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It’s usually easy to tell who will be performing at the Birchmere. The venue’s marquee, stuck to the top of a long post and facing the street, announces the musicians, both super- and semifamous, who are scheduled to appear.
On Feb. 13, the message board held only a vague clue to the night’s lineup. It read simply: “DC All-Stars.”
The sign didn’t explain that the show would feature doo-wop founders from the ’50s, such as the Orioles; smooth, powerhouse singers from the ’60s, such as Al Johnson of the Unifics; such ’70s funk-soul crooners as William DeVaughn; and other acts representing a diverse, 30-year span of black music.
But in the end, the show’s coy title summed up the performers’ obvious common bond—they shared both ties to the District and status as stars.
The event was organized by Robert “Captain Fly” Frye, a WPFW DJ and performer, who had seized an opportunity to draw together the musical greats of his hometown. He wanted to not only unite them for entertainment’s sake, but also capture the concert on DVD and compact disc as a lasting record of the event.
“I said, ‘D.C., we gotta do this. We have to put all these guys together,’” Frye says. “Because soon everyone on that stage will be a memory.”
The show was organized as a timeline of D.C.-rooted black music. Acts appeared in chronological order, according to the peaks of their popularity, with fill-in work handled by professional impersonators channeling the likes of Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, and James Brown.Whether it was Sir Joe Quarterman and Joe Phillips of the Winstons paying tribute to their fathers, musical impressionists Greg Cooper and the men of H.A.L.O mimicking the artistry of singers dead and gone, or the Velons rehashing arrangements that have withstood 30 years of scrutiny, all the artists, in their own way, resuscitated small pieces of history.
The best way to describe their music, perhaps, wasn’t as classic R&B, or soul, or doo-wop, but as archetypical “oldies but goodies.” The term emphasizes the genres’ common elements—dynamic vocals, vulnerable emotion, and a harmony both figurative and literal—that are a part of the past but too good to be left there.
There is always a quiet hysteria just below the surface at oldies shows, an unspoken sense of concern that certain forms of music will die off along with their founders, an excitement that can come only from an audience that believes it might be seeing a favorite performer for the very last time.
At the Birchmere, whether out in the audience or backstage, trash-talking and reminiscing abounded. The elders, including Diz Russell of the Orioles and Pookie Hudson of the Spaniels, took time to catch up with old friends and recall funny stories about acts that came on the scene before them.
But there was also a distinct effort to look to the future. There were reunited bands presenting new material, a veteran singer debuting a new voice, and teenagers volunteering to stand among more seasoned performers and pay homage to their work.
Despite all the hand-wringing about the past disappearing, the oldies circuit, more than any other music subculture, is designed to regenerate itself, to safeguard against the fading out of particular songs and performers. Oldies music thrives on nostalgia—depends on it in order to pay bills and pack houses with bodies. It is too steeped in tradition to ever let anyone or anything slip through the cracks.
Every time a copy of Ludacris’ LP Chicken-N-Beer is sold or someone downloads a ring tone for “Diamond in the Back,” the wistful single that recalls the rapper’s Atlanta childhood, singer-songwriter William DeVaughn cashes in.
The chorus of the 1974 smash, “Be Thankful for What You Got,” which DeVaughn wrote and performed as a solo artist, contains one of hiphop’s most sampled lines: “Diamond in the back/Sunroof top/Diggin’ the scene with a gangster lean.”
DeVaughn has been with the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority for more than 30 years, most recently as a civil-engineering technician. Even when his song was at the top of the R&B charts, he retained his day job, taking a leave of absence to promote his song. But the 57-year-old insists that, if he wanted to, he could support himself on the royalties that “Be Thankful” generates. Thirty years after its debut, he is receiving more requests than ever to sample the tune.
The song has been remade and borrowed in its entirety for movies, such as the upcoming Be Cool, the Get Shorty sequel. But most frequently, DeVaughn’s publishers, E.M.I. and Lastrada Entertainment Co., get requests to use that single line referencing a “gangster lean,” from artists obsessed with invoking the ’70s-era Dolemite cool that the line captures.
DeVaughn doesn’t mind other artists using the line, but he thinks that often the original, and more positive, meaning is lost. “They always use the ‘gangster lean’ part. But there is a difference in how a gangster is viewed today. Now it’s about killing. Back in the day it meant being a player. ‘With the gangster lean,’ that was just a way of saying you were being cool back then.”
The line’s most prominent hiphop appearance was probably on “Gangsta Gangsta,” from N.W.A’s 1989 classic Straight Outta Compton, but it’s been used, or misused in DeVaughn’s view, by other rappers as well. Ludacris’ use was nostalgic, similar in tone to DeVaughn’s original.
“Growing up on East Capitol Street SE, I had relationships with people who were…I don’t wanna say ‘gangsters,’ but trying to be pimps, playing the ‘gangster’ role, trying to attain that status,” says DeVaughn. “My objective was to really try to curtail that, create self-esteem. To say that even though you might not have some stuff, be thankful for what you do have.”
Because so many artists ignore the part about being satisfied with what you have, even if a tricked-out car isn’t on that list, DeVaughn now lords over his famous line with vigor, rejecting many requests that he deems unfit.
“I’ve turned down many a sample—turned down large sums of money to sample ‘Be Thankful’ in the wrong way. I’ve been trying to maintain integrity,” he says.
But he says he’s not going to start hunting down people who use his line without permission, distorting it to fit their needs without his input or consent. “I’m not gonna be like James Brown and chase everybody down,” he says. “I’ve had whoever take it, use it in a negative way, but I can’t waste my time tracking it.”
Although DeVaughn doesn’t always approve of the ways in which hiphop artists want to use his material, to show that he’s not critical of the genre, he is doing some sampling of his own.
The only solo act of the evening with background singers, DeVaughn is composed and cool when he hits the Birchmere stage in his white suit, bowler hat, and red-and-white Stacy Adams shoes for a “special performance” of “Be Thankful.” Halfway through, he inserts a piece of Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” into the song, making the younger people in the house cheer.
Still, his most infectious line to date gets more people in the audience singing than any other the entire night. In the beginning, they focus on yelling out the description of the velvet diamond cut-outs that DeVaughn used to see affixed to the back windows of cars in the Southeast of the ’70s, but toward the end of DeVaughn’s performance, they chime in for the more uplifting verses as well: “You may not have a car at all/But remember/Brothers and Sisters/You can still stand tall.”
The members of the Unifics, the soul group founded at Howard University by Al Johnson in 1966, have donned white gloves for their performance. “We’ve done that ever since we started—no one knows why,” says Johnson. “It’s a trademark. If we came without them, someone would say, ‘What happened?’”
The gloves may be the same, but most of the people wearing them tonight are different. Johnson is the only original and consistent member of the soul group present. Tom Fauntleroy was part of the original Unifics, but left for roughly three years, a span that included the recording of the band’s only album. Charlie Lockhart and Garrett Hall are new to the group.
That one LP—1968’s Sittin’ In at the Court of Love—produced two successful singles, “Court of Love,” and “Beginning of My End.” The foursome broke up in 1972, before they could record a follow-up full-length project. “We’re better known for our live performances—something I’m trying to rectify,” Johnson says.
After the demise of the Unifics, Johnson worked through the ’80s and ’90s as both a producer of adult-contemporary music and a solo artist. But two years ago, he decided that he should re-form his first band.
“I think it was time to make a change. I was in a rut,” he says. “Even with the production being what it was, the solo work had reached a point where I wasn’t gonna take it much further. I had material, but I was never going to do the songs myself or get them placed.”
Johnson also says that Fauntleroy, who was anxious to get on a Unifics album after missing out the first time, spurred him on. “If it was left up to me, it might not have happened, but he wanted it bad. It got to the point where I thought he was gonna beg, and best friends shouldn’t have to beg.”
At the Birchmere, Johnson has decided to ease old fans into the new Unifics by giving them the two biggest hits of the old Unifics and one song that he hopes will be successful for the new group: “You Gotta Let Me Know.”
“We have a new CD, The Unifics Return!” Johnson announces onstage, before singing the new song. “And you can buy it right here!” Copies of the new release are stacked in neat rows atop a brown folding table in the Birchmere gift shop, for sale for 15 bucks.
The new sound doesn’t stray too far from the soulful original one, but Johnson has worked in subtle updates to give the latest recording a contemporary edge without alienating old fans.
“That’s what I was going for,” Johnson says later. “We’re not necessarily recording just for [our] generation. Listen to, say, R. Kelly—he draws a lot from the new and the old and has bridged the gap between then and now. Young ears will pick up on this provided we get the play and exposure.
“We’re not doing this strictly on a ‘remember when’ basis,” he continues. “It’s what the whole idea of ‘return’ as opposed to ‘revisited’ is all about.”
The Jewels are in their dressing room, figuring out how to best use a packet of adhesive-backed plastic gemstones that Marjorie Clarke has pulled out of her pocket book. “Ooooh! Put some on my face!” says Sandra Bears, one of the members of the ’60s girl group, spotting the accessories. “Will they stay on?”
Bears, Clarke, and fellow member Grace Ruffin are the only women on tonight’s bill—which means they get their own dressing room and can bedeck themselves in private, away from the chaos of the 40-odd men preparing to go onstage just outside their door.
“The fellas always be with each other, in a big room,” says Clarke.
In the ’80s, the Jewels began noticing that most of the sisters they had performed with during the height of the girl-group era—the Marvelettes, the Chantels, the Shirelles—had disappeared from the scene.
“About six years ago, we went to New York to take a picture, a ‘Doo-Wop Is Alive’ picture, for all of the groups,” says Ruffin. “Looking around, there weren’t a lot of girl groups—and the ones you saw, they weren’t all of the originals.
“We’re really the only girl group around that’s intact—especially in this area,” she says.
The group, which started out as the Impalas, was founded when they were students at Roosevelt High School. The women used to go to Bo Diddley’s Rhode Island Avenue NE house after school, with their friends the Velons, to practice and record the mix of slow love songs and winking uptempo numbers that girl groups were famous for. But they didn’t attain national success until they traveled to New York and recorded 1964’s “Opportunity.”
With the success of the single came an offer they couldn’t refuse—the chance to back up James Brown on tour. They left behind husbands and children, and after being on the road with the Godfather for a year, the women were soured on the experience.
“We didn’t have a desire to get back on the road,” Ruffin says. “The road is rough—it was not an easy tour. We were only 21. We were traveling on buses, didn’t get to see a hotel for two or three days sometimes….Even now, when we go out of town, you can’t get us on too many buses.”
After they disembarked from JB’s tour bus, the women continued to gig but decided to find jobs with regular hours and scale back their singing.
“We were all married, had kids, and said, ‘We better get us some jobs.’ So we stayed here and prepared for the future—and I’m glad we did,” says Ruffin.
“A lot of groups cut one record and are never heard from again. I guess we’re just one of those groups,” Ruffin says. “But we never stopped singing.”
All three women became government employees—Ruffin, who recently retired, joined the U.S. Postal Service, and Bears and Clarke both attained music-related positions in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Bears still works for the agency; Clarke retired last year. Her position involved singing at a variety of ribbon-cuttings and educational programs. “I was a ‘music specialist’ and other duties as assigned,” says Clarke. “That meant answering the phones and using the computer.”
But even with the demands of career and family, the women always continued to sing in their spare time. “Marjorie sings by herself, Sandra sings by herself, we may sing in church choirs, but what we have together can’t be found somewhere else—we know that,” says Ruffin.
The Jewels are the penultimate act tonight, so there’s plenty of time to lounge around the dressing room. They talk about tuna-and-macaroni salad, grandbabies, Social Security, and how the chairs and couches in the long orange-painted room are too low.
“Help me up!” Clarke, 60, calls out at one point, when her tiny frame has sunk too deep into a fluffy beige chaise.
With her two friends in the bathroom applying makeup, Bears attempts to untangle a bouquet of plastic roses, which will be stuffed into their gowns and flung into the audience as they sing “Johnny Jealousy,” the song written for them by their manager Bob Lee in 1962.
“We forgot the regular roses, so these are just some little quickies,” she explains as she snips at green wire stems. “But we always like to leave our audience with something.”
Pookie Hudson and His Spaniels
There is no headliner for tonight’s show, but if there were, it would be Pookie Hudson and His Spaniels.
“Pookie takes me back to dark basements back in the corner! Yeow!” says the Jewels’ Clarke, doing a little remembrance dance.
“People out in the audience were saying, ‘I’ve been sitting here all night waiting to see Pookie,’” says Frye.
The man everybody is waiting to see is parked in a corner of an old beige sectional sofa backstage. He’s rubbing his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall, and mostly keeping quiet as everyone around him is munching loudly on chips and salsa, running outside for quick cigarettes, and darting between the bathroom and dressing room, preparing to go on.
“I saw Pookie sitting on the couch, and I had to get his picture,” says Millie Russell, manager of the Orioles. “That’s time right there.”
Thornton James “Pookie” Hudson is probably the most well-known of the D.C. All-Stars, and he has what is without question the most imitated and beloved song that will be performed tonight—1954’s “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight.” Hudson has said time and again that when he wrote the song, back in 1952, he thought it was a little throwaway tune that would never make it to wax. He was so unimpressed by the piece that he resisted when his record label urged him to record it. “But I’m very happy that they did,” he now says.
The song, which peaked at No. 5 on the R&B charts, has become a touchstone of the doo-wop era, a bona fide sliver of ’50s nostalgia that has appeared everywhere from television commercials for Dodge to the film American Graffiti. But Hudson says he didn’t start making money from the tune until 1978—four years after the original Spaniels disbanded—missing out on a huge payday. “The company I was with never really paid royalties. When I found out about it, I went through lawyers and finally won,” he explains.“I lost a lot of money. But that’s the way it goes.”
Hudson continues to be amazed that the song, and the style of music that it represents, has endured for so many decades. “As far as we were concerned, it was dead after the Beatles, when disco came. We thought it was dead. Then all of the sudden, white people found a way to make it valuable. They put a name on it—called it doo-wop—and prolonged the music,” he says.
The success of that one song, not to mention the rest of the Spaniels’ catalog of albums and charting singles, is one of the reasons that Birchmere patrons are eagerly anticipating Hudson’s performance. But his musician friends have another reason to be enthusiastic about the set—they haven’t seen Hudson on the circuit for a couple of months.
He is undergoing treatment for thymus cancer and has been focusing on recuperation rather than crooning. “It takes its toll,” he says of the chemotherapy he is undergoing.
The crowd begins screaming for Pookie before he even makes it to his microphone. As he stands stage right, waiting to come on, audience members scream out “Pookie,” and otherwise muffle the MC’s introduction. His songs for the evening are “Stormy Weather” and, of course, “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight.” During both, his voice is soft but clear.
After the last syllable of their last song rings out and the majority of attendees rise to give the group and its leader a standing ovation, Hudson retreats back to the green room. The Spaniels appear at different points to watch the show, but Hudson doesn’t join them again until he emerges for the curtain call.
When the show is over, a fan spots a Spaniel headed toward a post-show meet-and-greet and inquires about Hudson’s health.
“Is he feeling OK?” the man asks.
“He’s all right,” the Spaniel replies. “He’s all right.”
The Marsh brothers—Isaac, 16; Jacob, Sammy, and Solomon, all 15; and Jeremy, 13—look as if they’ve stepped into the wrong rehearsal when they walk in to sound check. With their cornrows, blue jeans, and sweat shirts, the teenage members of Nu Era are decades younger than any other performers on the D.C. All-Stars bill.
They’ve been singing together formally for only four years, and they’re surrounded by elders who have been harmonizing with one another for 10 times as long. As they wait their turn to go onstage, they toss a basketball around and talk about boxing—in contrast to the older men all around them, who chat about old gigs and Jack Benny.
After donning crisp cream suits, they line up next to the stage. Ventriloquist Ernie Fields, who is the show’s MC, introduces them to the crowd. “These are the boys who are gonna be harassing your windows at night!” he proclaims. When they file onto the stage and take their places in front of the microphones, the audience is unimpressed, assuming that what they’re about to hear is the pop-influenced radio R&B that they’ve come to the Birchmere to escape.
Then Jacob starts singing the first few bars of “Ol’ Man River” in a baritone reminiscent of Paul Robeson’s. His brothers flesh out the five-part harmony, and the crowd erupts into cheers.
They come out a few more times to give tribute to groups gone by, but their most masterful mimicry comes when they perform the songs of the Temptations, as they’ve done before at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library for Black History Month. They replicate Temptations choreography behind their mike stands, and their voices meld together into one cohesive sound. As a result, women too old to be their grandmothers jump out of padded chairs as if they were seeing Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin in the flesh.
The guys do youth-friendly shows at places such as Kings Dominion, but that’s not the norm. “A lot of times we’re performing in front of an older crowd,” says Sammy.
“Usually, after a show, people come up to us and most of the time they’re surprised that we’re all brothers,” says Isaac. “Then they ask us how long we’ve been singing and what made us wanna sing the Temptations.”
The boys’ father and manager, Osiris Marsh, says he pushed his boys to adopt the sound of street-corner crooners and Motown giants when the group formed, four years ago. “I would play a whole lot of Temptations stuff—good music—and direct them in that area,” says Marsh.
The boys say that doing oldies music was a natural choice for them. The five-part harmonies fit with the number of singing brothers, they admire the talent of oldies acts, and they wanted a way to distinguish themselves from the fading boy-band trend.
“We blend together different from any of the artists out there now,” says Jeremy.
The guys’ uniqueness caught the eye of legendary D.C. music maven Max Kidd. Kidd, who managed Marsh when he was in the ’60s group the Stridells, is assisting him and his brother, Charles Redding, with their management. “They’re the best in the country,” Kidd says.
The young men say that they’ve nearly completed work on their first album and are in talks with a major record label. According to the group, the record largely consists of the old sounds they love, but with a modern feel. They have had their three other brothers, of the rap act Trilogy, lay down verses over their classic soul material. “Most of the time, they’re jamming with us when we’re singing,” Isaac says of his hiphop-inclined brothers. “When we do old-school things, they like to put their raps on some of our songs.”
But no matter what modern flourish they may drop in, the brothers of Nu Era want to make sure that their material always captures a certain classic sound.
“The advantage to being able to sing older music is that it’s real singing,” says Jacob. “We’re not putting down artists now, but some artists aren’t singing like they did back then. Also, it’s important to keep that music alive, because a lot of people need it. It’s from the soul, not just trying to get money from the soul.”
Skip Mahoney and the Casuals
The shimmering falsetto of Skip Mahoney is amazingly well-preserved. During his performance of “Bless My Soul,” the tenor sounds just as crisp and loud as he did in the early ’70s—the height of acclaim for his R&B group the Casuals.
Whereas many singers lose their ability to hit the high notes they nailed in younger days, Mahoney’s upper register has yet to fall.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to continue singing in falsetto,” says Mahoney, 56. “As you get older, your voice changes. Things happen—it’s not easy to hit those high notes. The falsetto has a tendency to go away, especially if you’re a smoker or do drugs. I managed to stay away from all of that.”
Mahoney adds that taking an extended leave of absence from performing probably helped save his tone. In the late ’70s, after Mahoney recorded a disco song that he says his record company sat on, he decided to enroll at Lincoln Tech and later became an instructor for the vocational college and the Prince George’s County school system. He reserved his musical work for weekends.
“The way my career went, I had a gap in performance of about 10 years,” he says. “I wasn’t on the road doing hard road tours; I was trying to take care of myself.”
“It’s wear and tear on the vocal cords,” he says of constant performing. “You’re touring, working hard, and when you record songs in a high key, you have to sing them for years and years. After a while it’s hard to do, but people still want to see you.”
“Last year I had a quadruple bypass,” he says. “I was wondering what would happen to my voice. I said, ‘Will it affect my singing? Will my career end?’ They said, ‘No, it will get better. Clogged arteries affect your breathing, your stamina, things like that.’”
“And breathing is 90 percent of singing,” he continues. “You have to control your wind to hit those notes.”
He expected his overall health to improve, but didn’t quite believe his doctors’ claims of a clearer voice. But as he began to heal, he realized his doctors were right.
“I found out that I had more range than I did before I went into the hospital,” he says. “There are songs I sang when I was 21 that I changed over the years—I never lowered the key or anything like that, but there were notes on the record that I couldn’t hit with the same intensity. Now I can hit the notes on the record.”
After he finishes his Birchmere performance, Mahoney says that many of the people in the audience were impressed by his sound. “Some of the people hadn’t heard me since the operation. When they heard me, they were like, ‘Wow, man!’”
When Oriole Reese Palmer sees Diz Russell making his way down the corridor backstage at the Birchmere, he shouts “Moses!” and throws his hands up in mock deference. Russell is the longest-standing member of the Orioles, formed in Baltimore in 1948. Russell replies that Palmer’s mother resembles the biblical figure more closely than he does, and Palmer, feigning anger, gets up and walks away.
Russell, who kept the group going after founder Sonny Til’s death in 1981, has seen a number of members join and leave during his tenure. He left himself for a period in the ’70s to pursue a career in optometry. But he says that one of the reasons that the Orioles, the longest-running group on the Birchmere bill, persist is because they know the value of good-natured ribbing.
“The reason you function so well is because you like each other. You make sacrifices, just like a marriage. You get P.O.’d, and then the next thing, ‘Hey man, can I talk to you?’ And you’re back in love again.”
As Russell recounts his personal history and that of the group, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, he is the focus of even more playful teasing.
“I’ve been singing for 67 years,” Russell explains, noting that his first gig was a contest to win a Thanksgiving turkey when he was just 4 years old.
“Sixty-seven years? That’s gotta be Diz talking ’bout 67 years!” someone yells out from another room.
Russell laughs off the dig. “A lot of groups don’t function. They say, ‘I quit,’ and they’re out the door. They say there’s not enough money. These guys have rooted themselves in the group—and I’m pleased with that.”
The Orioles currently consists of Russell and Palmer, plus newcomers Royal Height and Larry Jordan. “We kid around, tease each other,” Height says. “It’s all in jest, in good faith. It’s basically harmless. Everybody gets poked at—there is no one whipping pole or scapegoat.”
And Height says that, often, behind-the-scenes ribbing makes it to the stage. “One of the things Diz stresses—as opposed to just coming up and performing—we try to add a little humor, make it interesting,” says Height. “It’s a way of drawing the crowd to you. We kind of kid around and joke while we’re performing—it’s a good way to relax the audience and get the support of the audience.”
Tonight, the group will sing Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” as well as their most well-known standard, “Crying in the Chapel,” which Elvis released in 1965, 12 years after the Orioles first sang it.
During a break between their allotted two songs, Russell takes a moment to show the venue hosting the event some appreciation. “I’d like to thank the club for doing this, and for telling this gray-haired fella that he’s black history,” he says, pointing to Palmer, the only silver-haired singer on stage.
“Must be your mama,” Palmer replies.
“Get my knife out of that bag,” Russell says, instructing an imaginary assistant. “There’s gonna be some cuttin’ in here.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.