Okyerema Asante

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Ghanaian master drummer Okyerema Asanta poses for a portrait in his home in Northern Virginia in 2014.

Asante Sana – Okyerema Asante

All that vinyl was heavy but Okyerema Asante knew it would be worth it once he got the records on the plane. The Northern Virginia-based master drummer’s LP “Sabi,” recorded at Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, MD, would be a hit back in his home country, Ghana. What Asante didn’t count on was Customs not letting him board the plane with all the records. He needed a backup plan.

Asante’s journey started when was four years old, banging on pans in Koforidua, the Eastern region capital of Ghana. His uncle, a senior master drummer, spotted Asante’s early talent and began to groom him to play the talking drum. By the age of 10, Isaac Asante earned the title “Okyerema,” which means master drummer.

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Eager to develop his own style, Asante introduced conga drums into his repertoire and refigured the end his talking drumsticks to sound like the palm of his hand. Today, a set of Asante’s unique talking drumsticks are part of the world’s largest drumstick collection, which was exhibited in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from 1995-2002.

Asante eschewed the Western trap drum kit, remaining dedicated to traditional Ghanaian music. He found compatriots when he joined the group Hedzolah Soundz. In 1972 the band recorded a self-titled LP at the EMI Nigeria studio, which was finally released in 2010 on Soundway Records.

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In 1973 Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti introduced South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela to Hedzoleh Soundz, who then recruited them to become his backing band. Asante and the other members of Hedzoleh Soundz moved from Ghana to Los Angeles to join Masaekela, and eventually to Alexandria. The legendary South African musician and Hedzoleh Soundz recorded the 1973 LP “Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz” and 1974’s “I Am Not Afraid,” both on Blue Thumb Records. The group eventually returned to Africa with the exception of Asante, who decided to split his time between Virginia and Ghana.

As he continued to develop his craft, Asante added more instruments to his act. He currently plays up to 86 instruments during his performances. He also adopted a signature look—a helmet with antelope horns that is normally worn to celebrate victory after a battle.

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In 1976 Asante recorded his funk-tinged debut LP, “Drum Message,” at Arrest Recording Studios on 14th St. NW. The LP was co-produced by Black Fire Records founder Jimmy Gray, but remained unreleased until 1993 when Asante’s Oneness of Juju band mate Plunky Branch issued it on CD on the label.

In 1979, Asante recorded the aforementioned “Sabi.” When he couldn’t get on the plane with all the records the master drummer was forced to bring only a few copies, which he re-pressed once in Ghana. As he had hoped, the album was a hit in his home country.

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Asante became a sought after traditional Ghanaian drummer for many artists during the 1980s, including Masekela, Fleetwood Mac, and Paul Simon, and recorded on Mick Fleetwood’s “The Visitor” in 1981 and Simon’s “Graceland” in 1986.

Asante has released more than three solo albums since “Sabi” and is currently working on his latest, “The Honorables.” You can purchase Asante’s music here.

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Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Martha High

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Martha High, James Brown’s longest running female vocalist, in Annapolis, MD in 2014.

Try Me – Martha High

Martha Harvin had a difficult decision to make. She loved the touring with Mr. Please Please Please, aka James Brown, but the rest of her group, The Jewels, was growing tired of being on the road.

She’d been with The Jewels—Sandra Bears, Grace Ruffin, and Margie Clark—since they began rehearsing together in Bo Diddley’s Road Island Avenue NE basement in Washington, DC. The girl group had several hits and received national attention with their 1964 single “Opportunity,” on Dimension Records. They met Brown after a performance at the Howard Theatre.

The Jewels joined the James Brown Revue in 1966 and traveled with them for a year and a half, recording “This is My Story” and “Papa Left Mama Holding The Bag,” on Federal and Dynamite Records respectively, and background vocals on a few of Mr. Dynamite’s songs such as “Ain’t That A Groove” and “Don’t Be a Dropout.”

“I wasn’t ready to leave yet,” says Harvin of the choice she had to make. “I loved the fact of traveling and being with the biggest singer in the world at that time.”

So Ruffin, Clark, and Bears returned to DC as The Jewels, but Harvin decided to stay on with the Revue. For marketing purposes, Brown suggested Harvin replace her surname with “High.”

High became an integral part of Brown’s repertoire, and remained on the James Brown Revue for more than 30 years, making her The Godfather of Soul’s longest running female vocalist. She sometimes even styled his hair.

High briefly left Brown’s show between 1968 and 1970 and when she returned Lyn Collins had emerged as the Revue’s lead female vocalist. In 1972 High, Collins, and another DC resident, Mercedes “Binky” Arrington, performed as a trio in the Revue, the Soul Twins.

High recorded on many of Brown’s releases, including all the background vocals on the 1973 double LP, “The Payback.” Her voice is particularly recognizable on the album’s titular song. In 1973 High released a cover of Brown’s “Try Me” on People Records with the popular classic, “Georgie Girl,” on the b-side. She also recorded background vocals on Soul Brother Number One’s 1974 LP, “Hell.”

The vocalist from DC began to develop as a lead singer when she performed Collin’s “You Can’t Love Me If You Don’t Respect Me” on episode 13 of Brown’s “Future Shock” TV series. In 1977 High recorded a duet of the George Gershwin classic “Summertime,” with Brown, and in 1978 sang lead on “Georgia Disco” and “Soul of the Disco” as Martha and The Lazers on J.B.’s Internationals “Jam II Disco Fever” LP. Both were released on Polydor Records.

In 1979, High recorded her first LP as a lead singer, a self-titled disco album on SalSoul Records produced by Brown. She released one single from the LP, “Showdown/Ding Dong Man,” the latter being an answer to Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” High continued to tour with Brown through 2000.

Shortly after she left the Revue, High began to tour with The J.B.’s indispensable saxophone player, Maceo Parker. In 2008 the vocalist recorded a live album with the French funk band, Shaolin Temple Defenders, and the next year released her second solo album, “It’s High Time.” In 2012 High released her third LP, “Soul Overdue,” with British funk band Speedometer on Freestyle Records. High continues to tour worldwide with Parker.

You can purchase High’s music here.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Osiris Marsh

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Osiris Marsh poses for a portrait in the auditorium at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, DC.

Consistency – Osiris

Reginald Marsh began singing bass in junior high school when he joined a vocal group called The Romantics. At Eastern Senior High School, which was a Freedom School at the time, Marsh hooked up with Alonzo Hart, Wardell Everett, John Graham, Clyde Burr, Charles Blagmon, and Bernard Ford, forming the vocal group, The Stridells. It was at Eastern that Marsh adopted the name “Osiris,” the Egyptian god of the afterlife.

After the release of two singles, “Mix It Up” in 1968—produced by Max Kidd—and “The Power To Dream” in 1969, The Stridells began to diverge musically and soon split up. Marsh transitioned to lead singer when he briefly joined another Eastern Senior High School vocal group, The Deacons.

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In 1975 Marsh teamed up with George Parker—later of Special Delivery—Ronnie Martin, and Willa Peters, and formed Destiny. They recorded one single, Faith Hope & Charity’s “So Much Love,” on RCA Records, produced by Van McCoy.

The Family was Marsh’s next project, with Tyrone Brunson, William Eugene Jackson, Reginald Walter McNair, and Maceo Bond. The Family put out one LP, “Music-Let It Thru,” in 1977 on Little City Records. The Family’s sound was pure funk, with Marsh’s raspy, bass vocals on lead.

Marsh left The Family to form his eponymous funk band, Osiris, bringing in Bond and Brunson, and other members including Tony Jones, Jimmy “Sha-Sha” Stapleton, Ron Holloway, Kevin Nelson, Jills Wells, Brent Mingle, Andy Neman, Kenny Jones, Jerome Bailey, Keith Stucky, and Waymen McCoy. Osiris released their debut LP, “Since Before Our Time,” in 1978 on TomDog Records in 1978. Warner Bros. Records, redistributed the album and released the single “Consistency,” which reached #77 on the Billboard Hot 100 R&B charts.

Osiris released a follow-up, “O-Zone” on Marlin Records in 1979, recorded with the Horny Horns’ Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Richard “Kush” Griffith, and Rick Gardner. The LP’s song, “Grit On It” received significant airplay in Washington, DC. In 1981 the band released their self-titled third LP on TomDog Records. They issued one more, “War On The Bullshit,” in 1986 before separating.

Marsh himself has never left music. He still records periodically, but spends more producing music, especially for R&B vocal groups Nu-Era and Trilogy III, which are comprised of his eight sons. The two groups have recorded together as Strait 8 with Layzie Bone of Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony.

Marsh’s commitment to music may derive from coming of age in an era when Washington, DC was full of bands, singers, and vocal groups.

“It was really an inspiring vehicle to a lot of young people,” says Marsh. “It moved a lot of people and made people feel good…it was a way for people to move forward with their lives.”

You can purchase Osiris‘ music here, here, and here.

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Thanks to Grover Massenburg for the assist.

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Curtis Pope

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Curtis Pope, trumpeter for the Midnight Movers, poses for a portrait in 2014 at Union Station in Washington, DC.

Follow The Wind – Midnight Movers Unltd.

Wilson Pickett, The Isley Brothers, Sam & Dave, and Gene Chandler share three things in common, they are some of the biggest names in soul music, they all had number one hits on the Billboard R&B singles chart, and at one time they have all featured Curtis Pope on trumpet.

The horn player from North Carolina joined “The Duke of Earl” Gene Chandler’s band in 1965, where he met DC musicians Charles “Skip” Pitts (guitar), bass player Ernest Xavier Smith (bass), Elbert “Woody” Woodson (drums), and Chicago saxophone player and bandleader George Paco Patterson. He soon relocated to Washington, DC because it was a convenient base for traveling to gigs.

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Pope helped arrange Chandler’s hit, “I Fooled You This Time,” in 1966 and shortly after the band left Chandler for the late Stax/Atlantic recording artist Wilson Pickett. The band eventually renamed themselves the Midnight Movers after Pickett’s 1968 hit “I’m A Midnight Mover.”

“Wilson was halfway out of church,” says Pope. “He did the gospel thing very well. You know, the scream…We stayed with Pickett for a long time.”

The Midnight Movers were the touring band for Pickett from 1966 through 1969. During that time members of the band recorded a 45, “Pickin’ and Chippin’/Sweet Darlin’,” on Chicago’s Bunky label as Skip & Ernest. The Midnight Movers left Pickett in 1969 when they had a falling out with the legendary singer.

The band re-emerged as in demand studio musicians in New York City, recording with The Isley Brothers and Sam and Dave. The Midnight Movers were the musicians on the former’s enduring 1969 smash hit, “It’s Your Thing,” and “Freedom.”

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In 1970 the Midnight Movers released their debut LP, “Do It In The Road,” on Elephant V Ltd. Guitarist Pitts left in 1971 to join Isaac Hayes’s band. Pitts’ work can be heard as the signature opening wah-wah guitar on Haye’s #1 hit “Theme From ‘Shaft’.” The guitarist passed away in 2012.

The band released a few singles after their debut album, including 1972’s “Put Your Mind In Your Pocket” on Renee Records.

In 1974, the Midnight Movers, Unltd. released their sophomore LP, “Follow The Wind,” on Buddah Records with new members Bernard Wills, and Raymond Patterson on guitar and Blake Hinds on bass. The title track received a small amount of airplay but the LP went largely unnoticed and the Midnight Movers went on hiatus shortly after. The song “Lost For Words” has since been sampled by John Legend, Wiz Khalifa, and Talib Kweli.

While things were quiet with the Midnight Movers, Pope briefly joined Washington DC’s arguably biggest act, The Soul Searchers, and in 1979 he toured with The Blackbyrds.

In 1982 Pope reconnected with Pickett and the Midnight Movers became the star’s touring band once again, this time with all new members except for Pope. Every now and again other original members would return to tour with the band. The later generation of Midnight Movers stayed with Pickett for more than 15 years.

Pope continues to perform corporate events and weddings with a new crop of Midnight Movers and is currently recording new music.

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Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Plunky Branch

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Plunky Branch plays his soprano saxophone near Howard University’s WHUR 96.3 FM in Washington, DC in 2013.

African Rhythms – Oneness of Juju

“Juju” has various meanings in West Africa. It is a style of music, a form of witchcraft, and the ability to affect someone subconsciously through music. When Richmond, Virginia’s J. Plunky Branch traveled to the region with his jazz-funk group Oneness of Juju he discovered that people take the word “juju” very seriously.

20 years before his trip to West Africa the young saxophone player formed a band in New York City called The Soul Syndicate with a few fellow Columbia University students. They recorded one 45—covers of The Temptations’ “Fading Away” and a James Brown song, and pressed only a couple hundred copies.

In 1968 Branch moved to San Francisco.  There he met South African jazz musician Ndikho Xaba and joined his group Ndikho Xaba and the Natives. The group released a self-titled LP on Oakland’s Trilyte label in 1969.  Working with Xaba, Branch realized that music could be political and more than just entertainment.

After Xaba left San Francisco, Branch and two other members of the Natives got a gig in the music ensemble for a stage production by playwright Marvin X entitled, “The Resurrection of the Dead.” When the show ended Branch and the five other musicians in the ensemble formed the group, JuJu.

“Certainly there are people who know more music or who can play saxophone in circles around me,” says Branch. “But I have a lot of perseverance and a lot of study ability. I was able to articulate things from the stage and to other musicians that seemed to be able to rally them.”

In 1973 JuJu recorded their debut LP, “A Message From Mozambique,” which was a reference to African civil wars that were not being covered by the media. They released their follow-up, “Chapter Two: Nia,” in 1974. Both records were issued on Strata-East Records and featured African-style percussion.

By 1975 Branch returned to Richmond. He came across a magazine called “Black Fire,” which incorporated JuJu’s logo on the cover. Curious, Branch reached out to publisher Jimmy Gray and together they formed the Washington, DC-based Black Fire Records. Artists eventually signed to Black Fire Records included Experience Unlimited, Wayne Davis, and Southern Energy Ensemble.

Branch incorporated new members from Richmond into his group and in 1976 released “African Rhythms” as Oneness of Juju on Black Fire Records, which they recorded at Bias Recording Studios in Springfield, Virginia. The lineup at the time of recording was:

Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis: vocals
Plunky Branch: saxaphone, flute, vocals, percussion
Al Hammel Rasul: piano, keyboards, percussion, vocals
Muzi Branch: bass, percussion, vocals
Babatunde Michael Lea: drums, percussion, vocals
Lon Moshe: vibraphone, marimbas
Ronnie Toler: drums
Phillip “Pee Wee” Ford: bass
Reginald Brisbane: Balophone

More R&B influenced than the band’s previous albums, the title track’s bass line was a direct riff on James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” Howard University’s WHUR 96.3 FM became the first radio station to play the LP extensively, bringing a wider audience to Oneness of Juju in the Mid-Atlantic.

Oneness of Juju performed in DC constantly. Other musicians they performed with at the time included Gil Scot-Heron, Hugh Masekela, Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, The Young Senators, Brute, and Experience Unlimited.

Oneness of Juju released their fourth LP, “Space Jungle Luv,” in 1976, which continued the band’s explorations into R&B and jazz-funk. In 1977 they recorded and shelved a fifth LP, “Bush Brothers & Space Rangers” at Arrest Records in DC, which was finally released in 1996 on P-Vine Records. By 1982’s “Make A Change,” Plunky & Oneness of Juju were fully playing funk, disco, and reggae music. The album’s track “Every Way But Loose charted in Billboard Magazine, bringing them national attention. It was later featured in “Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories.”

So when Plunky & Oneness of Juju toured West Africa in 1986 they were surprised by the reception to their name. In Ghana, radio DJs would only refer to them as “Oneness of God.” People were also caught off-guard by the band’s sound, which did not resemble West African Juju music. They dropped “Juju” from the name, becoming known simply as Plunky and Oneness.

Members of the band have changed but Branch has recorded and performed consistently over 35 years. In 2001 Strut Records released a two-CD retrospective, “African Rhythms – Oneness of Juju 1970-1982.” In 1999 Branch was named “Musician of The Year” by Richmond Magazine.

Plunky & Oneness released their latest album, Never Too Late, in 2013. They continue to perform regularly in Martini Kitchen & Bubble Bar in Richmond and at K2 Restaurant & Lounge in Woodbridge, Virginia. You can purchase Branch’s music here and here.

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Dynamic Corvettes

dynamic_corvettes Robert Moore, Earnest Baker, Wondel Brown, Paul Wills, and Joe Bennett (l-r) in manager Louis Chesley’s Maryland garage.
Funky Music Is The Thing – Dynamic Corvettes

It should come as no surprise that a Chevrolet played a significant role in the history of southern Maryland’s Dynamic Corvettes. In 1964 Louis Chesley purchased a Chevrolet station wagon for $77 to help transport the equipment for his brother’s band and worked his way up to being their manager.

The fact that the Dynamic Corvettes stayed together even after players left for college or the military is a testament to Chesley, who ran a tight ship. He offered loans to band members to purchase instruments and kicked them out when they couldn’t pay him back.

“We were poor boys,” says Chesley. “We needed each other to make it. We [were] poor together and weathered the storm. We chipped in together. All for one and one for all. If I had it they had it. If they had it I had it. That’s the way I operate.”

The Dynamic Corvettes played throughout Maryland including at the Starlight Club, Toys End, Warrens End, Club Paradise, Pomonkey High School, and Marshall’s Corner Hall. Along the way they crossed paths with the Midnighters, King of Hearts, The Hounds, The Diamonds, the Van Dykes, Scacy and the Sound Service, The Soul Searchers, and the Continentals.

In 1971 the Dynamic Corvettes recorded their first single, a funky organ driven anti-drug song called “Keep of the Grass” on Baltimore’s Ru-Jac Records. The b-side of the 45 was a track called “It’s A Trap.”

Ironically the lyrics of “Keep of the Grass” were misconstrued as pro-marijuana and the Dynamic Corvettes received some negative publicity. Undaunted, they returned to the recording studio—this time American Star Recording Studio in Falls Church, VA—in 1975 to record two 45s on the Nashboro Records imprint Abet, “Funky Music Is The Thing” and “Key to My Happiness.” The lineup at the time of the recording was:

Paul Wills: keyboard, lead vocals
Robert Moore: trumpet Ernest Baker: trumpet
Wondel Brown: trombone
Tyrone Thompson: bass
Irving Bennett: guitar
Dean Louis: drums

Produced by Joe Tate and Carroll Hynson, the “Funky Music is The Thing” featured a drum solo by Louis and electric piano with a wah-wah pedal by Brown that was later sampled by Double Dee and Steinski and DJ Shadow.

The two 1975 45s proved to be the Dynamic Corvettes’ last releases and ultimately even Chesley couldn’t prevent the group from parting ways. The Dynamic Corvettes still reunite on occasion to perform, as recently as 2011.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Elvans Road LTD.

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Mike Dean, Tyrone Thomas, Elliot Adams, Michael Jones, Claude Hodges, Freddie Ross, Keith Holmes, and Buddy Green (l-r) on Elvans Rd. SE.
Can I – Elvans Road LTD.

Marshall Hall was an amusement park in Charles County, Maryland that Washingtonians traveled to by ship every summer from the early 1900s through 1980. The ship, later known as the Wilson Line, featured live performances including Elvis Presley’s only show in the District. In the 1970s the Wilson Line was a venue for national acts such as Funkadelic and local bands including The Matadors.

The Matadors were a band from Southeast DC, primarily from Anacostia High School and Ballou High School. They played popular music at churches, military bases, and non-commissioned officer clubs, and later the Wilson Line, The Panorama Room, and the Washington Coliseum with groups including The Young Senators, EU, Distance, Trouble Funk, and Leadhead. The Matadors played a variety of genres including songs by Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and James Brown.

Unfortunately for group there was already a funk band from St. Louis, IL called Bull & The Matadors so they changed their name to Elvans Road LTD. after the location of their band house. In 1976 Elvans Road LTD.—Michael Zakee Jones, Tyrone Thomas, Roosevelt Smith, Mike Dean, Paul Wilkerson, and Vernon Cooper—recorded two tracks at American Star Recording Studios in Merrifield, VA: the instrumental “Summer-Free-Fo-All” and “Can I,” written by keyboardist Smith with vocals by Thomas. The record was produced by future go-go icon Maxx Kidd on his Cherry Blossom Records Inc. and arranged by Al Johnson.

“Summer-Free-Fo-All” received minor airplay on WOL but it wasn’t enough for Elvans Road LTD. to gain traction. Ultimately the group split up after several members left to perform with Leadhead.

Michael Zakee Jones continued in music, eventually joining Symba, which scored a Billboard Hot R&B charts hit with “Hey You” in 1981, written by the former Elvans Road LTD. member. Currently Jones performs with Jimi Smooth & Hit Time, which also features Jimi Smoot from The El Corols Band & Show and George “Jackie” Lee from Sir Joe Quarterman and Free Soul.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

The Soul Searchers

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John Buchanan, Lloyd Pinchback, Bennie Braxton, Lino Druitt, Donald Tillery, and Kenneth Scoggins (l-r) at The Panorama Room.

Blow Your Whistle – The Soul Searchers

Jazz flutist Loyd Pinchback had been to the Chase’s Lounge many times before but he’d never heard a band as tight as this. The Los Latinos, who were performing that evening, featured a guitarist named Chuck Brown. Pinchback was able to secure a spot with the band that night and along with Brown and bassist John Euell, splintered off to form The Soul Searchers. Starting with performances at backyard barbecues, The Soul Searchers’ musicianship quickly led to regular spots at the Ebony Inn, the Red Carpet Lounge, and Model’s Extraordinaire.

 
Inspired by the big sound of Baltimore’s Tommy Vann & The Professionals and And The Echos, The Soul Searchers added new members to their rhythm section. In 1972 they recorded their debut LP “We The People” at Track Studios in Silver Spring, Maryland and released it on Sussex Records.

The lineup was:

Chuck Brown – Guitar, Lead Vocals
Lloyd Pichback – Flute, Saxophone, Vocals
John Euell – Bass, Vocals
John Buchanan – Trombone, Piano
Lino Druitt – Percussion
Hilton Felton – Organ
Kenneth Scoggins – Drums, Percussion
Donald Tillery – Trumpet, Vocals

The album’s title track was inspired by The Chambers Brothers “Love, Peace, and Happiness” and elements of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and “On The Corner.” The success of “We The People” let to a spot on the Soul Train Tour alongside acts like Bobby Womack, The Dramatics, and The Moments.

After the release of their debut LP The Soul Searchers were considered to be the top band in DC along with The Young Senators. Playing four times a week to crowds at go-gos–including The Burgundy Room, The Panorama Room, the Masonic Temple, and Northwest Gardens–The Soul Searchers began to extend their songs with instrumental breaks in order to keep people on the dance floor. Their percussion-heavy extension of Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic” along with Chuck Brown’s call and response with the crowd was a predecessor for what later became known as go-go music. According to Pinchback’s book, “The Soul Searchers: 1968-1978,” some of the other bands performing in the area at the time were Aggression, Black Heat, Scacy & The Sound Service, Lead Head, Brute, Father’s Children, Ashanti, Spectrum Ltd., and New Breed.

In 1973 The Soul Searchers returned to the studio to record “Salt of The Earth,” also on Sussex Records, this time with Bennie Braxton on organ. Recorded at American Star Recording Studio in Falls Church, VA the 1974 LP contained regional hits “Blow Your Whistle,”  “If It Ain’t Funky” and “Ashley’s Roachclip,” one of the most sampled tracks in history. Scoggins’ drum break from “Ashley’s Roachclip” can be heard on Milli Vanilli’s infamous smash hit “Girl You Know It’s True.”

Due to the emergence of DJs, gigs began to slow down for The Soul Searchers shortly after the release of “Salt of The Earth. In 1976 they recorded “Bustin’ Loose ” at Arrest Recording Studios in N.W. DC, which Brown wrote lyrics to in response to his frustration with the group’s stagnation, but the record was never released.

In 1978 Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers re-recorded “Bustin’ Loose” with nearly all new members with the exception of Brown, Tillery, and Buchanan for the LP of the same name on Source Records. The single reached #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979, launching the band to national fame.

Chuck Brown went on to be recognized as the “Godfather of Go-Go,” inspiring such bands as Experience Unlimited (EU), Rare Essence, and Trouble Funk. He sadly passed away in 2012, drawing an overwhelming expression of emotion from all corners of Washington, DC. Pinchback and Buchanan currently perform with the go-go band Proper Utensils. Tillery performs with the band Truth Groove and was recently interviewed for WAMU’s Metro Connection.

You can purchase Chuck Brown’s music here.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

In Memory: Terry Huff

The first time I heard Terry Huff and Special Delivery‘s album “The Lonely One” I was astonished by the unparalleled pitch of Huff’s falsetto voice. It was beautiful. I read more about Huff in Ted Scheinman’s excellent 2010 piece, “Terry Huff’s Lost Soul,” and got his contact info from the author. We met at Huff’s daughter’s house and and he was game for the shoot, even when neighbors informed us we were standing in poison ivy. When I left he sang a bit of a new song he was working on and his voice sounded as good as ever.

I knew Huff had cancer and was saddened to learn about his death a few months later. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to meet him. His voice was undoubtedly one of a kind and “I Destroyed Your Love” is one of my top 10 favorite songs of all time.

This post is in memory of Terry Huff.

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I Destroyed Your Love Part 1 – Terry Huff & Special Delivery

Terry Huff started singing on Capitol Hill street corners with his brother Andy and friends from the neighborhood as a teenager. Discovered by John “Johnny Boy” Katsouros, Andy and The Marglows recorded four singles on Liberty Records—“Superman Lover,” “Just One Look,” “I’ll Get By” and “Symphony” in 1963.

Huff became a DC police officer in 1969 but in 1973 quit the force and delved into songwriting. He met George Parker, Reginald Ross, and Chet Fortune of DC vocal group Act One through a friend. In 1975 they released the single “I Destroyed Your Love” on Mainstream Records under the name Special Delivery and Huff’s limitless falsetto helped propel the record around the country.

Terry Huff and Special Delivery released the LP “The Lonely One” on Mainstream Records in 1976, which featured many of the songs Huff wrote after leaving the police force including “I Destroyed Your Love,” “Where There’s A Will (There’s A Way),” and the title track. The late Al Johnson arranged and conducted the record and Huff sang lead on all of the songs while Parker, Ross, and Fortune performed background vocals. Unfortunately Terry Huff and Special Delivery split up prior to the record’s release. Huff and his brothers Andrew and Jimmy, who sang background on “The Lonely One,” tried to secure a new deal with Philly International Records but were unable to due to legal complications.

Huff was seldom heard from thereafter. In 2010 writer Ted Scheinman, who lived near Huff, wrote “Terry Huff’s Lost Soul,” a cover story about Huff for the Washington City Paper, shining a spotlight on the DC soul legend once again while revealing that he had been homeless and had cancer. Despite his illness Huff planned a return to music and secretly performed at Open Mic Night at the Channel Inn’s “Engine Room.”

Huff sadly passed away in December 2012 at age 65 before he could attempt a comeback. In January 2013 a concert featuring Peaches & Herb, Skip Mahoney and The Casuals, Al Johnson, The Winstons, The Choice Four, and Special Delivery helped raise money for his funeral. You can purchase Terry Huff and Special Delivery‘s music here.

Most of the content for this article is from Ted Scheinman’s City Paper cover story.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

The Jewels

The Jewels

Opportunity – The Jewels

From 1959 to 1966 rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley—The Originator—had a house on Rhode Island Avenue NE Washington, DC where several groups rehearsed and recorded. Some of the acts who frequented the house were Marvin Gaye’s group The Marquees, Billy Stewart, Motown’s The Spinners, and The Impalas.

Originally called The Renaults, The Impalas—Sandra Bears, Margie Clark, Grace Ruffin (pictured left to right), and Carrie Mingo—got their start in Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School’s glee club and performed at nursing homes, military hospitals, talent shows, and military bases.

The Impalas were introduced to Diddley through Ruffin’s brother Paul, who was also a musician. They recorded their first record, “I Need You So Much”/”For The Love Of Mike” at the rock and roll legend’s house, which was released on Checker Records. Manager/producer Bob Lee suggested The Impalas change their name to The Four Jewels and their second record, 1962’s “Loaded with Goodies”/”Dapper Dan” on Lee’s Start Records was a local hit.

That same year The Four Jewels traveled to Chicago with Lee to record “Time For Love”/”That’s What They Put Erasers On Pencils For” on Checker Records and sang backing vocals on Ruffin’s cousin Billy Stewart’s “Reap What You Sow.” In 1963 fellow Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School alumnus Martha Harvin replaced Mingo and the next year they dropped “Four” from their name and recorded “Opportunity”/”Gotta Find A Way” on Carole King’s Dimension Records, which reached #64 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Opportunity” led to better gigs and soon The Jewels performed at The Apollo Theater. James Brown, who was in attendance, was impressed by what he saw and asked the quartet if they would join him on tour. The Jewels performed on The Godfather of Soul’s traveling review across the nation at venues as large as Madison Square Garden and recorded the Brown produced “Papa Left Mama Holding The Bag”/”This is My Story” on Dynamite Records and sang background vocals on his single “Don’t Be A Drop-Out” in 1966.

“(Brown) was very demanding but he didn’t ask any more of you then what he gave,” says Bears. “He was the hardest working man in show business. He gave his all. I’ve seen him perform sick to the point when he came of the stage the ambulance was right there to take him to the hospital.”

After a little over a year The Jewels—with the exception of Martha Harvin—decided to return home. The three singers ended up in government jobs—Ruffin worked for The United States Postal Service, Clark worked at the U.S. Department of Interior, and Bears worked at the DC Department of Parks and Recreation. Harvin changed her name to Martha High and stayed on with Brown as a vocalist for more than 30 years.

In 1985 the original Four Jewels re-recorded their singles for their first LP, “Loaded With Goodies.” The Jewels received a Washington Area Music Association Wammies award in 2000 and performed with New Orleans’ The Dixie Cups at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2013.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Erik Johnson

Erik Johnson

The World Today – 95th Congress

On Maine Avenue SW past the hustle and bustle of the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the Channel Inn Hotel’s Engine Room hosts a weekly Open Mic. The evening has attracted such Washington, DC icons as Marion Barry, The Young Senators’ Jimi Dougans, and the late soul singer Terry Huff. Erik Johnson, former drummer for the band 95th Congress, originated Open Mic.

Johnson started playing the drums when he was 11 years old. He met two Federal City College students when he was in junior high school who brought them into their band Flavors of Soul. Producer Van McCoy became interested in Flavors of Soul and changed their name to 95th Congress, adding them to a small selection of groups with political names under his wing. 95th Congress performed in clubs and cabarets around DC alongside groups like The Young Senators, The Soul Searchers, One Hundred Years Time, and Brute and in the Virginia and West Virginia Chitlin’ Circuit. In 1971 95th Congress—Brothers Erik and Rudy Johnson, Ron Galvez, Rocknell Swilling, Gary Corum, Dan Adams, and Victor Green—recorded McCoy’s “Fiddle De De,” and Rudy Johnson’s “The World Today,” at Rodel Studio in Georgetown. Swilling sang lead on “Fiddle De De” and the group and McCoy performed vocals on “The World Today.”

Sussex Records released the recordings to little fanfare and then 95th Congress ran into some bad luck. First they fell out of favor with McCoy after they showed up late to an important gig with Isaac Hayes and then they had all of their equipment stolen. Together the incidents caused the band to break up.

Johnson remained in music after the dissolution of 95th Congress. He played with The Orioles and the Heavy Weather Jazz Orchestra and in the late 1980s started Open Mic at the Channel Inn Hotel with his band Natural Selection. In 2001 Johnson released “Dancin’ Shoes,” his first solo album. Johnson eventually had to depart Natural Selection due to health issues but he still writes music and teaches piano lessons at the Bladensburg Community Center.

“It’s a God given talent,” says Johnson. “And once you get in you never give it up. And that’s my plan, never give it up.”

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul

joe_quarterman

(I Got) So Much Trouble In My Mind – Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul

Sometimes you have to fake it to make it. Joe Quarterman told a white lie to his junior high school music instructor at Shaw Junior High School when he said that he could play trumpet, but thankfully he was a fast learner. Quarterman was still at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School when he joined the El Corols Band and Show as a trumpet player and a recent graduate when he toured with The Magnificent Seven. A budding songwriter, Quarterman had a burning desire to record and perform independently from the group. In 1963 Quarterman released his first of several 45s under the management of Baltimore singing duo Gene and Eddie as Sir Joe and The Maidens—“Pen Pal”/”Jivin Gene” on Lenox Records. Quarterman released several other singles as Sir Joe and Sir Joe and The Maidens but nearly called it quits when some Washington Redskins players stole the members of his new band, Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul, for their short-lived singing group. Quarterman found new members for Free Soul through the help of his brother—Gregory Hammonds on bass, Allen Stewart on drums, George “Jackie” Lee on guitar (pictured with Quarterman from left to right), Charles Steptoe on drums, Karissa Freeman on keyboards, and Leon Rogers on saxophone.

Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul recorded their self-titled debut LP on GSF Records, a subsidiary of ABC Paramount Records in 1973. The bandleader presented a sketch of his idea for the album the cover—the group breaking through all the troubles of America—but instead of commissioning a photo shoot the label printed the original sketch on the cover. The album’s single (I Got) So Much Trouble In My Mind” reached the Billboard R&B top 100 and the cover ultimately appeared in the book “The Greatest Album Covers Of All Time.” Sir Joe Quaterman & Free Soul later released the singles “Thanks Dad” and “I’m Gonna Get You” on GSF Records and “Get Down Baby,” which also reached the Billboard R&B top 100 and “I’m A Young Man” on Mercury Records, but Quarterman didn’t attain the level of success he was hoping for and attended the University of Maryland to study architecture shortly after.

Encouraged by a renewed interest in their music decades later, Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul released the album “They Want Funky Music” in 2003 and toured France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. “(I Got) So Much Trouble In My Mind” was featured in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and numerous advertisements and Daptone Records’ Charles Bradley covered “No Time For Dreaming,” an outtake from Quarterman’s GSF Records demo, for his 2011 debut album of the same name. Quarterman continues to perform today and will be releasing a new album, “Alive N’ Well,” on January 15. Guitarist Lee performs with Free Soul and also with Jimi Smooth & Hit Time.

Sir Joe Quarterman and Free Soul have also reissued their debut LP with b-sides and rare earlier materiel, which you can purchase here.

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Design by Jessica Ellis

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Skull Snaps

skull snaps

It’s A New Day – Skull Snaps

Samm Culley spotted something unusual while watching cars pass under the highway as he often did. It was the tour bus for “Mr. Personality,” singer Lloyd Price.

“One day I’m going to be on that bus,” thought young Culley. It would take a while but eventually his dream would come true.

Culley’s musical career began as a keyboard player for Maryland Eastern Shore act Tiny Tim and the Hits, where he met fellow singers Tom Price and Bill Collier. In 1958 Tiny Tim and The Hits released a 45 on Roulette Records—“Wedding Bells” with the b-side “Doll Baby.”

The trio soon left Tiny Tim to form their own group with singer Irving Waters called The Diplomats. While most young people in Maryland were going out on Saturday nights the quartet practiced singing. The Diplomats—Price, Culley, Waters (pictured left to right), and Collier—performed all over the Eastern Shore and were determined to be the first successful group out of the region. Cully moved to Newark, New Jersey after a brief stint in the army and Price and Waters soon joined him.

The Diplomats recorded their first 45, “Unchained Melody/Card On The Table” on Arock Records in 1963 and performed all over New York City including at The Apollo Theater, but still did not have a big song. That changed in 1964 when they met with Washington, DC producer Van McCoy who turned out their first hit “Here’s A Heart.” The song stayed at #1 in DC for nine weeks and The Diplomats returned to South of the Mason-Dixon line to play at The Howard Theatre. Feeling the strains of the music industry, Price left The Diplomats and Culley and Waters found George Bragg to replace him. Being a drummer, the addition of Bragg helped The Diplomats transition from a singing group to a band. The three performed so well together they never even needed to rehearse. It was during this time that Culley’s childhood dream began to take shape. Lloyd Price came by to see a show and was blown away, predicting that the band would literally make people’s skulls snap.

Now named the Skull Snaps, the trio released their only LP on GSF Records in 1970. The band was unable to continue recording as the Skull Snaps due to legal difficulties for GSF records so they released a 45—“Soul Makossa/On Top Of It”—as All Dyrections. The Skulls Snaps disbanded shortly after; Culley went on to record with an early version of The Fatback Band and eventually produced an album for Lloyd Price.

In 1989 Connecticut rapper Stezo sampled Bragg’s drums from the Skull Snaps’ “It’s A New Day” on “It’s My Turn.” The Skulls Snaps track has since been sampled over 270 times, making it one hip-hop’s most ubiquitous break beats. The group saw their popularity rise again and Culley, Waters, Price, and Bragg reunited to record and tour. Bragg passed away in 2007 but the Skulls Snaps recently recorded a new single with Stezo and were followed by a documentary crew for their soon to be released film, “The Legend of The Skull Snaps.”

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You can purchase The Diplomats music here and the Skull Snaps here.

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Herb Fame

Herb Feemster

(We’ll Be) United – Peaches & Herb

Everybody loves a comeback story. This is how popular soul singer Herb Feemster disappeared from the limelight for seven years and triumphantly returned during the final days of disco.

Herb Feemster joined the navy after high school and took a part-time job at Waxie Maxie’s on 7th and T St. NW following his release. He recorded the song “Rudolph Holiday” as Millie & Billie on one of Waxie Maxie’s two record labels. The single didn’t have any impact but Feemster was successful at attracting the attention of none other than producer Van McCoy, one of many from the music industry who frequented the shop.

In 1966 McCoy introduced Feemster to The Sweethings, a Washington, DC based girl group, and brought them both to New York City to record. Feemster recorded “You’re Messing Up My Mind” and “From The Shadows To The Sun” under the name Herb Fame. At the suggestion of McCoy, Feemster and Sweethings lead singer Francine “Peaches” Barker recorded the pop standard “Let’s Fall In Love” together. Though they had just met, the vocal chemistry between the two was palpable. When the record was released a year later, the world was introduced to Peaches & Herb.

Between 1967 and 1971 Peaches & Herb issued more than a dozen chart-topping singles on Date Records including “Close Your Eyes,” which reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, “For Your Love,” “Love Is Strange,” and “(We’ll Be) United,” and two LPs—“For Your Love” and “Let’s Fall In Love.” They performed across the south and Midwest, at DC’s Howard Theatre and The Cellar Door, and also at the Apollo Theatre for a week.

Judging by their performances and photos Feemster and Barker appeared to be madly in love, but the singer concedes the relationship was purely professional.

“There was no personal thing there,” says Feemster. “We were just two people who wanted to sing.”

Exhaustion from nearly four years of constant recording and touring forced Feemster and Barker to end the act in 1970. He entered the Washington, DC police force, but returned to the music industry in 1977 with a new “Peaches,” Linda Greene. Feemster and Greene recorded seven albums together between 1977 and 1983. It was a new era in music ruled by disco, which Feemster boldly embraced.

“If you’re not confident with anything that you do it will not happen,” he says. “I’ve always been confident in me.”

The duo’s 1978 LP “2 Hot,” produced by Freddie Perren of Motown’s The Corporation, proved that Peaches & Herb was back and more popular than ever. The album’s first single, “Shake Your Groove Thing,” became a disco classic, reaching #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their next song, “Reunited,” went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.

“All artists record hoping, praying, and wishing that they could do something that will last, become number one, or get a Grammy,” says Feemster. “To have that number one or that top five is a feeling that you just can’t explain.”

Peaches & Herb recorded several more hits with Perren’s MVP Productions on Polydor Records, including “Roller Skatin’ Mate” and “I Pledge My Love” and performed with Bob Hope and Sammy Davis, Jr., but Feemster grew disenchanted with the music business again and Peaches & Herb ended in 1983. He returned to the work force, this time as a deputized security officer at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Feemster released “Colors of Love,” an album with a sixth “Peaches,” Meritxell Negre in 2009 and currently performs with the latest “Peaches,” Wanda Tolson. Francine “Peaches” Barker sadly passed away in 2005.

You can purchase Peaches & Herb‘s music here.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Alonzo Hart

alonzo_hart

Mix It Up – The Stridells

Walking through the hallways of Alonzo Hart’s Eastern Senior High School in the 1960s was similar to roaming around an audition for American Idol today. Three part harmonies grew louder at the turn of each corner coming form the likes of The Love Tones, The Deacons, Jerry Cummings of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and The Stridells—Hart, Reginald Marsh, Charles Blagmon, and Wardelle “Twin” Everett. The Stridells became a familiar presence to fans of the Showmobile, an orchestra-backed musical lineup that would travel from park to park, and were soon joined by two new members, Wardell “Twin” Everett and Larry Scott.

“We didn’t get into any trouble, we just sang,” says Hart. “If you gave us a light post and somewhere to sing that’s where you would find us.”

Producers Maxx Kidd and Bob Morgan discovered The Stridells at the Showmobile. Kidd and Morgan wrote “Mix It Up” and “I Remember Christmas” for the group, which they recorded at the Hit Factory in New York City over a period of 23 hours and 14 minutes. The 1969 Yvette Records release “Mix It Up” with Johnny Graham on lead vocals became a regional hit, helped by a second pressing on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records.

“Before we recorded this song if we went to a party in someone’s neighborhood we might have to fight our way out,” says Hart. “After we put the recording out everyone was cool with us.”

The Stridells released a second 45, “The Power To Dream“/”Stick-Em-Up Kind Of Lovin” on Morgan Records in 1969, but the response was less enthusiastic. The group began to disagree about heading in a doo-wop or funk direction and they broke up in 1972. Marsh released several LPs as Osiris; Blagmon helped start The Choice Four; Scott and Graham began another group; and as was his destiny all along, Hart became a fifth generation pastor.

“I would just love to run into my boys,” says Hart. “Just to see them, even if we just sat down and break bread that would be worthwhile. I’m going to keep looking for them.”

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Sugar Bear

Sugar_Bear

Free Yourself – Experience Unlimited

Ballou Senior High School student Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott wanted to be a boxer. Recognizing that he wasn’t all that good he decided to pursue his back up dream of being a rock star instead. A huge Led Zeppelin fan, 15 year-old Elliot taught himself to play bass and formed the band Experience Unlimited with kids from his Southeast DC neighborhood. The young group struggled to get gigs but things finally started to move when they won “Best Rock Group” at a Duke Ellington School of the Arts talent show. As they played around town Elliott became a fan of many of the older bands he saw on stage, especially The Soul Searchers, The Young Senators, Aggression, Mixed Breed, 100 Years Time, and Father’s Children.

In 1976 Experience Unlimited—Elliott, Donald Fields, Andre Lucas, Phillip Harris, Clarence Smith, Anthony Easton, Michael Hughes, Greylin T. Hunter, and David Williams along with Melva Adams, Marvin Coward, Wayne Davis, and Bobby Owens recorded “Free Yourself,” an LP of original material on Black Fire Records at Bias Studios in Falls Church, Virginia. Elliott wrote the album’s title track.

Even with an album under their belt and Elliott in a new frontman role, Experience Unlimited struggled to find a fan base as black artists playing rock and roll. They were just too different. A turning point came when they played with Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers at the Panorama Room and the late “Godfather of Go-Go” convinced Elliott to switch to the emerging genre.

Throughout the 20th century until today Experience Unlimited (EU) has been one of DCs most successful go-go bands along with Brown, Trouble Funk, and Rare Essence. EU’s lineup changed over the years, but Elliott remained constant.

“I kept going because I love to play,” says Elliott. “That’s my high, I don’t care if it’s five people or 5,000, I love to play.”  In 1988 EU brought go-go to national attention with the #35 Billboard Hot 100 single “Da Butt,” which was featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze.”

“My mother thought I was making noise and told me to shut that stuff up, but once she finally saw me on TV she was in awe,” says Elliott.

“Da Butt” attracted record companies from Motown to Warner Brothers to Virgin Records, which they eventually signed with, releasing their sixth LP “Livin’ Large” in 1989. EU has shared the stage with Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and New Kids on the Block. The band records and performs constantly but Gregory laments the status of go-go today.

“This is the go-go capital of the world but everything is still neutral. I have to do something to bring it back to national attention.”

You can purchase EU‘s music here and here.

Experience_Unlimited

Design by Ibraheem Youssef

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Jerome Powell

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Mother Said – Jerome Powell

The Soul Injectors weren’t Jerome Powell’s first band to dissolve. The singer from Northeast had been in the game for a while. First there were The Collegians, who played all over DC but never recorded anything. Then there was Jerome and The Good Knights, but that didn’t last long either. Powell was hoping The Personalities would go the distance, but they didn’t have that spark. So when his fourth band The Soul Injectors broke up Powell wasn’t surprised. He learned that the music industry is a gamble. Some bands make it and some don’t.

Jerome Powell had reason to hope things would work out. He came from a musical family and had several recordings under his belt. His first 45 was “Home To Stay/Live and Let Live” written by Thom Bell and Chubby Checker and Freddie Perren and Jerry Butler respectively, and recorded on Cameo-Parkway Records in 1962. Then in 1972 he went to a Silver Spring, Maryland studio with cousin Archie Powell, who had a hit with The Presidents’ “5-10-15-20 (25-30 Years of Love),” and recorded covers of The Ascots‘ “Mother Said” and “It’s Alright,” which were written by the talented close relative.

Jerome Powell was singing solo at a big name hotel when Gene Donati, who was performing with his orchestra in another room, asked him to join them on stage. The chemistry worked and Powell went on to perform with the venerable Gene Donati Orchestra for more than thirty years at The White House, inaugural balls, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, international embassies, major hotels, and political events. Powell sometimes faced prejudice at the performances but he thought about the people who paved the way before him and kept going. Donati passed away in 2004 and business slowed with the orchestra as more events started booking DJs. He ended up taking a part-time security job to help pay the bills, but Jerome Powell still has the wax of those recordings that he made with Jerry Butler,  Chubby Checker and his cousin Archie, who passed away in 2012.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Irving “Scacy” Haywood

Iriving "Scacy" Haywood

Sunshine Pt. 1 – Scacy and The Sound Service

Irving “Scacy” Haywood was at C G Woodson Junior High School in 1964 when he sang lead vocals on The D.C. Playboys’ “You Were All I Needed” on Arock Records with respected producer Van McCoy and it wasn’t long after that when he helped organize vocal group The Ascots. In the early 1970s Haywood saw new groups cropping up left and right in his hometown so he asked his father for money to post an ad in The Washington Star to start a new group. The elder Haywood didn’t hesitate.

Scacy and The Sound Service performed top 40 material at Byrne Manor and other cabarets around DC along with fellow go-go pioneers The Soul Searchers, The Young Senators, and Black Heat and opened for artists such as Stevie Wonder, Carla and Rufus Thomas, and War. Eager to put out a record Haywood asked his bandmates if anyone had written any songs. New organist Bennie Braxton had an original piece called “Sunshine,” which Scacy and The Sound Service recorded on Scacy Records at Track Recorders in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1972. Outkast sampled the song in 2006.

Shortly after releasing “Sunshine” Haywood received a call from fellow former Ascots singer Archie Powell who asked him to replace a member of his group The Presidents. Haywood toured with them and appeared with them as Anacostia on Soul Train in 1972.

Haywood’s participation in Anacostia was only temporary and afterwards he retired from music, establishing a career at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. In 2011 after a major surgery Haywood was inspired to return to music and won the Prince George’s County and Maryland Senior Idol Competitions by singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Little Royal

Little Royal

Razor Blade – Little Royal and The Swingmasters

It’s difficult to imagine that Royal Torrence had no idea what rock and roll was as a young boy in the south. When the singer joined his Uncle Bill Weaver’s Washington, DC gospel group in his twenties he only knew spiritual songs. Torrence became the leader of the group, which transitioned to rock and roll at Weaver’s suggestion, and was therefore known as Little Royal and the Swingmasters.

One evening in 1963, Torrence had a chance encounter with James Brown at The Howard Theatre. The Godfather of Soul told him they looked like brothers and introduced Torrence to promoter James Dudley. Soon Little Royal and the Swingmasters were touring with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and The Temptations.

In 1967 Torrence released his first 45—“I Can Tell”/ “You Made Me Love You” on Carnival Records. In 1972 Little Royal and the Swingmasters, which featured horn player Andrew Sims, Marvin Shears on drums, and Burnett Jackson on bass, released their “Jealous” LP on Torrence and producers Huey P. Meaux and Stanley Little’s Tri-Us label. The LP contained the hits “Jealous,” “I’ll Come Crawling,” “Razor Blade,” “Panama Red,” and “Soul Train.”

“Jealous” was produced by Meaux and Little in Houston, Texas and recorded in Norfolk, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee, and distributed by Starday-King Records, James Brown’s former label. Torrence created a popular dance for the instrumental track “Razor Blade” when he appeared on the Cincinnati, Ohio television program, “Soul Street.” In 1973 Torrence released another 45 on Tri-Us—“Keep Pushing Your Luck”/”(I Want To Be Free) Don’t Want Nobody Standing Over Me.”

Beginning in 1983 Torrence released several crossover beach music singles including “Groovin” and “Down On The Sand” on Firestone and Flame Records respectively, which played from Virginia to Florida.

Little Royal and the Swingmasters rarely play in Washington, DC but still perform on occasion at Westminster DC’s Blue Monday Blues. These days ambiguity surrounds Torrence’s exact location, which is exactly how he likes it.

“Even to today I’m in town and nobody knows I’m in town,” says Torrence. Little Royal & The Swingmasters have been sampled by Masta Ace, Ice-T, J Dilla, and Lord Finesse.

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You can purchase Little Royal’s music here.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Father’s Children

Father's Children

Everybody’s Got a Problem – Father’s Children

As their van tumbled off the highway, The Dreams were probably regretting that their community college gig went so late. It was only after the van landed right side up and everyone emerged unscathed that they realized they had been saved by an act of God. They converted to Islam and changed the group’s name to Father’s Children.

Father’s Children—Hakim Carpenter, Sadik Long, Malik Khabir, Nizam Smith, and Qaadir Sumler (pictured left to right)—played covers regularly but after hearing their music recorded for the first time with producer Robert Hosea Williams, they decided to aggressively pursue original music. In 1973 the band recorded a stack of material with Williams but the tapes were never released and eventually forgotten about. Father’s Children recorded a 45 with two tracks—“Linda“ and “Intellect” at Arrest Records on K Street NW in 1975, which fizzled. They continued to perform including with artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Buddy Miles, Rare Earth, The Staple Singers, Albert King, Eddie Kendricks, Chaka Khan, Roy Ayers, and Herbie Hancock.

Father’s Children shuffled Smith with Tony Vaughn and recorded a self-titled LP in Los Angeles on Mercury Records in 1978, which sold poorly due to insignificant marketing. The group broke up shortly afterwards only to reemerge decades later with Capenter and Sumler and new members, releasing the album “Sky’s The Limit.”

In 2012 music historian Kevin Coombe discovered Father’s Children’s unreleased tracks in Williams’ garage and the album “Who’s Gonna Save The World” was finally released on Numero Group to critical acclaim. The original members still keep in touch and celebrated the long awaited availability of their intended debut album together.

“We still love each other so it’s all good,” says Sumler. “We spent too much time together, too many close moments—sleeping together, eating together, hanging out—a brotherhood.” Father’s Children released their latest album, “Love & Life Stories,” in 2013.

Father's Children

You can purchase Father’s Children‘s music here and here.

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El Corols Band and Show

Johnny Freeman, "Little" Yvonne Wooten, Tiny Barge, and Brenda Brown, left to right at Haines Point in Washington, DC in 2012.

Chick Chick – The El Corols Band and Show

While fans of the late 1960s Western series The Guns of Will Sonnett loved Walter Brennan’s bold catchphrase “No brag, just fact,” only 18 year-old trumpet player Tiny Barge (pictured second from right) of the El Corols Band and Show thought it would make a great chorus for a song.

Formed by several junior high school students in 1958, the El Corols Band and Show played covers of popular songs in clubs and private events around Washington DC and performed with The Temptations at The Howard Theatre, Dionne Warwick at the Shore Hotel, and The Supremes at Carr’s Beach of the Chitlin’ Circuit.

After rehearsing for weeks in a barbershop on H St. NE in 1968 the El Corols Band and Show walked in Aadvark Studios in Silver Spring, MD and cut two songs—the Guns of Will Sonnett inspired “Chick Chick” and “You Gotta Be An Angel” co-written by Tiny Barge and future Motown songsmith Fangette Willett. The band released the 45 on Tiny Records and Rouser Records and radio stations WOOK and WOL helped popularize “Chick Chick” in the DC area.

Over 20 years members of the El Corols Band and Show included Johnny Freeman on trombone (left); Robert Freeman on trumpet; Robert Battle on drums; Milton Grant on bass; Charles Robinson and Dewy Holloway on baritone saxophone; Carter Jefferson, Ron Holloway and Linwood Newbold on saxophone; Eddie Hicks and Gregory “Guitar Greg” Gaskins on guitar; Frank Delany on congas, Tiny Barge, Donald Tillery, and “Sir” Joe Quarterman on trumpet; Karissa Freeman on keyboards, Little Wimpy Johnson, Sydney “El Sid” Peoples, and Jimi “Senor” Smoot on vocals; and the El Coroletts—“Little” Yvonne Glover (second from left), Brenda Brown (right), Renada Dowd, and Arlene Williams. Other band members were Bobby Allen, Edward Freeman, and Earl Brown.

Though the El Corols Band and Show eventually disbanded in the 1970s, they inspired many musicians in Washington, DC and served as a springboard for several members including Elvis’ band mate Guitar Greg, Carter Jefferson, Donald Tillery of The Soul Searchers, Tiny Barge, and “Sir” Joe Quarterman.

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You can purchase “Chick Chick” here.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Jimi Dougans

jimi_dougans

Jungle – The Young Senators

Jimi Dougans could not have anticipated the historical imprint he would make when high school classmate Frank Hooker introduced the young singer to his band The Dimensions in 1965. Dougans, Hooker, LeRoy Fleming, Wornell Jones, David Lecraft, Calvin Charity, and James Johnson became The Young Senators, the “Emperors of Go-Go,” and the band for legendary Temptations falsetto Eddie Kendricks. The band went through several lineup changes over time. Members also included Howard Crouch, Wayne Hines, Chip Jones, John Engram, Clyde Stubblefield, Philip Guilbeau, Warren Smith, and Charles Newton.

The Young Senators‘ first big break came at Mr. P’s Lounge in Northwest Washington, DC and their legacy was cemented at the go-go venues they performed in such as Byrne Manor and Knights of Columbus. Under the management and production of Harry Young and Burt Rosenberg, The Young Senators recorded the single “Ringing Bells (Sweet Music)” on Innovation Records in 1969. The Young Senators recorded their follow-up single, “Jungle,” at Track Recorders in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1970.

Written by Guilbeau, “Jungle” had two key elements that identified it as an early go-go record. Bassist Wornell Jones sang lead vocals while the rest of the band responded to each line, making it the first “call and response record,” and Dougans played congas, giving the record an Afro-Cuban flavor.

Dougans met Kendricks, his musical mentor, while the singer was with The Temptations. When Kendricks left The Temptations to go solo Dougans volunteered The Young Senators to be his band despite his own reservations about Kendricks’ departure from the beloved lineup.

Dougans, with The Young Senators and later Golden Touch, toured with Kendricks for eight years. Along with his talent as a conga player, Dougans sings in a falsetto that sounded virtually identical to Kendricks’ vocals, which the two showcased during encores. Kendricks would purposefully drop his microphone during a long note and the lights would go out but his voice would continue to be heard. At that point, the lights would come back on and Dougans would reveal that he was actually the voice behind the note.

The Young Senators became the first outside band to record with a Motown artist when they laid down the tracks for Kendricks’ 1972 sophomore album, “People…Hold On.” Produced by Frank Wilson, the album contained the single “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” which had a popular percussion break by Dougans. The Young Senators also performed on Kendricks’ 1973 #1 Billboard Hot 100 single, “Keep on Truckin.’”

In 2002 The Young Senators were inducted into the Go-Go Hall of Fame and DC mayor Anthony Williams proclaimed June 11 to be “The Young Senators Day.” After more than 30 years Dougans and former members of The Young Senators, as well as some new ones, are regrouping to perform as The Young Senators Reloaded.

The Young Senators’ music with Eddie Kendricks has been sampled by Lil Wayne, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Diamond D, Fat Joe, Erykah Badu, Killah Priest, and Ghostface Killah and Cappadonna.

Jungle

You can purchase Eddie Kendricks’ “People…Hold On” here.

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Black Heat


No Time to Burn – Black Heat

Black Heat started as a backup band for another Washington group, the Day-Tons, with a core lineup comprised of percussionist King Raymond Green, guitarist Bradley Owens, drummer Esco Croner, keyboardist Johnnell Gray (pictured left to right), and bassist John Byrd.

The band separated from the Day-Tons, retitled as Black Heat, and flourished with the replacement of Byrd with Naamon “Chip” Jones on bass and lead vocals. Black Heat recorded their self-titled debut album in 1972 on Atlantic Records with legendary producer Joel Dorn and soon became one of the earliest go-go bands to receive attention outside of DC.

Black Heat added Raymond Thompson (right) on saxophone and Rodney Edwards (second from right) on trumpet and recorded three more albums on Atlantic with Dorn— “No Time to Burn” (1974), “Keep On Runnin’ (1975), and “Fired Up” (1976). They played in Europe, the Philippines, at Carnegie Hall and on the PBS program “Soul!” and also toured with Earth Wind & Fire, the Ohio Players, the Commodores, New Birth, and Funkadelic. The latter group stole Black Heat’s song “Get Off Your Ass And Jam” for their 1975 album “Let’s Take It to the Stage.” Despite Black Heat’s success members of the group stayed humble.

“Everybody’s not cut out to be a musician. It’s either feast or famine,” says Green. “There were a lot of groups that were probably better than us that never had that opportunity. We were fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and be able to maintain a great sound.”

Black Heat broke up shortly after recording “Fired Up” but their impact has endured as samples in songs by N.W.A., Casual, The Notorious B.I.G., the Wu-Tang Clan, Fat Joe, Biz Markie, DJ Shadow, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, and on the 2011 international hit by Jessie J featuring B.o.B., “Price Tag.”

You can purchase Black Heat‘s music here.

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Mark Greene

Not On the Outside – The Moments

Growing up in a musical family in Anacostia, Mark Greene first began to train his falsetto voice by mimicking birds. He joined his first group, The Congressionals, as a teenager, recording a single, “I’m Going to Leave This Town,” which was never released. When Greene was in his early 20s the original formation of Washington, DC based group The Moments—Eric Olfus, John Morgan, and Richard Gross—and producers the Mizell Brothers and Freddie Perren, met with Greene at a recording studio on Vermont Avenue NW and recruited him as their new lead vocalist. Together they traveled to New Jersey to record with Sylvia and Joe Robinson on All Platinum Records (which later became Sugar Hill Records) and recorded the single “Not On The Outside” with lead vocals by Greene. The 45 reached #13 on the Billboard US R&B charts in 1968 and #58 on US pop charts. That same year The Moments also performed at the Apollo Theater, sharing the stage with Michael and Marlon Jackson, Sam & Dave, Clarence Carter, The Unifics, and Margie Hendricks.

Sylvia Robinson shuffled The Moments before the release of their debut LP. Gross, Olfus, and Greene left, though Green stayed on the label as a solo artist, and New Jersey natives William Brown and Al Goodman came in as replacements to sing with John Morgan. Greene released two singles, “My Confession of Love” and “I’m So Lost,” as a solo artist on All Platinum but eventually cut ties with the recording company over a contract dispute. Greene, Gross, and Olfus received credit on The Moment’s 1968 Stang Records LP, “Not on the Outside, But on the Inside, Strong!” which went gold. The latter incarnation of The Moments ultimately changed their name to Ray, Goodman, and Brown when they moved to Polydor Records.

In 1971 Greene and the other former original members of The Moments, Gross and Olfus, recorded three singles together—“Which Way” “How Do You Move a Mountain,” and “Anyone Can”—on the Memphis, Tennessee Stax-Volt label as The Leaders. A majority of the records were stolen off of the shipping truck and the singles ultimately fizzled.

Greene continued to perform as a solo artist and as a featured vocalist with the Washington area group The Exceptions and also also briefly joined Ray, Goodman, and Brown after Harry Ray passed away in 1992. Greene, a multi-instrumentalist, began writing his own material and released a slew of solo jazz, pop, R&B, and reggae material on his own record label, Fajr Records. He was also solicited by the Temptations, The Four Tops, and The Platters.

Greene retrieved the trademark for The Moments name at the top of the millennium and released the CDs “Unspoken Moments” and “Revealing Moments” under the group’s moniker with members of The Exceptions and “Urban Legacy” as The Moments featuring Mark Greene. In 2009 The Moments’ 1968 song “Love on a Two Way Street” was sampled on the #1 hit “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys.

“My purpose is to utilize the talent I have,” says Greene. “My writing abilities and my skills as a singer to maybe enhance society and help…those who have an ear and eye for moral and message music. That’s where I’m at now.”

You can purchase Mark Greene’s work as a solo artist and with The Moments here and here.

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Al Johnson

Court Of Love – The Unifics

Al Johnson moved from Newport News, Virginia to Washington, DC in 1965 to study architecture at Howard University. He quickly found himself in over his head and as a self taught vocalist and pianist, gravitated toward music. Johnson formed a vocal group called Al and The Vikings with childhood friend Tom Fauntleroy and three other Howard students, which manager Guy Draper later changed to The Unique Five. Eventually the five dropped to four and they became The Unifics.

In 1967 The Unifics recorded “Court of Love” in New York City with a local studio band and with arrangement by renowned singer-songwriter and musician Donny Hathaway. Written by Draper, “Court of Love” reached #25 as a single on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also appeared on their LP “Sitting In At The Court Of Love,” released on Kapp Records, a subsidiary of MCA.  In 1968 The Unifics also recorded and released “The Beginning of My End,” which reached #36 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Based on the strength of those releases and other recordings The Unifics toured across the country East of the Mississippi River from 1968-1972, showcasing Johnson’s passionate vocals and the group’s distinctive choreography. During that time, Johnson began writing his own material including their final single, “Dawn of a New Day (In My Life).” When The Unifics broke up over tension related to not having signed with a record label, Johnson was ready to embark on a solo recording career. Johnson recorded three solo albums, “Peaceful (1978),” “Back For More (1980),” and “My Heart is an Open Book (1999),” and produced music for artists such as Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson, and Positive Change.

In 2004 Johnson reunited with Fauntleroy and recruited two new members to The Unifics, releasing “Unifics Return.” Johnson sadly passed away in October 2013 at 65.

Will Smith, Faith Evans, Flesh-N-Bone, and Big Remo have sampled The Unifics and Al Johnson.

You can purchase The Unifics‘ music here.

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The Blackbyrds

Do It, Fluid – The Blackbyrds

When renowned jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd became the jazz studies director at Howard University in Washington, DC, one of his goals was to introduce young musicians to performing and the music business. He created a band featuring students and older seasoned musicians that could tour together, but arguments ensued because of the age gap between members. So Byrd brought together drummer Keith Killgo (pictured left) and bassist Joe Hall (second from right), both from the District; pianist Kevin Toney and saxophonist Allan Barnes (right) from Detroit; and guitarist Barney Perry, who was from Buffalo, NY but went to Howard, and The Blackbyrds were born. Byrd’s protégées had other musical interests in addition to jazz—they also love R&B and rock. The students had no idea where the band was going, they just wanted to play, learn from Byrd, and hear themselves on a record. Soon they were playing shows along the East Coast in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

In 1973 The Blackbyrds traveled to Berkeley, California to record their self-titled first LP on Fantasy Records, produced by Byrd and fellow Howard students the Mizell Brothers. The record was a hit and contained the song “Do It, Fluid,” which reached the Billboard Hot 100. The group toured internationally on the weekends, maintaining full semester course schedules at Howard during the week. Their 1974 follow up “Flying Start” featured the hit “Walking in Rhythm,” which reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Barney Perry left, Orville Saunders (second from left) joined, and in 1975 The Blackbyrds recorded both the albums “City Life,” which produced the hits “Flying High,” “Happy Music,” and “Rock Creek Park;” and the soundtrack for the film “Cornbread, Earl and Me.” Eventually the band’s lack of ownership of royalty rights to their music created too much financial strain and they went on hiatus after the release of their 1980 album, “Better Days.”

The Blackbyrds returned with a single, “Mysterious Vibes,” in 2003 and in 2010 they toured with jazz legend Herbie Hancock. In March 2012, The Blackbyrds released their first new album in more than 30 years, titled “Gotta Fly.” The group now features Killgo, Hall, Saunders, and Barnes, and in tradition with their early mission also features some new younger members including a former student of Killgo, who is a teacher at Anacostia Senior High School.

The Blackbyrds have also been sampled by hip-hop artists such as Big K.R.I.T., De La Soul, Del the Funky Homosapien, Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr, the Jungle Brothers, Nas, N.W.A., 2Pac, Ultramagnetic MC’s, and Wiz Khalifa.

“We’re not done yet,” says Killgo. We have some more to say.”

You can purchase The Blackbyrds‘ music here.

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William DeVaughn

Be Thankful For What You Got – William DeVaughn

William DeVaughn learned to play the piano from watching musicians at the East Capitol Recreation Center in Southeast Washington, DC. Influenced by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, DeVaughn started a trio called the Dacrons with Steve Wade and Leon MacManus. Shortly after the group broke up, he answered an ad in Billboard Magazine from a Philadelphia based record label looking for talent. He brought 10 songs with him that he had written including “Be Thankful for What You Got,” which producer Frank Fiorvanti loved and Devaughn recorded for $900 with house band MSFB. With lyrics like “You may not have a car at all, but remember brothers and sisters, you can still stand tall,” the song had a strongly positive message. The song reached #1 on the R&B charts and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the spring of 1974. DeVaughn took a leave of absence from his government job and toured the country on the strength of the single and album with the same title. Despite his success, DeVaughn stayed humble, continuing to ride public transportation while in Washington.

After DeVaughn returned from touring he worked at Harmony Hut, a record store in Iverson Mall, learning another side of the music industry. He went back to his government job in 1979, but the legacy of “Be Thankful” endured, being covered by acts ranging from Massive Attack to Yo La Tango to Bunny Clarke and sampled more than a dozen times by artists such as Ludacris, Ice Cube, De La Soul, and N.W.A.

DeVaughn says that aside from recording, his main focus today is helping newer artists learn about the business side of the music industry to avoid the many possible pitfalls. He also continues to perform and record positive music and released the album “Time Will Stand Still” on his label Mighty Two Diamond Records in 2008.

“I want the whole family sitting down and listening to (my) music and there’s nothing that’s really negative,” says DeVaughn. “You can learn something that you can apply to your life.”

Be thankful for what you got

You can purchase William DeVaughn‘s music here.

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