If you missed Part 1, read it here.
Little Beaver’s debut performance at Overtown’s Knight Beat club had just ended. Frank Duboise, a local musician, was watching from nearby. After all, his band, The Chicken Scratchers, was the club’s house band at the time. Duboise approached Beaver afterwards and invited him to join his band on the spot.
We ended up in Coconut Grove at the Tiki Club. Bobby Marshall was the MC. We had B.B. King come there one night. We were the house band and B.B. was the star. And that’s when I first met Sam & Dave…
Beaver remembers playing to a packed house every weekend with the Chicken Scratchers. But they didn’t just play at the black clubs. Duboise had another gig, a “white evening lounge” off of NW 27th Avenue.
Frank liked to play Sinatra… ‘cause he worked for the judges downtown on 12th Street and so he would do little gigs for the judges and lawyers.
Beaver says that whenever Duboise would start with “that stuff” (Sinatra music), he’d ask Beaver to leave the stage.
He would let me go. Go have a drink or something…,
because I play too loud.
He only stuck it out for about a month.
Sure, the gigs were fine and the pay ($75 per night) was pretty good but Beaver says he started to miss Florida City.
I was getting lonesome. I didn’t have many friends in Miami. So I left the band and went back down to Florida City and I played where I always played; at the Lucy Street Bar somewhere back there on Krome Avenue.
One night he happened to cross paths with Frank Williams. Williams and his group The Rocketeers were the ‘it’ band of Miami’s soul scene at the time. They backed up just about every artist that rolled through Miami’s Overtown club scene. They had also cut some records of their own under William’s label, Saadia (named after one of his twin daughters) and were getting local airplay. In other words, their music could be heard day and night from Coconut Grove to Liberty City.
Williams asked Beaver to join his band as lead guitarist (former guitarist Joey Gilmore left the band in 1964 to enlist in the Army). Beaver accepted. It was time to move on from Florida City anyway. The real action was happening in Miami. So one day he had a friend drive him to The Island Club in Overtown where Williams was set to perform that evening.
I didn’t have no attire to wear on stage, you know. And so Frank got one of them porters there or whatever you call them who had a little white outfit and I used one of his little outfits that [first] night.
What a combo. A 19-year old bluesy virtuoso with Miami’s hottest R&B act.
They played behind the likes of Sam & Dave, Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Taylor, Etta James, Betty Wright and on and on.
Then he pauses and says:
But, Frank exploited me, so to speak.
Whenever the word “exploit” comes up during any of these interviews with past Miami musicians, it makes me cringe a little. So I say, you mean in a good way, right?
Sure, it turned out to be in a good way but I didn’t know it at the time.
I didn’t want to be a vocalist. I was a musician at heart. Still am, you know. I didn’t consider myself no singer. All through my life coming up when I learned to play guitar there was always a vocalist in the group. That was the singer. And we all acknowledged that. I wasn’t no singer. I guess I was kind of like Nat King Cole.
Beaver then tells me a story about Cole, that he never wanted to sing but one day at a club one of those “gangster guys” came in and wanted to hear One For My Baby, One For My Rose. For some reason, which in hindsight seems like a legendary anecdote, the lead vocalist wasn’t there. So the club owner told Cole to either sing the song or find himself another job.
After that, it was history. Nat was a singer, whether he wanted to be or not.
Beaver says Williams wanted him to sing.
Me and Frank had a big discussion about it, brought tears to my eyes. I was so mad. He got mad too. I can get guitar players a dime a dozen, he said. I need someone who can sing and do a little more than just play the guitar.
He kind of twisted my arm ‘cause I was making pretty good money. I didn’t want to leave that job and go back down to [Florida City] ‘cause I figured I kind of wore out my welcome going back down there a second time…, so I was forced to stay and I started to sing.
After that, whenever the Rocketeers played at the Island Club, Beaver had to sing a few numbers too. He didn’t like it but he grew into his new role.
(He sits up in his chair a little.)
Eventually I became the favorite with the people. They enjoyed everybody but they especially came out to hear Little Beaver. Instead of Frank Williams and the Rocketeers on his poster boards he put up, it was Frank Williams and the Rocketeers featuring Little Beaver.
‘Cause Little Beaver was the drawing card.
Beaver acknowledges Frank William’s influence on him.
I give him credit. He got me started.
I had to start somewhere.
The Rocketeers were one of the hardest working bands in Miami at the time, drawing full houses week in and week out, and Little Beaver was a big part of it. From 1964 to around 1968, they were the featured act at the Knight Beat, then Mr. James Club, then Continental Club, then Double Decker Lounge, and finally back at the Knight Beat. They also got into the studio and cut some good sounding soul records including the hit You Got To Be A Man (Phil-LA-of Soul, 1966).
Things were good, for a good little while, he says. Until they weren’t.
Beaver says Frank Williams wanted to run some clubs, manage them like night club impresario Clyde Killens, who at the time ruled over the Overtown club scene.
Killens could get just about anybody to perform at his clubs.
Beaver thinks the two of them partnered up on some things and Williams got in over his head with debts. He eventually stopped paying the band.
Clyde would come in and take all the money.
Everything that came through the door. Every penny.
The Rocketeers were finished. First the horn players left, and later, one by one: bassist Edmund Collins, drummer Robert Ferguson, pianist Louie Howard, and Little Beaver.
We just couldn’t do it no more. I was like four or five months behind in my rent.
Black people were taking their money to [Miami Beach]…, places like the Castaways or the Eden Roc.
They weren’t going to the black clubs.
We had our own clubs, …prestigious black clubs. But we lost clientele.
He goes on.
A lot of people enjoyed the freedom. They wanted to go to the white clubs just to say We Made It. It’s like we needed to find our identity. But we already had an identity.
We talk about this for a few more minutes, about those that have and those that have not and how the haves always want more.
But let’s get back to music history.
During one of Little Beaver’s night club performances, he came to know Willie Clarke, songwriter/producer with TK Studios and former co-founder of Miami’s Deep City Records. Clarke invited Beaver to come out to TK’s Hialeah studios, which at the time was gaining momentum as a player in the national soul music scene.
I went out there and they wanted to hear some of my material. I played one song for them – Joey.
The song is a ripe blend of soul and blues about a man under duress ’cause his baby is calling out another man’s name.
Released under TK’s R&B label (Cat), the record wasn’t a hit right away. But Beaver didn’t just sit around. He formed his own group and started playing “the same little joints as before.”
Then Dave Prater (formerly of Sam & Dave) called.
Prater had just split from Sam Moore and was coming back to Miami. He wanted Beaver and his group to back him up on his solo U.S. tour. After a few dates, the tour turned out to be a disaster.
We were starving…, every place we’d go was canceled because he was booking himself as “Sam & Dave” and he didn’t have Sam. I mean, I sounded good singing with him but I wasn’t Sam. That was crooked. When people got [to the show], they canceled.
He says one day he called from the road over to TK studios. Willie Clarke got on the phone.
He said, Hey man, when you coming home? You got a hit!
With a little help from some friends, mainly local DJs like Butterball from WMBM, Joey (Cat, 1972) broke out and onto the Billboard R&B charts, reaching #48 on the list.
At this point in the interview, Little Beaver pauses to look out the front window. It’s not so much a look but rather a departure from this moment.
In 1974, Beaver blew the doors open on his music career with his biggest hit record.
There was a guy. He was a white fellow, jail bird, I didn’t know it at the time. He had a long rap sheet. But anyway I used to go over his apartment and smoke a little weed and listen to records. And he played this song by a white group and I heard the chord changes and the chord changes stuck. I couldn’t get rid of it. So I started to go home and play those chords changes. And I kept playing them.
And then there was a commercial on TV, one of those island commercials, like Jamaica, Tahiti, you know, with the girl all dressed in a little suit with her hair hanging and it was like ting-tun-ting-tuun… ting-ku-ku-kun ting-tun… just over and over and I said man, that’s soothing.
So I started to put that together with those chord changes. And I came up with Party Down.
Party Down (Cat, 1974) debuted on Billboard’s R&B Charts on September 21, 1974 and raced up to #2. Little Beaver was a household name.
He was even invited to perform the hit song on Soul Train.
Yeah, that was my Ed Sullivan show.
Beaver says the record was so commercial, it’s still selling with each generation that discovers it.
I get more money from royalties now than I did back then when it first came out.
He tells me about the day he learned that Jay Z had used one of his songs from the Party Down album.
I went on WikiPedia one day. You know…, I look at myself once in a while, see what they saying about me.
And I see Jay Z just sampled one of [my] songs. I said, what? I didn’t even know who Jay Z was. There’s so many of them, Jay Z, Smooth E Z, L Cool, Cool Cool, there’s a million of them. I didn’t have a clue who Jay Z was.
Jay Z used Beaver’s song, Get Into The Party Life, for the 2007 film American Gangster starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
I got paid pretty good.
Little Beaver’s recording career after 1974 lost some steam. He had a couple mild hits but the R&B audience had changed as they gravitated more towards disco music. Beaver’s last recording was I Feel Like Crying (Cat, 1978). In 1980, TK, which produced some of the biggest disco hits in the world, folded, as did the Cat record label. Little Beaver put away the guitar and got himself a job.
He worked as a cleaner with Miami-Dade Transit for 30 years until he retired in 2012. Hardly any of his colleagues knew he was Little Beaver. They all knew him as Willie [Hale].
Beaver says he just never had the desire to continue with the music career.
I didn’t want that fame and fortune and Hollywood thing. I wasn’t after that.
He says when he reminisces, it makes him laugh.
I have never tried to do anything but people seek me out. I’m not trying to be famous. But my name keeps poppin’ up. I had a DJ email me from San Diego, California, wants to interview me. He’s into my music. I hate to say I’m not interested so I just pretend I didn’t hear…
He pauses again and looks towards the window.
I don’t want all of that fuss, man.
Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami
It’s the blue house with the maroon van parked out front.
Willie “Little Beaver” Hale is giving me directions to his home three days before our scheduled interview. Beaver, as he prefers to be called, has finally agreed to sit down with Long Play Miami; it took almost a year. Even after this phone call, I have some doubt. He has stood me up in the past.
On the morning of the interview I call him to confirm our appointment but he doesn’t return the call. Rather than wait and lose another opportunity I head over there, to Opa-locka, Florida, to find the blue house with the maroon van.
I arrive at his home about 45 minutes later. A chain link fence along the perimeter of the property stands between me and the blue house. The front gate is secured with a pad lock. There are hurricane shutters (slightly open) on the windows and iron wrought bars over the front door. And while the maroon van is indeed parked out front, there is no indication that he’s home. I stand there outside his gate and as I’m dialing his number on my cell phone I hear the almighty jingling sound of keys.
I look towards the front door and notice the silhouette of a man emerge. The door opens and he walks out wearing a grey t-shirt, blue jeans and a plain white baseball cap. He doesn’t say a word. We shake hands over the chain link gate and then he inserts one of the keys into the padlock, unlocks it and invites me inside.
Save for a couple of his own CDs on the kitchen table and a gold-plated framed portrait from his younger days, you’d never know you were in the presence of Little Beaver, arguably the most important and accomplished R&B guitarist of Miami’s soul scene of the 60s and early 70s.
“I don’t know very much,” he mumbles as he sits down in his favorite chair up against a window. It has hurricane shutters too, letting only a glimmer of daylight slip into the living room. Then he says:
The people that know me ’round here don’t know I’m Little Beaver. There’s one guy on the corner.
And there was an older, white couple across the street. They used to call me Beaver. Their son used to smoke crack with Rick Finch so that might be how they found out I was Little Beaver.
Rick Finch was co-founder, along with Harry Casey, of the Miami super group KC & The Sunshine Band, the disco powerhouse that put out five #1 songs between 1974-1979 and became one of the most commercially successful 70s bands (second only to the Bee Gees). Little Beaver and Finch met way back at Henry Stone’s TK studios in Hialeah in the early 1970s. Beaver was one of the studio’s session musicians.
Beginning around 1963, upon arriving to Miami from Forrest City, Arkansas, Beaver played lead guitar for some of the leading R&B club acts around town. Around 1970, he was invited by local producer Willie Clarke to join TK and record under their funk label, Cat.
Beaver had an impressive, albeit brief, solo career, hitting his peak in 1974 with the funky-soul number Party Down. Beaver also arranged and played the guitar tracks on many of the soul records produced in Miami including Betty Wright’s sensational hit Clean Up Woman (1971).
In fact, Beaver’s guitar, described by Rolling Stone as “delicate” and “oozing,” can be heard on almost every Miami 60s/early 70s soul and funk record that was worth a dime.
Growing up in Forrest City, AR (he was born in nearby Marianna), Little Beaver was known for two things: (1) a pair of front teeth resembling those of a certain semi-aquatic furry animal – which earned him his nickname – and (2) his talent for the guitar.
My step father Clarence Jones Sr…, he bought a box guitar for about 11 bucks. It was while he’d go to church and he had a couple other guys and they like to sing gospel. So he decided he was going to learn to play guitar, strum along while they sing, you know.
But Beaver says his step dad could never find the time to play.
The guitar was just sitting there leaning against the wall.
He says he “plucked on it” for a while, teaching himself how to play a few chords. He immediately began drawing interest around Forrest City.
There was this guy named Anderson that everyone around town called Sarge because he walked like a soldier. He showed me my first fingering on the guitar, how to actually play notes. He showed me how to play traditional blues chords. For about a month I thought I was a master.
Soon after, the first gig opportunities came to him.
There was a keyboard player in Pine Bluff, Arkansas during the time when Bobby Bland was popular. He used to come get me. In fact, a lot of people would come and get me ‘cause I was the only guitar player in Forrest City that they could find available.
He says that on the weekends they’d pick up a drummer and the three of them would head over to “a joint” located in tiny Stuttgart, Arkansas.
Just a wood shed.
Enjoy yourself; drink beer; eat fried chicken, you know.
This was about 1960-61. Beaver was still a teenager.
He looks towards the front window as if he’s expecting someone. But there’s no one there, at least no one I can see.
You know, for a long time I played with a clamp.
A guitar clamp, for those that don’t know, is a small tool or bracket that is clamped onto the neck of the guitar near one of the frets and presses down on the strings. It allows the guitarist to play in a certain key.
You just play [the guitar] straight with a clamp. But the other way, when you are ready to play a chord, you gotta finger it.
That was hard. I didn’t have them big buttermilk fingers like BB King. BB had them big ole’ fingers. I [played] with little bitty fingers… But I couldn’t reach the bass [top chord on a guitar].
Beaver said his index finger didn’t have “enough power.”
It was too short. So I put my brain to work and finally I figured out how to play the bass [chord].
He wiggles his little bitty thumb at me.
When it becomes obvious that I don’t really understand this technique, he gets up from the chair, disappears into a corridor, brings out a black guitar case and lays it on the couch near the chair. There is dust on it. Two white little critters scurry across the top. He wipes them away before they reach their destination. The last time Beaver took out his guitar was when a film crew from PBS stopped by a few months ago to interview him for an upcoming documentary.
Then he pulls out a red Gibson guitar and settles back in his chair.
And that little itty bitty thumb? It disappears behind the neck of the guitar for a second before reappearing above the neck to hold down the top chord.
There’s only a few people that play with their thumb on the bass and most of them came through me.
Then he strums his famous riff from the 1972 Betty Wright Miami soul classic Clean Up Woman.
When he finishes, I take a few photos of him – with his permission.
Beaver moved to Florida in 1963. He says he had a friend named Wilbert that during the high seasons would drive to Florida City to work in the migrant farms and then once the season ended, he’d head back to Arkansas.
He came home one Christmas to see his family. And on his way back to Florida he stopped through Forrest City to say hello to me. And I was laying there. My mom had just slaughtered a hog that we had fed all the summer, fattened up real good. She bought a freezer. It was full of pork chop, bacon. I’m laying there getting fat. Not working.
[Wilbert] said if you was in Miami, Florida you’d get a job just like that (finger snap). That’s where all the big bands come through. He just went on and on.
Beaver told his mother he wanted to go. She suggested he talk to his step dad who was outside and ask him for some money.
I didn’t go that way. I just got in the car with Wilbert and we hit the road coming back to Florida. I might’ve had two pennies in my pocket. Maybe.
But I knew if he ate, I would eat. If he slept, I would sleep. That’s how much trust and confidence I had. People was honest back then. A friend was a real friend.
Friend enough to let you sleep in his car.
They got to Florida City and Wilbert and his wife stayed in a trailer while Beaver took up temporary residence in Wilbert’s car.
I was there in Florida City for a good, little while. Not working, not knowing that many people.
But there were people that befriended me ’cause of my guitar.
People like Willy who would bring him food from time to time; T.C. who took him in a few nights; Junior who worked at “a big old house” and let Beaver stay there too for a while. And then there was “wild, big old guy” Benny who owned a barbershop in Goulds. Beaver says it was Benny who first brought him up to Miami to mix in with the local music scene.
He took me to the Sir John Knight Beat Club one night. Butterball was the M.C. that night…
I give Butterball credit for discovering me.. the great Little Beaver. Because Benny talked Butterball into putting me on the talent show.
Nobody knew me. I didn’t know where I was.
And I sang Please Please Please and rocked the house.
Read Part 2 here.
Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami
You know we never got one penny for that record.
Larry Mobley is on the line. He’s called my office to follow up on a conversation we had yesterday. He wants to know again where I had heard that the rapper 50 Cent had sampled Am I a Good Man, the classic Miami soul song that he and his partner, Larry Greene, recorded more than 45 years ago.
The original record was released by the Miami label DEEP CITY RECORDS in July of 1967. According to the website, www.whosampled.com, the song has been sampled at least 14 times including by the rapper pictured here on his 2012 track Money.
50 Cent, oh Lord.
It’s a shame that me and Larry [Greene] didn’t profit at all from any of that. I’m not talking about millions. I’m talking about hundreds, you know.
Larry Mobley met Larry Greene around 1955 when they were both in junior high school in St. Petersburg, Florida and immediately bonded. After all, they both liked to sing. Greene preferred a high pitch (“like Curtis Mayfield”) while Mobley sang in a low, almost baritone pitch. They’d practice their harmonizing night after night.
People were so surprised that two voices could sound so blended together and make a sound that sounded as if it were 3 or 4 voices. That was back from sitting behind the community center in St. Pete at 11 and 12 o’clock at night, just rehearsing, just singing.
Mobley and Green would join up with three other singers and win a few talent contests at St. Petersburg’s old Royal Theater. They called themselves the El Quintos back then.
In 1962, Mobley was drafted into the Army. Two years later, he returned to St. Petersburg and reconnected with his old friend Greene. The two of them started up again, this time as a duo. After a few performances around town, they learned that Miami was the place to be.
There was a lady that was from Miami in St. Pete. She heard us sing and told us about the talent show at the Knight Beat club.
The Knight Beat was located inside the Sir John Hotel in Miami’s Overtown district. The club’s host was local legendary music promoter Clyde Killens who made the Knight Beat the epicenter of Miami rhythm & blues during the 1960s. Mobley and Greene decided to make their way to Overtown. They hitched a ride from a friend named Clifford and arrived in Miami one afternoon in 1964, heading straight to where the action was: the Sir John Hotel.
We just went down for the talent show and we were gonna come back, but people accepted us and applauded us. So we decided to stay in Miami.
Mobley and Green, who called themselves Them Two, were offered a slot on the club’s popular weekend show known as the Fabulous Sir John Revue.
They had the dancers, and they had Willena Mack…, and then me and Larry came on right before the featured artists came on. All the stars that came into Miami to sing at the Knight Beat, we opened the shows for those singers.
Clyde Killens’ club attracted the crème de la crème of black entertainment: Sam Cooke, Count Basie, Jerry Butler, Sam & Dave, Etta James.
And then there was Joe Tex.
You know he really got mad at us because the crowd…, oh man, when me and Larry got on the stage and started singing, the crowd just ate us up, you know. And Joe
Tex got a little aggravated that he had to follow us.
But he was known for that. He always wanted to be the one who brought down the house.
Mobley says Them Two didn’t perform in the hard soul, church-like style of Miami’s reigning duo Sam & Dave that was popular at the time. Them Two were more classic R&B.
We didn’t do any outrageous dances on the stage. Whenever we came on, our voices had women doing a thing in the audience.
We sang, and women loved our songs.
During the year 1967 came Them Two’s big break. Willie Clarke, co-owner of the local record label DEEP CITY RECORDS wanted their voices on a track. The music track to Am I a Good Man had already been recorded and arranged by Clarke and his collaborator Clarence Reid. Mobley and Green were brought into the studio, rehearsed it a couple of times and then once the recording light was on, they sang the hell out of it.
I’m telling you that was the only time that we had ever been to the studio. It was a nice recording and we liked it.
In July 1967, the record was released. The song has been described by music lovers as one of the “enduring masterpieces” of Miami’s soul music scene of the 1960s. But it wasn’t all that well received at the time of its release. Actually, it wasn’t well played by DJs and without radio play there was no other way of generating mass appeal.
You know disc jockeys back in those days, … payola, you know. They got money under the table to play things.
Me and Larry used to go to different radio stations and talk with the DJs and while we were there they would play it. We went down to W.F.U.N. which is a white station down in South Miami and we talked with one of the disc jockeys and he played it a couple of times on the radio.
DJs back in those days were money crazy. A lot of money was being put under the table to play songs, you know.
Mobley implies they were doomed from the outset.
Sam & Dave was the group that was out from Miami at that time. And then came Betty Wright, and after that, you know, Henry Stone, … he was a Jewish guy that had a lot of money and they had their agendas with the musicians that they catered to. So I don’t know. Me and Larry never did get on board.
Incidentally, Henry Stone has admitted to his involvement in paying DJs off in a book recently published titled “The Stone Cold Truth on Payola in the Music Biz.” Payola happened back in those days. DJs got money, girls, booze, coke. Whatever they wanted, and in return, they’d play the records. Its no secret that this was a common method to promote a black artist’s music to a white DJ in the 1960s. Some artists got their due. Others missed out.
Am I a Good Man was one of those that missed when it was first released. But artists like 50 Cent, or the Showtime series Hung (which used the song in its premier episode), or any number of creative outlets and outliers have resurrected the song for a new generation.
Mobley didn’t know any of this, at least not until our most recent conversation.
In today’s world, a multi-millionaire rap artist can use the music of an original Miami soul classic, lay down a rhyming lyrical vocal track and the video can draw 3.7 million views on YouTube. On the other side of that soul classic, there’s a man who sang the original vocal track on the song and he doesn’t even own a computer.
In 2007, Mobley and his wife relocated to a retirement community in Tamarac, Florida after a bank foreclosed on their Miami home. Every month, he receives two checks in the mail: one from the Social Security Administration and a second one from Miami-Dade County (he’s been a retired Veteran Service officer since 1991). On Thursdays, Mobley picks up groceries from the local church near his home. I’m not ashamed to say it, he tells me.
Am I a Good Man never amounted to much for Larry Mobley. Yet it remains close to him, literally. He has an original copy of the 45 RPM record in his home. He keeps it inside a book where its been stored for a while, untarnished by dust or decay, like a lasting memory.
The last time he heard the record was a few years ago when he was still living in Miami.
I used to sit and just play it over and over, turn it up loud because we had this huge Florida room and we had these big 15-inch speakers and I used to play it, over and over.
The other member of Them Two, Larry Greene, was killed in an automobile accident more than 20 years ago. Mobley was one of the pallbearers.
Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami