This past May 31 marked one of the most memorable events ever in the Charm Citys storied R&B history. Held in the cavernous downtown fortress of the Fifth Regiment Armory, it was the 1st Baltimore All-Stars Soul Classic Reunion Cabaret and Show and featured no less than eight legendary, mostly Baltimore-bred acts from that bygone era. Throughout the years, Ive heard the question -Where are they now? - asked by inquiring minds in reference to their heroes of yore. And Im happy to admit that nearly all are alive and well and more than content to again perform before such an audience of enthusiastic admirers, several thousand in all, who must have come from all over the state and even Washington, D.C., even if such a glimpse of their childhood idols cost thirty-five dollars a head. For them, such an experience was priceless.
I had to wonder at the logistics of planning a spectacle of such proportion. Although some artists were still active, many had not been near a microphone in years. And rather than availing themselves of one house band, like the R&B caravans of the good ole days, all seemed to carry their own supporting casts, which entailed much individual rehearsing. In fact, I went early in the afternoon for tickets and by then many of the artists had already shown, ensuring that everything went off without a hitch. But before all this, a huge makeshift, modular stage had to be constructed (on the springy, composite rubber indoor track, a 220 yard oval), a sprawling platform with ramps framed by banks of huge speakers facing rows upon rows of picnic-style, folding tables. Then, the caterers had to be accommodated, each with their particular soul food recipes-bar-b-cued ribs, hot sausages, fried chicken, collard greens, etc - all which had to be cooked outside (as not to asphyxiate the assembled multitude) on gigantic charcoal grills and then hastily transported inside, while still piping hot. And, of course, anytime hard liquor is served at such events, the additional headache of security had to be addressed. I did not know whether or not the reservists in camouflaged fatigues outside the entrance wielding AK-47s were part of this force or not or were there, merely doing their duty, in the wake of 9/11. But their imposing presence certainly gave one pause, made one extremely circumspect, if rowdy behavior was to be contemplated this evening. Certainly, my hat goes off to the two major principals of the extravaganza - singer Kenny Hamber and local car dealer, Bob Fountain (of K&B Productions) - who orchestrated this soiree, and guaranteed its huge success by attending to the most minute details, like the handsome keepsake of a 20-page program, replete with vintage promotional photos. But still, it must have been like devising the D-Day invasion, so involved is the process of marshalling all these diverse elements.
But despite their best efforts and through no fault of their own, the undertaking wasnt entirely perfect. The Armory, built around the turn of the 20th Century, was never intended as a venue for such productions. It was conceived to be a staging area for troops or an indoor parade ground with balconies around the perimeter reserved for viewing by the brass. This castle, all stone and steel on the interior, except for the floor, poses not just a challenge for sound men. Its an acoustical nightmare. And the music never can be adjusted to achieve a really warm tone, but, instead, becomes darty and edgy up close as it ricochets off the hard surfaces or fuzzy and indistinct, swallowed up in the gloomy far reaches of the hangar-like, indoor coliseum.
I suppose it has always been a dilemma in town - where to stage such large-scale blue collar shindigs, since most promoters are reluctant to hold such gatherings outdoors and risk a financial beating due to a rainout. The nearby symphony halls, the Meyerhoff and the Lyric, are too highbrow for the common people and the old Civic Center, now the 1st Mariner Arena, was constructed originally as a sports palace and suffers from the same shortcomings as the Armory. And probably the cost of renting any of these three amphitheaters would by consequence raise the ticket prices into the exorbitant range, well beyond the means of the clientele it intended to attract. But I must confess that after my sixth beer or so, the music actually sounded better at the venerable old Armory. Or was it, like the Temptations classic, just my imagination?
This nights program, emceed by disk jockeys of the period - J.B Brown, Sir Johnny O, and Big Jim (now of Morgan Universitys WEAA) - not only was planned to jog the memories of the customers but also make them aware of the significant contributions of local figures to both humanitarian causes and the advancement of the uniquely Afro-American invention of blues, jazz, and R&B. And to this end, the down time between acts was judiciously used to recognize the outstanding accomplishments of individuals in the black community and to acknowledge them with lifetime achievement awards. Among the music awards, the honorees were jazz/blues guitarist of note, ODonel Levy, who unfortunately for lack of work stateside spends a great deal of time in far off outposts like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where he backs yet another Baltimore expatriate, blues chanteuse Lady Rebecca. Another musical tribute was for the recently late Rufus Mitchell, whose plaque was accepted by his widow. In the 50s and 60s, Mitchell managed Carrs beach, a blacks-only resort near Annapolis, which presented R&B acts on Sunday afternoons. He also ran a short-lived local label, Ru-Jac, in the 60s which catered to native musical talent. Also singled out for his exploits with large choral aggregates was Julius Brockington, who recorded both for Arctic and for Kenny Gamble/Leon Huffs TSOP label in 1976.
Kicking off this nights proceedings was Tiny Tim Harris, diminutive in size but possessed of a big baritone voice. Tim it seemed for eons held court every Tuesday night at the now-sadly defunct Shortstop Lounge in southwest Baltimore. Born in Greenville, NC, in 1941, he spent his formative years here where he became known as the Singing Newsboy. Discovered by big-time promoter William Fats Elliott at the Chick Webb Center on S. Caroline St., he eventually won a talent contest at the celebrated Apollo theatre in New York City and signed in 1958 with Syd Nathans Deluxe label (a King subsidiary) of Cincinnati. Later, coinciding with producer Henry Glovers departure to Roulette, he, too, joined this label, overseen by notorious gangster, Morris Levy, and was compelled against his wishes to sing doo-whop as Tiny Tim & the Hits. Returning to Baltimore in the early 60s, he produced the vocal group, the Strands, for the Triode label and later recorded with the aforementioned Ru-Jac. I call him the resident repository of R&B history in town and always kid him about always receiving the short shrift (pardon the double entendre) at such programs even though his credentials are every bit as impeccable and impressive as any act on this evenings slate.
Next on the agenda was the vocal group The Spindles. Way back in the 60s, when they were known as Frankie & the Spindles, they were the darlings of the college mixer circuit. I did not know how often they convened to rehearse dance moves (some said they had recently reformed), but the choreography tonight was worthy of the June Taylor dancers - all the right crowd pleasing moves in perfect synchronicity. They, too, had their brush with fame, having recorded no less than four singles for the Philadelphia-based ROC-KER in 1968, one for Canyon of Hollywood, CA, in 1971 (As Frankie & the Spindels), one for Funny (?), and later concluded their illustrious career with Kenny Gambles NY-based Gamble label (1972) and his TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) in 1976. Theirs was definitely a tough act to follow.
The third act on the nights marquee was Harry Doc Soul Stirrer Young, and, honestly, I confess that I did not know too much about him and had to rely somewhat upon his biography in the program. Born in Baltimore, he began club work at an early age, performing with locals such as the House Rockers, the Imperials, and the Soul Brothers. His trademark soon became his onstage antics and evidently customers would egg him on to feats of unparalleled lunacy, such as dancing on the bar a la James Brown and smashing the glasses as he moved on down. He was said to always have in his arsenal of tricks a microphone with a hundred-foot extension with which he would often exit the front door and serenade the startled passers-by on the sidewalk. Having heard people in the audience describe his former extroverted displays, I was reminded very much of bluesman Long John Hunter, who similarly used to hang from the rafters during his long tenure in the 60s at the rough and tumble Lobby Bar in the border town of Juarez, Mexico. Moving to Los Angeles in 1968, Harry did nothing to mar his reputation for zaniness and attracted the attention of W.T. Ward, owner of the Aqua Lounge in Birmingham, AL, who prevailed upon him to become a fixture at his club. Sadly though, these signature, animated performances came to an abrupt end, as he was paralyzed from the waist down during a series of engagements at the Silver Fox in Atlanta in 1979. And although his voice was in fine form tonight, it was heartbreaking to see him, thus constrained by a wheel chair, even attempt to inspire the audience to participate. Nonetheless, long after his set was completed, he was literally besieged by adoring fans.
Following Doctor Soul Stirrer to the stage was Little Winfield Parker (b. 1942), who actually hailed from the hamlet of Cooksville in nearby Howard County. Although small in stature, he took up the saxophone at the age of 15 and quickly formed his own group, the Veejays, while attending the segregated Harriet Tubman High School in Clarksville, MD. Soon thereafter, he was recruited into the Washington, D.C. area band, Sammy Fitzhugh and Moroccans, who recorded for Poplar in 1959 and Atco in 1960. Forming a second group in the early 60s, the Imperial Thrillers, he won a battle of the bands competition and, as a prize, the promoters accorded him an opportunity to be tenor, and occasional vocalist, of several of the touring acts of that era, including Little Richard, Little Willie John, and Little Sonny Warner, the front man for Big Jay McNeely.
Tiring of the road in the mid-60s, he returned to Baltimore and the aforementioned Rufus Mitchell of Ru-Jac (who was credited with discovering Otis Redding protégé of Sweet Soul Music fame - Arthur Conley) convinced him to record his first single, When Im Alone, which was produced by Tiny Tim Harris. Other disks soon followed, including the popular My Love For You and one of them, Sweet Little Girl, was proffered to and accepted by Herb Abramsons Atco label, a subsidiary of Atlantic in 1967. But Winfields career did not bloom until his association with Jimmy Bishop, who first headed Arctic records (with whom Parker recorded in 1969) of Philadelphia and later Spring, where Parker created a sensation with SOS in 1971, prompting the obligatory tour with all the soul stars of the period - the Impressions, the Temptations, and Four Tops - around the Chitlin Circuit - the Regal Theatre in Chicago, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Apollo in New York, the Howard in Washington, D.C., and the Royal in Baltimore. But, eventually, the dawn of disco signaled his demise along with a whole horde of soul artists like him who could not make the transition and he closed out his soul portfolio with an ill-advised cover of C&W crooner Mac Daviss Baby Dont Get Hooked on Me in 1972 on GSF records of New York, a label whose roster was quite impressive - Lloyd Price, Garnet Mimms, Jackie Ross, Eddie Holman, and Connie Francis. But they all had one thing in common. Like Winfield Parker, this would be their last hurrah in the business.
After a brief comeback in 1980s with Richard Knight of the Knight Brothers (Temptation Bout To Get Me on Checker), he was about to call it quits. And then he discovered religion by mid-decade. In fact, he is currently Minister Winfield Parker with the First Macedonia Baptist Church of Ellicott City, MD. Now with his own label, BP records, he churns out CD after CD of gospel-related material. And hes practically a cottage industry unto himself in this respect, judging from the amount of t-shirts, bumper stickers, and related items, all emblazoned with a spiritual message, that he sells at such functions where he entertains.
Performing now with a troupe of dancers/singers/acrobats called Praise, he presents an inspired and energized show with well thought out routines. But, overall, I find that the music is too bland. It just doesnt grab me. And no matter how earnest or enthusiastic the delivery, its still style over substance. And I dont say this to belittle or demean him in any way because he really believes in it. Hes truly possessed of the spirit. But I am not. And its not contagious. As the French say, though, Chacun a son gout or each to his own taste. But he did satisfy the soul of enough holy rollers in the audience to warrant an encore and I guess that is all that really matters.
A welcome break came next as the only female act on tonights card made a dramatic entrance singing the Three Degrees When Will I See You Again? As the Royalettes-sisters Anita Ross and Sheila Ross, Terry Jones, and Ronnie Brown - they were Baltimores answer to Berry Gordys Supremes and Marvelettes, Phil Spectors Ronettes and Crystals, Shadow Mortons Shangri-Las and all the glorious girl groups of the 60s. Named after the renowned R&B shrine of the Chitlin Circuit on Pennsylvania Ave, the Royal Theatre, these young ladies bested a host of local hopefuls, winning a WJZ TV-sponsored competition on the Buddy Deane show in 1962, a program modeled after Dick Clarks American Bandstand in Philadelphia and a format which was made famous in the 1989 John Waterss film Hairspray (now a hit Broadway musical). And like the American Idol or Star Search shows of today, at stake was a national label recording contract. In their case it was Chancellor records (distributed by major ABC-Paramount), a label whose roster included Frankie Avalon and Fabian, two teenage heartthrobs. Their first record, No Big Thing, was a monster all over the country and propelled them to the top of the charts. Although they couldnt immediately pull a follow-up out of the hat, they again scored with Its A Big Mistake and Poor Boy on MGM in 1966 after a brief fling with Warner Brothers in 1964. As the girl-group craze died out in the late 60s, they landed on Roulette Records for a finale - River Of Tears.
If these ladies, now well into middle age, hadnt practiced much, it did not show. They had their steps, turns, and hand flourishes down pat as if they never had disbanded, much to the delight of the crowd with whom Shiela playfully bantered - You women know what Im talkin about. And many amens were heard all around. In truth, they hardly resembled the slender and willowy teens that posed for their first promotion shot, but nevertheless strutted their stuff to the best of their abilities before the appreciative onlookers.
I hardly recognized soul singer extraordinaire, Kenny Hamber, as he came onstage. He now shaved his head and, being the huge man that he is, exuded a rather menacing air. But having met him on many occasions at the Covingtons New Haven Lounge in north Baltimore, I can assure you that hes kindly and eminently approachable, always in the mood to talk music. Sweating profusely, this gravelly-voiced crooner, backed by a trio of young black girls, put his heart and soul into each number and soon had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. A true professional, he was completely at ease and comfortable before such a throng and, in short, he delivered the goods. They, indeed, got their moneys worth and more.
Kenny, who now resides in Connecticut and also received a lifetime achievement award, was born in Baltimore and cut his teeth first in gospel music, singing at the Weldon Baptist Church. This led to several local doo-whop ensembles, who, by nature, specialized in four and five part vocal harmonies, often a cappela. Although Baltimore was never considered a blues capital, it could boast of several, influential, pioneering groups such as these, including the Orioles, Cardinals, and Magic Tones.
In fact, Kenny later became lead singer of another, the Hitchhikers. In 1960 he recorded Tears In My Eyes, backed by such vocal aggregates for both Spar records and local Zenette, both versions which became instant collectors items worth over a hundred dollars apiece, as well as his two singles for the aforementioned Jimmy Bishops Arctic records of Philadelphia in the late 60s. In between, Kenny also recorded for the obscure De-Jac records and later in 1969 for the equally arcane Mean records. His role in Baltimore R&B history is significant and deserves a thorough biography and weve agreed to a tete a tete. I hope Im up for the task, so involved was he in the community music scene of that period.
Next up after Kenny Gamber was a group that needed no introduction, the Intruders. The original cast of characters - Sam Little Sonny Brown, Eugene Doughty, Phil Terry, Robert Big Sonny Edwards, and (later) Bobby Starr Ferguson - were heavy hitters in the national soul market of the 60s and 70s, with huge smashes such as Cowboys To Girls, Love Is Like A Baseball Game, When We Get Married, Shes A Winner, I Wanna Know Your Name, and Ill Always Love My Momma. This prolific Philadelphia ensemble, originally a doo-whop exponent, which launched its career in 1961 on George Goldners NY City-based Gowen as the 4 Intruders, profited immensely from its dozen-year association with local writers and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and appeared on no less than three of their City of Brotherly Love labels during that span of time (1965-77) - Gamble, Philadelphia International, and TSOP - before disbanding in the late 70s.
In 1980, Eugene Doughty formed a new group, singing tenor without the others, and continued as manager after retiring for health reasons. Eventually, though, Bobby Starr, who first came aboard in 1970, temporarily replacing Little Sonny, rejoined this more recent incarnation. In the mid-90s both Doughty and Little Sonny died, leaving Starr as the only survivor. And I could not ascertain whether the other two charter members - Terry or Edwards - accompanied Starr onstage this night.
Whatever this most current configuration, they put on an amazing demonstration of both singing in unison and choreography. Still, it did not sit well with me that this group was included on tonights program. After all, it was to be a celebration of Baltimores contribution to soul. Were they added merely to lend credibility to the whole package or just to jack up the price of admission? As far as I was concerned, the slate, even without the Intruders, could have stood on its own merits. And if you needed another local folk hero to fill a slot, what about bringing Al Brown & his Tunetoppers out of mothballs, the same horn man who created the dance craze, the Madison in 1960? Hed do just nicely.
But the powers that be in their infinite wisdom did see fit that the top headliner tonight was to be our own Softones, although the vocal groups resume is not nearly as extensive as its predecessor to the platform.
This Baltimore quartet, which tours widely both nationally and overseas, is composed of lead tenor Marvin Brown with backup vocalists Elton Lynch, Steve Jackson, and Byron Summerville. It should not be confused with the two rather esoteric doo-whop ensembles who recorded in the 50s - the Soft Tones on Sampson in 1955 or the Sof-Tones on CeeBee (1062), whose only recording on this latter label, Oh Why, has evolved into a $4000 collectors treasure. Instead, this Charm City-based outfit is much younger, having commenced recording 1973 on Avco, the same NY City-headquartered label that put the Stylistics on the map, and later in the mid-70s on H&L of Englewood Cliffs, NJ, which also contracted the Stylistics during that same time frame.
By this time, however, I had run out of film. But I can report that the Softones more than lived up to their name. Talk about smooth as silk, seamless vocal harmonies.
Well, there you have it. Sorry you missed the show. But since it is billed as the first annual reunion, I can only suppose that a reprise is intended down the line sometime, hopefully in the near future. Were not getting any younger and weve already lost a few of these former stars of the glory days of soul along the way. These kinds of happenings do not receive front page coverage. So keep a sharp eye for the fine print in the entertainment section. Take it from me. Be it this time or next time. It will definitely be worth the while. Larry Benicewicz