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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
You can purchase Little Royal’s music here.
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.
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.
You can purchase “Chick Chick” here.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
You can purchase William DeVaughn‘s music here.