It’s a pretty rare occurrence for a record to be credited to an artist who doesn’t actually appear on it. One example I can think of is “River Deep, Mountain High” which is credited to Ike and Tina Turner despite the fact that producer Phil Spector made sure that Ike was nowhere near the studio when the session for that single was going down. “The Horse” is another example. The record is credited to Cliff Nobles & Co. despite the fact that Cliff Nobles himself doesn’t appear on it.
Cliff Nobles wasn’t one of those artists who took to music as a small child. In fact, it wasn’t until high school in his Alabama hometown that he began his singing career as a member of a vocal group called the Delroys. He must have enjoyed the experience because it wasn’t long after high school that he pursued his dreams of being a singer to Philadelphia. As it turned out, being a big fish in a small pond was a lot easier than being an unknown talent in a big city.
Nobles was able to finagle a record deal with Atlantic and he cut three singles for the label, but none of them went anywhere and he left Philadelphia for the relatively bucolic Norristown, PA, 18 miles from the city. Nobles started singing in a local church and put together a band to play a more secular variety of music. Cliff Nobles & Co. included bass player Benny Williams, lead guitarist Bobby Tucker, and drummer Tommy Soul. The band recorded some demos that eventually made their way to a producer, singer, and songwriter by the name of Jesse James. As luck would have it, James had heard Nobles sing in church and he was already a fan.
With James on board as a songwriter, Nobles was able to score another record deal, this time with the Phil-L.A. label. The band’s first single for the label did nothing. The second single, however, was the charm … sort of. The A-side of the record was “Love is Alright” but as sometimes happened in those days, DJs turned the record over and the flip-side, “The Horse,” became a huge hit. The thing is, “The Horse” is an instrumental. In fact, it’s the instrumental track for “Love is Alright.” The only thing missing from “The Horse” was Nobles’ voice.
At the end of July 1968, “The Horse” reached the #2 spot on the pop chart. It might have gone to the top but for another instrumental, Hugh Masekela’s “Grazin’ in the Grass,” which was occupying that spot. It was the first time in pop history that two instrumentals sat in the top two positions on the chart in the same week. In any event, “The Horse” sold a million copies in the first three months of its release and won Nobles a Gold Record. It’s interesting to note that the horn section on the record went on to be part of the legendary Philadelphia session group MFSB.
Record companies are not known for their sensitivity to artists’ egos and Phil-L.A. was no exception. Noting the success of the instrumental, the label continued to release singles under the name Cliff Nobles & Co. and Nobles continued not to appear on them. These singles included “Horse Fever” and “Switch it On.” There was an album called, what else, The Horse, but that too was mostly instrumentals. The only time Nobles came close to appearing on a hit was on a later Roulette Records single that nearly cracked the Top 40.
Nobles left the music industry and worked in construction and electricity generation. He remained in Norristown for the rest of his life and died there in 2008. Cliff Nobles will always be a notable figure in music history but not necessarily for the right reasons. He was a good singer and entertainer and one big hit single bore his name but not his voice.