub gigs in Bere Regis has also begun to draw attention amongst Dee’s neighbors, alerting them to his place in the history of the music business. 

 “One day I got a note through my letterbox,” Dee recalls. “It said, ‘You don’t know me, but I live here in the village, and I’m a fan of Prince Philip Mitchell. I messaged him on Facebook and mentioned to him that we have a man here in the village who used to write for Atlantic.’ And apparently, he was like, ‘I don’t believe it, I’ve been looking for Graham for many years! What happened to him?’” 

Turns out ’70s soul legend Mitchell had a gig coming up in the north of England at a rugby stadium in Widnes and wanted to meet up. 

“He couldn’t believe it when he saw me,” says Dee. “We spent all night at the hotel just chatting about old times in Muscle Shoals. And I have to say, because we were just writers then, I didn’t realize how good he was as a performer. I got overwhelmed—he was fucking phenomenal that night!” 

Whilst the new collection, Carnaby Street Soul West Coast Vibes focuses on past glories, Graham can still be found, at seventy-seven years old, working with writing partner Richard Sutton and making new music. It’s the connections he’s made and the people he’s worked with along the way that has given him, he says, the most pride looking back.  

“A guy from Guernsey, Dave Dales, recently said the nicest thing to me, something that made me realize that I haven’t just been up my own arse the whole time…” Dee laughs. “He said, ‘You’ve put a lot of joy into my life, Graham.’ Apparently, I’d met him when he was a teenager in the ’60s, and his dad brought him along to a gig I was playing, and because I showed him something on my guitar and put him onto Chet Atkins, he reckons I inspired him to become a professional pedal steel player. So, as much as I think about what I should or should not have done—all the drinking or shooting arrows into radiators, or just being Graham Dee, off the wall—it’s when I hear things like that, that it makes me feel like I didn’t waste it all.”

02/28/20 Tracks

Izo FitzRoy drops new track “Red Line”

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Photo by James Hole.

 

When Izo FitzRoy lost the use of her voice in 2018, and needed surgery to save her career, it appeared her debut album Skyline would be the limit to her potential. The rasping delivery that had blasted through the scene—and onto the playlists of radio stations BBC, KCRW, and FIP—abruptly silenced, just as the volume was cranking up.

Thankfully though, after months of rehab, not only has the voice lost none of its raw power—gaining another octave to boot—but FitzRoy has also made a full recovery, returning to the studio to record her highly anticipated follow-up, How The Mighty Fall out March 6 on Jalapeno Records.

“I have been singing in gospel choirs since the age of nineteen,” FitzRoy is quoted as saying on the press release, adding, “I fell in love with gospel music growing up, listening to Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album and Mahalia Jackson records. Experiencing traditional Southern Gospel in New Orleans also filtered into my writing on the album.”

The latest single—a Wax Poetics world exclusive—is the driving “Red Line,” produced by Colin Elliott and featuring crack session performers the Haggis Horns and childhood churchmates the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir.

“It’s a stomping soul tune about the desire to salvage a broken relationship,” FitzRoy explains. “Written around the original guitar riff, I wanted to go a little country this time. A little Fleetwood Mac with this one.”

Check it out on the link below. Dig it.

 

02/06/20 Articles

Arthur Briggs: Better Days Will Come Again excerpt

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The following is an excerpt from the book Better Days Will Come Again – The Life of Arthur Briggs – Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison Camp by Travis Atria. Reprinted with permission and available from Chicago Review Press.

 

Arthur Briggs’s life was Homeric in scope. Born on the tiny island of Grenada, he set sail for Harlem during the renaissance, then to Europe in the aftermath of World War I, where he was among the first pioneers to introduce jazz music to the world. During the legendary Jazz Age in Paris, Briggs’s trumpet provided the soundtrack while Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Lost Generation created their indelible masterpieces. By the 1930s, Briggs was considered the “Louis Armstrong of France,” and was the peer of the greatest names of his time, from Django Reinhardt to Josephine Baker. When the Nazis stormed Paris at the start of World War II, they arrested Briggs and threw him in the prison camp at St. Denis, where he spent four years on starvation rations, and where he directed the brass section of an orchestra comprised of fellow prisoners. Below is an excerpt from Wax Poetics contributor Travis Atria’s groundbreaking biography of Briggs, Better Days Will Come Again.

In 1942, the men at St. Denis began to break. Some succumbed to pneumonia. Others braved death to escape. One hanged himself in his cell. “Oh, it looks very bad,” wrote William Joseph Webb, a prisoner who kept a secret diary in the camp. “For supper on Sunday night, we got nothing, besides the little square piece of margarine handed out . . . For our dinner we had barley soup, fit for feeding to pigs.”

One freezing morning in February, a guard burst into Arthur Briggs’s barracks and ordered him to play the Reveille. It was three a.m.

“Now?” Briggs asked.  

“Schnell!” 

“That was the only answer,” Briggs recalled. “So I took my instrument, blew it a bit to warm it up, went to the window and played the alarm twice so that everyone in the barracks and the courtyard was sure to have heard it. When I turned around, I saw that there was already a soldier for inspection and counting of internees. It lasted two hours, and then they brought dogs and inspected the cellars and attics to see if anyone was hiding.” 

More men had escaped. 

At noon, two soldiers arrived and posted a message from Carl Heinrich von Stülpnagel, commander of occupied France: “Wanting to escape is normal for someone who is deprived of their freedom. But those who try to escape must know that they risk death in this attempt.” The prisoners had now suffered two winters on starvation rations. Snow covered the camp again, and dinner was thin vegetable soup with a dollop of grease. For many, death was a risk worth taking.

 Meanwhile, Briggs continued to salve the men’s souls with music. In mid-April, he prepared a concert of scenes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” along with Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” and after intermission, a set of swing tunes. For “Don Giovanni,” two actors were chosen from among the men: Joseph Blumberg as the licentious cad Don Giovanni, and Jimmy Hale as the young peasant girl Zerlina, who is drawn to Giovanni’s sexual charisma. The orchestra performed five excerpts from the opera, including the sensuous overture, as well as Giovanni’s plaintive plea, “I Am Under Your Window.” Then came the brooding, tragic, “Egmont Overture,” which Beethoven composed for a play by the great Goethe. These were extraordinary pieces to attempt in a prison camp, but Briggs had too much pride to do anything less than astound his audience. 

By summer, morale cratered again. The sex-starved men began avoiding the fence on visiting day—seeing the line of women only added to their agony. Homosexuality became normal. As one prisoner recalled, “I can truly testify . . . we were no longer interested in women. There was the rise of homosexuality, and it brought about conflicts that we wouldn’t have had if the women were with us: Ferocious jealousies, loves of three or four prisoners for the same object, for the same subject. So there were open and hysterical fights.” He noted that behavior in the camp, sexual and otherwise, changed incrementally, so that “a man who came back after the first year, if he should see himself would not recognize himself.”

 In August, a shipment of hopeless French Jews crowded into the camp. “So down and out, children separated from parents etc.,” Webb wrote. “Hear one of them jumped out of a window . . . God only knows what’s in store for all of us, poor British’s in here, especially when one sees what is happening to the Jews!” Three days later, he wrote again, “Our Internees Jews have had some squealing and gnashing of teeth this past week. I saw a case of mother and son, about 6 yr. old, come in Thursday morning instead of 2 pm visit-time. She had to give herself up at 2 pm to be taken away and the kiddy separated from parents. Allowed to see hubby, but boy not allowed to see his father, boy ran back to say goodbye, crying ‘Daddy!’ But not permitted in, although kid got near to gate and mother. Separate and taken away, but where to?”

The worst horrors of the Holocaust had begun. At Auschwitz, gold was pulled from the teeth of Jewish corpses and melted to enrich the Nazis. At Treblinka, prisoners were forced to cut wood to fuel the cremation pits where they were soon to die. At Belzec, only seven Jewish prisoners out of half a million survived the war. At Sobibór, many female prisoners were raped before being killed. At Lublin, more than 18,000 Jews were killed on a single day. At Chelmno, prisoners were made to think they were about to take baths for disinfection as they were herded into the gas chamber.

Hitler had gone too far, figuratively and literally. In August 1942, he penetrated deep into Russia, reaching Stalingrad, where his troops would suffer an apocalyptic winter. At roughly the same time, the Allies scored their first decisive victory in the Pacific theatre at the Battle of Guadalcanal. In November came another Allied victory at the Battle of Casablanca. “There began to be a lot of gossip circulating in the camp as there was an Allied landing in North Africa,” Briggs recalled. “Our German guards were not very happy to know that the Allies had taken a step forward.” The Allies had not only taken a step forward, they had pushed the Axis back thirteen hundred miles from Egypt to Tunisia, pinning them between newly arrived American and British troops in Morocco and Algeria. The tide was turning.

Briggs was emboldened. At the end of every concert, before leaving the bandstand, he performed an old Negro work song called “Better Days Will Come Again.” During slavery, work songs were the secular counterpart to Negro spirituals, sung in the fields to ease the backbreaking labor with rhythm. Briggs drew from this deep well of history to deliver a coded message of hope to his fellow prisoners. He passed courage to them through the blast of his trumpet. The effect was electric. “As soon as I hit the first note, all the internees would come to attention,” Briggs recalled. There he stood, facing two thousand hope-starved men, wobbling on hunger-weakened legs, but standing nonetheless, standing in defiance of their captivity, and thanking him with their eyes for his strength, because it was now theirs too. 

Seeing the men standing, the Nazi guards demanded to know what Briggs was playing. “It’s our signature tune,” he lied. “It’s the end of the concert. That’s all there is. They’re getting up because they’re thanking us for the concert we just played.” Later, he slyly added, “You know it wasn’t that.” One internee recalled the Nazis’ reaction: “When at the end of a performance the master trumpeter in clear tones would blow us into ‘Better Days Will Come Again’ the Germans would look with envy at their caged victims.” The German guards could not understand the strange power that straightened the spines of their prisoners, any more than the American slave driver could understand the power that gave succor to his slaves. The power was the song, the song of the unconquerable human spirit, the song that gave birth to jazz. Briggs spent his entire adult life trying to teach Europeans this song. He wanted them not just to hear it or play it, but also to feel it. Finally, he succeeded. 

One can only imagine the punishment Briggs would have faced for such insubordination, but he risked it anyway. With emotion, with passion, with fire, he breathed the melody into his horn, while the lyrics sounded silently in his head:

Don’t be sighing, little darling,

Sunshine follows after rain;

Though the shadows now are falling,

Better days will come again.

 

 

01/17/20 Articles

The Show Goes On: Modern-soul masterpiece by the Patterson Twins gets reissued by Miles Away

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In a red compact ’60s Mercedes, the kind with the logo on the hubcaps, it took twin brothers Estus and Lester Patterson around three and half hours to make the drive up to Memphis, Tennessee, from their digs in Magee, a little town outside of Jackson, Mississippi. They pulled up into the parking lot on the hallowed ground of Stax Records, got out, and walked with purpose to the old movie theater entrance on E. McLemore Ave. As an up-and-coming R&B act—known to the folks back home as the Soul Twins—they were in Memphis to pitch their services as singers, hoping to fill the void left by platinum recording duo Sam & Dave after they had switched to Atlantic Records. The twins hadn’t been there long when Stax legend Rufus Thomas followed them into the building. The self-styled “Funkiest Man Alive”—who had enjoyed hits with “Walking the Dog” and “Do the Funky Chicken”—looked somewhat pissed. 

“So, who in the heyyell is parking in my spot!?” he growled.

Estus remembers looking at his brother somewhat uneasily.

“I was like, ‘Err, excuse me, let me run out here and move my car.’ And when I got out, I noticed there was a big sign that said RUFUS THOMAS!” 

Both Estus and his brother chuckle together in unison. “Man, we got a kick out of that because Rufus was very hot [on the charts] back in the day, and there I was right in his spot, trying to get a job, but that was it, he was like bang!” 

On speaker phone from Lester’s house in Jackson, the twins are reminiscing about the days just prior to when they made their ’78 debut LP, Let Me Be Your Lover, the sought-after deep modern-soul treasure—originally released by the obscure Commercial Records out of Mississippi—that has now been given the remaster treatment by iconic U.K. label Acid Jazz (via their imprint Miles Away). 

“Man, there’s lots of days, if I go back, that we can reminisce about,” Estus—who splits his time between Mississippi and California—says, speaking in an ever-so-slightly higher tone than the concentrated Mississippian brogue of his brother Lester; between them they cover different notes from the same tenor voice. 

 “Al Green’s producer Willie Mitchell cut one of our songs too… Uh, what was the name of that song, brother?”

“‘Soul City,’” Lester replies. 

“That’s right, ‘Soul City,’” Estus agrees, remembering “Come On Everybody Get with the Beat Let Me Take You to Soul City U.S.A.” (to give it its full title in all its glory). “That song came out on Henry Hines’s Big Beat Records,” a small label out of Greenville, Mississippi, not to be confused with the indie rock label of the same name. “We cut at the Hi Records studios sev’ral, sev’ral times. Willie Mitchell got to know us real good,” says Lester, who lingers on the word real. 

“We would just go from studio to studio in that compact Mercedes,” says Estus—the twins taking turns to answer like they switch off on lead vocals. 

“We cut our first big-little record at Muscle Shoals,” adds Lester. “Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We would go wherever we felt they were making good music. And Muscle Shoals had good writers, good people.” 

“We ran across George Jackson, the guy that wrote ‘One Bad Apple’ for the Osmonds,” says Estus. It was Southern soul genius George Jackson—writer/performer of, among others, the brilliant “Aretha, Sing One for Me,” “Walking the City Streets,” and “Don’t Count Me Out”—who contributed the composition “Back in Love Again” to the fellas (now renamed the Patterson Twins), a 45 that when it was released via the Nashville-based King Records, immediately garnered local attention. 

“‘Back in Love Again’ took off,” says Lester. “That’s what got us the deal with Commercial Records—got us in the position to do a whole album.”

“It was going really well in the South on jukebox, y’see,” Estus interjects.
“Yeah, it was real good on the jukebox; that’s how we got their attention,” adds Lester. “George Linden Webber was the guy who referred us to Commercial Records. He liked what we was doin’ as a duo, and they signed us on.” 

After the title track, the second song they worked on for the Let Me Be Your Lover album was the modern-soul monster and first single “Gonna Find a True Love,” a supercharged cover of an obscure Motown release. 

“Oh my God that was a good song,” says Estus. “It was [co]written by one of the guys from Bottom & Co. [Johnny Helms] out of Nashville—group member Sanchez Harley was the producer on that.”

Says Lester: “We kicked it around for a day or so.”

“We was listening to it and said, ‘Hmmm, this sounds good…that’s us, that’s us!’” adds Estus. 

Lester: “It rub off on ya.”

“It rub off on ya,” Estus repeats. “So, it took us three or four days to learn the lyrics. Sanchez and the guys [Bottom & Co.], they were some good artists, very good producers. We kept in contact for a few years, but I don’t even know if they’re still around anymore.”

Sanchez Harley would produce four songs in all on Let Me Be Your Lover: the rousing Lou Rawls–in-a-cravat-style title track; the covetous, deep soul of “He’s a Loser”; the aforementioned “Gonna Find a True Love”; and the sweet-soul killer “How Long Must the Show Go On.” The team of Stanley Bell and Troy Shondell predominantly handled the funkier numbers: “A Good Thing,” “Funk Machine,” and a Shondell-only composition deceptively called “Disco Dream”—misleading in that despite the title conjuring some kind of spacey disco setup (a nightclub scene from Buck Rogers perhaps), it’s actually more of a midnight blues akin to two-part harmony specialists Bob & Earl or Mel & Tim. 

“We were into that old stuff, those old singers we patterned after; who was that singing at the time, Lester?”

“Tyrone Davis, the Sim Twins on Sar Records, Sam & Dave…” Lester responds.

“…and Mel & Teeyim!” they both say in unison. 

Estus adds: “Sam Cooke and the Sim Twins was a little bit before our time, but we did get influenced by his music. His early music, we weren’t active at that time, but we were just learning and beginning.” 

They both count their grandmother Eulah Thompson as their main influence growing up. Eulah took the twins at five years old after their parents tragically died in a car accident. 

“As the days go by, [the memory] gets a little obscured,” says Lester. 

“I remember my mother, but afterwards our grandmother did such a good job in raising us, and [people] couldn’t help but know who she was,” Estus adds. 

“She had a beauty shop where she would do peoples’ hair in the neighborhood,” says Lester. “And we would sit around and sing little songs—some we made up too. They would give us nickel and dimes,” he laughs. “Nickel and dimes was good money!”

Estus and Lester have always remained close, at nineteen years old they even married twin girls. Something that outsiders would sometimes find confusing, if not the twins themselves. 

“No, the animal instinct kicked in,” Lester explains. “The cow know the calf!” 

The wives would accompany their husbands on the chitlin circuit, rarely showing any sign of jealousy while other women would get excited and worked up by their performances.

“Ah man, they were out there too, shaking a tail feather!” Estus laughs. “Shakin’ a tail feather!” echoes Lester. 

Despite the turbulence and racial tensions across the South, the Patterson Twins say they rarely encountered problems while touring on the circuit.

Says Estus: “We didn’t have a problem like that because we was raised in the South, so we understood the pros and cons of what not to do and what to do. We didn’t have that problem at all.” 

The “do’s” included having an all-White band, with the Patterson Twins the only two Black members performing out front. The “don’ts” meant being careful who you mixed with after the show. 

Says Estus: “The club owner would say, ‘Don’t you get too friendly with the girls.’”

“If you did, then you don’t get to come back,” adds Lester. “So you don’t get too friendly with the girls—the White girls is what I’m saying… I can break it to you.” 

It was a hard day’s night, the fellas having to skimp on regular comforts to earn some decent bread.

“Man…” Estus laughs. “You didn’t get nothin’ else but the door. They didn’t guarantee you no money; you just got whatever came through the door whether it be fifty cents or one dollar. That’s all you got, split between you and the band. To make it, you’d have to stay in low-end hotels where you spend [all night] looking at the roof waiting for it to come down on you.” 

Says Estus: “You made a living; you could buy suits. It kept you eating and reaching up. The chitlin was an experience and the price you had to pay.”

“As our fanbase grew,” Lester adds, “we got more and more people wanting to see us perform, and we could demand more money to come back.” 

While touring the album Let Me Be Your Lover, which song, I ask them, always got the best reaction? 

“How Long Must the Show Go On.” They both say this together, synchronized and without hesitation, leading them into an impromptu performance. 

“How long must the show go onnnn / How long must we pretend…there’s nothing wrong!” 

They sing in perfect harmony. It’s a brief moment of magic that pauses the interview, stopping time. 

Says Estus: “We just enjoyed what the audience wanted us to sing—“Let Me Be Your Lover” and “Gonna Find a True Love” always went down well too.” 

Unfortunately, the mainstream success enjoyed by a Sam & Dave or Bob & Earl project would elude the twins. The Let Me Be Your Lover album’s prospects likely not helped by the modest setup of their Commercial Records home. 

“We didn’t get no response from the U.S. on that really,” says Estus. “But it was amazing. I mean, after I’d heard what we had come up with and had the finished product, it made my heart feel good because I knew we had something.” 

It was a different story across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, with Let Me Be Your Lover achieving legendary status in the U.K. and Japan, setting rare-groove/modern-soul punters back a tidy 500 quid or more for a vinyl copy. That is, it did until Miles Away/Acid Jazz licensed the album for an official re-release. 

“They’re good people; they believe in us,” says Estus. “We appreciate the kindness and sincerity and hope that we can continue our career.”

They no longer possess the ’60s compact Mercedes to hit the road in, with Estus— who now lives and works in Palmdale, California—clocking up air miles traveling between the West Coast and Jackson. 

“Wherever we are wanted to support [the re-release of] this record we are willing to travel,” says Estus. “Have gun, will travel!” he laughs. 

“No, no guns!” says Lester. “You mention guns and people get nervous. Have voices will travel, how ’bout that?”