In the words of Bar Mix Master “the blend of the charred oak, spiciness, of Bourbon; the sweet, herbal, and slight caramel flavour of Sweet Vermouth; and the indescribable flavour of bitters combine to make a cocktail like none other.” This cocktail “is said to have been invented in New York’s Manhattan Club in 1874 at the request of Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill to celebrate a newly elected governor” (http://barmixmaster.com). The cocktail still these days is known as the Manhattan.
This is a multi-part story of one of the greatest and best-loved groups in the history of soul music, the Manhattans, told by its present end ex-members and many other music business figures, who have been dealing with the group throughout the years. As to the origin of the name of the group, there have been different recollections. One member is in favour of the skyline they could see right across the water from the Jersey City – “Manhattan was close to New Jersey. It was easy to remember, and we just felt we wanted to represent class” – but another member, Mr. Winfred “Blue” Lovett, remembers slightly differently: “We collectively came up with the Manhattans, but we referred ourselves to the alcoholic drink. Everybody thought the name was from the borough of the New York anyway, so we just grabbed on to that.”
(The pic courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott)
The five singers, who became the first members of the Manhattans in the early 60s, went to two Jersey City high schools in the 50s – George Smith and Richard Taylor to Snyder High and Winfred Lovett, Kenneth Kelly and Edward Bivins to Lincoln High.
(Sonny Bivins pic taken from www.themanhattans.net)
EDWARD “SONNY” BIVINS
Edward Jesse Bivins, Jr. (tenor) is the senior member of the group in terms of his age, as he was born on January 15 in 1936. Still today he’s best known as “Sonny” – “when I was young, I was always smiling” – but his other nickname used to be “Dip.” Sonny: “I played baseball. Then I started singing, and I couldn’t sing and play baseball at the same time.” He played minor league baseball in the Jersey City All-Stars.
Sonny was born in Macon, Georgia, to Willie and Edward Bivins. “My father tap-danced, and I got into music through my father.” Sonny had two brothers, Donald and James, but no sisters. In Macon he started singing in a school choir and glee club. “We moved no New Jersey in 1950, and I went to Lincoln High in 1951. In school I was two years ahead of Kenny Kelly and Blue Lovett, and we all used to sing around school and on the street corners.”
Sonny’s early idol was Sam Cooke, and of the later acts he puts the Temptations first, but thinks highly of the Dells, the Spinners, the O’Jays and B.B. King, too. His all-time favourite record is To Each His Own by Nat King Cole. He has five children – Mark, Pam, Doug, Yvette and Kenny – but they’re not active in music. “They have their own things they wanted to do in life.”
(On the right: Early Smitty; The pic courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott)
Sonny reminisces how he met their future lead singer, George Smith, for the first time during a teen dance night at the YMCA in 1953 in Jersey City. “I heard somebody playing the piano in the adjacent room from the dance hall. Slowly I opened the door and peeked my head inside and saw a young, teenage guy about my age playing the piano and singing I Cried in my Mother’s Arms. I walked over to him and started to harmonize with him. We looked at each other, smiled and we introduced ourselves. His name was George “Smitty” Smith. As time went on, our relationship grew closer and we eventually left high school and went into the military vowing to complete our high school education once we got out of the service.”
In 1954 Sonny joined the NG. “After the National Guard, I was in the Air Force in Germany till 1957.”
(Smitty at the Apollo; The pic courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott)
GEORGE “SMITTY” SMITH
The second oldest in the first line-up of the Manhattans is George Hoza Smith (tenor), who was born in Florida on December 18 in 1939. Jeanie Scott: “His mother couldn’t remember his actual birth date. It was either supposed to be December the 18th, or December the 28th.” Mrs. Jeanie Scott, formerly McCarthy, who today is the wife of the legendary Jimmy Scott and handles his business (www.jimmyscottofficialwebsite.org ), lived with Smitty until his untimely passing in December 1970. “We got together in 1969, so I was with him maybe a year and a half.”
(On the right: Jimmy Scott, The pic courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott)
“When Smitty was a toddler, perhaps four years old, his mother and his father separated. The only thing he could remember about his father is him walking with some dogs (laughing). His mother moved to Jersey City with Smitty and his oldest sister Marion. Marion has lived her whole adult life in California. Eventually his mother married another man, whose last name was Smith, and he became Smitty’s stepfather, and that’s how he got his name. Smitty’s mother had ten children. After Marion and Smitty – who they all called ‘Brother’ – she had eight other children, so Smitty had three half brothers and five half sisters. Tommy was Smitty’s youngest brother and he had a group called 8 Mile High. The other brothers, Bobby and Joe, had a group of their own, too, Out of Limits.”
“Smitty had three children. When Smitty was fifteen years old, his girlfriend got pregnant with George, Jr., aka ‘Dewberry’, so they got married. George, Jr. looked exactly like him. After he came back from the service, she had another baby while he was away, Michelle, which Smitty took as his own. Later he had his daughter Paula with a girlfriend.”
Through his mother, Smitty first sang gospel music in church and then joined his newly-found singing pals, while in Snyder High. “Smitty and Sonny were close at the time, Blue and Kenny were close”. After Snyder High, Smitty joined the Air Force and was stationed in California for two years.
(Smitty & Jeanie; The pic courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott)
Jeanie: “My first memory of the Manhattans would be hearing their records on the radio – I’m the one that Love Forgot, Searchin’ for my Baby… I had been going to all their shows and I kind of had a crush on Smitty, but I was afraid to talk to him. I had seen him around, and I was peeking around corners at him. Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five would tease me and say ‘go on and knock on their dressing room door and talk to Smitty’, but I wouldn’t go over there. It wasn’t until a couple of years later. They were about to do a show at the Cheetah in New York on 52nd street. I sent Smitty a message and he called me up and he came over to my house the next day. We got together, and we were together ever since, and he moved me in his mother’s house until he passed. As a matter of fact, I stayed with her for a couple of years after that and I remained close to the family throughout the years, especially with Smitty’s Mother, brother Bobby – who was like a brother – and Smitty’s children George, Jr., & Paula.”
WINFRED “BLUE “LOVETT
Winfred Lorenzo Lovett (bass) was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on November 16 in 1940 to Lovonia and William Lovett. “My father was a singer in church, and he made it mandatory that I sing in church on every Sunday also.” Winfred has two sisters, Billie and Gwendolyn, and today he resides in Phoenix, Arizona.
Most know this bass singer extraordinaire best under the simple moniker of “Blue.” “It’s my so-called nick-name. If you hung out on streets – and you’re not necessarily bad or are in gangs and nothing like that – you had a nick-name, and because of my complexion and a long hair and a beard “Blue Jesus” was my name. I naturally dropped the ’Jesus’ and kept the ‘Blue’.” During his high-school years he was also called “Bacon” for a short while.
Blue has seven children: William, Robyn, Tania, Kia, Damon, Marisa and Rico. “None of them do anything professionally in music, except Rico, who was born in 1986 and who does rapping. All my kids live on the west coast.”
Some of Blue’s favourite recordings of all times include Neither One of Us by Gladys Knight & the Pips and Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye. “Also Luther Vandross has come up with some magnificent songs that I like. I think my all-time bass singer would be Melvin Franklin of the Temptations. The Temptations started us off. We patterned us after the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions.”
In Lincoln High, Blue played football and baseball. “Then I couldn’t play sports because of my asthma. Baseball was out and football was definitely out, so my third choice was music, and I never thought that I would get an opportunity. If you were from the New York area, it was very hard back then to get a record deal. You had to be discovered.”
“I did locally high school groups, but nothing ever happened. We just sang to entertain our families, fans, girlfriends… In Lincoln high school Sonny, Kelly and I took part in a singing contest in a variety show and we won. I forgot the name of our group in high school.” All five Manhattans boys got to know each other already in the 50s. “All five of us met during the high school days. Sonny Bivins, Kenneth Kelly and myself went to Lincoln, and Richard Taylor and George Smith went to Snyder, which were competing high schools in Jersey City.”
In the late 50s Blue was drafted. “I was in the Air Force. I was in France, but they closed that base and I was transferred to Wiesbaden, Germany. I was discharged in 1960…’61. There in Germany I had a group of my own called the Statesmen. It was me and four other guys, but not Sonny and Richard. They were stationed in the Air Force in Germany, too, but they were stationed elsewhere.”
KENNETH “WALLY” KELLY
Kenneth Bernard Kelly (tenor) was born on January 9 in 1941 in Jersey City to Eloise and Lloyd Kelly. Kenny: “My parents are both deceased. My mother belonged to a chorus, when she was younger. She sang in a church choir.” Besides one brother, Adonis, Kenny has three step-brothers and a sister. His two children are called Kai and Monee.
Kenny’s last name is spelt both Kelley, and Kelly. “My father spelt his last name Kelly. There happened a vocabulary error somewhere along the line, and my last name got changed to Kelley. As I grew older, according to certain situations I ran in and out of, they assumed it was supposed to be spelt Kelley. I didn’t go through the corrections, so there exist two spellings of my last name. Most of my IDs have Kelly, so I mostly use Kelly.”
Kenny’s nickname is Wally. “We had a guitar player named Charles Reed and he gave it to me, because I was always telling people different little things and answering to their questions.” Kenny is the only college graduate among the members of the group, and he graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1963.
“Being in a group situation, we idolized a lot of groups – the Spaniels, and later the Temptations and Smokey & the Miracles. Later I had one idol and that was Ray Charles.” Kenny’s favourite record is Letter Full of Tears by Gladys Knight & the Pips, and besides singing he plays piano, trumpet and baritone sax.
“I played in a high school band in Jersey City. I started messing around with my neighbour next door, which was Sonny. He played guitar. We just started singing together, and he introduced me to some guys, who sang. It was just something we did, because we liked doing it. Group singing was popular at that point of time. We all would cross each other at some point. We formed different groups, and from that we eventually came in contact with each other.”
“Sonny belonged to this one group, and he brought me in to hear what the group sounded like. I don’t remember the name of the group, but one member kept missing the rehearsals and I – having been there so frequently and knowing his parts – said ‘okay, I’ll do it’.”
“I grew up with some of the members of the Manhattans. We met in the 50s. I don’t know what groups Richard came out of and I don’t remember what groups Blue was with. Blue was with several groups. A lot of the groups didn’t stay together. They’d form and break up. One group that I, Sonny, Smitty and somebody else were part of was called the Socialeers. We sang in local clubs and talent shows. That group started breaking up, because people had other commitments.” Right after Lincoln High, Kenny joined the Navy, which was followed by his three-year college period in Baltimore. He would meet the other fellows again in 1963.
One early incarnation of the Manhattans was as lucky as to even cut a record in 1961. Smitty, Blue, Sonny, Ethel Samuels and Buddy Bell had formed another group and they called themselves the Dulcets. This quintet under a misspelt name of the Dorsets released a single on a New York label called Asnes. The plug side, a slowly and heavily swaying post-doowop, novelty type of a song, was titled Pork Chops (Asnes 101), and in style and interpretation it owes a lot to the Olympics or the Coasters of those days. Blue: “yes, that’s the flavour we had on that.”
Smitty is leading on the song that was written by him, Frennie Brooks and John Brown (mistakenly printed as Bowden on the label). Blue: “I think the owner of Asnes was Frennie Brooks, and those guys, Brooks and Brown, worked at the airport and recorded us. Nobody heard the record – or perhaps twenty-five people – but nobody bought it. It didn’t do anything.” Sonny: “I was laughing, when we did it… but it was okay.” Backed by an uptempo ditty called Cool It, Pork Chops was re-released four years later in the U.K. on the Sue label (391).
Some of the other artists on the short-lived Asnes label were Ernie Johnson (You Need Love) and a “Jamaican doowop” outfit named the Jiving Juniors (Moonlight Lover). Soon after Pork Chops the Dulcets disbanded, so there was no follow-up record. Sonny: “Everybody decided to go their own ways. Ethel and Buddy are still around. I see Buddy every now and then. They are here in New Jersey.”
THE OTHER MANHATTANS
Blue: “We had a battle for the name, until I Wanna Be was released. There was another Manhattans, and the union insisted that whoever came out with the first hit they would be able to maintain the name, and I Wanna Be (Your Everything) came out in ’64 and that was the way we won the name over.”
Music history knows many groups, who have used the name ‘Manhattans’. There are Eli & the Manhattans, Ronnie & the Manhattans and several plain Manhattanses. In the 50s and 60s singles by these groups have appeared on such labels as Dootone, King, Big Mack, Boss, Colpix, Ransom, Web, Piney, Enjoy, Golden World, Atlantic and Avanti, but not any of them is by our group. Blue: “From ’61 through ’64 we tried desperately to get a recording deal, but it was impossible.”
There was at least one occasion, when they actually entered the studio and were ready for Danny Robinson (Bobby Robinson’s brother) to record them, but nothing came out of it. Blue: “He never recorded us. He pretended to record us, but he never did anything with us.”
Kenny: “I became a Manhattan as a result of the group I was introduced to. The members of that group started also not making the rehearsals. Sonny was part of that group and Smitty was already there. We wanted this group to come together. We already knew who we wanted to have as ideal members. So Sonny brought me in, introduced me to the group and then one of the other members stopped making rehearsals. He was a truck driver. Then they brought Richie in. We had to just get a bass voice, and everybody wanted to see if we could get Blue again. He agreed and that’s how we got together.”
(The pic courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott)
Mr. Joe Evans is a seasoned musician, to say the least. Throughout decades he has played with a number of jazz, blues and rhythm & blues luminaries, but for the Manhattans he was first and foremost the owner of Carnival Records and the gentleman, who gave them their first record release in 1964.
Joe Evans, Jr, was born in Pensacola, Florida, on October 7 in 1916, so this year he’ll turn ninety-four. He started playing the saxophone in the 1930s in the Ray Shep Band, moved to New York in 1938 and has since played with Jay McShann, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton, to name a few. All this is documented in a fascinating book titled Follow Your Heart (ISBN-13978-0-252-03303-2; University of Illinois Press, http://www.press.uillinois.edu; 180 pages + 22 with photos; 2008), written by Mr. Evans himself and Christopher Brooks. It’s an interesting read and contains many remarkable stories starting from Joe’s early days as a musician. He sheds light on touring the south in the 30s, working with such artists as “Ma” Rainey, Billie Holiday, Al Hibbler, Ivory Joe Hunter, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, running record companies in the 60s and 70s and life after an active and many-sided career in music.
Mr. Evans, who today lives in Richmond, Virginia, was kind enough to talk about the Manhattans, Carnival Records and some other points of his career for this article, too. In the 50s he belonged to the Apollo Theater house band in New York. “It was very nice. It wasn’t tough. We played five shows a day, and one night a week you played a midnight show. On Wednesday night they had an Amateur Hour. A lot of the stars were discouraged in that show at the Apollo. The audience was very responsive. On Wednesday night, if you weren’t good, they would boo you. They had a guy called Porto Rico, who would come out in different costumes chasing you off the stage, if they didn’t like you. But the audience was very good to you, if they liked you.”
CEE-JAY, TANGERINE, MOTOWN…
In the late 50s Joe met with Clarence Johnson, and became a partner with him in running a record label. “Cee Jay – that was initials for Clarence Johnson. We called him ‘Jack Rags’. He’s the man that taught me the record business. He played trombone and had played in several bands. He talked me into going into the record business. He knew it, because he was already in it.”
The roster at Cee Jay in 1960 and 1961 included Mike & the Utopians, Sherman Williams, Jay Dee Bryant & the Magic Knights, Little Roy Little, the Four Kings, Jimmy Spruill & his Band, the Vines, Delroy Green & the Cool Gents and Harry Lewis & his Orchestra… but there wasn’t a hit-making unit. “Most of those artists just gave up. Then some of them continued to try to be a success, but they never made it. A lot of them joined other groups, and some of those groups became famous.”
“On that label we mostly did r&b stuff. One big record we had on Cee Jay was a blues record, and it was called I’m a Little Mixed Up by Betty James (583). Leonard Chess of the Chess Records leased it, took it over and made it a big record.”
Clarence Johnson passed away in late 1961, the label ceased to exist and Joe proceeded to work for Ray Charles. “It was very nice. I was working as a promotion director. Ray had a label that was distributed by ABC-Paramount called Tangerine. I did a lot of work coast-to-coast. He was a very nice man, very nice to work with.” Since its start in 1962 Tangerine signed many established artists – Percy Mayfield, Lula Reed, Louis Jordan etc. – but hit-wise it wasn’t a very successful company. “I believe that Ray had an idea what was good, but it was not the same idea what was happening in the business at the time. This is just my belief. He could make hits, but other artists that weren’t as strong couldn’t make hits like that. The material wasn’t as strong as his and they weren’t as dynamic as he was. Then he had a band on the road for the people to hear him in person and he could influence people that way. And he was very good at what he did. Other artists couldn’t get away with that.”
After Ray, Joe worked for a growing Detroit company called Motown after being approached by another saxophone player and a band leader named Choker Campbell. “I was working and travelling with their show, the Motown Review. I was playing mostly background for the artists, but I did a lot of recording with them, too. I recorded with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, their girl groups, several artists…”
With Cee-Jay Records Joe had become so attached to the record business that in conjunction with his work at Tangerine he launched and started running a label of his own called Carnival, a name he picked up from a billboard ad. Joe formed the label in 1962 together with Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, a saxophonist, bandleader and recording artist in his own right that Joe had met in Detroit already in the 40s. They also formed Bright Star Publishing Company (with BMI), and Paul’s home address – 605 West, 156th Street, New York – became the company and label address.
The first release, Your Yah-Yah Is Gone (501), was by a girl group called the Tren-Teens, who were scheduled to cut the record already for Cee-Jay. The song owes some to Lee Dorsey’s Ya Ya, released a year earlier on Fury. The Tren-Teens’ debut single was followed by Delores Johnson’s big-voiced r&b belter titled What Kind Of Man Are You, (502). You can listen to some mp3’s at www.westwoodmusicgroup.com -> Carnival Records.
Joe’s and Paul’s Carnival Records shouldn’t be mixed up with Jerry Moss’ and Herb Albert’s label by the same name in 1961, which turned into A&M a year later. Also Atlantic’s Herb Abramson’s Carnival is a different label.
The third artist for the label was Barbara Brown, who cut in ‘63 a pleading r&b ballad named Send Him to Me (b/w a cute toe-tapper, Sometimes I Wonder), but Barbara’s boyfriend wouldn’t allow her to continue show business career and perform in front of other men, so after one more single a year later she dropped out. She, however, was an important link in Joe and the Manhattans hooking up with each other.
THE MANHATTANS TO MOTOWN
Barbara told Joe Evans about the group, but there are two slightly different stories as to how the two actually met for the first time. Sonny: “Richard, Smitty, Kenny, Blue and I felt that we had put in enough time and hard work to compete at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night, which was held every Wednesday night. So from Jersey City we went to the Apollo and placed 3rd that night. But as fate would have it, Joe Evans was in the house that night. And despite coming third, we really won that night, because he signed us to his Carnival Record label.”
Blue: “A gentleman called Joe Evans was the one who saw us and liked us. He played alto sax in Choker Campbell’s orchestra that travelled with the Motown acts. Joe Evans’ vision was to start a “Motown” in the New York area, and Barbara Brown was one of his first artists. Barbara told him about us and he caught us at the Apollo.”
Joe: “One of the artists on Carnival, Barbara Brown, was responsible for me meeting them. She gave them my phone number, they called me and then we set up an appointment at the Theresa Hotel. I had Paul Williams with me. If I saw them earlier, I didn’t remember them, but I never met them in person until they came into the Theresa.”
“The songs that they sang that day were songs that were made popular by other groups during that time. They sang two or three songs like that. They sang the songs better than the groups that had recorded them (laughing). I said to Paul Williams ‘that is a million-dollar group’, and he said ‘oh, you’re crazy’, but later he said ‘you’re right, you knew what you were talking about’.”
“I asked them ‘do you want a record contract’, and they said ‘yes’, but then they said that ‘everybody promises to record us but they never get around to it’. Then they told me that they had been approached by Bobby Robinson’s brother, Danny Robinson. He was in the record business also (Everlast, Enjoy). They tell them to come to the record session, but when they get there they’re recording someone else and tell them ‘we’ll get around to you’, and when they would finish late at night everybody would pack up and go home. They said that happened to them two or three times. I said ‘well, it won’t happen with me, because if I promise to record you and sign you, I will record you’.”
“The next day they signed the contract and brought it back to me. I asked them had they gone over the contract with their parents or friends, they said ‘no, we don’t need to do that. We’re over twenty-one and speak for ourselves’. So we started from there.”
Joe was still working for Motown, so he took the first two songs he cut on the Manhattans to Detroit first. “I put them on tape and I took the recording to Berry Gordy. He liked it, but he wouldn’t go ahead of Mickey Stevenson. He put him over that, and I would have to talk to him. When I spoke with Mickey Stevenson, he wanted to take it over and only put perhaps my name on a record or something like that. I’ve been in the business too long for that and I wouldn’t go for that, so I didn’t talk to him anymore about them.” Joe soon left Motown altogether.
MUSICIANS, STUDIOS, MIXING…
Joe put the Manhattans on his own Carnival label. For his recording sessions he favoured one particular studio and he used a permanent line-up of rhythm section players. “For most of the recordings I used Talent Masters in New York, because I worked very well with the engineer there. His name was Bob Gallo, and he was also a guitarist.”
“For the rhythm section I had a regular bunch. There was Bernard Purdie, who was the drummer, and Jimmy Tyrell was the bass player. Robert Banks was the pianist. “Snaggs” Allen was the guitarist and Eric Gale was the other guitarist. They recorded all the Manhattans backgrounds.”
“I did the mix. I would record the track first. When I record the track, I would let the vocals sing along with it, just to give the musicians the feel of the song. They didn’t have to be good. They were not for the record.” As Mr. Evans tells in the book Follow Your Heart, on four-track tapes that he used those days “track one was for the lead singer, two was for the background singers, three was for the rhythm section and the fourth track was for whatever additional instruments were necessary.”
“When I put the strings down – I think there were five or six of them – in the mix I would double them up. If I wanted a light sound, I would double them once, and if I wanted something heavier, I would record those five or six in one register and then I make another take of them in another music I wrote. The horns I didn’t double up much. I used the trumpets and I used the trombone most of the time, but I would blend the trombone into the bass sound, and that blend had a different sound to it. When I used the girls in the background, I used the Lovettes, especially with the Manhattans.”
Kenny: “We used Talent Masters Studios in Manhattan. Only studios we used in Jersey City was the rehearsal studios. How many takes we needed? It all depends on the song. Some of the songs we did once, and that was it. We were always told ‘time was money’. It was no use in going there and not be prepared to go. So we tried to prepare ourselves as much as we possibly could, before we went in.”
“FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME”
Those two songs that Joe first took to Berry Gordy were finally put out on the first Carnival single (504) by the Manhattans in March 1964. Sonny: “Our first single, For the Very First Time, was a hit locally in the tri-city area.” George Smith, their lead singer, also wrote the song, which is a rather typical dancer of those days and actually sounds like it could have been cut a couple of years earlier. The flip, a mid-tempo and mellow mover titled I’ve Got Everything but You, was written by Joe and his newlywed wife, Anna Moore. Anna took care of the company’s bookkeeping and her sister, Louise, became an assistant in the firm.
Perhaps a local hit, but nationally For the Very First Time didn’t make any waves. According to Joe, their follow-up, There Goes a Fool/Call Somebody Please (506), did a little better. Released in August 1964, There Goes a Fool was written by Sonny. “I had written plenty of songs, but that was the first one recorded.” It’s an uptempo pop song, which undoubtedly was musically influenced by the British invasion those days. Smitty is again leading, and you can even hear a short flute solo by the producer himself, Mr. Joe Evans. Call Somebody Please is a mid-tempo pop ditty, which Blue wrote and he also leads on this side.
Those days Paul Williams decided to leave the company to pursue other interests such as managing artists, so Joe now had the company all to himself. He formed a new publishing company called Sanavan – the name comes from Anna and Evans – and the new Carnival address became 350 Chadwick Avenue in Newark, Joe’s home address.
Although the Manhattans eventually became Carnival’s leading act and breadwinner for the company, many other interesting artists had releases on the label, too. Curly Mayes cut a poppy umptempo ditty called Oh Why (b/w I’m Walkin’ On, Carnival 505) in 1964. Joe: “He was out west somewhere. I’m still looking for him now, because I have a chance to put one of the songs on his records on a television movie.”
Smitty invited his friend, Curby Goggins, to the company. Curby also cut only one single (Come Home to Daddy/Love Me If You Want to; 510) in 1965. Harry Caldwell sang in his high tenor voice a teenage anguish ballad named Nobody Loves Me on Carnival 516 in 1966. It was backed with another yearning song, this time a mid-pacer titled Nobody Loves Me, co-written by Blue Lovett. Joe: “I haven’t seen Harry for years. He’s down in North Carolina somewhere. He was from Charlotte, North Carolina. He was also a brick mason, and he travelled around.” Harry’s second single, a sympathetic “hippie” ballad called A New World Is Just Beginning (547), was released as late as in 1970.
The Lovettes had two single releases and both Little Miss Soul (518 in 1966), and I Need a Guy (530 in 1967) were written by Blue. Blue: “They lived in Jersey City. We all grew up together wanting to be recording artists, and Joe Evans loved them. We used them sometimes as female background singers, and we were looking for that Motown thing that Berry Gordy did. The idea that Joe had was to record these young ladies and hopefully get a hit on them.” Indeed, Little Miss Soul is like a standard Motown scorcher, whereas the flip, Lonely Girl, is a downbeat tender song. I Need a Guy is again a motownish mid-pacer, while I’m Afraid (to Say I Love you) on the flip is a poignant beat-ballad.
Norma Jenkins recorded Blue’s poignant ballad, Need Someone to Love (528; b/w a stomper called Me, Myself and I) in 1967. Blue had invited Norma to Carnival. Blue: “She was very good.” Male duos were popular throughout the 60s, and one single by Carnival’s own Turner Brothers proved that as singers they were equal to many of their colleagues. I’m the Man For You Baby (535) is an almost deep soul ballad, while My Love Is Yours Tonight is a more mid-tempo mover. Joe: “I haven’t seen them recently. These people are hard to keep up with. They came from someplace down south. They were quite active. They got around.”
Kenneth Ruffin stayed at Carnival for one single as well. I’ll Keep Holding On (536) is a pleading soul ballad with a strong support from the horn section, whereas Cry, Cry, Cry is a blues romp. Joe: “Kenny was basically a writer, but I recorded him, because some things he sang quite well. I’ve been searching for him, too. He wrote several songs that other artists did.”
It’s Too Late and I’m Just Gonna Be Missing You (539 in 1968) by Rene Bailey let you know from the opening bars that here we have one big-voiced blues lady. Joe: “She lives in upstate New York. I call to Rene all the time. She’s partly retired. She sings on most of the weekends, and she’s teaching the school.”
In the next part of the story I’ll still feature two other popular Carnival acts – Phil Terrell and Lee Williams and the Cymbals - more in detail and with comments from the artists themselves. In their roster Carnival also had such familiar names to the fans of genuine soul music as Little Royal, who cut a fine soul ballad titled I Can Tell, and Jimmy Jules, who excelled on an Otis type of a slowie named Nothing Will Ever Change. Both singles were released in ’67.
LET’S DANCE FIRST…
So far on all four released Manhattans sides on Carnival Records the songs had been dancers, and we had to wait till the fourth single to hear a ballad. Joe: “Uptempo things were easier to get played. If you had a name, they’d play anything, but the best way to get new artists played was play an uptempo record. When you take it to a deejay, they put it on and they don’t listen to the whole song. They listen to the introduction and a little bit and tell you ‘I’ll play it’. If you have a slow song, they don’t listen enough, no matter what it is. So you had to have a little bit of rhythm to the song for them to give you a break with.”
The Manhattans’ third Carnival single was also a mover, but it became their first hit and marked the beginning of a remarkable success story. That song as well as the rest of the Carnival period and DeLuxe period will be covered in the second part of the story.
INTERVIEWEES: Gerald Alston, Edward Bivins, Joe Evans, Kenneth Kelly, Winfred Lovett, Jeanie Scott, Phil Terrell, Lee Williams
MY OTHER HELPERS: Christopher A. Brooks, Charles Hardy, Vick Kaply, Toye Kates, Jr.
· Blues & Soul: John Abbey, David Nathan, Sandra Butler, Dom Foulsham
· Blues News: Juhani Ritvanen, Osmo Asikainen, Ismo Tenkanen, Aarno Alén
· Soul Express: Pirkka Kivenheimo
· Black Music: Denise Hall
· There’s That Beat!: Dave Moore
· Vintage Soul: Adrian Croasdell
WEB SITES (besides those mentioned in the article):
· Follow Your Heart (Evans-Brooks)
· Top Rhythm & Blues singles + albums & Pop singles + albums (Whitburn)
· The R&B Indies, vol. 1 – 4 (McGrath)
· Soul Harmony Singles 1960-1990 (Beckman-Hunt-Kline)
· A Touch of Classic Soul (Taylor)
From left to right: Richard Taylor, Kenny Kelly, “Smitty” Smith, “Blue” Lovett, “Sonny” Bivins
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott
In the Jersey City area, as well as in numerous other regions around the U.S., in the early 60s there were many aspiring and eager street-corner harmony groups seeking for that elusive fame, sudden silver lining. After looking for a long time one such group, the Manhattans, finally found their recording home at Carnival Records in early 1964. In the line-up of Edward “Sonny” Bivins, Kenneth Kelly, Winfred “Blue” Lovett, George “Smitty” Smith and Richard Taylor they released two singles, which made some noise locally, but the third one made the breakthrough and scored on a national level.
I WANNA BE
In the early days the group used to rehearse in Kenny Kelly’s house, and during one of their rehearsals Joe Evans, the owner of Carnival Records, decided to choose Blue Lovett’s song I Wanna Be (Your Everything) for the next single. Released in December 1964, the single (Carnival 507) hit Billboard’s pop charts on January 16 in 1965 and rhythm & blues charts two weeks later. It climbed up to # 68-pop and # 12-r&b and allegedly sold over half a million copies. In his biography Follow Your Heart Joe Evans tells on no less than eight pages about his clever ways to market the single and how a New York DJ by the name of Murray the K played a big role in breaking the record. Also one shouldn’t underrate the importance of Joe coming to an agreement with Columbia Products over pressing his records.
I Wanna Be has a steady stomping beat and a simple, infectious melody, and it later became quite popular in northern soul circles. Although Smitty was the lead singer for the Manhattans, in this case Joe Evans made their bass singer Blue to sing his own song… and sing a lot higher than his natural register.
Blue: “The night we knew I Wanna Be was going to be aired on national radio from New York for the first time, we sat and notified all our friends and relatives to make sure they tune in. It was quite an experience to hear yourself on a radio. It was actually a contest. On certain nights they would choose two upcoming artists and compare their releases, play both and the people would call in and vote. Naturally that night we won, because we told everybody in the New York and New Jersey areas to make sure they listen.”
The b-side was Sonny Bivins’ light dancer called What’s It Gonna Be. Sonny: “Just a song I took from a saying, and just started writing a story to that song.” On the label it reads “a Joe Evans – Bob McGhee production.” Joe Evans: “Bob helped me, when I was going down to Baltimore or all of those places with the record, and that’s how his name got on there as a producer. He didn’t do anything in producing, but I put his name on there. He was a writer and he had his own label, but here he just helped me. He had a pass on the train. When I wanted to go down there to do promotion, he let me use that pass and I’d ride the train down there and back. That helped me out quite a bit. I was working on a close budget.”
Prior to I Wanna Be, singing had been only part-time for the members of the group. Kenny: “Right after I got out of the college – my major was biology – I started working in hospitals and labs. After I Wanna Be went into the national charts, we had a decision to make, whether we wanted to continue as 9-to-5 workers or were we serious about our singing career. So we chose to be serious about our singing career. Once we started doing dates sporadically, I just couldn’t maintain the job that I had by pursuing the singing career, so I quit my job. After I Wanna Be everybody did the same.”
Blue: “I worked for Muscular Dystrophy. We weren’t making any money singing, so I worked for Jerry Lewis, the comedian, who was the host of Muscular Dystrophy every September. He’d give a Telethon. I worked for that company and I wrote I Wanna Be, while I was at work.”
SEARCHIN’ FOR MY BABY
Sonny wrote a pleasant, mid-tempo toe-tapper titled So in Love (Carnival 508) for Barbara Brown, and here “Smitty” joins her on vocals and makes the song a duet. That single side was coupled with Forget Him, another memorable and a slightly wistful mid-pacer that Barbara Lewis could have cut those days. Sonny composed also that song. Sonny: “I met Barbara Brown through George Smitty Smith. We sang in school with her. Smitty also was a big part in helping me with my songs.”
The Manhattans’ fourth single, Searchin’ For My Baby (509), was a mellow dancer that musically really didn’t stand out and didn’t differ considerably from the rest of the uptempo output those days, but it hit # 12-r&b and # 135-pop in the summer of 1965. Blue is leading and is accompanied by a rather high-pitched harmonizing from the rest of the boys, not unlike what we used to hear from Chicago groups at the time. The song was later covered by the Persuasions on their A Cappella album in 1970.
On the pic above Smitty (on the right) together with his brother Joe Smith
photo courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott
The flip, I’m the One That Love Forgot, was not only a wistful, heartbreak song, but it was significant in introducing the first ballad by the Manhattans on record. Still today it’s Kenny’s and Sonny’s favourite. Sonny: “I wrote that song for my future wife Amy, who I ended up marrying. She is the mother of my five children.” On pop charts the single became a double-sider, as also Love Forgot edged its way up to # 135. Blue: “I think our identity became love songs and ballads. I wrote a lot of things, when we patterned ourselves after what Motown was doing with the Temptations. I tried to, anyway. That didn’t sort of fit us. Our signature is ballads, love songs.”
That single was also one of catalysts in the process of the group becoming an opening act for Otis Redding during his black college tour to southern states in 1965. Otis loved the group and was particularly impressed by Smitty’s singing. Blue: “He wanted to manage us just before he was killed in an air crash. He loved the Manhattans. He had us touring with him yearly. He put us under his umbrella, the Bar-Kays and the Manhattans.” Otis died on December 10 in 1967.
FOLLOW YOUR HEART
Sonny wrote a busy ballad called Follow Your Heart (512), which after its October release reached # 20-r&b and # 92-pop. Sonny: “This was also a song I wrote for my wife Amy.” He even plays guitar on the track. Smitty inspires himself into a highly emotional delivery, which bears a remote resemblance to Billy Stewart’s phrasing on some of his records those days. On YouTube you can listen to Mike Boone’s interview with Sonny about the song as well as the song itself. Just type in “Chancellor of Soul” -> interviews Sonny Bivins of the Manhattans, pt.1. Blue wrote and sang an average dancer named The Boston Monkey on the b-side.
The mid-tempo Baby I Need You (514) was written by Sonny and Joe Evans and it was the Manhattans’ first release in 1966. Smitty really pours his heart out on this sweet and string-heavy track, which to an extent echoes the then Temptations sound. Sonny: “Temps were one of my early influences. I love the sound of the 5-part harmony.” Blue: “We didn’t want to copy them, so to speak. Basically everything we did, we had the Impressions and the Temptations in mind.” Again on YouTube Mike Boone presents this song together with Sonny, now on part 2.
On the flip there was another rather mediocre “animal dance”, this time titled Teach Me (The Philly Dog), and it was composed by Blue and Joe Evans together. Blue: “I showed Joe Evans the melodies that I wanted. I play keyboards a little bit, a little piano, and I showed him the way I wanted it to go, and Joe split the writing with me.”
“I know instances, where a person has changed one word, because the English was improper, and they put their name on the record as a writer. They changed just one word and put themselves down as a writer, co-writer or whatever. Back in the day we were told – not necessarily by Joe Evans – that, if you didn’t have any musical experience and if you didn’t play some instrument, you could put your name down only as a writer. This was one of the tricks of the trade, where black artists were fooled and told different stories that we finally found out were not true.” The single hit # 22-r&b and # 96-pop.
Four charted singles called for an album. Carnival’s first LP called Dedicated to You (CLPS-201) was released in early 1966, and in late March it entered the rhythm & blues charts for two weeks and peaked at # 19. Produced and arranged by Joe Evans and engineered by Bob Gallo, eight songs were culled from preceding singles and the rest four songs were released on forthcoming 45s, so there aren’t any album-only tracks on the LP. The emphasis is on dancers with seven up-tempo, two mid-tempo and three down-tempo tracks on display. Kenny: “It sort of put us onto the charts as being a stable. It didn’t do as well as we liked it to have done, but it put us out there.”
Those days the studio work was very efficient, at least at Talent Masters. Blue: “Everything was done at the same time – the lead singer, the background voices and the music. You had two hours to do as many songs as you could do and usually we would squeeze in maybe three – and if it was going well – maybe four. The musicians were so excellent that they knew what they were doing. Once in a while they would make an error, and Joe would stop them and say ‘I wanna hear this right here and I want this to be happening right here’, but, other than that, every time we would go back and do another take, it wouldn’t be because of the lead singer or the background vocals.”
Two songs that were lifted from the Dedicated to You album were put out as the next single in May 1966. Smitty’s and Joe Evans’ song Can I (517) is a pleading neo-doowop ballad, or – as Blue calls it – “progressive doowop.” In late summer of 1966 it started climbing up the rhythm & blues charts and ended up at # 23. That song is Kenny’s favourite alongside I’m the One That Love Forgot. Blue: We still do Can I on our show.” That New Girl on the flip, written by Blue and Joe, is a light and bright dancer, with the Impressions sound sneaking in this time.
Three months later the group stalled again at # 23-r&b (# 128-pop), but this time the song was a mellow and melodic mover called I Bet’cha (Couldn’t Love Me), written by Blue and Gregory Lamont Gaskins. Blue: “That’s our first guitar player. Later Greg left us and he played with Elvis Presley for a long time.” Besides Elvis, Gregory played with Dee Dee Warwick and the Sweet Inspirations those days, too. The twosome wrote also a slowly swaying ballad titled Sweet Little Girl, which was placed on the other side of the single and which again reminds you of the Impressions. Blue: “When it came to ballads, I loved everything that the Impressions did. When it was uptempo, I loved everything that the Temptations did.”
ALONE ON NEW YEAR’S EVE
For the Christmas of 1966 Joe Evans produced for the group a yuletide single, two heartfelt ballads, which however failed to chart. On the other hand, these seasonal records rarely evolve into hits. Kenny: “Sometimes a hit is made by a record company, and when you’re out there competing with the majors, you got to be in the right place at the right time with the right combination of people. Carnival was a small record company, and their financial muscle wasn’t as strong as it could have been at some point of time.”
The Lovettes are backing the Manhattans on these tracks, as well as on most of their recordings on Carnival. Sonny wrote a mellow and pretty ballad named It’s That Time of the Year (524). Sonny: “I was thinking of children around the Christmas time, how they were so happy and feel the spirit of the holiday.”
Blue composed a sorrowful, “lonely boy” ballad called Alone on New Year’s Eve. Jeanie Scott: “Smitty’s favourite of all was Alone on New Year’s Eve. He had a kind of a rough life in relationships, so I guess he kind of related to that.”
Also the next single, All I Need Is Your Love (526), missed the charts, but in this case it’s no wonder, because the Lovett-Gaskins uptempo number sounds somewhat tense and lacks natural flow. Kenny: “I would think that we were trying to put our hands on something danceable. I guess it was easier to market fast songs than ballads. The decision of what was going to be released was predominantly by Carnival.” The flip, Our Love Will Never Die (by Blue and Joe), is a mid-tempo, “teenage romance” song with strings sweetening and Smitty’s restrained, undertone delivery. It was one of the tracks on the debut album.
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott
WHEN WE’RE MADE AS ONE
The next single, released in June 1967, offered for the first time two ballads back-to-back. George Smith and Joe Evans wrote a simple, romantic and quite soulful serenade called When We’re Made as One (529), and after almost nine months it was the first Manhattans record to hit the charts, peaking at # 31-r&b. Blue: “We sing that on our shows occasionally still. We do that a cappella.” Kenny: “We wanted the A-side to be When We’re Made as One. We had so much confidence in that song that we just refused to allow ourselves to be persuaded in any direction other than When We’re Made as One.”
Jeanie: “Smitty would sit on the end of the bed and sing to me Can’t Take My Eyes off You (laughing). Can I is the song that drew me to Smitty in 1966, but the song that he wrote that fit, When We Are Made as One, was ‘our song’. The lyrics mimicked our surroundings. It was springtime, when we got together, after peeking around corners at him for several years, and he said ‘you should have come to me sooner. Look at all the years wasted we could have been together’. He was right!” Sonny’s and Smitty’s sentimental Baby I’m Sorry was placed on the flip.
By the end of 1967 Joe Evans produced Sonny’s sincere and sweet ballad I Call It Love (533), led by Smitty, and it actually became the last charted single for the group on Carnival Records (# 24-r&b, # 96-pop). Blue is leading on his and Joe’s Manhattan Stomp on the flip, and here the title really says it all. This stomper was another and the last single side that was lifted from the Dedicated to You album.
FOR YOU AND YOURS
The Manhattans’ second Carnival album, For You and Yours (CLPS-202), hit the streets in 1968, and again it was a collection of single sides only. Produced by Joe Evans, the score between up-tempo and down-tempo tracks this time is even, 6-6. Both of these Carnival albums were released on a U.K. Kent CD in 1993 (CDKEND 103). Kent has since re-issued practically the whole Carnival catalogue, and the latest compilation was Carnival Northern Soul (CDKEND 327 in 2009; www.acerecords.co.uk).
That same year the group was honoured prominently by the industry for the first time. Sonny: “I remember us getting our first award in 1968 for the ‘Most Promising Group’ from the National Association of TV & Recording artists, which is one of the industry’s biggest professional organizations. You never forget the first one. We were so excited you would have thought we won a Grammy.” Kenny still fondly remembers the NATRA concert in ’68.
After the album Carnival still released two Manhattans singles in 1969, and three of those four songs were meant to be on the third album, which never materialized. I Don’t Wanna Go (542) is a mid-paced beater written by Richard Taylor, Kenneth Kelly (lyrics) and Joseph Jefferson. Joe was born in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1945, and in the 70s he became a renowned writer alongside Bruce Hawes and Charles Simmons. Under the guidance of Thom Bell they wrote mainly for the Spinners, but they composed hit material for other Philly artists, too. Before that Joe was a player. Joseph: “I worked as the drummer for the Manhattans in the mid-60s. That was my first gig as a professional musician. I landed that gig as a result of their working drummer becoming ill at the Sahara Club in Richmond, Virginia. More of that period in my life will be revealed in my forthcoming book Memoirs. We played to S.R.O. arenas as well as other smaller venues and these guys would always fill the house. I didn’t really know how big they were until I toured with them.”
“I co-wrote I Don’t Wanna Go with Kenny and Richie. It was my first recorded song! I don’t remember much about it other than it was something we started playing around with and we all thought it was a cool idea. So it made the cut. But these guys were really great to be around, very caring and very professional. Loved them then and love them now. It was because of them that I got exposed to the music business, and I thank them for it.” Joe played with the Manhattans for about three years, and after that with Cissy Houston and the Sweet Inspirations, before forming his own group, Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Soon he met Tony Bell, Thom’s brother, and became a writer instead of a drummer. Also a serious food infection in Philadelphia, which caused him to withdraw from a tour, helped him in that choice.
A fast dancer called Love Is Breakin’ Out (All Over) on the b-side has remote Motown echoes on it. The song was written by Sonny and Joe. Sonny: “We were after the Temps 5-part harmony.”
On the final Carnival single there was Call Somebody Please, Blue’s poppy ditty from the second album, and ‘Til You Come Back to Me, Joe’s poignant, tuneful ballad and a really strong “swan song.”
ALMOST TO ATLANTIC
The Manhattans were still contractually bound to Joe and Carnival, when the first serious signs of restlessness appeared – partially evolving inside the group, partially nurtured by Joe’s competitors in business. Blue: “We could only sing on the East Coast. We weren’t stretching out enough. We were dissatisfied. We couldn’t play Chicago, we couldn’t play Texas, we couldn’t play California… We didn’t see any promotion. There was no money there to actually take us any farther than New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, East Coast cities.”
“Joe was a wonderful guy, but he wasn’t financially in a place, where he could actually put us out, do California and Chicago. All the years we were with him, we never went west of Pittsburgh. Joe was the kind of guy that you loved. He was like a father person to us, but many people came to us to tell us that we were too good to be pigeonholed into just playing East Coast only. And I knew he didn’t have the kind of money to send us over the country. We loved Joe, but we knew that he wasn’t going to take us but so far. If we were going to make this a professional career, we would probably have to sign with somebody else on the next four years.”
Kenny: “We thought we had our go at Carnival. We felt that we were able to do better than what we’ve been doing with another organization. We had the talent that wasn’t exploited. Nobody questioned their humble beginnings. If it hadn’t been those, there wouldn’t have been future.”
Sonny: “We were enormously grateful to Joe for signing us, but without the distribution, public relations or industry contacts that the larger labels had, the Manhattans would get lost in the shuffle. He was a nice man, and the recording sessions were fun. We liked them very much.”
Jeanie: “Joe gave them their first break, and they were the most successful group on his label. Smitty looked to Joe as a father. He really had a lot of respect for Joe, and he was really hurt and disappointed, when he was outvoted to go to another manager and another label. Joe had been good to them and especially good to Smitty, so that upset Smitty a lot.”
In Follow Your Heart (book co-written by Christopher Brooks) Joe writes about an alimony incident, when he had to bail Smitty out. Jeanie: “It happened before I was living with Smitty. All people thought because the Manhattans were making records and doing concerts that they made a lot of money, this was never the case with them in the 60s, or any of the entertainers on the chitlin’ circuit. So Smitty’s ex went after him for his money, but he made very little. His brothers and sisters were very angry she did this, having him arrested. When I was there, she was okay, wasn’t pressing him for money, and she and I got along fine. It wasn’t till many years later after Smitty’s death that the Manhattans actually started making a little better money, when they had their crossover hits Kiss and Say Goodbye and Shining Star, and won a Grammy.”
Joe: “The Manhattans got very, very popular in the areas, where I did most of the promotion – New York, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, the East Coast. I was not big enough at that time to have all of that nationally. I had spots in the west, but I didn’t have a complete distribution out there. I had 35 distributors, but I didn’t have all covered all out west.”
“But the main reason was, when they would be in the theatres, the other artists would come around and they would be talking ‘we’re with ABC Paramount, and they’re doing so and so, you should be with them, too’. I once overheard this. But these groups didn’t last long. They didn’t come up with another hit right away, and the company dropped them. I was determined to develop my group, and develop them correctly, to establish their name. I built the group on solid, solid foundations, and wherever they played they could always go back, whether they had a hit or not. They left me and they went with another company, but they didn’t come up with hits for many years.” Indeed, during the next four years chart-wise the group didn’t fare as well as with their Carnival singles with the exception of one song, which eventually paved them the way to bigger things. The group, however, never made it to the West Coast until in 1973.
In spite of an existing contract, Joe decided to put his business interest and feelings aside and started negotiations about selling the contract first to United Artists, Kapp and Jubilee, who all made it a condition that Joe continues to produce the group. Then Joe came to an agreement with Atlantic Records. Joe: “I was going to put them with a company that I knew could get records out on them and promote them, because that’s mostly what they needed. I took more time with the material for them than with anybody else, because I knew them. I knew what they could sing, and I could write music even without going to them. They’d be out of town, and I’d be writing music, and when they’d get back I’d record them.”
DE LUXE RECORDS
Bobby Schiffman worked as a manager at the Apollo Theater in the late 60s. His father, Frank Schiffman, was one of the founders of the Apollo and its predecessors in the 20s and 30s. Blue: “Bobby knew we were looking for a manager, so he got in contact with an attorney to let him know the Manhattans wanted to be managed by someone. We felt that Bobby Schiffman, who knew music and had the control of the Apollo and the acts that came there, was a good person to recommend us.”
Bobby hooked the group up with an attorney named Jack Pearl. Blue: “He represented Hermine Hanlin, who is Austrian. She needed an act and we needed a manager, so Jack put us together and we signed with her in 1969. Jack also became our musical attorney.”
Jack Pearl was affiliated with King Records and worked as their attorney and even vice president ever since the 40s. After Syd Nathan, the founder and the owner of King Records, passed away on March 5, 1968, Jack became the lawyer, who handled the estate. He negotiated the deal to sell the King operations to Starday Records in Nashville in 1968.
DeLuxe Records was launched in 1944 in Linden, New Jersey, but by 1951 Syd Nathan had purchased the company, made it a subsidiary to King Records and moved it to Cincinnati, Ohio. In the early days Roy Brown was DeLuxe’s number one artist, but it also concentrated on doowop vocal groups and numerous other blues and rhythm & blues acts. The Manhattans was practically the last act on their roster, and some of the other latter-day artists included Earl Gaines, the Presidents, Pat Lundy, Dan Brantley, Reuben Bell and Benny Gordon.
Jack Pearl was the one who told the group not to sign the contract with Atlantic. Joe: “Jack Pearl did not sign them with the best record company. He signed them to DeLuxe Records, because they wanted to revive the label. Jack Pearl worked for them. His family owned that label.”
Joe was so disappointed with the rejection of the Atlantic deal that he gave up the idea of cutting the third Manhattans album for Carnival Records. Of the eight scheduled songs, he cut only three, which were released as singles but without any chart action in 1969.
(Lee Williams pic taken from www.themanhattans.net)
LEE WILLIAMS & THE CYMBALS
In popularity Lee Williams’ group came second right after the Manhattans in Joe’s team. Lee is also a part of the Manhattans history, as we shall see later. William Lee Williams was born in Kinston, North Carolina, on June 10, 1941. He now resides in the Bronx, New York. Lee: “My mother, Marilyn Williams, was an opera singer. Reese was her maiden name. I know my father was a gospel singer, but I didn’t know too much about him. They say he was one of the best singers there at that time.”
There are a couple of other renowned Lee Williamses in the music world, and one, who fronts the Spiritual QC’s, is actually a gospel singer. The other one is Lee “Shot” Williams, who cut his first record close to fifty years ago and who’s doing well in southern soul circles these days.
“I have seven children. I have daughters, who are singing and following the footsteps of their father – great singers. My baby daughter is thirteen, and she blows the alto sax and the baritone sax. My son Leereese is fourteen years old and he plays the drums.” Lee names Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Lloyd Price and Nat King Cole as his biggest musical influences.
Lee moved to New York in 1959 and cut his first record three years later. “Mildred Richardson heard me singing, and she thought I had a nice, strong voice and she wanted to record me.” His first single – Every Day (Since you’ve been gone) b/w My Blue Heaven - was a duet with Judy Clay as Little Lee & Judy on Mildred’s La Vette label. “Mildred picked the name, Little Lee, out for me. She’s about six foot five (laughing). I met Judy Clay for the first time in Mildred’s office.”
The single didn’t take off, and Lee continued to work the local clubs. “I used to give club dates, and this one group had a lead singer, who went in service, so I took them under my wings and let them back up for our singers and back up for me. A lady friend that I was going with at the time knew Kenny Kelly of the Manhattans. Kenny hooked me up with Joe Evans, and Joe came out to hear me. He heard us, and he liked what I was doing. In our group, besides myself, there was Amos Simmons, King McCrorey and James Panamar”.
“Sandy Brown was the guitar player, who came in later. He wasn’t in the group, and Al Miller joined the group after we had left Joe Evans.” Joe himself tells that he first heard the group while walking down the street and hearing them rehearse out in a backyard.
Ronald McCoy had written some songs that he had offered to Joe Evans. There was especially one song – I Love You More – that he wanted Joe to produce on him and his group, which was first known under the name of the Uniteds, then allegedly as the Cymbals. Joe, however, thought that the song would suit Lee’s voice better, so he cut it on Lee Williams and the Symbols and released on Carnival 521. Lee: “Joe Evans picked up the name for our group. He was spelling it ‘Symbols’, but there was a gospel group named the Symbols, so we changed that into ‘Cymbals’.”
Lee’s high and distinctive tenor is leading on I Love You More, a haunting and tender ballad, which charted in the spring of 1967 (# 41-r&b). The flip, a beautiful and heartbreaking slow song called I’ll Be Gone, was written by Lee and their guitar player, Sandy Brown. I Love You More remained the only hit song for Lee and his group.
Ron’s group was renamed the Topics, and Joe released on them a beat-ballad called I Don’t Have To Cry paired with a dancer named She’s So Fine on Carnival 520 in 1966, but already their next single a year later came out on Carnival’s subsidiary, Chadwick. It was a catchy, mid-tempo toe-tapper titled Hey Girl (Where Are You Going) b/w If Love Comes Knockin’. There were only two single releases on Chadwick altogether, the first one by the Metrics (I found you/Wishes) in 1966 and the second one by the Topics. At www.allmusic.com you can read comprehensive bios on both -> the Topics, and -> Ronald McCoy, written by Andrew Hamilton.
Joe: “I created Chadwick to take the pressure off Carnival, so I could get play on groups outside the Manhattans; groups I hadn’t developed quite yet. I didn’t want to take on that one label, Carnival, to the disc jockeys all the time. They’d say ‘we’re playing three of your records right now’. You could make all the records you wanted, but to get them played is another story.” Chadwick was the name of the avenue Joe’s company was located on at that time, but in 1968 they moved their business to 24 Branford Place in Newark.
PEEPIN’ THROUGH THE WINDOW
Lee Williams & the Cymbals’ follow-up was also a Ron McCoy composition and another haunting and soulful song called Peepin’ through the Window (527), which, however, missed the charts, as did all the rest of their Carnival records. Lost Love (by Lee, Joe and Sandy Brown) on the flip was a perky dancer.
They still counted on Ron by putting his uptempo number Shing-A-Ling U.S.A. (532) on the third single together with Kenny Kelly’s and Joe Evans’ pleading slowie titled Please Say It Isn’t So. Lee: “There was no push behind it. The company was really into the Manhattans then, although a lot of the DJ’s liked my sound, because I had a big sound. It was a pretty good record though.”
Their first single in 1968, It’s everything About You (That I Love) (537), was a light dancer penned by Sonny Bivins and Joe Evans, and I Need You Baby (538) – by Lee and Joe – is a sweet, Impressions type of a ballad. The 6th Carnival single remained their last for the label. It pairs two songs that Joe was preparing for the Manhattans’ third album – ‘Til You Come Back to Me and What Am I Guilty Of (540) – but because of the Manhattans’ desire to leave the company Joe put them out on Lee Williams & the Cymbals first.
Lee: “During that time we figured that we weren’t pushed enough, so we got a release from Joe. I think the recordings were great and at the beginning Carnival was good to me, until things sort of went in different direction.” There was still an argument over the name “the Cymbals”, which Joe owned, but the group could keep on using it in the 70s.
WHAT AM I GUILTY OF
Lee Williams & the Cymbals were next heard on a Rapda label in 1971. “It was out of New York. One of my cousins, Fred Daughtry, had hooked me up with these guys, and they wanted to do some recording. They wanted to put a label together and they asked me to sing with a group. Fred was in the group at that time. Stanley Price was involved. We had this one song called What Am I Guilty Of, and they wanted to put it out.” Lee’s high tenor was the most gracing element on that smooth and pretty ballad (by McCrorey-Daugherty (sic)-Williams-Simmons), which was paired with a mid-tempo beater called L. C. Funk. Stan Price had joined the De-Lite label in 1970. First he became involved with the promotion of Kool & the Gang and soon advanced to national promotion director.
The second and presumably the last Rapda single offered a mid-pacer titled I’m Just A Teenager (But Now I’m Ready) and a fast dancer named A Girl from Country Town. The name Rapda comes from Ranson-Price-Daughtry, three guys, who owned the label and produced and co-wrote those sides.
What Am I Guilty Of was leased in 1972 to the label Kool & the Gang (and Stan) were on, De-Lite, but in spite of the beauty of the song it didn’t catch on, and neither did its two follow-ups (What Kind of Groove/How Do You Feel and Please Baby Please/I Will Always Love You). On all of these three singles on the label it now reads the New Cymbals. “My cousin convinced the other guys not to use Lee Williams. I wanted to use it, because it was my trade name. But nothing else was happening at that time, so I said ‘okay’.”
In 1974 Lee Williams & the Cymbals appeared on two singles on a label called Black Circle. “Stan Price had gotten with some guys from Pennsylvania, and it happened just for a minute.” Larry Roberts was the main force behind the three lovely floaters they cut – Save it all for you, I Can Make Mistakes Too and Get It Together. The last one is actually more like a dramatic slowie, whereas Archie Bell could have cut the first two songs those days. In some sources it says that Lee recorded also for Black Soul at that time, but he doesn’t recognize any of those songs.
“In 1974 I wasn’t doing anything. I was just doing weddings and stuff like that, which would keep me together. I was with a group called Soul Speaks, and that was from ’75 till ’77 – ’78. We didn’t make any recordings. Then I had my own luxury car service. I stayed at that for awhile, and then finally my cousin asked me – in ’83 or something like that – to become the lead singer for the Intruders.”
In 1984 in the line-up of Eugene “Bird” Daughtry, Lee Williams, Al Miller and Fred Daughtry, the group released an 8-track album on a U.K. Streetwave called Who Do You Love. “After that album the group dispersed and we broke up around ’85…’86. I did freelancing again doing shows, and back to the weddings and all that stuff.” We’ll meet Lee again, when we reach the 90s in our main story.
Another Carnival recording artist, whose path crossed with the Manhattans, was Phillip Terrell Flood. Phil: “I was born in Jersey City in 1943, March 22nd, but I was raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, which I consider my home. I moved there in 1952 and attended Williston High School. I had to go to North Carolina because of my health.”
Before that, from mid-40s to early 50s, Phil lived together in the same house with his cousin, Winfred “Blue” Lovett, on Communipaw Avenue in Jersey City. “In Wilmington in junior high school I sang with the choir and then we had a group in high school that would sing rock ‘n roll, blues and all that. Later I auditioned for and made a Glee club and I performed locally with a lot of different groups.”
“When I would come up from the south, I would sing as a single, Phil Terrell, and I was always around Winfred, because he was like my idol. I also met all the other guys of the group. We started together around ’62…’63. I started doing the choreography for the group with Blue.” Phil moved permanently back to Jersey City in 1965.
“Blue Lovett introduced me to Joe Evans. I auditioned for him. I had this high-pitched voice and I was pretty good at the time, and he signed me up.” Blue: “My cousin Phil was our choreographer. He never recorded live with us. I had a group called the Lovettes and Phil Terrell, and the Lovettes did the female vocals on his songs. I produced some of them, but back in those days nobody was given credit for arranging and producing. Like I said, if you didn’t play an instrument in the studio, you would have to split your writings with someone else and you weren’t capable of putting yourself down as a producer on a record, if you didn’t have that musical capability.”
Phil’s photo on the right courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott
Phil: “I sang background on a lot of their songs, like their Christmas songs. I was also their opening act.”
Phil was Carnival’s pop star. His first single (513) on the label in 1965 comprised of two melodic pop songs, the fast I’m Just a Young Boy (by Blue and Joe) and the mid-tempo I’ll erase you from My Heart (by Sonny and Joe), backed by the Manhattans boys. Phil: “I look like a pop person rather than r&b person. I have a fair skin, so when they took pictures they didn’t know what I was basically.”
On Phil’s next single (523) in ’66, Blue’s song Love Has Passed Me By was a quite catchy stomper, whereas Sonny’s Don’t You Run Away was a begging beat-ballad. In spite of their potential, unfortunately both singles failed to enter the charts. There were still two songs that remained unissued at the time and appeared only on later compilations. Can I Come In is Blue’s mid-tempo song, which has some Caribbean elements to it, while Sonny’s Baby Doll is a romantic love song. According to Phil, the Manhattans were on his every session. “One song comes to mind in particular, Baby Doll. I begin the lead in with ‘where are you baby doll’, the bass lead is Blue and he sings ‘do-do-do-do’ and the high tenor is Dip, Edward Bivins, along with the rest of the group.”
Phil: “Joe and his wife were very, very nice people. He had a great attitude. He was like a father figure to me also. In recording sessions we would be in a booth singing and the band could be seen through the window. We recorded at the same time, live. Joe played the tambourine and the saxophone, because he was a Motown musician. Joe’s wife was called ‘Miss Puddin’.”
Finally in 1970 Phil had to make a choice between music and his other calling. “I started teaching school in 1965. Some of the students in my school (around 1968) were Kool & the Flames. At one point they were my backup band. Later they were known as Kool & the Gang. Then I got a promotion in school, and I became vice principle. I had a wife and a family then, too.” Phil quit music and devoted himself to education. He became and educational administrator for the Jersey City School System, and he retired from this office in 2005. “I loved music so much. It was like a drug to me. If I couldn’t do it all the way, I didn’t want to do it at all.” We’ll come back to Phil a little later on in this story.
After his main artists – the Manhattans and Lee’s Cymbals – had left, Joe however kept his Carnival label going until the year of 1982. In the 70s his main group was the Pretenders, who even covered some of the old Manhattans songs. Joe also established another subsidiary called Sahara. Joe: “Sahara I was going to only use for disco music, dance records.”
In the 30s Joe had become so busy with the music that he never had time to finish the Washington High in Pensacola, Florida, but now in the 70s he decided to continue his studies and received his Master’s degree in Education in 1975. Later he worked as an adjunct professor, and in 1984 he was inducted into the Music Makers Hall of Fame.
Joe: “I don’t want to do too much these days. I walk a mile and a quarter every day, go down to the mall. Every now and then I travel up to New Jersey. I have friends up there, and I spend there a week or two.”
The Manhattans in 1969, photo from www.themanhattans.net
THE PICTURE BECAME QUITE CLEAR
The Manhattans’ first single on the DeLuxe label was released in May 1969. A pleading beat-ballad titled The Picture Became Quite Clear (109) was written by Eddie Jones (Linda’s brother) and Isiah Drewery, arranged by Richard Tee and produced by George Kerr. Smitty’s weeping voice expresses perfectly the innermost feelings of a broken-hearted man, and the message is still emphasized by strings and horns sweetening. You can watch a live, late 60s video clip of it at YouTube.
Jeanie Scott: “They picked Smitty’s voice out, I guess, for the ballads, because he had that really pleading, soulful, yearning type of a voice. He was at the Apollo and it was like he was wired to the audience. They were just going insane as soon as he picked up the microphone to sing I’m the One Love Forgot. The fellows would be singing first and Smitty would be in the dark shadow. All of a sudden he would step out to the spotlight with white gloves, and the audience went wild.”
“One show I was at was in New Jersey, and some girl came up to the stage and grabbed the bottom of his pants and tried to slide him off the stage, and two guys had to come out and hold him while he finished the song. The ladies? He told me he didn’t turn down none (laughing). When Smitty was with me and when he was home off the road, we were inseparable; 24 hours of the day. We did things together, even went to some of his gigs separately from the fellows on our transportation together.”
Richard Tee (1943-1993) was a keyboardist, singer and an arranger, who had a strong leaning to jazz and funk. As a session musician he has played on hundreds of records (www.richardtee.com). George Kerr is a multi-skilled professional in black music. He started his singing career in the Serenaders in the 50s, was a lead singer for the Imperials in the early 60s and worked as a staff writer, arranger and producer for Motown in the mid-60s. After returning to New York, he produced such acts as Linda Jones, the O’Jays, Troy Keyes, Barbara Jean English, the Hesitations, Debbie Taylor, Florence Ballard, the Persians, Edwin Starr, the Whatnauts, the Escorts, the Moments and numerous others, and in many cases Richard Tee was his arranger. George released solo records in his own right, too. (www.myspace.com/georgekerr).
Blue: “George Kerr was great. Back then he had that magic touch. He did Linda Jones – Hypnotized – and the O’Jays. He also dealt with a lot of the same musicians that we had on Carnival. Richard Tee was excellent, too. He worked hand in hand with George Kerr. The writer, Isiah Drewery, just passed away last year.”
The flip, a Motownish mover called Oh Lord I Wish I Could Sleep, was written by Jimmy Roach, and he cut the same song on the Spinners two years later in their first session for Atlantic, but then Thom Bell and the Spinners hooked up and those Jimmy’s four cuts were shelved until the 90s. In spite of its high quality, the DeLuxe debut by the group missed the national charts.
From left to right: George Smitty Smith, Richard (Richie) Taylor, Phil Terrell, Winfred (Blue) Lovett and Edward Bivins
IT’S GONNA TAKE A LOT TO BRING ME BACK
Sonny: “It’s funny how things happen in life. The second song we recorded under DeLuxe was co-written by my buddy, Richard Poindexter, who also co-wrote Hypnotized for Linda Jones and Thin Line between Love and Hate for the Persuaders. And now Richard is the lead vocalist for the Persuaders (www.theultimatepersuaders.com), whom we performed with quite often. Some forty years after we recorded his song and some fifty years after the beginning of the Manhattans, and I am still here doing my thing and living off of our music we made years ago.”
Again produced by Richard Kerr but arranged now by Ed Bland, It’s Gonna Take a Lot to Bring Me Back was cut a year earlier by the Icemen on the Ole-9 label, but the Manhattans with Blue mainly leading this time took it to the charts (# 36-soul). Released in late ’69, this slow song has a touch of Chi-sound, and Chicago and the Chi-lites is a still more evident parallel on the mid-tempo Give Him Up, led now by Smitty.
A new decade brought on another pretty and tender ballad called If My Heart Could Speak (122; # 38-soul, # 98-pop), written by Kenneth Kelly. “Kenny: I wrote it, but I wasn’t satisfied with having it the way it was. I took it to another friend of mine, who is our vocal coach, and he helped me with it, and it came out to be as it is. I was in love with a girl in Washington, when I wrote the song. I wrote the song on a train, coming from having seen her.” Although Smitty’s voice dominates, the other members share lead too.
Blue’s stomper named Loneliness on the flip was again patterned to the Temptations. Now a New York producer named Buddy Scott was in charge of the record. Earlier Buddy was known as a writing partner to Jimmy Radcliffe in the latter part of the 60s.
WITH THESE HANDS
The Manhattans’ first DeLuxe album, With These Hands (DLP 12000), was released in 1970. It contains four preceding single sides, one side waiting for a release and as many as five recent pop songs and standards. Kenny: “I guess at that point of time the powers that be thought that we would probably show our ability to take different direction other than that we were heading in initially. I’m of the impression that they thought there will be something in that direction as well for us to enjoy other than just doing r&b.”
Produced by Buddy Scott and arranged by Chico O’Farrill, this somewhat baffling and musically unexpected album failed to crack the charts. Smitty is the main vocalist on Can’t Take My Eyes off You and With These Hands, but also the other members of the group trade leads, and Blue handles alone By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Still, the sound is often closer to the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Lo’s than the accustomed Manhattans, varying even from schmaltzy pop to supper club type of a harmonizing (Georgia on My Mind). People Get Ready gets a speeded-up treatment towards the end. Some were pleasantly surprised by this new and sophisticated approach, some disappointed in their expectations of the established Manhattans music.
Blue: “Those songs were Buddy Scott’s idea. I liked the idea a lot. I wasn’t crazy about the album. At that particular time we had more time in the studio than we did originally with Joe Evans… not much, but a little more. We had time to clean up bad things that were happening or things that were out of pitch or out of time or whatever”
The arranger, Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, is best known for his work in Afro-Cuban jazz music. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1921, specialized in Cubop after settling in the U.S. in the 40s and worked with such jazz luminaries as Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and a lot of others. He recorded prolifically in the 50s, and still in the 90s he was nominated for a Grammy. He passed away in 2001 in New York. His main instrument was trumpet.
FROM ATLANTA TO GOODBYE
The fourth single release in the fall of 1970 on DeLuxe was a Smitty-led, poignant ballad titled From Atlanta to Goodbye (129; # 48-soul, # 113-pop), written by Richard Ahlert and Leon Carr. This sax-driven, emotive country song was cut by Buddy Greco a year earlier on Scepter. Blue: “Everybody was trying to get this song. Like today, they were trying to find an artist that was hot to record their music so that they could become rich. That was the outlook on that one. They messed on us in trying to sell it to another artist to make more money.” On the b-side there was an interesting pop & show tune called Fantastic Journey (by Randie Evretts and Horace Ott), on which the members again trade leads.
Those days the group was going through a significant change, but still under the “old regime” they had cut one single, Let Them Talk/Straight from My Heart (132), which was released at a later date, in early 1971. The plug side is a tender and heartfelt rendition of the old Sonny Thompson song that Little Willie John took onto the charts on King in 1959, and it was backed with Sonny’s light and good-humoured mover. Both this and the previous single were produced by Buddy Scott and arranged by Chico O’Farrill.
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott
REST & ROAD
In the first part of the story Jeanie Scott described, how she had a crush on Smitty long before she met him and how they eventually ended up living together in his mother’s house. Jeanie: “We had a lot of famous neighbours. Ronald Goodson of Ronnie & the Hi-Lites lived right around the corner from me and Smitty. Ronnie lived on Sackett Street. His family owned most of that street on his side of the street. We lived on Bramhall Avenue. I trained dogs with Ronnie. He came from a big family also – ten children, too. Blue and Kenny lived together in a house Kenny’s mother had on Monticello Avenue. They lived upstairs. Richard was on Union Street – all within a few blocks walking distance. At that time Sonny lived out of town, and I think he had a regular day job.” “Phil Terrell lived nearby, too. He lived at the top of “the Junction” on Harmon Street and Ocean Avenue.”
“Jersey City was a hotbed of talent. Living up the street from us was Flip Wilson’s nephew, Richard Moore. His mother raised Flip, when their mother died. Timothy Wilson for a time lived in that same building on Bergen Avenue & Bramhall. Roy Hamilton, Jr. lived nearby and would visit Smitty sometimes. Other famous names were Kool & the Gang, the Soul Generation, the Duprees, the Royal Counts, 14 Karat Soul etc, etc.”
“My good friend Stan Krause, who had Catamount Records, managed groups and owned a record store, Stan’s Square Records, on Bergen Avenue. A lot of singers would drop by the store, hang out for awhile and discuss music. Stan produced the Persuasions, the Royals Counts, 14 Karat Soul etc.”
Photo on the right courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott
SMITTY’S LAST RIDE
Jeanie: “The Manhattans were on the road a lot. They did the chitlin’ circuit, all the theatres and the nightclubs too, because they had hit records then. Smitty never did any drugs. He didn’t even smoke weed. That was not his thing. He didn’t like it. Smitty took a drink now and then, and over the time it took its toll on him.”
“He and his brother and brother’s friends used to hang out together. One night they were in the back of a big truck that one of the guys drove. In the back of the truck they were drinking and Smitty stepped backwards and his foot went off the edge of the truck. He fell of the truck and hit his head on the curb, and he was unconscious for about ten minutes. He refused to go to the hospital. He said he was alright.”
“A couple of months later he started acting delirious. We thought he was drinking on the sly. We searched the house and there were no bottles anywhere. We went back and forth to a hospital – in fact, two different hospitals at different times – and they diagnosed him wrong every time. Finally we took him to another hospital and they diagnosed him with having brain hemorrhage, because in his right eye all of a sudden the white turned red. His brain was bleeding behind his eye. He was supposed to have a surgery at eight o’clock the morning he passed away. He died five o’clock that morning – December 16, 1970.” Smitty was just two days away from his 31th birthday.
“He had been injured in his head before, when his ex-girlfriend threw an ash-tray at him. The autopsy showed that there was an injury prior to falling in the same spot. ‘Subdural hematoma’ was what was on the autopsy report. The funeral was amazing. I went with the family. We could barely get through the door of the church. It seemed like 1000 people crowding to get in. It was a huge church. Gerald Alston sang three gospel songs. He was very loved by people, and all of Jersey City loved him with great affection.”
“The funeral was amazing but I was devastated by the loss of Smitty. Smitty’s aunt had to hold me up in front of the casket, because my knees were buckling. I felt weak, numb and in shock at the same time. It took me a long time to come to grips with Smitty’s death – a true earth angel gone too soon! Smitty was emotional, yet very easy-going and grounded. He took things in stride. He was affectionate and demonstrative. He knew how to make a woman feel like she was his queen. He was never afraid to express his true feelings. There were some, who tried to convince Smitty to be cold-blooded, but it just wasn’t in his nature. He was a gentle soul, who suffered a lot of pain in his life but had a great faith in his God. He loved his mother deeply and treated women with a lot of respect. He was easy to love on so many levels.”
“He was a very sweet and good-hearted person at heart. Whenever someone needed a ride home from a show, he’d let them take his place in the group van and would take a train or bus himself. He lent people money, if he had it. He also let the Manhattans’ band stay with us, when they were in Jersey City for rehearsals or gigs, so they wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel room. Their guitarist, Charles “Cheese” Reed married Smitty’s sister Gloria, but they later divorced.”
Joe Evans: “He would drink wine, but he was controllable. When I found out he was in the hospital, I went to see him one time and I was getting ready to go back there with Toye Kates Jr. for the second time, but he told me that Smitty had died.”
Phil Terrell: “He was one of the finest people that you could ever meet. He would give you his last dime. He was always pleasant. He was just somebody special. When he would get on stage and sing a song, he would just mesmerize people.”
Sonny: “He was my brother, my confidant, my best friend – the young teenager I met at the YMCA back in 1953. He left us with everlasting memories. That really was a hard blow to the entire group – not just professionally, but personally as well. Not only were we without a lead singer, but also we were without a friend”
Blue: “Smitty was the kind of guy that if you showed him how you wanted the song to go he was the best person I’ve ever seen to go into the studio and sing without rehearsing. Back then it was two hours to get two songs at least – three songs if you could squeeze them in. If he heard the song once, it would take one take or two takes and he would have it locked. If he had lived to record the way they record today, where it takes you three months to lay tracks and then two months to do background vocals and another month to do… he’d be sensational right now. He was quite a guy, on and off stage.”
TOYE KATES, JR.
Joe Evans already referred to Toye Kates, Jr., who used to work as the Manhattans’ road manager in the 60s. Toye was born in Jersey City on November 30 in 1936, and in 1955 – after discharge from the Marines – he started another singing group called the Ideals with his twin sister Marie (Tiny) Kates, Charles Harris, George Rogers and Donald Paige. Toye: “We stayed together for maybe three or four years. We never got a break, but we were one of the hottest groups in Jersey City. We sang all over, and we won first prize three times at the Apollo Theatre in New York. We were destined to go there one more time to win and to get a recording contract, but Mahalia Jackson beat us out (laughing). We never had another opportunity to record. Several months later Donald Paige passed away and Smitty joined the group, becoming our lead singer. Those days Edward Bivins, Smitty and I – we were like the three musketeers.”
After the Ideals broke up, Toye went back to college for awhile, drove a tractor-trailer and started freelance broadcasting on WNJR. “George Smith, Edward Bivins and Richard Taylor came to me in 1964 and asked me, would I be their road manager. I was not familiar with the group nor had I met with the other members. After meeting with Winfred Lovett and Kenneth Kelly during their rehearsal and a sense of their sincerity and family atmosphere, I decided to take a chance with them. A few days later I was introduced to their manager and owner of Carnival Records, Mr. Joseph Evans. We gained respect, trust and consideration for over 46 years.”
“During our final Christmas show at the Apollo Theatre in 1967, they felt they no longer needed a road manager, and I agreed. I was certainly proud of them along with my input of grooming them and other artists such as Ron Goodson of Ronnie and the Hi-Lites, the Tiara’s (the Lovettes) and Soul Town Band (Kool and the Gang), by my good friend, the late Donald Kee, who never received his just due. The Mad Lads were assigned to me by another good friend, the late Otis Redding, not to mention Phil Terrell and Gregory Gaskins, our music director.”
“After that I became the founder and one of the administrators of the New Jersey Regional Drug Abuse Agency, and, besides doing consulting work in Washington, D.C. in the 70s, everywhere I went I promoted shows, gave dances and stuff like that. Presently I have a three-year personal contract with four of the Manhattans (Sonny, Kenny, Charles Hardy and Harsey Hemphill, Jr.) and also a five-year contract with Mr. Vic Kaply, President of Westwood Music Group, introduced to me by Joe Evans.” The final part of the story clears up the confusion in line-ups of the group today.
“I was always in contact with Edward Bivins. At one time, before they started singing, we thought we were going to be baseball players. So we’re friends ever since the childhood… Thank you Manhattans for 46 years of friendship and still counting!”
LEAD SINGER CANDIDATES
When towards the end of 1970 it became evident that Smitty wasn’t able to perform on a regular basis anymore, they started looking for fill-ins. Those days Lee Williams was practically a free agent, between Carnival and Rapda labels. Lee: “They asked me about being the lead singer, but I had made an obligation to Lee Williams & the Cymbals. I told them I wanted to keep that promise, and I did, until things just didn’t work out with the rest of my group. They wanted to drink their wine and chase all the girls” (laughing).
Phil Terrell: “I was singing as a single, but I was an opening act for the Manhattans, too. When Smitty became ill, I’d fill in for him as the 6th Manhattan. Blue asked me to sing with them. That was the time I was teaching school also, which was hard – to maintain the entertainment life and teach school, too. “
They found an excellent replacement, Mr. Gerald Alston. It happened almost by accident. Gerald was no way a newcomer in music when they first met, but he wasn’t a fully established artist either. The changing of the guard went smoothly. Gerald will be the opening act in the third part of the Manhattans story.
(label # / titles / Billboard # r&b or soul / pop / year)
101) Pork Chops / Cool It (1961)
504) For The Very First Time / I’ve Got Everything But You (1964)
506) There Goes A Fool / Call Somebody Please
507) I Wanna Be (Your Everything) (# 12 / # 68) / What’s It Gonna Be
509) Searchin’ For My Baby (# 20 / # 135) / I’m The One That Love Forgot (- / # 135) (1965)
512) Follow Your Heart (# 20 / # 92) / The Boston Monkey
(Note: rel. also on Solid Smoke 5007)
514) Baby I Need You (# 22 / # 96) / Teach Me (The “Philly” Dog) (1966)
517) Can I (# 23 / -) / That New Girl
522) I Bet’cha (Couldn’t Love Me) (# 23 / # 128) / Sweet Little Girl
524) It’s That Time Of The Year / Alone On New Years Eve
(Note: rel. also on Star Fire 121)
526) All I Need Is Your Love / Our Love Will Never Die (1967)
529) When We’re Made As One (# 31 / -) / Baby I’m Sorry
533) I Call It Love (# 24 / # 96) / Manhattan Stomp
542) I Don’t Wanna Go / Love Is Breakin’ Out (All Over) (1969)
545) Call Somebody Please / ‘Til You Come Back To Me
109) The Picture Became Quite Clear / Oh Lord How I Wish I Could Sleep
115) It’s Gonna Take A Lot To Bring Me Back (# 36 / -) / Give Him Up
122) If My Heart Could Speak (# 38 / # 98) / Loneliness (1970)
129) From Atlanta To Goodbye (# 48 / # 113) / Fantastic Journey
132) Let Them Talk / Straight From My Heart (1971)
(title / label # / Billboard placing & chart run – r&b / year)
DEDICATED TO YOU (Carnival 201 / # 19, 2 weeks / 1966)
Follow Your Heart / That New Girl / Can I / The Boston Monkey / I’ve Got Everything But You / Manhattan Stomp // Searchin’ For My Baby / Our Love Will Never Die / I’m The One Love Forgot / What’s It Gonna Be / Teach Me / Baby I Need You
FOR YOU AND YOURS (Carnival 202 / 1968)
I Call It Love / I Bet’cha (Couldn’t Love Me) / Sweet Little Girl / There Goes A Fool / Alone On New Year’s Eve / All I Need Is Your Love // I Wanna Be / When We’re Made As One / Call Somebody Please / For The Very First Time / It’s That Time Of The Year / Baby I’m Sorry
WITH THESE HANDS (De Luxe 12000 / 1970)
Can’t Take My Eyes Off You / Loneliness / By The Time I Get To Phoenix / Straight From My Heart / It’s Gonna Take A Lot To Bring Me Back // If My Heart Could Speak / With These Hands / Georgia On My Mind / Give Him Up / People Get Ready
“KISS AND SAY GOODBYE”
“We thought that Kiss and Say Goodbye would be the wrong song to release, and we were very much upset with Columbia choosing a r&b-country song during the disco era… and how wrong we were!” Sometimes there are surprising turns in making of a hit record, and above Mr. Winfred “Blue” Lovett (bass) reveals one piquant detail about the Manhattans’ signature song and a platinum single in 1976. We’ll deal with that song profoundly later in this article, but in order to proceed chronologically we must go back and carry on where we left off at the end of the second part of the story. The Manhattans had released their first album on DeLuxe, With These Hands, in 1970 and in December that year the long-time lead singer, George “Smitty” Smith passed, and the group needed a stable replacement.
Gerald Alston (tenor) was born on November 8 in 1951 in Henderson, North Carolina. In the sphere of soul music, Ben E. King is another famous native of that city. Gerald’s nickname was “Smutman Brown” or simply “Smut.” Gerald: “I think he was a dancer long ago, in the 40s – 50s. Sonny Bivins’ father gave me that name.”
His parents – Geraldine and John, or better known as Reverend J.B. Alston – were both singers. “My father had a gospel group that he sang in called the Gospel Brothers.” John Alston sang in that group with his brothers and his wife’s brother. “I don’t remember the group my mother was with, but she and her sisters and sister-in-laws sang together.” A renowned bass singer, Johnny Fields of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, is Gerald’s uncle. Johnny passed away on November 12 in 2009 at 82. Gerald and Shirley Alston-Reeves (born Shirley Owens) of the Shirelles are cousins, so there’s a lot of talent in the family.
Gerald has four children. Kyle used to play saxophone. “Since he got out of school he hasn’t touched his saxophone, but he played it when he was in high school. My younger son Todd sings and Calvin is a dancer. He loves to dance. My daughter, Donika Wells, is now 37.”
Gerald’s wife for close to 30 years now is Edna Chew Alston, who in 1986 acted in a movie called Playing for Keeps. “She dances and she does some acting. Now she’s teaching in a Jersey City University. She’s a dancing instructor in NJPAC Arts Education program. She goes to different schools to teach the kids in art of dancing.”
Still thirty-five years ago Gerald listed exercise, carpentry, gardening and cooking as his hobbies. “That’s about it… kind of slowed down a little bit since then” (laughing). Outside the Manhattans’ own repertoire, one of Gerald’s favourite songs is Midnight Train to Georgia. “We used to sing that in our show. That was one of out of all the songs that I did by somebody else.”
For anybody even faintly familiar with Gerald’s history and music, the name of his all-time favourite artist doesn’t come as a surprise. “Sam Cooke would have to be number one. When I was a child, I used to like Mahalia Jackson. Gladys Knight has always been one of my favourites. Even though Luther Vandross and I were kind of in the same time frame, the late Luther Vandross is also one.”
Gerald Alston and the New Imperials: Photo courtesy of Gerald Alston
THE NEW IMPERIALS
Gerald entered the music business while still in his teens. “I had a group called Gerald Alston and the New Imperials. It was in high school in ’64…’65. We did record, but it was never released. We would sing on weekends. Friday and Saturday nights we’d sing as Gerald Alston & the New Imperials, and on Sundays we were the Gospel Jubilees.”
The other members of the group were Edward “Dwight” Fields, Andrew Crews and James Smith. “Dwight is working with us now, and he sings with us from time to time. Andrew Crews was a bass singer. He’s still singing and recording, and he has a group (www.myspace.com/carolinacrusaders). James Smith is not singing now, but we see him from time to time.”
NEW LEAD FOR THE MANHATTANS
Edward “Sonny” Bivins (tenor): “In 1970 we did a tour of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the south. Unfortunately, it was around this very same time that our lead singer, George Smith, began to experience some medical problems.”
Blue: “We were doing a tour in black colleges in the south and Gerald’s college we went to in that period, when George Smith had become very ill and Phil Terrell was travelling with us, so we could honour our contracts, because we were contracted to do these engagements and George Smith got very sick. So in that time of doing the black colleges in the southeast of the U.S., Gerald Alston’s school was one of the ones in Henderson, North Carolina – Kittrell College.”
Jeanie Scott: “They did a show in November 1970 in Henderson, where Gerald would go to college and where he had a little group called the New Imperials, and I think they opened the show for the Manhattans. Gerald’s favourite singers those days were Little Anthony, Smitty and number one was Sam Cooke. He always wanted to have a gospel group like the Soul Stirrers, before he got into the Manhattans.”
Gerald: “They played at my college, while they were going to Dallas to team up with the Supremes. They needed a sound system, and one of my professors at school asked me could they use our sound system. I came in and set it up and I was singing, and they heard me sing – Blue, Richard Taylor, Phillip Terrell and the manager at the time, Hermine Hanlin – and asked me to sing on a show, and so I did.”
Blue: “We heard him in sound-check. His PA system was what we used to sing that night. Phil Terrell was with us, too. He was the lead singer. He took over for George Smith. We heard this young man singing When We Get Married, and we loved his voice.”
Jeanie: “Smitty had a seizure that night and he couldn’t perform. I do remember Smitty telling me that he met Gerald at a water fountain, taking a drink, at the college in Henderson and Smitty asked him to fill in, take his place. After Smitty came home, the group decided to keep Gerald, because Smitty wasn’t well.”
Gerald: “Smitty and I talked. He was talking to me about singing with the group and I couldn’t understand why, but I didn’t know at the time Phillip Terrell was with them, because Smitty was sick.”
Blue: “We found out later that Smitty wasn’t able to come back. We were doing a tour with the Supremes after we left Gerald’s school, and our manager Hermine Hanlin called his home and spoke with his grandmother to see if it was possible for him to come out for us to audition him in Dallas, Texas. While touring the state of Texas with the Supremes, Gerald flew out, rehearsed with us for a couple of nights and watched Phil Terrell on stage with us. He watched from the audience to see what our stage plot looked like, and two weeks later he was singing with us. The first show Gerald did officially with us was with the Dells, the Chi-lites and the Spinners two weeks later.”
Phil Terrell: “The last time I was touring with the Manhattans was when we toured the south with the Supremes, all over Texas. After I left there, that was the end of it, because I got a promotion in school. I became vice principle, and I had a wife and a family then, too. Gerald took my place. He was just a fantastic entertainer. He could really sing good. He came with us to Texas and I showed him all the routines and everything. I’ve been friend with him ever since. He lives right here in Jersey City.”
Gerald: “My first date that I worked with the group was in the Abbey Theater in Brooklyn, New York. Smitty was there. I didn’t know he was there. When the curtain opened and they called us on stage and when I walked out on the stage, he was the first person I saw sitting in the front. I wanted to please the audience, but I wanted to make sure that Smitty was happy, because he knew he couldn’t sing anymore.”
“He came back to the dressing room that night and gave me a big hug and told me how good I sound. He let me know he was satisfied with the work that I’ve done with his songs and the way I performed. After then I remember it was like a sigh of relief, because everybody in the room got quiet, when he walked in” (laughing).
Jeanie: “Smitty passed December 16, 1970. Gerald sang three songs at the funeral, and then went on the road with the group in January 1971. Phil Terrell and I grew close. He was my buddy. We became like a brother and sister, and he was the one friend I could talk with about Smitty after Smitty had passed away. Phil became my confidant. I love both him and his wife Willie – sweet, sincere, good people, who will always stay in my heart.”
Kenny Kelly (tenor): “Smitty was a very good guy, a very nice and social guy. He had that quality in his voice that he could sing anything. He would give you his last dollar, if he had it. He was a very kind-hearted person.”
I CAN’T STAND FOR YOU TO LEAVE ME
Gerald is leading for the first time on I Can’t Stand for You to Leave Me (DeLuxe 136), the group’s first single in 1971. This uptempo Northern-style ditty was produced by Bert Keyes and Myrna March and written by Martha Taylor. Blue: “Martha is Richie Taylor’s wife. Bert Keyes is excellent. We did with him two singles, but no more than that. At that particular time, those guys demanded a certain amount of money. A lot of the producers liked us, like George Kerr and Bert Keyes. They recorded us, because they saw potential in the Manhattans becoming successful. They knew that we weren’t financially fit to give them what they really want.”
Bert Keyes – a musician, arranger, writer, producer and conductor – entered the business already in the 40s as a pianist, and from the early 50s his jazzy style with increasing inclination towards rhythm & blues appeared on singles on such labels as Savoy and Rama and Coed, and on those labels he worked with many other artists, too. His contributions were more and more appreciated in the 60s and especially in the New York area, where he composed and arranged for numerous artists and worked for labels like Atlantic. One of the songs he co-wrote those days was Love on a Two-Way Street, first cut by Lezli Valentine and later by the Moments. Besides uptown soul, Bert stretched out to pop, blues and other genres, too. He took interest in movie scores in the 70s and 80s, and passed away in 1987.
Gerald: “Myrna March was a songwriter. She wrote quite a few songs, and she and Bert Keyes were collaborating together. I had not known her prior to those DeLuxe sessions.” Later Gerald and Myrna would write together for the Manhattans. Myrna Fox March was not only a writer, but an actress, singer and recording artist in her own right, as well. Starting in the 50s, she recorded for such labels as Liberty, Warwick, Strand, Roulette, Kapp and Agape/King – first jazzy show tunes and standards and later uptown pop. You can find some of her songs on YouTube. Later she concentrated on composing and managing other artists. She died of cancer of the lung in 1997.
The flip side to I Can’t Stand for You to Leave Me is Myrna’s and Bert’s song called Do You Ever, which starts as a tender ballad but grows into a big and dramatic number, but unfortunately neither side charted.
A MILLION TO ONE
The next DeLuxe single, released in late 1971, paved the way for upcoming Manhattans smashes later in the 70s. A Million to One already has many of the basic elements that the future success sound was built on. It’s a slowly swaying melodic and beautiful ballad, written by Teddy Randazzo and his first wife, Victoria Pike.
Gerald: “Teddy did a lot of writing for us back in the 70s. Basically it was done with his arrangements. Teddy would send us a demo, but what he did was considered a record, because his demo was just about final. All I had to do was sing on it. The arranger just did the arrangements over again.”
The single peaked at # 47-soul and # 114-pop, and, although it didn’t break into the hot-100, this single was closest to the crossover the group had enjoyed so far. Gerald: “In later years, when we did the American Bandstand, we did Kiss and Say Goodbye and A Million to One.” Kenny Kelly: “We felt that was the direction we wanted to go in. It gave our career a boost. Teddy’s a very good producer and a nice guy to work with. He seemed to be able to put his hand on the pulse of the group.”
One of the basic elements was Gerald’s singing. Blue: “Gerald had that kind of style. His voice was more pop than mine and Smitty’s. He had that crossover voice. Hermine Hamlin worked for Teddy Randazzo as a secretary. She was able to get Teddy to come in and produce for us.” You can listen to Sonny Bivins’ comments on this single on YouTube in an interview conducted by Mike Boone (at “Chancellor of Soul Interviews Sonny Bivins Of The Manhattans Pt3”).
A Million to One, as well as the flip – a slightly less graceful ballad called Cry If You Wanna Cry – were both produced by “Make Music Prod.”, which is Myrna March and Bert Keyes, and arranged by the latter.
Alessandro Randazzo was born on May 13 in 1935 in Brooklyn. In the early 50s he joined a white harmony group of the Italian origin named the Three Chuckles, and in 1954 they scored with a tender ballad called Runaround - originally on the Boulevard label – with Teddy on lead. Followed by Times Two, I Love You, And the Angels Sing and a complete album, they hooked up with Alan Freed, who invited them to perform in the Rock, Rock, Rock film in 1956.
Soon after that Teddy left for a solo career, toured with Alan Freed’s revues, appeared in other rock ‘n roll movies and cut such solo hits as Little Serenade, The Way of a Clown and Big Wide World between 1957 and ’63.
In spite of his numerous solo recordings (on Vik, Colpix, ABC, Buddah, Paramount…) – and as a lead with Oliver & the Twisters, too – it was, however, Teddy’s excellent songwriting, his lush and rich arrangements and production work that he’s best remembered for. One big admirer of Teddy and his crew was another musical genius, Mr. Thom Bell, who reminisces of their work on the Royalettes ’65 song, It’s Gonna Take a Miracle: “Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein did that song (add Lou Stallman, still). I love their writing. And I love the arranging that Don Costa does for Little Anthony & the Imperials. That was the first guy that turned me on – Don Costa! They had I’m on the Outside (Looking In), Hurt So Bad, Goin’ out of My Head… After that came Burt Bacharach, another one I loved. They were applying their classical training, I believe, to so-called r&b, modern music.” Teddy also had two labels of his own, Satin and Buttercup, in the 60s and 70s.
In his senior years, after marrying Rosemary “Shelly” Kunewa, Teddy concentrated on the island music and resided a lot in Hawaii. His most famous album from those days was Honolulu City Lights. He passed away on November 21 in 2003 in New York, and he and his long-time writing buddy, Bobby Weinstein, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007.
ONE LIFE TO LIVE
Blue Lovett wrote a beautiful and haunting ballad called One Life to Live, which the company released first as a long version, and then as a shorter one two months later. Gerald: “They took the rap off, like they did with Kiss and Say Goodbye later. Pop stations played it without the rap, and r&b stations played it with the rap.”
Gradually approaching their winning formula music-wise, Blue raps in the beginning and midway through Gerald takes over and they are backed with delicious doowop harmonies. Blue: “I did the rap first, and then came Isaac Hayes and Barry White after I started that. I never got credit for that one, I betcha” (laughing).
This fascinating song became the Manhattans’ first top-ten record on the r&b side (# 3-soul, # 102-pop), and it was produced by Hal Neely, Bob Riley and Bobby Smith. Kenny: “Bob Riley was the promotion man.” Gerald: “Bobby Smith owned the studio we were recording in, in Macon, Georgia. A Million to One was recorded in New York, and One Life to Live was recorded in Macon, Georgia. I think we did some clean-up work in Nashville.” Blue: “We did things in Macon, Georgia, where James Brown did his recordings. We did some things in Nashville, but not in Memphis. Neely, Riley and Smith were the in-house producers. I did the arrangements, although they got the credit for it.” Hal Neely was the former vice president at King, and he was now working for Starday Records in Nashville.
Blue wrote another sweet and pretty ballad for the b-side called It’s the Only Way, and those days in one interview he said that he pictured Glen Campbell singing it. Blue: “Glen Campbell I wanted Kiss and Say Goodbye for. Back then I was into listening a lot to country things. Lionel Richie jumped the gun on me, but I had been listening for three or four years. I liked a lot of things Glen Campbell was doing… and Charley Pride.”
One Life to Live brought the group ever closer to the crossover border. Kenny: “Somebody should do that song all over again.” Gerald: “A lot of our songs were big in the southeast. One Life to Live and A Million to One r-e-a-l-l-y opened us up in the south, and in later years it started spreading across the country, but they were the catalyst to get us a lot of play in the south.” Blue: “One Life to Live was the song that put us in a situation to be signed by the CBS Records. They liked it. They liked the direction the Manhattans was going in and they signed us in 1972.”
THE SECOND DE LUXE ALBUM
A Million to One (DLP 12004) was not only the second, but also the last Manhattans album on the DeLuxe label. Released in August 1972, it appeared on the Billboard soul charts in early November and stayed there for fifteen weeks, peaking at # 35. The producers were Neely-Riley-Smith plus “Hoss” Allen. The listed arrangers are Macon Staff, Charlie Chalmers and Chuck Sagle. Alongside Nashville and Macon studios, also Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis is credited, but the group never cut its vocals there.
The album contains, besides the four sides above, three songs from the past (Fever, Do You Ever and I Can’t Stand for You to Leave Me) and one song, Back Up, which was to be released as the next single in December 1972. In the afterglow of One Life to Live, also Back Up climbed quite high on the charts (# 19-soul, # 107-pop), although it differs a lot from its predecessor. Written by Kenneth Kelly, the funky Back Up again bears a resemblance to the Temptations psychedelic style, which calls for lead-sharing. Kenny: “Bob Marley picked that song up and they did it again.”
The four non-single sides include You on My Mind, a cute ballad written by Sonny Bivins, and Strange Old World, a rather messy beater, which comes from Richard Taylor’s pen. Ronnie Lee Hayes, one of the musicians on the session, wrote the uptempo Blackbird, which would appear again on an album two years later, and finally there’s a psychedelic rock-dancer titled Teenage Liberation, composed by Sonny, Kenny, K. Nash and Carl Reid.
By the time the group was already on greener pastures, DeLuxe put out still two more singles in 1973. The first one is actually quite good. Rainbow Week is a big dramatic ballad, written by Robert S. Riley, Sr. Blue: “That’s Bob Riley, our head promotion man. We would often put one of his songs on the back side of a 45. He was out of Nashville.” Gerald: “We recorded it, when we were in the process of going to Columbia.”
The flip side, Loneliness, had been released already in 1970, and similarly the last single, Do You Ever, had hit the streets two years earlier, but the company succeeded in cashing in on the group’s first big hit at the same time on Columbia, so Do You Ever peaked at # 40-soul. The b-side, If My Heart Could Speak, again derived from 1970.
FROM DE LUXE TO COLUMBIA
Already in October 1968 Starday Records, a country label out of Nashville, had purchased King Records with its subsidiary labels – including DeLuxe – and soon after that the King-Starday catalogue was sold to Lin Broadcasting, also based in Nashville. James Brown’s contract and entire catalogue was sold to Polydor in 1971, and after awhile the whole company was absorbed by Leiber & Stoller’s, Hal Neely’s and Freddy Bienstock’s (a music publisher) Tennessee Recording and Publishing, which meant that King-Starday turned more or less into a reissue company. Finally the master recordings were purchased by Moe Lyttle’s Nashville-based company called GML, Inc. in 1975.
Sonny: “after King-Starday lost their main artist, who was James Brown, it was like a domino effect.” Kenny: “I just feel that the mechanics in that whole DeLuxe situation could have been a lot stronger than it was, because I believe we had a lot of material that was good, but it never got the opportunity to take its rightful place in the market.”
Gerald: “It was time to move forward. I think they had taken us as far as they could take us, and I think it was just time for us to move on. The two songs that I still do on stage from those early days are Can I and When We’re Made as One.”
In late 1972 the group signed a worldwide contract with Columbia and recorded for that company for the next fifteen years. Sonny: “This is what the phrase ‘paying your dues’ meant. All the hard work and the hours of rehearsing things over and over again until we had it perfected had finally paid off – the final piece of the puzzle had been laid and the picture was complete. We were afforded so many great opportunities at Columbia. We had the opportunity to work on our own productions in the studio alongside the phenomenal writing team of Gamble & Huff and producer Bobby Martin. We even recorded at Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia, and back then that was the ultimate. The studio had more hits coming out of there than anywhere else at the time. Sigma was the East Coast’s Motown.”
Blue: “We were approached by Mickey Eichner. He was an exec over at Columbia Records. He heard One Life to Live. They were looking for a group of our calibre between Clive Davis and Mickey Eichner. They signed us with Columbia Records. Clive Davis was in charge of everything at that time at Columbia.” In the 60s Mickey was heading Jubilee Records, before becoming A&R executive and senior vice president at Columbia.
Blue: “After we got with Columbia, we wanted Thom Bell very badly, but we weren’t able to get him. He was busy doing things with the Stylistics and different people. Gamble and Huff were doing everybody – the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, everybody… and they didn’t have time to fit us in. We instead got Bobby Martin, who was excellent. We wanted somebody from Philadelphia International, and Bobby Martin was an arranger with Gamble and Huff.”
Gerald: “I met Bobby Martin, when we signed with Columbia. I had heard about him, because he had produced and arranged for the O’Jays, the Three Degrees, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes… He was a great producer. He allowed us to express ourselves. We were able to have more say in our sessions.”
Robert L. Martin has a jazz background, and he has been playing vibes ever since the mid-40s. In the early days he played, also piano, in several jazz and r&b groups and with such luminaries as Lionel Hampton. In the 50s Bobby landed with the Lynn Hope Combo in Philadelphia, decided to stay there and started working in the record business in the early 60s as a songwriter, musician, arranger, conductor and producer; also occasional vocalist.
In the early 60s he produced and arranged for the Dreamlovers and Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, and later in that decade worked mainly as an arranged for the Intruders, Archie Bell & the Drells, Jerry Butler and the Intrigues.
In the 70s he collaborated a lot with Gamble & Huff and arranged and at times also produced dozens and dozens of big Philly hits for such artists as Wilson Pickett, the Ebonys, Joe Simon, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, Billy Paul, MFSB, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass and many, many more.
This Grammy Award winner, who was also inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, moved to California in 1977 and those days, among others, he worked with the Jacksons, Bee Gees and Diana Ross. From the 80s onwards he did a lot of sampling and remixing of his past projects, and he’s still active today and releases new material in California, as you can read at http://bobbymartinproductions.com. There are also a lot of interviews with him on YouTube.
THERE’S NO ME WITHOUT YOU
The debut single on Columbia was a sophisticated and beautiful ballad called There’s No Me without You, and it set the pattern for the Manhattans’ other upcoming, magnificent and romantic ballads with Blue’s bass, Gerald’s lead and subtle doowop-based harmonizing creating a perfect blend. The song was written by Edward Bivins. Sonny: “That song I wrote for my wife-to-be, Amy; the whole picture of life – a home, dreams, plans for the future, hurt, pain… so I put all that together. And the song evolved into what it became. You never know, how big a song is gonna be. I just thought it was a song everybody could relate to.”
The song, which is one of Gerald’s favourites, became their biggest record so far. Released in April 1973, on Billboard’s soul charts it climbed up to # 3 – as One Life to Live had done almost a year ago – but in the hot-100 it peaked at # 43, which was the highest position for the group on the pop side up to that point.
Kenny: “I sincerely think that it could have been a lot bigger than it was. I think it could have been another Kiss and Say Goodbye, if they had put the muscle behind There’s No Me without You like they had behind Kiss and Say Goodbye. I think we would have had more mileage in terms of discography than we did.”
Blue: “It changed things dramatically for the Manhattans. We made our first trip to California, to the West Coast. We did all the major TV shows – Soul Train and all that. It was a career-changer for us.”
Gerald: “It gave us the shot in the arm. That year there was an international convention in San Francisco, and we performed there. That opened up a lot of doors for us. It opened up Europe – England, Holland, Belgium. We were able to travel and do those places.”
To make the single even more perfect, on the b-side they placed a haunting and very melodic slowie named I’m Not a Run Around, produced by Teddy Randazzo and written by him and Roger Joyce. Gerald: “Teddy was a guy that brought you the full production. He was a great person to work with. You had a chance to express yourself with him as well.” Blue: “Teddy Randazzo was the best there ever lived. He was a master.” Kenny: “I think Teddy Randazzo’s materials were more pop than the materials that Bobby Martin did.”
Drummer Larry James from the Manhattans road band. Larry was later known as the lead of Fat Larry’s Band. Photo courtesy of Jeanie Scott
THE EPONYMOUS ALBUM
Three months later the album by the same name was released. There’s No Me without You reached # 19-soul and # 150-pop. The eight tracks that Bobby Martin produced were cut at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. Gerald: “It was a very nice atmosphere. It was very difficult to get in, because you had all the Philadelphia International stars recording over there and other artists as well. We would have to go in sometimes to record five or six songs in one day. Whatever we didn’t finish, we had to come three or four months later to finish. We couldn’t come back in a week or so, that’s how booked up it was. We had to do as much as we could each time we went in.”
In August for the follow-up single they picked up from the album a pretty and sophisticated song called You’d Better Believe It (# 18-soul, # 77-pop), which was written by John Fowlkes and Roger Genger. Blue: “They gave us the opportunity to rehearsal over at Jersey City, and we awarded them by putting one of their songs on our album.” Gerald: “Mr. Genger owned the studio we rehearsed at. We had a key, and we rehearsed any day we wanted, and he never charged us.”
The b-side was a funky number titled Soul Train, and it was composed by Blue and four members of the group called Little Harlem. Blue: “Sly Stone was my favourite back then. He turned the music around completely. A lot of my writings that was uptempo music was based on a lot of things that I heard from Sly & the Family Stone.”
Gerald: “Little Harlem was our road band. They travelled with us everywhere.” Kenny: “We hand-picked the members. It wasn’t a band that somebody gave us. Initially it was Gregory Gaskins. He was our first musician, and around him we built the other ones. Our initial musicians came out of Philadelphia, and then we started picking up musicians from Jersey City; those who we felt were qualified to be with us. We wanted them to have their own identity as well.” Sonny: “They were a great bunch of guys to work with.”
The Manhattans band photo courtesy of Jeanie Scott
WISH THAT YOU WERE MINE
A lush and slightly melancholic ballad named Wish That You Were Mine was released by the end of 1973, and it only reached # 19-soul, although it had potential to a higher ranking. It was written by Blue and it’s also one of his favourites among the Manhattans recordings. Blue: “It should have been the second single after There’s No Me without You, but the record company chose to go another route and it didn’t do as well for us. They chose You’d Better Believe It. One of the leading disc jockeys back then chose Wish That You Were Mine and when Columbia Records finally released it as a single, it was a little too late.”
A mid-tempo toe-tapper called It’s So Hard Loving You was placed on the flip. This ditty was penned by Blue and Charles Reed. Blue: “Charles was a member of our road band. He was also the brother-in-law of Smitty, George Smith.” Jeanie: “Charles met Smitty’s sister Gloria while playing with the Manhattans and staying at Smitty’s mother’s house with us. Also the rest of the band stayed there, when they were in town. Charles and Gloria later married and had a daughter Dana, but have long since divorced. We all called him ‘Cheese’. That was his nickname. He was from Philadelphia, as well as the drummer, Larry “Dusty” James, later known for his group, Fat Larry’s Band.”
The b-sides of the two singles that the group released in 1974 were also culled from the album. A poignant and mellow ballad titled The Other Side of Me is credited to Gerald and Blue. Gerald: “The Other Side of Me was actually written with Sonny Bivins. That has been wrong for long, and we never really got a chance to correct it. I think we were at the Apollo Theater, when we wrote that. Sonny would take the guitar with him sometimes. He would start playing this melody, and I would just start singing it, and it developed from there. The story of the song is that you’re looking at the other side of yourself, by looking in the mirror.”
Sonny: “I’m sure everybody can relate to hurt, when a relationship goes bad. You start questioning everything. Why it happened? Could you have changed anything? What will you do next? But at the end of the day, life goes on.”
The other b-side, The Day the Robin Sang to Me, is a pretty and sunny mid-tempo song, written by Kenneth Kelly. Kenny: “I was sitting in my living room and looking out of the window, and I was just reflecting that scenery.”
Charles “Cheese” Read and Kenny Nash
(photo courtesy of Jeanie Scott)
WE MADE IT
On the album there were only two songs that weren’t put out as single sides. Blue wrote a melodic, post-doowop ballad named We Made It. Blue: “I had written that, because it was so many people back in the day during the 50s and 60s, early 70s, who didn’t believe we could make it and who didn’t believe that we were real and sincere in what we were doing. That was a message to those who didn’t believe. It was also referring to a couple, a married couple or an engaged couple. So you could take it anyway you wanted, but I actually had written it about the Manhattans’ life, in general. It was something that we were always thrown down or people turned their backs on us, and I finally felt that after this stage in our lives, signing with Columbia Records, that we made it.”
The other song that Teddy Randazzo produced in New York and co-wrote, besides I’m Not a Run Around, was a pretty and melodic slowie titled Falling Apart at the Seams. His writing partners this time were Victoria Pike and Souren Mozian. Blue: “It should have been a single. Back then, if you didn’t do million on each single, they gave you a limit of three songs out of an album. If the first three didn’t do double-platinum, they had you record another album back then.”
There’s No Me without You was a great Columbia debut album, which according to Blue the group co-produced with Bobby Martin. Sonny: “It was a well-rounded LP. I loved the song We Made It, and also Wish That You Were Mine, and Kenny’s song The Day the Robin Sang to Me. Great songs!”
Kenny: “It was a good album. It was our first opportunity with a major label, and we wanted to try to put forward our best performance. We played a very big part in putting it together, not just going to the microphone singing, but also in terms of the music, the mixing, producing, engineering… We got a chance to do all of that. So it was like an initiation process, at least from my perspective, because I began to see the mechanics behind what really goes on.”
Gerald: “I think in this industry it’s all about timing. You can have great material, but if the timing is wrong, it doesn’t mean a thing. Had it been released at an earlier time, I think it would have been a bigger hit and our album would probably have gone gold, and it would have gone gold fast.”
“I think it was one of our best albums. Every song on there, we had time to really, really sit down and rehearse with the group. I remember we used to go down to our manager’s office and we would rehearse those songs. The same thing we did with Teddy – I remember going down to Teddy’s house and rehearsing on different songs the same way.”
In Philly, at Sigma, Bobby Martin used the renowned MFSB musicians, such as Norman Harris on guitar, Ron Kersey on piano, Vince Montana on vibe, Ronnie Baker on bass, Earl Young on drums and Larry Washington on conga. Bobby Eli, the guitar virtuoso, was an integral part of the rhythm section.
Bobby: “I met the Manhattans, when Smitty was still in the group – so that would have to be around 1968 – at the Apollo Theater in New York. I was playing guitar with the Vibrations, and they were on the same show. I started working in the studio with Bobby Martin in ’73, and I was really impressed with Gerald’s voice. I couldn’t believe how good he was and how much he reminded me of young Sam Cooke.”
“They had a female manager called Hermine Hanlin at the time. I remember her and Mickey Eichner, who was vice president A&R Columbia and he was the one, who signed them, and from early on he always came to the studio to the sessions.”
“Bobby Martin was, in my opinion, the perfect producer for them. He kind of really fit like a glove. He was a good choice because of his soulful approach. His style was a little more earthy than Thom Bell. It’s amazing, how everything just sort of fell into place, especially when Kiss and Say Goodbye came along.”
Bobby plays on each album Bobby Martin produced for the Manhattans in the 70s. Bobby: “I love the Manhattans. They’ve been through a lot of ups and downs over the years, but I think their name stands for itself. They’re going to go down in history as being one of the best Philadelphia groups not being from Philadelphia.”
Gerald: “Bobby to me was THE guitar player. We had other guitar players, but Bobby was the one that put that extra colour that you needed. I remember him sitting there, and he was so cool. Whenever Bobby Martin needed that extra little touch or something, he’d go to Bobby Eli and he just put it in there.” (You can read my feature on Bobby Eli in our printed paper # 3/2003).
Occasionally on background vocals they had two of the Sweethearts of Sigma, or the Sweeties, as the trio of Carla Benson, Barbara Ingram and Evette Benton was also known. Carla: “Actually Evette didn’t do the Manhattans projects. It was just me and Barbara. I believe we did two songs in two different sessions. I mostly remember There’s No Me without You, because the note they wanted on the word ‘you’ was so high, and I nailed it!”
“Blue was always there. I remember Blue being very professional, very sure about what he wanted and how he wanted it and exactly what he wanted us to sing. I remember how kind Blue was and what a beautiful smile he had… and such a gentleman. We never worked with the Manhattans on the road, and I never understood why we were there in the studio, because those guys could really sing. But I wasn’t complaining either. It was a privilege and an honour to work with the fabulous Manhattans. I am humbled and honoured to this day, whenever I think about it.” (You can read my feature on Carla Benson in our printed paper # 1/2004).
SUMMERTIME IN THE CITY
Sonny on the year of 1973: “we really worked a lot that first year at Columbia. Between recording in the studio and live performances, everything was moving so fast that we hardly had a minute to catch our breath. And time off – ha, what was that? Our manager, Ms. Hermin Hanlin, was going to make sure that the name of the Manhattans was going to be fresh in everybody’s mind. She wanted to make us the cornerstone for vocal groups in the entertainment industry. At that point I felt like it couldn’t get any better – wrong!”
In the early summer of 1974 Summertime in the City was released. This mid-tempo, darkish dancer was written by Blue, and again it bears a resemblance to those psychedelic tracks that Norman Whitfield used to produce on the Temptations. Blue: “If you’ve been to New York, you can understand what that song is about… the hustle and hot summers in that city – that was my vision on that song. I didn’t even know it was a single. Columbia had the control over choosing singles, not the Manhattans.” Columbia chose wrongly, because the single stalled at # 45-soul.
A pleading soul ballad called Don’t Take Your Love fared better and it was actually the first top-40 song for the group on Billboard’s hot-100 (# 7-soul, # 37-pop) in late 1974. This melodic and classy song was written by Allan Felder, Ron Kersey and Bunny Sigler. Gerald: “I think Bunny submitted it to Bobby Martin, and Bobby played it for us, and that’s how we even met Bunny for the first time.”
Bunny: “We wrote the song especially for the Manhattans. Bobby Martin was the main producer on that. Bobby knew that I write love songs and I had written many for the O’Jays, so he came to me for that kind of song. In the session I played the piano.”
“The Manhattans is a great group. Gerald is a great singer. I wish I had done more things with them. A lot of times, when politics get involved with cutting with different groups and some people won’t let other people get involved, a lot of different things go down. On the Manhattans, somebody else had the production thing, and I was doing so much. I was writing with Gamble and Huff, for their company, and then I did stuff with Norman Harris and Allan Felder. You learn as you go along. You finish one group, you go to another group.” Blue: “Bunny is one of the best in the business, a fantastic writer.”
THAT’S HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU
Almost simultaneously with the Don’t Take Your Love single, the second Columbia album titled That’s How Much I Love You was released. The title song, an uptempo and melodic disco cut, was again composed by Bunny and Allan Felder but this time the third writer was Norman Harris. Bunny: “I call it dance music. It’s all funk. It all depends on the time of the year what they’re calling it.”
Surprisingly, the song wasn’t released as a single. Gerald: “CBS would select things. They would ask us what we liked. We would tell them what we liked, they would look at it and something they liked and they would come up with a decision of which one they would release.”
Bunny himself is still very active these days. Bunny: “I’m back to recording. I have a single out called You Never Know (available also on YouTube). I have been in the studio cutting Instant Funk, and I’m cutting myself. They have a new band in Philadelphia, which is musicians, who have played with all the top artists from Stevie Wonder to Alicia Keys, to Beyoncé… all the big acts. It’s called the Urban Guerilla Orchestra. They did a show with War and they were so good that when War came on people were walking out. They play everybody’s music better than the people, but they needed original material, so I wrote four songs for them.”
Self-evidently the two preceding singles – Summertime in the City and Don’t Take Your Love – were the opening tracks on the album. Sonny: “The extended version of Don’t Take Your Love from Me was on the LP. Blue has more of a talking part. The 45 is shorter.” On the A-side there are also two songs that Teddy Randazzo co-wrote, a beautiful soul waltz called Save Our Goodbyes and a melodic mid-pacer titled I Don’t Want to Pay the Price of Losing You.
The B-side of the album surprised many a Manhattans fan. When signing the group, Columbia had also purchased the old DeLuxe masters, and now they placed five of those older songs – including Blackbird, Strange Old World and Fever – on the flip side. Gerald: “I think during that time they needed an album and I think we may have been a little behind schedule. So we did five new songs and they used five other songs, because they had bought our catalogue from Starday-King.”
Kenny: “We really didn’t have a choice in that. That decision was made above our heads. We as the members of the group only had a certain amount of power. We couldn’t tell the record company ‘no, we don’t want you to do that’. We could just express our displeasure about the decisions. I think that space could have been utilized much more effectively.” Blue: “I think they were trying to milk every song that we had done, tried to get everything while we were riding hot.”
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
One of those old tracks was a version of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, which is a rather lame interpretation and not as inspired as Gerald’s later renditions. Gerald: “We didn’t have time to prepare at Starday-King like we did at Columbia. We recorded that song and our guitar player, Charles Reed, did the arrangement for that. We were in Macon, Georgia, for a week or ten days, and we worked and recorded, while we were there. We got to the studio to record, to start an album, and James Brown was in the studio. I remember us sitting out waiting for him to finish his last session, and we didn’t get in until that night. We really didn’t have time to put it together like we wanted to.” Blue’s funky dancer named Nursery Rhymes closes the album.
On the sleeve it says “produced by Manhattans Production, Inc. & Bobby Martin” and Mickey Eichner is credited as an executive producer. Blue: “Hermine Hanlin was our manager, but Mickey Eichner and Hermine were great friends. The record company would send one of the execs out to make sure that she wasn’t wasting time on your recording sessions, that every hour was accounted for, so Mickey was there as an exec producer. He didn’t do any of the music. He was just there to see that we didn’t waste any time and there was no overcharging.”
”Gerald: “Bobby Martin would cut the tracks. We would go down the same day he cut tracks, and we would do our vocals behind those tracks. Like I said, a lot of times when we were there (at Sigma) we didn’t have much time. He would make a rough of the tracks. Then we’d go in and I would do a scratch lead and then we’d do background vocals and I’d come back and do the lead.”
Kenny: “Reflecting back over, I think That’s How Much I Love You was an album that sort of put us into a more pop thing. It was one of those transitional albums.” At any rate, it wasn’t as successful as its predecessor, floundering only to # 59-soul and # 160-pop.
An achingly beautiful arrangement by Bobby Martin and delivery by the Manhattans gave the cover of an old Al Jacobs & Jimmie Crane song called Hurt a boost to hit # 10-soul and # 97-pop after its April 1975 release. The song was originally recorded by Roy Hamilton in 1954, and since then at least Timi Yuro (in ’61) and a country singer Juice Newton (’85) have scored with it.
Kenny: “I thought it was a good song. Elvis Presley did it. Little Anthony did it. We turned around and did it. Each time somebody did it, it became a hit.” The Manhattans’ version went as high as # 4 on the U.K. charts, but only in October 1976 after its release behind Kiss and Say Goodbye. Gerald: “Mickey Eichner chose that song. That song became a silver disc in Holland and England, I believe.”
Blue: “What we tried to do on each of our albums is to go back and get a couple of tunes and standards. That’s what our vision was, anyway. Hurt was very big in Europe and Canada.”
KISS AND SAY GOODBYE
Kiss and Say Goodbye is the Manhattans’ signature song. Recorded at the same time as Hurt, the song was released only in March 1976 and it hit the pole position in Billboard’s hot-100 for two weeks on July 24 and # 1 also on the soul chart for one week on May 22. In the U.K. it shot up to # 4 in June 1976. It also became the second single in the music history, after Johnnie Taylor’s Disco Lady, to be certified platinum for sales of two million. It sold altogether over four million copies.
This poignant and beautiful country-soul song about a love triangle was written by Blue. Blue: “I used to get my songs a lot of times while I was asleep, and I would wake up with the melody in my head, go back to sleep and when I woke up for good I’d lost the song. So this particular song, I woke up in the middle of the night, I went into my den and sat down on the keyboards, so I wouldn’t forget it. I wrote it down and recorded it a little bit to start it off in the morning. When I woke up, I finished it.”
“I didn’t write this for the Manhattans. I wrote it for a country artist, like Glen Campbell or Charlie Pride. Back then they were with Columbia Records also. At that time I was more into writing than anything, and I couldn’t vision the Manhattans singing a country song like this. My first arrangement of this was a country arrangement.”
Gerald: “We didn’t like it, because we thought it was a country & western song… which it is – and turned out to be our biggest hit! Shining Star was another perfect example as well. It was a c&w tune. Our biggest hits were c&w tunes.”
Bobby Eli: “In the beginning the guitar introduction, which I played, had sort of a little country kind of feel to it. I just did it from the top of my head. It just kind of hit me at the time. After we finished the track and we’re on our way to the control room, Ronnie Baker, the bass player, got up and started laughing. He said ‘man, what’s with this country & western shit’, and he took his music paper and made believe he’s wiping his butt with it. He said ‘he-he-he-he, it’s gonna never sell’.”
Kenny: “I think it was a phenomenal song. Initially we never chose it to be an A-side. The company chose that. We liked the tune, but we didn’t like it as an A-side.” Blue: “That was a disco era, and we didn’t want a ballad during a disco era.”
During the time of the release of the single Blue said in an interview that “I did the background parts. Bobby Martin did the arrangement. He and I sat together and I showed him how I wanted the rhythm to go. Then I talked to out lead singer, Gerald. He’s a real soulful, gospel guy, and I told him I wanted it straight. I heard this as a strictly country-type thing, sung by a black person.”
According to LeBaron Taylor, head of CBS’s black music division, CBS emphasized releasing a first single from an upcoming album with white as well as black appeal. The ideal was to break it on black radio, build sales into the half million range, and then aim this “hit” at “mainstream” audiences (Nelson George: The Death of Rhythm & Blues).
Kiss and Say Goodbye sold nearly a million in the black market before it crossed over. Blue: “In the U.S. back then, if you’re an African-American r&b artist, your records would have to go to number one on r&b stations with a bullet for the pop stations even to recognize it. So we proved not only it was a r&b hit, a country hit – it was also a pop hit. At one time one of the country artists recorded Kiss and Say Goodbye and I just happened to go to a country station and look at it, and he had put down a different writer and a different publisher and we had to put that right.”
“I was just disappointed with a pitch problem. Musicians can hear it, but Columbia again was right. They didn’t want us to go back in and touch it. They wanted to send it out just as it was, and it worked. It was some off-pitch parts in the background. It made me grit my teeth. My skin would crawl.”
Gerald: “It wasn’t complete vocally. I had to do my lead vocals over and we never got a chance to do it over. They just mixed it and released it as it was. But it showed the human side of us recording, because totally perfect songs for me don’t show the human side. I didn’t realise it until later on. It shows we have feelings.”
Columbia released two single versions, a “full version” and a “single edit.” Blue: “Pop stations didn’t like the rap the way I was talking, like Barry White, Isaac Hayes or Lou Rawls. They didn’t like that talking in the beginning. They felt it would sell better, if it was without the rap. I was fine with that. Whatever would sell records that was fine.”
The company also released an X-rated version of the song (Columbia As 263). Blue: “Mickey Eichner had me do an X-rated recording. Promotionally we sent the X-rated out to r&b stations before the original single came out, just to hype them, to get them ready. Everybody was excited and it was an excellent idea from Mickey. I Kinda Miss You also had an X-rated version” (on the flip). Kiss and Say Goodbye was also released as a 12” maxi-single on Columbia 10506.
On the b-side of Kiss and Say Goodbye they placed Bob Riley’s melodic and lush ballad called Wonderful World of Love, which had been cut in Macon, Georgia. Two of the many artists that have covered Kiss and Say Goodbye are N-Phase (in ’94) and UB40 (in 2005). You can watch live video clips of the Manhattans singing the song on YouTube, as well as performances of I Kinda Miss You, Shining Star, Crazy and You Send Me.
Gerald: “Kiss was our biggest hit. It opened the doors for us. I think it was a great song, and I realised that that was what we needed and Columbia made the right choice at the time. We thought it was the worst choice, but it worked and I’m very happy that it did.”
Sonny: “To say we were elated would be an understatement. The song was a smash hit in the middle of the disco era during 1976. That year we were nominated for an American Music Award for that song.” They also toured Britain and U.S. Armed forces bases in Germany in early ’77.
THE MANHATTANS ALBUM
In the spring of 1976, right behind Kiss and Say Goodbye, Columbia released the third, self-titled album by the group on the label. Carried by the huge hit single, the album peaked at # 6-soul and # 16-pop, which still today is the highest Billboard’s “TOP LPs” position for the group. It stayed on the charts for half a year and became their first gold album, another remarkable achievement for the group. Sonny: “With the success of Kiss, the LP was going to be big. That’s the way we felt, and it went gold.” It hit # 37 in the U.K. charts.
The ten-track set was produced by both Manhattans Productions, Inc. & Bobby Martin, and the Manhattans with Bert deCoteaux. Bobby arranged and cut his tracks at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, whereas Bert arranged and cut his material at Columbia Recording Studios in New York. Those days Bert was hot with Ben E. King and Supernatural Thing.
Bert deCoteaux is a producer/arranger/writer and keyboard player out of New York, who has worked with numerous artists throughout the years. Besides Ben E. King there are Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Marlena Shaw, Millie Jackson, B.B. King, Bloodstone, Ace Spectrum, Albert King, Dr. Feelgood, Ramsey Lewis, Crown Heights Affair, Z.Z. Hill and Main Ingredient. He passed away in 2005.
Gerald: “Bert was good to work with. He was reserved, but he knew his stuff. He had a great taste.” Kenny: “I thought Bobby Martin could have done that by himself. As I said, there were some decisions we weren’t able to deal with. I just felt that Bobby’s choice of material, the approach to his whole production and attitude were a lot more comfortable for me to work with him than Bert deCoteaux. We felt like Bobby was one of the boys.”
Bobby Eli: “In one session for that album Bobby Martin was standing there counting off the song and he poked himself in the eye with a drum stick. He was holding a drumstick like a baton… but everybody laughed about it.”
The album kicks off with a pleasant and airy Philly type of a dancer called Searching for Love, which Bobby produced and Mikki Farrow, Bruce Gray and Allan Felder wrote. A romantic ballad named We’ll Have Forever to Love came from Sonny’s pen. Sonny: “…just the feelings we all have, when were in love; that we will be with that someone forever, but it doesn’t always work out that way. But that’s life, and you have to move on.”
Take It or Leave It is a peaceful ballad, which Evie Sands co-wrote and which originally appeared on her Estate of Mind album in 1974. Gerald: “I like that song. I remember, when Mickey Eichner brought it to us, I loved it from the beginning. And I really enjoyed listening to Evie Sands sing it.”
Reasons is a song from Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World album in 1975, and Bert produced it for the Manhattans. Blue: “We tried to get a cover song on every one of our albums.” The closing track on the A-side is Blue’s catchy and effortless dancer titled How Can Anything So Good Be So Bad for You, again produced by Bert.
If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me is a classy and moody ballad, which has been cut by G.C. Cameron, Freddie North and Bobby Sheen, too. The song was written by Frank Johnson, also known as Frank-o, a recording artist in his own right and a brilliant Southern soul writer and producer. Frank: “I wrote If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me for G.C. Cameron on Motown Records. He recorded it and released it. Then Wishbone Productions pitched it to CBS, for the Manhattans.”
Finally La La La Wish upon a Star was a poppy and melodic, “sing-along” ballad from Teddy Randazzo, Victoria Pike and Roger Joyce. As a whole, The Manhattans offers melodic, beautiful and romantic music. Also the two uptempo cuts are quite irresistible. With smooth harmony, Blue’s monologues, Gerald’s leads and full orchestration, the group carved its niche and cemented their winning formula. Kenny: “I thought it was a very good album. I thought the artwork on it was very unique. The photographer (Shig Ikeda) was very creative in his conceptualization.”
“Ricky” or “Richie” Taylor (baritone) went to Snyder High with George Smith in the 50s, served together with Sonny Bivins in the Air Force in Germany in the late 50s and became a permanent member of the Manhattans in the early 60s. It was, however, right after Kiss and Say Goodbye in 1976 that Richard left the group.
Sonny: “He left due to personal religious beliefs. He became Abdul Rashid Talhal. For a while we kept a mic-stand in his place on stage, but after about a year or so we knew he wasn’t coming back and the Manhattans became a quartet. He was just a real nice, happy-go-lucky guy… hell of a singer, too. Richard, Smitty and I were very close and it hurt me now that both of my dearest friends were gone from the group.”
Blue: “He still sang on the album, but he became an orthodox Muslim, and his religion and his thoughts were not into music and the things that we were doing, so we gave him from April to December. He left in April 1976. He quit. He didn’t want any more of it, he couldn’t take touring. He was deeply into his religion, and we had to honour this, and we respected it. So the four of us went on by ourselves and we had the door open for him till the end of the year, but he never wanted to come back.”
Kenny: “Richard was a nice guy. He was the heaviest out of us all. Richard was more or less the street guy of the group. He knew the streets very well. He taught us a lot of things (laughing), and he loved to sing. When we started working together, Richard was always the last one to come to the table, so to speak. If we had to go somewhere and we had to be there at a particular time, Richard was the last one. But once he got there, he was serious about what it was he was there for.”
Jeanie Scott: “Richard used to come by the house and visit us sometimes after Smitty got sick and was out of the group. Richie marched to the beat of a different drummer, you could say. Just when they hit success, he dropped out of the group to become a Muslim and it was very confusing for Kenny and the fellows. Richard Taylor’s wife, Martha Taylor, was a songwriter. She wrote a couple of the Manhattans’ songs.” I Can’t Stand for You to Leave Me on DeLuxe in 1971 was one of those songs.
Phil Terrell: “He was a very nice person. He was a lot of fun also, but he was more to the point of things.” Blue: “He has three kids. Everybody loved Richie. He was very comical. He had you laughing all the time – always doing cracks with people, fooling and joking with somebody. On depressing days he would help us realise how far we had come.”
“On the day Kiss and Say Goodbye was released and we reached the top-10, he retired for religious reasons. The longer we went and the hotter we became as far as travelling abroad and doing bigger things, he seemed to pull more in different direction. He didn’t want to deal with the riffraff, the crazy things happening in the music business. He was sort of pulling away, like being a minister more or less. He didn’t want to sing anymore.”
Richard left the music business altogether, and he passed away on December 7 in 1987 in Kansas City. Blue: “We were told it was cancer. We were in Japan, and we got a phone call from one of his brothers, who told us he had just died. Before any of his family could get out to Kansas City, being a Muslim, they had buried him already.”
I KINDA MISS YOU
Written again by Blue, as the next single in late 1976 they released another beautiful gem of a ballad called I Kinda Miss You, almost like a sequence to Kiss. Blue: “It was like a follow-up, like an apology: I changed my mind. I still miss you. If I could get you back…” This elegant song landed at # 7-soul and # 46-pop. On the flip they had Sonny’s song called Gypsy Man. Sonny: “It was mainly about the everyday life of being on the road as an entertainer.”
In January 1977 the Manhattans performed at the Inaugural Ball at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. Sonny: “What an honour! Not everybody gets to play for the President. I had the pleasure of doing it twice, later at Christmas 1999 for President Clinton.” Gerald: “That was great. They had a lot of ball that night. It was a big shot in the arm, and it was an honour for us. We were the only one to perform there. I think they had a jazz band or something before us, but basically it was us.”
Blue: “Quite an experience! Just to be considered for an Inaugural Ball was quite a privilege… one of the highlights of my career.”
IT FEELS SO GOOD
In early 1977, the title song of the Manhattans’ next album, which had hit the streets already a month or so earlier, was released as the next single. A tender soul ballad named It Feels So Good to Be Loved So Bad was again produced and co-written by Teddy Randazzo, and it raced to # 6-soul and # 66-pop. Gerald: “That’s one of my favourite tunes, because that’s one of the songs that Teddy produced. I loved working with Teddy. Teddy played practically every instrument.”
“I remember one time, when I went to get the copy of a song to take to Bobby Martin, Teddy had an orchestra in his house. He had a studio in his house, and he had an orchestra sitting right there in the living room. They were putting strings and horns that night on a demo, finishing it up. I remember when we gave it to Bobby Martin. He said ‘what you want me to do with it’, because basically it was already done.”
On the b-side they put Kenny Kelly’s pretty ballad titled Up on the Street (Where I Live). Kenny: “It came from an experience of riding up on the street where I live. I was in the manhole area and I was looking up the street, and I saw signs. Everything in the song is related to me being in that manhole, looking at what I saw.” Although in one article at the time it was printed that Kenny produced this song in Ohio on another group, he doesn’t agree with it. Kenny: “If it’s produced on somebody else, they have done it without my knowledge.”
Besides that title tune, the rest of the tracks on the It Feels So Good album were produced and arranged by Bobby Martin. The Manhattans used the familiar pattern of their own group, Little Harlem, cutting the demo rhythm tracks and then Bobby arranging them for MFSB. Sonny: “Great LP, and it felt so good, when we got a gold record out of it.” Again decorating the album charts for about half a year, it crept to # 12-soul and # 68-pop.
Sonny wrote Let’s Start It All over Again, a light and gentle slowie, which one could interpret as another chapter in the Kiss & I Kinda Miss You story. Sonny: “It was just about being in and out of love, relationships. I never meant it to be a sequence, but maybe it comes across like that.”
Blue’s uptempo It’s You is a very pleasant and melodic, feel-good song. Blue: “… had a little country flavour to that one, too.” In the U.K. this song was released as a single, and it landed at # 43 in April 1977. Blue also wrote a truly beautiful and haunting waltz called I’ll See You Tomorrow. Blue: “that was a country song.”
Sonny penned It Just Can’t Stay This Way, a slightly dramatic soul ballad. Sonny: “There comes a time, when things aren’t going the right way. You either live it, or change it. But whatever you choose, it just can’t be like it was.”
Another haunting and soothing gem of a slowie is Gerald’s and Sonny’s We Never Danced to a Love Song, one of Gerald’s favourites. Gerald: “We wrote that in England. We were on a promotional tour. I went to Sonny’s room one night, and again Sonny pulled out his guitar and started playing some melodies, and we wrote it in his room that night, came back home and recorded it.” As a single in the summer of 1977 the song bounced up to # 10-soul and # 93-pop.
Jeanie: “I remember when the Manhattans were rehearsing We Never Danced to a Love Song. I was in the studio, where they practiced in Jersey City above the State Theater. Another day, while I was over Kenny’s house chatting with him, I asked him about the change of direction. He told me they were going a little for the country as Kenny Rogers had so much success with it at the time.”
Blue’s Mind Your Business is a bit messy funk number and a big contrast to the rest of the program on the album. Blue: “This was a message to people who get in other people’s business, who start bad rumours. Columbia did the choosing of the songs, and they decided to put that on.”
The closing slowie, Too Much for Me to Bear, was written by R.S. Riley, Sr. and it offers one of Gerald’s most impressive vocal performances on record. Blue: “Bob Riley was our promotion man. We would take his lyrics and put our own melodies to it. He’d bring the song to us, just as a poem, and we would make the melodies for his songs. I don’t think we took credit for writing on this, but a lot of times that’s what happened. Bob passed many years ago.”
Although a matter of taste, this writer feels that It Feels So Good is even better than its predecessor and considers it as one of the most romantic soul albums ever. Almost all the melodies are written by the group members, there are a lot of Blue’s soothing recitations and to set you in the right late-night mood there are as many as eight slow songs on display.
AM I LOSING YOU
In 1977 the group wrote songs for two movie soundtracks, “The Class of Miss MacMichael” and “Moving.” Blue: “We went on a tour to Europe, and when we got to Germany they wanted to do a movie about a tour roadie. They gave us the concept, and one night I just wrote the song Moving. It was an overnight thing – real quick, as fast as I could – and they liked it, I guess, and put it on the soundtrack. It was a national hit, only.” Silvio Narizzano directed the ’78 comedy about Miss MacMichael, a teacher played by Glenda Jackson. The composer/music score credits go to Stanley Myers. A Manhattans song called The Closer You Are from that movie was released on their 1980 album.
The very same year the Manhattans also received NATRA’s award, Outstanding Group of the Year, together with the Commodores. Blue: “It was quite an honour again. In fact, we were riding so high in 1977, it was unbelievable. It was like a dream come true. It was something that we, these high school guys, never visioned in our wildest dreams.”
The group was also a popular live act, and throughout the years they had polished their stage performance. Gerald: “We used to do white gloves and black light. When you turned the lights out, all you could see is our hands going through the air. We would do a choreography thing that we called ‘figure-8’. It was very exciting, and the audience loved it.”
Alvin Fields, Barbara Morr and Douglas Stender wrote the next classy ballad for the group – actually already 7th slow single in a row – called Am I Losing You. The name Barbara Morr pops up later quite often in writer credits on songs for the Manhattans and Gerald Alston. Blue: “It’s a terrific song. We still get a lot of requests for that song now.” Gerald: “After we finished that song, Barbara and I started writing together.” In early 1978 the song flew in at # 6-soul and # 101-pop. It was backed with Blue’s sweet, smooth and sentimental song named Movin’, from the German TV movie.
THERE’S NO GOOD IN GOODBYE
The Manhattans’ early ’78 album, There’s No Good in Goodbye, wasn’t certified gold anymore and on Billboard’s album charts it peaked at # 18-soul and # 78-pop. It was produced by Bobby Martin and the Manhattans and recorded at Total Experience Sound Studios in Hollywood, California. Mixing was still done at Sigma in Philly, though.
The title song, a powerful ballad with rich orchestration, was composed by Teddy Randazzo and Roger Joyce. Gerald: “Teddy did the title song. It never got play in this country. It was one of those songs that Columbia just didn’t push. It was a very big song for us in Europe, Far East, South Africa, Jamaica, all over Caribbean countries, but they never released it as a single.”
Blue: “As sensational producer and arranger as Teddy was, he didn’t want to interfere with the marriage that we had with Bobby Martin, so a lot of times on things he had written he let Bobby hear his arrangements and collectively they would do it together.”
On the album the title song was followed by a cover of the Casinos’ early ’67 hit, Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye. This memorable tune was written by John D. Loudermilk, and on this version towards the end of the song the Manhattans burst into a fast and gospelly delivery.
Tomorrow, a melodic slow song, derived from the musical Annie and it was a minor hit (# 74-soul) for Cissy Houston on Private Stock in ’77. Blue: “She’s a very good friend. We love her very much. In Jamaica and the Islands they love that song, Tomorrow.”
Share My Life is a smooth, middle-of-the-road slowie. Gerald: Glenn Rockwell and Lloyd Donnelly wrote it. Glenn was our percussionist at that time and Lloyd played bass for us.”
The only fast track on the album, the sparkling Happiness, was written by Blue, and it was followed by one of Gerald’s favourites again, a tender and sweet serenade called You’re My Life, composed by Teddy Randazzo, Victoria Pike and Roger Joyce. This is the only song on the album, where Teddy is credited as an arranger. Bob Riley’s Goodbye Is the Saddest Word is a poignant ballad. Blue: “Again, we put the melody to that. He gave us the lyrics, and we put it together the best we could.”
The final song on the set was chosen as their next single, but it only floundered to # 65-soul in the summer of 1978. The song was a cover of Billy Joel’s Everybody Has a Dream, which derives from Billy’s platinum album called Stranger in ’77. Gerald: “It was a big hit in the south, but not nationwide. A lot of people down south loved it. We were big in the South-East.” The group took the song to church. On the album the running time of their powerful and impressive delivery is 7:05.
Blue: “When Billy Joel sent his rendition of it, we just added JFK and Martin Luther King. We felt like we should honour our leaders in that particular song.” Gerald: “I remember recording Everybody Has a Dream, and my voice cracked at one point and I told Bobby Martin ‘I want to do it again’, and Bobby said ‘no we’re gonna leave it just like it is because of the feeling you have on there. You’ll be never able to recapture that feeling’… and it worked!”
There’s No Good in Goodbye sounds almost as good as its magnificent predecessor. It may take a little more time to absorb, but on this set there’s not a dud on display. Gerald: “That’s the album that Columbia lost. They didn’t remember that we recorded it (laughing). That was one of our greatest albums, too.” Sonny: “I like that LP. We did a few Broadway songs, like from the play Annie. That was a change as far as what we had been doing. You like to challenge yourself sometimes. I think it’s good for your craft as an entertainer.”
Kenny: “I just felt that that album was too over the edge. I think they were pushing to group too fast to the pop side and leaving the roots of what got us to where we were. I think that album could have been laced with more things that sounded like the Manhattans. You could have peppered some of those things into our albums later on, but at that particular junction I just thought the whole project was too pop.”
At that time there was also talk about the group cutting a doowop album, but – although the Manhattans call themselves “progressive doowoppers” – that project never materialized.
HERE COMES THE HURT AGAIN
A beautiful and melancholic ballad called Here Comes the Hurt Again was released as a single in early 1979, but for some strange reason this gem escaped the hot-100 altogether and appeared on Billboard’s soul chart only, stalling at # 29. This was the second Frank Johnson song the group recorded. Frank: “Here Comes the Hurt Again was pitched to the Manhattans, from Wishbone Productions in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.” Frank used to work as a staff writer at Wishbone.
The b-side, Kenny Kelly’s Don’t Say Goodbye, didn’t appear on any album. Kenny: “It’s a ballad, and it never really got any exposure. I wasn’t mad, but I just felt that maybe somewhere on the line somebody could have played it.”
Three production units worked on the Manhattans’ final 70s album titled Love Talk (# 20-soul, # 141-pop), but no Bobby Martin in sight this time. Gerald: “By that time Bobby had moved away. He was already in California, when we did the last album with him, There’s No Good in Goodbye.” Blue: “We were then finished with Bobby Martin. Bobby became very religious and he moved away from Philadelphia and the riffraff of Philadelphia and the Sigma Sound Studios.” Bobby was working in California for A&M and was busy with L.T.D. Already their first joint album in 1977, Something to Love, was certified gold and after that they reached the platinum level with both Togetherness (’78) and Devotion (’79). Another group that Bobby concentrated on those days was Tavares (e.g. Madam Butterfly on Capitol in ’79).
Released in March 1979, on Love Talk the Manhattans had the Sweethearts of Soul backing them again. Blue: “They were sensational. We did our version first, and they came in and did their part.” Gerald: “Those ladies were awesome.”
Bert deCoteaux and the Manhattans produced together and Bert arranged two songs that they cut in New York. The opener, After You, is a melodic and smooth ballad, which some of you may remember as Cissy Houston’s gorgeous rendition on her Think it over album on Private Stock a year earlier. I Just Wanna Be the One in Your Life, on the other hand, is a lighter and more poppy song, which the Waters had cut on Warner Bros. two years earlier. Gerald: “Mickey Eichner brought a lot of cover songs to the group.”
Scorpicon Music, Inc. produced three tracks, which were cut at Sigma. Blue: “I’m a November guy and Gerald’s a November guy, so in astrology we’re Scorpios. That’s our sign. Sonny and Kenny were Capricorns, so we combined the two names. It was our production company back then.” Dennis Harris was the arranger on one and Mike Foreman on two tracks. Bobby Eli: “Michael ‘Sugar Bear’ Foreman was a bass player, who played in the studio with us. He passed away some years ago.”
Dennis arranged Sonny’s “crying clown” ballad named That’s Not Part of the Show. Sonny: “On stage the public sees you one way, but at the end of the day you’re just a human being like everyone else. You go through everyday life situations. That’s what I wanted the song to project.”
Mike had his hand at the title song, Blue’s toe-tapper, what you could even call a neo-doowop dancer. Mike’s second contribution was a medley of The Way We Were & Memories. Sonny: “Nobody does it like Barbra Streisand, but we had a beautiful arrangement on those songs that we felt the public would like to hear. So we did it and it really turned out good for us.”
The Way We Were was a gold record for Barbra in 1973, and Gladys Knight also used it in her ’75 medley of The Way We Were & Try to Remember. Egbert Van Alstyne and Gus Kahn wrote the tender Memories as early as in 1915. Released as a single in the summer of 1979, the medley struggled to # 33-soul. Blue: “We got a good response from that. It didn’t do good sales-wise, but it’s one of the most requested songs on our show back then. We did it live. Mike Foreman, one of the guys in the MFSB band and a bass player for the Blue Notes for a long time, co-produced it and he tried to get that live effect.”
The third production team consisted of Jack Faith and the Manhattans, and the tracks were cut at Sigma. Jack did the arrangements. Gerald: “Jack was good. You had a chance to express yourself as well. He let you do your thing.”
The Right Feeling at the Wrong Time is a beat-ballad, which had charted (# 58-soul, # 65-pop) for the group Hot on the Big Tree label in 1977.
Devil in the Dark is a Mighty Three Music song, which verifies Philly quality of highest order. This very slow and soft, moody song was written by Talmadge Gerald Conway, Allan Felder and Cary Grant Gilbert (you can read my feature on T.G. Conway in our printed paper # 3/2005). Gerald: “Allan Felder and Jack Faith brought that song to us.”
Bobby Eli: “I remember Devil in the Dark. I played on that. My favourites among the Manhattans recordings? I would have to say definitely Kiss and Say Goodbye. Don’t Take Your Love is another favourite. I guess Hurt would be the next. We Never Danced to a Love Song is another one. I like the way they did Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye. That’s a good remake of a classic song.”
New York City is Blue’s perky disco dancer, and as a closing track there’s another tune from Blue, a passionate and intense deepie called We Tried – arguably the cream cut on the album.
Although the group had earlier threatened to release a disco album, they luckily stuck to their own smooth and sweet style on Love Talk, which contains actually only two fast tracks. Sonny: “That album was a very nice combination of songs – medium tempo and ballads. We had fun with the song Love Talk. You can hear us reminiscing about how we would sing in the bathroom for the echo sound. That was our effects back then, hah-haa.”
Kenny: “I don’t think the album did what it could have done based on the fact that it was again too poppish. I understand that the people, who were behind it, tried to take us over to where the money was, but then again you can’t throw a kid in the water that doesn’t know how to swim and tell him to swim. A lot of decisions were made above our heads. We had to go along with those decisions based on the fact that it wasn’t our money that was spent.”
Gerald: “Love Talk was a good album. It was showing our progression, because CBS wanted to keep us in the ballad thing, and it was a different side of us. We were, of course, a balladeer group and that was a major part of our success that we stayed true to what we were doing. We wanted to try the disco stuff, but it was refused by CBS. They wanted us to do just what we’ve been doing, and through the whole disco era we continued to sing our ballads.”
In the 70s the Manhattans had nine top-ten songs on the soul charts – One Life to Live, There’s No Me without You, Don’t Take Your Love, Hurt, the platinum Kiss and Say Goodbye, I Kinda Miss You, It Feels So Good To Be Loved So Bad, We Never Danced to a Love Song and I’m I Losing You. Add to that still two half-a-million selling albums – The Manhattans and It Feels So Good – and you can talk about a golden decade for the group. But that wasn’t the end of it. There was still a huge hit waiting just around the corner..
It was a song that we were working on at home, at the basement studio, and we were just doing some creation on some things, Paul Richmond and myself, and it just kind of came about. Sometimes things just happen.” According to Leo Graham’s reminiscence above, the Grammy-winning Shining Star came into existence almost by accident. Leo was the producer and co-writer of this beautiful and haunting gem of a ballad, one of the most memorable love serenades in our music.
In 1980 the Manhattans in the line-up of Gerald Alston, Edward “Sonny” Bivins, Kenny Kelly and Windfred “Blue” Lovett were still basking in the afterglow of their success in the previous decade, when the group garnered as many as 10 top-ten soul records, highlighting in one platinum single – Kiss and Say Goodbye – and two gold albums, The Manhattans and It Feels So Good.
Kenny Kelly: “With our relationship with our manager and CBS we became professionals at what we were doing. We learned the business. We learned management. We learned booking. We learned negotiations. We learned promoting. It was a grooming process for us from the beginning of the 70s all the way to ’79. Our determination that we were showing was an inspiration to the people we were working with, and they gave us an opportunity to move forward.”
As the new decade dawned, the group came up with another smash!
Leo Graham, Jr. was born in Stuttgart, Arkansas, in 1941. Leo: “I started out, when I was very young in high school and in singing groups around the city of Chicago, and I started to learn instruments. I moved to Chicago from Arkansas, when I was very young. I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life.”
Besides the Manhattans, Leo is best known for his three-decade-long partnership with the late Tyrone Davis. “I first started out as a songwriter. I had the fortune and pleasure of writing a song called I Keep Coming Back (on Dakar 616 in 1970), which was the b-side of Turn Back the Hands of Time. I was the co-writer on that with a gentleman named Floyd Smith. That was the first song I wrote, when I started out writing songs. We were very close with Tyrone. We were like brothers – like with Blue. After I started with Blue, we got very, very close… as well as with the other guys – Gerald, Kenny and Sonny.”
Tyrone Davis: “Leo met me. He knew Floyd Smith. They were writing together. He was just trying to do something, before he met me. Nobody knew anything about Leo Graham. After he started writing for me, he did such a good job that I wanted him to produce me. He became my producer, when we did the album Turning Point” (Soul Express # 3/95: The Tyrone Davis story, part 1).
Leo: “I think it was around 1974-75, when I started working at Curtom Records, owned by Curtis Mayfield. I was a songwriter there for a couple of years, and I signed there to do a record of my own, too, which never happened. I also did some things with Linda Clifford for Curtom Records.” Linda recorded for Curtom and RSO six albums between 1977 and ’80, and Linda and Leo worked together still later on Capitol in the early 80s.
Leo: “After the Turning Point album was so successful, Tyrone changed companies because of some things that went on internally between him and Brunswick and Dakar. We signed with Columbia Records around 1976. I met the Manhattans after I did a couple of albums with Tyrone Davis on Columbia Records.”
Leo and Tyrone cut altogether seven albums for Columbia between 1976 and ’81, and they found their biggest success during this period with such songs as Give it Up (Turn it Loose), This I Swear and In the Mood. Leo: “The Manhattans were also signed to Columbia. There was an A&R person with Columbia Records, Joe McEwen, and he approached me possibly doing something for them, and I agreed.”
Blue Lovett: “Leo’s the best. He sings every line to Gerald Alston, and he knows what he wants… a very polished producer. And not only Leo Graham, but you’d have to mention Paul Richmond, who actually did the music. Paul Richmond was Leo’s partner. He was a bass player. He’s a musician. Between him and Leo, the melody was Paul, I think, and the lyrics were Leo Graham.”
Gerald Alston: “It was a pleasure to work with him. Leo was very articulate. He wanted a certain way, and that’s how he worked. He worked to perfection. He was an easy guy to work with and he made you comfortable.”
PAUL RICHMOND and JAMES MACK
Leo Graham: “Paul Richmond was a bass player and we were songwriters together on a number of songs. He was an excellent bass player. As a producer of these songs I would hire Paul to play bass on all of these things, and he did a fantastic job on them. I met through him a group that Tyrone and I were producing called Amuzement Park. We did an album on them, which I still have somewhere in the can that I need to try to release at some point.”
Paul Edward Richmond was a member of the Amuzement Park Band, who at one point was backing up Tyrone Davis and the Impressions. The group put out two albums (produced by Dunn Pearson and David Wolinski) and singles on Our Gang and Atlantic Records in the first half of the 80s. Later Paul would work with many artists, including the Dells, L.V. Johnson, Marshall Thompson (of the Chi-lites) and Willie Clayton.
Leo: “We started out with James Mack maybe in 1975, when we did Turning Point. That was the first thing I produced. James Mack arranged all my stuff. He was a very, very smart guy and he helped me a whole lot in early part of my career.”
James L. Mack was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1929, and moved to Chicago at the age of five. The first instrument he learned to play was flute. Classically trained at Roosevelt University, he later taught music at Crane Junior College and afterwards at Harold Washington College. He started doing arrangements for Carl Davis on Brunswick Records in the late 60s and from mid-70s for Leo Graham on Tyrone Davis’ records. Besides Tyrone, he has worked as an arranger, producer or musician with Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Loleatta Holloway, Eugene Record, Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson and many, many others. He passed away in Athens, Greece, on August 6 in 2006 after suffering a pulmonary embolism.
Produced by Leo Graham, written by Leo and Paul Richmond and arranged by James Mack, in the spring of 1980 the infectious and slightly country-tinged Shining Star hit gold and peaked at # 4-soul and # 5-pop. Also in the U.K. it crept to # 45 in July.
Gerald: “I liked it when I first heard it, but everybody in the group didn’t like it when they first heard it. They didn’t think it was a bad song, but they just figured it was a country song… and ‘we ain’t singing country’. Once we heard it produced and heard how it was going, everybody fell in love with it.” Sonny Bivins: “It sounded like a country & western song, especially with the guitar open line… but you see the results.”
With Leo the group cut their records at the renowned Universal Studios in Chicago. Blue: “Leo Graham had his program together. He knows what he wants, and he’s on time. Chicago was ‘one-two-three, and we’re out’, but everybody involved was very satisfied with the work over there.” Gerald: “Leo was a producer that was very patient. He took time to show you. If he wanted some song in a certain way, he would come right out and sing it to you.” Kenny Kelly: “I think the attitude was different in Chicago than it was in Philadelphia, at Sigma. It was a little more relaxed.”
The success of the song reached its festive climax on February 25 in 1981, when the 23rd Grammy Awards were held in Radio City Music Hall in New York City and Shining Star became number one in the category of “Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.”
Blue: “It changed our career dramatically. It put us on the map, I think, forever. It opened doors and venues that we had never been before, crossed over into the pop market… and being recognized by our peers. The competition that night was Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Jackson 5, the Commodores and the Spinners. For us to come out number one with that competition was really an accomplishment.”
Kenny Kelly: “It was definitely a step up. We worked more and gained a lot of recognition. We got an opportunity to polish our act, so that we could be more competitive. We were able to acquire some of the things that we wanted in life, like homes and cars. We were able to reach a wider audience than we had previously, internationally.”
As an example, in March 1981 the group toured Japan for the first time. Gerald: “We have a lot of fans in Japan. Japan is another country that we do very well in. The fans know the records. Even though they can’t speak English, they were able to sing the songs with us, and they just loved and supported us.”
Leo: “I got a lot more offers to do some things at some point that I didn’t quite get around doing. Shining Star brought about some interest from Columbia executives and they made me an offer to do something with Champaign. We started out with just three songs, but Columbia was so pleased that they signed up the group to do the whole album, so I did a whole album on them.”
Champaign was an interracial septet out of Champaign, Illinois. Produced by Leo and for the most part arranged by James Mack, their album titled How ‘Bout us was released in 1981 (# 14-soul, # 53-pop), and the title track evolved into a respectable single hit (# 4-soul, # 12-pop). Their two follow-up albums on Columbia – Modern Heart (’83) and Woman in Flames (’84) - were self-produced without Leo’s involvement anymore.
I’LL NEVER RUN AWAY FROM LOVE AGAIN
On the flipside of the huge Shining Star there’s a strong and dramatic ballad titled I’ll Never Run Away from Love Again, which makes the single an impressive double-sider. The b-side was written by Gerald and Barbara Morr. Gerald: “I think my manager, Hermi Hanlin, introduced me to Barbara. She wrote Am I Losing You (in ’78 with Alvin Fields and Douglas Stender). Hermi said she thought it would be a good match, and so Barbara and I started working together.”
Barbara Morr (on the pic above) was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Barbara: “I started studying piano at age four. I performed in recitals all during my childhood and was considered a prodigy. As I got older, I was also very involved in music at school, as a pianist and singer, performing, accompanying, singing in glee clubs, a cappella choir, madrigals as well as doing musical shows and musical programs in the community. I wrote my first song for my high school, sung by the ‘a cappella’ choir at my graduation, which is still the school song at East High School in Salt Lake.”
Barbara kept herself busy with music at the University of Utah singing, recording, travelling, creating musical shows, studying piano with Oscar Wagner and composition with Ned Rorem. “I was the improvisational composer and accompanist for the Virginia Tanner Children’s Dance Theater and I also did the summer master piano program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, and played the Grieg Concerto in A Minor with the symphony there.”
After graduation Barbara moved to New York to work in popular music and music for advertising. “Within six months I had met the current group of ‘jingle singers’ and was singing on commercials and record sessions as a background singer on a regular basis. I did that for ten years before becoming a songwriter and being asked to join Love Zager, a boutique production, writing and publishing house.”
Barbara’s first song that was released on record was Love Is Holding On – co-penned by Betsy Durkin Matthes – on Cissy Houston’s self-titled album on Private Stock in 1977, produced by Michael Zager. It was also the b-side to Cissy’s charted single, Tomorrow. The above-mentioned classic ballad, Am I Losing You by the Manhattans, which Barbara co-wrote, scored a great success in early 1978. Barbara: “Although I have been primarily a music writer, at least in the beginning, it wasn’t long before I was writing lyrics. I had a large catalogue with Love Zager and on some songs I just wrote music, and others were more integrated with all the writers contributing to music – melody and chords – and lyrics. Sometimes it would happen with Gerald, for instance, that he would bring an idea with a few lines of lyrics and melody and although we would collaborate to write the song, primarily I would write the chords and be a major part of finishing the melody and lyrics. There is also the style that is being considered, while the song is being written. It wasn’t then like it is today, where you instantly program the song while you are writing, but we were considering styles and ideas for the demo we would make when the song is finished.”
Hot on the heels of the smash single the Manhattans released an album named After Midnight, which – similarly to Shining Star – also stroke gold (# 4-soul, # 24-pop). It had as many as five production units working on it, but for the follow-up single to Shining Star they trusted Leo Graham’s craftsmanship again. Written by Leo and James Mack, Girl of My Dream was once more a gentle and sweet ballad, but it wasn’t distinctive enough and it lacked the irresistible hook of its predecessor. In the summer of 1980 it climbed up only to # 30-soul, with no pop show.
Sonny: “You never know how the public is going to receive a song, let alone how the song is going to be promoted. You just hope for the best.” Leo: “I know that that one got a very little attention.”
Blue: “It was a B-cut. It wasn’t nearly as big as Shining Star. We had no say in the face of it. They felt like it was a crossover song. They felt like it was a pop song. I guess they imagined the Manhattans was on its way over to the pop side of the charts, but they were wrong.”
Gerald: “I think if Girl of My Dream had got more airplay, it would have done better. We still sing it on our show today. Not all the time. We vary. We do different shows in different areas. Basically now we do our hits, some of the old stuff like Kiss and Say Goodbye, Shining Star, We Never Danced to a Love Song, It Feels So Good, I Kinda Miss You, Hurt, Wish That You Were Mine – stuff like that.
Girl of My Dream was backed with a slow and soulful movie song called The Closer You Are, which all the four members collectively wrote and produced under their Scorpicorn Music, Inc. Jack Urbant was the arranger. Gerald: “A lot of the songs we had back then turned into a hit, but a lot of the songs were album cuts. We sold more albums than we did singles, and some of those album cuts were songs that the people played all the time.”
The third song that Leo Graham produced for the album was another soft and atmospheric ballad called It’s Not the Same.
LAMBERT & POTTER
Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter produced and Benjamin Wright arranged two songs for the album, and one of them – the self-written, fast and poppy It Couldn’t Hurt – was actually the only uptempo track on the record.
The 63-year-old Dennis Earle Lambert (www.myspace.com/dlambertmusic) enjoyed his peak period in music in the 70s, working first for ABC, but he kept on writing and producing big hits into the late 80. He scored with such soul artists as the Four Tops (Ain’t No Woman, Keeper of the Castle), Tavares (She’s Gone, It Only Takes a Minute), Dennis Edwards (Don’t Look any Further), the Commodores (Nightshift) and Natalie Cole (Pink Cadillac). He found success also with numerous country, pop and rock acts – e.g. Glen Campbell (Rhinestow Cowboy), the Righteous Brothers (Rock and Roll Heaven), Player (Baby Come Back) – and he even cut an album on himself in 1972, Bags and Things.
Dennis’ main producing and writing partner throughout these years, starting from the late 60s, was Brian August Potter (www.myspace.com/pottermusic). Today Brian, among other things, composes children’s music.
The other song Dennis and Brian produced was a heavy soul ballad titled Cloudy, With a Chance of Tears, written by Estelle Levitt and the late Jerry Ragovoy. Gerald: “That was a very good song, but unfortunately it just didn’t get the play and the publicity we needed on it to make it happen. Jerry wasn’t on the session. We met him at one event, but we never really worked with him, per se.”
Blue: “I love the song. I love the production… very nice work. In those days I don’t think there was anything wrong with any of the producers, any of the writers. Everything was running smoothly. When you got a Grammy and you got a hit record, number one on the charts – songs like Kiss and Say Goodbye – everything seems to run smoothly.”
Jerry Ragovoy, an ingenious songwriter and producer, passed away recently, on July 13, after suffering a stroke. He was 80. Starting in the early 50s, he wrote or co-wrote and/or produced many unforgettable soul classics, mostly in the 60s, such as Cry Baby (Garnet Mimms), Time Is on My Side (Irma Thomas), I Learned It All the Hard Way (Howard Tate), Stay with Me (Lorraine Ellison) and Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin) – not to mention Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata on the world music side.
NORMAN, VINCE and JACK
Norman Harris and the Manhattans produced together three tracks for the album and they were cut back at the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Blue: “It was a very busy studio, because Lou Rawls, the O’Jays, the Blue Notes, the Stylistics… everybody worked in the same studio, and we had to actually wait for our turn. We laid the rhythm tracks, go home and wait for thirty days, go back and do the background vocals, come back fifteen days later, do the lead vocals, come back, do the mixing… Hours were hard to get and they had to fit us in. Whenever you had a day to record, you had to do everything within that day, and get it done.” Sonny: “Sigma was the East Coast Motown. It was absolutely wonderful to work with Norman Harris, Jack Faith and Vince Montana there.”
Norman Ray Harris, a native of Philadelphia, passed away untimely in 1987, at only 39, due to cardiovascular disease. This guitarist, producer, arranger, songwriter and even a label owner (Gold Mind) was a founding member of MFSB’s rhythm section and the Baker-Harris-Young production team and among the many artists he closely worked with there were First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, Eddie Holman, Love Committee, Trammps, Blue Magic and his cousin, Major Harris.
Norman’s and the Manhattans’ first collaboration in production is a medley of two ballads the group originally cut for DeLuxe in the early 70s. Written by Kenny and Blue, respectively, If My Heart Could Speak and One Life to Live are performed in a neo-doowop style. Blue: “That was Vernon Slaughter’s idea. He was the head promotion man with CBS Records, and he lives out here in Arizona with me.”
The rich orchestration on this delightful remake is provided by its arranger, Vince Montana, Jr., another Philly native and another prominent member of MFSB. Born in 1928, Vince’s first love in music was jazz. After a stint in Las Vegas, he returned to Philadelphia to work for Cameo-Parkway in the early 60s and later for Gamble & Huff. This vibraphonist/percussionist/producer/arranger/composer and a recording artist in his own right as well is, however, best known for conducting and heading the Salsoul Orchestra in the latter half of the 70s. Gerald: “Vince played on all of our stuff with the Sigma Sound Orchestra.”
Norman Harris arranged and co-produced with the group Blue’s smooth ballad called Just As Long as I Have You, which distantly reminds you of the music Thom Bell used to create for the Spinners in the 70s. Blue: “I don’t remember what motivated me to write that, but it was a B-cut also – never an A-cut. I was hoping for it to be an A-song, but it was just another album song.”
The third track Norman and the group produced together was I’ll Never Run Away From Love Again, Gerald’s and Barbara’s melodic and enjoyable song that had already appeared on the flip to Shining Star, and this time the arranger was Jack Faith, who had been one of the driving forces already on the group’s previous Love Talk album in 1979.
John R. Faith, first a flautist and saxophone player out of Philadelphia, became one of Gamble’s & Huff’s mainstays and, besides producing and writing, he did arrangements for almost all of their PIR artists, including Jerry Butler, Jean Carn, the Jones Girls, Patti LaBelle, McFadden & Whitehead, the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and the Three Degrees. He passed away in late 2009.
Tired of the Single Life could be best described as a classic Manhattans ballad with Gerald’s pleading lead, Blue’s monologue and other essential elements in their right place. The song was written by Robert S. Riley, Sr., produced by Bert de Coteaux, and it derived from an earlier, a late 70s session. Blue: “Bob Riley was a national promotion man for us. He was an independent promotion guy, and we made sure we did one of his songs on every album we did from the early 70s throughout before he passed away.”
Gerald: “Bert was another person easy to work with. He allowed artists to be themselves. He’d tell you what he wanted to hear and once you got it what he was trying to show you, then you’re on your own. He was a very nice gentleman.”
After Midnight is an apt title for the album, because it offers dreamy and downtempo music to create favourable atmosphere for romantic, after-hours moments. Kenny: “I thought it was a good piece of work from us.” Sonny: “Like all our records we knew that if we put our best foot forward, good things would come out in the end.”
LOVE WON’T LET ME WAIT
Blue makes a guest appearance on Jackie Moore’s remake of Love Won’t Let Me Wait (on Columbia 11363 in 1980; # 78-soul). Blue: “I did that on the side. I knew Jackie for years and it was no problem.”
The song was picked from Jackie’s With Your Love album (C 36455), which was produced and arranged by Bobby Eli. Bobby also produced, arranged and co-wrote together with Vinnie Barrett Major Harris’ original reading of the song, which went gold on Atlantic in 1975. Bobby: “We just thought that a Barry White kind of sexy spoken part would be nice for Jackie’s record and since we were both friends with Blue, I called him and that was it.”
After playing a lot behind the Manhattans in their sessions at Sigma in the 70s, this Blue’s rap, however, remains the last musical contact Bobby’s had with them, so far. “Although always friends, I didn’t work with the Manhattans any more, although I would love to produce them in the near future, as Gerald is one of my all-time favourite singers.”
The next Manhattans single in late ’80 was a pleasant mid-tempo floater titled I’ll Never Find Another (Find another Like you), penned by Leo Graham and Paul Richmond. Blue: “That’s the number two song that we do on our show.” Leo: “It was getting a lot of attention. It was on its way up the Billboard charts, and then… I don’t know what happened, as far as the internal working within the record company along with the management and so forth, but things stopped moving forward.” The single, however, managed to climb up to # 12-soul and # 109-pop.
On the b-side there was another mid-tempo floater, only softer than I’ll never find another, called Rendezvous. Leo: “A lot of people don’t give that song a lot of attention either, but that’s a good one.”
Unfortunately the next single, released in early 1981, got lost altogether. Written by Leo and Paul again, Do You Really Mean Goodbye is a melancholic and achingly beautiful ballad, one of the hidden gems. Blue: “I love that song. It had a little country-flavour to it also.” Leo: “A lot of the stuff that we were doing for our artists was to try to extend their career, and naturally I always tried to get a hit and something appealing to the people.” Kenny: “Those three were nice pop songs, but I think it drifted away from our essence.”
Both I’ll Never Find Another, and Do You Really Mean Goodbye were available – besides on forty-fives – only on the Manhattans Greatest Hits album, released in November 1980 (# 18-soul, # 87-pop). The rest eight tracks on the album were all earlier top-ten soul hits for the group between 1973 (There’s No Me without you) and ’80 (Shining Star).
JUST ONE MOMENT AWAY
The single for the summer 1981 was named Just One Moment Away (# 19-soul), and it’s a relaxed and cool downtempo number, written naturally by Leo and Paul. Leo: “Real smooth.” Blue: “That’s a good song. I love it. It was a big turntable hit, but nothing ever to sell records. Places in New York played it, because it had a nice beat and groove to it, but it was never a bona fide hit.”
The song was backed with a classy and melodic country-soul ballad called When I Leave Tomorrow, written by Gerald with Barbara Morr. Gerald: “I was in Seattle, I was listening to One in a Million and an idea came to my mind. Entertainers have a reputation of meeting women all over, groupies or whatever. The idea of the song was that this entertainer met somebody that really was nice, but he knew he’d never see her again. It was a positive song. He cared about her, but he knew he had to move on.”
Barbara: “We developed a soul ballad style, in addition to writing some mid-tempo songs, and were written up in Billboard in 1982 – after writing When I Leave Tomorrow – as driving the sound of the Manhattans with, what they labelled as, country gospel fusion.”
Both of these sides appear on the album titled Black Tie (# 21-soul, # 86-pop), which was released almost simultaneously with the single in June 1981. This time there’s only one production unit – Mr. Leo Graham. Blue: “That was his gift, because he got a Grammy for us. That was a gift from the Manhattans and CBS Records – he should have the next album himself.”
Co-produced and arranged by James Mack and recorded at Universal Studios in Chicago, they list a whole lot of string and horn players for the album – on violins alone 27 musicians – and as a sign of moving along with the times there’s also one synthesizer player credited, Terry Fryer.
Leo’s and Paul’s Let Your Love Come Down was chosen for the second single, but this mover with a pounding beat was somewhat lacking in tightness. It was neither storming, nor easily flowing, but hanging loosely in between, and it floundered only to # 77-soul. Leo: “That was just one of them funkier things that we were trying to do.” Gerald: “CBS at that time did not support uptempo songs.” Blue: “We had no choice in these matters. It was a CBS call. Executives or the A&R people at CBS had the control of choosing out of the 10-12-14 songs we did for an album what was going to be the single.”
The b-side was a sentimental and dreamy but also slightly meandering slowie named I Wanta Thank You, and on this song, alongside Leo and Paul, they credit Brian Hines as one of the writers. Leo: “Brian Hines was a friend of ours that just happened to come around the scene, when we were trying to create some ideas and some songs. He had an idea, I would add something, Paul would add something, and then we just all put it together. Paul was the bass player, and Brian was like a keyboard player and I played a little guitar on it.”
The third single culled from the album – Honey, Honey (# 25-soul) – was an atmospheric slow song, not unlike Just One Moment Away. Blue: “No sales, they didn’t do anything on that one.” Written by Earl Kenneth King, Jr., the song had been a small hit for David Hudson (# 37-soul, # 57-pop) on the Miami-based Alston Records in the summer of 1980. Leo: “Some of the songs were sent by the company, or they were picked up and approved by Blue and the guys in the Manhattans. Most of the songs have to go by the artists, so they can say ‘hey, I like this song’.”
Similarly to Do You Really Mean Goodbye, the Manhattans recorded those days another hidden gem that has easily stood the test of time – Blue’s beautiful and wistful ballad, When You See Me Laughing, which closed the A-side of the Black Tie album. Blue: “I would like to do that over again. That was a good song.” Gerald: “That was a big song in one part of the country, in the northwest area, in the New England area… Massachusetts, Boston. Actually it was a big song all over the country as an album cut. Had it gotten played on the radio, I think it would have been a hit.” If ever a song called for a single release, then When You See Me Laughing is the one.
Deep Water (by Jon Lind and Nan O’Byrne) and Gerald’s and Barbara’s song, Just Can’t Seem to Get next to You, make a nice and smooth downtempo medley, while the remaining melodic ballad, I Was Just Made for You, was again co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and sent to Leo by the company. Blue: “Also a good song, but again a B-cut. They were just album cuts, and that was it. Nobody really actually got behind to push for that to be a single.”
Black Tie was an entertaining and soothing album and again with only one fast track on display. Sonny: “I liked the album very much, but there are not too many – if any – Manhattans projects I don’t like.”
Kenny: “They were good songs on Black Tie, but here again stepping away from our roots. I assume they were trying to get us in a different type of showroom. I felt that we could have been geared more toward what made us popular as opposed to the direction we were going in.”
Gerald: “I think Black Tie was a good album, but at that time we just weren’t getting the support that we needed from our record company. We recorded an album every eighteen months. As years passed on, time just changed things and their interest was in other places that were producing more money. Our budget wasn’t big enough. There were always excuses. There wasn’t enough money. From then on, from that album, we went downhill till we left.”
In the summer of 1983 the group, however, scored one more top-ten hit, when a catchy dancer called Crazy peaked at # 4-black and # 72-pop, which means that it was the biggest hit for the Manhattans since Shining Star three years earlier. (Billboard changed the title of their R&B charts from “soul” to “black” in June 1982). In the U.K. its highest placing was # 63. The song was written, arranged and produced by John V. Anderson and Steven Richard Williams for Mighty M Productions Ltd., a company that was set up by Kashif, Paul Laurence and Morrie Brown in 1981. It modelled itself on the Mighty Three Music by Philly’s Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell a decade earlier. Blue: “Skip Anderson was Luther Vandross’ keyboard player.”
Recorded at Celestial Sounds in New York, the track features an 8-piece string section, saxophone by Lou Cortelezzi, John “Skip” Anderson on keys and Steve “Dave” Williams on guitars and those two handle also the synths and drum machine. Gerald: Crazy was a turntable hit. The main writer was Skip Anderson. I worked with Skip and Dave and Morrie on that. It was a good song, but it didn’t get the same response in our show as it did just on the radio. Now people still like it and we use it as an opening song, and we get a good response.”
Sonny: “Crazy was a change of pace. We are balladeers, yes, but I know we were capable of singing just about anything.” Kenny: “That was something different for us. We were trying to go in a different type of direction with Crazy. It was a good tune, but it wasn’t us.”
On the b-side they placed Leo Graham’s and Paul Richmond’s beat-ballad at a walking pace titled Love Is Gonna Find You, which Gerald sings in a higher register than normally.
FOREVER BY YOUR SIDE
On the single front, the dance hit was followed by a more typical number for the Manhattans, a touching and tender love ballad called Forever By Your Side (# 30-black), released towards the end of 1983. It was written and produced by Marc Blatte and Larry Gottlieb for Mighty M Productions and cut in New York. Blue: “That’s a favourite of ours. We do that on our shows.” Gerald: “If Lionel Richie had recorded Forever by Your Side, it would have been a smash.”
Produced and written by Skip Anderson and Steve Williams, Locked up in Your Love on the flip has a similar groove to Crazy, but it also bears a recognizable resemblance to the Whispers’ Solar sound. Blue: “The Whispers got that idea from us with that Locked up in Your Love and different songs from that album. We called the Whispers ‘the West Coast Manhattans’, because they loved our stuff and we loved theirs.”
The album by the same name, Forever by Your Side, was released already in July 1983 (# 17-black, # 104-pop), and this time there were three production units creating the music. The 4th Mighty M track was a ballad with a slowly bouncing beat named Start All Over Again (written by Richard Scher and Lotti Golden), and again you can’t help thinking of the Whispers. Kenny: “It was a pleasure working with them (Mighty M), but it was different as opposed to working in the past. Like I said, the direction we were taken in was taking us away from what we were all about.”
Mighty M gave the group a fresh and updated sound on their four tracks, while the rest four cuts offered the loyal and long-standing fans more familiar and romantic material, only with a heavier beat this time. Besides Love Is Gonna Find You, Leo Graham and James Mack produced I’m Ready to Love You Again, the last song on the album. The Manhattans had a habit of closing their albums with beautiful, classic ballads, and this small gem certainly was no exception. Leo: “The song was brought to me by the Manhattans themselves, and I’m not familiar with the writers (E. Skierov – M. Holden – P. Hamilton) or the history of the song other than the fact that it IS a beautiful song.”
JUST THE LONELY TALKING AGAIN
Leo co-produced with Morrie Brown and Joe McEwen and James Mack arranged Sam Dees’ subtle and classy ballad called Just the Lonely Talking Again. Leo: “It was chosen by the Manhattans.” Blue: “Sam Dees wrote that and Whitney Houston did it after us with the same arrangement.” Whitney’s cover appeared on her platinum Whitney album in 1987. The song was cut both at Universal Studios in Chicago (Leo and James) and Celestial Sounds in New York (Morrie and Joe). Leo: “Different parts of the song were recorded at different times at different studios by different producers. Stranger things have happened” (laughing).
The earlier and quite popular Black Tie album was completely produced by Leo, but on Forever by Your Side he worked only on three tracks. Leo: “Sometimes the company themselves will make changes in the way the things should be done. Maybe I didn’t have enough songs for the whole album, but these other (Mighty M) guys were great songwriters and producers. It wasn’t like I had a specific contract to do five albums. It was just a per album situation.” Those days Leo was busy with other acts, too – not only Tyrone Davis, Champaign and Linda Clifford, but also with Kokomo (Kokomo on Columbia in ’82) and Leon Bryant (Finders Keepers on De-Lite in ’84).
At the time of the release of Forever By Your Side it was reported that the group first cut four songs with Leo Graham and James Mack in Chicago – as stated above, three are included on the album – then tracks with (the executive producer) Morrie Brown in New York and as many as nine songs with George Tobin in California. Unfortunately, only one of those nine songs was released. For some reason, such tremendous hit melodies as Blame It on Love and Just a Touch Away were given to Smokey Robinson. The cuts by the Manhattans remain in the vaults somewhere.
Since the late 70s George Tobin (www.headlinerrecords.com) has made occasional big waves in producing and writing for a handful of pop and r&b acts, including Robert John, Kim Carnes, Natalie Cole, Smokey Robinson, New Edition and Tiffany. The only song George and the Manhattans cut together that ended up on this album was a memorable beat-ballad spiced with Joel Peskin’s short saxophone solo called Lover’s Paradise. George produced it with one of the co-writers and players, Mike Piccirillo.
Blue: “His was one of those laid-back sessions, where we stayed in a studio one day and then we’re off two days. Good session, good musicians, good selection of songs, but we just couldn’t get it together. Dennis Edwards was his artist, and the Temptations, before he got us, because we listened to some tracks that Dennis had done and that we eventually recorded, but there were a lot of political situations there.”
Gerald: “George Tobin did a wonderful job, but again politically things fell apart and we didn’t use all the songs. Lover’s Paradise was a great tune. I think on the demo there was Dennis Edwards. I guess it was a demo, because we never knew, but we did a song called Blame It on Love, which Smokey recorded and which was a great song.”
Kenny: “We enjoyed working with him, but a lot of decisions were not ours to make. That was in the hands of the people that were supposed to be taking us into a new genre.”
In the credits to Forever by Your Side you can spot one interesting detail: “Management and Direction by Gerald Delet, President – TWM Management Services Ltd.”, later renamed World-Wide Entertainment Inc. It meant that after having worked for twelve years with Hermine Hanlin, the group now changed managers. Gerald: “The bottom line – she had taken us far as she could.”
Blue: “She sued us after the Grammy’s. It was a lot of financial difficulties there and it was time for us to divorce.” Kenny: “It was an entanglement that we had to go through during that period of time. As a result of that conflict that we had to resolve we ended up leaving her and taking on another.”
The disagreement, which led to arbitration, arose from a clause in the ’76 partnership agreement according to which “Hanlin would be an equal business partner with the four group members and she would also serve as the group’s manager. Thus, in addition to receiving a share in the partnership’s profits, Hanlin was also to receive a commission on the group’s personal appearances and a percentage of the proceeds from its music publishing activities.”
Hermi played a small role in another sour incident, which affected Kenny most of all. Jeanie Scott: “Somewhere around 1980 Kenny was doing a book on the Manhattans, and I had some albums and pictures that he didn’t have, so he asked me to borrow them to put them in the booklet.”
Kenny: “It was a pamphlet, or a booklet. It’s only fifteen pages. It has cameo shots of the group, pictures of some of the countries we were in and out of, some of the album covers, the discography, bios, a piece on George Smith, pictures having taken with the Grammy in our office in New York…”
“I showed it preliminary to my manager, Hermi Hanlin. She said ‘oh, that’s a wonderful idea, we’ll put it in a safe and we’ll get back to it’. She had this big safe in her office at her house. After awhile I noticed that nothing was happening, so I went back there and said ‘I would like to have my booklet back’. She gave it back to me, and after that came the court situation and we switched management. That’s when I brought the idea back to the table again. Perhaps I could get an insert put in one of our up-and-coming albums to let people know that a booklet on the Manhattans is giving them an opportunity to view all this information and photos about the group.”
“It took me a long time to get that money pulled together to be able to arrive to that point. Anyway, I had 3000 of them printed. I presented my figures to the company, and, when I looked around, they had released the album. I ended up having to sell the 3000, trying to recoup as much money as I could.”
In 1983 Blue Lovett formed two labels, Blue Records and Love-Lee Records out of East Orange, New Jersey, to try his hand at producing and giving a push to new talent. One was his own daughter, Desi, who cut a disco track called I Want to Be with You in ‘84. Produced by Blue and A. Lee and backed with I’m Much Too Shy, the disc became mildly popular when released in the U.K. on Certain Records the next year.
A group called Wish (www.wishmusicgroupllc.com) had two singles on Blue, Mr. D.J. in ’83 and Your Love a year later. The latter was a pretty ballad (b/w You’re the One), produced, written and partially performed by Blue, whereas the uptempo Mr. D.J. again became a small hit in the U.K. on Streetwave Records. Blue: “Wish was out of Delaware. Those records didn’t do well at all, just mediocre. I needed a bona fide distributor, which I didn’t have and I really didn’t have the money to put into it. It didn’t work.”
The guitarist for the Manhattans those days, John Burton, was one artist Blue wanted to cut, too. Blue: “He’s on his own thing now. He’s doing quite well as a single artist.” A dance song titled Can’t Fight the Feeling by a lady called Sugar in ’86 was penned by Ron Banks and Raymond Johnson. The late Ron Banks was one of the lead singers of the Dramatics. Blue: “He and I collaborated on a lot of things. We were great friends for years and years, and I needed music and he had it and we used it.”
Blue: “Before ending the label, I recorded Regina Belle. With me she auditioned for CBS Records. I sent them some demos from our record company and Please Be Mine was one of the songs I recorded for her on Blue Records and it was chosen on her first album.” This pleading beat-ballad, written by Blue, Regina and Kevin Marshall, appeared on her All by Myself album on Columbia 40537 in 1987.
YOU SEND ME
The next Manhattans record in early 1985 was Gerald’s heartfelt rendition of Sam Cooke’s ’57 gold hit, You Send Me. Produced by Morrie Brown and peppered with Chris Cioe’s saxophone solo, the single pushed its way up to #20-black and #81-pop. Blue: “Morrie Brown felt like Gerald Alston sounds like Sam Cooke, so they wanted to bring the Sam Cooke flavour to see if they can work out a hit out of that, but it didn’t do that well.”
Gerald: “Morrie Brown did a great job on it. That was one of our first songs that came out hitting on the pop charts first, and of course we were told by Columbia Records ‘let’s wait and see what r&b market do’, and at that time they didn’t do anything, waiting on the r&b market. We didn’t get the support from the black community and black radio like we wanted, and we lost it. But that was a big song – and even today when we sing it.”
Kenny: “I think Gerald did a fantastic job of recreating that song. Besides it was one of Gerald’s favourite tunes and Sam Cooke was one of Gerald’s favourite artists.” Sonny: “Gerald is a great talent. He did a hell of a job on that song.”
On the flip there was a tight dancer named You’re Gonna Love Being Loved by Me, written by Gerald, Barbara and Mark Chapman. Gerald: “Mark wrote stuff with us, but he wasn’t one of our permanent writers.” Produced and arranged by Skip Anderson and Steve Williams – Steve even plays a rock guitar solo in the middle – there’s one Luther Vandross on background vocals. Gerald: “Luther came in and sang with us. He came by and Skip asked ‘would you like to sing’ and he said ‘yes’. Luther was a very nice person. We wanted him to produce us, but unfortunately during that time he was booked up for like a year and we couldn’t wait. That was the time, when he was doing Aretha, Dionne and everybody.”
DON’T SAY NO
Soon after You Send Me, Columbia Records released in early ’85 the next Manhattans album, Too Hot to Stop It, and it was quickly followed by the second single off the album, a sweet beat-ballad called Don’t Say No (# 60-black). Produced by Morrie and written by Richard Scher and Lotti Golden, on this track Richard’s synths are strongly pushing through, but more significantly there’s a new female vocalist by the name of B.J. Nelson sharing the lead.
Gerald: “B.J. Nelson was brought in by Morrie Brown. He knew B.J. She sang with Duran Duran.” Blue: “She was a studio artist. She didn’t want to come out on the road, because she made more money by doing studio work. When we got on the road, Regina Belle toured with us for two years before she became a single artist, and she sang on B.J.’s song.”
Brenda Jay Nelson (www.myspace.com/bjnelsonmusic) was a much-used background singer in the 80s, and her first solo album came out on EMI in 1989. She later appeared on Bullett Records (P.E.G. featuring B.J. Nelson) in the early 90s, and the latest CD derives from 2008.
Dreamin’, a nice slow-to-midtempo song – produced, written and arranged by Skip and Steve – was used as the b-side to Don’t Say No.
TOO HOT TO STOP IT
The most moving moment on the album occurs, when the group sings a 2:15-minute-long a cappella cover of their beautiful ’67 song, When We Are Made as One, which is dedicated to George Smith. Gerald: “That was all of our idea. We’d done it once on our show in Washington, and we thought it’d be a good idea to do it again a cappella on record.”
On the album Yogi Horton plays drums and Wayne Brathwaite bass on some tracks, but mostly the instrumentation is in the hands of Morrie, Skip and Steve. The title track, a beater with strong rock elements to it, was co-produced by Marc Blatte and Larry Gottlieb.
As a whole, the music on Too Hot to Stop It is more uptempo and synthesized – witness Angel of the Night, C’est La Vie – and the new melodies don’t make you stop at your tracks anymore. The sales were dropping, too (# 44-black, # 171-pop). Blue: “I liked many songs on it, but it wasn’t so much the Manhattans, I guess. At that particular time Gerald was concentrating on doing things himself, singing as a solo artist, and the effort that the producers put in it wasn’t the greatest. It was a lot of hard work, but I think more concentration on Gerald Alston rather than the Manhattans as a group.”
Gerald: “I think it was a pretty good album. I don’t think it’s one of our best albums, but I think it was a good album. We were maybe in a bit of a rush, because we were trying to get an album out.” Kenny: “I assume that we were again being geared toward pop market as opposed to the market we were in in the past, and we were just trying to reach a different type of audience. The decision wasn’t ours.” Sonny: “The LP was a tribute to our original lead singer, George ‘Smitty’ Smith.”
WHERE DID WE GO WRONG
It took more than a year to get the next Manhattans record out, but it was quite a revelation. Where Did We Go Wrong (# 42-black) in the fall of 1986 was an impressive and blooming soul ballad and a duet with Regina Belle. It was produced by Bobby Womack, who also handles guitar and background vocals on it.
Blue: “We’ve been friends with Bobby for years, and he liked Regina. He saw Regina on stage with us, and he liked what he saw in Regina. I think the idea for the duet came from Harold Melvin’s duet with Sharon Paige. The idea was that CBS was trying to springboard Regina’s career by having her do a duet with us.” Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes had enjoyed a number one black hit with Sharon Paige with a song called Hope That We Can Be Together Soon in the summer of 1985.
Gerald: “We worked with Bobby many times. Blue and I suggested to CBS at the time that Bobby produced the album, and we thought it was a good idea to do Where Did We Go Wrong with Regina.” Kenny: “It was a nice session. We enjoyed working with Bobby, but I wasn’t as comfortable doing that as I was in the past.”
The song was written by Kathy Bloxson aka Sasha, who used to work with Bobby earlier in the 80s as his background vocalist on the two Poet albums. On the single the song was paired with Maybe Tomorrow, a poppy ballad written by Roxanne Seeman and Eduardo DelBarrio and cut also by the Four Tops and Phyllis Hyman. Consequently, Where Did We Go Wrong and Maybe Tomorrow make a nice double-sider.
Regina Belle (www.reginabelle.org) was born in New Jersey in 1963 and as a child was first inspired by church music simply because both her parents were singing gospel. Gradually she grew interested in secular music, too, sang in a group Private Property and studied both opera, and jazz. With the help of a New York disc jockey by the name of Vaughn Harper she auditioned for the Manhattans, which after a couple of years resulted in Where Did We Go Wrong. Her debut solo album on Columbia in 1987 titled All by Myself was followed by two gold albums, Stay with Me in ’89 and Passion in ’93. Her music was sophisticated and jazz-influenced, and her biggest songs were Show Me the Way, All I Want Is Forever, Baby Come to Me, Make It Like It Was and the golden pop duet with Peabo Bryson, A Whole New World in 1992. She later recorded for MCA and Peak and three years ago she released her first gospel CD, Love Forever Shines.
Kenny: “She’s a fantastic singer. That was a good combination for her. We got her career off the ground. The song didn’t mushroom into what we were hoping it would mushroom into, but it gave the group a better standing in the market by working with a girl, which we had never done in the past.”
BACK TO BASICS
For the album called Back to Basics Bobby Womack produced three more tracks for the Manhattans. Blue: “Those were the most laid-back sessions of all. We go in and nothing would happen for a day. We go in the next day and we do a half of a song. Or we go in for a day and rest for two days. We sat in the hotel more than we sat in the studio. It was totally disorganized, but the material was excellent.”
Gerald: “Bobby knew what he wanted and he put his influence on our record. I like Bobby. He was laid-back, but he did a good job on it in California. Unfortunately it wasn’t promoted and done like it should have been.” Interestingly, Bobby doesn’t write a word about these sessions in his autobiography, Midnight Mover.
Two of the songs that Bobby cut on the group were familiar from his own back catalogue. He himself opens with a short monologue his ’73 soul ballad titled I’m through Trying to Prove My Love to You, which grows into a convincing performance by the group and in fact the cream cut on the album. A dancer titled Mr. D.J. derives from Bobby’s ’79 album, Roads of Life, and the third song – a quick-tempo mover called Back into the Night – was penned by Jesse Neal Barish and Terence John Shaddick.
Khalis Bayyan aka Ronald Bell of Kool & the Gang produced two tracks together with his I.B.M.C. set-up, which comes from “itty bitty Midi committee”, referring to Midi synths and mixers. Gerald: “That was through our management. We were managed by Gerald Delet, who also managed Kool & the Gang.” Kenny: “Kool & the Gang were from the same home town that we were from, so working with Ronald was like working with old friends, but our music was different. They were familiar with what they did, and we were familiar with what we did, and that made us different. The material was good, but we had our own signature.”
Gerald Alston in 1987 – the photo courtesy of Mrs. Jeanie Scott
ALL I NEED
Khalis’ first production was a lilting, mid-tempo ditty named Change of Heart, which was written by Gerald, Barbara, Khalis, (the engineer) Kendal Stubbs and Eddie Rolle, and also the second song, All I Need, was a light dancer. It was put out as the second single off the album in early 1987, and it landed at # 41-black. It was once again written by Gerald and Barbara. Gerald: “We had written some stuff years before we signed Gerald Delet, and that was one of the songs we had previously written. We just brought it out, and they happened to like it.”
Barbara Morr: “The song is about someone asking for a second chance. Ideas for these songs come from everywhere. They come from life experience. They reflect the present or past, joyful productive times, or great hardship and sadness; the success or failure of relationships; the effect of parents, their support or lack of such, their being a part of one’s life or missing altogether. Ideas come from hope or a dream for some aspect of the future, or a reflection on times when hope seemed lost. It is important to have an interesting concept and have all lyrical ideas in sync with that concept. Songwriters are also drawn to music they like, music written by others, and hear new lyric styles, and new musical ideas incorporated into a track.”
“Technology has changed the way ideas are used. Some writers stay true to one style – one generational musical period, so to speak – but I have always been interested in how music has grown and developed through the years. Therefore, right now, although I am still influenced by many songs and styles in other decades, I am focused primarily on the 2000s. I also aim for ‘automatic or spontaneous writing’. Rap has accomplished this in freestyle but it’s the same thing to be able to write a lyric that is almost as easy as conversation. Conversation is spontaneous. You don’t stop and think of every word, or change it constantly as you are speaking, and ultimately if you can connect with what you feel initially – get into the zone, so to speak – you have succeeded in expressing your true intention; you can flow.”
“That is the ideal, but it doesn’t mean that every lyric or melody comes out that way. For instance, there may be many ideas that are worked with before they lead to that one that feels like the right one. And on the other hand, you might have a lyric that is complete, inasmuch as it rhymes, all the selections are there, and it appears to be finished. But something doesn’t feel right and the song has to be approached in a manufactured way, trial and error, reworking etc, until the collaborators all feel that the best result has been achieved; until the light bulb goes on.”
Leo Graham at Future Records
NEITHER ONE OF US
The rest four songs were produced by our old friend, Leo Graham, at Future Recording Studio in Oak Brook, Illinois. Leo: “Those songs were already picked and decided to be done by the Manhattans.”
Besides Maybe Tomorrow above, they recorded a gentle and poppy ballad titled Just like You. This “Smokey Robinson” type of a pretty ballad was written by Jeffrey Pescetto and cut also by Dennis Edwards for his ’84 album, Don’t Look Any Further. Another ballad, Don’t Look in My Eyes (by Brian Potter and Frank Wildhorn), has a strong melody and it was available already on Kenny Rodger’s ’85 country album.
The concluding song on the album was Jim Weatherly’s slow masterpiece, which Gladys Knight & the Pips took to the top in 1973 (# 1-soul, # 2-pop). Gerald: “We chose Neither One of Us. The other songs were brought to us by the record company. We’ve always loved Gladys, and we figured it’d be a nice idea to cover one of her tunes.” A good vocal performance from the group on this track is backed by a rather heavy, machine-dominated beat. Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye) was arranged by Skip Anderson, whereas the other three songs produced by Leo Graham on this album were arranged by James Mack.
Back to Basics was an apt title for the album, because music-wise the group was gradually returning to slower and more soulful material after experimenting in dance and rock genres. However, the album didn’t chart anymore. The album also marked the end of a close to 15-year and 12-album union between Columbia and the Manhattans.
Blue: “Gerald went out to do his solo career with Motown, and that was the end of it.” Sonny: “Our contract was completed and was going to expire at year’s end.” Kenny: “I guess at that point of time Gerald was trying to ride on his own, as a result of that Hermie Hanlin situation. We began to lose momentum as a result of that in the business.” Gerald: “It got to the point that we weren’t getting any publicity and the era was changing, so it was time to move on and try something different.”
From those days on YouTube there are two slow jams, Billy Vera’s At This Moment and You Send Me, emotively interpreted by Gerald, and it reads that they come from the Live in Tokyo album in 1987. Gerald: “That was something they did in Tokyo. I know nothing about it. They took a couple of our shows, taped it, put it together and made a live album In Tokyo. I never got paid for it. I know nothing about it.”
As stated above, Gerald Alston embarked on a solo career in 1988, a move he had seriously been contemplating for about three years. The Manhattans carried on in the line-up of Blue, Kenny, Sonny and the new lead singer, Roger Harris.
Blue: “People knew that Gerald was going for a solo career, and we put a blitz out to find a lead singer, and Roger’s name came up from Cameo. Ron Tyson (of the Temptations) introduced us to Roger Harris. He was based out of Atlanta, and we tried him out for about two years, until December 31st in 1990. That’s when I got out.”
Earlier Roger was the lead singer for a 7-piece funk & disco band called Mantra, which in 1981 released a self-titled album on Casablanca. This LP, which remained their only one, was produced, arranged and mostly written by Cameo’s Larry Blackmon and Anthony Lockett. Larry and Cameo were also in charge of an album titled Now Appearing (on MCA in 1982) by another funk aggregation called LA. Connection, where Roger had moved on to handle the lead alongside Warren Taylor. Roger has a nice high tenor, but in the 80s he had developed a singing style with a leaning to contemporary r&b melisma to meet trends of the day, and at times it tended to sound uneasy to long-standing followers and fans of the Manhattans music.
Kenny: “When we brought in a new lead singer, we tried to keep things going. We weren’t as successful as we were in the past. It’s hard when you lose the initial chemistry. If you pull out a familiar voice and put in a different voice, you have disconnected the audience. Roger didn’t have the charisma that Gerald had, and it’s hard to replace Gerald in a group like the Manhattans.”
The final Manhattans album in the 80s, Sweet Talk, was released on Hillery Johnson’s Valley Vue label out of Van Nuys, California in 1989, and to no show on charts again. Blue: “Hillery Johnson still lives there in California. I’ve known him for years. He was with Atlantic Records, I think, when the Temptations left Motown for the first time. It may be Ron Tyson again that introduced me to Hillery.”
Hillery Johnson’s name pops up in the music business for the first time in 1966, when he became one of the founders of Brainstorm Records and Productions in Chicago together with Leo Austell and Archie Russell. They worked, among others, with Betty Everett, the Emotions, Cicero Blake and John Edwards, who later became the lead of the Spinners. After that Hillery worked with United Artists and Capitol and in 1973 was named promotional manager for special marketing for MCA Records. In 1975 he was the national r&b promotion director at Playboy Records, and indeed in 1977 he became the vice president of Atlantic Records. Those days Hilltak, a disco imprint founded by Hillery and Tom Takayoshi, was one of the subsidiaries to Atlantic. Hillery has also managed numerous artists, including Rene & Angela and Lalah Hathaway.
Besides the Manhattans, in the late 80s Valley Vue had in its roster, among others, Michael Wycoff and Lady Fresh, and later they still added Jerry Butler, Cicero Blake, Gary Taylor and Craig T. Cooper. The label was active already in the late 70s and early 80s with such acts as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers.
Tagged as the 25th anniversary album, half of the tracks on Sweet Talk was cut at Vista Recorders in Van Nuys, California. The title song was produced by our old acquaintance, Khalis Bayyan aka Ronald Bell of the Kool & the Gang. As a single this swingbeat type of a dancer stalled at # 67-black.
Three tracks were produced by Sham Boy R.D., who also created all of the music except writing, and on the first one, a contemporary uptempo number named No One but You, one of the background vocalists is Peggi Blu. Don’t Let Go is a beautiful serenade, which remotely resembles the Commodores’ Nightshift, and another delight on this album is Try Love Again, which was written by Michael Wycoff and Hillery Johnson. It’s a Wycoff type of a big ballad with good vocalizing and would have been superb with a real orchestra on the background.
WHY YOU WANNA LOVE ME LIKE THAT
Blue himself produced three tracks. This Love Is Real is a fast beater, which first appeared on Ron Banks’ Truly Bad album on CBS in 1983, and it was written by Ron and Raymond Johnson. Blue: “Raymond was my keyboard player.” The cream cut on the album is an “old-fashioned” Manhattans type of a ballad called Lady I’ve Been Waiting for You, which Blue produced and Ray Dahrouge wrote. Blue: “He was a guy I knew out of the central New Jersey, a real nice guy.” Ray fronted a doowop group called the Darchaes, and in the 70s he had a disco group named Street People. The closing track on the album is the romantic Just a Matter of Time, which has Blue – besides producing and co-writing – talking his way through the whole song in his unmistakable deep bass voice.
Gary Taylor is the third producer on the Sweet Talk set. An artist in his own right but still better known as a songwriter, before Valley Vue Gary recorded for A&M and Virgin and his latest work is available at www.morningcrew.com. Blue: “Excellent producer. Hillary Johnson knew him. Hillary’s been in the business over forty years, so he knew everybody.”
Gary produced, arranged and handled the instrumentation on Why You Wanna Love Me Like That, which as the second single landed at # 62-black. Cut at Skip Saylor Studios in Hollywood and co-written by Brenda Lee Eager, this downtempo and a bit meandering song could easily derive from Gary’s own catalogue. Blue: “It played a lot in New York, a very good song for us.”
Gary wrote, produced and arranged a very slow declaration of love titled I Won’t Stop. He also plays keys and sings background on this easy and late-night number, which music-wise again slips into the more contemporary field. As the final single off the album it crept into # 79-black.
HOT LIKE AN OVEN
There’s one more song on the album, a nice mid-tempo number called Hot Like an Oven, and it brings the Manhattans and Leo Graham as a producer and co-writer, James Mack as an arranger and Paul Richmond as a co-writer and musician back together again for one more time. Leo: “In my opinion the Manhattans are one of the premiere vocal groups of today, of yesterday and of tomorrow. It was a pleasure and privilege to have the opportunity to work with them, and hopefully again in the future. It was a Grammy-winning milestone in my career also and one I will always cherish. Thanks Blue, Gerald, Kenny and Sonny!”
Leo: “In the 90s Tyrone Davis and I were still quite active. We started a label called Future Records. We were also at some point with Ichiban Records and Malaco Records. We did Sexy Thing, Come On Over, Flashin’ Back, Man of Stone and Come to Daddy, which was basically the last one I was involved in as far as production and writing for Tyrone Davis.” For Tyrone’s full discography please visit www.soulexpress.net/tyronedavis_discography.htm.
Leo is still engaged in making a new CD of his own. Leo: “At the moment things are a little bit slow and, unless you’re doing hip-hop and rap and stuff like that, the companies don’t show a lot of belief to what I consider as ‘old school’, and a lot of this stuff is on the internet and they don’t do a whole lot of physical stuff as far as the albums are concerned.”
Of the four members of the Manhattans, Kenny Kelly was the only one, who left the music business altogether in 1990. Kenny: “When I joined the group (in 1963), I had a Bachelor’s degree in biology, so I came in already with my degree. After I left the group, I moved to New Jersey and taught in public school. After that my mother got sick and I moved to North Carolina in ’90, where she had bought a house five years earlier. First I was in the school system out there, but after that I made a transition into retail, and I’ve been in retail ever since. I left the school system, because it got too hairy” (laughing).
“I’ve just completed a short story called ‘Am I so like a tree’. It is a comparative story between the life-cycle of a tree and the life-cycle of man. All of the experiences are similar. I gave the tree the ability to think and to reason and to grow through all the stages, the same as man has. Their experiences are the same, except I used animals and plants. The basis of it is to understand one’s purpose, and one’s purpose is defined by how he wants other people to see him. The common thread to the whole story is knowledge, understanding and wisdom.”
In 1988 Gerald Alston left to pursue a solo career, and the 5th and final part of the Manhattans story kicks off by examining this particular offshoot in the history of the group.
Gerald Alston: “First of all, Motown was the company I really wanted to be with, and sometimes it’s time to make a change. It had nothing to do with the group situation. At one point it became work instead of performing and enjoying it. Once it became a job, I stepped away for awhile. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to try a solo career, and I did it. I have no regrets about it. It wasn’t a major success, but it was a success for me. I had a chance to be out on my own and to be in control of what I wanted to do.”
Gerald had been contemplating embarking on a solo career for quite a long time, until finally in 1988 he signed with TAJ Records, which Motown then acquired and distributed. TAJ was Bill Dern’s label, and Gerald knew Bill since 1984. Gerald: “I met Bill through our management. Bill was working in our manager’s office. Mervyn Dash became my manager later. Basically we all worked together. It was sort of a management collaboration that we had, when I went solo.”
Born in 1945, William Dern became president of Bill Dern Management in 1976 for six years, when he was dealing mainly with jazz artists. Later he worked as vice president of TWM Management in the first half of the 80s and managed the Manhattans along with Kool & the Gang and Dr. John. Later in the 80s he managed, among others, New Edition and Sister Sledge, and in the 90s, besides working as a manager for numerous artists, he became the consultant and executive producer for the Temptations and the Four Tops. Today he’s the general manager of Hyena Records and Big Deal Records.
Bill is also credited as the executive producer on Gerald’s self-titled debut solo album on TAJ/Motown, recorded in Nevada and California and released in the latter part of 1988. Those days Bill managed also a hit making trio out of Los Angeles called By All Means (an interview with one of the members, Mikelyn Roderick, at http://www.soulexpress.net/mikelynroderick_interview.htm), so it’s no wonder he invited their producer, Stan Sheppard, and lead vocalist, James Varner, to produce Gerald’s set.
On the album, Gerald Alston (MOT-6265), you can spot familiar names among the musicians, such as Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, Fred Washington on bass and Gerald Albright on sax on two tracks.
Horns and strings were arranged by Gene Page. Gerald: “It was a wonderful experience. He was a great arranger and producer… just a beautiful sound.” James Varner played keyboards and took care of the drum programming. On background vocals you can enjoy By All Means, Alfie Silas and the Waters sisters. Those days Gerald mentioned that they deliberately chose female backing singers to prevent any comparison with the Manhattans.
TAKE ME WHERE YOU WANT TO
Most of the songs were composed by the producers, Stan and James, with some help from Gerald himself. The opener, a steady down-tempo song called Take Me where you want to (by Sheppard-Varner-Alan Stokes), was chosen for the first single. There seems to be now more edge to Gerald’s singing, and at the end of the song he lets loose and practically takes us to church. “That was the first song that I recorded for that album, and I did it one take. It was just one of those songs that touched me inside.”
A gentle ballad, which grows into an intense delivery, titled Still in Love with Loving You (by Gerald – Johnny Burton – John “Skip” Anderson) was placed on the flip side of the single and it appeared also on the European vinyl pressing of the album, as well as on the CD. The single landed at # 6 on Billboard’s “Hot Black Singles” charts.
As the second single the company released a scorcher named You Laid Your Love on Me – penned by Gerald, Stan and James – which in early 1989 stalled at # 41 on the aforementioned charts. For the European album and the CD they added also an extended version of the song. “They were trying to do something up-tempo, but I think a mistake was made. They should have chosen Stay a Little While.” Here I wholeheartedly agree with Gerald, because this emotive, pleading soul ballad would have been a perfect follow-up to Take Me where you want to. When the song was finally released as the fourth single off the album, it was already too late for it to make any waves.
The third single was a cover of the Eagles’ # 8 pop hit in 1980, I Can’t Tell You Why, and Gerald really puts his heart and soul into this slow song. “I think that was a great song. We did a video on it, and I think it just didn’t get the support to make it bigger.” The single crept into # 52-black.
Besides You Laid Your Love on Me, there are two more movers on the album, the groovy I Come Alive When I’m with You and the driving Activated, which was released as a single in the U.K. in 1988. The rest four tracks are all delightful down-tempo numbers. Let’s Try Love Again grows from tender opening notes into Gerald’s powerful vocalizing, whereas Midnight Angel is the most melodic song on the set and close to the traditional Manhattans style. Gerald composed it together with Gloria Sklerov. “I met Gloria 25-30 years ago, and we were writing some songs together and that was one of the songs we wrote.” Gerald wrote this beautiful love serenade especially for his wife, Edna. Gloria is an Emmy Award-winning songwriter (www.weddingmusiccentral.com/about-us).
Another tuneful song is called I’ve Waited All Night, and this floater is peppered with Gerald Albright’s sax. This time Gerald’s writing partner was Royal Bayyan aka Royal Jackson (www.myspace.com/4royalbayyan). The closing song is the cover of the Carpenters’ gold hit in 1970, We’ve Only Just Begun. It’s a richly improvised, slowed-down and almost unrecognizable version. “That was my idea. I’ve always loved it. We had been singing it on our shows, so we thought it’d be good to put it on the record.”
The LP peaked at # 18 on Billboard’s “Top Black Albums” charts, and at that time Gerald was disappointed at the record not hitting gold, “but the groundwork is done.” It took almost two years for TAJ/Motown to come up with the follow-up album, Open Invitation (MOTD 6298), in late 1990.
For this set Stan Sheppard and James Varner produced only three opening songs, because they were busy with other productions. A romantic and sensual ballad called Slow Motion (Stan Sheppard – Aaron Smith) had hit the streets already prior to the release of the album. “I thought it was a great song. That was my second big single after Take Me where you want to.” The song became Gerald’s biggest solo hit soaring to # 3 on Billboard’s charts, which were now renamed “Hot R&B Singles.” Instead of Jimmy Varner, on this track Aaron Smith handles the keyboards and drum programming, and on background vocals we can hear By All Means, Alfie Silas, Crystal Wilson and Penny Wilson.
Getting Back into Love was another Sheppard & Varner collaboration, and this moody, almost like a late-night ballad turned into a success, too, peaking at # 6-r&b in early 1991. Here Gerald once again lets loose towards the end of the song, and Gerald Albright’s sax accompanies with finesse. “It was a different song for me at first. Stan Sheppard and Jimmy Varner wrote and produced it. It was a great song. It wasn’t like taking me in another direction, but it was like just doing something a little different for taking me out of the group sound and finally doing songs that identified me without changing my style.” The third power ballad from Stan and Jimmy was Don’t You Know How I Feel.
James Anthony Carmichael of the Commodores and Lionel Richie fame was assigned by Motown Records to produce four tracks on Gerald’s album. On his tracks he used Jeff Porcaro, a founding member of Toto, as the drummer. Soon after this, in 1992 at the age of 38, Jeff died from a heart attack. On background vocals James mostly used Deborah Thomas and Marva King.
TELL ME THIS NIGHT WON’T END
A light and tender song titled I’ll Go Crazy was co-written by Vesta Williams. “Vesta and I worked together. We had the same management for awhile. We went to Rio together and we did a little tour here in the States, and it was very good.” A catchy beat-ballad called Never Give Up had been cut by Kool & the Gang a year earlier.
Tell Me This Night Won’t End (by Lorrin Smokey Bates – Ray Fuller – Percy Bady) was chosen for the third single off the album (# 69-r&b). This sweet and melodic ballad, which only shocks with a rock guitar solo in the middle, is actually a duet with a singer-songwriter by the name of Brenda Russell, who had scored with Piano in the Dark and Get Here on A&M in 1988. “That came through my manager. He knew Brenda and he thought we would be a great team together. Mervyn Dash reached out for her, and she agreed to do it, and I really enjoyed working with Brenda.”
The fourth and final song James produced for the album was a slow-to-mid-tempo ditty called Still In Love, which was co-written by Mark Holden, a 58-year old Australian singer, actor and songwriter, who in soul circles is probably best remembered by Lady Soul for the Temptations in 1986.
Levi Seacer, Jr., who has worked with such artists as Prince, Sheila E, Pointer Sisters and Sounds of Blackness, produced the rest two tracks for the set. He also handles all the instruments. The title track, Open Invitation, is the only uptempo song on the album and it was co-written by Norma Jean Wright, and one of the background singers on it is Alex Brown.
The concluding song is a cover of Chuck Jackson’s 1962 hit, Any Day Now. Recorded in Minnesota, the song is arranged to a faster tempo, and – although it lacks the wistfulness and drama of the original recording – it succeeds in conveying the feeling of despair and desolation, so essential to the song. “I think that was Debbie Sandridge’s idea. She was the A&R of the TAJ Records at the time.” Debbie, who is credited as the executive producer on Gerald’s album, is still active in music. After six years with Motown, she worked seven years with Diana Ross, before becoming a director at McNally Smith College of Music in Minneapolis.
Open Invitation fared a bit better than its predecessor, as it reached # 14 on Billboard’s “Top R&B Albums” charts. In terms of soulfulness it really is an impressive set. There’s not a dud on display. Again the European release had two extra tracks (Nothing Can Change and Almost There), which later will appear on Gerald’s third American album. “I think it was a pretty good album. I think it wasn’t as good as the first album, even though we got a big single out of it, Slow Motion, but overall I think the first one was a better album. On that album we really took our time.”
HELL OF A SITUATION
Again two years passed before the next album, Always in the Mood (on Motown 6353, no TAJ anymore), was released in late 1992. Again Debbie Sandridge is credited as the executive producer and again Stan Sheppard and Jimmy Varner produced the first three tracks, and Jimmy plays all the instruments.
The opener is an oft-covered Al Green’s toe-tapper from 1972 titled Love and Happiness, and here again By All Means is backing up Gerald. The first single, however, was track number two, a powerful soul ballad called Hell of a Situation (Backroom Conversation), written by Stan and Jimmy. “It was a story-tell like Kiss and Say Goodbye. People could identify with it.” Unfortunately this passionate song struggled only to # 28-r&b. The third track was Jimmy’s hooky beat-ballad named Good to Go.
Nick Martinelli produced half of the tracks on the set. “He was a pleasure to work with. He took his time. He really worked with you, and he had a great way of working. You couldn’t come in and not know the song, or you would not sing that day. You would come in after you knew it. That’s the way he recorded, and I really appreciated that.”
Those days Nick was an in-demand producer, who in the 1980s and ‘90s worked with Loose Ends, Five Star, Stephanie Mills, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Miki Howard, Regina Belle, Phyllis Hyman and Diana Ross, to name a few.
Recorded in Miami, Florida, Send for Me, a classy slowie written by Sam Dees and Ron Kersey, was tested as the second single, but only to a moderate success – # 40-r&b in 1993. The song had been a bigger hit (# 16-soul) for Atlantic Starr in 1981. “We talked about it, and we thought it was a good song, and Nick Martinelli had produced it on Atlantic Starr. When we were talking about it, he said ‘I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it on you’, because he knew my voice and he knew, where he wanted to go. We just put it together, and it was a great song to do. I’ve always liked it. I’ve sung it a couple of times on our show.”
PEACE OF MIND
Nick produced a powerful, gospel-infused gem of a ballad called Peace of Mind, with a real live rhythm section and an 8-piece strong choir. “Barbara Morr and I and Mark Chapman (on the pic right) wrote that. We were just trying to do something with a gospel feel. Betty Wright and her daughter sang on it.” Besides Betty there are also Cynthia Biggs and Donna Allen contributing. In part 4 of our story we already introduced Barbara Morr. Barbara: “The song is filled with many more metaphors than the other songs due to the collaboration with Mark Chapman.”
Mark Chapman: “I co-wrote a song with Gerald Alston and Barbara for the Manhattans called You’re Gonna Love Being Loved by Me (on the Too Hot to Stop It album in 1985, and the b-side of the Columbia 04754 single) and Peace of Mind, a ballad on Gerald’s solo album, Always in the Mood. I considered meeting and working with Gerald to be a high point in my career, actually the fulfilment of a dream. I had been an ardent fan of his and the Manhattans. I consider him to be as fine a singer as I have ever heard. I wore out those Manhattans albums while living in Nashville.”
“In Nashville Tommy Cogbill was the most memorable player I knew down there. We were friends. I even lent him my bass on occasion for recording. He died much too soon. The last guy I played gigs with out of Nashville, before I moved to NYC, was Eddie Hinton. He has been overlooked, I think, considering what great playing he did.”
“I was lucky to connect with Gerald and Barbara after moving to NYC in 1983. Previous to meeting them, I had songs recorded by the Sweet Inspirations on the RSO LP Hot Butterfly in 1979 and by the Newcomers, a Memphis group on Mercury, produced by Allen Jones. In 1986 I had a song cut by Third World, World of Uncertainty on Columbia’s Sense of Purpose LP that did well enough internationally to be included in a greatest hits compilation. More obscurely, Barbara and I wrote a song that was recorded by Billy Scott and the Party Prophets in 1999 and was released in a compilation Bad Boys of Beach, volume 2, distributed by WalMart, Amazon etc. We only learned of this recently, since no-one bothered to alert us, or pay any royalties. This is a classic r&b record business situation.”
The title song, Always in the Mood, is an easy dancer, written by Thomas Snow and Gerry Goffin. Gerald: “The song was submitted to Motown and Nick Martinelli. Gigi Worth, the young lady came in and did it with us.” Ed Calle does a fine sax solo on this poppy ditty.
The guitarist in these Nick’s session, Randy Bowland, wrote a lilting ballad called Someone like You, while Gerald and Jeff Franzel, a New York based pianist and songwriter (e.g. Don’t Rush Me by Taylor Dayne in 1988), wrote a heartfelt, big ballad named I Appreciate Your Love, which had Dee Dee Wilde and Eugene Wilde on background vocals.
NOTHING CAN CHANGE (THE LOVE WE SHARED BEFORE)
Another song Gerald and Barbara Morr wrote together was a melodic mid-pacer called Nothing Can Change (the Love We Shared Before). Gerald: “Douglas Grisby III produced that one. We did the arrangement on that with Nick Martinelli. Doug was a big guy. I haven’t seen him for awhile.” Barbara: “It was pulled from the international version of Gerald’s previous album. It became a big hit in England and then in the rest of Europe, so it was put on the domestic version of Gerald’s third album.”
Barbara: “My collaboration with Gerald Alston has been extremely rewarding, first and foremost, because Gerald is one of the world’s greatest singers and it is an honour to have his performance involved with my writing. With Gerald’s singing style in mind, I have wanted to contribute that which compliments and enhances his voice and gives him room to give his own soulful, personal performance. Our songs are generally considered to be very melodic, hooky and tight in construction.”
“I have had twenty songs recorded by major artists, with Am I Losing You being the most successful. It was also a hit in Europe, Japan and South Africa. Gerald and I wrote We’ve Come All the Way to Love, which we produced for Ray, Goodman & Brown” (on Panoramic Records in 1984). Do You Love Him, one of Barbara’s songs, was released on Phyllis Hyman’s posthumous CD, In Between the Heartaches. In recent years Barbara has been engaged in writing music for commercials, too, both for American and Hispanic markets. “As a singer-songwriter and with my band, I have performed all over the New York metropolitan area, LA, and several European venues including Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmo, and Basel. I continue to write songs and work in music for advertising. I also teach voice, do vocal coaching, and teach piano and song-writing.”
The concluding song on Always in the Mood is a poignant and melodic ballad titled Almost There, written by Gerald, Eric Mercury and Ira Antelis. Gerald: “The three of us wrote that together. I did it live, when I toured with Natalie Cole back in 1992, and the audience loved it.” Cut in Chicago and produced by Eric and Ira, string arrangements were created by Gene Page.
For the European release of the album they took Nothing Can Change and Almost There off, because those two songs were included already on the European pressing of Open Invitation. As compensation they added five new tracks. First there was a remix of Any Day Now, then a European team of Rutti & Gilbert produced two mid-tempo songs, One Touch (Full of Love) and I’m Still in Love with You. Finally Camelle Hinds and Simon Trounce produced in London two jazzy tracks, the mid-tempo What’s the Color of Love and the faster World of Ours.
STAY THE NIGHT
Like clockwork, after a lapse of two years Gerald’s next album hit the streets in late 1994. It was entitled 1st Class only and released on Street Life Records out of California. Street Life was formed in December 1993 as a sub-label to Scotti Bros, and some of the other artists on this imprint included Nikki Kixx, China, Yella, the Comrads and Craig Mack. Executive producers on Gerald’s album were Emerson “EJ” Jackson, a bassist/singer/producer, and Kevin Evans, president of the urban music division of Scotti Bros./Street Life Records. Chuck Gullo was the head of the entire company those days.
There were as many as five production units working on this set. Gi aka Robert Grissett, Jr. together with Gerald were honoured with the first single release, a beat-ballad titled Stay the Night (# 69-r&b), written by Gi, Gerald, Erica McFarland and Richard Redd. Gerald: “Gi was a young man out of L.A. That was my first time meeting him, but he did a great job.” Besides producing and writing, Gi also plays all the instruments and he did the programming on the track. Gi’s and Gerald’s second production collaboration is a mid-tempo number with a heavy beat called Just Say Yes Tonight.
The second unit – Gregory Charley and John Winston – is better known as Kiara, a Detroit duo, which was formed in the early 80s and had such top-ten r&b hits as The Best of Me, This Time, Every Little Time and You’re Right about That on Arista in the late 80s/early 90s. Recorded in Detroit, the twosome produced four self-written songs on Gerald, and three of those tunes had appeared already on their own recent set, Conditions of the Heart. A dreamy ballad called Devote All My Time – with Dave McMurray on sax – was released as the second single in 1995, and it scraped to # 81-r&b. The other three Kiara songs were a light mid-tempo ballad named Tell Me, a laid-back floater titled I Believe and a mellow and melodic slowie called Willin to be Thrillin.
Sam Sims (www.officialsamsims.com) is best known as a smooth jazz bass player, who has worked with numerous luminaries, and he co-wrote and produced two songs for Gerald. “I think Sam played with Janet Jackson at the time. He was a very good producer. These guys knew what they wanted, we came in and that was it.” Recorded in Atlanta with a live rhythm section, Nothin Better is a mid-tempo, soft floater, which Sam had produced on Rodney Mannsfield a year earlier (actually you can find the original instrumental version of this song on smooth jazz sax player Boney James’s Trust album – by the name of Kyoto; ed. note.). The second mid-pacer, Mirror Mirror, was cut in New York.
The two songs that the ever-reliable Michael J. Powell produced on Gerald were again cut in Detroit. “I was hooked up with Michael through my manager at the time. He was a great producer and he allowed me to be myself.” Both songs – I’m Going Crazy and The Best Is Yet to Come (by Gerald and Jeff Franzel) – are gently flowing ballads.
There’s still one more song on 1st Class only, produced by Magic, and it may ring a bell. Gerald decided to remake the Manhattans’ platinum single from 18 years back, Kiss and Say Goodbye. The writer, Winfred “Blue” Lovett, again opens the song with his inimitable monologue, but this time the track is arranged to a much heavier beat and it takes off some of the smoothness and beauty of this gem of a song “Magic was in the camp with the Whispers, and he produced his arrangement of it. We thought it was nice, but I still like the original better.” The musician/singer/producer Magic Mendez http://magicmendez.com became later the lead of Unified Tribe.
Gerald’s fourth solo album wasn’t exactly a big seller. It spent only one week on the r&b charts and hit # 93. It was a soothing and entertaining album, but, on the other hand, there were no real sparks on it. “The industry was changing – to hip-hop and such – and we just never were able to get off the ground, and I didn’t do anything for awhile.”
HARD TO SAY
In addition to his solo records, Gerald also made visits on other artists’ albums and cut duets. Lori Perry was a member of a quartet of sisters called Perri, and alongside working with the group Lori later also launched her solo career. Lori and Gerald sang together on Raymond Jones’ nice mid-tempo dancer called Hard to Say. “That was for the movie, Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. I enjoyed that, and the movie was good, although in the picture they took my part off (laughing)… but I liked the song.” The song was released not only on the soundtrack on Motown 6272 in 1989, but also as a single (Motown 2034).
In 1989 Motown released a compilation entitled Christmas Cheers from Motown (6292), and – along with such artists as Smokey Robinson, Johnny Gill and the Temptations – Gerald is featured on two songs. Christmas Presence is a duet with Shanice Wilson (www.shaniceonline.com) – remember I Love Your Smile in 1991? “That was an experience! She was a young lady, but she has a voice that’s unbelievable. I remember we were singing the song in the studio in L.A., when my part came to sing after she did her part, and I was so taken away with her voice that I forgot where to come in. I was totally amazed at her voice. Her mother, Crystal, is on background vocals.” Indeed, the song starts as a gently ballad, but towards the end Shanice and Gerald take us to church.
Gerald’s second Christmas song is his gospel-infused rendition of O Holy Night, which later appeared also on another compilation, Christmas Time with Motown (520254), in 1995. “O Holy Night has always been a favourite of mine, and we wanted to try and make it a little different. Bill Dern did the producing on that. We got the choir together from my church, and it worked out great. I get a lot of airplay around Christmas time with O Holy Night.”
As an example of versatility, Gerald sings on a mid-tempo, melodic and laid-back reggae song called Sugar, which also features Soprano. “That was done for a French movie. I liked it. It was a different experience for me, but I enjoyed it.” Bronu Coulais was the score composer and producer on the soundtrack Comme un Aimant (“like a magnet”) on No Sellout 48779 in 2000.
RIGHT BY MY SIDE
One of the most beautiful songs Gerald recorded during his solo spell was called Right by my Side. Co-written by Stanley Clarke, this lovely serenade was released on the Stanley Clarke/George Duke project “3” (Epic 46012, in 1990). “I wished a million times, over and over again, that Motown had gotten George Duke to produce one of my albums. It would have been sensational. He made me feel comfortable. Sometimes, when a producer gets too excited about the artist’s voice, he loses focus of what he’s doing. George was focused. I think back then he would have been the perfect producer for one of my CDs.”
In the world of r&b there’s also another gentleman by the name of Gerald Alston. This namesake was one of the members of the quintet called Classic Example, which released a self-titled CD on Boston Int. Records/Hollywood (61333) in 1992, for the most part produced by Maurice Starr.
On YouTube you can still watch an almost 14-minute-long clip of the play Chaos – shot in June 2011 – where Gerald and Glenn Jones are having a singing battle over Leslie Dupree. Gerald sings There’s No Me without You. “I did one night in the play Chaos. My cousin recommended me to do the thing.”
Gerald is listed as one of the vocalists on Stick Me for My Riches, which appeared on Wu-Tang Clan’s CD “8 Diagrams” in 2007. “It’s all wrong. The song was not done for Wu-Tang. Illegally Wu-Tang put that record on the album. I did it for a friend of mine, who was putting a movie together, and we invited a gentleman from Wu-Tang to do a rap on the record. They took the record, mixed it and I never got paid for it. I never got anything for it. No respect at all! I didn’t give my right for that song to be put on anybody’s album.”
“When I was doing my solo career, I did a lot of work in Europe. In ’91 I did a European tour with Whitney Houston. We did Wembley, two days in Manchester, we did Rotterdam, Scotland, Germany and France. I opened for her… a great show! I also toured England with Natalie Cole. I toured here in the States with Anita Baker, and I also toured with Stephanie Mills. I toured with divas. All of them were very nice to work with.” Gerald’s official website can be found at www.gerald-alston.com.
As stated in the previous part of the Manhattans story, the New Year’s Eve of 1990 was the last day for Blue in the group, before he had to step aside for awhile. Blue: “I didn’t retire. I was forced to get out of the business by health-wise. I took a leave of absence, so to speak. At that particular time, my blood pressure was very high and the advice of my doctor was to take a break.”
Already in the 80s Blue produced new and upcoming talent for his Blue and Love Lee labels (for details, please see part 4 of the story) and during his 2 ½-year hiatus in the early 90s he continued in this field. Blue: “I worked with the Bolton Brothers out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We did two albums. The gospel field was a new field for me. We did a live CD on them, and it did pretty okay, but I wasn’t that familiar with the distribution and markets in the gospel field.” Blue actually worked on two live CDs for the group, Live in Mobile in 1996 and Live in Mobile, vol. 2 two years later on Blackberry Records.
I have sidetracked a few times in this story before by presenting artists and music figures that were someway related to the Manhattans or the label they were on – Joe Evans, other Carnival recording artists such as Lee Williams and Phil Terrell, also Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Martin, Bobby Eli, Carla Benson, Bunny Sigler, Leo Graham etc. – so let’s add James Bolton to the list, as well.
THE BOLTON BROTHERS
James Bolton was born on January 11th in 1960. The exact place was a small town called McLain in Greene County, Mississippi, 37 miles to the southeast of Hattiesburg. James: “We even don’t have a red light there anymore and no 4-way stop.” Altogether there were twenty children in the Bolton family – twelve girls and eight boys – and in the mid-fifties the family formed its first gospel group called the Wearyland Singers. James became a member of their next group, the Gospel Soul Singers, formed in 1965, and this time with some cousins joining in, too. “At that time in the group there were fifteen of us.” Finally, when the Bolton Brothers was formed in 1976, there were seven members in the first line-up, and James was one of them.
James: “I met Blue some thirty years ago. George Ray was doing management back then, and he was also a promoter. He heard me sing and thought I was pretty good. George sent a tape on me for Blue to hear me sing. Blue then took me on the road. He took me to Japan – to Tokyo and Yokohama – in the late 80s. Of course, I was into gospel music, but he still treated me like a king. After Gerald left, he offered me the position. In Atlanta he told me that whenever you’re ready, you got the job. So I must have been alright. He gave me a lot of training, and we became great friends.”
Under Control was the first, 9-track album by James Bolton and the Bolton Brothers in 1991 on Giant Records (CD 02845) out of Forest, MS. “It was produced by a guy named David Huff. Since then I’ve done two more CDs by myself.” David is also a guitarist of David & the Giants fame.
“Live in Mobile was a CD and video shoot back in 1995-96. Blue helped us a lot in choreography and vocal training.” Interestingly, Blue isn’t credited anywhere on the set. “He didn’t want to be mentioned, but he would give us a lot of vocal coaching.”
Blue also wrote or co-wrote some songs for the brothers – such as Call Somebody Please, We Must Come Together, When Are My People Coming Home? – but all of them were not recorded. “We started recording When Are My People Coming Home, but we never finished the recording.”
The Bolton Brothers cut one more live CD for Blackberry, Revival in Atlanta, in 2001, and since then Blackberry has released a compilation titled One More Time in 2007. Blackberry was a label that belonged to another gospel outfit, the Williams Brothers. One interesting detail is that one of the biggest songs for the Bolton Brothers has been If You Move, I’ll fall, which is credited to three Williams brothers. It is actually the same song that all the soul music lovers know by the Dells from their ’73 album, produced by Don Davis, and there the song was credited to James Dean and William Lloyd Wooten. The Williams Brothers have recorded the song themselves, too.
“Standing on the Promise is the latest project on the Bolton Brothers. It’s brand new. We started our own label for it, Now Faith Records. Today it’s five brothers. We perform a lot on Friday nights, on Saturdays and sometimes we get together on Sundays. We have a lot of fans. We stay as busy as we want to be in the United States” (laughing).
Not only as the lead for the Bolton Brothers, but also in the capacity of a solo singer James has created quite a following. His second solo CD, Three Times My Saviour (Musicssippi Entertainment; 73 min.), was released about five years ago and again it was produced by David Huff. Shawn Williams, who also plays drums on the album, is credited as a co-producer. Recorded at Huff Recording Studio out of Forest, MS, James wrote or co-wrote eleven songs out of the fifteen on display.
On many tracks – This Is Where I Belong, There Is No Secret, I want to be Right, Just Let Me Show You, Lord We Worship you – James’ masculine baritone singing grows into intense delivery and his voice radiates soulfulness and occasionally gruff power. There are some familiar tunes, such as Three Times My Saviour – inspired by Lionel Richie’s Three Times a Lady – and Hold Out Until the End, inspired by the Hartfield Brothers, and the three tracks that are owned by Giant Records (Here’s My Heart, He’ll Be There and Love Has a Place) are all quite soft and melodic floaters and probably derive from earlier sessions.
Backing music is provided for the most part by a real live rhythm section on this mainly down-tempo, inspirational set, where brothers and other family members contribute vocally on two songs, a mid-tempo gospel beater called Glad To Be In the Service and a gentle and melodic ballad titled It’s Just a Dream. There’s even one country-tinged waltz, (They Treated Jesus Like a) Tramp On the Street.
James’ recent solo CD, He’s All I Need, woos also younger audience with more contemporary urban beats and even rap… and the unfortunate autotune, on a duet with Kellye Huff. Personally I hate autotune. Good singers like James don’t really need it. On this CD James, however, has mainly a live rhythm section backing him up and there’s a full sound throughout – including my favourite r&b instrument, the saxophone.
In the more traditional vein, there are slow and rousing testimonies, such as My, My, My… the Lord been good to me and He’s All I Need/Bright Side. There are also a few smooth and very tuneful songs like the country-tinged You Saved My Life and the tender and sensitive My Heart Belongs to You. A couple of tunes James had cut already earlier, Just to Know Him and He’s Coming Back – this time turned into a rocker by David Huff. Altogether I recommend give this CD a listen, because it’s very solid inspirational music.
Today James and Blue are still friends. “We didn’t depart. We just kind of lost contact, with me having my own CD and doing my thing. We’ve always been great friends. Blue was really a big plus for me. He opened a lot of doors for me.” (http://jamesboltonministries.com).
After Gerald embarked on a solo career in 1988, Blue took a hiatus at the end of 1990 and Kenny Kelly went on to work in a schooling system and retail (see the end of our previous part 4), one of the founding members that was still around, Sonny Bivins, was suddenly out there alone. Sonny: “In 1990 Roger Harris was the replacement for Gerald Alston, and he was a background singer with Regina Belle and with the Manhattans, before Gerald went solo. After Blue and Kenny retired that left Roger and myself, so I had to look for replacements fast. I already had some performances lined up within the next month or so, and through my prayers everything fell into place – Charles, Harsey and then Al.”
Sonny formed a group in the line-up of himself (baritone), Roger Harris (lead), Alvin Pazant (bass), Harsey Hemphill (1st tenor) and Charles Hardy (2nd tenor). Charles: “Having a mother Dorothy Sebastian that was a chorus line dancer at the original Cotton Club and Apollo Theater, and a godfather Rev. William E. Lee, I think God planned for me to be in the entertainment business.” Charles is of Indian decent, Pequet Indian tribe. “I was introduced to the Manhattans in the late 70s through my cousin Walter “Scooter” Collins, their wardrobe manager, who took me on the road with him and I became very close to ‘Uncle Sonny’. I would become an assistant to Scooter.”
“I found out Gerald knew a lot of my family members, who were from Henderson, North Carolina… just like Gerald. Blue and Kenny were always very nice to me. I learned a lot from them. Harsey and I grew up together in Mount Vernon, New York, and started singing together, when he was five years old and I was seven years old. That’s forty-seven years as singing partners – first in his family quartet group, the Morning Star Gospel Singers, then in a local band called Sky’s the Limit that recorded under De-Lite Records (Your Love Runs Free in 1982). Also we did a lot of studio background vocals for different artists. When Scooter called me and asked, if we wanted to audition for the Manhattans, we just went and did our thing, got the positions and have been here with Uncle Sonny for the last twenty-two years.”
Alvin Pazant had earlier in his career played trumpet with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, had worked as the musical director for Melba Moore and had performed and recorded as the Pazant Brothers & Beaufort Express in the 60s, 70s and 80s for GWP, Priscilla, Vigor, Vanguard (an album entitled Loose and Juicy) and P.M.P. Records.
His brother, Edward Pazant, also has ties with Sonny’s group. Sonny: “Edward is an East Coast Jazz Hall of Famer and a saxophone and woodwind specialist. He is the older brother of Al, and he’s not a member of the Manhattans. He is one of the musicians that accompany the band that plays for the Manhattans.”
In 1991 Roger Harris left the group and Wade Taylor became their new lead singer for a short period. Sonny: “Wade came to us by way of our MC at the time, Oscar “Flame n’ King” Richardson, if I’m not mistaken. Wade was in a local band. He was doing a lot of studio work also. He had a regular job, so I knew he wasn’t going to be with the group for a long time, unless we were working a lot. He reminded me of Philippé Wynne of the Spinners… very down-to-earth personality, always had a kind word for everyone he met.” Already in 1991 Wade was replaced by Lee Williams (for his bio, please see the 2nd part of the story).
THE MANHATTANS NOW
The group in the line-up of Lee, Harsey, Charles, Al and Sonny released one album called The Manhattans Now (HRC-4010) on Hektoen Recording Corp. out of New York in 1994. The label was owned by Michael D. Hektoen. Sonny: Our manager Gerald Delet and Mike Hektoen were business partners. Mike had owned Media Sound Studios in NYC for years. That was one of the biggest recording studios on the east coast. When the idea came up to record the group, Gerry told me he had a partner he wanted me to meet. We sat down, talked over the whole picture of what I wanted to do and the direction I wanted to take the group in. The deal was made and the project was under way.”
Michael D. Hektoen had worked as Executive Vice President of TWM Management in the late 70s, President of Media Sound Studios in the 80s and for the last ten years as CEO of RockSTAR Music Corporation. He’s been listed as executive producer on many artists’ albums, including Tramaine and Aurra in the 80s.
Produced by Stephen C. Washington of the Ohio Players, Slave, Aurra etc. fame, besides keys and guitars in terms of live instruments there’s Ed Pazant on saxophone solos and Al Pazant on trumpet solos.
The album is divided into “This Side” and “That Side”. “This” is more relaxed, doowopish, late-night mood music, whereas “That” offers smooth and melodic dancers. On this 12-tracker, Lee sings lead on all except three songs. Sonny and Al wrote and share lead on a romantic slowie with a long bass monologue called Just for Tonight. Harsey is the co-lead on a tuneful slow-to-mid-pacer named The One Who Adores you and they all share lead on the poppy Save the Best for Last.
The co-writer on Hey Lady and Wonderful, two uptempo songs, was Rusty Cloud. Sonny: “Rusty produced, arranged and did the music for those songs. We met Rusty through Lee, and Al knew him, too… a great musician and person to work with.”
The album opens with a rather laid-back but accumulative reading of A Change Is Gonna Come and Sam Cooke is covered also on the relaxed and sax-driven versions of Touch the Hem of His Garment and Having a Party. There’s also one nostalgic Manhattans medley of There’s No Me without You & Kiss and Say Goodbye & Shining Star, but unfortunately the machines tend to push through too audibly in the instrumentation.
The concluding song, Midnite Lovin’ is a melodic and energetic mover. Sonny: “It was a song written by our MC at the time, Oscar Richardson. ‘King’, as he is known to everybody, is the owner of PMP Studios in Harlem, New York. We rehearsed there and had the auditions for the new members of the group back in 1990. I knew King from the 60s and he now is the manager of the Legendary Intruders. We keep in touch with him still.” Besides “Legendary”, there are also other line-ups of the Intruders and tribute groups working on the scene these days.
Sonny: “I felt the CD could have been promoted better. The selection of material could have been better also. But I enjoyed recording that CD.” Charles: “In my personal opinion the CD was ok and we needed to put something out that would bring the Manhattans name back into circulation. We got very good responses from the places we played, so that wasn’t the problem. We were on a limited budget, so we had to do with what we had… and it turned out pretty nice. We got some learning experience from it. All in all it was a good project working together for the first time in the studio.”
The Manhattans Now remained their sole album, because the contract with Hektoen Records was up in 1996, and the group decided not to renew it. Instead the group formed Manhattans Entertainment, Inc. for bookings, management, PR, marketing, merchandise, recording, videos, movies and investments in charity projects. Sonny: “We wanted to start our own corporation. This way the Manhattans could choose who they wanted to work with in all musical and business fields. There comes a time, when you have to control your own destiny.”
In 1998 Sonny’s group performed at the White House Christmas party for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Sonny: “We received a personal letter from the president thanking us for being a part of the celebration at the White House. This time around personally for me was different than the inauguration for President Carter in the 70s. We had a lot of fun. What an honour!” Charles: “As a kid I went on a school trip to DC, saw the monuments and all the sites. But to perform for the president of the United States is an once-in-a-lifetime thing.” Harsey: “That’s something you will be able to tell your kids, grandkids and great-grands. It’s a lifetime experience I will always remember.”
Since then Sonny’s group has been touring – quite a lot overseas, too – and they’ve also performed in such plays as Girl, He Ain’t Worth It and Chicken Shack. Sonny: “Being that I am not physically able at this time to perform with the group and I am at the rehabilitation center due to hip surgery and rehab from surgery, the line-up still remains with the other four members. I have turned everything over to Charles to run the group and conduct every aspect that I was doing for Manhattan Entertainment, Inc. Charles is consulted and mentored by my best friend, Mr. Toye Kates Jr., who is still a part of the Manhattans family and in who I have the utmost trust and respect for. He was the road manager for the Manhattans in the 60s.”
Sonny: “Classic soul music will never die. It’s just like life infinity. The artist may pass on but the music – if you’re listening to it, talking about it or have lived it or living it now – continues to multiply through new generations of people that it is bestowed upon.” You’ll find the website of Sonny’s group at www.themanhattans.net.
THE REUNION TOUR
Gerald: “We knew our 30th anniversary was coming up. The late Al Goodman from Ray, Goodman & Brown gave me a call and said ‘why don’t you get Blue and the guys together for a 30-year reunion and put a band together’. So I gave Blue a call and Blue agreed to it, and I called Sonny and I called Kenny. Kenny couldn’t come back at the time, and Sonny had formed his own group and he didn’t want to come back and put it together. So in 1993 Blue and I just got two other guys, and we started working. All we wanted to do was 30th year reunion. If it worked, we’d stay together, if it didn’t, we would just go our separate ways. When we got back, everything just fell in its place. In our first rehearsal choreography just came back to us, vocal parts came back to us, and turned out that Blue and I missed working together.”
The first two guys Blue and Gerald invited to replace Sonny and Kenny were Eban Brown and Roger Harris. Yes, the very same Roger Harris, who replaced Gerald in 1988 and was the lead vocalist on the Sweet Talk album on Valley Vue in 1989 and then went on to sing lead in Sonny’s group for awhile after Blue and Kenny had left. Blue: “Roger had been a background singer for Gerald at one time, when Gerald was doing his solo career. When I left, I didn’t keep up what was happening with the Manhattans or anyone else. I was told that Roger eventually left the Manhattans as lead singer and some months after that joined background singers with Gerald Alston.”
Gerald: “I don’t know what really happened with the group after I left, but I think evidently it wasn’t that good. Roger sang on the road for me on the background for a couple of times, but never on record. I chose him for our reunion group, because he knew the songs and he did background very good. When you’re trying to do the business, you like to forget about personal issues and you’re trying to make money, and we worked good together.”
To summarize Roger’s “Manhattans career”, he sang lead in the Manhattans in 1988-90 and carried on as the lead in Sonny’s new group still in 1991, then became a background singer for Gerald Alston on the road and finally was chosen to be a member in the reunion group for a minute in 1993.
Eban Brown (www.ebanbrownmusic.net ), on the other hand, is a whole different story. Although turning only 40 on June 14, you could call him a trouper in the field of those male vocal groups that specialize in sweet soul music – not in age or in singing years, but in the number of groups he’s been singing with. Before his short spell with Blue and Gerald in 1993 he had been with Ray, Goodman & Brown in the early 90s for two and a half years, and later he became a member of Wilbert Hart’s Delphonics - William Hart headed the Delfonics those days – prior to his solo career and singing lead with the Stylistics. It seems that not many of these classic soul music groups succeeded in avoiding splitting into two or more sets. For instance, the original lead and indisputably the most renowned voice in the Stylistics, Mr. Russell Thomkins, Jr. is heading his own New Stylistics these days.
Gerald: “Eban is a lead singer, and his voice wouldn’t fit the Manhattans lead singing. He worked with us and – when he found his way to go – he gave notice and we brought in Troy May and then Dave Tyson.”
Troy Joseph May was born on March 17 in 1965 in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, a Marine Corps base. Troy: “I moved to Brooklyn, New York, roughly in 1967, when I was two years old. My father sang in a doowop group. They never became famous. They were just known in the neighbourhood. Now I live in Alabama. I moved here two years ago, to be closer to family. My daughters are 16 and 22.”
“In Brooklyn I first went to Julia Richmond High School. There’s a famous school called The School of Performing Arts. I auditioned for that school, but at the time they were full and I couldn’t get in. So I found out about Julia Richmond. They had a Talent Unlimited program, so I went to that school instead. After that it was Medgar Evers College. I went there for five semesters, and then I went to Hunter College.”
“Talent Unlimited program exposed me to a lot of people in the business, so once I came out of school I had friends who were already in the business like James Simmons, who used to be the guitar player for the Manhattans. Eventually he introduced me to Mr. Lovett, and he decided to manage my career for a short period of time. That would have to be around ’91-’92.”
Those days Troy used to cut demos. “It was a group of producers and a gentleman by the name of Tony Prendatt, who was producing Third World at the time. He asked me to sing a few songs to present them to Third World to see if they liked them. I did that for a very short time as well. That was around the same time, ’91-’92. I made quite a few recordings, but I actually never got a label deal. Nothing was ever released.”
“In 1994 I joined the Manhattans. Mr. Lovett said they were back on the road – I believe in ’93 – and one of the gentlemen, Roger Harris, left the group, so he asked me to take his place. It was only supposed to be no more than maybe for a couple of months… and here it is, eighteen years later (laughing). Blue was already trying to establish my career in the recording industry. He said ‘why don’t you just join us for a little bit, for a couple of weeks to get your feet wet in the market and then we go from there’.”
“It’s been an absolute high. For the past almost twenty years it’s been absolute blast. We’re family, and most of the time we’re laughing and joking. We have a genuine love and respect for each other, and it comes across on stage.”
However, on a general level Troy is worried about the current state of r&b music. “I’m a huge fan of Marvin Gaye and I’m an old-school kind of person – Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Manhattans… As far as r&b music is concerned, there will always be the main foundation for r&b music. Those classic soul songs will always be there. They’ll last forever. Even a lot of songs today are based on those songs of yesteryear. But those artists – for one – are dying, which is very sad, and the second thing is that these artists are not being allowed to get recording deals, to continue on their recording careers. If you do get one, the label’s not going to push you, so a lot of good music is just going to waste. With the state of things today, a lot of groups from this era find more success on the road as opposed you find if you put out a record. It’s tough to do. The promoters are only going to pay you so much… depending on how your recording is doing today. And if you haven’t had a record in years…”
David Lewis Tyson was born in Philadelphia, PA, on September 14 in 1959. David: “My father was a nine-to-five working man. I have four sisters and two brothers. In my childhood our house was always full of music, and I used to sing on street-corners with some other guys for anybody, who wanted to hear me sing. I would always show off and sing in front of the girls in the schoolyard.”
One of David’s brothers is Ron Tyson, who’s been a member of the Temptations for close to thirty years now. David: “I followed my brother. My brother had a lot of groups, when I was growing up, and a lot of these groups were rehearsing in the basement of our house.”
One of Ron’s groups was the Ethics, which was formed in 1967. “It affected me a lot. Every time he would play at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, my mom would take me and all the guys in the neighbourhood there. I loved it. I always wanted to be with my brother. I cherished him a lot.” From 1974 the Ethics would continue as Love Committee until 1980.
“Later on I formed my own group, Final Touch, in 1987 and we won The African-American talent show at the Uptown Theater. We made no recordings. We were almost picked up by Hush Productions in New York, but that fell through. We disbanded in 1991.”
“Then I met Eugene “Lambchop” Curry in 1991. He’s a keyboard player and he’s one of the best. We wrote a lot of songs together, but we never did anything with them.” Eugene is also a producer and he has written or co-written songs for numerous artists, such as Patti LaBelle (Somebody Loves You Baby) and the Dells (I Can’t Help Myself).
“Next I found out that Blue was looking for another singer for the Manhattans. My brother knew that I could sing, and he asked me to call Blue. Cholly Atkins was a legendary choreographer for step dancers. Cholly called me up and explained me what to do, and after that I called Blue. I met Blue at the Valley Forge Music Fair (in Denvon, Pennsylvania). I met him backstage over there, we talked and I auditioned for him… and that was it. That was when Blue and Gerald had the reunion tour. I came in just as it started blowing up. I took Eban Brown’s spot, when he left.”
“I remember on some of my visits to the Uptown Theater the Manhattans were there. I remember them come on stage and put the strobe light on, and then they would turn the lights out and put on a black light on hands and all you could see was white gloves. They’re one of my favourites along with the Temptations, my brother’s group. I just love singing with them.”
“We have these ladies called the Manhattanettes (in Facebook under “Manhattans_East Coast Connection). They keep us alive and in everybody’s mind. These girls are tremendous. They really do their job… and do it free. They’re great and beautiful women. I love them.” (www.davetyson.com).
R&B HALL OF FAME
At the end of the decade the Manhattans were inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. The celebration took place in Los Angeles, California, in February 1999. Sonny: “The R&B Hall of Fame and the Lifetime Achievement ‘Pioneer Award’ was for the same organization at the same time. It was Chuck Jackson that really helped us get the recognition. They inducted the original group of the 60s. That was George “Smitty” Smith, Richard Taylor, Kenny Kelly, Blue Lovett and myself. Gerald Alston, Lee Williams and Al Pazant were also in attendance. As the Manhattans family, which we all are and will always be, it was a great honour to have bestowed upon the group.”
Blue: “It was wonderful. All of the big celebrities were in the audience – Bonnie Raitt, Bobby Womack, Lionel Richie…” Gerald: “It was a wonderful celebration. The original members were inducted. We had a nice time. We took a class picture together. Sonny, myself, Blue and Kenny – we sang together. We sang Follow Your Heart and Kiss and Say Goodbye.”
LIVE FROM SOUTH AFRICA
After the reunion tour took off in 1994, the Manhattans featuring Gerald Alston and Blue Lovett kept on performing throughout the 90s, also overseas. Gerald: “We toured Europe. We did Germany and the Netherlands. We did Alaska and Japan. We toured Okinawa, Quam, all of the Caribbean… and we got a home in South Africa.”
Amazingly, during their thirty plus years of singing and recording the Manhattans never had a live album released. Gerald: “I don’t know what the problem with Columbia was at the time, but we wanted to do a live album a long time ago, and they refused to do it. In ’76 and ’77 we travelled off-and-on with a full orchestra, and they would not record a live album.”
Blue: “Sony in South Africa approached us in ’96, when we went there to see President Mandela and South-Africans. After our first show Sony came to our hotel and suggested to do a Live in South Africa CD, and we did.” Gerald: “We went to South Africa for the first time. All our records had been hits. Our albums were gold, but people had never seen us. Sony recorded a CD and released it in South Africa, and then a production company – Gerald Payne – bought the rights of it, and he released it in the U.S. Sony still wouldn’t release it in the States, for whatever reason.”
Blue: “We had serious problems with whoever released it in the States. I was very disappointed in what transpired as far as royalty statements and everything else. I complained big time to the president of Sony in South Africa, who eventually moved to London and couldn’t get into the fight with us to stop what was going on in the States.”
Gerald: “We went to South Africa to do four nights and we ended up doing fifteen. We sold out every venue. It was amazing. Even 10-12-year old knew our records, and we found out that during the apartheid a lot of the families would play our music and they passed the music down to their kids. When we got there, they said ‘we’re gonna have a press conference’, and there was like 2000 or 3000 people waiting. It was unbelievable. The reception was so warm, so loving, and every time we go – every other year or so – to this day we get a wonderful reception.”
In 1999 Live from South Africa (GWP 9913) was released in the U.S. on Classic World Productions, Inc. This 73-minute-long CD contains 23 songs, mostly the Manhattans biggest hits, highlighting in We Never Danced to a Love Song, It Feels So Good, There’s No Good in Goodbye, Am I Losing You, I Kinda Miss You, Hurt, There’s No Me Without You, When We Are Made As One (almost a cappella), Don’t Take Your Love From Me and the grand finale of Shining Star and Kiss and Say Goodbye.
A couple of Gerald’s solos are included – Slow Motion and Send for Me – as well as five outside songs, such as a fast dancer called Good Enough (by LA Reid-Babyface-Simmons), the hugely popular End of the Road by the same writers – platinum for Boyz II Men in ’92 – glued to Love Don’t Love Nobody, a hit for the Spinners in 1974. Gerald: “We always used to do Love Don’t Love Nobody, when it first came out, and then we decided to put it back on the show and make a medley out of it.”
Gerald, Blue, David and Troy are backed by their permanent band still today, East Coast Connection, consisting of Justice Butler (drums), Howie Robbins (keys), Colt Younger (keys), Mark Bowers (lead & rhythm guitar) and Jason Simons (bass guitar). Blue: “There’s only one replacement since the CD. Colt Younger came later. He replaced Gary Mancinelli.” Gerald: “Jason has been with the Manhattans since 1977. He left for a minute, but he came back. He’s the oldest band member we have – not in age but in number of years.”
TURN OUT THE STARS
Gerald’s and Blue’s next CD in 2001, …Even Now… (Beemark/Love Lee Rec. 8339), was recorded without David and Troy this time. Blue: “It was first released on Beemark. Hillary Johnson introduced me to a gentleman in San Jose, California, where he had a label. They didn’t put money in promoting. None of the stations would play us. So I took it over a year later and put it on Love Lee Records, my label.”
In 2003 Al Bell took over the distribution. Blue: “Another bad story. I never got paid. He never did anything he was supposed to do.” However, towards the end of 2003 the CD appeared shortly on Billboard’s r&b charts, first at # 83 and the next week still at #91.
Although not being properly promoted and not hitting higher echelons of charts, for a classic soul music fan Even Now is one of the best albums of the 2000s. Cut in ’99 at Buffalo Sound Studios in LA, it was produced and arranged by Ted Perlman (www.tedperlman.com). Gerald: “I met Ted with Blue. Ted worked with Stephanie Mills and he produced Ronald Isley. He did a wonderful job with us. Ted is a very, very good producer.” Blue: “He’s one of the best producers that I’ve seen that hasn’t really got the recognition he should have got.”
The set opens with a hooky beat-ballad titled Love Me Right, which Blue had earlier cut on Ted Williams out of California. It is followed by Turn out the Stars, a gorgeous and achingly beautiful song co-written by Jim Weatherly and cut earlier at least by Travis Nelson in 1996. Gerald: “When Blue and I heard it, we fell in love with it. In fact, the demo that we had was by Ollie Woodson, but we just made it our own. Then Ali Ollie released it later on himself.”
Nites like this is a melodic and romantic, lilting song, written by Darrell Harvey and spiced with Gerald Albright’s sax in the instrumentation. Incidentally, one other veteran player on this set is the late Billy Preston on organ. Blue: “Darrell was an artist of mine out of Dallas, Texas. He’s an excellent writer. That’s one of my favourite songs.” Gerald: “That was a beautiful tune. A lot of the stuff that Blue produced was the stuff we would have done, had we been together. Now we ended up using a few of the songs he had done on others.” Nites like this was released as a single CD in 2001 on TOC/Orchard (3680148020).
Even Now – again by Darrell Harvey – is a swaying, gospel-infused ballad, with Blue’s monologues interspersed in the melody line, and one of the more famous songs on the set is a funky cover of Sly Stone’s Everyday People. Gerald: “I think that was Ted’s idea. We opened up our show with it for awhile, and people enjoyed it. It was different for us, but it was a good song.” On this track the Chicago Horns are backing up the two vocalists. Blue: “Everything was hooked up by Ted. His wife is Peggi Blu. She is one of the American Idols’ coaches for the female singers today. They won the Star Search, a TV show before American Idol. They were from New York, but they remained in California after she won the Star Search.”
LET’S TRY LOVE
Gerald and Peggi Blu (on the pic right) evoked highly emotional delivery on Let’s Try Love, a ballad Gerald had already cut on his first solo album. Gerald: “Originally that song was supposed to be a duet with me and Vesta Williams. Just a lot of things that should have happened at Motown fell through at the last minute, but nonetheless it was a good song and Gene Page did a wonderful job with the arrangement.”
Ted Perlman co-wrote another light and melodic, lilting song (in the style of Nites like this) named Any Other Way, while Felicia Jefferson penned a tuneful beat-ballad called How Much More?, which kicks off with Blue’s unmistakable monologue. Gerald: “Felicia and I did some writing together. I did the demo for Felicia, and, when we got back together, we decided ‘well, why won’t I and Blue do it’. That’s how it came about, and it was a beautiful tune.” Felicia “F-Sharp” Jefferson has also written for Bobby Brown (Feelin’ Inside) and Veronica (Release Me).
Carlos Lett wrote the poppy and melodic I Got It Right. Gerald: “Carlos is out of Moss Point, Mississippi. He’s an excellent guitar player, and he did a wonderful job on that tune. That’s one of the songs that Blue also brought.” They say that I Got It Right has become quite a popular wedding song these days.
Lover’s Lullaby is an infectious slow-to-mid-tempo song to a marching beat, while Can You Take It is a gentle, atmospheric number with Blue’s late-night talking. Blue: One of the background singers, Terry Bradford, co-wrote that. We didn’t write ourselves but got all the writers for this CD from California, Nashville, Dallas… We did a lot of work, and paid our own money for it. We thought it was pretty good. I guess – being of age – we didn’t get the airplay that we normally would get. I think, if somebody like R Kelly or Chris Brown had recorded some of those songs, I’m sure they would have been super-hits. A station in Washington DC – WHUR – put us on number five, but the competing station wouldn’t play us at all. They couldn’t hear it.”
Gerald: “That was one of the best albums we had ever recorded. But it was an era of time, when the music was changing. They weren’t listening to the songs that we were still singing. It was the genre that people didn’t want to hear.”
MEN CRY TOO
In 2008 Swamp Dogg released the CD one more time on his own S-D-E-G label with new tracks on it, and the gem among them is a beautiful ballad called Men Cry Too. The same year Gerald released his impressive solo set entitled Gerald Alston Sings Sam Cooke, and you can read his own comments on both of those albums at http://www.soulexpress.net/deep308.htm#alston.
Already in 2003 Gerald was asked to be one of the performers at the Sam Cooke Tribute in Chicago and since then he’s done other similar tributes to Sam and – by Sam being his all-time number one idol – it was only a matter of time for Gerald to release a tribute album.
Gerald also runs a company called Love Touring Co., Inc. Gerald: “It’s just my company that deals with the group and with my solo work. I don’t work in my name. I work in my company’s name.”
Blue: “We felt that Even Now was one of the greatest albums we did. The writing is on the wall. The O’Jays don’t get airplay anymore, neither do the Dells, the Chi-lites, the Stylistics… America’s not going to play us because of our ages. To spend many hundreds of thousands doing another CD doesn’t make sense to me. Unless you do Internet airplay, you’re not going to sell any product. Then you got crooked distributors that don’t pay us any royalties. It’s a bad situation. It’s a discouraging situation. Touring is still in our plans. We’ve got some Vegas things happening in the summer.”
Gerald: “Blue and I have been talking about recording, but if we record anything we’d have to do it independently, because not only us but the groups of our category just don’t have a place to go. Whatever we do, we have to do it on our own. I’m also in the process of doing and hopefully have my gospel album soon finished.”
“I think our music, classic soul, never dies. If you listen to the production that’s now coming back, it’s just the same thing repeated. There may be some different ways to make it happen, but the chord changes are still the same. Our music will always be around, because our music is true music. We all sing about life, we all sing about reality – and you can’t beat that. We want to leave a legacy of great music, family-orientated music that the young people can listen to. We sing for the people, and our legacy of music speaks for itself.” (www.kissandsaygoodbye.com).Continue Reading...