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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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Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul

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(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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Sugar Bear

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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.

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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.

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Irving “Scacy” Haywood

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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.”

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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.

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