ANGLO-SAXON Brown. A brand of shoes? A new company brewing beer? Tailors? No, just eight very talented people who, after several years of standing in the background, are about ready to step to centre stage.
If their first Atlantic album, Songs For Evolution is anything to go by, A-S B have an amazing amount of potential! Musically and vocally, the album is excellent and with the skillful writing and production of Messrs. Joe Jefferson and Charles Simmons (whose names can be found on several gold records – ‘Sadie’, ‘Games People Play’, ‘Love Don’t Love Nobody’ and ‘One Of A Kind’ – by the Spinners), the set is the kind that will make you sit up and listen. Recorded at Sigma sound in Philadelphia, it indicates that given the right kind of promotion, A-S B could be one of the biggest groups of the year.
But to the origins, the roots. To begin with, there were three: Carlton Robinson on bass, buitarist Clemente Burnette and Alvin on brass, all in school in Richmond, Virginia, playing and learning. “We were part of a local band, playing behind a lot of acts that would come into Richmond,” explained Carlton. “Then, in early 1968, Alvin and I found ourselves working within the rhythm section of The Manhattans. We stayed with the group for about six months, along side Joe (Jefferson) who was playing drums. Towards the latter part of that year, we got an offer from The Sweet Inspirations and we took it. And Alvin and I stayed with the group for little over two years, touring on their dates with Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley across country and overseas. In fact, the Sweets are still with Elvis, they still tour with him whenever he goes out on the road.”
After spending such a good proportion on the road, Alvin and Carlton found themselves back home in Richmond. Meanwhile, Clemente had been working constantly with The Harmonizing Four “doing spirituals on Sundays and rock’n’roll on Fridays and Saturdays!” and the three got together to form Brother Love, supplementing the group with an additional two members, bringing the line-up to six. The group continued working consistently doing local gigs until more or less the beginning of 1973, when the group’s line-up changed and they added Dwight Smith and Charles Manns from local group ESP to round the group out to seven.
It was during 1973 that the team began to get involved in the recording side of the business when they signed a management contract with a local company in Richmond. “They told us they could get us a deal, and they owned their own studio in Richmond so we figured it would be the right move,” says Carlton. So the group landed their first recording contract with Epic in April of ’73 and had their first release on the label in August with a single, ‘I’m Gettin’ Hip To Your Ways And Actions’ produced by staff producer, Ted Wortham. “The record didn’t take off all that well,” smiles Charles, “but we figured that that was just the first one. So we were back in the studios and we recorded a version of Hall & Oates, ‘She’s Gone’ which hadn’t happened for them at this time. The record was released in February of ’74 but it went the way the other one went – nowhere!” On the sealing of the deal with Epic, the group had also undergone a name change going from Brother Love to Ujima (Swahili for “working together”) and it was under this name that their records appeared. In March 1974, the group were brought up to its present eight-member team with the addition of lead vocalist Debra Henry. Debra had “previously been singing with a group called The Mixed Emotions and then when that didn’t work out, I’d decided to get into singing spirituals. Then the guys called me in ’74, after I had really stopped singing contemporary material for about a year and I figured it couldn’t do any harm, so I joined up with them.”
In April, ’75, the team switched producers to Tony Bell (brother of Thom) and Phil Hurtt, who had been responsible for sessions on Sister Sledge (‘Mama Never Told Me’) Jackie Moore and The Persuaders. The result was ‘I Need A Shoulder To Lean On’ and although it did better for Ujima than the previous two outings, it failed to register on any large scale. “At about the same time,” recalls Charles, “Tavares came out with ‘She’s Gone’ and got over! To say we were mad would be a true understatement. We all got in a bus and stormed up to New York to see C.B.S. to find out what was going on! Needless to say, they stormed us right on out of there!”
During that year, the group did play for one of C.B.S. regular sales conventions “and they really built us up – made us feel like we were really an asset to the company. The trip was that people came up to us after the show and asked us where our album was. We wanted to know the same thing – because we still didn’t have one although we’d recorded enough with Ted Wortham and Phil & Tony for at least three albums – and that doesn’t count the ‘live’ set we also recorded. That stuff is all just sitting on the shelves still.” Naturally feeling dissatisfied with the whole way they were being promoted and marketed, Ujima had tried to get their contract transferred to Philly International, which was where Joe Jefferson came back into the picture. “He was instrumental in trying to bring that about but the company just didn’t want to know, then, when the contract was finally up in September of ’75, they didn’t renew it and believe us, we jumped for joy!”
Unfortunately, the group’s joy was short-lived. “We then entered a lengthy conflict with our management at the time. We went in to do a commercial in the studios in Richmond and we thought it sounded so good, we wanted to keep it as a record – you know, just make it longer. Behind our backs, the management took it to Chelsea Records and the result was one release, ‘Keep On Rollin” which enjoyed some disco action but again never got off the ground. But we were mad about the way the whole thing went down.” At about the same time, the group added two more members to replace existing personnel – in the form of Tyrone Durham and Anthony Ingram, (drums and guitar) who were formerly members of a local Richmond band, Charisma. “It was then that I called Joe,” recalls Carlton. “I told him our situation – we talked a few times on the phone and he came down to check us out. Then came more changes! He said he wanted to do something with us but we had all kinds of hassle trying to get away from our management deal. He offered to buy our contracts but we really had to fight to get them back! But along with the contracts also went our name – so we had to come up with a new one. Joe felt that Anglo Saxon Brown really typified what he wants us to be all about – not just another r&b band, but a group who would be able to combine the sounds of white pop and black r&b.”
Mr. Jefferson wasted no time in setting up an audition/showcase for Atlantic President Jerry Greenberg and he was quick to see the group’s potential, immediately requesting four sides from the production team of Jefferson and Simmons on the group. “Immediately, we started rehearsing on songs that Joe and Charles had written for us. In our first session, in March of last year, we cut a total of five sides – one, ‘Facing Reality’ wasn’t included on the album. When Mr. Greenberg heard those, he asked Joe to go back in and finish off the project as an album. So we went back in July of ’76 and cut the rest. We did all the recording actually in Philly at Sigma sound and we were very happy with the results.”
It took a few more months until Atlantic actually issued the album but it came out in October eventually. “After all the changes we’d gone through, we were pretty wary about everything. We did a few gigs mainly on the East Coast and in the South, waiting to see what would happen. We’re satisfied that the album is different, that it shows our ability, our potential as a group. You see, when it was released, everyone was strictly into disco – and although there are a few up-tempo cuts on the set, we veer more towards ballads, the tear-jerkers, because they seem to be getting over for us. Our first single from the album, ‘Straighten It Out’ (not Latimore’s hit of a few years back) has done very well for us and we’re all agreed that it is important for us to have that hit single in order to really break.”
The group sees themselves as innovators rather than just the run-of-the-mill r&b act and they acknowledge that, consequently, it isn’t going to all happen overnight. “We know that we’re gonna have to stick with what we do because we believe in it and we know that for us to really be an across-the-board group, it’s gonna take time. Certainly the lessons of the past have taught us to be much more objective about what we do – we look carefully at everything that comes our way now.” A-SB have one more ‘addition’ – “that’s ‘Pop’ Montagu, who’s been in the business for over fifteen years now, working with people like Patti Labelle, The Delfonics, Blue Magic, and back to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. He seems to be very confident about what we can do and since he’s worked closely on the road with so many big performers, we’re very encouraged by his support.”
If everyone gets behind Anglo-Saxon Brown to the degree that their talent warrants, they should have no problem emerging as one of Atlantic’s bright hopes for the future.
© David Nathan, Blues & Soul, June 1977