Soul Serenade: The Players, “He’ll Be Back”

VietnamIf you live long enough, you have the opportunity to watch as history repeats itself. Fifty years ago, the nation was deeply divided, just as it is today. The Vietnam War was raging. Racism and poverty were deeply ingrained in the American experience for far too many people. Along came a presidential candidate who promised to take us back to a better time, a time without the problems we were facing. In short, Richard Nixon sold the country a fairy tale and was elected president in 1968.

Much the same has occurred recently. The nation is deeply divided. We are in an endless war with terror, and racism and poverty are still very much with us. Along came a candidate, this time in the form of New York real estate magnate, who promised to take us back to a better time, to “make America great again,” and in November, he was elected president. It took less than 50 years for history to repeat itself.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that there is always a photo of the featured artist, most recently on the banner at the top of the page. What you see there this week is a photo taken during the Vietnam War. There are two reasons for this; first of all, the featured song is about a young man going off to fight in Vietnam, and a friend assuring the young man’s sweetheart that “he’ll be back.” Second, the Players weren’t really a group at all. They were strictly a studio concoction of singers from other groups … well, mostly from one other group.

The Players - He'll Be Back

The lead singer was Herbert Butler, and he was joined by four members of the Dells: Chuck Barksdale, Johnny Carter, Vern Allison, and Mickey McGill. They got together in a studio in Chicago in 1966 and cut a record called “He’ll Be Back,” which was released by Minit Records. The sweet, sad ballad was a hit on the R&B chart but didn’t manage a crossover to the Pop chart. Still, it was a big enough record to send the Players out on the road to tour, and since there were no real Players, and the Dells were busy with their own career, Otha Lee Givins and Tony Lee Johnson joined Butler to perform the song live.

The brain trust at Minit knew that it was important to follow up the success of the single with an album, so they rushed one out with the two new members accompanying Butler on most of the album tracks. The story that began with “He’ll Be Back” had a happy ending that was depicted in the second Players single, “I’m Glad I Waited,” in 1966. The only Dell that sang on that one was the bass vocalist Chuck Barksdale, and Joe Brackenridge was added to the touring unit.

The Players released two more singles for Minit in 1967, but neither “That’s the Way,” or “Get Right” found any chart success and the short, sweet career of the Players was over, leaving only two modest hit records, and the beautiful first tenor voice of Herbert Butler as a memory.

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