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A Stairstep Story: Remembering Clarence Burke, Jr. PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 20 June 2013 17:59

A Stairstep Story:

Remembering Clarence Burke, Jr.  

(The Invisible Man)

Clarence Newton Burke Jr. (25th May 1949 - 26th May 2013) of the family act The Five Stairsteps, known as the First Family of Soul was the brain child, the main songwriter, choreographer, musician, guitarist, and lead singer. The group consisted of four brothers and one sister, with Clarence Jr, Alohe Jean, James, Dennis, Kenneth "Keni", and Cubie.

The group first began performing after Mrs. Betty Burke organized her children for a talent fundraising show in benefit for the school library. They won first prize which led to other local talent shows with the Five Stairsteps winning first prize for every show. The group apparently also won first prize during amateur night at the Regal Theater just prior to their recording duet. Mr. Clarence Burke Sr. had known Fred Cash of the Impressions and he convinced Fred to come to their house where his kids auditioned for him. Fred was convinced that the children had talent and were marketable and set up a telephone audition for Curtis Mayfield. The result was a recording contact with Mayfield’s new record company called Windy C Records. In 1966 they released Don't Waste Your Time / You Waited Too Long which reached No. 16 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1966. This was followed by World of Fantasy / Playgirl's Love then the Come Back / You Don't Love Me. An LP quickly followed up in 1967 on Windy C produced by Curtis Mayfield. All of the songs on the album were written by Curtis Mayfield, Clarence Burke Jr, Clarence Burke Sr. and Gregory Fowler. Stage presence was taught to Clarence Jr. by Clarence Sr. in the beginning. In 1967 the group now billed as the Five Stairsteps & Cubie released Something's Missing which went up to No. 17 on the billboard charts. Windy C released a total of seven singles between 1966 and 1967 with heavy marketing for the Five Stairsteps. The singles Ain't Gonna Rest (Till I Get You), You Can't See, and Change Of Pace were not included on the freshmen album. In 1967 the album Jimmy Bishop On Stage Live At The Nixon Theater was released featuring Billy Stewart, The Delfonics, the Ambassadors, The Intruders and The Five Stairsteps and Cubie. The Stairsteps were recorded live performing Somethings Missing and Don't Waist Your Time plus dialogue

This was followed-up by an album in 1968 on Buddah Records produced by a 17 year old Clarence Burke Jr. assisted by the jazz great Johnny Pate called Our Family Portrait. The LP featured each one of the Five Stairsteps & Cubie including Mamma and Papa Stairstep. Lead singer Clarence Jr. shared the spotlight with Kenneth who sang lead on A Million To One, James III who sang lead on You Make Me So Mad, Alohe Jean who sang lead on The Look of Love, Cubie who sang lead on The New Dance Craze and Mama and Papa Stairstep who sang lead on Windows of the World/I Remember You. Our Family Portrait was a total family affair. Buddah would release three singles between 1967 and 1968 with The Shadow of Your Love being the last, which was not included on the album. Finally the record company released a variety album in 1968 featuring the Five Stairsteps & Cubie called Classmates highlighting similar acts like Judy White, Henry Lumpkin, Tony Lamarr, and Timothy Wilson.

The following year saw a different direction for the Five Stairsteps & Cubie with an album release on Curtom Records again produced by Curtis Mayfield. Their first release was Don’t Change Your Love which became a signature song for the group. Curtom released two 45 singles in 1968 titled Don't Change Your Love / New Dance Craze and Stay Close To Me / I Made A Mistake. A full album followed in 1969 called Loves Happening. Several of the selections were covers of the Impressions compositions like Loves Happening, Madam Mary, Stay Close To Me, and Little Young Lover. The Five Stairsteps and The Impressions had a bond. Curtis Mayfield referred to the Burke children as his babies. The Loves Happening album was written mostly by Curtis Mayfield and it did not include any Clarence Burke Jr. Compositions. The 1969 year was also a milestone for the Five Stairsteps, as they were featured in a concert and film called “It’s Your Thing”. This was an Isley Brothers concert movie recorded live at Yankee Stadium. Clarence Jr. and the Five Stairsteps performed on the show backed up by the Midnight Movers Unlimited. Other acts were Judy White, the Sweet Cherries, the Brooklyn Bridge, Patti Austin, the Young Gents, Ike & Tine Turner, the Winstons, Moms Mabley, the Carla Ward Singers, and others. The Five Stairsteps became a major force in the world of R&B. The final Curtom release in 1969 was We Must Be In Love that included duets from Clarence Jr, and Kenneth Burke. Two of the Curtom singles featured Kenneth Burke on lead vocals instead of Clarence which were Stay Close To Me and Baby Make Me Feel So Good. The last Curtom single Madame Mary was not included on the album which featured the lead vocals of Clarence Jr.

The year 1970 would be a milestone for the Five Stairsteps after the release of "O-o-h Child" written by Stan Vincent. This signature song reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while peaking at number fourteen on the R&B charts. The flip-side of Ooh Child was Dear Prudence which was also played on popular radio. Buddah Records would then release Who Do You Belong To and Because I Love You on several 45 releases. The self-titled album called  Stairsteps was a combination of songs written by Clarence Burke Jr, Stan Vincent, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It featured Clarence Burke on guitar, Kenneth Burke on bass and Bernard Purdy on drums. The album is a masterpiece and the year 1970 through 1971 was a metamorphosis for the Five Stairsteps. The Clarence Burke Jr. composition Vice The Lights was a total funk and psychedelic delivery and is a Stairsteps classic. The group would open up their stage show in 1970 with Because I Love You which was  a psychedelic soul ballad composed by Clarence Burke, Jr.

America Standing was released in 1970 by the Five Stairsteps which was a hard rock record. This was a cover of the Steppenwolf classic Monster. That year the group incorporated a funk and black rock psychedelic sound into their stage act. They would open up their show with a cover of Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze and Music Lover from Sly & the Family Stone. Their own composition Don't Change Your Love became a psychedelic production blended with slick choreography. Drummer Jerome Brailey from Richmond Virginia joined the act in 1970. His photo was included on the 1971 The Stairsteps album cover with the group. He would leave the group to join the Chambers Brothers and then eventually Parliament-Funkadelic. The 1971 The Stairsteps album was also produced by Stan Vincent containing compositions from Clarence Burke Jr, Stan Vincent and George Harrison. The lead vocals on the album were performed by Clarence, Alohe and Kenneth. Buddah Records would release Didn't It Look So Easy, I Love You – Stop, and Hush Child between 1971 and 1972. During this time Alohe Jean (Rami) Burke retired from the group and served her country in the United States military. Upon completing her service she enrolled in college and furthered her education completing her bachelors and masters degrees in the sciences. A final Buddah single was released in 1972 that would not be included on an album called Every Single Way / Two Weeks Notice, returning back to a sweeter softer soulful sound much like that of 1967.

Clarence Jr. would not appear again in recorded music until 1976 with the invitation of Billy Preston to appear on the Quincy Jones album called I Heard That!!. He and his brother Kenneth "Keni" recorded the chorus on the recording Superstition as the Stairsteps. They were joined by Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Billy Preston and the Brothers Johnson on the tune. That was also the year of the Stairsteps reunion resulting in the album 2nd Resurrection produced by Billy Preston and the Burke brothers. The lead vocals and instrumental solos were performed by the Burke brothers of Clarence Jr, James, Kenneth and Dennis.  The songwriting was done by the Burke brothers as well and Dark Horse Records owned by George Harrison released the album. It has become a masterpiece. The following year Kenneth Burke released his debut solo album Keni Burke also on Dark Horse. Clarence Jr. would appear again in 1978 as a guitarist on the Herbie Mann Super Mann album. The following year in 1979 he appeared again as a guitarist on the debut album for the R&B act Touch Of Class. Clarence one told me that the group Touch of Class substituted for his brothers as the Stairsteps shortly before the group finally retired. That year also Venus Dodson ‎who had been a singer with Leroy Burgess (Black Ivory) and Patrick Adams released her solo album Night Rider, and Clarence Jr. appeared on it as a background vocalist.

The year 1979 also became a milestone for Clarence Burke Jr. with his second reunion of his brothers under the project named The Invisible Man's Band. The first single All Night Thingwritten by Clarence Burke became a club hit and was played heavily on FM radio. The first album The Invisible Man's Band was released in 1980 featuring Clarence Burke Jr, James Burke, Kenneth (Keni) Burke and Dennis Burke. The follow-up album Really Wanna See You was released in 1981. The last release by The Invisible Man's Band was a 1982 12 inch single called Sunday Afternoon, which was the only completed recording from an unfinished album. The Invisible Man's Band would never tour.

 In 2001 he appeared in the chorus of the US progressive metal band Dream Theater’s on its recording called Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory. Lately, the fans of Clarence Burke Jr. have enjoyed seeing him perform as a solo artist and with others acts. His performance at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar in NYC was well received with him performing his own compositions as well as Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. The last release by Clarence Burke Jr. was a digital download of a live recording of “Somebody’s Watching You”.  He would appear on The Funk Show twice and we were planning for a third interview. Clarence N. Burke Jr. was the invisible man and will be missed by all for a long time to come.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 February 2015 09:21
 
Two Silent Microphones from the Fraternity of Soul! PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 23 March 2013 18:34

Two Silent Microphones from the Fraternity of Soul!

(Remembering Richard Street and Damon Harris of the Temptations)

Most people who follow Soul music from the 1960’s know about the legacy of the Temptations. The group’s lineage dates back to 1960 in Detroit, Michigan with teenager Otis Williams who formed a group in the 1950’s called the Distants. The group had gone through a variety of name changes and its lead singer was Richard Street. After a breakup of the group, the remnants merged with the remnants of a rival group called the Primes. The new members were Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams joining Otis Williams and bass vocalist Melvin Franklin now calling themselves the Elgins. The group was signed to Motown who changed its name to the Temptations. Lead vocals in the beginning were by Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. Because of a lack of hits in the early years the company brought in a new lead singer named David Ruffin. In 1968 Ruffin was replaced by Dennis Edwards as the new lead singer. In 1970 Richard Street the former lead singer of a Motown act called the Monitors was hired to stand in for Paul Williams from time to time. Williams was often ill and was officially replaced in 1971. Kendricks left the group in 1971, because of a business disagreement and he was replaced with a 21 year old tenor vocalist from Baltimore named Damon Harris. Harris led a group called the Young Tempts that sang Temptations songs. Their name was soon changed by the Isley Brothers to the Young Vandals, who signed them to their label T-Neck. The new lineup for the Temptations in 1971 was Damon Harris, Richard Street, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, and Dennis Edwards. The group would now have a new look and a new sound.

The Temptations entered into a new era with this lineup scoring a #1 hit on the US Top 10 chart in 1972 called "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone". That was followed by "Masterpiece" in 1973 that reached #1 on the R&B No. 1 chart. They kept the #1 position on that chart the same year with "Let Your Hair Down".  In 1974 the release "Happy People" and in 1975 "Shakey Ground" both reached #1 on the R&B No. 1 chart. 

Richard Street who contributed to many of the Temptations hits during his tenure with the group left in 1993 because of business disagreements. Damon Harris left the group in 1975 and got back together with the former members of the Young Vandals renaming the group Impact. The group would release their first album on Atco in 1976 backed up by the MFSB orchestra. A second album was released on Fantasy in 1977 and in 1978 Harris released his only solo album called “Silk”. In 1997 Damon Harris was diagnosed with prostate cancer and founded the Damon Harris Cancer Foundation in 2001. He died of prostate cancer on February 18, 2013 at the age of 62. Nine days later Richard Street died from pulmonary embolism on February 27, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. By coincidence Bobby Rogers a founding member of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and a Motown alumnus passed away on March 3, 2013.

Some of the Temptations classics featuring a prominent role for Richard Street were "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)", "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" "Masterpiece”, "Hey Girl (I Like Your Style)" and "Heavenly”. Damon Harris contributed heavily to "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)"  "Take a Look Around", "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone”, "Masterpiece", "Plastic Man" and "Love Woke Me Up This Morning". The two of them would sing together on most of these recordings.

The Temptations are the one and only Fraternity of Soul. Damon Harris and Richard Street have joined the long list of martyrs from the Temptations membership. Their microphones have been silenced, but their legacy lives on.

Damon Harris was a guest of Howard Burchette on The Funk Show in August of 2007. He shared his history with the Temptations, the group Impact and his work in prostate cancer awareness.  

Howard Burchette

Last Updated on Monday, 25 March 2013 12:38
 
Black Byrd: The Story of Dr. Donald Byrd PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 13 February 2013 22:15

It was literally impossible for any HBCU (Historically black colleges and universities) college student of the mid and late 1970's not to know who Donald Byrd was. Our musical diet consisted of the usual Funk stuff of the day, but also the Jazz turned Soul-Jazz and Funk artists like Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, the Crusaders, George Benson, Roy Ayers, Harvey Mason, Ramsey Lewis and Donald Byrd. He was popular amongst college students. Perhaps it came from the fact that he spent so much time as a professor in various universities around the country and he knew the likes and dislikes of a young college student especially of the HBCU. Also, the connection might have come from the fact that he had created three to four groups mainly made up of his former students from HBCU’s namely The Blackbyrds. We loved Donald Byrd and he identified with us. Donald Byrd also represented something to a lot of us. He became a bridge between the popular music of the day (R&B, The Funk and Disco) and Jazz. I first saw Donald Byrd perform in 1975 when I was freshman at St. Augustine’s College. He was one of the headliners of a Jazz series located at NC State University that year. The opening act was the Blackbyrds, who also were the rhythm section behind Dr. Byrd.  This had been one of my first live Jazz concert experiences. The other acts in the series were Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and Herbie Mann and I saw all of them.  This had become a part of my foundation of Jazz appreciation. Jazz had been around me all of my life, but this experience had opened the door much wider to it.

I remember in the winter of 1977 a college friend and myself were sitting in RDU airport waiting for our gates to open. It was a long wait and I remember we were just sitting watching people and just discussing what ever world events were happening at that time. You could not help but notice the tall beautiful woman who was dressed in a fur hat, a long fur coat, boots and expensive looking jewelry walking back and forth between the seat where she and her husband were sitting and the airline check-in counter. I remember Jeff and I agreeing that we could not afford a woman like that. We continued sitting and talking and I noticed that the woman’s husband kept looking in my direction. As a matter of fact every time I turned my head he was staring at us. I then said “Jeff, I don’t know if you noticed, but that guy over there keeps staring at us”. He said “Man, I noticed that too and it’s ticking me off! Let’s go say something to him!” Well we started walking over towards the man and I remember thinking what am I going to say to him when I get in front of him. He had his cap pulled down over his eyes. After I got maybe six feet away from him, I said to Jeff “Hey, that’s Donald Byrd!” He said “Yes! You’re right that is Donald Byrd!”  By that time Dr. Byrd saw that we had recognized him and he had a big smile on his face. Both of us in turn also had big grins on our faces as well. He knew that we were college students and he just wanted to have someone to talk to.  He invited us to sit down with them and he asked us where we went to school. He began to tell us about his Jazz career and Blue Note Records. He talked about Howard University and The Blackbyrds. He talked some about North Carolina Central University and asked us if we had heard the new music from N.C.C.U. That was his new group from North Carolina Central University. I immediately responded “absolutely!” Soon it was time for he and his wife to leave and he said “I only have one of these, but here is a cassette of some of my music”. After they left we both looked at each other and said “Man that was Donald Byrd!”

Dr. Donald Byrd was born Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit in 1932. He played in a military band in the Air Force and then joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while working on his masters at Manhattan School of Music. He would replace the great trumpet player Clifford Brown in the group. While still an active member of Blakey’s group, he would also record with other Jazz Legends like Jackie McLean, Horace Silver and others. His first solo recording with his own group resulted in the At the Half Note Café album. He co-led this group with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams.  BY 1961 he recorded the classic Royal Flush album and then the Free Form album in 1962. He would record about 59 albums initially. Some were on Brunswick, Colombia, Savoy, Prestige and Esquire, but the majority were on Blue Note Records.

In 1969 Donald Byrd ventured in the same direction as Miles Davis and experimented with blending Jazz with other musical elements like Rock and R&B. The album was called Fancy Free which became a Jazz-fusion project. Other albums would follow like Electric Byrd and Ethiopian Knights which were in the Jazz Fusion or more modern Acid Jazz style. These would be the prerequisite to the partnership with Donald Byrd and the Mizell brothers. The first product from this collaboration would the 1973 LP Blackbyrd.  It became a hit and soon would be the blueprint for the new sound that Donald Byrd would be known for. The sound was funkier and also included vocals from Fonce and Larry Mizell. The popular Bluenote album contained two hits like Blackbyrd and Flight Time. The follow-up was Street Lady later on that same year with the same Byrd – Mizell formula. It two was a hit. Donald Byrd was now developing a whole new audience with his new sound of funk elements. The hits from this LP were the title track and Lansana's Priestess. That same year Donald Byrd would use the same formula with the Mizell brothers to produce a group of his former students from Howard University. They would take their name from his 1973 LP Blackbyrd and the debut album by the Blackbyrds was released in 1974. Donald Byrd’s franchise continued to be a success with his solo efforts and his Blackbyrds projects. His newest audience was the college aged students from the mid and late 1970’s.

During this period Donald Byrd would release Stepping Into Tomorrow (1975), Places And Spaces (1975), and Caricatures (1976) all with the Mizell brothers. He would produce the soundtrack to the movie Cornbread, Earl and Me in 1975. However, in 1978 he would record Thank You... For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life) for Electra Records which he produced himself. This was a pure funk album. This would be followed by three more funky albums on Electra under the name Donald Byrd & 125th Street, N.Y.C. Two out of the three were produced by Isaac Hayes.

Donald Byrd like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and others, was important because he created new forms of Jazz mixed with Rock, R&B and Funk. He stood out from these other artists because his musical influence continued to live and grow through groups like the Blackbyrds, The Three Pieces, N.C.C.U. and beyond. When you would hear the Blackbyrds, you thought of Donald Byrd. He was Jazz, he was Funk and he was the Blackbyrd.

Howard Burchette

Last Updated on Friday, 22 February 2013 08:58
 
I Remember the E-Man! PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 20 November 2012 22:33

I Remember the E-Man!

Jimmy Castor was an icon in show business, Rock and Roll, R&B and the Funk. His journey began as a child prodigy in New York City and singing in neighborhood doo-wop groups. He grew up with and went to the same public school with the members of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. While still in Junior High School he wrote “I Promise To Remember” for the group, which became a million seller. He sometimes sang with them as well, and led his own group known as Jimmy Castor and the Juniors. They would release “Somebody Mentioned Your Name” on Atomic Records in 1957. His group would also release their version of “I Promise To Remember” as well. Jimmy free-lanced as a studio musician and was hired to play the saxophone on the Dave (Baby) Cortez hit “Rinky Dink” in 1962. After completing his college education Jimmy released “Hey Leroy Your Mama’s Calling You,” on Mercury Records in 1966 which became a big hit for him. The “Hey Leroy” album soon followed in 1968 and was released on Smash Records. By 1972, the Jimmy Castor Bunch was formed as a new act and the Funk classic “Troglodyte (Cave Man)” was released. The song sold over a million copies and went up to #4 on the R&B charts and #6 on the U.S. Pops charts. Like “Hey Leroy” this song contained Jimmy Castor idioms like "What we're gonna do right here is go back...". An album followed titled “It's Just Begun”, which contained favorites “It's Just Begun”, “Psyche”, “L. T. D. (Life, Truth & Death)”, “Bad”, a re-recording of “I Promise To Remember” as well as others. His success at RCA resulted with the album “Phase Two” in 1972 which gave the fans “Say Leroy (The Creature From The Black Lagoon Is Your Father)”, “Luther The Anthropoid (Ape Man)”,Party Life”, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, “Tribute To Jimi: Purple Haze / Foxey Lady” and other great tunes. His last album with RCA was “Dimension III” released in 1973. On this outing Jimmy recorded some beautiful saxophone ballads like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Soul Serenade” and “Whiter Shade Of Pale”. He began to call himself the E-Man or the Everything Man, because he boosted that he played everything from the saxophone to the timbales. It began to stick. He became dissatisfied with RCA Records and soon parted ways with them. In 1974 he would start a new relationship with Atlantic Records and the hits would follow. Now billed as The Jimmy Castor Bunch Featuring the Everything Man, they quickly turned out two albums that year. The first of which was titled “Jimmy Castor (The Everything Man) And The Jimmy Castor Bunch” which contained mostly beautiful ballads like Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time, Love's Theme and For All We Know. The single and hit was Maggie, which was a slow funky ballad and a cover of the group Redbone. Larger success came to Jimmy with the second album that year called Butt Of Course... which contained hits “E-Man Boogie”, “Bertha Butt Boogie” and “Potential”. The Jimmy Castor characters and his humorous idioms were present plus “Bertha Butt Boogie” was sort a sequel toTroglodyte (Cave Man)”. This became one of his biggest hits and another signature piece. The following year gave the fans the Supersound album which resulted in two hits; Supersound and King Kong. His formula of comic book characters, science fiction and Hollywood monster themes continued to work for him. Similar types of things were working for Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth Wind & Fire with bigger than life and fantasy themes. The E-Man Groovin' album was released in 1976, and its hit was “Space Age” which did well on the R&B charts. The Maximum Stimulation album was released in 1977 with the title track as the single. From this point on, his position on the charts began to fall and he was not able to recover.

Jimmy Castor was one of my first interviews on the Funk Show. I remember being a little nervous after he agreed to do the interview. I was one of his biggest fans, I had seen his act about three times and I knew how important he was to the Funk. I decided that I would just stick to his musical history and discuss it with him in chronological order. During the interview he talked about his early days in Manhattan, free lancing as a sideman and recording as a solo artist. He kept switching the conversation back to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. I had not done any research on the group, so I shifted our conversation back to The Jimmy Castor Bunch and he would eventually switch it back to Frankie Lymon. We went back and forth a few times and it did not take long for me to realize that he wanted to talk about Frankie Lymon. So, I pushed back my notes and I let him talk. I discovered that he loved Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and that they were the group that opened the doors for him. He wanted the public to know who the real Frankie Lymon was. The 1988 movie Why Do Fools Fall in Love was based on the life of Frankie Lymon, and he said that it was a pack of lies. He said that the movie depicted Frankie Lymon as a womanizer and a drug addict, which he said was untrue. He had mentioned that he had wanted to do his own movie on the real life of Frankie Lymon.

Jimmy Castor passed away on January 16, 2012 at the age of 71. The legacy of Jimmy Castor is that he was an important chapter in the history of the Funk during the 1970’s. His music of “Troglodyte (Cave Man)”,It's Just Begun”, “King Kong” and “Bertha Butt Boogie“ were all important fabric of the 1970’s Funk. The only live recording of the Jimmy Castor Bunch is captured on the RCA Records soundtrack to the 1973 concert “Keep The Dream Alive; Martin Luther King”. He had told me that this album was a collector’s item. When I spoke with him and whenever he would e-mail me, he would always say “Howard keep teaching. Keep teaching the importance of our music to the people and to the young people”. I feel fortunate to have had conversation with Jimmy Castor and discuss the history of R&B and the Funk. Jimmy Castor has been on my mind, because I am working on a forthcoming book containing ten of my best interviews. The first chapter will be on Jimmy Castor. He left a big impression on me. I will continue to teach and I Remember the E-Man

Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 November 2012 11:47
 
He Played Pretty for the People (The Story of Sil Austin) PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 19 November 2012 13:46

He Played Pretty for the People (The Story of Sil Austin)

In the late 1980’s I was offered a job assignment by my employer in Atlanta, Georgia. I worked at a site called IBM Riveredge and like most new jobs my days were stressful and at times the end of the day was a relief. I quickly noticed a second shift security staff employee, who was very friendly and everyone in the building liked him. He would speak to me every day, and I soon found myself engaging in conversation with him daily before I went to my car. Our conversations would generally be centered on what we saw or heard on National Public Radio or on CNN. It was mostly on political topics like the Gulf War and the George H. W. Bush presidency. Occasionally; we would engage in conversation about yard work and home maintenance, but never on music. A day never went by without me stopping and speaking with my friend that I only knew as Sil. A year had gone by and on April 3, 1990 I had heard on NPR that Sarah Vaughan has passed away. That evening while walking to my car, I heard Sil call to me and he said “Hey Howard .. did you heard that Sarah Vaughan passed today?” I told him that I did hear about it and he said to me “She was a good lady”, “She was a grand lady”. I then began to run down Sarah Vaughan’s history that I knew and he acknowledged it and said that he knew her. It startled me and I said “You knew Sarah Vaughan?” he said “Yes, I worked for her?” I said “You worked for Sarah Vaughan? Wow!” I then asked him what he did for her and was he her chauffeur. He told me no, that he played saxophone for her. I then said “You played saxophone for Sarah Vaughan?” Holy Cow! I said “I did not know that you were a musician?” and he said to me “You never asked!”. He then began to tell me his history that he had recorded over 30 albums and that he recorded for Mercury Records, and SSS Records. I went home that evening and looked Sil Austin up in my Soul Music, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues books that I had at home (this was pre internet) and there he was. After that Sil began to tell me about his musical history of working for and with Roy Eldridge, Cootie Williams, Tiny Bradshaw, Red Prysock, Hank Ballard, Maxine Sullivan, Chuck Berry, Jerry Butler and others. I began to tell everyone at IBM who Sil Austin was and soon he was our celebrity.

Sylvester Austin was born on September 29, 1929 in Florida and he had told me that at a very young age he joined the circus and traveled with them playing in the band. He soon moved to New York and signed with Mercury Records as a recording artist. One of his first recording dates occurred on January 15, 1957. That day he recorded the tracks Cat Walk, The Hungry Eye, The Indians Are Coming and Crazy Rhythm. He recorded heavily in 1957 resulting in seven recording sessions which created two albums Slow Walk Rock, and Everything's Shakin'. His first release was actually in 1956 called Slow Walk. It became a top 20 Pop hit. His version of Danny Boy became his second hit in 1957 and was his signature song. He soon would release other albums; Soft Plaintive and Moody and Sil Austin Plays Pretty for the People in 1961. The latter became the album that he was most remembered for. The album cover was photographed in New York’s Central Park and the Ray Charles Singers were hired to sing the background chorus on the album. Sil Austin Plays Pretty for the People is a classic and as Sil once told me, “this is my masterpiece”. Also, that year the album Golden Saxophone Hits was released. In 1963 The Sil Austin With the Merry Melody Singers album was released called Sil Austin With Strings And Choir Plays Folk Songs. His last notable album on Mercury records would be called Plays Pretty Melodies of the World in 1964. In the later 1960’s, he would switch to SSS Records and some of his more notable albums were Honey Sax in 1969, Songs of Gold and Sil & The Silver Screen. One highlight in Sil Austin’s career was the album Sil Austin vs. Red Prysock Battle Royal! in 1959. This is a timeless classic and Sil was very proud of this recording session which included Sil Austin, Red Prysock (ts) Dave Martin (p) Everett Barksdale, Kenny Burrell (g) Milt Hinton (b) David "Panama" Francis (d). During the time that I had met Sil, he had recorded a very nice CD called Go Girl! with Sil Austin, Grady "Fats" Jackson, and Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff. "Fats" was a former saxophonist with the Big Joe Turner band. They called themselves the Tri-Sax-Ual Soul Champs. Sil did not own any of his albums when I met him. I was helping him to build back his collection of his material. After moving to North Carolina in the 1990’s, I had mailed Sil a couple of his albums which I had recently found. I soon received a phone call from his wife the Rev. Vernice Austin, that Sil had passed away on September 1, 2001. It was a sad day for me that I had lost my friend who had shared so many stories about his life in the music business. On how he had experienced hard times and bad business from record companies and management who did not pay him and ripped him off and good times on how he had helped his younger brother go to college with the money that he had earned in the business. Sil Austin was a modest man and he hardly spoke about his music career unless asked. He was a saxophonist, a songwriter, a band leader, a recording artist and a business man. 

Unfortunately, for me Sil passed away before I got into radio and an interview about his life on THE FUNK SHOW would have been perfect. The title of his 1961 album says it all about his life: Sil Austin Plays Pretty for the People.  

Last Updated on Monday, 07 January 2013 11:07
 
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