Soul Serenade: The Whispers, “Bingo”

The WhispersIt’s the Fourth of July as I write this but you won’t be reading it until at least tomorrow. So I’ll just say that I hope it was a great day for you and your family and friends. These are troubled times in this country and it’s nice to have one day a year to remember how it all began for us and the principles that informed the country’s founding fathers.

This week we’re traveling out west to Los Angeles, California, specifically to the Watts section of the city. It was there in 1964 that Wallace and Walter Scott, identical twin brothers, got together with Gordy Harmon, Marcus Hutson, and Nicholas Caldwell to form the Whispers. Among their fans was Sly Stone who suggested that the group relocate to the San Francisco area. It wasn’t long before they were knocking audiences out with their powerful live show.

It was the Vietnam era and Walter Scott was among those who were drafted. He spent 18 months in the service before being discharged in 1969. That year, the Whispers released their first single on the local Dore label. “The Time Will Come” was a successful debut, reaching #19 on the R&B chart. Before long, the Whispers joined producer Ron Carson at his Soul Clock label. There they had their breakthrough single, “Seems Like I Got to Do Wrong,” in 1970. It was a Top 10 R&B hit and reached the Top 50 on the pop chart.

The Whispers

The Whispers continued to work with Carson although they left his label for the larger Janus Records, which was based in New York. Much of their recording in the mid-’70s was done in Philadelphia, working with Gamble & Huff producers and songwriters like Norman Harris, Bunny Sigler, and Earl Young, with backing tracks provided by MFSB. They scored a non-stop string of hits during this era with songs like “I Only Meant to Wet My Feet,” “Somebody Loves You,” “A Mother for My Children,” “Bingo,” and “In Love Forever.” In 1977, the Whispers returned to the Top 10 with their cover of the Bread hit “Make it With You” and in the late 1970s they scored with hits like “(Olivia) Lost and Turned Out,” and “A Song for Donny.”

The 1980s began with a bang for the Whispers as they rose all the way to the top of the R&B chart with their cover of the Sonny & Cher classic “The Beat Goes On.” The record also found Top 20 success on the pop chart. More big hits followed including “Lady,” “It’s a Love Thing,” “In the Raw,” “Tonight,” and “Keep on Lovin’ Me,” all of which reached the Top 10. But their biggest hit came with the 1987 smash “Rock Steady” which topped the R&B chart and was a #7 hit on the pop chart. Many of the ’80s hits were for the SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records) label.

In the 1990s, the Whispers continued their string of hits with Top 10 successes like “Innocent,” “My Heart Your Heart,” and “Is it Good to You.”

Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Whispers had very few lineup changes over the years. In 1973, Gordy Harmon was injured in an automobile accident and he was replaced by Leaveil Degree who had been a member of the Friends of Distinction. Marcus Hutson died in 1992 and the Whispers decided not to replace him, continuing as a quartet. Nicholas Caldwell died in 2016 leaving the Scott Brothers and Degree to carry on the Whispers name.


Soul Serenade: The New Birth, “Wildflower”

The New BirthIn 1972, a Canadian band called Skylark had a big hit with a song called “Wildflower.” The song was written by band member Doug Edwards and Dave Richardson, who was a friend of Skylark founder and future music business giant David Foster. The original version of “Wildflower” made it into the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained on the chart for 21 weeks.

“Wildflower” is the kind of majestic ballad that begs for covers and sure enough, there have been many of them. Among the artists who have recorded the song are Color Me Badd, Hank Crawford, Johnny Mathis, Lisa Fischer, Silk, and the O’Jays. Perhaps the most successful of these cover versions was the one released by the New Birth in 1974.

The idea for the New Birth came from two veterans of Motown Records. Both Vernon Bullock and Harvey Fuqua had been songwriters and producers for the label. The group actually coalesced in Louisville, Kentucky and included musicians Tony Churchill, James Baker, Robin Russell, Austin Lander, Robert “Lurch” Jackson, Leroy Taylor, Charlie Hearndon, Bruce Marshall and Nathaniel “Nebs” Neblett.

The New Birth

The origins of the group go back to 1963 in Louisville. There, Fuqua and Churchill had a band called the Nite-Liters. Russell, Jackson, Lander, and Hearndon were also members of the group. The Nite-Liters had a few hits including “K-Jee” which reached the R&B Top 20 in 1971. Meanwhile, Bullock had the idea of putting together several groups for a touring bill. He discovered a male vocal group called the Now Sound, and a female vocal group called Mint Julep. Bullock added singer Alan Frye, put everyone together with the Nite-Liters, and the New Birth was born in 1970.

The assembled group’s first success came in 1971 when a track from their second RCA album Ain’t No Big Thing, But It’s Growing, a cover of Perry Como’s hit “It’s Impossible,” became a minor hit. But Bullock wasn’t done manipulating the New Birth lineup. He found a group in Detroit called Love, Peace & Happiness (featuring former Marvelette Ann Bogan) and put them together with the Nite-Liters and existing New Birth members Londee Loren, Bobby Downs, and Alan Frye.

The New Birth was now 17 members strong and in 1972 they had their first Top 10 hit with another cover, this one their take on the Valentinos “I Can Understand It.” The single reached #4 on the R&B chart and had crossover success on the pop chart, reaching the Top 40. Bogan soon left the group to take care of her family leaving Loren the only female band member. But Bullock wasn’t happy with her vocal take on the next New Birth single, yes, a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until it’s Time For You to Go,” and he enlisted former Supreme Susaye Green to sing it. Fuqua and Carolyn Willis of Honey Cone provided the spoken word intro.

In 1974, the New Birth released an album called It’s Been a Long Time. The album spawned hits with the title track (#9 R&B) and their cover of “Wildflower” which reached #17 on the R&B chart and #45 on the pop chart. Later that same year, the sixth New Birth album was released after which the group parted ways with Fuqua and left RCA to sign with Buddha Records.

It was another cover that gained the New Birth their first and only #1 R&B single. This time it was a cover of the Jerry Butler hit “Dream Merchant” (“Mr. Dream Merchant” as released by Butler) which came from the New Birth’s first and only album for Buddha, Blind Baby. After that release, the group decamped for Warner Bros. Records where they had a few minor hits. After two albums for Warners, several members left the group, and the remaining group left Warners.

There were several label and lineup changes before Bullock put together a revamped lineup in 1994 under the name New Birth, leaving behind the ‘the’. Their most recent album was Lifetime which was released by Orpheus Records in 2005.


Soul Serenade: Aaron Neville, “Tell It Like It Is”

In April, we lost Charles Neville to pancreatic cancer. Charles was an integral part of one of the finest family bands that this country ever produced. But ten years before there was a Neville Brothers Band, there was Aaron Neville who had a smash hit on his own in 1966.

Neville, like his brothers, was born in New Orleans of mixed heritage including African-American, Caucasian, and Native American bloodlines. He originally recorded for the Minut record label and had a little bit of success with the single “Over You.” in 1960. It took six years and a move to the New Orleans-based Par-Lo label for Neville to have his biggest hit.

“Tell It Like It Is” was released in November 1966 and it raced up the charts until it reached the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The only thing that kept Neville’s single out of the top spot was the Monkees hit cover fo the Neil Diamond song “I’m a Believer.” There was no such obstacle on the R&B chart and “Tell It Like It Is” attained the top spot and stayed there for five weeks. The song was written by George Davis who also arranged it and played baritone sax on the recording, and Lee Diamond. The session band also included trumpeter Emory Thomas, guitarist Deacon John, tenor sax player Alvin “Red” Tyler, pianist Willie Tee, and drummer June Gardner.

Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville went on to have a sterling career on his own and with his brothers. The Neville Brothers Band formed in 1976. In addition to Aaron and Charles, who played saxophone, the band included keyboard player Art Neville and percussionist Cyril Neville. The band entertained audiences worldwide for nearly three decades while releasing several successful albums in that time. Art Neville’s health issues slowed them down in the ’90s but they came back with a new album, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, in 2004.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans the following year, both Aaron and Cyril left the city. It seemed that the Neville Brothers Band would be no more but the brothers reunited to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2008. The formal end of the band was announced in 2012 but even then there was a farewell concert in New Orleans three years later.

Meanwhile, Aaron Neville was forging an impressive career on his own. Among the highlights were his Grammy-winning duets “All My Life” and “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt that appeared on her 1989 album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. Neville’s own hit singles included “Hercules” in 1973, his cover of the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” in 1991, and “Don’t Take Away My Heaven” in 1993. He has also had four platinum albums. His most recent album, My True Story, a tribute to the doo-wop songs of his youth, was released in 2013.

The song “Tell It Like It Is” had more success via a hit cover version by Heart in 1980, and another by Billie Joe Royal in 1988.

Soul Serenade: Brighter Side of Darkness, “Love Jones”

Brighter Side of DarknessDo you think boy bands began with groups like NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys? Think again. There were boy bands decades ago. The Jackson 5 was just one example. The 5 Stairsteps were another. In addition to being boy bands, both of those groups were also family bands. Around the same time and from the same city as the Stairsteps was a group called Brighter Side of Darkness. They are only remembered for one single, but what a single it was.
Brighter Side coalesced while the members were attending Calumet High School in Chicago. The original lineup included Ralph Eskridge, Randolph Murph, and Larry Washington. The group’s lead singer was 12-year-old Darryl Lamont. Their career as a group lasted less than three years but left behind that one indelible single.

It was 1971 when Brighter Side got together on the South Side of Chicago. They had a manager by the name of Anna Preston who was serving as a mentor for the young Lamont. When she added him to the Brighter Side lineup, that’s when the magic began to unfold. At the end of 1972, they released the single “Love Jones” which was co-written by Murph, Eskridge, and Clarence Johnson who also produced the record. That’s Murph who is building the drama by talking through the song’s verses. But where the song really explodes is on the choruses that find Lamont wailing. The end result is a record that brings to mind the symphonic soul of groups like the Delfonics and the Dramatics but also adds a touch of psychedelia to the mix.

Brighter Side of Darkness

“Love Jones” was released on 20th Century Records and made it to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the Hot Soul Singles chart. It was a million-seller and earned Brighter Side of Darkness a gold record from the RIAA. But apparently, something happened when the group was on their way to a Soul Train appearance. The dispute led 20th Century to fire everyone except Lamont from the group.

The single was also included on an album by the same name. Unfortunately, the follow up single, “I Owe You Love,” and two other singles failed to find any success and 20th Century dropped the group.

Inevitably the case ended up in court where Johnson and the record company took on the original members of the group and prevailed. Johnson hired three new members; Jesse Harvey, Nate Pringle, and Arthur Scales to sing behind Lamont. They recorded one single for Johnson’s Starve label but it went nowhere. Soon, Lamont was gone too and Tyrone Stewart joined the three Johnson-hires and 20th Century re-signed the group but changed their name to the Imaginations. They made two albums and several singles for the label but had no chart success.

By the end of the ’70s, even the owners of the name Brighter Side of Darkness didn’t care and there was no fuss when Lamont and Murph reformed the group. They made one last single in 1978 for the Magic Touch label called “He Made You Mine” but it failed to chart.

Perhaps imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but what do we make of parody? In 1973, Cheech & Chong released a single called “Basketball Jones” that was clearly a parody of the Brighter Side of Darkness hit. Their single featured luminaries Carole King and George Harrison and it reached #15 on the pop chart, one spot higher than the record that inspired it.

Soul Serenade: Bob & Earl, “Harlem Shuffle”

bob & earl featureMost people became familiar with the song “Harlem Shuffle” when the Rolling Stones covered it in 1986. The Stones version of the song leaped up the Billboard Hot 100 to the #5 spot. That record featured none other than Bobby Womack on background vocals. I’d like to think that the hit inspired people to go back and check out the original version of the song which had been recorded more than 20 years earlier.

Bobby Byrd and Earl Nelson met when they were members of a vocal group called the Hollywood Flames that was based in Los Angeles. Nelson sang lead on the Flames biggest hit, “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” which was released in 1958. At the time Byrd also had a solo career under the Bobby Day. He recorded the original version of “Little Bitty Pretty One” which became a hit for Thurston Harris in 1957. Byrd/Day had a hit of his own with “Rockin’ Robin” the following year.

Bob & Earl

In 1960, Byrd and Nelson teamed up as Bob & Earl and began recording for Class Records. Unfortunately, none of their releases found success and Byrd returned to his solo career as Bobby Day in 1962. Nelson must have enjoyed the duo format and he found himself another Bob, in this case, Bobby Relf who was a veteran of L.A. groups like the Laurels, the Upfronts, and Valentino and the Lovers. None other than Barry White sang bass and played piano in the latter two groups.

An L.A. singer named Round Robin had released a song called “Slauson Shuffletime” and Nelson and Relf based their song, “Harlem Shuffle,” on it. Fred Smith produced it, White contributed the arrangement, and the record was released on Marc Records (a subsidiary of Titan Records) in 1963. It was not a huge hit but nearly cracked the Top 40 on both the pop and R&B charts. The Bob & Earl record proved to be more successful in terms of inspiration than in sales. The duo’s vocal style can be clearly discerned in pairs that followed like Sam & Dave.

The record was re-released in the U.K. in 1969 and this time it became a Top 10 hit. By that time though, Nelson was on another path, having found solo success under the name Jackie Lee. He had a Top 20 hit with a dance record called “The Duck” in 1965. But when “Harlem Shuffle” became a hit in England, Bob & Earl reunited to tour behind the success. That lasted until the early ’70s when they split up for good.

Soul Serenade: Cliff Nobles & Co., “The Horse”

Cliff NoblesIt’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.

Cliff Nobles & Co - "The Horse"

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.

Soul Serenade: Johnny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now”

Johnny NashI think it’s fair to say that for many Americans reggae began and ended with Bob Marley and the Wailers. Marley certainly deserves his due for spreading the music to this country and the world but the fact is that reggae has a history that pre-dates Marley and has continued after his untimely death. At a time when reggae was strictly the purview of Jamaican musicians, one American singer took a reggae song to the upper reaches of the charts.
Johnny Nash was born in Houston and began his career as a pop music singer in the 1950s. He signed with ABC-Paramount Records and released his self-titled debut album in 1958. In the six years that followed, Nash released singles on a variety of labels including Warners, Chess, and Argo in addition to the four albums he made for ABC-Paramount. The biggest hit he had in these years was “The Teen Commandments” which Nash recorded with Paul Anka and George Hamilton IV in 1958. The single reached #29 on the pop chart. The following year, Nash’s version of “As Time Goes By” just missed the Top 40.

Most of Nash’s other singles of the era either failed to chart completely or didn’t make the Top 100. In 1965, Nash founded JODA Records with his partner Danny Sims. One of the label’s early signings was the Cowsills, the family band that went on to have hits for MGM Records.

Johnny Nash

It was Nash’s visit to Jamaica in 1968 that lit the spark for his biggest hits. While Nash was there he was introduced to Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers as they were then known. Marley, along with Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Rita Marley introduced Nash to the local music scene. In return, Nash signed the four musicians to a contract with a label he had formed called JAD. Unfortunately, no hits emerged from the sessions that JAD financed but Nash himself had a Top 10 hit with rocksteady-flavored “Hold Me Tight” in 1968. That same year, “You Got Soul” reached #58.

Nash never forgot what he had heard in Jamaica, and during a trip to London in 1972 he recorded a song he had written called “I Can See Clearly Now.” The record, which Nash produced, clearly employed the reggae sound that had inspired Nash when he worked with the Jamaican musicians. On November 4, 1972, “I Can See Clearly Now” reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for four weeks. The record sold over a million copies and was awarded a Gold Record by the RIAA.

The album that followed, also called I Can See Clearly Now, featured four songs written by Marley. One of them, “Stir It Up” (a song later made famous by Marley himself) was a #12 hit for Nash. He would never put another record into the U.S. Top 40, but his 1975 cover of the Little Anthony and the Imperials classic “Tears on My Pillow” did top the U.K. chart.

In addition to his career as a singer, Nash appeared as an actor in several films and TV shows.