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Wayne Cochran 11/2017

November 21, 2017 – Wayne Cochran (The CC Riders) was born Talvin Wayne Cochran near Macon, Georgia, and grew up in roughly the same environs his idol James Brown and friend Otis Redding had, be it on the other side of the tracks.

After getting his start with various rock’n’roll outfits, in 1959 Cochran cut his first disc and the next five years would witness a succession of releases, most of which only made regional noise at best. One item however, would ultimately become Cochran’s greatest success, though in someone else’s hands. His lightly morbid but undeniably catchy original ‘Last Kiss’ hit the top of the charts in the summer of 1964 in a faithful treatment by Texans J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers. This classic “death disc” has since been covered by many, not least Pearl Jam, so at least the healthy royalties from whose versions, would come as an unforeseen blessing for Cochran in later years.

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Fats Domino 10/2017

October 24, 20017 – Antoine Dominique Fats Domino was born on February 26, 1928 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the youngest of eight in a Louisiana Creole family. At age 9, he started to learn piano, taught by his brother-in-law, jazz guitarist Harrison Verrett. By age 14, Domino was performing in New Orleans bars.

In 1947, Billy Diamond, a New Orleans bandleader, accepted an invitation to hear the young pianist perform at a backyard barbecue. Domino played well enough that Diamond asked him to join his band, the Solid Senders, at the Hideaway Club in New Orleans, where he would earn $3 a week playing the piano. Diamond nicknamed him “Fats”, for three reasons: Domino reminded him of the renowned pianists Fats Waller and Fats Pichon, and young Domino’s ferocious appetite.

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Rick Stevens 9/2017

rick stevens tower of powerSeptember 5, 2017 – Rick Stevens (Tower of Power) was born Donald Stevenson on February 23, 1941 in Port Arthur, Texas, but didn’t stay there long, as a few years later his parents moved to Reno, Nevada. Rick first sang in public at the tender age of four, when his family set him up on a chair in front of the congregation at their church.

While growing up Rick was greatly influenced by his uncle, singer Ivory Joe Hunter, who was his mother’s younger brother. There was always a great deal of excitement when Uncle Ivory Joe came to visit on breaks from touring around the country with his band. Rick decided early on that he wanted to be a singer, just like his uncle. Ivory Joe was a not only a ground-breaking performer in what at the time was referred to by the record labels as “race music”, he was also a prolific songwriter with hundreds of songs to his credit.

Elvis Presley invited Ivory Joe to Graceland in 1957, and they spent the day singing together, including Ivory Joe’s hit “I Almost Lost My Mind”, among other songs. Hunter commented, “He is very spiritually minded … he showed me every courtesy, and I think he’s one of the greatest”. Elvis recorded five songs written by Ivory Joe: “My Wish Came True” (Top 20), “I Will be True”“It’s Still Here”“I Need You So”, and “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” (Top 20).

Like many musically talented teenagers in the late 1950’s Rick was interested in doo-wop, and he joined a singing group called the “Magnificent Marcels”. In the early 1960’s Rick performed in nightclubs around Reno, where he was known as “Mr. Twister”.

Having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-60’s Rick continued his singing career, fronting various bands that played in local nightclubs. Rick’s bands included “Rick and the Ravens”, and “The Rick Stevens Four” (or Five, depending on how many people were in the band).

Rick joined “Four of a Kind” in 1966, initially in San Francisco, later moving with the band to Seattle. After a short time, Rick moved back to the Bay Area and joined a band called “Stuff”, in which one of the other members was Willie James Fulton (guitar and vocals). Rick and Willie James left “Stuff” and joined Tower of Power at about the same time as drummer David Garibaldi in 1969 and later replaced Rufus Miller as lead vocalist after Rick sang the diamond hit, “Sparkling in the Sand” on Tower of Power’s first album, EAST BAY GREASE. (The only song on that album that made any impact). The next Tower of Power album to hit the charts was BUMP CITY in 1972, and that record features Rick’s signature song, “You’re Still a Young Man”. The album also includes other hits such as “Down to the Night Club” and “You Got to Funkafize”.

Although he is not credited on the third album, the self-titled record, TOWER OF POWER, Rick initially sang all the lead vocals. He also contributed background vocals, which were retained on the record when it was released. The album features several hits such as, “What is Hip”, “Soul Vaccination”, and “Get Your Feet Back on the Ground”, and of course, “So Very Hard to Go”. Rick’s increasing drug dependency lead to Lenny Williams taking over lead vocals, as Rick left the band in 1973 to pursue other avenues of his musical career. After leaving Tower of Power, Rick joined a Bay Area band called “Brass Horizon”, a popular band with a big horn section.

The Stanford Daily – February 25, 1975

Former Tower Singer Heads Brass Horizon

SAN FRANCISCO – Quick – name Tower of Power’s two biggest hits. Maybe you said “So Very Hard To Go”, the single off Tower’s third album. But if you’re a deranged purist, you named “Sparkling In The Sand”, from East Bay Grease, and “You’re Still A Young Man”, the monster hit off Bump City in 1971.

It was “You’re Still A Young Man” that established Tower as national stars, removing them from the realm of San Francisco funk forever. The song’s amazing success can be explained in two words — Rick Stevens. Stevens emerged as Tower’s lead singer after the success of “Sparkling In The Sand”, the only song on the band’s first album on which he sang lead…

… the excellent set performed by Stevens and his new band, Brass Horizon, Saturday at Yellow Brick Road marks the return of one of the finest vocalists ever to hit the City. The new band, Brass Horizon, is every bit as tight and biting as the famed Tower brass…

…Stevens proved that his voice can still get down and growl on dance tunes, as well as sweep up to carry the pure melody of “You’re Still A Young Man”. … the fine Rick Stevens stage presence that on past occasions made Winterland feel as homey as a living room was evident Saturday. Smiling and jiving with the “mamas” on the dance floor, Stevens was clearly back in the atmosphere he likes best—putting out get-down, good time music.

Then in 1976 it gets quiet around Rick Stevens for the next 36 years as he is sentenced to life in prison for a triple homicide in a drug deal gone wrong. Addicted to drugs he had shot and killed 3 men in a botched deal.

In 2012 Stevens was released on parole. He then formed Rick Stevens & Love Power, which regularly played in Northern California. He also occasionally sat in with Tower of Power, including an appearance at a January 2017 benefit concert for former band members that were hit by a train in Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Rick Stevens passed away on September 5, 2017 after a short battle with liver cancer.

“Rick Stevens went to heaven today to be with the Lord whom he loved with all his heart. Rick was an extremely soulful singer and entertainer who had an engaging personality and a strong faith which he shared with all he came in contact with,” Tower of Power founder Emilio Castillo wrote on the band’s Facebook page.“We loved him and we’ll miss him. I have faith that I’ll see him in heaven someday and together we’ll worship and glorify God together for eternity. Rick is there right now enjoying it!!!”

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Melissa Bell 8/2017

Melissa Bell of Soul II SoulAugust 28, 2017 – Melissa Bell (Soul II Soul) was born Melissa Cecelia Ewen Bell on March 5, 1964 in London, England. Her Jamaican heritage included musical pedigree. From the age of four, music filled every corner of Melissa’s life: she could play the piano, was constantly singing, and even ran her own “radio station” from the upstairs window of the house, calling out to passers-by and begging them to stop and listen. It was when Melissa saw the 14-year-old Lena Zavaroni performing on Opportunity Knocks Continue reading Melissa Bell 8/2017

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Al Jarreau 2/2017

Al Jarreau, vocalist extra ordinaireFebruary 12, 2017 – Al Jarreau was born Alwin Lopez Jarreau on March 12, 1940 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the fifth in a family of 6 children.

His father was a Seventh-day Adventist Church minister and singer, and his mother was a church pianist. Jarreau and his family sang together in church concerts and in benefits, and he and his mother performed at PTA meetings.

Jarreau went on to attend Ripon College, where he also sang with a group called the Indigos. He graduated in 1962 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology. Two years later, in 1964, he earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Iowa. Moving to San Franciso during the 1967 summer of love, Jarreau worked as a rehabilitation counselor and moonlighted with a jazz trio headed by George Duke. In San Francisco, Al’s natural musical gifts began to shape his future and by the late 60s, he knew without a doubt that he would make singing his life. He joined forces with acoustic guitarist Julio Martinez to “spell” up-and-coming comics John Belushi, Bette Midler, Robert Klein, David Brenner, Jimmie Walker and others at the famed comedy venue, THE IMPROV and soon the duo became the star attraction at a small Sausalito night club called Gatsby’s. This success contributed to Jarreau’s decision to make professional singing his life and full-time career. Continue reading Al Jarreau 2/2017

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Maurice White 2/2016

Earth,wind and fire frontman Moe WhiteFebruary 4, 2016 – Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire) was born December 19, 1941 in Memphis, Tennessee, the eldest of nine siblings.  He grew up in South Memphis, where he lived with his grandmother in the Foote Homes Projects and was a childhood friend of Booker T Jones, with whom he formed a “cookin’ little band” while attending Booker T. Washington High School. He made frequent trips to Chicago to visit his mother, Edna, and stepfather, Verdine Adams, who was a doctor and occasional saxophonist. In his teenage years, he moved to Chicago and studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and played drums in local nightclubs.

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Donna Hightower 8/2013

soul diva donna hightowerAugust 19, 2013 – Donna Hightower was born on December 28, 1926 in Caruthersville, Missouri to a family of sharecroppers. She listened to singers such as Ella Fitzgerald in her youth, but never planned to have a singing career and by the age of 23 had been married with two children, and divorced.

While working in a diner in Chicago, she was heard singing by Bob Tillman, a reporter with the Chicago Defender newspaper, who then won her a booking as a singer at the Strand Hotel. Initially billed as Little Donna Hightower, she won a recording contract with Decca Records and recorded her first single, “I Ain’t In The Mood”, in 1951.

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Etta James 1/2012

etta jamesJanuary 20, 2012 – Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25th 1938 in Los Angeles, California, but due to her 14 year old mother Dorothy Hawkins, being often absent, Etta lived with a series of caregivers, most notably ‘Sarge’ and ‘Mama’ Lu. Her father was long gone, and young James Etta never knew for sure who he was, although she recalled her mother telling her that he was the celebrated pool player Rudolf Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats.

She sang at the church from the age of 5 and at home was beaten and forced by Sarge to sing in the early hours at drunken poker games. She began singing at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles at 5 and turned to secular music as a teenager, forming a vocal group with two friends. In 1950 after Mama Lu died, Etta’s real mother took her to the Fillmore, in San Francisco.

Within a couple of years, Etta inspired by doo-wop, formed a girl group, called the Creolettes. Johnny Otis took the group under his wing, helping them sign to Modern Records and changing their name to the Peaches and gave Etta her stage name, reversing Jamesetta into Etta James. Continue reading Etta James 1/2012

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Amy Winehouse 7/2011

July 23, 2011 – Amy Winehouse. Born on September 14th 1983 in Southgate, London. At nine years old, Amy attended the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School and at ten, she founded a short-lived rap group called Sweet ‘n’ Sour. She stayed at the Earnshaw school for four years before seeking full time training at Sylvia Young Theatre School; she appeared in an episode of The Fast Show in 1997 before allegedly being expelled at 14 for “not applying herself” and for piercing her nose. Amy had taken up the guitar at 13 and was writing songs by the age of 14. She began working soon after, including as a showbiz journalist for the World Entertainment News Network, in addition to singing with local group the Bolsha Band.

Much in the style of ‘musical heroes’ before her like Billie Holliday, Amy Winehouse was a powerhouse of soul who took alcohol as her companion. An singer-songwriter known for her deep contralto vocals and her eclectic mix of musical genres, including soul (sometimes labelled as blue-eyed soul), rhythm and blues, jazz and even reggae

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Obie Benson 7/2005

the four topsJuly 1, 2005 – Obie Benson (the Four Tops) was born on June 14th 1937 in Detroit, Michigan. The Four Tops were products of Detroit’s North End where Benson attended Northern High School with Lawrence Payton. They met Levi Stubbs and Abdul “Duke” Fakir while singing at a friend’s birthday party in 1954 and decided to form a group called the Four Aims. Roquel Billy Davis, who was Payton’s cousin, was a fifth member of the group for a time and a songwriter for the group. Davis played an instrumental role in the group being signed by Chess Records who were mainly interested in Davis’s songwriting ability. The group changed their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers and had one single “Kiss Me Baby” released through Chess which failed to chart. The Four Tops left Chess although Davis stayed with the company.

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Hank Ballard 3/2003

Hank-BallardMarch 2, 2003 – Hank Ballard was born John Henry Kendricks in Detroit, Michigan on November 18, 1927, but, along with his brother, Dove Ballard, grew up and attended school in Bessemer, Alabama after the death of their father. He lived with his paternal aunt and her husband, and began singing in church. His major vocal inspiration during his formative years was the “Singing Cowboy”, Gene Autry, and in particular, his signature song, “Back in the Saddle Again”. During the 1960s, Ballard’s cousin, Florence Ballard, was a member of the Detroit girl group The Supremes.

Ballard returned to Detroit in his teens and later worked on the assembly line for Ford Motor Company. In 1951, he formed a doo-wop group and was discovered by the legendary band leader Johnny Otis, and was signed to sing with a group called The Royals. The group changed its name to The Midnighters to avoid confusion with The “5” Royales.

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Aaliyah 8/2001

aaliyahAugust 25, 2001 -Aaliyah Dana Haughton (January 16, 1979 – August 25, 2001) died in a small plane crash after take off in the Bahamas, ending a very promising career in music and acting. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Detroit, Michigan.Born Aaliyah Haughton in Brooklyn, N.Y., she made her stage debut as an orphan in a production of “Annie” at the age of 6. Her uncle was married to soul singer Gladys Knight, who invited Aaliyah to perform with her during a five-night stint in Las Vegas at age 11.

At the age of 10, she appeared on the television show Star Search and performed in concert alongside Gladys Knight, who was married to her uncle.
Aaliyah’s song “Try Again” earned her a Grammy nomination this year for her best female R&B vocalist. In 1996, she released her second album and the single “If Your Girl Only Knew” went double platinum.

Aaliyah made her feature acting debut in 2000 with “Romeo Must Die” and also was signed on to appear in two sequels to the high-tech thriller “The Matrix.” She also starred in the title role of the latest Anne Rice vampire thriller, “The Queen of the Damned.”

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Curtis Mayfield 12/1999

Curtis MayfieldDecember 26, 1999 – Curtis Mayfield was born on June 3rd 1942 in Chicago Illinois. Curtis began his music career in 1956 while still at Wells High School, when he joined The Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler.  Two years later they became the Impressions.

From his website Biography:

In 1958, Curtis Mayfield has his first taste of a hit recording, “For Your Precious Love,” by The Impressions. He is 16, from Chicago’s wild side, the Cabrini Green Public Housing Projects, just developing his distinctive high tenor voice that blended into falsetto and become his (and the group’s) trademark. It will allow Mayfield the freedom to produce some of the most perceptive and significant popular music of his and any other generation. The Impressions go on to define the Chicago sound of the 1960s, a mix of soul/R & B/gospel that challenges Motown’s grip in the market. But Mayfield himself will take the music, his music, further… A lot further.

In 1996, Curtis Mayfield is making his last recordings.

He has transitioned in four decades from the eager, young, black kid into a seasoned singer/songwriter/producer, a motivating force in black music, black capitalism and a quiet voice for social change and civil rights. These final recordings will take every bit of courage and will that Mayfield possesses, as he probably realizes that this is, indeed, his last go-round. He is paralyzed from the neck down, the result of an onstage accident in 1990. He lies on his back in the recording studio, allowing gravity to assist his diaphragm and his breathing, recording one line of the lyric at a time, but still singing and still composing. He dies, aged 57, in December, 1999.

“Broke his back. But not his spirit,” says Altheida Mayfield, his widow and keeper of the Mayfield Flame, a flame that has never gone out. More than a half century after that first hit, a decade plus, after his death, Curtis Mayfield remains alive and well, through his music, his recordings and the recognition by his peers in the music and recording world. His music is the gift that keeps on giving…

Curtis Mayfield was, as one obituary writer put it, “a well respected man.”

Around the age of seven or eight, Curtis Lee Mayfield fell in love. The object of his affection was a guitar, found in a closet in the small overcrowded apartment where he lived with his mother and seven siblings. The music Mayfield had been exposed to at this point come via his grandmother, gospel songs from her Travelling Soul Spiritualists’ Church, the place where a seven year old Mayfield sang in public for the first time. He was also listening to the rich mother lode that was the Chicago electric blues scene which surrounded and informed him.

Mayfield played a little piano but the guitar was different, very personal. “My guitar was like another me,” he said later. Mayfield literally transferred his piano knowledge to his new instrument. Singer Jerry Butler, a childhood friend who formed The Impressions, recalled how: “He used to love playing boogie woogie on the piano and he learned to play that in F sharp which meant he was playing all the black keys. That’s how he came about his unique sound on the guitar because he tuned it that way.” (Standard guitar tuning is E-A-G-B-E.) Mayfield used his instantly recognizable and eccentric open F sharp tuning for the rest of his career. He would also become proficient on bass, drums and saxophones.

Mayfield’s individualism on the guitar later put him in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Top Guitarists of All Time and admiration from such guitar giants as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Recalled Hendrix’ drummer, Mitch Mitchell: “Jimi was the only man I knew who knew how to play that Curtis Mayfield style. He would occasionally break into Mayfield’s guitar style and falsetto onstage.”

It was now evident that Mayfield’s future was music, his way out of the poverty that blighted Chicago’s North Side. At 16, over family objections, he dropped out of high school, joining The Roosters, a group led by his friend Jerry Butler. The name quickly became the more commercial – The Impressions. Butler has noted: “There’s something called the Chicago Soul sound that began in the late Fifties. The Impressions pioneered that… and Curtis was the heart of The Impressions.” Chicago’s take on soul music which evolved throughout the 1960s, had its roots firmly into gospel music, albeit laid back and melody focused (“soft soul” is another term for the style). It was refined by the addition of horns and strings as integral elements of the arrangements. The Impressions’ literal high flying harmonies, with Mayfield later as lead singer – were front and center here.

The first Impressions hit “For Your Precious Love” was co-written by Butler; Mayfield had no hand in it. The lead singer was Butler; Mayfield’s more idiosyncratic voice was relegated to the backfield. “For Your Precious Love” hit the R&B charts and, more importantly for a black group, the pop charts. In one two week period, the song sold 150,000 copies. Butler, getting most of the credit, immediately went solo.

This was a good thing. It gave Mayfield his first taste of control and responsibility, factors that would thread through his future life and career. He held the group together as lead singer, producer and writer. In 1961 the revamped restyled Impressions had its first Mayfield-era hit, “Gypsy Woman.” For the rest of the 1960s The Impressions remained hot with 14 Top 40 hits including an amazing run of five Top 20 songs in 1964 alone – the year that The Beatles arrived and gave a hard time to everyone else.

Mayfield perfected the group’s singular harmonies – the trademark upper register detonations. Throughout his recordings, Mayfield was devoted to the falsetto register rather than the more usual model range. Johnny Pate, a jazz musician and arranger/producer, one of the “professionals” often brought in to soften the rough edges of a label’s teenage talent, remembered the effect the Impressions had on him: “The group went into some high falsetto harmonic things that were really unheard of. Nobody had done it before. The amazing part was, it’s all in tune, in perfect harmony, in tune…”

Black popular music, soul, R & B and the like, had a tried and true business plan in the 1960s, governed by dance music and love songs. But Mayfield had some different ideas, concepts that were to place his music and his career on a new track. Things were happening outside the music and recording worlds. America, in particular Black America, was facing the Civil Rights Movement. There was inner city poverty, a rise in drug use and abuse, the move to Black Power and then on to Black Pride. Unprompted, Mayfield decided to address these matters the only way he knew how – his music. It was an unusual and provocative step but it would make him a groundbreaking music voice for change in the Black community at this time, alongside James Brown and Sly Stone. Singer Mavis Staples (of the Staples Singers who recorded for Mayfield) defined this transformation: “[He] had a long history of writing wonderful love songs that made you want to dance slow to in the basement. And then, all of a sudden, he went and wrote some of the best message songs that could be out there. Curtis was a poet; his lyrics came straight from the heart and make me shudder.”

Mayfield was angry over the social and political turmoil affecting his America and he reacted by writing material with a point and purpose. But they were delivered to the public in a singular way, subtle and intelligent but still layered with gospel, R & B and soul, served Chicago style. Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who called Mayfield “a giant of gentleness,” observed that his music “used love and encouragement, not anger, to say important things.” Mayfield’s (frankly) sexy tenor voice, with its appeal to the ladies, could moderate any hostility in the lyric without destroying its significance. And the new Mayfield songbook was still aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, social observation for the people not the radical. Politics apart, Mayfield still wanted his chart hits.

Mayfield himself explained: “These songs were an example of what has laid in my subconscious for years… the issues of what concerned me as a young black man…. The musical strands and themes of gospel singers and preachers I’d heard as a child. It wasn’t hard to take notice of segregation and the struggle for equality at this time.”

In the mid-1960s Mayfield wrote three songs that defined his songwriter vision in this era: “Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready” and “We’re A Winner.” All managed – along with several other Mayfield songs – to insinuate social commentary into the pop charts and bring awareness to the struggles going on. No wonder Martin Luther King Jr. loved Mayfield’s work. The civil rights icon embraced “Ready” and “Pushing” as unofficial anthems for the Movement. “Keep On Pushing” was the theme music, part of the experience on the Freedom Ride buses that took activists into an unfriendly American South in the fight against segregation. The album “Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions was released in 1964 and quickly became the group’s biggest album to date. It also secured a longevity outside of its initial success, such as, when then-State Senator Barack Obama gave the Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The music that brought him onstage was “Keep On Pushing.”

The powerful gospel grooved “People Get Ready,” recorded by The Impressions in 1965 as a single (and later album) is one of Mayfield’s half dozen most important songs. Well over 100 artists worldwide have covered it bringing royalties to the composer, the kind of homage the businesslike Mayfield appreciated. As the years progressed “People Get Ready” amassed any number of accolades: No. 24 in the Greatest Songs of All Time (Rolling Stone Magazine) and in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll. One of Top 10 Best Songs of All Time (a British poll) and it made the Grammy Hall of Fame. Mayfield said the song “… came from my church… or a message from my church. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”

For all his guitar prowess, “People Get Ready” marked the first time that Mayfield’s guitar work had actually been featured on record. It was enough for Rolling Stone Magazine to place it at No. 20 in the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks of all time!

The 1967 recording “We’re A Winner,” another Mayfield song with a life outside the music business, was more direct and confrontational than the other “anthems” aimed directly at Mayfield’s African American audience. Mayfield, as producer, recorded it in front of a live audience, bringing an emotional commitment from them to underscore the song’s substance. “We’re A Winner” was so direct that during the rioting in 1967 several radio stations refused to air the recording, citing its provocative, forceful lyrics. Civil rights activist and associate of Martin Luther King Jr., Ambassador Andrew Young presented his assessment of this newly charged Mayfield music in the Mayfield documentary “Move On Up” – “You have to think of Curtis Mayfield as a prophetic, visionary teacher of our people and our time.”

Statements like this, and there were many, made Mayfield uncomfortable. He never truly accepted that position, remaining modest and clear eyed about it, specifically when people called him “The Preacher” or “The Reverend.” “I’m an entertainer first,” he often stated. “I don’t claim to be a preacher or anything else, even though maybe there are signs of these things in my lyrics. With all respect I’m sure that we have enough preachers in the world. Through my way of writing I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they’re being preached at.”

While focused on recording with, and writing for, The Impressions, Mayfield was also moonlighting as the staff producer for Okeh Records, a Chicago label that was recording black music and black musicians back in the Roaring 20s. Here he wrote and produced hits for such artists as Major Lance, Gene Chandler, Jan Bradley, Walter Jackson and other hot chart names at the time. Also to give himself a measure of economic stature, he launched a couple of minor labels, Windy C Records and Mayfield Records, with some success in 1966. Mayfield, despite being the high school dropout, knew how to take care of business. Or at least to surround himself with people who did. Unhappy with his royalty rewards at age 18, he turned around and formed his own music publishing company.

In 1968 he went further and created another label, Curtom Records (the Tom was manager Eddie Thomas). This time he was in control of his recording, his song publishing, his own recording studio, all under one roof. Control was important to Mayfield as his friend and sometime business partner, singer Jerry Butler, testifies: “Curtis came to me one day and said, ‘Jerry, I want to buy you out.’ My feelings were hurt a little bit and I said, ‘Why, what did I do?’ He said: ‘You didn’t do anything. I just want to own as much of me as possible.’”

With Curtom Records, Mayfield achieved this. Not the first African American to run his own label but it was still highly unusual for a black recording artist to do so and his move would be observed by those who followed him. The present day music industry is notable for the number of African American recording stars who are in charge of this part of their business world destinies. The line runs from Mayfield to Jay Z., Kanye West, Dr. Dre, P. Diddy, Russell Simmons, etc. Mayfield had showed that successful Black Capitalism was possible, perhaps necessary.

Now, as the 1970s began, Mayfield released his first solo album, “Curtis” very successfully and made another transformative move, his most successful and certainly his most audacious – taking his music to the movies… He commented later: “We showed that you didn’t need a room the size of a football field to lay music in. You didn’t have to be a Henry Mancini.” (Mayfield was now doing all his recording in a tiny demo. producing studio he had bought from RCA Records in Chicago.) African American names on movie music soundtrack credits were not exactly thick on the ground in 1970 – Quincy Jones being the most prominent – and there was a not-exactly-unspoken question in Hollywood, “Can African Americans write film music? “ The 1970s was the time when the “Blaxploitation” movie was in vogue, films that would never make any all-time Best Film listings but were lively, energetic, quickly produced, low budget, starred black actors and beamed to a target audience that lived in the inner cities.

“Super Fly” was a zero budget production, shot in New York’s mean streets and coming across a little ambiguous in the drug/pimp/violence/badass culture department. By now, Mayfield was busy producing, for himself and others, all manner of music and knew how to lay some pretty harsh lyrics against really forceful funk grooves. Ideal, someone had thought, for a “Super Fly” soundtrack. That someone was not Mayfield. He was no fan of the movie’s characters or plot… until he saw a way to subvert it. Altheida Mayfield remembers her husband’s early reaction: “Curtis thought ‘Super Fly’ was a commercial to sell cocaine and he wanted to turn that around. That was his main purpose there, to say ‘This is nothing pretty.’ This man was raised poor and that’s what he saw on the streets every day and could express in song.” Express it he did – songs for “Super Fly” came pouring out, a running counterpoint to onscreen action, each track showing a different view of the problems – “Freddie’s Dead,” “Super Fly” (both became million selling singles), “Pusherman,” “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” – hits when the album was released and able to take on a new life decades later as the rap and hip hop generation discovered the art of sampling.

Mayfield’s “Super Fly” album became an instant classic of 1970s soul and funk and is a rare example of a soundtrack outselling the movie from which it was taken. The album spent four weeks at No. 1 on the album chart while singles, “Freddie’s Dead” and the title track were both million sellers. Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums list ranked it No. 69. VH1 placed it at No. 63 in the same category. “Super Fly,” which few thought initially had any hope of commercial success, “ignited a whole genre of music and influenced everybody from soul singers to TV music composers for decades to come. “ (AllMusic). Along with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield had introduced soul funk music with “Super Fly” that also said something; a groove that was socially aware.

Movie work now took up much of Mayfield’s time – with Gladys Knight and the Pips (the film “Claudine”), Aretha Franklin (“Sparkle”), Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again”), Mavis Staples (“A Piece of the Action”). A funk and now disco alliance ”Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here” for the movie “Short Eyes” was a 1977 hit for Mayfield, who also made a cameo appearance in the film (as he did in “Super Fly”).

By 1980 Mayfield had moved, with his family of six children, from Chicago to Atlanta, effectively bringing the Chicago Soul era to a close. He continued working as a solo artist, releasing (as he had in the previous two decades) a series of well received albums, and as a writer and producer. He rejoined his original colleagues for The Impressions Reunion Tour of 1983 – 25 years after that very first hit record. He started another record label, revived Curtom Records and had a full concert datebook, both in the U.S. Japan and Europe, especially Britain. Mayfield revisited “Super Fly” in 1990 – sort of. A remake, “Return of Super Fly” was produced with a Mayfield soundtrack. The film went nowhere but the soundtrack was important. Released as the album “Super Fly 1990” it marked a collaboration between Mayfield and Ice T. , one of the first signs that the emerging rap and hip hop constituency regarded Mayfield as an important influence.

Mayfield now had what he always wanted – control of a successful career that allowed him entry into every facet of the music and recording business. Then came August 13, 1990 and tragedy onstage at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, New York. Mayfield arrived for the sound check on a rain swept afternoon and high winds blew down the lighting rig. Mayfield was trapped underneath, his spine crushed in three places, paralyzing him from the neck down. He would be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.

But he continued. Perhaps he had no control over his body now, but he would still control his career. Slowly at first, his strength returned – his will was always there – and then there was a moment in 1994 that convinced him he could get back into the recording studio. The occasion was an all star, all Mayfield concert that Warner Bros. Records organized. Everybody sang Mayfield – Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, B. B. King, Elton John, Aretha Franklin and more. It was for a Mayfield Tribute album, “All Men Are Brothers.” The climax, the emotional core of the evening, was Curtis Mayfield, back at the microphone singing for the first time since the accident four years ago. This experience provided the motivation to return to his second home, the recording studio for what would be his last album, “New World Order,” a collection of original material. And Mayfield, the lion in winter, produced his last great song, “Here But I’m Gone” with an unsettling anti-drug lyric delivered with typical Mayfield flair, the light touch carrying the heavy message. While “New World Order” was Mayfield’s last hurrah, it does not signify the end of Mayfield’s recordings. He had always been at home in the recording studio and had probably written around 1400 songs in his four professional decades. Author Peter Burns estimated that 140 recordings lay in the Mayfield vaults in various stages of completion but all capable of being released. They included live performances from all over the world, collaborations, many with both Jerry Butler and the original Impressions, and more.

Mayfield’s physical condition now began to really deteriorate; diabetes forced the amputation of his right leg and he died in Roswell, Ga. on December 26, 1999 at age 57. That year he had been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame as a solo performer – he was already there as a member of The Impressions – and before he died he learned that he was to be inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He was already in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture has plans to honor Mayfield’s career. Following his death the music industry mounted any number of special tribute concerts and events to honor his memory and his talent.

But the real tribute to Curtis Lee Mayfield lies with his music and its lasting influence on public and peers alike. The fact that Mayfield music is still being played, still being picked up by new generations of musicians in almost every genre, paying respect to the gentle genius of song. “Here, But I’m Gone,” indeed. His last appearance on record was with the group Bran Van 3000 on the song “Astounded” for their 2001 album Discosis.

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Tony Williams 8/1992

tony williams of the plattersAugust 14, 1992 – Samuel Anthony “Tony” Williams  was born on April 5th 1928 in Roselle, New Jersey. His family moved to California in the 1940s.

The Platters formed in Los Angeles in 1952 and were initially managed by Federal Records A&R man, Ralph Bass. The original group consisted of Alex Hodge, Cornell Gunter, David Lynch, Joe Jefferson, Gaynel Hodge and Herb Reed, who joined the group after he was discharged from the Army in December 1952. Reed created the group’s name.

In June 1953, Gunter left to join the Flaires and was replaced by tenor Tony Williams, a parking lot attendant, recommended by his sister Linda Hayes, an R&B singer, Williams became the group’s lead vocalist. The group then released two singles with Federal Records, under the management of Bass, but found little success. Bass then asked his friend music entrepreneur and songwriter Buck Ram to coach the group in hope of getting a hit record. Ram made some changes to the lineup, most notably the addition of female vocalist Zola Taylor; later, at Reed’s urging, Hodge was replaced by Paul Robi. Under Ram’s guidance, the Platters recorded eight songs for Federal in the R&B/gospel style, scoring a few minor regional hits on the West Coast, and backed Williams’ sister, Linda Hayes. One song recorded during their Federal tenure, “Only You (And You Alone)”, originally written by Ram for the Ink Spots, was deemed unreleasable by the label, though pirated copies of this early version do exist.

Despite their lack of chart success, the Platters were a profitable touring group, successful enough that the Penguins, coming off their #8 single “Earth Angel”, asked Ram to manage them as well. With the Penguins in hand, Ram was able to parlay Mercury Records’ interest into a 2-for-1 deal. To sign the Penguins, Ram insisted, Mercury also had to take the Platters. Ironically The Penguins would never have a hit for the label.

Convinced by Jean Bennett and Tony Williams that “Only You” had real potential, Ram had the Platters re-record the song during their first session for Mercury. Released in the summer of 1955, it became the group’s first Top Ten hit on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. The follow-up, “The Great Pretender”, with lyrics written in the washroom of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas by Buck Ram, exceeded the success of their debut and became the Platters’ first national #1 hit. “The Great Pretender” was also the act’s biggest R&B hit, with an 11-week run atop that chart. In 1956, the Platters appeared in the first major motion picture based around rock and roll, Rock Around the Clock, and performed both “Only You” and “The Great Pretender”.

The Platters’ unique vocal style had touched a nerve in the music-buying public, and a string of hit singles followed, including three more national #1 hits and more modest chart successes such as “I’m Sorry” (#11) and “He’s Mine” (#23) in 1957, “Enchanted” (#12) in 1959, and “The Magic Touch” (#4) in 1956.
The Platters soon hit upon the successful formula of updating older standards, such as “My Prayer”, “Twilight Time”, “Harbor Lights”, “To Each His Own”, “If I Didn’t Care”, and Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. This latter release caused a small controversy after Kern’s widow expressed concern that her late husband’s composition would be turned into a “rock and roll” record. It topped both the American and British charts in a Platters-style arrangement.

The Platters also differed from most other groups of the era in other ways because Ram had the group incorporated in 1956. Each member of the group received a 20% share in the stock, full royalties, and their Social Security was paid. As group members left one by one, Ram and his business partner, Jean Bennett, bought their stock, which they claimed gave them ownership of the “Platters” name. A court later ruled, however, that “FPI was a sham used by Mr. Ram to obtain ownership in the name ‘Platters’, and FPI’s issuance of stock to the group members was ‘illegal and void’ because it violated California corporate securities law.”

Tony Williams and the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in its inaugural year of 1998. The Platters were the first rock and roll group to have a Top Ten album in America. They were also the only act to have three songs included on the American Graffiti soundtrack that fueled an oldies revival already underway in the early to mid-1970s: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, “The Great Pretender”, and “Only You (and You Alone)”.

From 1955 until Williams left the group in 1960, The Platters had four No. 1 hits and 16 gold records, including “My Prayer,” “Harbor Lights,” “Twilight Time,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and their biggest seller, “The Great Pretender.”

The group continued to perform without Williams, while he pursued a solo career.

Tony Williams passed away on August 14, 1992 from emphysema and lung cancer. He was 64 and had been earlier that year toured Thailand and other Asian countries, performing with his wife and son.

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Paul Robi 2/1989

Paul RobiFebruary 1, 1989 – Paul Irvin Robi was born in New Orleans on August 20th 1931. He went on to become the lead tenor of the L.A group, The Platters in 1954.

At a time when rock ‘n’ roll was becoming the nation’s signature music, the Platters managed to appeal to both rock and traditional movements.

One of the most successful and romantic vocal groups of the 1950s, Robi stayed with the Platters for the next eleven years, and can be heard on all their many hits, including “Only You”, “The Great Pretender”, “Twilight Time”, “Smoke Gets In Your Eye’s” and “Harbour Lights”, selling in the millions of copies. In a single year–1958–the group had two gold records, both based on older songs: “Twilight Time” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

The Platters were formed by Herbert Reed in 1953 and originally included Reed, Robi, Lynch and Tony Williams. Later a woman, Zola Taylor, was added.

The group had 40 charting singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between 1955 and 1967, including four no. 1 hits. The Platters were one of the first African American groups to be accepted as a major chart group and were, for a period of time, the most successful vocal group in the world.

As a group, the Platters began to have difficulties with the public after 1959, when the four male members were arrested in Cincinnati on drug and prostitution charges. Although none were convicted, their professional reputation was seriously damaged and US radio stations started removing their records from playlists, forcing the group to rely more heavily on European bookings. Robi left the group in 1965.

Along with the Platters, Robi was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

He died of pancreatic cancer at age 57 on February 1, 1989

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Ester Phillips 8/1984

Esther Phillips amazing R&B/Jazz voiceAugust 7, 1984 – Esther Phillips was born Esther Mae Jones on December 23, 1935. in Galveston Texas. She began singing in church as a young child. When her parents divorced, she split time between her father in Houston and her mother in the Watts area of Los Angeles.

It was while she was living in Los Angeles in 1949 that her sister entered her in a talent show at a nightclub belonging to bluesman Johnny Otis. So impressed was Otis with the 13-year-old that he brought her into the studio for a recording session with Modern Records and added her to his live revue.

Billed as Little Esther, she scored her first success when she was teamed with the vocal quartet the Robins (who later evolved into the Coasters) on the Savoy single “Double Crossin’ Blues.” It was a massive hit, topping the R&B charts in early 1950 and paving the way for a series of successful singles bearing Little Esther’s name: “Mistrustin’ Blues,” “Misery,” “Cupid Boogie,” and “Deceivin’ Blues.”

In 1951, Little Esther moved from Savoy and Johnny Otis to Federal after a dispute over royalties, but despite being the brightest female star in Otis’ revue, she was unable to duplicate her impressive string of hits. Furthermore, she and Otis had a falling out, reportedly over money, which led to her departure from his show; she remained with Federal for a time, then moved to Decca in 1953, again with little success.

In 1954, she returned to Houston to live with her father, having already developed a fondness for the temptations of life on the road; by the late ’50s, her experiments with hard drugs had developed into a definite addiction to heroin. She re-signed with Savoy in 1956, to little avail, and went on to cut sides for Federal and (in 1960) Warwick, which went largely ignored.

Short on money, Little Esther worked in small nightclubs around the South, punctuated by periodic hospital stays in Lexington, KY, stemming from her addiction. In 1962, she was rediscovered while singing at a Houston club by future country star Kenny Rogers, who got her signed to his brother’s Lenox label. Too old to be called Little Esther, she re-christened herself Esther Phillips, choosing her last name from a nearby Phillips gas station.

She recorded a country-soul reading of the soon-to-be standard “Release Me,” which was released as a single late in the year. In the wake of Ray Charles’ groundbreaking country-soul hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Release Me” was a smash, topping the R&B charts and hitting the Top Ten on both the pop and country charts. Back in the public eye, Phillips recorded a country-soul album of the same name, but Lenox went bankrupt in 1963.

Thanks to her recent success, Phillips was able to catch on with R&B giant Atlantic, which initially recorded her in a variety of musical settings to see what niche she might fill best. It was eventually decided to play up her more sophisticated side and accordingly, Phillips cut a blues-tinged album of jazz and pop standards; her string-laden remake of the Beatles song “And I Love Him” (naturally, with the gender changed) nearly made the R&B Top Ten in 1965 and the Beatles flew her to the U.K. for her first overseas performances.

Encouraged, Atlantic pushed her into even jazzier territory for her next album, Esther Phillips Sings; however, it didn’t generate much response and was somewhat eclipsed by her soul reading of Percy Sledge’s “When a Woman Loves a Man” (again, with the gender changed), which made the R&B charts.

Nonplussed, Atlantic returned to their former tactic of recording Phillips in as many different styles as possible, but none of the resulting singles really caught on and the label dropped her in late 1967.

With her addiction worsening, Phillips checked into a rehab facility; while undergoing treatment, she cut some sides for Roulette in 1969 and upon her release, she moved to Los Angeles and re-signed with Atlantic. A late-1969 live gig at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper club produced the album Burnin’, which was acclaimed as one of the best, most cohesive works of Phillips’ career.

Despite that success, Atlantic still wanted her to record pop tunes with less grit and when their next attempts failed to catch on, Phillips was let go a second time. In 1971, she signed with producer Creed Taylor’s Kudu label, a subsidiary of his hugely successful jazz fusion imprint CTI.

Her label debut, From a Whisper to a Scream, was released in 1972 to strong sales and highly positive reviews, particularly for her performance of Gil Scott-Heron’s wrenching heroin-addiction tale “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.”

Phillips recorded several more albums for Kudu over the next few years and enjoyed some of the most prolonged popularity of her career, performing in high-profile venues and numerous international jazz festivals. In 1975, she scored her biggest hit single since “Release Me” with a disco-fied update of Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” (Top Ten R&B, Top 20 pop), and the accompanying album of the same name became her biggest seller yet.

In 1977, Phillips left Kudu for Mercury, landing a deal that promised her the greatest creative control of her career. She recorded four albums for the label, but none matched the commercial success of her Kudu output and after 1981’s A Good Black Is Hard to Crack, she found herself without a record deal.

Her last R&B chart single was 1983’s “Turn Me Out,” a one-off for the small Winning label; unfortunately, her health soon began to fail, the culmination of her previous years of addiction combined with a more recent flirtation with the bottle. Phillips died in Los Angeles on August 7, 1984, of liver and kidney failure at the age of 48. Her funeral services were conducted by Johnny Otis.

Obviously a victim of the Music Industry’s pathetic lack of managerial direction and understanding of the art, Esther Phillips was twice nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986 and 1987, but was not inducted. Shame on them.


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King Curtis 8/1971

Two legends of Blues RockAugust 13, 1971 – King Curtis (The Kingpins) was born Curtis Ousley on February 7, 1934. He was adopted and brought up in Fort Worth where he started playing the saxophone locally when he was 12.

He turned down college scholarships in order to join the Lionel Hampton Band and in 1952 moved to New York to become a session musician, recording for such labels as Prestige, Enjoy, Capitol and Atco.

He recorded with Nat Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Buddy Holly, Andy Williams, The Coasters, The Five Keys, Aretha Franklin and many more. His saxophone virtuosity was widely admired in rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, blues, funk and soul jazz, his band The Kingpins also backed Aretha Franklin.

It was at this time that he put together his band The Kingpins which included Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Jerry Jemmott, and Bernard Purdie.

Curtis was best known for his distinctive sax riffs and solos such as on “Yakety Yak”, which later became the inspiration for Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” and his own “Memphis Soul Stew”.

In 1970, he won the Best R&B Instrumental Performance Grammy for “Games People Play” and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 6th 2000.

Curtis was stabbed to death by Juan Montanez, a vagrant drug addict on the front steps of his New York home) on August 13, 1971. He was 37.

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Nat King Cole 2/1965

Nat King ColeFebruary 15, 1965 – Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama.  Cole had three brothers: Eddie, Ike, and Freddy and a half-sister, Joyce Coles. Each of Cole’s brothers would later pursue careers in music as well. When Cole was four years old, he and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father, Edward Coles, became a Baptist minister. Cole learned to play the organ from his mother, Perlina Coles, the church organist. His first performance was of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” at age four. He began formal lessons at 12, eventually learning not only jazz and gospel music, but also Western classical music, performing, as he said, “from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff”. Continue reading Nat King Cole 2/1965