Moments, Whatnauts, Shirley And Company, Sylvia… the chartbusting music they’re calling the “New Jersey Sound” comes from just one source: All Platinum Records. Tony Cummings reports…
IN 1963 MICKEY Baker, guitarist extraordinaire, finally became disillusioned with the hectic wheeling and dealing of the New York studio scene and split to France. Sylvia, his singing partner for almost a decade settled down in New York and opened with her husband Joe a night club called the Blue Morocco.
And that could well have been the last thing heard of Sylvia Robinson… Instead, it was the initial move in a chain of events which has, twelve years on, led to the current chart success of the Moments /Whatnauts and Shirley And Co. The initial move in the formation of the All Platinum/Stang record labels — home of the New Jersey sound.
Sylvia, encouraged by ex-restauranteur Joe Robinson, continued to cut the odd solo record. But in ’67 the couple decided to take a real gamble. Joe Robinson, now the president of All Platinum Records, explained what happened.
“We started to build a studio out in Englewood, New Jersey. We just got a little bit of equipment together and made a few records. We cut a couple of things on Chet ‘Poison’ Ivey. And Sylvia did a thing called ‘I Can’t Help It’ (released in Britain on Soul City).
“Rut we got really started in ’68 when I started Platinum records. About the first artist we had was a disc jockey Enoch Gregory who is now the programme directory of WWRL (Gregory, otherwise known as the Dixie Drifter, specialised in simpering monologues and had hit, in the early sixties, on Roulette with ‘Soul Heaven’). After a few months we changed the name to All Platinum ’cause of a Platinum company in Miami — I changed it to something beginning with ‘A’ because distributors pay in alphabetical order!
“The sharpies said we were crazy trying to run a record company from little ‘ol Englewood. But I knew if we could come up with an original direction we could turn our isolation to our advantage. After Enoch, the first acts we signed were Willie And West — they were a Sam And Dave kinda duet and Willie And The Mighty Magnificents. They became our regular house band and helped us build our sound…”
The Magnificents (Val Burke, Billy Jones, Arnold Ramsey, Skip McPhee — now a New York session drummer who visited Britain last year with the Exciters — Sonny McPhee, Ronnie Pace, Lennie Pace, Donald McCleroy, and Tyrone Johnson) were led by guitarist Willie Feaster. They had a raunchy, rough-and-ready, funk sound on their own discs (‘Make Me Your Slave’ and ‘Funky (Eight) Corners’ a.k.a. ‘Ton Of Dynamite’) and a likeably loose lollop when backing new signings like Leslie Valentine, harmony group the Equations, and a singer Val Martin, who on Donnie Elbert’s ‘What Can I Do’ sounded extraordinarily like the song’s original recordist.
“We did OK in the first year or so, nothing big, just some local sellers. We were ready to grow a little. I was sitting in my car when I decided to launch a new label to go with the act we’d just signed — the Moments. My car was a Mustang, so Sylvia and I settled for Stang Records…”
The group picked to introduce the new logo were the act which, more than any other, transformed a tiny independent label scuffling to retain solvency into the hugely successful music concern whose individualistic and occasionally eccentric outpourings have been dubbed “The New Jersey Sound.” Yet, ironically, the Moments who made the lilting ballad ‘Not On The Outside’ on the first Stang release into a hit (No. 13 by November ’68) were three totally different guys to those who, in ’75, have amazingly carried the name of the Moments into the British charts. Al Goodman, spokesman for today’s Moments, explained:
“The Moments had started by the time I got with All Platinum. They were Mark Greene, Johnny Morgan and a guy called Richard. They were a real nice group but they didn’t have their heads together. They had a drug problem and were just unreliable. So after their first record Mark and Richard left. That was a shame because Mark had a great talent.”
He certainly had. The beautiful purity of his expressive falsetto made the lovely Sylvia-penned ‘Not On The Outside’ (subsequently revived by Linda Jones and Eddie Kendricks) into one of the finest discs of the decade. Mark Greene returned briefly in ’70 with one solo disc for Stang. It was a fine, stratospheric revival of ‘My Confession Of Love’ — a song Donnie Elbert originally recorded (and a disc referred to in BM‘s recent Lonnie Youngblood/Frankie Crocker feature) — before drifting off into the wastelands, taking with him one of the finest upper-register voices soul has heard.
New singers Billy Brown and Al Goodman joined Johnny Morgan in a revised Moments. Neither of the singers were newcomers to the business.
Billy, born in Atlanta, Georgia, was raised in New Jersey where he sang in his minister father’s Church. In ’64 Billy joined a group called the Broadways, who included Lenny Welch, the velvet voiced balladeer who’d already seen chart action with Cadence Records and within a year was hitting again on Kapp The Broadways made a disc for MGM — which didn’t go — and Billy moved on to another New Jersey outfit the Uniques. The Uniques were hardly that, but they did manage to scuffle some gigs and cut a record for the local Seldon Records owned by Norman Seldon. Eventually in ’68 Billy Brown arrived at Stang/All Platinum for an audition… around the same time as another would-be solo artist, Al Goodman. Al filled in his pre-Stang history:
“I was born in Jackson, Mississippi. I sang in the church choir and then I got with this little group when I was at high school. There was Charles Haines, he’s a deejay now, and some other guys. We called ourselves the Corvettes. We did a record at the Cosmo Studios in New Orleans, a thing called ‘Lover’s Prayer’. It sold about five copies. We did a few gigs, we were the first black group to play the University of Mississippi.
“Then this guy, who was a promotion man for ABC, got in touch with us and said if we paid our way to New York he’d see what he could do for us. That was in ’64. But by the time I got there the group had broken up. So I got with a group called the Vipers. They did a thing in New York called ‘A Little Bit Of Sweetness’ that was for Duchess Records and that sold about two copies.
“Anyway, around ’67 I met Larry Roberts, who was a producer with All Platinum in New Jersey. He got the Vipers an audition, they dug us and we were signed up. But about two weeks later the group broke up! The other guys didn’t want to rehearse so I asked if I could be a solo artist. And that’s how I got with the Moments. We went on the road and did some shows and began recording.”
The disc the new Moments began their recording with was another slow wistful ballad, this time from the pen of veteran arranger Bert Keyes.
“‘Sunday’ was the first thing we did together. We kept the sound that had done so well on ‘Not On The Outside’ and it did pretty good and made the charts.”
Billy’s falsetto was a shade lower and marginally less flexible than Mark Greene’s but its extraordinary vibrato and extended use of melisma were equally attention grabbing; what the lead lacked in purity and sweetness he made up in bittersweet emotional power. On a desperately sad ballad like ‘Sunday’ (“Sunday was a bright day but she’s gone today”), although based on the same Chord progression as ‘Not On The Outside’, it was haunting. The song reached the same chart position as its predecessor.
What, in a strange way, added to the Moments’ unique quality was not so much their vocal sound. By ’68 harmony groups featuring high falsetto leads (like Philly’s Delfonics and Chicago’s Impressions) had made a comeback after the doo-wop slump, and with a modification of their sound (sophisticated production), were hitting big. What distinguished the Moments’ consecutive string of hits — ‘I Do’, which mainly consisted of the chanted title and anguished Al Goodman testifying over the top; ‘I’m So Lost’, a mid tempo song with gurgling lead intertwined with a doodling piano, and ‘Lovely Way She Loves’, an Al Goodman composed and led lilter — from the other group records being dubbed “sweet soul”, was their eccentric sound quality. Drums were recorded with so much treble and echo that they sounded like a stick hitting a biscuit tin full of dry peas. Billy’s piercing lead occasionally blasted studio ‘mikes into a searing rasp of distortion. And the strings, featured on all the Moments hits, seemed to originate from warped tapes, eerily sighing in wobbly waves of sound. Somehow, the memorably melodic songs by Larry Roberts and Sylvia Robinson seemed to gain from the sound.
“Yeah, it was real funny. People were saying to us: ‘we really love the sound you’ve got down there… it’s such a unique thing’. Yet it was all done by accident. Nobody knew how to work the boards properly. The production was a shambles yet it seemed to work.
“Anyway, we were getting hits. All our singles made the R&R charts but we needed something a little bigger to give us a crossover hit into pop. One day Bert Keyes, who was a staff arranger, brought us this song that he’d written that All Platinum had cut on another artists which hadn’t sold, but which he thought could make it big with us… and he was right!”
‘Love On A Two Way Street’ was first recorded by Leslie Valentine on All Platinum. Leslie had handled it in a straightforward, love-ballad way, her pretty brittle voice giving the song a wistful charm. What producer Sylvia brought to the Moments’ version of the number was drama. A stunning intro: crashing orchestral chords, a tinkling piano, cellos sawing an ominous figure, and then Billy’s sonorous, gurgling lead. While an almost waltz-time guitar clanks a heavy handed, single note, the group glide and flutter in sympathy with Billy’s anguish (“She held me in desperation, I thought it was a revelation, then she walked out”). ‘Love On A Two Way Street’ was the breakthrough for the group… and for the company.
“It was our first gold record and it got the group outside of a strict R&B thing. ‘Street’ went gold in March ’70. All sorts of things started to happen for the company around then.”
One of the things was a veteran record producer called George Kerr. George had sung with the Serenaders (‘Never Let Me Go’ being a doowop standard) and Little Anthony And The Imperials (touring with Gourdine for two years) before signing to the Motown Records Corporation, where, out of a New York base, he’d worked as a producer on albums of standards for the Detroit superstars.
Disillusioned by Motown’s apathy towards his writing and production talents, in ’67 Kerr had scrambled around New York looking for a backer to finance some independent productions. Eventually, a Baltimore disc jockey Rockin’ Robin, gave Kerr some bread to record an ex-gospel singer called Linda Jones, whose smoulderingly intense style hadn’t hit with veteran hitsters Leiber and Stoller (Blue Cat Records) but who, George felt, had hit potential.
Kerr recorded Linda Jones’ own composition ‘Hypnotised’. After hawking the tape all over New York, Kerr finally placed the master with Warner Bros. Records (for their Loma subsidiary). And so began an R&B legend…
KERR, IN A creatively brilliant but short-lived partnership with arranger Richard Tee, was able to maintain a run of Loma hits on Linda (as well as clicking with the O’Jays on Bell Records).
But by ’70 George, badly disappointed by the collapse of Gamble/Huff’s Chess distributed Neptune label, who’d been leasing Linda Jones’ later discs, took his talents to the expanding New Jersey company. And with All Platinum he immediately hit. As an artist!
No doubt influenced by the phenomenal rise of Isaac Hayes, rapping and crooning his way into the Soul Charts, Kerr cut loose with a single. ‘3 Minutes 2 — Hey Girl’ was an extraordinary disc by any standards, a slow ponderous accompaniment and a big rap… George’s lady, suit case packed, is quitting and George is making a desperate plea for her to stay (“give me just three minutes more of your time baby”) before launching into the lovely Goffin/King ‘Hey Girl’ standard made famous by Freddy Scott.
The disc, despite or because of its bizarre title (“2” became “T” on the subsequent The Other Side Of George Kerr album) hit the Top 20. And as ‘Hey Girl’ shot up the R&B charts, sliding down them was another hit for which Kerr was responsible. Joe Robinson remembers:
“When George came he brought the Whatnauts and Linda Jones with him. We put Linda on a label we’d formed called Turbo Records — we got the name from turbo jet-engines. And the Whatnauts we put with a label called A&I. The Whatnauts were from Baltimore, Maryland. They were a quartet at the beginning Billy, Garnet, Chuncky and Ray. Their first thing was a reasonable hit… that was called ‘Message From A Black Man’.
It was ironic that Kerr, whose talent Motown had ignored, should get a hit with his new protégés by covering a Motown song. Spotting the compulsive power of Whitfield/Strong’s ‘Black Man’ from the Temptations’ Puzzle People album, he got the quartet to do a note-for-note copy. Motown tried to retaliate, and pushed out an infinitely superior version by the Spinners. But by then the thin-sounding Whatnauts were in the charts.
Thankfully Kerr didn’t pursue that line. Instead he turned to ballads of an even more lugubrious character than those of the anguished Moments. With A&I deactivated (re-emerging in ’72 with the Rimshots) the Whatnauts were transferred to Stang and within two months of the Moments receiving their first gold disc, were in the Soul 50 with the extraordinary Ellie Greenwich composition ‘Please Make The Love Go Away’. Voices oohed, oohed, a rough edged lead sang standard losers lines like “we had a good thing going” until a falsetto alternate lead suddenly takes over in mid sentence. Each time the abrasive voice comes in it increases its broken up anguish. The light and shade developed between sweet pure harmony and a righteous, hard soul lead had been used countless times (the Dells, the Temps et al) but seldom had the mood of anxiety been captured quite so perfectly.
Meanwhile the Moments continued to gain a string of hits…
“Around the time ‘Street’ came out John Morgan quit the group and we got in Harry Ray. Harry had been singing around New Jersey with a group called the Establishment and Billy had known him some time. The follow up single to ‘Street’ was ‘If I Didn’t Care’, the old Ink-spots thing. We thought that was bound to get across in the pop market. But funny thing, it went top 10 R&B but never broke pop.
“We did one helluva lot of touring, played big concerts all over the States and did a show in Canada. And we came off another hit, that was ‘All I Have’. And in September 1970 we cut a pretty unique album. It was live in a woman’s prison! What happened was that the recreation CO at the New York State Womans’ Prison wanted a morale builder for the ladies in the prison and invited us to do a show there. We just asked to be allowed to record it and agreed to do the show for no fee. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get more than a four track board, but the women were happy. It was our best selling album up ’til then!”
The extraordinary concept of three, green-kaftanned, falsetto harmonisers standing in front of 700 female prisoners and warbling ‘Not On The Outside’ (together with ‘Yesterday’, ‘O-o-o Baby Baby’ and a massively long and stratospherically righteous version of the Friends Of Distinction’s ‘Going In Circles’) was no stranger than the manner in which Stang were handling the group’s album output. In eighteen months of recording the Moments had put out FIVE albums! Not surprisingly, Not On The Outside, Moments On Top, Moment With The Moments, Moments Greatest and Moments Live At New York State Prison For Women did nothing to make the group significant album sellers. But, of course, on singles, All Platinum were far hipper.
“In 1971 we continued to expand,” reminisced Joe Robinson. “Linda Jones, who George Kerr was producing of course, came up with a hit (‘Stay With Me Forever’). She was a fantastic talent. That was our first chart record on Turbo, though Groundhog sold a few.”
TURBO HAD a pretty intriguing roster. In addition to its also-rans like the Jordan Bros, and the Universal Messengers — the latter being a Last Poets imitation right down to the rolling congas and shouted social commentary (‘Why You Want To Be A Junkie’) — Turbo also had its has-beens. There was Titus Turner, the abrasive-voiced R&B veteran who’d recorded for two decades but had seen most success as a hit songwriter (‘People Sure Act Funny’, ‘Sticks And Stones’ and ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries’). And Buster Brown, the harmonica-playing bluesman who’d brought the blues to New York in ’59 with ‘Fannie Mae’. But neither Turner’s nor Brown’s styles would lend themselves to the modification which was later to transform R&B veterans like Sylvia, Shirley and Dave Cortez into ’70s soul names.
Singer/guitarist Joe ‘Groundhog’ Richardson was previously known as Tender Joe or Tender Slim and seemed to be equally at home playing down home blues as performing behind acts like the Shirelles (with whom he toured extensively) and Don Covay (who produced him on the erotically funky ‘Take It Off’ — a near hit for Johnny Nash’s Jad label). As simply Groundhog he almost hit on Turbo with ‘Got To Get Enough’ (encouraging the release of a Turbo album) but the original — and undeniably superior — version by Roy C. was the one that took off.
Groundhog stayed obsessed with the salacious works of Roy C. Hammond, later trying a cover of ‘Cheatin’ Love Is Sweeter’, but it was his ‘Juanita Blue’ (released on single as Joe Richardson) with an intriguing mixture of down home guitar and florid strings, that came off best. Joe’s all-styles guitar virtuosity also earned him a regular place as a Stang/All Platinum house musician. He played on sessions produced by Sylvia, Larry Roberts and George Kerr.
Kerr couldn’t get another hit as a singer, his strange nasal voice with its pronounced vibrato seeming to make the songs he chose (‘The Masquerade Is Over’ and ‘Love Is A Hurting Thing’) even more dirge-like than their plodding tempos intended. And the inventiveness of his productions on the All Platinum LP If This World Were Mine album fell on deaf ears. But as a producer for others Kerr continued to do just fine. The Whatnauts came on with two classics of sorrowful, bitter-sweet poignancy: ‘I’ll Erase Away Your Pain’ and ‘We’re Friends By Day (And Lovers By Night)’, both hitting the soul charts. George also got a hit on the Moments.
Al Goodman: “George Kerr and Sylvia produced us on ‘Lucky Me’ (with a superb, eccentrically recorded flip ‘I Lost One Bird In The Hand Looking For Two In The Bush’). Mainly, though, we worked just with Sylvia. ‘I Can’t Help It’ (the mystical swirler with which Sylvia had launched All Platinum), ‘That’s How It Feels’ and ‘To You With Love’, they were all hits for us. By late ’71 I was getting into production myself. I just picked things up from looking over people’s shoulders.”
Joe Robinson: “The Moments were our constant sellers, everything they cut would make the soul chart. Groups are a thing that’s always been popular. A group has got three or four guys and you’ve got the little girls in the audience. One girl would like this one in the group, another would like one of the others, and so on. The Moments and Whatnauts have a completely original sound, it’s like a modernised doowop thing “
What Robinson said was true. The warbling falsettos of Billy Brown and Harry Ray or Billy Herndon (the Whatnauts) were direct throwbacks to the doo-wahs of the ’50s with songwriters/arrangers/producers like Sylvia, Nate Edmunds, Michael Burton and George Kerr fusing the harmonies into a sophisticated and original concept. Far more derivative were Stang’s ’71 hitmakers, the Ponderosa Twins Plus One.
When the Jackson 5 hipped the pop music world to pre-teen warblers, modifying soul music into an all-markets commodity, dozens of black child groups were signed up by soul companies big and small trying to find an “answer” to Michael and Co.
In 1971 Bobby Massey, who was then still a member of the veteran O’Jays group (then still a quartet) discovered a five-boy group (two sets of twins, Alvin and Alfred Pelham, Keith and Kirk Gardner and “one” Bicky Spicer) in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. With songwriter Bobby Dukes, Massey groomed the youngsters before taking them to Stang/All Platinum for an audition. The kids were liked, signed and recorded. The song chosen for the group’s debut was an old Sam Cooke standard which, with its swirling arrangement by legendary New York arranger Sammy Lowe and a crisp production by Bobby Massey and Michael Burton, was part sweet soul-come-doowop, and part catchy soul-a-gum destined to win every little girl’s heart. The Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s ‘You Send Me’ appeared on yet another new Stang label, Horoscope. It became an instant smash Top 20 hit.
Strangely, it was a hit which obsessed Stang. More kidi-winkies were signed. Yet the 3 Stars (Jeffrey, Joey and Leland) who tried with ‘Jersey Slide’; Alvin & Ricky (two of the Ponderosas) who had ‘Shortnin’ Bread’, or George’s precocious Little Tracey Kerr who in ’72 came on with ‘We’ve Got A Good Thing Going’ all flopped. While Spoonbread. (who Joe Robinson had said in ’73 were “kids we brought in from Germany who have a great future…”) only had one smallish hit, a boring soprano warble of the Bee Gees’ ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’, negating Robinson’s confidence.
Ironically, even the Ponderosa Twins (who after a while dropped the Plus One and whose later discs appeared on the Astroscope label — Stang being forced to change names due to “another” Horoscope) never got another big seller.
But with the Moments continuing to hit in ’72 (‘Thanks A Lot’; the superbly titled ‘Just Because He Wants To Make Love (Doesn’t Mean He Loves You)’; and ‘My Thing’, a lilting, mid-tempo Sylvia song given to several artists but never to such good effect) Stang did just fine.
“We just continued to expand,” drawled Joe Robinson. “All through the seventies there was a steady growth.”
In fact some of Stang’s growth appears in retrospect to have been sheer lunacy. A veritable landslide of albums was flung onto the market. The Moments had an appalling set of standards (Other Side Of The Moments), presumably aimed at widening the group’s appeal to the supper club circuit and equally drear was a live set bizarrely titled The Moments Live At The Miss Black America Pageant to compete for rack space with the excellent My Thing album (featuring many of the group’s brilliant singles). And the Whatnauts, despite running into a series of flop ’45s with a revised trio personnel of Garnett Jones, Billy Herndon and Gerard Pickney, came out with two LPs, Reaching For The Stars and the ominously titled On The Rocks.
But if the company could have at least expected to shift some albums by their “name” acts, the logic in putting out LPs by the likes of the Heartstoppers, a mediocre girl quartet (consisting of lead Betty Baker — who had a 45 from the set released under her own name — Tina Lee, Joyce Gurry and Geraldine Curry) was, considering the act’s total lack of single success, incomprehensible. And the same applied for acts like the good (The New Sounds), the ordinary (The Optimistics) and the rotten (The Oncoming Times).
But strangest of all, discounting the decision by Stang to manufacture and distribute thoroughly uncommercial LPs by independent producer Johnnie Brantley (whose Maple label offered albums by Lee Moses — a great wailer badly produced; Chosen Few, featuring thoroughly mediocre vocals by such as Ray Handy; and Mabu’s Madness — quasi-Hendrix boredom) was the signing of such a genuine and unique talent as Billy Guy, ex-lead singer of the Coasters and allowing him to digress from wah wah funk on ‘Let Me Go Ghetto’ and ‘Hug One Another’ (the latter from A Little Of This, A Little Of That album) on All Platinum into dirty comedian with The Tramp Is Funky LP and the producer/leader of a grotesque bunch of hermaphrodites the Pearl Box Revue (‘Call Me Mister’) for Stang’s Snake Eyes label.
But if Stang continued to blow it on album and their pressing quality was woefully sub-standard (one reviewer describing it as like “listening to the Moments just after they’ve poured milk on their Rice Crispies”) their singles continued to hit home with a vengeance.
Linda Jones, with classics like ‘Your Precious Love’ and ‘Not On The Outside’ (released posthumously after her tragic death in March ’72) was heavy soul personified. And at the other end of the musical scale, Donnie Elbert maintained his unfathomable talent for catchy whimsey.
Donnie’s career was, and is, one of black music’s strangest stories. Elbert begun an extensive recording history way back in 1957 when — while still a soprano voiced teenager — he’d warbled a beautiful self-composed ballad ‘What Can I Do’ for King’s Deluxe label. ‘Do’ was a big R&B hit and an acknowledged classic of the doowop era. Elbert cut more sides for Deluxe (including the equally beautiful ‘Have I Sinned’ and ‘My Confession Of Love’) before moving, on to Philadelphia to record with Herb Slotkin (the tapes being leased to Chicago’s Vee Jay Records).
In ’64, after odd singles on Parkway, Cub and Checker, Donnie finally moved away from doowap-based ballads, raised his high tenor, and in a nasal shriek yelled ‘A Little Piece Of Leather’, a thumping dance item, part Toussaint-style New Orleans, part ‘Can’t I Get A Witness’ style Motown.
As it turned out ‘Leather”s release in the States (on New York’s Gateway label) was far less favourably received than its release in Britain on Sue. Elbert came to Britain, appeared on Ready Steady Go… and stayed on. He cut some discs for British labels CBS and Polydor — where he had a staff producers job for a while — and on Decca’s Deram label even cut a reggae ‘Without You’ and on Contour, a budget line album tribute to Otis Redding.
But Elbert never got the British success he deserved and in 1970 drifted back to the States where with producer Clarence Lawton he cut a beautiful sweet soul ballad, ‘Can’t Get Over Losing You’. The disc was a hit on the Rare Bullet label and an amazing thirteen-year delayed return into the R&B charts was complete. But an even more amazing story was about to unfurl. As he told a reporter in ’72:
“I cut a new version of the Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ in ’69 in London — in between contracts with Polydor and Decca. I played every instrument on the record. I couldn’t get a company interested in Britain and so I took the tape to the States and tried every company there. They all said it was too like the Supremes. But eventually All Platinum took it. They didn’t really believe in it and only took one album from me, then weren’t too interested. But when ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ came out (in September ’71) it sold 300,000 in the first ten days. Then they were interested!
“But because All Platinum hadn’t believed in it left me free to negotiate a contract with another company. So I signed with Avco Records — who gave me a big advance — and I did another Motown song ‘I Can’t Help Myself’.”
Just why a two million, worldwide audience bought ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ is, in fairness to All Platinum’s apparent lack of acumen, hard to understand, except that Elbert’s brittle, thin-sounding version had such a lolloping, unassuming air that it was a welcome change to the excesses of over-production. All Platinum made the best of their blunder: a catchy, but banal ‘Sweet Baby’ and a lovely ballad ‘The Feeling Of Losing You’ were pulled off Donnie’s Where Did Our Love Go album and were small hits. And, with supreme irony, Elbert’s Avco contract quickly fizzled out. The public didn’t want that many Motown rehashes.
JOE ROBINSON continued the Stang story: “By ’72 we’d improved a great deal in the overall standard of our productions. Some new producers joined us (Jimmy Ingram and Tommy Keith — both coming through from the role of house musicians) and some left us (notably George Kerr who, when he quit in late ’72, took the Whatnauts with him). The standard of our backing musicians had also improved immeasurably.”
That was a fact. A brilliant rhythm section of Tommy Keith and Billy Jones (guitars), Jimmy Ingram (keyboards), Frankie Prescod (bass) and Yogi Horton (drums) replaced the rough-and-ready funk eccentricities of Willie And The Mighty Magnificents, who by ’71 had disbanded. While the Stang horn section often included such heavy names as saxman Ruben Phillips — who for years had led the Apollo Theatre house band — and a fine, full blooded tenor man, Lonnie Youngblood, a Turbo artist in his own right. But Lonnie (whose story is told in BM 16) was groomed as a Jr. Walker sound alike, and his albums, Live At The Sugar Shack and Sweet Sweet Tootie (the latter named after a small hit in the summer of ’72) were rather dull and stereotyped.
Another set of Stang house musicians, led by composer, producer, and keyboard men Nate Edmunds and, more or less, consisting of guitarist Curtis McTeer, rhythm guitarist Mike Watson, drummer Ronald Smith with guitarist Joe ‘Groundhog’ Richardson helping out, even made the soul charts by themselves.
“The Soul Train TV show was real big so we did a thing with a studio band and called it ‘Soul Train’. At first we called the band the Ramparts but that soon became the Rimshots. ‘Soul Train’ did OK but another version was out in competition (a Bobby Robinson produced band, the Ramrods). We got a small hit on the Rimshots though with ‘Save That Thing’.”
Nate “Gator” Edmunds had an intriguing musical background. He’d worked from the age of fifteen as accompanist to gospel’s famed Ward Singers before finding himself in New York where, in the sixties he’d joined the “All Stars” and with Jimi Hendrix played discotheques like the Cheetah and Ordines. He’d joined the New Jersey set up almost from the off and had written and produced a lot of Stang’s hits.
“Nate’s left the company now — he’s ‘found’ religion — but he was a fine talent. ’73 was another big breakthrough year. The Moments had a good hit with ‘Gotta Find A Way’ (with an incredible ‘sound effects’ introduction set in an airline terminal — an idea possibly whipped from Tyrone Davis’ ‘I Had It All The Time’) and a monster with ‘Sexy Mama’.”
With its senuous, plodding beat, totally captivating lead vocal by Harry Ray and a masterly production by Sylvia, Harry Ray and Al Goodman, ‘Sexy Mama’ sold a million copies Stateside and seemed to herald a new era for the group.
Al Goodman commented: “We had had a string of hits but they were all slow ballad things. But we could see the discos starting to happen in the States. We’re not suited for real frantic stuff, but we wanted to get into the disco groove. ‘Sexy Mama’ did the trick for us. It opened up whole new markets to us.”
But ‘Sexy Mama’ wasn’t Stang’s biggest hit of ’73. Joe Robinson explained: “Sylvia had had a couple of things out herself on Stang and All Platinum but nothing serious. Then she wrote this tune called ‘Pillow Talk’ and decided to sing it herself. She did it really sexy. We put it on the Vibration label — a label we started for a new distributorship. It went to number one, it was a gold smash. That was the hit which got us on a really international basis as well.”
How a veteran R&B performer like Sylvia Robinson (whose full story was told in BM 6) was able to come back in such an unbelievable manner was repeated, though in a much less spectacular way, with one of her old associates who’d played on Mickey And Sylvia records back in the New York of the fifties.
“Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez used to work at the Blue Moroco. He was a fine artist, one of the great R&B organists. So we signed him and got a small hit on him ‘Somebody Has Taken Your Place’.”
David Clowney, otherwise known as Dave “Baby” Cortez had been through every era. Pianist on hundreds of New York doowop discs, million-selling hitmaker in ’59 with the ‘Happy Organ’ (Clock), and recorder of the ’62 hit ‘Rinky Dink’ (Chess), Cortez must have seemed an unlikely candidate for the ’73 Soul Charts. But updating his sound, adding a solemn, dramatic monologue and a bluesy girl chorus, ‘Someone Has Taken Your Place’ became the hit cut from the Soul Vibrations album.
Another New York veteran who should have hit but didn’t was Derek Martin. Despite a brilliant ‘Pillow Talk’-style, Sylvia-produced ‘Falling Out Of Love’ and a couple more on Vibration, the soulster with the torridly emotional voice who’d previously worked so well with producer Teddy Randazzo, didn’t make it. But flops with Stang artists have in recent times been relatively few. Al Goodman, a little bemused that past BM issues had erroneously credited his baritone as the lead voice of most Moments discs, took stock in the post-’73 situation.
“The last two years have been important for establishing our group as album artists. We really started to take off with Best Of The Moments (optimistically titled as it wasn’t compiled from ’45s). There’s a long version of ‘Sexy Mama’ on there. Plus there’s a thing called ‘This Old House’ which is about a guy wandering around the house where he used to live remembering the old times. I wrote that around the time my marriage broke up and I tell you it’s the truth…”
As if to retain their eccentricity, Stang still release some pretty odd albums, recently they put out a peculiar The O’Jays Meet The Moments LP with an assortment of Moments recent cuts wedged in with some O’Jays’ H. B. Barnum-produced relics from 71 Saru/Little Star sessions (the O’Jays ‘Peace’ once came out on Astroscope).
But it’s albums like Those Sexy Moments (Stang getting good mileage from the ‘Sexy Mama’ smash) which is the music soul legends are made of. The brilliant set had ‘You’ve Come A Long Way’, ‘Music In Your Eyes’, ‘Seven Days’, all preluded with the instrumental ‘Yogi’s Theme’.
Phonogram, determined to get the Moments away with a UK bang have gone one better though. They’ve compiled a special Moments album (confusingly also titled Those Sexy Moments) with tracks from several sources and including the beautiful ‘What’s Your Name’, a remix of ‘Ride Your Pony’ and a version of the insinuating ‘Sure Nuff Boogie’ which, unlike the successful US single, DOESN’T feature the additional breathy sexiness of Sylvia. But pride of place on the set goes to ‘Girls’.
Said a happy Al Goodman: “Now that ‘Girls’ has become such a hit for us we’d love to do a new album with the Whatnauts. We’d always been great fans of the Whatnauts and it was disappointing for us when they left the label. (A mistake: George Kerr, seemingly having lost his Midas touch, put the group with the ill-fated GSF label where they languished with just two singles in eighteen months). And it’s great that they’ve come back.”
Another man who returned — but has now, extraordinarily, left again — is Donnie Elbert. Joe Robinson commented brusquely:
“I don’t want to say much about Donnie. He signed with us again in 74 and we did a couple of things on him (including an insinuating revival of Mickey And Sylvia’s ancient ‘Love Is Strange’ classic). But we fell out again and he quit the company, despite being under contract, and cut this record he calls ‘You’re Gonna Cry When I’m Gone’ (which, as we all know, bears a startling resemblance to Shirley & Co.’s current Stang hit ‘Shame Shame Shame’). Legal action is now pending.”
APART FROM the Moments, the Whatnauts, Sylvia, Shirley & Company (Shirley Goodman and Jesus Alvarez’s story being told in last month’s BM) and the Rimshots, another artist currently on the Stang/All Platinum roster is Hank Ballard.
Hank is, of course, a first generation R&B man. Born in Detroit and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, Hank was introduced to the recording studio back in ’52 when he replaced Henry Booth as lead singer of the Royals began to hit with Cincinnati’s Federal Records by ’53 (the raunchy ‘Get It’) but it was when the group changed their name to the Midnighters that the group really broke through with a series of classics R&B hits: ‘Work With Me Annie’, ‘Sexy Ways’, ‘Annie Had a Baby’ (all swaggeringly lustful smashes from ’54). And a string of hits — sometimes, like the classic ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go’ or the famed original version of ‘The Twist’, million-selling ones, running right through to ’61.
But then Ballard And The Midnighters began to flounder. Ironically, Hank’s innovative gasping, squealing, vocal style with its mouthful-enunciation, firmly based in black religious music, was transcended by other church-based styles. What proved so successful over honking saxes and chanting vocal groups seemed unable to cope with the evolving “soul” music.
The hits stopped and although Hank tried desperately to find the new, young audience his transition from old style raunchy R&B to new style soul was painfully slow. Hank cut soul with Silver Fox in Nashville and with Soul Brother No. 1 James Brown: ‘How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet)’. But Hank Ballard must have seemed a hopelessly long-term bet to succeed in the 74 soul arena.
“When we signed Hank,” mused Al Goodman, now an executive with Stang/All Platinum, “we all had a great respect for him, he’s like part of an R&B legend. But we had to find him a ‘now’ kinda thing. First thing we did on him was around the time of that streaking craze last year. So we cut ‘Let’s Go Streakin”. It was a funky kinda sound which might have caught on gimmick-wise… but ours wasn’t the streakin’ record that went.
“A few months ago I laid down a really commercial track. It’s a bit like ‘Rock Your Baby’ or something like that. Hank put down the vocal and we put it out. It was called ‘Hey There Sexy Lady’ and didn’t do too badly, but didn’t get the radio play we were hoping for. Still I’ve still got faith that we can get a hit on Hank.”
And, logically, the label who can reactivate the career of Lee’s Shirley — the lady with the original, stuck-pig-squeal voice — surely can do the same for the original molasses-in-the-mouth man.
“Yeah, we DO seem to specialise in reactivating careers,” laughed Joe Robinson. “But that’s not our only thing. You take our new artists… like Jesus. He’s going to be very big… in ALL markets. And then there’s new acts like Brother To Brother…”
Ironically, not even Brother To Brother, who last year smashed into the US charts with the hit version of Gil-Scott Heron’s ‘In The Bottle’ are “new”. Their leader and vocalist is St. Louis born Michael Burton who, as a staff producer/composer, has been one of the behind-the-scenes mainstays at Stang. In ’73 Burton had a solo album out on Turbo (including on it a strange, speeded up version of ‘Love On A Two Way Street’) but it was when he took three of the omnipresent Stang house musicians: Billy Jones (guitar), Frankie Prescott (bass) and Yogi Horton (drums) and dubbed them and himself as Brother To Brother that a hit emerged.
Despite the fact that some critics have frowned on ‘In The Bottle’ when compared with the searing original by black poet Scott-Heron, the appeal of Burton’s cracked-up, unmusical voice is strangely insinuating. Brother To Brother’s follow-up was a revival of Boris Gardener’s ‘Every Nigger Is A Star’ reggae classic, suitably de-Jamaicanised for the US soul market. It’ll be intriguing to see how far Brother To Brother are the one-hit wonders some claim. For as Joe Robinson claimed: “Stang can still find the hits.”
“Things have changed a lot since when we started. When we began we were a real small company run out of a basement out on West Palisades Avenue. We had no promotion (other than one time member of James Brown’s Review, King Coleman, running around for them plus a good relationship with the name disc jockeys like Frankie Crocker and Gary Byrd) and things were a real struggle. Now we’ve got a good office (in prestigious West Street, Englewood) a full staff and now we’ve got a proper UK outlet for our product (Phonogram) giving us a chance to really push into the international market.
“In our building we have two eight-track studios, one downstairs, one upstairs. We have a publishing affiliate, Gambi Music… We’re an all ’round music factory. I handle the administrative end of All Platinum and my wife has control over the artistic end. It works beautifully.
“We’ve got our own ‘sound’. Like, a new Moments or a new Sylvia record, it has a lot of trademarks, the musicians are the same and the composers write in a particular way. But that’s not to say everything sounds exactly the same. Now like Shirley & Co. and, say, Harry Ray (the Moments’ singer who just had a 45 out credited to him, despite being tracks from two Moments albums!)… there’s a world of difference in their music.
“A New Jersey sound? Yeah, I think there might be. But don’t ask me to define it. Let’s say we’re it, whatever it is…”
Meanwhile, the next All Platinum smash could be ‘SOS’ by Retta Young — who happens to be Al Goodman’s ol’ lady. Like the man said, it’s a family affair…
© Tony Cummings, Black Music, May 1975