We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
On Old Branch Avenue in southern Prince George’s County, not far from the fire station and Miller’s liquor store, a man’s wailing voice can be heard seeping out of a small window in an old, wooden-shingled building. In a near-cry like an epiphany from a Baptist church, the words “I’ve been a fool for you” ring clear, accompanied by a tinkling organ and the staccato scratching of a rhythm guitar.
It could be an early-’60s Otis Redding playing a roadhouse gig in Georgia. In fact, the place is the Clinton Inn, where the musicians, an eight-member ensemble called the Hardway Connection, have been performing three sets of old and new soul and blues once a week, with no cover charge, since September of last year.
Robert Owens, Hardway’s 43-year-old leader, calls himself a “late starter.” He’s referring to his having begun playing guitar at age 22—but he could be talking about his group’s recent “overnight” success. Next month, the Hardway Connection will have been together on and off for 20 years, for most of that time as a weekend R&B cover band, albeit one with a long and winding set list mixing historic and of-the-moment black pop. But in the past six months, Hardway has sold some 60,000 copies of its first nationally distributed album, It Must Be Love—which includes more original songs than covers—and found audiences on independent and public radio in places like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
The group’s long journey to its current acclaim has involved a series of left turns, triumphs, and tragedies. The band regularly appeared at bars—the kind of bars never catalogued in newspapers’ entertainment listings—and pressed a mere 500 copies of an album that it sold only at shows. For years, the members of Hardway enjoyed themselves onstage but without musical focus or a clear sense of which audience to target; the members simply entertained their core following while trying to make some extra cash. At one point, the combo even returned to its members’ gospel roots. Under the moniker Renewed Spirit, the group released a single, and from 1988 to 1990, it performed under that name at gospel shows rather than in nightclubs.
Beneath the radar of both corporate radio and the mainstream media, Owens & Co. are aiming their music at the largely over-30, largely African-American “oldies” audience. Since the ’70s, this market, with little music industry fanfare, has supported bluesy soul by the likes of Clarence Carter, Denise LaSalle, and the late Z.Z. Hill. Now this group of listeners is getting behind Hardway. But for the time being, the group still plays only on weekends; Fridays at the Clinton Inn; and Saturdays and Sundays at places like Lamont’s in Pomonkey, Md., the Proctor’s Inn in Waldorf, and various hotels throughout the metropolitan region and the Eastern Shore. The band members continue to hold day jobs, but the tempting out-of-town concert offers and entreaties from record companies are starting to come in, and could someday soon change their lifestyles dramatically.
Both on- and offstage, Owens maintains the disposition of a reserved Southern gentleman, a calm manner that belies his intense love of performing. The guitarist moved to the D.C. area from Virginia Beach in the late ’70s and began playing in a number of different R&B groups. Before long, he, bass player Andre Spears, and electric-piano player Gary Aukard, who had all been playing together on and off in various combos, decided to put together their own band, which they called the Hardway Connection. For its first five years, the band played the Players Lounge in Southeast on Fridays, Gee’s on Rhode Island Avenue NE on Saturdays, and the Matewon in Mason Springs, Md., on Sundays.
The combo really came together, however, when falsetto vocalist Jerome Mackall joined. Owens remembers the late owner of the now-defunct 5 Point in Northeast telling him to come down to the club to meet a singer. Owens vividly recalls walking into the joint and thinking the jukebox was playing: “I heard this guy who sounded so much like Al Green,” he says. It was Mackall, who did a show with the band at the Navy Yard and has stayed on ever since. Mackall, along with Owens, Spears, and Aukard, pens the band’s original compositions.
Although most groups would be satisfied with having just one powerhouse vocalist, Owens has recruited other warblers through the years to give the group’s sound a wider range, which lends a revuelike feel to their live show. Mackall handles most of the ballads and, along with Owens, provides background harmonies, although Floyd “Downhome” Haywood and Toni Love Matthews take the center-stage microphone at times. Haywood’s earthy timbre brings Wilson Pickett songs to life, while Matthews adds a female sensibility to Hardway’s tales of love and heartbreak.
The vocalist who became the group’s “strongest asset,” in the words of organist Raymond Blake, was the late Bobby Brown, a multi-instrumentalist who sang both lead and backing harmony vocals. Brown died in 1996 at the age of 29. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” recalls Owens. “He had just gotten married and got a brand new car and decided to go home to where he’s from. He decided to show off the car and rode somewhere with the wrong guys. He was taking them somewhere, and they went and killed somebody and came back to the car. He said he didn’t want to be a part of it. But it was too late; they took his car and killed him.” The group continues to cope with his loss, both personally and musically. The band members acknowledge that without Brown’s harmonies, they’re often like a basketball all-star squad, with individual vocalists taking turns strutting their stuff, as opposed to being a great team that works together as a unit.
With Brown, the band had stumbled into some good luck in 1994—an experience that helped shape Hardway’s identity. “We were doing a Monday night live thing at WPFW, and we met this woman, Thelma, who wanted us to do a show in Helena, Ark., at Sonny Boy Williamson’s place,” Owens remembers. “Thelma met this lady that she knew who told us about the contest”—the contest being the Blues Foundation’s National Blues Talent Competition. Sixteen groups played; Hardway qualified as one of the top two, and the next day the band went to Memphis and performed in the finals and won the award. Then the calls started coming in: Hardway hosted the W.C. Handy Awards show with Ruth Brown and Rufus Thomas in 1995 in Memphis. “We opened up, and every now and then, Ruth would have one of our singers come out and help her,” says Owens. At the closing of the show, Dr. John brought Mackall and Haywood out to sing “I Got My Mojo Working” with him and Brown.
Winning the award inspired the band to refine its musical mission. “It was a learning experience for the whole group,” Owens says. “Before that, we were playing blues music and soul music, but we were keeping up with what the kids were playing. We were always learning that. We made sure we always knew the new hit record.” But the band began spending a lot of time in Memphis between 1994 and 1997. “Down there, [we were] learning the history of the blues, seeing all these blues clubs, seeing all these blues acts,” Owens says. “That gave me an idea. I found out it was confusing for people with our shows down there. They were wondering whether we were a hiphop group or a go-go group or a blues group.” Owens told the members that they were henceforth going to play the blues, oldies, and soul music. “That’s where our strong point is; that’s where we’re making money. It’s keeping us working. Let’s let the other stuff go. We might dabble in it to play the cabarets, and I’ll still listen to see what the household song is that everybody’s dancing to.”
Now, it happens, some people are starting to dance to the Hardway Connection’s CD. With a full, lush sound cultivated by engineer Ray Tilkens at Ambient Recording in Beltsville, the album showcases a more confident band in its maturity. Mackall’s voice soars on the gorgeous title track, captures the slow-burning fervor of Al Green on “Long Way Back,” and dispenses the melancholy passion of Otis Redding on “Somebody.” Owens imbues the band’s update of “Too Short” with a mixture of down-home humor and a vocal cadence that verges on hiphop. The rhythm section, powered by the group’s most recent addition, drummer Teddy Richardson, brings the ongoing vitality of Stax and Hi Records R&B to both originals like “Funk and Blues” and covers like “Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home.” Live, the band mixes these cuts with its more carefully selected repertoire of classic ’60s and ’70s soul while staying true to what it picked up in Memphis. As Owens told his compatriots, “We’ll play the blues and the oldies, but we’ll try to give it a ’90s-type feel and sound.” CP
The Hardway Connection performs Friday, July 9, at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.