Note to Funk Fans: The Blenders = Soul Hustlers

The following article is by contributor Josh Davis, based on recent conversations he and Jason Perlmutter had with Blenders members Hobart “Bill” Sharpe and Ervin Stowe.

The Blenders didn’t even know they had a third record.

Members of the teenage funk band—one of Winston-Salem’s best in the late 1960s and early ‘70s—were proud of their first two records.  In 1971, they recorded parts 1 and 2 of “Nothing But a Party” for Greensboro producer Walter Grady’s Cobra Records.  A year later the Blenders released a second 45, with the instrumental funk masterpiece “When You Git Through Wit It, Put It Back” on the A-side and “You Got It All, Ain’t No More” on the B-side.  That record came out on Grayslak, a label whose name referenced both Grady and his partner Wayman “Slack” Johnson, a popular disk jockey at the Greensboro black-oriented radio station, WEAL.

All four Blenders sides feature horn-driven, up-tempo instrumental funk, sometimes with a little background chatter.  You can tell from these records that the group listened carefully to Kool and the Gang’s early albums and also James Brown’s J.B.’s band.  Like their musical role models, the Blenders had a huge band, with no fewer than nine instrumentalists: Graham Fletcher on alto saxophone, Brevard Foggie on tenor sax, Michael “Iceman” Douthit on trumpet, Darrell Sharpe on trombone, Hobart “Bill” Sharpe on bass guitar, Ervin Payne on lead guitar, William “Ronnie” Eller on drums, Ervin Stowe on accompanying percussion, and Eugene Bess on organ.  J.C. Moore joined the band as a vocalist for its live performances.

Several years after cutting these records, Blenders member Bill Sharpe came across a curious 45 titled “Super Party” by the group the Soul Hustlers, released on Grady’s Linco label.  Sharpe was surprised that he had never heard of this local band, and he was shocked to read his own name, “H. Sharpe,” listed as the record’s composer.  Once he listened to the 45, he realized he was in fact hearing a song the Blenders had recorded with Grady and possibly cut in the same session as their first two records.  The problem was that Grady, as Sharpe and Stowe recount, hadn’t told anyone in the group that he was releasing the song, and he also forgot to tell the Blenders he was renaming them the Soul Hustlers.

 

The Greensboro entrepreneur may well have played a trick on the Blenders, one that more than a few unsuspecting rookies in the music business have fallen prey to.  As the story typically went, a producer had some talented and trusting kids put down a few tracks in a studio. Then he pressed one or two records from that session right away, but told the band that the other songs weren’t good enough for commercial release.  The producer would hold the “bad” songs in reserve but release them at a later date under another group’s name, preferably on a different label.  Grady added his own strange twist of gratitude to this formula by crediting Sharpe.  Eventually, a number of dubious business deals like these earned the Greensboro producer a memorable nickname among local musicians: “Shady Grady.”

 

The Blenders’ two credited 45s and a live repertoire filled with covers of hits helped them get regular gigs throughout the Carolinas in the early ‘70s.  A knack for publicity didn’t hurt, either.  One day, the band pulled off an elaborate PR stunt by marching on the Winston-Salem Police station in their full stage attire, looking something like Funkadelic in its early days, as Sharpe recalls. But by 1974, the Blenders felt they had outgrown Winston, and they decided to move and make a name for themselves nationally.  They first relocated to Griffin, Georgia, of all places, a small town southwest of Atlanta where they worked as a house band for a club for a several months. From there the band added “Blast” to their name (see header photo), and a string of house gigs took the band to Kansas City, Las Vegas, and even Toronto, but that story will have to wait for another time…

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Soul Hustlers - Super Party Part I

Carolina Soul radio show 2013

Thursday April 25th from 9pm-midnight Eastern, a new installment of Carolina Soul recordings played live on the air at WXYC 89.3 FM in Chapel Hill, NC:

Bobby Hinton “Girl Will You Marry Me” (Tomi)

[talkset]

The Essence Of Life “You’re An Angel” (Sir Ran Rap)
The Dynamic New Abraham Bros. “He Lives” (New-Ham)
The Gospel Echoes “God Won’t Change” (Echoes)
Priscilla McDonald & The McDonald Sisters “Thank You Lord” (Echo)

[talkset]

Cobra Heart Band “Cobra Heart” (Cobra Heart)
Bobby J. “Can I Come Over Tonight” (Prime Time)
Liquid Pleasure “You Can’t Stop The Music (Part 1)” (Queensgate)
M.J. Wade “I’m Gonna Ball Baby” (Helva)
The Eliminators “Loving Explosion” (Brunswick)
Mongoose “Feel It’s For Real” (Smoke)
Manifest Destiny “I’m Missing You” (Mark Five)

[talkset]

Bert Barnett & Columbia “Work It” (Kobie J.)
A.A Parsons & The Pilgrim Stars “Turn It Over To Jesus” (no label)
James Sanders & The Gospel Legends “It’s Gonna Be Hard, But We’re Gonna Make It” (HSE)
Arlandas Battle & The Souls Of Calvary “Keep On Traveling” (B.L.M.)
Dynamite Singletary “I Really You” (Dynamite)
Lester Flowers & The Cougers “I Wonder” (Hit)
New Cavaliers “I’ll Never Know” (Greene Soul)

[talkset]

The Fantastic Silver Hearts “The Silverheart Prayer” (Ne Bo)
Jerry Zackery & The Gospel Drifters “My Song To The President” (Agma)
Faze “Heart Wide Open” (Sound Star)
Mitch Clarke “All I Need” (Merch)
United Voices Of Jesus Apostolic Choir “He Died For You And I” (United)

[talkset]

Exit “I Wanna Be Close To You” (Rex)
Charles Smith “My Love Is True” (Music World)
Moondust Band “When You Are Loving Me” (Moondust)
Mellow Fellows & The Super Heavy Funk Band “When You’re All Alone” (no label)

[talkset]

Ladyjam “Thank The Lord” (Jam)
M.C. Master “Love Broken” (2 Dope)
Little Doodley & All In The Family “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” (C.M.F.)
The Dynamic Allstars “Dust On The Bible” (Prince)
Mae Sanders & The Gospel Landers “Trouble Of This World” (Don-A-Moy)
The Funk Connection “Dreams” (TFC)

[talkset]

Michelle “Rush Hour Traffic” (Anutha)
Glenda McLeod “No Stranger To Love” (HGEI)
Showers of Blessings “You Can Make It” (El Shaddai Ministries)
Satin Finish “Took A Chance On Love” (Green Back)

[talkset]

The Mighty Echoes “Peace” (J-L-G Gospel)
Sensational Travelettes “I Want To Live For Jesus” (no label)
Liquid Fire “Loving You” (Fire)

Pack Jam

During ACC and NCAA tournaments of yore, Carolina Soul has enjoyed posting recordings with ties to Tobacco Road, spurring our own sort of musical March Madness. Our guest contributor is Charles McGaw, Tarheel and host of On the One on WRUW 91.1, which broadcasts every Sunday 8-10 pm in his adopted Cleveland.

Two of the things I enjoy most, I gained an appreciation for from the short time I spent with my father—soul records and ACC Basketball. When his 45 collection was given to me upon his passing, I finally got the chance to dig in and really spend some time with his records. As a UNC alumni, I wasn’t thrilled to find two copies of this NCSU David Thompson song, but since my father was a State man, I had to give them a listen. One record has the song listed as Fast David and the Wolfpack, the other Little David and the Wolfpack, both by the Embers on Pack Records. I grew up listening to a lot of beach music with my father, but didn’t remember this song ever being played. It’s always a gamble with these sports novelty songs, but I was optimistic. A tight little groove with funky keys and blasting horns—I was hooked on first listen! I’ll admit I prefer the instrumental of this tune over the vocal side, stating the greatness of the Wolfpack, but it does take me back to the stories my father would tell of David and his beloved Pack. No matter who you are pulling for this March, the song has one line I think we all can agree with—“The ACC don’t like to boast, but they’ve whooped them all from coast to coast.”

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“Fast/Little David and the Wolfpack” by the Embers

Donald Byrd and the Bull City

Editor’s note: the following is our second article from Joshua Clark Davis, who previously wrote about connections between soul music in the Carolinas and Washington, DC.

As many Carolina Soul readers were saddened to learn last week, the famed jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd passed away on February 4. Few of his obituaries, however, mention the tremendous impact that he made on the music scene in Durham in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular at North Carolina Central University. At NCCU Byrd mentored the group New Central Connection Unlimited (also known as N.C.C.U.) and secured a major album deal for them in 1977. As Aaron Mills, the group’s bassist (and later recording artist with Cameo and Outkast) recalled in an interview this week, Byrd “took the time to teach people—I can never thank him enough.”

This story begins in 1967, when Gene Strassler, chairman of NCCU’s Music department, “telephoned Donald Byrd to inquire if he would bring some of his associates in jazz down to Durham to set up a series of lecture-demonstrations.” At the time, Byrd was best known as a veteran of New York’s hard-bop scene of the 1950s and early 1960s.

As Strassler recalled years later, “This series continued over a four year period and the enthusiasm generated was remarkable. Not surprising, from these early sessions emerged a concept for a jazz curriculum” at NCCU. (Strassler recently passed away as well, on December 30, at the age of eighty-seven.)

For the first half of the 1970s, Byrd worked as a professor at Howard University in Washington, DC, which at the start of the decade had become the first historically black college or university in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies. At the same time, Byrd was releasing the most commercially successful material of his career, much of it funky jazz and fusion for Blue Note Records.

During this time, Byrd also served as a mentor, producer, co-founder, and writer for the Blackbyrds, jazz-funk crossover luminaries who were his students at Howard. Much more than a campus ensemble, the Blackbyrds achieved considerable chart success with hits like their homage to the DC outdoors, Rock Creek Park.

By the 1975-76 academic year, however, Byrd had packed his bags for Durham, where he would become a professor at NCCU’s music department, and help to found the school’s Institute of Jazz Studies. 

Early in his tenure at NCCU, Byrd told Billboard magazine that he wanted the school’s music department to be the first “where the students make money for the school as opposed to most black schools where 90% of the students are on scholarship.” Just as he had done with the Blackbyrds, at NCCU Byrd offered classes on both jazz and the entertainment business in the hopes of teaching talented students how to make commercially viable music.

Yet even in the 1970s, most music departments at HBCUs emphasized the teaching of traditionally European forms of music over African American genres. As he explained to Billboard, Byrd had a different vision: “I am trying to get black college music departments across the country to start giving these kids a chance to do something realistic as opposed to aspiring to be opera singers.”

At NCCU, Byrd recruited Stanley Baird, a recent graduate of the university, to work as an adjunct professor in the new jazz program. Baird also played in his own group, which was based on the other side of the state, in Asheville.  One day Baird asked Byrd if he would produce his group like he had the Blackbyrds, and Byrd agreed, but only on one condition:  all of the group’s members had to study or work in NCCU’s jazz program. Problematically, three of the group’s key members—Thomas “Bonnie” Clyde, Norris Duckett, and Aaron Mills—didn’t even live in Durham. But Baird convinced the trio to move to the Bull City, and Byrd ensured that the school accepted them as students. 



Together with three other students—Clifton Cotton, Marion “Mouse” Wiggins, and Charlie Brown—the musicians formed a funk-disco outfit that they dubbed the New Central Connection Unlimited, better known as N.C.C.U.  In 1977, Byrd secured a major label deal with United Artists to release their debut album entitled Supertrick. The long-player’s standout track is “Bull City Party,” perhaps the all time greatest Durham anthem, which Byrd co-wrote. Byrd also produced the album, and department chair Strassler wrote the liner notes. 

Although N.C.C.U. never made another album and disbanded within several years, many alums of the group enjoyed professional music careers for years to come. Bassist Aaron Mills, for example, joined the famed 1980s R&B outfit Cameo and played on their monster hits “Candy” and “Word Up.” In the 2000s, Atlanta’s hip-hop duo Outkast sought him out to contribute bass lines to such hits as “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean”.

A recent viewing of NCCU yearbooks shows that Byrd was last pictured in the 1983 edition. By the late 1980s, he had moved on to work in jazz programs at North Texas University and Delaware State, while the 1990s saw a big revival in interest in his career with many hip hop producers mining his catalog for samples.

Donald Byrd will be remembered by most people for his great music. But we shouldn’t forget how he also devoted himself to educating a younger generation of musicians.  Aaron Mills recalls how Byrd “made us make good grades to keep the band together.” Indeed, Byrd was the rare hit-maker who felt as comfortable in the classroom as on stage. As Mills tells it, Byrd “was our coach,” and he “knew how to bring the best out of people…He did a lot for us.”  Almost forty years since its founding, Central’s jazz program is still going strong and stands as Byrd’s most enduring legacy in Durham. “That jazz program that’s flourishing over there,” Stanley Baird explains, “that’s because of him.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Byrd. The Bull City salutes you.

Funga Alafia!

If you attended public school in North Carolina in the last twenty years, the Healing Force quite likely contributed to your education. Formed by “Baba” Joseph and Gail Anderson in the late ‘70s, the familial unit created curriculum that combined story telling, lesson learning, and African drumming into one assembly-worthy affair. Although their most enduring selection “Funga Alafia,” can be sung in unison by pupils from Murphy to Manteo, Joseph’s musical career started decades earlier at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.
A recent transplant to New York City from Jacksonville, Florida, Anderson’s swampy accent frustrated notorious manager and music mogul Clarence Avant, whose only advice to the self described country boy in 1963 was “Go, live, and then come back.” When he did, he swept the Apollo’s notorious amateur night contest four weeks in a row, singing Tommy Hunt’s “Human.” On the strength of his performance, he was invited to join the Apollo’s in-house theater company, Listen My Brother, where he met his future wife and Winston-Salem native, Gail.

Two records materialized on Ben E. King’s Atlantic subsidiary, Heidi, giving the world “So Glad” b/w “How Long Will It Last” and “I Can’t get Enough of You” b/w “Don’t You Know.” Before the end of the ‘60s, the couple left Listen My Brother (Just missing the arrival of Luther Vandross) to form the message music duet, Deuzez (pronounced: Deuces).
The possibility of getting back into commercial R&B music was appealing to Anderson, who had since gained employment driving a gypsy cab. A songwriter and ally David Jordan penned a few love songs for Anderson, which found favor with disco foundry Buddah Records, who minted “(Your Love) Gives Me Fever” b/w “Forever Grateful” on 45. Sung in an Isley fashion and brandishing the disco badge of honor that is “A Tom Moulton Mix”, the record was projected to be a modest hit for the reinvigorated singer. “You and I” followed later in the year, but a series of Payola investigations and Buddha’s dodgy mob ties sent the Anderson’s for Gail’s hometown of Winston-Salem in 1976, abandoning pop music for good.
The Healing Force started with Joe and Gail, and incorporated their growing family as the years went on. Their live show has changed very little over the years, and “Funga Alafia” is still the group’s signature song. It is a Yoruba chant whose lyrics “Funga alafia/ashe ashe” translate loosely into “I welcome you into my heart/amen amen.” Perhaps it is the call-and-reponse attributes of the West African folk song that resonates with young people so well. The way it is sung with a smile, or the simple and positive message it impresses upon young minds. Whatever it is, “Funga Alafia” is part of our shared history as North Carolina public school alums, and we are no doubt better adults, friends, and neighbors for it.

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From the cassette The Rhythm of the Drum (1996) “Funga” by the Healing Force

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The Carolina Soul website serves as a living encyclopedia of soul music made in North and South Carolina. We strive to share Carolinian songs and stories of the last half century, and we invite the input of musicians and fans. We hope you will contact us if you have information on bands or recordings from the region.

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