Eddie Levert and The O’Jays began their legacy as teenagers singing doo wop. With a few name changes, but retaining their nucleus structure, they decided collectively to ‘Put Our Heads Together’ and signed to Gamble and Huff’s PIR label. Eddie became the primary lead vocalist with a voice of such distinction, albeit a ballad, mid tempo or a disco boogie groove regardless.. it was ‘Time To Get Down’. The group’s ethos always aimed to ‘Give The People What They Wan’t, hence The O’Jays have been together for 56 years. For the last 26 of them they have not graced the UK shores until this pending concert in September. So get on board the ‘Love Train’, ‘This Time Baby’ and prepare to show some ‘Unity’ if you want to see The O’Jay’s ‘Sing A Happy Song’ because ‘We’re All In This Thing Together’. This edited interview was conducted in 2014 in issue 54 of The Soul Survivors Magazine..To get a hard copy please purchase via http://www.thesoulsurvivorsmagazine.co.uk/product/issue-54-july-august-2014/
What influenced you growing up in Ohio, home to the Isley Bro’s and Ohio Players around the same time?
Those two you speak of were influential, especially the Isley Brothers. When they were doing ‘Twist and Shout’ I used to go to Detroit and see them at the Woodwood Theatre. They were a fantastic and exciting act for a three man group as they were all over the place. They were very instrumental in our forming of the O’Jays because of their gospel sound and background in the way that Ron Isley sang, it certainly influenced me and Walter. The Ohio Players were our back up band for a while before they started making big hits. We used to go to Buffalo and play at the Revalot Lounge and they would open up the show before us and then back us as we sang. They had a very raw and funky danceable sound back then, which wasn’t as refined but very gritty and earthy.
I know you believe in hard work and practice till you can do it naturally and were influenced by some of the greats like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Gladys Knight to sharpen up your performance skills (Yeah). At what point did you realise you had that raspy vocal that would make a difference?
Wow I didn’t realise my voice had a uniqueness until we recorded songs like ‘Backstabbers’, ‘Love Train’ and ‘For The Love Of Money’.
What led to you renaming the group after the DJ Eddie O’Jay?
We went to Detroit to audition for Berry Gordy’s Motown and Eddie O’Jay didn’t think that the deal was a fair offer. Berry’s ex wife Thelma had a record company called Deco and she eventually signed us. We recorded a song called ‘The Way I Feel About You’ and they wanted to put the record out but we didn’t like the name The Triumphs that we had at the time. We needed to come up with a name and Eddie O’Jay suggest we used his name temporarily till we found another one. We never looked back.
During that Gamble and Huff, Neptunes and PIR interim you recorded the soulful and funky ‘Superbad’ album, a completely different direction for the O’Jays. Featuring Now ‘He’s Home’, ‘Crossroads Of Life’, ‘Shattered Man’ and the epic ‘Peace’, who were some of the uncredited players on the album?
That was a compilation album of material we did with both HB Barnum and Philly International musicians. We were on the west coast and HB Barnum collated talents like Bernard Purdie and Eric Gale with Bobby Martin, Earl Young and Thom Bell from Philly.
There was also an interest from Motown and Invictus Records but what cemented the move to Gamble and Huff’s new venture PIR records?
We experienced a degree of success at Neptunes that we’d never experienced prior to signing with them. When the Neptunes distribution deal folded with Chess Records we almost went home thinking what do we do now? Our biggest reason to go back to Gamble and Huff was them playing us the instrumentals of ‘Back Stabbers’, ‘Love Train’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Let Me Make Love To You’. These were songs we could connect with via our gospel roots and when you’re rehearsing with Leon Huff playing the piano, it sounds like you have a full orchestra with you.
The monumental and diverse ‘Back Stabbers’ album had a million seller title track, the universal ‘Love Train’, ‘992 Arguments’ and ‘Time To Get Down’. I heard you say that you felt The O’Jay’s brought a gospel feel to the Gamble and Huff sound that was previously one of a popular bubblegum flavour. So how easily did the O’Jays group, the team of Philly musicians and the Gamble and Huff creative team gel?
When we went back to Philadelphia International myself and Walter switched leads on a song called ‘It’s Too Strong’ and it was the very first time we did that. That helped give Gamble and Huff the direction of where we should be. From there onwards that marriage helped to create the Philly sound, as opposed to that bubblegum sound as you mentioned. With us, Harold Melvin, The Intruders and Billy Paul onboard it was now a grittier gospel sound with strings and horns.
Were you the first PIR act to be signed?
Yeah basically along with Billy Paul and The Intruders who were always around Gamble and Huff.
There is some discrepancy on the story of The O’Jays not wishing to record ‘Back Stabbers’. I saw an interview where Walter is trying to explain what happened but what is the real truth?
MacFadden and Whitehead wrote the song then sang it to us in the studio as a guide vocal so our first impression was a little dubious as it sounded nothing like our finished version! Now it gets very hot in Philly and whilst rehearsing, the window was open and there was a breeze blowing. Walter was trying to slide the lyrics sheet onto the table but the breeze caught it and the lyrics ended up on the floor. MacFadden and Whitehead mistakingly made out it was thrown on the floor purposely by Walter because we didn’t want to sing their song, which is untrue. ‘Back Stabbers’ is one of the greatest songs ever recorded, and from the time we sung it to a piano with the rhythm track, put the background, lead vocals and strings on it, we knew it was gonna be a hit.
How much can you elaborate on the story of recording my favourite off that album ‘When The World’s At Peace’ and the disappearance of the far superior first vocal take?
Wow (Eddie’s surprise at me mentioning it) yeah. I’d always been into message music and wanted to say something musically to the world apart from just wooing women or to make love to. So ‘When The World’s At Peace’ appeared we did the background vocals and I felt I needed to put that churchy gospel sound on it. I did the lead vocal in one take and it was agreed by everyone to be such a great vocal performance. We went home and when they mixed it, somehow the engineer erased my vocals. I had to go back and reduplicate that performance but it was never as strong. It was still a great song though.
Gamble and Huff seemed to champion concept albums more-so with The O’Jays than of the other male PIR groups and the most pioneering is ‘Ship Ahoy’. With a powerful front and back gatefold cover it harboured the funky conscious ‘For The Love Of Money’, the original before Third World of ‘Now That We Found Love’ and the most compelling slavery tale ‘Ship Ahoy’. Kenny Gamble told me that the track was almost a visual one when I spoke with him. What kind of spiritual emotions did you have connecting with the song as I can only imagine?
It was telling the historical story of the black man’s plight coming from Africa to America and the trouble and strife they endured. I was able to take myself to that place and the greatest part of that was replicating it at live performances. We actually had a ship, slaves and dancers to reproduce it visually. We had back lighting and we, The O’Jays, were half dressed in rags and chains looking like slaves and this was all Charlie Atkins’s production and choreography. It actually looked like we were on a ship and it was a message to black people, showing what happened, where we are now and not to forget where we came from.
That resinates with me as my parents come from Jamaica and being a young black male when I first heard that song it reminded me of watching Roots in the 1970’s as a kid. Did you start to see the method in the madness in Gamble and Huff’s approach in spreading message music?
Me and Kenny Gamble were already in that frame of mind as we both studied Jehovahs Witness and Buddism. All those songs like ‘Now That We Found Love’, ‘When The World’s At Peace’, ‘Back Stabbers’ and ‘Love Train’ was all about our belief and faith. ‘Ship Ahoy’ was a message we needed as humanitarians to give to the world like the song title ‘Give The People What They Want’ suggests.
The next album’s self titled ‘Survival’ and ‘Give The People What They Want’ were my favourite tunes followed by another well embraced concept album ‘Family Reunion’. With great songs like the titled track, ‘Unity’ and the classic disco anthem ‘I Love Music’, four Philly albums in, how comfortable were you and the group with being centre of attention of the label’s success?
A lot of our songs were message music however we felt at the time that Gamble and Huff were not writing hit records for us but more for Harold Melvin And the Bluenotes. I was complaining because I thought they were getting the best records and Teddy Pendergrass was having success with ‘Close The Door’ and ‘Get Funky Get Loose’. But with us being The O’Jays, a high calibre level act, we realised that we were actually the PIR label’s musical messengers making hit records, so it was really great being the premier group of the label and I Love Music was the start of the disco era in 1976.
I do, and in fact when I spoke with Archie Bell he said he felt a similar thing like they were getting side lined. To be honest, because of how PIR is set up I actually think that, for example, ‘Message In The Music’ could have been sung by Archie, The Intruders or Harold Melvin because of the production. It has it’s highs and lows, being part of a successful camp…
You gotta remember, when I see Archie Bell doing ‘Tighten Up’ I wished that song was mine to perform as that’s how artists are. When I heard ‘The Love I Lost’ by Harold Melvin I thought I should have done it but its the same for the other groups toward us also, because we always wanna feel we can do any song. They did a great job of individualising the music as it gave everybody a chance to be who they were. But I don’t think Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes could have done ‘Message In The Music’ though Ha ha ha ..No seriously they could have but we got to it first.
‘Message In The Music’ album gave us the classic ‘Darling Darling Baby’, ‘Let Life Flow’ and ‘Make A Joyful Noise’. MacFadden, Whitehead and Castraphen certainly made their mark on this album. Jean Carn said she had the best time working with the aforementioned Mighty Three, I understand you share those sentiments also but why?
It’s the free flowing atmosphere with those three as it is also with Bunny Sigler because they were emotionally attached to the music. It’s like going on stage when you perform their music because they’d be dancing around in the studio, which would make you dance too.
After speaking with Archie Bell you get an insight to how big the ‘Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto’ project was. Contributing on the title track and the funky brass jazzy Big Gangster, how important was that project which was like your version of ‘We Are The World’?
Absolutely. When they did ‘We Are The World’ they managed to pull in major stars from around the world but we assembled it from our label nucleus.
‘So Full Of Love’ made popular due to the success of ‘Used To Be My Girl’ and the ballad ‘Brandy’ is if you seek, you shall find another O’Jays’s gem in my humble opinion. Hosting the original version of Jackie Moore’s disco classic ‘This Time Baby’.
Yeah we had a lot of records covered by others who had hits and we were very jealous. (We both laugh)
I am enamoured by the emotive ‘Cry Together’ and the under the radar boogie bullet ‘Take Me To The Stars’. How was it having a hand in producing both an uptempo ‘Take Me To The Stars’ and a ballad, your composition, ‘Help (Somebody Please)’ and was it the first time you were afforded the privilege of producing on PIR?
It was part of our new deal that we got to produce and write songs. We wanted to do more but spent so much time on the road. ‘Take Me To The Stars’ was written by a friend of ours, Larry Hancock, and we used a lot of different things on that production, like synthesizers and phaser sounds, that were not used before. We tried to be innovative, using Dexter Wansel’s spacey sounds and it was very unique because we wanted to go to a different place with our music. With ‘Help Somebody Please’ I often see Mtume and joke with him that our song inspired his hit ‘Juicy Fruit’. He took our sound, captured it and took it to another level, which we couldn’t due to our commitment on the road.
As we come to the end of the 1970’s with the ‘Identify Yourself’ album you continue with the very uplifting ‘Sing A Happy Song’, co-writing ‘Hurray Up And Come Back’ and sharing vocals on ‘One In A Million’. With the Philly sound embracing newer dimensions on The ‘Years 2000’ 1980 album, the Gamble and Huff conscious vision continues and you co-wrote one of my all time favourite O’Jays cut ‘You’re The Girl Of My Dreams’.
That is a song with Dwayne Mitchell, a keyboard player/musician, but he passed away in the middle of our creativity. If we could have spent more time with him we could have made more inroads musically. ‘Girl Of My Dreams’ was innovative and a direction almost like Barry White.
How did you get to work with Stevie Wonder on his ‘Hotter Than July’ album singing with Betty Wright and Michael Jackson on his classic ‘All I Do’?
We’d been great friends with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. That session was supposed to start at 10 o’clock and Stevie, being blind, has no concept of time and we didn’t start that session til 3am, finishing at 6am. We had a great time and didn’t get paid, we did it for Stevie.
The next three albums, ‘My Favourite Person’, ‘When Will I See You Again’ and ‘Love Lots More’ would see the Gamble and Huff, Womack and Womack and Keni Burke influences. Tracks like ‘I Just Want To Satisfy’, ‘Put Our Heads Together’, ‘Extraordinary Girl’ and ‘Summer Fling’ would flourish. You lasted another 2 albums on PIR, whereby all the other Philly male groups had diminished. Why do you think that was?
They became disgruntled as the hits weren’t coming in. We were still the premier act on the label and we had a special friendship beyond the music with Gamble and Huff. We still do, to this day, talk about doing something special together.
What’s the sense of pride you feel being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2005?
It’s quite an achievement to be in the same camp as the rock groups, R&B groups, like The Temptations, and being recognised by the industry. The O’Jays have made an impact for sure and the greatest group for me was The Temptations and we took what they did to another level and hopefully we will be synonymous with their success.
Yesterday was father’s day here in the UK and I’m sure you often think of your two sons who have sadly passed. I had the pleasure of DJing at the Jazz Cafe when Gerald was promoting his socially conscious album ‘Do I Speak For The World?’ album. The leader of the group Levert and collaborator with many projects including a commanding performance on Larry Gold’s ‘Dance’ on BBE he had an incredible vocal presence. I loved his song with you ‘What Happened To The Loving?’ and in particular ‘Click a Glass’ interpolating elements of the O’Jays ‘Family Reunion’. Obvious, but a valid question, how proud are you of his gift to the world?
Some of my greatest moments in showbusiness and on recording records was with this kid. We did a version of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ which still stirs me and always stays with me. He was a prolific writer in RNB and I think people are just discovering that. In terms of how proud of him, he was my hero.
The O’Jays are coming over to the UK in so what can we expect from you ?
You’re going to see classic O’Jays like ‘Darling Darling Baby’, ‘This Time Baby’, ‘Brandy’, ‘Living For The Weekend’ and every facet of the O’Jays. From the early years to right now we’ll do ‘Lipstick Traces’, ‘Back Stabbers’, ‘Love Train’, ‘Let Me Make Love to You’ and ‘Stairway To Heaven’. So tell the people to be ready to have the twinkling of the glasses.
Thanks Eddie .
Tickets for The OJays at Drury Lane London 15th July 2018 via the link https://www.reallyusefultheatres.co.uk/performances/show/the-ojays
This is the ode printed in our issue 64 edition of The Soul Survivors Magazine
Little did I know when I did my Roll Call Of Fame in issue 60 last year how poignant or providential that would be. For me personally in the 10 year anniversary cycle of celebrating this magazine’s milestone, after the loss of James Brown 25th December 2006, followed by Michael Jackson 25th June 2009 and now Prince Roger Nelson’s passing 21st April 2016, it marks the end of an era of the enigmatic last of the tribal African Masai, one man band singer and performer dancing machines. Each of these artist’s loss moved me to tears, Prince’s moreso than Micheal because it was so sudden. Prince astrologically a Gemini which depicts his multi faceted genius, epitomises the legacy of the showman from Cab Calloway, Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix to Michael Jackson (slightly before him) and their musical caricatures with a bit of Phil Lynott and David Bowie thrown in for good measure, with his rock and soul semblance and excellence as a consummate artist. Do you think there will ever be another like Prince, with his androgynous looks, fashion attire, fit athletic physique, flexibility, multi instrumentalist talent and varied vocal octave range, and all done in high heels that may women would struggle to walk let alone dance in? I don’t think so. With that in mind here is a small homage to his Royal Purpleness, Mr “Musicology” Prince Roger Nelson courtesy of a fellow music aquarian and huge Prince fan, Ronnie Stephenson who we used to call Prince in the 1980’s, Musicologist Dez Parkes, and extracts from previous issues via Mica Paris, Larry Graham and Sheila E who worked and knew Prince personally.. Enjoy..Fitzroy
Greetings on this pinch punch last day of the March month. Here is the edited digital version of issue 75 of The Soul Survivors Magazine. It features news reviews and interviews with Rose Windross, Ruth Koleva, Ian Levine and Hamish Stuart of (AWB).
The front cover and whole issue is dedicated to the memory of Eddy Amoo of The Chants and The Real Thing. Please scan through and enjoy reading the articles accompanied by music when you click on a page. The Record Reviews allows you to click on the artwork image and hear a song that’s related to the review whilst you read on what you may want to purchase. If you decide you wish to get hard copy to read the full interviews you can subscribe or purchase that copy via http://www.thesoulsurvivorsmagazine.co.uk/membership/
So fellow soul survivors click on the link or the front cover to view the digital copy …enjoy Fitzroy Anthoney Facey
Today on this Gwen Guthrie ‘ Outside In The Rain’ Way back Wednesday I greet you with this amazing front cover image of a soul surviving icon who had dazzling dancing skills both on the dance floor and on the football pitch. This dapper don looking very nostalgic is none other than the late and ground breaking footballing superstar Laurie Cunningham. He is to many of us from the African Diaspora, a template example of how we can rise from the shackles of slavery, racism and the subliminal and blatant adversity that comes with it. The book Foreword is from the perfect example of how Laurie influenced the next generation of black footballers Ian Wright. Now what is my Kleeer ‘ Intimate Connection’ with this book? ‘ Hold Tight’ like Change as I’m about to share this conundrum.
I was contacted randomly by the author and journalist and sports editor of The Times newspaper..Dermot Kavanagh, who was advised by my fellow west London compadre and jazz dancer Seymour Nurse, to contact me about 5 years ago in 2012. We spoke on his idea to document Laurie Cunningham a local from north London ( Archway I believe) as a youth, and his cultural surroundings and upbringing. Laurie not only was a gifted footballer, he was also known for his dancing and fashion attire in the early to late 1970’s. He frequented many of the local and west end soul clubs including Crackers Wardour Street .W.1. So I advise Dermot he should speak with Dez Parkes, Paul Anderson, George Power and another mate Kayanja. Unfortunately Paul Anderson was unable to contribute but Dez Parkes, George Power and Leon Herbert did, and their contributions are in this fascinating book.
Over the years Dermot kept in touch and did an event to promote his venture locally in Archway where he Dermot himself comes from. ‘ Movin’ On’ like The Joneses last Wednesday Dermot rang me to say he has published a book and wanted to send me one. It arrived on Friday and I flicked through it as I was getting ready to head for Margate. I saw how much space he gave to Dez Parkes in the book and thought wow! Then I looked at the back in the Acknowledgements and see my name in lights on page 222…double damn. I was truly humbled to be in the same space as Laurie Cunningham, Dez Parkes and Ian Wright Wright Wright. Dermot expressed that me giving him the links to speak with Dez and George really gave his venture a new direction once he was introduced to the underground soul surviving world that Laurie Cunningham was living in outside his footballing domain. I rang him and thanked him and again he expressed his EWF ‘Gratitude’. I’ve never actually met Dermot, but that will soon ‘Change’ like Donald Byrd!!
What is significant is the timing of the book arriving via Postman Pat on Friday 4th August 2017. Not only does it coincide with us documenting 30 years of the ‘Rare’ album on RCA featuring Dez Parkes, it was the eve of Jamaican Independence Day 6th August and the interesting Kypton Factor is this.. Laurie Cunningham, Ian Wright, Dez Parkes and myself are all of hardcore Jamaican souljah survivors roots culturally. To add to that my son Jamal Kin-Foo was born 6th August and shares the first four letters of his name with our cultural motherland Jamaica. This is all providential and not coincidental..a phrase taught to me by Melba Moore when we spoke in 2008. I stand by that phrase all day long. Please get a copy of the book Different Class about the late legendary Laurie Cunningham, as in more ways than one he was a soul survivor!!
In the words of the late Robin Williams “Gooooood Morrrnnning” fellow SOUL SURVIVORS. Pinch punch first of the month, no returns and a Two Ronnie Phantom Raspberry Blower “Plluuurrrrbbbb”. The August edition of The Soul Survivors Magazine has arrived nice and ‘So Early In The Morning’ like Trouble Funk(What a tune).
This months new reviews and interviews features Mike Vitti’s chat with George ‘Bad Benson’ and East London’s finest Dez Parkes ,celebrating 30 years of the very first and monumental ‘Rare’ album release on RCA back in 1987. Not forgetting an interview with Mr ‘Places And Spaces’ musical genius Larry Mizell, Simon Law and Jan Kincaid of MF Robots.
We also have a BRAND NEW feature for those who like their soul music north of the south of the UK, entitled Northern Soul Survivors, curated by our new columnist Les Csonge and his partner in rhyme Ann Taylor. There’s are lots of interesting information on weekenders, soul holidays abroad and a few Micheal Henderson ‘At The Concert’ dates, to diarise and prioritise. To get yours subscribe via www.thesoulsurvivorsmagazine.co.uk and subscribe to receive your Quintessential ‘Info Provider For The Soul Survivor’ for August and a Barry White ‘September’ 2017.
Ahead of The Real Things live concert at Soultrain’s Bank Holiday 25th August 2017 SWX gig, we at The Soul Survivors Magazine share some of the integral history from the memories of two of the groups founder members Eddie & Chris Amoo.
Fitzroy: I’m assuming because of your surname it’s of African origin,how did you and your family experienced life growing up in the Liverpool 8 Toxteth community in your early years of the 1950‘s and 1960’s?
Eddie: My dad, was from Ghana growing up in a poor working class area like Toxteth was tough but happy.To be honest it was so multicultural that I didn’t even become aware of racial differences till we moved out of L 8 when I was 11.I got a bit of a rude awakening when we moved to Myrtle Gardens,(L7 ) as we were the first black family to move in, kids of that peer age can be very cruel.But once we were established and accepted I was happy there.
Fitzroy: What musical artist’s were an inspiration to you as a youngster?
Eddie: My earliest musical influences were The Doo Wop groups like Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers and the R & B sounds of Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Little Richard. I was also into the early Rock n Roll of Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and the Early Elvis ,and gradually outgrew the latter guys. I was around 12 years old and one of the first things I learnt from watching and performing with the Beatles, was that their main strength was their song writing ability. This set them apart from the rest the bands, as well as them being damn good. So I decided to see if I could write songs even though I had no musical ability.I would make up melodies in my head,write words and sing them to The Chants. They were based on models of songs I liked (The Four Seasons ) ‘Walk Like A Man’ . I wrote a song ‘I Don’t Care’ based on the same type of The Four Seasons harmonies. In the recording studio we got lucky because our first producer Tony Hatch then added the cords and rhythm that really suited the song, in fact it became the bands first single.
Below The Chants and The Beatles in the early 1960’s with Eddie Amoo smiling in the back to the left of Paul McCartney who is standing next to Ringo.
Fitzroy: The Chants continued touring for over ten years you nurtured your songwriting and musical skills further. From around 1972 how did your younger brother Chris’s The Sophisticated Soul Brothers group with some guidance from yourself , start to gain momentum?
Eddie: Well the S S Brothers developed slowly and around 1973 Chris started to emerge as a lead singer. I was going through some stuff on the piano at our mothers house in Englefield Green in L8 when I heard this powerful voice coming from behind me. Realising it was Chris I was astonished at how he’d developed as a singer. I realised instantly that the SS brothers had what The Chants had always lacked, a distinct sound that a special lead voice provides. The Chant’s featured 5 guys with great voices and harmonies without unfortunately that killer distinct lead. It was only a matter of time before someone who mattered would pick up on this, in this case that person was Tony Hall.
Fitzroy: How was life from your perspective being the younger brother of Eddie who was already a pre-teenage superstar and what’s the age difference between you both?
Chris: There is actually 8 years between us. I was still at school when The Chants were famous and it actually instilled in me what I wanted to do. I was very much influenced by my brother Eddie seeing him in the newspapers and on TV nothing was going to stop me from pursuing my dream. As I got older Eddie started to take an interest in how I was progressing which was great. He’d teach me my first notes playing on the guitar and the piano, and this developed to me writing songs. Even though I was just plunking three or four notes on the piano, I was writing songs and Eddie encouraged this in me.
Fitzroy: What was your perspective in coming across this music via the radio and not being able to see the artist? Especially in the early Motown years where they would put white faces on the front covers, so how did you equate they were black?
Chris: I knew because it was different in my time than when Eddie grew up as a teenager. By then Motown had put an end to that nonsense. In the old days in order for an R&B song to get any exposure it would be covered by a white artist. The advent of Motown changed that because Motown was the vehicle. So in my time I knew who the artists were. We would go to the record shops where they had listening booths. On all the walls they had the photos of the black artists. My brother Eddie used to bring a lot of records into the house all of which had black faces on. When Eddie was growing up you wouldn’t know if they were black or white.
Fitzroy: So how did you come together in 1972 to form the Sophisticated Soul Brothers?
Chris: I met Dave Smith when I was still at school. His brother was a friend of Eddie’s best friend before Eddie was in The Chants. We are a big family community in L8 Liverpool and everybody knows each other. We tried to emulate The Chants who were a big deal being seen on TV’s ‘Jukebox Jury’ and being played on the radio. We started to take it a bit more seriously as we realised that this was what we were going to do. We listened to records and found our range sonically. As we started getting better we started meeting and singing every single night with hairbrushes as microphones. We practised for weeks and eventually learned how to harmonise then we started playing at school dances. We got ourselves an agent who handled a lot of the white bands and eventually graduated from The Sophisticate Soul Brothers to becoming Vocal Perfection. What’s interesting is that The Temptations who recorded the very first record that I bought actually changed our vision. Tony Hall our manager bought us tickets to see them in Manchester live and we went in as one band and came out as another. So they definitely had the most impact on us.
Fitzroy: What was it that impacted on you so greatly?
Chris: Our perception of a vocal group was three background vocalists doing a little routine behind a lead vocalist upfront. When we saw The Temptations, it was the first time we saw five microphones as opposed to two, one for the lead and one for the background vocalists. So now we saw five lead singers all with their own microphones coming off a boom stand on arms and this was so visual to us. They would also change microphones with a little bit of flair theatrics. So the next day we started rehearsing how we’d seen them do it, so it was a new way of us presenting ourselves on stage and no one else was doing this.
Chris: As Vocal Perfection we hadn’t made any records till we met our manager Tony Hall. We were just doing local gigs and then we landed doing Opportunity Knocks. The evening before Opportunity Knocks Tony thought it would be best if we changed our name to The Real Thing. His view being that we were setting ourselves up with a name like Vocal Perfection because perfection we were not vocally. That’s when we did our first record ‘Vicious Circle’.
Fitzroy: How did you find that whole experience of going onto Opportunity Knocks, meeting Hughie Green and experiencing what was for its time the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent platform?
Chris: It was more Britain’s Got Talent than X Factor because a yodeler beat us. It was wonderful Fitzroy because we were on television man. We were walking down in Liverpool City Centre and everyone recognised us. That’s how big the show was. We were no longer doing little clubs but playing all over the country for quite good money. Opportunity Knocks changed everything for us as we could now sustain ourselves professionally. We did Top Of The Pops performing ‘Plastic Man’ that then went into the top 50. Had we made it big at the time of Opportunity Knocks I believe we wouldn’t have been able to sustain it creatively because were not ready.
Chris: No, not that I can remember as there weren’t any other acts apart from The Chants who were more on the cabaret scene. Maybe a few years later groups like Sweet Sensation and Heatwave who we used to see all the time.
Fitzroy: So now after Opportunity Knocks and being recognised in your local area you work with David Essex.
Chris: That was our second career phase. We were recording some licenced records and Jeff Wayne came into the office and said he needed some backing vocals for adverts he was making for Cadburys chocolate. I’m sure it was actually The Chant’s he was looking for. Don’t quote me on that, but we went and did the session. Jeff Wayne loved our sound and myself as a lead singer so I started singing lead for Lloyds, TSB and Cadburys adverts. If he wanted harmonies we did Wrigley’s Spearmint Gums and things like that as a group. It was a great thing for us getting extra money for doing session work. That’s how we met David Essex because Jeff was producing him. David fell in love with our rawness and freshness. He felt we were unspoilt and were not trying to emulate the Americans. We were now writing and doing our own material in a show and David loved that about us. He took us to America with him and we met some fantastic musicians during that time.
Fitzroy: What’s you memory of coming across ‘You To Me Are Everything’ which was a departure from what you had done before?
Chris: That was Eddie’s reaction, my first reaction was “Let’s get the thing signed up, as this is a hit”. Tony and me looked at each other and it was something that hit me instantly. I’d say it was signed sealed and delivered on my side before I even met with the rest of the group later that evening. Everybody knew it was a great pop song and yes it was a departure from what we were writing which was some pretty heavy stuff at the time. We were performing on stage and papers like Melody Maker and NME used to review the show which was different to what everyone else was doing. When we actually recorded it I thought that the demo was better than ours but when it was finished the result is now history.
Fitzroy: I’m not sure if you’ve seen the previous issue where I spoke with Patrick Adams. He spoke of doing a version of ‘You To Me Are Everything’ that was rushed out before Ken Gold could get a distribution deal with a big advance. I’ve heard that version as I have many others including Frankie Valli’s awful version, but there is a good one by Samona Cooke. After The Chants, The Real Thing were the next pioneering black vocal group to be successful and potentially conquer America, so were you aware of the politics that prevented, in my view, why you were not taken so seriously in America?
Chris: There were politics that stopped the record but I’m not too sure if that version is quite correct but I could be wrong. What I was told was that when we recorded ‘You To Me’ with Pye over in the UK all of a sudden all of the companies around the world wanted to release the record. Once we had signed our deal with Pye, all the other companies decided to rush putting a version out. At the time there were 3 versions of ‘You To Me’ in the charts and we we’re told that within 24 hours of our release Frankie Valli’s was done. Once the record was recorded Ken Gold, as the writer, would have had nothing to do with anything after that as it’s then in the hands of the record company. Tony Hall, our lawyer and a real high-powered USA lawyer, would have had to deal with those who wanted the record. Once it’s out anyone can record it. That definitely stopped ‘You To Me’ going higher with the airplay and sales splitting. The same thing almost happened with ‘Can You Feel The Force’ because we were told the wrong version went out and it killed the progress of the record but how true that is, I don’t know. One thing I’m sure of is that politics stopped both records because you can’t tell me ‘You To Me’ and ‘Can You Feel The Force?’ weren’t strong enough.
Fitzroy: Thank you for the penultimate ‘Children Of The Ghetto’ which has that unique eerie and definitive Black Afro Caribbean soul jazz meets reggae influenced military drum rhythm template .This sound was later embraced and showcased on early Hi Tension, Light Of The World and Incognito albums.I also hear some War Curtis Mayfield and EWF connotations and how ironic that EWF’s Philip Bailey’s tailor made voice covered it as well as saxophonist extraordinaire Courtney Pine?Although lyrically it’s obvious in your own words is whats the inspiration behind that monumental track and did Curtis Mayfield’s influence played a large role in the creating of ‘Children Of The Ghetto’?
Eddie: I was absolutely knocked out with his ‘Superfly’ sound track. I loved the mood of ‘Little Child ,Running Wild’ and this inspired me to writing songs relating to my own experience of growing up in a “ghetto”.I’d already dipped my toes in the water with ‘ Man Without A Face’ many years before. Chris and I wanted the same type of mood Curtis created in the movie soundtrack of that sombre mournful air of a car driving slowly through the streets as people mourned the death of Freddie. Our drummer Nigel Martinez came up with the haunting drum intro on ‘Ghetto’ which set the feel for the song. We added the jazzy riffed middle 8 at a rehearsal,and we laid it down in the studio almost live,along with the other 2 songs in the trilogy ‘Liverpool 8’ and ‘Stanhope Street’. Pete Nelson’s piano solo in ‘Ghetto’ still gives me chills as does the guitar licks and slides of Vic Lynton. I think ‘Ghetto’ really captured what we had tried for so long to project, and it really brought us a lot of media attention.I wasn’t surprised when in 1985 it was covered by Courtney Pine.
Fitzroy: Taking about the ‘4 from 8’ album, being black myself and seeing a reflection of my own image doing something positive and being recognised for it, especially being young at that time in the 1970’s was very empowering. Seeing Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 from the USA is one thing but to see a UK act make a concept album reflecting how you lived. With songs like ‘Stanhope Street’ and ‘Children Of The Ghetto’, years later, I got to take my hat off to you for reflecting what was happening in the UK. In the USA early Roy Ayers, Gil Scott Heron and Curtis Mayfield were speaking about the social economics and politics of the time which is hard hitting with their plight deriving directly from slavery. You can tell there is depth and reality in the ‘4 from 8’ album. David Essex advised you to tone that down because he feared how the record companies and audience would deal with that. How did you deal with that and what or who decided that Ray Lake would do the lead vocal on ‘Children Of The Ghetto’?
Chris: David Essex loved that element of us but he was very astute in his commercial foresight. He advised us in a nice way knowing we had success with three hit records, ‘You To Me’, ‘You Never Know What You’re Missing’ and ‘Can’t Get By Without You”. David knew about our conscious side because we used to sing it live when we toured with him on stage. He said we had to be careful because the fans who had bought our hits would find that too deep. He said they wanted to hear the happy go lucky pop dance records they had bought and knew. How we dealt with that was to mix a section of records that we really believed in with some sophisticated pop songs. Back then on an album, we’d look to get two pop songs amongst the material, we wanted to feature to show what we could really do. In a way we got it very very wrong as the fans certainly didn’t want to hear ‘Children Of The Ghetto’ and ‘4 from 8’. However the media loved it as we had front page spreads in publications like Melody Maker. We were very stubborn and took the risk. We had a fantastic manager who believed in us so we could be ourselves. Although we may have lost sales it gave us a bit of longevity. The funny thing is that those who didn’t appreciate it then appreciate it moreso now because they love us and want to hear more than the recognised hits. In answer as to why Ray Lake was chosen to do ‘Children Of The Ghetto’ that was because his voice suited the song. When you have a group it has a tenor a bass and a soprano. When we got an MJ song Ray would sing it, and if we sung a Teddy P song Dave or myself would sing it. Initially when we did ‘Children Of The Ghetto’ in our show Eddie wasn’t in the group and Ray who had a voice like Smokey Robinson would do the high voices. When Eddie joined he would then share the high notes with Ray.
Eddie: I had an idea this question would rear its ugly head.We got a call from Tony Hall that Biddu wanted to try writing some songs with us, which we thought was rather odd. Anyway we got a call to say Biddu had a track that he wanted us to throw some vocals on so we went to his studio and he played the track to us.We felt the track was ok but we didn’t like the tune or lyrics, however as it took an hour or so to do our vocals and didn’t see the harm in doing it, thinking it was never going to see the light of day .Then we got a call from Tony Hall advising that the track was going to be featured in a huge Joan Collins movie and they wanted to cash in. The record company were considering ‘Disco’ as a single if we were guaranteed a spot in the movie performing the song. We were mortified but as we had dipped out feet in very muddy waters we couldn’t get out of this. So we had to see it through ….I think the phase “the less said the better works here”.
Fitzroy: Was there any concept link to Star Wars in writing the top 5 hit ‘Can You Feel The Force?’ a massive continued break through for the group?
Eddie: I had this idea for a song called ‘Get The Message’ and me and Chris were knocking it about and trying a few things. I went to see Star Wars and straight away I got a buzz for a possible hook with the force in it. We sat down and we built it around that phrase line “There’s a mood going around the world today …Can you feel the force” .
Fitzroy: ‘Can You Feel The Force?’, I loved the energy of that record and it was the very first 12-inch I boughtand you got to do Top Of The Pops even with that blip you mentioned that went out in America.
Chris: ‘The Force’ first time around actually outsold ‘You To Me’ selling more copies and was a top five record.
Fitzroy: For me personally I loved ‘Boogie Down’. (Chris: “Yeah, it was different wasn’t it?”) which was slower funkier and a continuation of ‘The Force’.
Chris: You know where that went wrong was that Ken and Lynton didn’t produce that song. If we had kept working with Ken it would have been bigger. We had a magic with him where he would have sussed the little things that were missing, We recorded ‘Boogie Down’ in France and the demo was much better and funkier but the best version was remixed by John Luonga which was received well in America.
Fitzroy: Though there were several underground UK soul outfits FBI, Gonzales, Cymande and even Sweet Sensation who endured a shorter commercial appeal similar to yourself, The Real Thing were flying the flag solo for an all black / predominately black group. Hot Chocolate were seemingly more accepted as a multicultural crossover success,but theres no escaping resistance element and racism blatant or subtle. You’d have faced this in and out of the music industry between the 60‘s and 70‘s with the changing face of Britain. So how did you and the rest of the group view and deal with getting the musical balance and compromises needed to make things work?
Eddie: This is how we see it Britain is a white country and its biggest crossover will always be the rock based bands or the ‘blue eyed boy bands’ that is fact and cannot be altered. This is the reason many talented black bands like Loose Ends have not prevailed and gone on to achieve what should have. Therefore once you succeed in getting your audience the trick is to hold on to it, while retaining your creative integrity. Sadly I see a lot of bands who have arrived but just going around earning their money and not trying to advance themselves with the power of their show. You cannot do anything about the subtle racism of show biz and the media, but our show is our direct link to our audience, and that’s were we make our stand. When we walk out there on stage be it an arena, a theatre or a club we always give it our all. So the people who actually dig us are not disappointed and will keep coming back. To summarize you cannot fight the racism that subtly closes doors to you and denies you credibility for what you have achieved, but you can make the best of what you have got.
Fitzroy: In the late 1970’s most of the UK black acts were from London, but I struggle to think of many black acts other than Rebecca Ferguson more recently who came from Liverpool. You must on one hand be proud to represent your race and also coming from Liverpool, which transcends the immediate African Caribbean community because Liverpool people love being Liverpudlian. I’d like to think that there will be some kind of monument to honour The Real Thing. What do you think will be the legacy of The Real Thing as a band whose been universally going for over 40 years and next to the Rolling Stone are the an institution for flying the flag of home grown mature Britain’s Got Talent?
Chris: I think I’d like us to be remembered as a black band who created their own brand of music. Who from day one have not tried to emulate their American counter parts but tried to maintain the level they set. One thing about black music and what I’ve learned is that in order to sustain and last the distance you have to be good. It’s not about a look it’s about having class. I think we open the doors for a lot of British music and kept the flag flying. I’m like you Fitz black music is always evolving, where as white music stays the same. If you dug out the Rolling Stone from 1960 they are the same now as they were then, but older. If I’m judging I listened to The Temptation in 1970, by the time I’m 20-22, I’m starting to listen to Earth Wind & Fire, then I’m progressing to Marcus Miller and Earl Klugh. So it’s evolving all the time as it’s not easy to keep that base you start off with in black music. I want us to be remembered as a band who has kept the music evolving throughout the decades, does that make sense?
Fitzroy: You have experienced first hand from the early 60’s the infrastructure of the Liverpool 8 black community mixed with African and West Indians who frequented the Ibo Yorbo Silver Sand Gladray, Dutch Eddies and Stanley House venues, according to our Soul Survivor member Raph Parkinson ( a native and local to that area black Liverpudlian). With Liverpool’s cultural and colonial economy history how would you describes the black communities significant contribution to music UK and beyond, as it doesn’t appear to be universally recognized or rarely gets mentioned?
Eddie: I have my own take on L8 s contribution to the UK music scene. The thing that shaped the Mersey beat explosion which in turn helped to reshape the whole British music scene for years to come, was the exposure to the music of artistes such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and The Coasters. Followed later by Motown acts such as the Miracles Little and Stevie Wonder. Almost the first words The Beatles said to us when we first met them was “Have you heard the artistes on this new label out of the States, The Miracles, and there’s this little blind kid called Stevie Wonder?” If you asked me what I felt our contribution was it would be this…like us or hate us WE became the first UK Black group to to be taken seriously and to be allowed to write and produce our own songs. Therefore we set the trend which has grown in strength ever since.
Fitzroy Facey (The Soul Survivors Magazine)
The Real Thing are performing at Soul Train’s August Bank Holiday event @ SWX Bristol with a full live band 25th August 2017. They will be performing their classics mentioned in this interview, so I’d get your tickets and make sure you ‘Boogie Down, get funky now’. Buy tickets from https://www.ents24.com/bristol-events/swx-bristol/the-real-thing/4935102
This is no April fools. Today is Gil Scott Heron’s earthday, he would have been 68 years young. Gil Scott Heron is without doubt one of the genius wordsmiths of the 20th and 21st Century. As well as doing his own material, he was not afraid to cover other esteemed artists like Bill Withers’s ‘Grandmas Hands’ and Marvin Gayes’ ‘ Inner City Blues’. Providentially Marvin Gaye died on 1st of April 1984 and may of us who love him probably thought it was a sick joke. The sad irony is that Marvin Gaye died aged 44 the day before he was born 2nd April 1939 almost 10 years bar one day before Gil Scott Heron. Both were uniquely talented and are regarded as eternally loved and respected soul survivors to infinity and beyond. One of my other passion’s is art and here are two Blue Peter drawings I did earlier of Gil & Marv and I will spin a tune or two tonight with them in mind at my gig later . “Makes Me Wanna Holla & Throw Up Both My Hands”
At random moments when I wax lyrical with my antidotes of metaphoric ‘cult diction’, you will see sometimes I’ll refer to something I’m doing on my own as being ‘Napoleon Solo’. No prizes for guessing it was inspired by other than the late actor Robert Vaughn’s side kick character, to his Man From U.N.C.L.E agent partner Illya Kuryakin. As a kid growing up in the mid 1960’s and 1970’s I was a huge fan of Man From U.N.C.L.E with its cool funky jazz theme tune. Robert Vaughn was the epitome of ‘Cool Like That’ like Digable Planet, in his slick suits and always had a variety of the most intriguing facial expressions (especially the Elvis Presley pout trout), when he acted. Also known for his character as the nervous drunk gunman Lee in The Magnificent Seven, he was also a guest star on occasion in episodes of Columbo. Just one more thing..In recent years he was remembered for being the respected elder con man in the BBC series ‘The Hustle’ as a loveable father figure rouge Albert Stroller. Sad to hear of his passing aged 83. ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ like Queen.