Soul Serenade: Jewel Akens, “The Birds And The Bees”

Jewel AkensThe long New England winter is apparently over. Actually, it wasn’t a bad one at all and despite the fact that spring doesn’t officially arrive until this weekend, we have been enjoying some nice sunny weather here in Rhode Island this week. The birds are beginning to sing, the bees are starting to buzz, and thoughts turn to … Jewel Akens.

Akens was born in Houston in 1933. Early in his singing career, he was with groups like the Medallions, who recorded for Dootone Records, and the Four Dots, who made records for a label called Freedom. In 1960 he teamed up with Eddie Daniels, and the duo known, appropriately, as Jewel and Eddie, recorded for Silver Records.

Jewel Akens - The Birds and the Bees

It was as a solo artist that Akens found his greatest success, however. In 1965 his recording of “The Birds and the Bees” for Era Records shot up the Billboard Hot 100 chart to #3, and the Cashbox chart to #2. It was a million seller and a gold record winner. Jewel Akens had finally made the big-time, or so it must have seemed at the time.

I remember walking on the boardwalk in Atlantic City that summer. “The Birds and the Bees” could be heard everywhere. It was a song that appealed to everyone.

Once you have a hit record the follow-up becomes key. It goes a long way toward determining if an artist is going to be a true star, or merely a one-hit wonder. Sadly, the latter was the case for Akens. His follow-up single was something called “Georgie Porgie,” and when it only managed to reach #68 it marked the end of Akens brief ascent to stardom.

That’s not to say that Akens gave and went home. He kept on singing, doing live shows in which he often paid tribute to Sam Cooke, who he considered a mentor. Akens also fronted one of the many groups calling themselves the Coasters, despite the absence of any original Coaster. The success of “The Birds and the Bees” even earned Akens a slot on tour with the Monkees in the late ’60s.

By the middle of the 1970s, Akens was ready to call it a day. But that still wasn’t quite the end of the story. In 2005 he reassembled the Four Dots, albeit with new members, and they played shows for five years.

Jewel Akens died in 2013 as a result of surgical complications. He was a one-hit wonder in the truest sense of the word, but in light of the fact that the vast majority of artists never have a hit record, it’s really not such a bad designation, especially when your one hit is joyous, and indelible record.

Soul Serenade: Peaches & Herb, “Let’s Fall In Love”

Peaches & HerbI was going to call in sick this week. I’ve been down with some evil thing for a few days, and I’m sure the boss would have understood. After all, I never take sick days. And that’s the point. I have written this column week in and week out, foul weather and fair, for well over six years now and I can’t recall missing a week. If you search for “Soul Serenade” on the Popdose website you can find over 300 entries in this series. So ill health be damned. I’m going to tell you about Peaches & Herb.

They were both born in Washington, D.C. Herb Fame (born Herbert Feemster) starting singing as a child. Eventually, he took a job in a record store, which is where he met Van McCoy, who introduced him to an A&R guy by the name of Dave Kapralik who signed Fame to Date Records, a Columbia subsidiary. Meanwhile, Francine “Peaches” Barker (born Francine Edna Hurd) was singing with the Darlettes. When they got a deal with Date Records they changed their name to the Sweet Things.

McCoy produced two singles for the Darlettes, but when they didn’t go anywhere Kapralik had the brilliant idea of teaming Peaches & Herb to record as a duo. They released their first single in December 1966 but “We’re in this Thing Together” wasn’t getting any traction. Then a DJ in St. Louis flipped the record over and “Let’s Fall in Love” became Peaches & Herb’s first hit.

“Let’s Fall in Love” was an American songbook standard, written in 1934 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler and recorded by luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and the Four Aces. The Peaches & Herb version made it to #11 on the R&B chart, and crossed over to the Pop chart, reaching #21.

The next two years saw Peaches & Herb have a string of hits including “For Your Love,” and “Love is Strange.” But Barker got tired of the touring life so Fame got himself a new Peaches in the form of Marlina Mars, who had been a member of the Jaynettes, for live performances. Barker still sung on the records though and even made some solo records for Columbia under the name Francine Barker.

Fame retired in 1970 and became a D.C. cop. He decided to get back into the music business six years later but once again he needed a new Peaches. McCoy recommended Linda Greene, and the most successful Peaches & Herb era began. At first, they recorded for MCA, and McCoy produced their first album for the label, but only one chart single came out of it, the ironically titled “We’re Still Together.” I guess it depends on what your definition of ‘we’ is.

Peaches & Herb

Then they moved on to the Polydor label MVP and things started to happen. The album 2 Hot went gold and “Shake Your Groove Thing” streaked all the way to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The follow-up single from the album was a little something called “Reunited,” which went triple platinum and topped both the R&B and Pop charts. There were several more hits for Polydor including “I Pledge My Love” before the duo moved on to the Entertainment Company, where they released their seventh and final album in 1983.

Fame retired again and again went into law enforcement, working for the U.S. Marshal Service. Greene and her husband Stephen Tavani released three gospel albums. But Fame couldn’t stay retired, and while still working at the Marshal Service he revived the Peaches & Herb name in 1990, this time making Patrica Hawthorne the fourth Peaches. But they only ended up doing a few shows and didn’t record together.

Despite the fact that the Fame and Greene version of Peaches & Herb had sold nine million records for Polydor, Fame was not as well off as he should have been. He sued his former label and won the unpaid royalties he was entitled to. Now financially secure, he opted to put the money in the bank and keep working at the law enforcement job he loved.

By now you see a pattern, right? Yes, there was a fifth Peaches. She was named Miriamm and she became part of the duo in 2002. This is the pair that you see on PBS fundraising specials like Rhythm, Love & Soul that still air periodically. Sure enough, there was a sixth Peaches, Wanda Makle. That duo was planning to make an album in 2008 but it didn’t happen, and Peaches number seven, Meritxell Negre came over from her home in Barcelona for the gig.

This time there was an album as Fame and Negre released Colors of Love in 2009. It was the first Peaches & Herb album in more than 25 years. But eventually, Fame returned to number six and the Peaches & Herb that are touring these days are Fame and Makle. Stay tuned for further developments.

Soul Serenade: Howard Tate, “Ain’t Nobody Home”

Howard TateHoward Tate had six hit singles in the late 1960s. He is perhaps best known for his association with the legendary songwriter and producer Jerry Ragovoy, who worked with Tate on most of his hits. But Tate’s story is one of loss, and ultimately, redemption.
He was born in Georgia but grew up in Philadelphia, which is where he began his singing career. In his teens, he was part of a gospel group which included Garnet Mimms. A subsequent group, the Gainors, also with Mimms, began to make R&B records for the Cameo and Mercury labels.

Mimms went on to success with his Enchanters, who had hits like “Cry, Baby,” and “Quiet Place,” while working with Ragovoy. He introduced Tate to the producer, who began to work with Tate using the cream of the crop of New York sessions musicians that a producer of Ragovoy’s status could request.

Tate and Ragovoy worked together from 1966-1968, making records for the Verve label. During that time they produced a string of blues and R&B hits that included three singles, “Ain’t Nobody Home,” “Look at Granny Run Run,” and “Stop,” that reached the Top 20 on the Billboard R&B chart. Tate was also a favorite with critics like Robert Christgau, who wrote that the singer and his producer brought out the best in each other.

Howard Tate

After leaving Ragovoy, Tate worked with Lloyd Price and Johnny Nash, who produced an album for him called Howard Tate’s Reaction in 1970. Two years later, Tate was back with Ragovoy for a self-titled album for Atlantic Records. The album, which was reissued in 2003, included songs by Ragovoy, as well as covers of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” and “Jemima Surrender,” by Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm.

Tate made a few more records in the ’70s, but by the end of the decade he was done with the music business. He became a stockbroker, but when tragedy struck in the ’80s, and his teenage daughter died in a house fire, Tate turned to drugs, and ended up on the streets. He managed to turn his life around by the mid-1990s and worked as a preacher, and a counselor to other with drug problems.

It was a disc jockey from New Jersey who rediscovered Tate in 2001, and that year Tate played a show in New Orleans, his first in many years. Two years later, the singer reunited with the partner with whom he had the most success, Jerry Ragovoy, for an album called, appropriately, Rediscovered. The album included a new version of Ragovoy’s classic “Get it While You Can,” which Tate had recorded in the ’60s before it became a smash by Janis Joplin.

Howard Tate Live was released in 2004, A Portrait of Howard, produced by Steve Weisberg, followed in 2006, and the Jon Tiven-produced Blue Day came out in 2008.

“Howard and I danced for a few years before we actually made a record,” Tiven told me. “Jerry Ragovoy asked me to produce Howard because he was signed to Jerry’s production company and they weren’t getting along. So we started and stopped and then he did that album with that other dude (Steve Weisberg). When he finally got free and wanted to get into this, he was easy. (He) just had to make sure he got paid and then everything went well.”

The stirring comeback of Howard Tate came to an end in 2011 when he died of complications from leukemia at the age of 72.

Soul Serenade: Judy Clay & William Bell, “Private Number”

Judy Clay & William BellThis week’s classic soul record is very much a duet from two great singers. I have written about William Bell before in this column, and probably will again. Suffice to say that he is not only still active at the age of 78, he won a Grammy for his most recent album, last year’s This is Where I Live. But this week I’m going to focus on his duet partner, Judy Clay.

She was born in North Carolina in 1938, with the name Judith Grace Guions. She lived in Fayetteville with her grandmother until she moved to Brooklyn in her early teens. There, she became a member of the Drinkard Singers family gospel group. It was a group that at one time had notable members like Cissy Houston, and her daughters Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. The Drinkard Singers eventually morphed into the Sweet Inspirations.

Clay’s first recording experience came with the Singers on their album The Newport Spiritual Stars, in 1954. She stayed with the group for six more years before departing for a solo career. She signed with Ember Records but her first single for the label, “More Than You Know,” didn’t do much business. Labels like Lavette, Scepter, and Stax followed, but success proved to be elusive for Clay.

She got her big break in 1967 when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records decided to pair her with Billy Vera. They were the first racially integrated duo in American history, and they teamed up with the Sweet Inspirations to record “Storybook Children.” Unfortunately, people were not ready for an integrated couple, and despite the fact that Clay was married to jazz drummer Leo Gatewood and pregnant at the time, it was assumed that Clay and Vera were a couple and that the child was his.

Nevertheless, the song was a hit, reaching #20 on the R&B chart, and #54 on the Pop chart. But when it came to performing it on network television, the ugly specter of racism reared its head again and the song was performed by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood.

In his Judy Clay obituary for The Guardian in 2001, Vera wrote:

“Other than an appearance on Hy Lit’s show on WKBS in Philadelphia, and one on Robin Seymour’s Swingin’ Time in Detroit, our little revolution was never televised.”

William Bell & Judy Clay

Vera and Clay had another hit for Atlantic, “Country Girl, City Man,” which did almost as well as “Storybook Children,” and there was also a duet album for the label. Perhaps tiring of the racism that was blocking the duo from a wider appeal, Clay decided to return to Stax Records. There she was teamed with William Bell, and together they recorded “Private Number” in 1968.

The song was written by Bell and Booker T. Jones, and produced by Jones. The single reached #17 on the R&B chart and #75 on the Pop chart. It didn’t even better in the U.K., where it soared all the way to #8 on the singles chart. The duo charted one more time with “My Baby Specializes,” before Clay returned to Atlantic for one more single with Vera, “Reaching for the Moon.” She also had one last solo hit with “Greatest Love” in 1970.

After that Clay became an in-demand backup singer, working with luminaries like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett. She returned to gospel music after recovering from a brain tumor in 1979, and on occasion sang with Cissy Houston’s choir in Newark. It was complications from a car accident that eventually took Clay’s life in 2001. She was 62 years-old.

In his obituary, Vera concluded: “With Judy’s passing, we have lost a great singer who never got her due.”

Soul Serenade: Betty Wright, “Clean Up Woman”

Betty WrightWhen most people think of Miami, they think of retirees, Crockett and Tubbs, sultry tropical nights, and hot Latin rhythms. What many people don’t associate with Miami is classic soul music. But if you dig down a little deeper into the city’s musical history, you will find a deep vein of southern soul.

Betty Wright was born in Miami, and she was only two-years-old when she began to sing in her first gospel group. The Echoes of Joy also included two of Wright’s siblings. The group’s first album was released in 1956, and they worked together into the sixties. Wright was only 11 when the Echoes of Joy broke up in 1965, and she made the decision to move from gospel to secular music.

Wright began to sing in talent shows, and it was at one of those shows that she was spotted by the owner of a local record label. By the following year, Wright had released two singles for the label. “Thank You Baby,” and “Paralyzed” made Wright a big star in Miami.

There was a legendary music business figure by the name of Henry Stone in Miami at the time. Stone owned a company called TK Productions, and one of the company’s labels was Alston Records. When Wright was still a teenager she began discovering local talent and getting them signed to Alston. Among her discoveries were George and Gwen McRae who would go on to become stars in their own right.

Wright’s first hit for Alston was “Girls Can’t Do What Guys Do.” She was only 15 when the single reached the #33 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and #15 on the U.S. Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. The single was also included on Wright’s debut album, My First Time Around, also released in 1968. In 1970, Wright had a Top 40 R&B single with “Pure Love.” She was still in high school at the time.

In 1971, Betty Wright had her breakthrough hit. “Clean Up Woman” was written and produced by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, and released on Alston Records. The record soared to #6 on the Pop chart and remained on the chart for 14 weeks. It was also a #2 smash on the R&B chart. “Clean Up Woman” sold over a million copies and received a gold disc award from the RIAA. It is estimated that the song has been sampled at least 32 times, including records by Chance the Rapper, Mary J. Blige, and Al Kooper.

In 1972, the follow-up single, “Baby Sitter,” was another Top 10 R&B hit for Wright, and reached #46 on the Pop chart. The hits kept coming for Wright with songs like “It’s Hard to Stop (Doing Something When It’s Good To You),” “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” and “Where is the Love” all hitting the charts. In fact, during the 1970’s alone, Wright had 20 chart singles. And she was certainly not done yet.

As the disco era faded, so too did TK Productions begin to fade. Wright moved on to Epic Records and released her self-titled debut album for the label in 1981. She continued having R&B hits for the label through the ’80s. But it wasn’t until 1988 that Wright, by then recording for her own label, returned to the R&B Top 20 with “No Pain, No Gain.” The album that included the hit single, Mother Wit, was the first gold album for a black female artist recording for her own label.

Wright continued recording into the ’90s, also working behind the scenes with artists like Gloria Estefan. Moving into the 21st century, Wright began doing vocal production for other artists including Joss Stone and Jennifer Lopez. In 2005 she won a Grammy for producing Stone’s second album Mind, Body & Soul, working with co-producers Steve Greenberg and Mangini. The same team produced tracks for Tom Jones 2008 album 24 Hours.

In 2011 Wright released her first album in ten years, Betty Wright: The Movie. Backed by the Roots, the album was produced by Wright along with Roots drummer Ahmir Questlove Thompson. Guest artists included Joss Stone, Lil Wayne, and Snoop Dogg. A track from the album called “Surrender” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance.

Betty Wright remains active in the music business. Her most recent appearance on record is on the DJ Khaled song “Holy Key,” which was released earlier this year.

Soul Serenade: Lenny Welch, “Darling Take Me Back”

Lenny WechWhen you mention Asbury Park to many music fans, they immediately think of Bruce Springsteen. And why not? He is certainly the biggest star to emerge from the Jersey shore town, and after all, he named his first album Greetings From Asbury Park. But the truth is that there was a vibrant music scene in Asbury Park long before Springsteen appeared, and it’s worth noting that there’s still a vibrant music scene in the city to this day.

Lenny Welch grew up in Asbury Park. He was born in 1938 and got his start entering talent shows with groups that he had assembled. In his teens, Welch made the short trip to New York City in search of a record deal, just as Springsteen did some years later. Welch auditioned for Decca Records along with his group. But Decca executives liked Welch as a solo artist and signed him.

Welch’s first two singles for the label, “My One Sincere” in 1958, and “The Blessing of Love” in 1959, flopped. Things began to take an upward turn when Welch was introduced to Archie Bleyer who owned Cadence Records. Welch signed with Cadence, and his first single for the label, “You Don’t Know Me,” showed promise, reaching #45 on the Pop chart in 1960. It would take three years, and several more non-charting singles, but Welch eventually hit pay dirt in 1963.

Lenny Welch

“Since I Fell For You” was a cover of a song written in 1945 by Buddy Johnson, and made popular by his sister Ella Johnson, who sang in Buddy’s band. Welch’s version soared all the way to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The record also reached #3 on the R&B chart. When Welch followed it up with his #25 hit cover of “Ebb Tide” in 1964, the future looked bright indeed. Unfortunately, fate would intervene to derail Welch’s career.

The first thing to happen was that Cadence Records folded in 1964, for reasons no one knows. Former Cadence artist Andy Williams bought the label’s assets, and re-released them on his own label, Barnaby, although Williams himself released his new recordings on Columbia Records. After Welch’s last Cadence release, “If You See My Love,” he began looking for a new record deal.

Welch eventually signed with Kapp Records, but at about that time Uncle Sam came calling, and he was drafted. He tried to keep his career momentum by performing on weekends, but it wasn’t until he was done with his military hitch that he started to score chart hits again. “Darling Take Me Back” was the first of these chart records, reaching #72 in 1965. Other Welch records that made chart appearances during that time were “Two Different Worlds” (1965), “Run to My Loving Arms” (1965), and “Rags to Riches” (1966). “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” returned him to the upper reaches of the charts, making it to #34 in 1970.

Welch decided to take a break. He was being compared to successful balladeers like Williams, and Johnny Mathis, and yet, he wasn’t getting the great gigs that they were getting, and his albums weren’t selling like theirs were. Taking the time to regroup may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out not to be. When Welch came back, the public had lost interest. His 1972 release of “A Sunday Kind of Love” was his last chart record, although he continued to record into 1977.

Soul Serenade: Darrell Banks, “Open The Door To Your Heart”

Darrell BanksWhen you think of great singers whose lives and careers were cut short when they were on the wrong end of a gun, Sam Cooke is the first name that comes to mind. But there was another great soul singer who lost his life when he was gunned down, and that was Darrell Banks.

He was born in Ohio, but grew up he grew up in Buffalo, New York, singing in church before beginning a career in secular music. One of the Buffalo joints Banks sang in early on was called the Revilot Lounge. He hooked up with a producer named Lebron Taylor whose company was called Solid Hitbound Productions, and Taylor decided to use the name of Banks’ favorite club, the Revilot, as the name of the label which would release the first Banks single.

“Open the Door to Your Heart” was written by Donnie Elbert specifically for his friend Darrell Banks. Elbert was on the road when Taylor recorded the song, which wouldn’t have been a problem except that when the record came out, Banks was credited as a songwriter, the only songwriter. Naturally, Elbert wasn’t too pleased.

Darrell Banks

A legal battle ensued, which Elbert eventually won, although he remained bitter about the fact that Banks, who wasn’t a songwriter and did very little to improve the record, was the co-owner of a soul classic. While the original single only carries Banks’ name as a songwriter, subsequent releases list Banks and Elbert. Meanwhile, the single shot up the charts, reaching #2 on the R&B chart, and #27 on the Pop chart in 1966.

The follow-up single, “Somebody (Somewhere) Needs You,” did respectable business, reaching #34 R&B and #55 Pop. It was a Motown song, written by Marc Gordon and Frank Wilson, but it was never recorded by a Motown artist. It was Ike and Tina Turner who recorded the original version of the song for Loma Records. But Banks’ version was successful enough to get him regular work on what was then called the “chitlin circuit.”

At that point, Banks’ Revilot moved to the more prominent Atco Records. Two 1967 singles for the Atlantic imprint, “Here Come the Tears, and “Angel Baby (Don’t Ever Leave Me),” failed to find any chart success. Atco, in turn, moved Banks over to another Atlantic subsidiary, Cotillion Records. Banks recorded one more single for the label, “I Wanna Go Home,” and then departed for Memphis, and Stax Records.

In 1969, Banks released two singles for Stax’s Volt imprint. Neither “I’m the Only One Who Loves,” or “Beautiful Feeling” set the charts alight, although they did sell reasonably well.

Sadly, Darrell Banks didn’t live long enough to live up to his full potential. In March 1970, he was shot to death in Detroit by an off-duty cop who was seeing Banks’ girlfriend behind his back. When Banks discovered the betrayal, he pulled a gun. The cop responded with deadly force, limiting Banks’ career to just four years, during which he released seven singles and two albums.

By 2014, what was thought to be the only extant copy of the original recording of “Open the Door to Your Heart” was drawing bids of thousands of pounds in a U.K. auction. Not only had Banks become a hero in England’s Northern Soul scene, it was widely acknowledged that when EMI won the rights to distribute the single, they had destroyed all of the original copies of the single, all but one. Eventually, the record sold for the equivalent of $23,000 American.

Soul aficionados acknowledge Darrell Banks as one of the greatest singers the genre has ever known. Unfortunately what we’ll never know is how great he could have become.