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.

Soul Serenade: Bobby Freeman, “Do You Want To Dance”

Bobby FreemanBobby Freeman died a few weeks ago. We’ve been losing so many artists recently that the death of a musician of his stature barely rates a mention in the press. And yet, Bobby Freeman wrote and recorded one of the most indelible songs in the history of rock and roll. “Do You Want to Dance,” as Freeman’s original version was titled, was a hit not only for him, but also for a diverse group of artists that included the Beach Boys, Bette Midler, and the Ramones.

Freeman was born in northern California and grew up in San Francisco. He was only 16 years-old when his doo wop group, the Romancers, cut their first single for Dootone Records. It wasn’t long however, until Freeman had moved on to the Vocaleers. Freeman also began to write and record solo demos. One of the songs he cut was “Do You Want to Dance,” and when Jubilee Records exec Mortimer Palitz heard it, he signed Freeman to his label.

The demo became the basis for the single. It was taken to New York, overdubbed in a studio there, and released on Jubilee subsidiary Josie Records in early 1958. Bobby Freeman was not yet 18 years old when his single shot up the Pop chart all the way to #5, and reached #2 on the R&B chart at the same time.

Bobby Freeman

“Do You Want to Dance” was Bobby Freeman’s biggest, but certainly not his only, hit record. Released on Laurie Records, Freeman’s follow-up, “Betty Lou Got a New Pair of Shoes,” was a Top 40 hit that same year. Freeman’s other chart records in 1958 and 1959 included “Need Your Love,” “Mary Ann Thomas,” and “Ebb Tide.” In 1960 Freeman left Laurie and returned to the Top 40 with “(I Do the) Shimmy Shimmy” on King Records. During these years he toured with prominent artists like Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, and the Coasters.

It remains unknown why some of Freeman’s other early ’60s recordings for King were not released, but by 1964 he was recording for Autumn Records where he returned to the Top 10 with “C’mon and Swim.” The song was co-written by Freeman, along with legendary DJ Tom Donahue, and one Sylvester Stewart, who the world came to know a few years later as Sly Stone. That same year Freeman released “S-W-I-M.” The hope was that the record would tap into the dance craze that Freeman had created with “C’mon and Swim,” but it only reached #56, and it was Freeman’s last chart record.

Bobby Freeman continued to sing in clubs in the Bay area, as well as venues in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and elsewhere. He released singles on a variety of labels, but he was never able to find chart success again.

“I’m just as content as I could be with what I’m doing,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. “I have no complaints whatsoever.”

In addition to the artists mentioned above, his song “Do You Want to Dance,” sometimes titled “Do You Wanna Dance” in subsequent versions, was recorded by Del Shannon, Johnny Rivers, John Lennon, T.Rex, the Mamas & the Papas, and Bobby Vee, among others.

Bobby Freeman died of natural causes on January 23, 2017. He was 76 years-old.

Soul Serenade: The Unifics, “Court Of Love”

The UnificsWhat do you think of when you think of Washington, D.C.? If you’re like me you think of the grandeur of the nation’s capitol, perhaps some of the magnificent monuments and museums. And of course you think of politics and maybe these days you would rather not. But there’s another side to Washington, D.C. The fact is that the District has produced some fine music over the years.

That brings us to the Unifics. Marvin Brown, Tom Fauntleroy, Bob Hayes, Al Johnson, and George Roland met in 1966 while they were students at Howard University. Johnson was the group’s leader, in fact they originally called themselves Al & the Vikings before they changed their name to the Unique Five, and that name eventually evolved into the Unifics.

They sang at dances and clubs but the group was in turmoil early on. Not a year had gone by in their existence when Fauntleroy was drafted, and Hayes and Roland were out the door. They were replaced by Greg Cook and Michael Ward, and when Brown left he was replaced by Harold Worthington. Guy Draper wasn’t put off by all of the lineup changes however, and he took the group on as a manager, and got them signed to Kapp Records.

The Unifics - Court of Love

The first Unifics single on Kapp Records was “Court of Love” in 1966, and it was a hit. Written and produced by Draper (and arranged by fellow Howard student Donny Hathaway) the record reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, and made it all the way to #3 on the U.S. Black Singles chart.

The Unifics, with their white gloves and strobe lights, became an enormously popular live act. Their stage presentation was so powerful that no acts wanted to follow them to the stage. Despite their touring schedule, Draper found time to get the Unifics back into the studio to record an album to capitalize on the success of the single. It was called Sittin’ in At the Court of Love. Unfortunately, the race to get the album out fast meant that Draper didn’t have time to write enough original songs for it. And while Draper originals like “Which Ones Should I Choose,” and “Tables Turned” were very effective, covers like “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and “This Guy’s in Love With You” were not.

The next Unifics single, “The Beginning of the End,” did nearly as well as “Court of Love,” reaching #36 on the Pop chart, and #9 on the R&B chart. But 1969’s “It’s a Groovy World” barely managed to crawl into the Top 100, although it was a Top 40 R&B hit.

The group had a falling out with Draper, and after recording two more singles, “Memories,” and the quirky “Toshisumasi” for Kapp, Ward and Worthington left the group. They were replaced by original members Brown and Fauntleroy. Facing dwindling records sales, Kapp dropped the Unifics, but they were quickly picked up by Fountain Records in 1970. Their single for the label, “Dawn of a New Day” didn’t do much business, and by 1972 the Unifics were done.

It was hardly the end for Al Johnson however. He spent the next 30 years building a huge career as a producer and songwriter, working with artists like Norman Connors, Jean Carn, the Whispers, and the Dells. Reuniting with Fauntleroy and adding two new members, Johnson resurrected the Unifics in 2004. That year they released their first album in more than 30 years, the aptly named Unifics Return.

Al Johnson passed away in 2013. Fauntleroy decided to retire from performing, but continued to create choreography for the group, which continued on with two new members.

Soul Serenade: Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”

Barrett StrongFor each empire that has risen up in the history of the world there is a starting point, a moment when it became apparent that something exceptional was afoot. The Motown empire is no exception. On January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. opened Tamla Records, using an $800 loan from his family to start the company. It was a beginning, but that’s all. There was certainly no guarantee of success.

Tamla’s first release was Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” but it’s first hit was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” The song was written by Gordy, along with Janie Bradford (Barrett claimed that he should have had a writing credit, but he never got one), and Tamla released it in August, 1959. Unable to meet demand for the single, Gordy licensed the record to Anna Records, a label owned by his sisters Anna and Gwen, an Billy Davis. Anna had national distribution through Chicago’s Chess Records, and that enabled “Money” to rise up to #2 on the R&B chart, and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Barrett Strong was 18 years-old when his record hit. “Money” was famously covered by the Beatles in 1963, and has had many other cover versions.

Barrett Strong

Although “Money” was a big hit, and showed the way forward for Gordy’s burgeoning empire, by the mid-’60s Barrett was working primarily as a Motown songwriter, teaming up with producer Norman Whitfield. Among the smash hits they penned were “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” a hit for both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, Edwin Starr’s “War,” and “Smiling Faces Sometime” by the Undisputed Truth.

And then there were the line of Whitfield-produced hits for the Temptations including “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and the non-psychedelic hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”

Motown left its Detroit home for Los Angeles in 1972. Strong didn’t follow. He left the label and resumed the singing career that had had such a promising start some years earlier. Strong signed with Epic Records that year, and then moved on to Capitol Records, where he recorded two albums in the 1970’s. He had one more hit as a writer, penning the 1988 Dells classic “Stay in My Corner.”

Barrett Strong was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.

Soul Serenade: O.C. Smith, “Little Green Apples”

OC SmithIt’s crazy out there, right? I don’t know about you, but my soul could use some soothing. And when I think about soul and soothing, my mind drifts back to a guy named O.C. Smith, and his big 1968 hit record, “Little Green Apples.”

Ocie Lee Smith was born in Mansfield, Louisiana in 1932. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas before moving to Los Angeles with his mother after his parents split up. Not many of our favorite artists have a degree in psychology, but Smith got one from Southern University, and then he joined the Air Force. His service took him all over the world, and it was during this time that Smith’s interest in music found him entering talent contests.

Smith was discharged from the Air Force in 1955. Instead of pursuing a career in psychology, he started playing jazz to pay the bills. His first big gig was working with Sy Oliver’s band. That led to an appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and that, in turn, led to a record deal with Cadence Records.

In December, 1955, Cadence released Smith’s cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” It wasn’t a hit, but MGM Records liked it enough to sign Smith to a new record deal. He released three singles for the label, but none of them made a dent.

From 1961-1965 Smith held down a prestigious gig as the vocalist in the Count Basie Orchestra. He kept releasing solo singles during this time, for a variety of labels, but nothing got any traction. He was recording for Columbia Records in 1968, but the company was about to drop him. Suddenly, Smith scored an unexpected Top 40 hit with something called “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp.”

Around that time, Ocie became O.C. He began work on an album called Hickory Holler Revisited at Columbia Studios in L.A. The first single from the album was something called “Main Street Mission” which, it was hoped, would be a follow-up hit for Smith. But a D.J. in Detroit preferred one of the other album cuts, and played it on his show one morning. The audience reaction was powerful and immediate. Calls were made to Columbia Records, and before you know it, “Little Green Apples” had replaced “Main Street Mission” as Smith’s current single.

The song had been written by Bobby Russell specifically for country star Roger Miller. The Miller version of the song reached the Top 40, and a Patti Page cover did some business, but it was Smith’s version that really scored, streaking all the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the same position on the R&B chart. The record sold well over one million copies and Russell won Grammy awards for Song of the Year, and Best Country Song.

Smith never again had a hit as big as “Little Green Apples,” but that’s not to say that he didn’t continue to have chart success. Records like “Daddy’s Little Man,” “Friend, Lover, Woman, Wife,” “Me and You,” “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” and “La La Peace Song” all found a place on the Pop chart, and all of those and more were R&B hits. Smith had his last chart hit with “Brenda” in 1987.

After a long and unquestionably successful career as a singer, O.C. Smith became a minister at the City of Angels Church in L.A. He served in that role for 16 years until, in 2001, he died of a heart attack. Smith had become a pivotal figure in the world of Carolina beach music, and after his death, Governor Jim Hodges declared June 21, 2002 to be O.C. Smith day in South Carolina. Smith was subsequently elected to the Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame in November of that year.

Soul Serenade: Inez Foxx, “Mockingbird”

Inez and Charlie FoxxThere is a strong tradition of male-female duet singing in soul music. Consider teams like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Betty Everett and Jerry Butler, Ike and Tina Turner, and Peaches and Herb. Some of these duos were unrelated, while others were either married or involved in a romantic relationship. Inez and Charlie Foxx, however, were a rare example of a sister and brother working together.

They came from Greensboro, North Carolina. Charlie was three years older than his sister. He got his start singing in a gospel choir as a child, and it wasn’t long before Inez joined him. Ambition took her to New York City in 1960, where she was able to secure a record deal with Brunswick Records under the name Inez Johnston. Unfortunately, nothing she did for the label found any success.

Inez and Charlie had worked up an arrangement of a traditional lullaby called “Hush, Little Baby,” and in 1963 they sang it for Juggy Murray, who owned Sue Records. Murray was sold. The song was renamed “Mockingbird” and released on a Sue subsidiary called Symbol Records. The original recording was credited only to Inez, and it rose up the Pop chart to #7, and to #2 on the R&B chart by the end of the year.

Inez and Charlie Foxx

“Mockingbird” sold over a million copies and won the duo a Gold Disc from the RIAA. It has been covered many times over the years, including versions by Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Etta James, Taj Mahal, and the Top 10 cover by Carly Simon and James Taylor in 1973.

Despite the success of what was obviously a duet record, the label was intent on promoting Inez as a solo artist, even though there were clearly two people singing on the records. Songs like “Hurt By Love,” and “1-2-3-4-5-6-7 (Count the Days)” managed to crawl into the Top 100 on the Pop chart, and “No Stranger to Love,” “I Stand Accused,” and “You Are the Man” were Top 50 R&B hits. But “Mockingbird” was considered a novelty hit, and Inez and Charlie Foxx could never fully break out of that box.

In the late ’60s Inez married producer and songwriter Luther Dixon. Together they wrote the Platters hit “I Love You 1000 Times,” and Dixon produced the 1967 Inez and Charlie album Come By Here for Dynamo Records. When the duo failed to repeat their earlier success, Charlie went to work as a songwriter and producer. Inez had a little bit of success on her own, recording for Volt Records in the ’70s after the duo split up.

The music of Inez and Charlie Foxx went on to become a key component of the Northern Soul movement as it developed in the U.K. Charlie died of leukemia in 1998.

Soul Serenade: The Ovations, “Touching Me”

The Ovations

I had a flat tire today. I like to write my column in the local library. I get inspired when I’m surrounded by books. The library even has a special “quiet room,” and being in it makes it easy to focus on the task at hand. I made a stop before heading to the library, and I guess I wasn’t paying attention because I hit a curb while pulling into the parking lot.

I thought the tire looked low when I headed into the store, and by the time I came out, my car was listing badly to one side. My first thought was the spare. I could put it on and be on my way, even if it was one of those “donut” spares. I’d never had a flat tire with this car, so I had never had to look for the spare. I opened the trunk and under a panel, in the space where a spare should be, I found a square device that would purportedly inflate, and even seal my tire. But I had no idea how to use it.

I pay for roadside assistance, so I made the call. A little while later, a tow truck showed up. The driver took one look at the tire, and one look at the electrical device from the trunk, and told me that he’d have to tow the car. All this to tell you that I’m writing the column from home today. I hope your day is going better than mine.

Which brings me, in an extremely roundabout fashion, to the Ovations. The got together in Memphis in the early ’60s. The original lineup consisted of Louis Williams Jr., Nathan ‘Pedro’ Lewis, and Elvin Lee Jones. Williams was the lead singer, and his voice bore echoes of the singer he idolized, Sam Cooke. Before forming the Ovations, Lewis had sung with a group called the Del-Rios, which was led by William Bell, and recorded for Stax Records.

The Ovations got their first break when they were recommended to Goldwax Records by the songwriter Roosevelt Jamison. Their first release for the label was “Pretty Little Angel,” but it was their second single, “It’s Wonderful to be In Love,” that really launched their career. The single reached #22 on the R&B chart, and #61 on the Pop chart in 1965.

“It’s Wonderful to be In Love” was sufficiently successful to land the Ovations on tours with headliners like James Brown, James Carr, Percy Sledge, and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Everything was set for the group to have a follow-up hit. They had a song from hot songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, and they went down to the hitmaking hotbed of Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record it. Inexplicably, “I’m Living Good” was not a hit.

At that point, Jones left the group. He was replaced by Billy Young, who had been a member of the Avantis. But another Goldwax single written by Penn and Oldham, “I Need a Lot of Loving,” failed to chart, as did “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” and several other singles for the label. It wasn’t until 1967 that “Me and My Imagination,” a song co-written by Goldwax label chief Quinton Claunch, gave the Ovations their second hit.

The Ovations

Two years later the group found themselves embroiled in a royalties dispute with their label. The dispute led to the collapse of the label, followed shortly by the dissolution of the Ovations. But Williams wasn’t done yet. In 1971 he put together another group of Ovations, this time with singers Rochester Neal, Bill Davis, and Quincy Billops, Jr.

MGM Records came calling in the form of their local imprint Sounds of Memphis. In 1972 the Ovations scored a #19 hit for the label with “Touching Me.” A year later the Ovations scored their biggest hit with a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party” that also included snippets of other soul hits. In reality, the single had been recorded by Williams with some background singers, but it was released under the Ovations name, and ran all the way up to #7 on the R&B chart, and #56 on the Pop chart.

That would be the final success for the Ovations. After recording one more album, We’re Having a Party, for MGM, they split up for good. Louis Williams, Jr., the driving force behind the Ovations, passed away in 2002.