39 ago this week the City of Miami hosted Super Bowl X. The game matched the defending champions Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
It was a classic.
Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw connected with Lynn Swann for a 64 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to take a 21-10 lead. Less than two minutes later, Roger Staubach lead a Cowboys touchdown drive to pull within four points with less than two minutes to go in regulation. Then the Cowboys recovered a fumble and with 18 seconds left, the ball at the Steelers 38 yard line, Staubach tried to pass it to Drew Pearson for the win. But the ball was intercepted at the 2 yard line by safety Glen Edwards.
Game over. Steelers won 21-17. Later than night, approximately 20 miles north, a party took place.
Sunny Isles, a town located in North Miami Beach known then for its beach front hotels and steady mix of wise guys, tourists, and rock stars (e.g, occasional visitors included Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison), was home to The Swinger Nite (sic) Club inside the Marco Polo Hotel. The Swinger opened in 1971 and had no trouble living up to its swanky name. Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Chubby Checker, Sister Sledge were just a few of the artists to play gigs there.
On Monday, January 19, 1976, Miami soul singer Betty Wright aka Miami’s First Lady of Soul, fresh off her fourth album, performed at The Swinger.
Discovered by Deep City Records co-founders Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall at the age of 15, Wright’s career took off fast. She had her first hit in 1968 (“Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do”), her first chart topper in 1971 (“Clean Up Woman”) and by the mid 1970s, she was global, so her coming back home to play at a club in Sunny Isles was as rare as seeing Steeler fans doing the Hustle.
Below is a news clipping from the Miami Herald that was published 39 years ago today about this Betty Wright performance that brought together an unlikely yet fortunate “overflow crowd of disco freaks and Steeler fans.”
Disco freaks and hardcore football fans? Only Betty Wright could manage this.
This is the hit song that Betty Wright closed with that January night. The song won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song in 1976:
End Note: The Marco Polo survived. Today its a condo-hotel known as the Aventura Beach Club with the hotel operation managed by Ramada (Ramada Plaza Marco Polo Beach Resort.)
A couple of award-winning documentary filmmakers and an avid art collector & philanthropist have teamed up to produce a very charming documentary about the first black-owned record production company in Florida: Deep City Records. Deep City operated in Miami from about 1964 to 1968. It was founded by two friends who first got the idea to make records when they were college mates at Florida A&M. Willie Clarke was the creative; Johnny Pearsall was the entrepreneur. They enlisted the multi-talented Clarence Reid and the three of them set the course for Miami’s special contribution to the soul music landscape of the 1960s.
Deep City recorded local musicians, many of them native Miamians culled from the churches of Liberty City and the night clubs of Overtown, while others were transplants from Jacksonville, Georgia, Arkansas, and other far away places. The record label released songs by Helene Smith, Betty Wright, Them Two, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, Freda Gray, and Johnny Killens & The Dynamites, to name a few. Local R&B legend Little Beaver played guitar on some of Deep City’s deepest cuts.
The film, titled Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, had its world premiere last night at the SXSW [South by Southwest] Festival in Austin, Texas.
Next stop on the festival circuit is Miami where this Friday, March 14th, the movie will have its Florida debut at the Miami International Film Festival (8:30 PM, Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center). Tickets for the film can be purchased here.
Long Play Miami is honored to be among the first to receive a copy of the movie’s trailer, and, with the filmmakers’ permission, shares it here for all music and film fans to enjoy.
Read the previous Long Play Miami post on the making of the film from January 2013.
A few weeks ago Little Beaver agreed to let me take some photos of him for this site. This was our second meeting.
During our first meeting back in December, when I asked if I could invite my friend Joe to photograph our interview, he refused. Next time, he promised.
So when he agreed, he was simply honoring his word.
I headed to his home in Opa-locka on a Friday afternoon in January with my wife’s Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, a swivel desk lamp with a 60 watt light bulb, and an extension cord.
In his living room I set up the lamp on his coffee table, connected it to a nearby socket, and swivel-aimed the light towards him while he sat down on his bar stool.
Do you want me to wear my Little Beaver glasses?
Before I could say yes, he was already reaching for a pair of shades folded on top of the bar.
And so began the first-ever Long Play Miami photo shoot.
I then asked him if he could get his guitar.
You mean, Katie Pearl?
I thought you’d want me to.
I’ll be right back.
Little Beaver strummed the guitar for a bit. And then, the strumming flowed into a familiar tune as he began playing his famous guitar track from the 1971 Betty Wright classic, Clean Up Woman.
After he put away his guitar, I sat down on the couch and we talked for awhile, about mundane things like the weather (“I was a little nippy this morning… 39 degrees.”) to far less mundane things like whether he’d ever play in public again (“You know, when you don’t play, you get rusty…”).
Then he remembered something he wanted to show me. He left the room for a minute and returned with a photograph that was mailed to him by his friend Lawrence Watson from Forrest City, Arkansas, where he grew up.
I was maybe 15-16 yrs old.
[That was] Some juke… some little hole in the wall. See the snare drum sitting on the chair?
We were ‘wood-sheddin.’
(That’s Watson on the far left with the bass guitar and of course, that’s Beaver – with the shades.)
As the daylight began to fade, I asked if I could take a couple of photos of him outside. This idea didn’t seem to sit well. There was a moment of hesitation in the way he remained on the bar stool.
But then he just said yes and we walked out the front door.
In the late afternoon sun, Little Beaver stood in the space between the corner of the façade and a half-shuttered window. Occasionally he’d look to either side of him. He wanted to make sure none of the neighbors were watching.
Because, as he has told me before,…
Willie “Little Beaver” Hale doesn’t like ‘all that fuss.’
Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami
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
Let’s flash back to a couple of noteworthy Miami soul classics from 45 years ago this month.
He’s Bad, Bad, Bad – Betty Wright
Local soul singer Betty Wright was fresh off her first hit record, “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” and rolling into the fall of 1968. But momentum doesn’t last long in the music business. ALSTON Records, the Miami record label run by Steve Alaimo and Henry Stone which had released Wright’s first single, was clamoring for another hit song by the 14-year old up-and-comer. Clarence Reid, the composer behind her first hit, suggested a song titled “Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” as a natural follow-up, a kind of sequel in the same style and narrative of the first song. But Alaimo reportedly rejected it for those very reasons.
So Reid and his writing partner, Willie Clarke, composed “He’s Bad, Bad, Bad” for Wright. In this track, Wright shows off her Aretha-like chops and swag. And backed up by a trio of girls, a couple of horns, and a bluesy guitarist, she earned herself another hit record.
By November 1968, “He’s Bad, Bad, Bad” had climbed into the top ten singles charts at Miami’s leading soul station WAME “Whammy” Radio. While the track is not one of Wright’s more widely recognized singles, it nevertheless showed the music world that this Miami teenager was not to be taken lightly.
Flash Forward: Betty Wright is still doing her thing. At last check, she had released a soul revival album in 2011 in association with The Roots.
She lives in Miami.
Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad – Della Humphrey
The second song from November 1968 is in my humble but informed opinion the more notable of the Soul Flashback hits not only due to its back story but because it gave rise to yet another 14 year old star – Della Humphrey.
The legend goes that when Clarence Reid’s initial follow up song for Betty Wright was rejected by ALSTON, he took the lyrics to Ms. Humphrey, a Miami teenager who until then had sung in her Overtown church choir and had won a few singing contests around town.
“Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” was released not on any Miami label (due to Reid’s disdain for ALSTON’s response to it), but instead by a Philadelphia record label he had connections to. The song reached #1 with local radio stations and bumped aside Betty Wright momentarily from the top of the charts.
Humphrey reached her musical peak with that song and sadly, her career floundered after that. But the song remains a soul classic.
Flash Forward: Della Humphrey lives in a town north of Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, Bill. She has a small music studio set up in her home for whenever she feels like laying down a few vocal tracks.
(For the full story on Della Humphrey, read “The Della Humphrey Experience,” which was featured in a prominent post here in December 2012.)
One [of] Deep City’s heaviest cuts is Them Two’s “Am I A Good Man.” This is Willie Clarke & Johnny Pearsall’s enduring masterpiece – Numero Group
A few weeks ago, as I was heading home from the office, I made a detour. I went to go look for a guy named Larry.
By my research, Larry was a tall, African-American male in his early 70s who lived in the Miami working class neighborhood of Brownsville near NW 27th Avenue. He’s not listed in the local telephone directory but I did locate an address for him so I figured I’d stop by. When I arrived, an elder Cuban gentleman and his wife were pulling into the driveway. As the motorized gate behind them closed, I jumped out of my car and asked them if they knew the Larry associated with their address. No, they said. I looked down at my notes to make sure I was at the right house. But this is the address, I said. They replied that they’d been living there for a few years and had never heard of him.
Across the street there was a middle-aged woman inside her idle vehicle talking to a young girl leaning against the car. I walked over.
I told her I wanted to interview him for a story. She shrugged her shoulders; Larry?
Yes, I said. Did you know that back in the 60s, he was a popular nightclub singer? Soul man, hit record, the whole thing.
She sat there and I’m no mind reader but I could tell she had images of Larry the Neighbor racing through her mind, trying to place him into a new, celebrity-like context. And as she did this, her mouth opened and she let out a joyful laugh. I know his sister. If you leave me your information, I could reach out for her, she offered.
I handed her a card, thanked her and headed home, knowing that I was quite possibly a step closer to finding Larry.
The aforementioned Larry is Lawrence Mobley, the sole surviving member of the Miami 60s nightclub act Them Two, a deeply talented vocal duo who 46 years ago this month, in July 1967, released Am I A Good Man.
The song is, in my opinion, one of the most profound and soulful tracks to come out of Miami’s soul scene of the 1960s. It was released on Deep City Records, the Miami independent record label co-founded by Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall. And it has enjoyed a recent resurgence of sorts: (1) It was covered by the rock group Band of Horses (Released as a single in February 2008 and now part of their live repertoire.); (2) It’s been featured on a hit television show (the pilot episode of HBO’s “Hung” in June 2009); and, (3) It’s been sampled – for better and for worse – by hip hop artists including 50 Cent and The Game.
That’s an impressive trifecta.
And another beautiful thing is that the song is all Miami, right down to the back-up singers and the session musicians in the studio that day.
Oh yes, Them Two. Do you know how they got their name?
He tells me that one night the duo was hanging out backstage at a local club ready to perform.
The M.C. wanted to know who was up next. So he asked some guy near the back, Hey man, who’s next? The guy looked back, pointed at the duo and said, them two is next.
Then the M.C. introduced them. Something like Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for … Them Two.
They liked the name so much they kept it.
Now about the song – Clarke said he knew he had something special and when he saw Them Two perform a few times, he also knew they’d be ideal for it. But getting them to record took some work.
They were working the nightclubs all the time. They were quite busy.
Clarke managed to convince them to record the song. He says the duo came in, rehearsed it a couple of times, and then nailed the song on the first recording.
I was just amazed at their poise and creativity. How profound they were. Exactly how I wanted it.
They had a style.
And style was most certainly a pre-requisite for this song, as was depth and maturity, with lyrics like:
Am I a good man? / Am I a fool? / Am I weak? / Somebody tell me… Or am I just playing it cool? / I have a woman / And I know she’s no good / Still hold my head up high… trying to do the things a good man should.
Clarke says that at the time he penned those lyrics he was married, with a young child, holding down two jobs (public school teacher and music producer) and pondering what he calls “the first adventures of manhood.”
[The song] is about a man looking in the mirror asking himself questions. It’s about the trials and tribulations of a man growing up into adult life. Are you ready for the challenge? Am I a good man or am I a fool?
After that record, which was released as a single (B side: Love Has Taken Wings), Clarke never worked with Them Two again. He says the duo got busier at the nightclubs and Deep City focused more on their rising female stars, local queen of soul Helene Smith and Deep City’s young starlet, Betty Wright.
Still, he wishes he would have worked with them again.
And then he returns to the song and it’s very essence: the core question that now, 40 years later, Clarke is ready to embrace definitively:
Hey, you know what the answer is? Am I a good man or am I a fool?
No, I said. What’s the answer?
A good man and a fool.
Endnote: I’m still hoping to interview Larry Mobley. I learned last week that he may be living in Tamarac, Florida. [To be continued.]
In the meantime, here’s the Miami soul classic:
**Update: Larry Mobley found and interviewed. Read the story here.**
Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami
46 years ago this month, Miami-made soul music was hitting its stride. It was the year before the scene would break nationally with a couple of big hits in 1968 from local teen sensations Betty Wright and Della Humphrey. Here are 5 very solid tracks all recorded in Miami that debuted in May 1967, a sample of what was just around the corner for Miami Soul.
Sweet Sweet Lovin’ – Paul Kelly
Released on the Philips label, this song became a local hit by July 1967. Paul Kelly was a Miami-born vocalist who enjoyed an extensive career well through the 1980s. His biggest hit was Stealing in the Name of the Lord, which reportedly created a stir among some black communities because it exposed the hypocrisies of some church leaders. But controversy sells; the song reached #14 on Billboard’s R&B chart in July 1970. Three years earlier, Kelly released the song featured here, Sweet Sweet Lovin’. There was no controversy about this very upbeat song, which was produced by Buddy Killen, a music producer from Alabama who made his bones in country music but also had slightly comparable success with R&B hits.
Girl I Got News For You – Benny Latimore
Benny Latimore is a keyboardist from Charleston, TN who moved to Miami and became an integral part of Henry Stone’s TK Records as a session musician and singer-songwriter. He had 2 national hit records of his own in the mid 1970s with Let’s Straighten It Out (#1 in R&B, #31 in Top 40) and Something ‘Bout Cha (#7 in R&B). Girl I Got News For You, issued on one of Stone’s first R&B record labels (Dade), was released in May 1967. One month later, this catchy, pre-disco track was one of the top songs jamming on local soul stations, and probably would have been a bigger hit if it had been (re)released during TK’s impressive disco run a few years later.
Willie “Little Beaver” Hale moved to Miami as a teenager from Forrest City, AR. He joined the Miami nightclub band, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers as lead guitarist in 1964 and later recorded a few tracks as a solo artist including this one, which was released on Octavia Records. Beaver later joined up with Henry Stone’s TK Records and had five hit songs including the 1974 Party Down which reached #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart. He is considered the grand master of Miami Soul guitarists and is most revered for, among many of his musical accomplishments, playing all three guitar tracks on Betty Wright’s exceptional gold record Clean Up Woman (1971).
I Love You Baby – The Moovers
The Moovers recorded their first 2 songs, including this one, with Deep City Records, Miami’s first black-owned independent label which was run by partners Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall. The Moovers later changed their name to The Prolifics and released the song If Only I Could Fly in December 1968. They later recorded under the band name Living Proof in the 1970s. The song featured here was written and arranged by Willie Clarke, Johnny Pearsall, and Arnold Albury. The song has a Delfonics’ flavor to it (and incidentally would have been suitable for the soundtrack of Tarantino’s 1997 film, Jackie Brown). Favorite lyric? “With you, I’m a king, without you, I’m not a dog-gone thing.”
True Love Don’t Grow on Trees – Helene Smith
Widely considered among people in the know as Miami’s first queen of soul, Helene Smith recorded more than 20 songs between 1966 and 1969, mostly with the aforementioned Deep City, and then a couple with Phil-LA-of Soul out of Philadelphia, after Deep City’s partners split in 1968. Smith released True Love Don’t Grow on Trees in May 1967, a modest hit. But her big break would come three months later with A Woman Will Do Wrong, which reached #20 on Billboard’s R&B and #128 on the crossover pop singles charts. Today, she is a public school teacher in Miami-Dade County.
Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami
NOTE: “Soul Flashback” will be an ongoing feature on this site. Check back periodically for updates or sign up for email alerts (see Sidebar). Also follow Long Play Miami on Twitter & Facebook.