It’s Sunday night, and the faithful have gathered from all over the metropolitan area, crowding the close rows of white-clothed tables that fill the NCO club at Bolling Air Force Base. Willie Bennet, unofficial manager of United Performing Artists of the Metropolitan Area (UPAMA), anxiously paces the dimly lit room. The audience of about 300 includes middle-aged couples holding hands, unattached dapper men, well-groomed single mothers out on the town, one or two elderly ladies with canes, and one blue-jeaned young man who must have grooved on his parent’s albums and never forgotten the feeling. The challenge for the evening’s performersall local soul survivorsis to re-create the neon magic of a city street corner most baby boomers abandoned years ago.
The first half of the “D.C. Review” spotlights six competent acts whose circumstances never produced a major recording contract; while they perform, the tour-savvy veterans who have serenaded thousands briefly huddle in a side room. Once-familiar rivals embrace, tease, and admire, none with more authority than Skip Mahoaney of the Casuals; Mahoaney is arguably the best remembered of Washington’s classic soul balladeers.
The original CasualsSkip Mahoaney, George Norris, Billy Jones, and Roger Chapmanare here, as is George Spann, the last original member of the Dynamic Superiors, whose 1974 hit “Shoe Shoe Shine” became part of Motown history. The Choice Four, who scored for RCA in 1975 with their remake of the Marvelettes’ “When You’re Young and in Love,” are in the house as well, along with Al Johnson, lead singer and driving force behind the Unifics.
Even James Purdie makes a surprise appearance. A self-taught musician, composer, and producer, Purdie shared credit with Mahoaney on almost all the Casuals’ recordings. Indeed, Purdie’s slow-burning chords and unexpected hooks trademarked the Casuals’ sound every bit as much as Mahoaney’s shimmering first tenor. Purdie speaks to Mahoaney regularly by phone, but he has not heard the Casuals perform in over 20 years. Purdie is a local who, like Mahoaney, bears the indelible birthmark of D.C.’s streets and alleyways.
But before Purdie, before the Casuals, before any thought of performing, there was the music, the sounds that raced through the head of a chubby kid named Skip. He grew up in a rented row house near 13th and Harvard and often lay in his bedroom listening to the upbeat patter of WOL disc jockeys Chuck McCool and Mr. C. Sometimes he switched allegiance to Charlie Neal or Terrible Turk on rival station WOOK. In those days, the early ’60s, the choice of stations was no small matter. Radio was the looking glass through which young Washingtonians outfitted themselves for a brave new world.
“I guess you could say I was a radio baby,” Mahoaney recalls. “I always kept the radio on, right by my bed.” Alone in his room, he often mimicked the voices he heard, softly pouring his private visions of stardom into an imaginary microphone. But he was too shy to dream out loud.
The city was on the cusp of a dream of its own. During the balmy October of 1964, adult Washingtonians were aglow. D.C. residents had finally been granted the right to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Barbershops sizzled with speculative talk about local autonomy and an elected mayor some day. But for Mahoaney and his buddies, it was the prospect of a weekend party that made the city jump.
It was a familiar game, following a tip to some rumored gathering on such-and-such street and then searching for clues: a crowd hunkering outside a porch stoop, a red light glowing in an apartment window, the thump of music seeping from a basement. Sooner or later they struck gold, knocking on the door and politely passing the adults playing tonk in the kitchen before following the beat back into some darkened room where scandalous fast dances like the Dog or the Birdland, spiked punch, and maybe even a slobbered kiss beckoned.
On one particular October weekend, a classmate of Mahoaney’s was throwing a birthday bash. Sporting the requisite Kool caps, khaki pants, Ban-Lon shirts, and Chuck Taylor high-tops, Mahoaney, Norris, and others elected to first pool their resources and purchase a cold bottle of Thunderbird. Only 14, they eventually arrived at their destination on wobbly legs and with voices that were just a little too loud; within 15 minutes, the birthday girl’s parents had shown them the door. Standing on a nearby corner, comically arguing about their next move, a car rolled bya Thunderbird no lessand stopped at a red light. D.C. native Billy Stewart’s hit “I Do Love You” blared from the radio.
It was one of Mahoaney’s favorite new songs, and he knew every word. In that moment of easy talk and laughter, an inebriated Mahoaney forgot he was no longer alone in his room and began to sing along, matching Stewart’s rapid-fire falsetto note for note. “I do love you/Oh, I love you so my-a love/My, my, my bay-bee/Yeah-ee, yeah-ee, yeah!” As the car pulled away, Mahoaney suddenly realized that his friends had stopped laughing, or talking, or doing anything. Embarrassed, he too grew quiet, but it was too late.
“They said, ‘Keep on going, man. Keep on going,’” Mahoaney recalls intently. “So I did.” Mahoaney pulled song after song from his private radio repertoire. “Everyone kept saying, ‘It sounds good….It sounds good.’ They kept asking me to do another. Then they joined in, adding background. We didn’t really know what we were doing. No harmony or nothing, just singing, man,” he adds, his voice brimming with soft recollection. All night long, the 14-year-old Mahoaney cradled the notes and milked the lyrics for all they were worth. No longer reticent, soon he began to regularly gather Norris and his other friends on the playground during recess. Fed by Mahoaney’s naked enthusiasm, they sang their hearts out.
It’s already 10 p.m. at the NCO club, and the three main acts have yet to appear. A few couples shift audibly in their seats. The popcorn shirts, revealing hot pants, and tight jumpsuits have been tucked away for years: Tomorrow is a workday, and obligations await.
Skip Mahoaney and the Casuals are still dressed in their street clothes; they know from the look of things that there will be plenty of time for them to change. But when they do, they will come out creased and sharp. Through all the early talent shows and club dates, Mahoaney preached that a professional look would put both the crowd and the other performers on notice that the Casuals were about something. Tonight will be no different.
Mahoaney’s seriousness about his craftas much as his skillfirst attracted the attention of his boyhood community. But even when he was a kid, his voice set him apart from those around him. Mahoaney, the dark-skinned, heavy kid with the big head and the wide eyes, could not only sing but sing with adult conviction. His voice could sail gently like Curtis Mayfield’s or ascend rapidly like that of the O’Jays’ tenor, Billy Powell. “I was still afraid to lead,” Mahoaney remembers. “Mostly, I just did the top notes and background. People started noticing me.”
An older neighborhood tough guy named Jabbo started asking around. “I’m looking for this chubby kid named Skip,” he told everybody. Mahoaney got word and began hiding out, figuring he was about to get jumped. Then, one afternoon after school, Jabbo suddenly appeared. “You Skip?” he asked in a rich baritone. Mahoaney turned to run away, but he found himself cornered in the playground. “Yeah,” he answered slowly, mustering his deepest voice.
“I hear you blow,” Jabbo continued. Mahoaney had never heard the term before and assumed it had something to do with the drugs beginning to appear in the community. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he bravely told Jabbo, all the while searching for an exit. “Chirp,” the older man persisted. Again, Mahoaney appeared dumbfounded and anxious to get away. “Sing,” Jabbo finally translated. “I hear you sing.”
Jabbo invited Mahoaney to attend a rehearsal with a group that met regularly in his parents’ basement. Equipped with only a skeleton band but with years of doo-wop practice, Jabbo and the others taught Mahoaney harmony. “I couldn’t believe it. They sounded just like the stuff on the radio,” he recalls. They showed him to the next level, a place where Mahoaney had to learn to project his talent onto a musical canvas crowded with other singershe had to discover how to make the voices around him amplify his own.
At Mahoaney’s suggestion, the singers decided to call themselves the Casuals after a name he had heard somewhere, perhaps attached to a Dallas trio that had received significant airplay in 1958. “I don’t really know where I got it from. I just thought it sounded cool,” Mahoaney reflects. Unfortunately, Vietnam, heroin, and jail soon evaporated the older boys’ ambitions, but Mahoaney eagerly carried the lessons he had learned back to his friends at the playground. They diligently practiced one Temptations song, “I Love You So,” and began singing regularly outside the laundromat at 11th and Lamont Streets.
Sometimes, as Mahoaney chirped his songs in front of the laundromat, his stepfather would pass by, coming home after long hours at work. Mahoaney’s biological dad had left when Skip was still little, and his mother had eventually married the solid veteran Mahoaney still calls “Pops.” Pops adopted him and his two older siblings, and then he and their mother had two more kids, a boy and a girl. Whenever Pops found Mahoaney singing well into dinner time, he would always say the same thing, with pride hidden just behind his army face: “Boy, you better get on home.”
While a freshman at Cardozo High School, Mahoaney made the football team. After a few weeks of practice, he pulled a muscle in the first scrimmage game. The coach ordered him to visit a doctor. Instead, Mahoaney boarded the bus and traveled to the Howard Theater, off 7th Street. When he was a young boy, his mother had taken him there many times by streetcar to hear star acts like Jackie Wilson.
Catching the matinee show alone, Mahoaney watched the Drifters perform from a seat in the rear. As he rode the rhythmic pull of the group’s sound, he forgot about the pain in his leg, about the thrill of being on the football team, even about the distance between the stage and his seat. “Something came over me,” he says. “I watched them. I listened to their voices. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Men rarely manage to unwrap their childhood dreams. Mahoaney would get his wish to perform at the Howard, but the next step would have to wait. At the end of the school year, his parents decided to leave the city altogether. Making full use of the GI Bill, they purchased a detached ’50s-style one-story brick house with a full basement in an all-white enclave called Pepper Mill Village in Seat Pleasant, Md. “Integration was starting to catch on,” Mahoaney explains. “Pops wanted a better life for us kids.”
But in the summer of 1965, Pops’ decision to test Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of one America would not go unchallenged. Within two months, the neighbors on both sides of the new house had planted “For Sale” signsa much kinder greeting than the “Niggers Go Home” placards adorning the front yards of several others. “It was like a Leave It to Beaver world,” Mahoaney muses softly. “I hated moving. No one wanted us out there. People used to sic their dogs on me and my brothers all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I had to jump on the top of cars.”
Mahoaney attended Central High in Maryland, but on weekends he traveled back to the streets of D.C., staying with an older sister in Southeast. From there, he always ventured over to the old neighborhood. He missed familiar tonesthe little kids at play, the whispering girls, the barbershop bravado, the echo of the laundromat. But mostly, as he slept beside his radio, he longed for the ginger-sweet sound that he and his friends had once made.
It is 10:45 before the Choice Four glide into the colored spotlights at the NCO club. Each singer wears a tailored two-piece suit ablaze in the bold custom colors of yesterday. The quartet grinds in perfect unison, as though one horny head commanded all of the members’ obedient limbs. As the Choice Four gyrate through their steps, Purdie recalls that they and the Casuals often worked as opening acts at Constitution Hall, Loew’s, and the Warner back in the early ’70s. Like all friendly competitors, each group hoped that both would make it, but only if the other arrived last.
Purdie reflects, “Everybody said the Choice Four always had the steps. The Casuals had some moves, but never like them.” Indeed, it was Mahoaney’s falsetto that lifted the Casuals above the crowd. As UPAMA’s Bennet notes, “In the industry, Baltimore was usually known for first tenors: Frankie of the Spindles, Billy Herndon with the Whatnauts, and, of course, Marvin with the Softones. Skip’s tenor helped put D.C. on the map.”
In the late ’60s, area high schools’ talent shows overshadowed their homecomings as the big event. For weeks, acts practiced in private, perfected their looks, guarded their repertoires, and slyly investigated the competition. Mahoaney quickly assembled a new group of Casuals and entered Central High’s competition. An instrumental combo consisting of five white guys, all juniors, had won the throw-down two years running. All five had once lived in Anacostia, and they still paraded the uniform of the cityChuck Taylors, brown khakis, and Peters jacketsas they rammed their instrumental R&B covers down Central’s awe-struck throats. They finished first once again, but the Casuals, the only black act to enter the competition, came in a surprisingly close second.
Like stallions after a hard-fought race, the opponents silently circled one another, impressed with the other’s talent. They soon agreed to couple forces, practicing together in one of the white band member’s garage. “The guy’s parents would come out and just watch us sometimes,” Mahoaney remembers. “They couldn’t get over five black guys just singing in their garage. It was like the Temptations had come to town.” The two groups, now practically one, began performing at local drive-ins, in places like Central Avenue, Palmer Park, and Oxon Hill. As Mahoaney recalls, “We were the only black vocal group with a white band. It was different. We even started doing colleges.”
By Mahoaney’s senior year, the instrumental band members had all graduated and their families had moved much further out into the suburbs. Central High, like the neighborhoods that fed it, turned black almost overnight. Many District residents, some fleeing tight, rented row houses, traded the hot intimacy of the city for suddenly vacant suburban tract houses with modest driveways.
Graduation and the draft had altered the Casuals as well. While holding down his first real day job, Mahoaney was once again standing practically alone on feet deemed too flat for active military service. He quickly recruited a new band, including Central’s young, self-taught bassist, Ira Watson, who would later help deliver the burn on the group’s first recording. Watson, whose voice still conveys his youthful infatuation, readily acknowledges his musical debt to Mahoaney: “I used to follow him around all the time in high school. He kept telling me, ‘I could make it.’ He was just so good.”
In order to properly reconstruct his supporting vocal cast, Mahoaney reached back to D.C., luring George Norris from the original street corner and Roger Chapman and Mahoaney’s cousin, Billy Jones, from Spingarn High. Together, these four, who would later record the group’s first album and be forever known as the “original Casuals,” practiced in Mahoaney’s basement. In 1969, Mahoaney met the last missing piece: James Purdie, the overweight, visually impaired pianist and drummer who wanted to break out as much as, if not more than, Mahoaney did. As Mahoaney remembers, “Purdie was obsessed with it. He was just so gifted. He could play.”
Purdie was all of 17 when he met Mahoaney. He had already dropped out of high school after ninth grade, when the taunts of his classmates and the difficulties of school mainstreaming had proved to be too much. Building on childhood piano lessons, Purdie soon conquered the keyboard and a neighbor’s old drum set.
One winter afternoon, Purdie heard the Casuals performing at an area talent show. He instantly recognized the commercial potential in Mahoaney’s honeyed delivery and told Wayne Colbert, the band’s talented young guitarist, that he wanted in. Purdie formally auditioned for Mahoaney and Jones at Kelly Miller Junior High, whose administration had granted Purdie free use of the school’s piano. Mahoaney, a few years Purdie’s senior, quickly looked past the watery eyes and frumpy clothes of the intense young man and heard something of his own yearnings pouring forth from Purdie’s fingers. Soon, the two were speaking for hours on the telephone, swapping ideas, testing musical suppositions, and interlocking dreams.
After the Casuals rehearsed, Purdie and Mahoaney would stay behind in the basement and attempt to fashion their own radio music. Mahoaney would hum a basic melody, and then Purdie would flesh it out, providing chords and depth. Neither could read music, but both could produce it.
Finally, in late 1970, the Casuals entered the prestigious, winner-take-all All City Talent Show, which was being held at Hine Junior High on Capitol Hill. Carroll Hynson, the same “Mr. C” Mahoaney had followed for years on WOL, served as the master of ceremonies. Mahoaney had heard rumors of Mr. C’s far-reaching industry connections.
The Casuals did a knockout version of the Van Dykes’ 1966 hit “Never Let Me Go.” With Purdie on keyboard and Watson on bass, Mahoaney sang falsetto lead. He quickly claimed the song as his own, branding each and every note, while Chapman, Norris, and Jones blanketed him in harmony. After the last act, with Mr. C standing practically beside them, the Casuals settled offstage while the judges conferred. As Mr. C summoned the top finishers in ascending order, the Casuals heaved a silent prayer. Second place was announced, and their name had not yet been called.
The Casuals secured the $100 top prize and an impressive trophy, and Mr. C personally congratulated them backstage, offering to manage their career. Mahoaney was thunderstruck. Within weeks, the group had chic new uniforms, promotional photographs, and bookings at hot local clubs like the Rand and the Room.
Local audiences saw themselves in the Casuals’ hot jumpsuits, bold platform shoes, deep sideburns, and funky medallions. There was something distinctly D.C. about their smoky flavor and smooth, Southern grace. Something in their voices and their songs said that they had tasted the hot sauce at Wings ‘n’ Things and the spicy crabs at the Shrimp Boat, and that they, too, had ridden the 14th Street bus and attended the city’s crowded schools. They could name the dances, do the bop, and slur their vowels in classic D.C. style.
The Casuals understood the do-your-thing language permeating the District as home rule teased from a distance. Steadily, word of their prowess circulated. In each club, as Mahoaney hit note after impossible note, it became clear that the Casuals understood sacrifice and tender feelings. In the minds of their fans, they deserved to rise, because their success carried home-bred souvenirs.
Under Mr. C’s direction, the group opened at the Warner for the Moments, whose No. 1 hit “Love on a Two-Way Street” seared red-hot across the nation. At the Baltimore Civic Center, they prepped the crowd while Joe Frazier and the Knockouts, Archie Bell and the Drells, the Emotions, and Stevie Wonder waited their turns. For the next two years, the Casuals savored the live performances and their growing bond with audiences all over the region. A few people began recognizing them on the street, and the money was good. Still, Mahoaney was restless. He wanted to record.
Finally, Mr. C agreed to back a session date. The Casuals and the band practiced and re-practiced a midtempo ballad Mahoaney had composed. But it turned out that the Fuzz, a female trio from D.C. that Mahoaney had introduced to Mr. C, ended up with the Casuals’ studio slot. The song the Fuzz recorded, “I Love You for All Seasons,” would sell more than 1 million copies. In the rush of the trio’s success, the Casuals were pushed aside. For a time, Mahoaney served as the Fuzz’s road manager, but in 1972 the Casuals once again found themselves standing alone in a familiar basement.
They continued to rehearse in the evenings after leaving their day jobs, while Mahoaney booked a few local gigs for the act. But he soon tired of singing somebody else’s songs. One night, after an unusually late practice, lead guitarist Colbert started playing around with a short hook that had seemingly sprung out of the air. Mahoaney immediately picked it up and stretched the phrase with an elaborate hum. Purdie then moved to the keyboard, trying first one chord and then another until he, too, had uncovered the nugget’s source. While the band explored the particulars, Mahoaney produced a lyrical poem he had penned in his journal.
Together, Purdie and Mahoaney pulled and prodded, attempted and abandoned, restored and revived, until they had it. “I Need Your Love,” a plaintive ballad bemoaning unrequited love, would become the group’s signature recording. From the opening riff to the spoken middle to the final, heartfelt plea, this was a sound that belonged on the radio. According to Purdie, “We did it in just a couple of days. We felt real good about it, and Skip’s mom was so proud.”
Possessed, the duo soon composed more songs, including “Struggling Man” and “Your Funny Moods.” A routine emerged. First, the Casuals drilled the new material, and then Purdie and Mahoaney mined for more. As Purdie remembers, “We couldn’t wait to get together and write, sing, play with chords. Write, talk, and sing.” By early 1973, the songs were flowing nicely, but there was no recording contract in sight. Still, the groove proved too strong to be contained much longer. The Casuals had finally outgrown Mahoaney’s basement.
It is well past 11 before the next-to-last act begins its first song at the NCO club. The crowd has thinned to less than half its original size. The bartender announces the final round. Confidently, the Dynamic Superiors, once led by the supremely talented and flamboyantly gay Tony Washington, strut onto the stage.
By the mid-’70s, D.C. acts that had been eclipsed by the shadow of the Philadelphia International sound seemed poised to exert their own influence. In late 1972, Purdie had learned of an enterprising African-American named R. Jose Williams who owned both a fledgling local record label, D.C. International, and a small studio off George Avenue in Silver Spring. The Casuals auditioned. Busy working on two other promising local acts, the Summits and Father’s Children, Williams asked them to return in six months.
During that time, Mahoaney and Purdie wrote four more songs, with some assistance from Watson, the now accomplished bassist from Central High. Six months later to the day, the group returned to D.C. International and performed all seven of the songs that later make up first album. Williams, chasing his own dream of competing with the commercially successful Philly sound, quickly signed the group to a contract.
The Casuals worked painstakingly to immortalize on vinyl the years of sweating it out in the basement. In late 1973, five years after Mahoaney’s high-school graduation and nine years after that timely stoplight, the Casuals recorded their first 45, “Your Funny Moods,” backed with “Struggling Man.”
“It was such an unbelievable feeling,” Purdie remembers. Reflecting on his compositions, he adds, “I couldn’t believe all this music was coming out of me.” Everything appeared aligned, as though the universe had finally opened a portal to the group. Mahoaney quit his day job and prepared for liftoff, unaware that managerial decisions were about to destroy the group.
Purdie still traces the split to a name change. Without Mahoaney’s knowledge, D.C. International listed the group as “Skip Mahoaney and the Casuals” on the 45 release. Mahoaney says that when he first learned of the new name he vigorously protested. The act had always been simply “the Casuals,” with no top line for any one performer. That had always been their style. But Williams told him that the name “Casuals” was already taken. The only way to retain it was to put Mahoaney first.
Mahoaney acknowledges that the new moniker caused problems within the group, but he still believes that they bridged that particular chasm. “At first, everybody was real quiet, but we talked it out. We all wanted to keep the name ‘Casuals,’ and that was the only way.” Besides, the single “Your Funny Moods” quickly became a regional hit, rising on the shoulders of local airplay to No. 80 on Billboard’s national R&B chart. The group was now actually inside the radio, as D.C. and Baltimore stations placed the song in heavy rotation. Robert Brown, an aspiring promoter, had begun booking the Casuals in area clubs. The group had returned to the studio to record a full album. In Mahoaney’s mind, it was not the name change but the dagger of success that was to rip the group apart.
Mahoaney wanted to ride the recordings as far as they would go. While he enjoyed performing locally, he wanted to move into a wider arena while there was still time. Everybody said he needed a big agency if the group was ever to tour cities beyond D.C. Mahoaney met a roadie named Ross who had worked with the Manhattans; Ross drove him around town in a white Cadillac, introducing him to important faces. Ross then took Mahoaney to New York, the real deal. There, partially blinded by all the glitter, Mahoaney met with booking agents who referred him to a seasoned management rep named Fontana, who offered to handle the act.
Elated, Mahoaney phoned Chapman, Norris, and Jones, who agreed to travel to New York to sign the papers. But when crunch time arrived, only Jones showed, and he refused to sign.
“I think they thought it was just moving too fast. Here I was, riding around in Ross’ fancy Caddy, always talking about New York. I just think everyone got a little afraid,” says Mahoaney. With his voice still showing the bruise, Mahoaney adds, “Some of the guys thought I was getting obsessed. In their eyes, I was definitely the bad guy, but I figured, what did we have to lose?”
It would be more than five years before they spoke again. When D.C. International finally released the group’s album in the winter of 1974, the company failed even to list the individual names of the Casuals anywhere on the jacket. The breakup appeared irreparable. As Mahoaney reflects, “Because there was no picture of us on the album, the guys never really had any proof to show their kids that they were even in the group.”
As Purdie recalls, “It was a
hard time for Skip. He missed the guys. They were his friends, his
family. But we had to go on.” Shortly after the album’s debut, while performing live on a local television
show, Mahoaney had to employ
stand-ins to lip-sync the background vocals to “I Need Your Love.” The voices still belonged to Mahoaney, Chapman, Norris, and Jones, but
the Casuals had quickly become somebody else.
At midnight, the NCO club audience is down to a few dozen. The bar is closed, and the waitress has exited for the night. Only the devoted remain to hear the announcer finally introduce the last act. “And now,” he declares, his voice reaching for the proper inflection. “Now, what you’ve all been waiting for. Ladies and gents, the stars of the show…” He pauses slightly, and then almost whispers: “Washington’s best kept secret.” Booming now, he turns and points one arm toward the darkened stage. “D.C.’s own. The one and only, Skip Mahoaney and the Casuals!”
After the band volleys a few ceremonial passes, Mahoaney, Chapman, Norris, and Jones spring from a side curtain and race into the waiting floodlights. They wear bright cherry-red collarless shirts and straight-leg pants, with leather shoes topped with thick, gold braids. The flagrant Afros have been replaced by cropped haircuts or bald heads. Still, something about their limber stride and easy rapport invokes yesteryear. As the four men greet the audience with wide, triumphant grins, it appears, at least for the moment, as though time has declared a holiday.
The band leaps into a rousing rendition of McFadden and Whitehead’s 1979 hit, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” Mahoaney, commanding the lead microphone, quickly challenges the assembled: “If you’ve ever been held down before, then I know you refuse to be held down anymore.” The Casuals, arms beginning to spin like windmills, slide their hips in perfect one-two time, while vigorously trumpeting the chorus. “Ain’t no stopping us now/We got the groove!” The crowd finger-pops its approval. As the band pumps the rhythm and the vocals stroke the beat”no stopping, no stopping”the revival meeting at the NCO club takes hold. Purdie, seated in the rear of the room, listens with a critical ear, but the rapid tapping of his feet conveys the real story. “Over 20 years,” he muses. “I haven’t heard them in over 20 years. Man, they sound good.”
Mahoaney, always shorter and rounder than the others, still has full cheeks, a chiseled lower lip, and a pronounced forehead made even larger by his receding widow’s peak. The faces of the Casuals are all flushed with effort and recollection. Although Chapman, Norris, and Jones dabbled in music shortly after the group’s breakup, they were never able to duplicate the early magic.
Mahoaney, too, found the path after the split riddled with mixed blessings. For a while, he and Purdie moved on together. The two left D.C. International and formed a new production company with a third partner, David Carpin, a New York lawyer looking to capitalize on the nation’s ongoing infatuation with soul. Mahoaney recruited a new set of Casuals drawn from the old talent shows and signed a recording contract with Nashboro, a rising gospel label anxious to expand its reach.
With Purdie serving as executive producer, Skip Mahoaney and the Casuals released their second album, Land of Love, in 1976. The LP pulled respectable numbers, and two songs, “Where Ever You Go” and “Bless My Soul,” both registered on the charts, with the latter peaking at No. 40. Mahoaney and the group began a national tour, finally performing in the cities he had longed to play: New York, Detroit, Los Angeles. Royalty payments and concert fees filled his pockets for a time. He married, purchased a spacious home in Aspen Hill, Md., and bought an aqua blue Lincoln Mark IV, with matching interior. “The only one like it in town,” he remembers with obvious relish.
Things flowed nicely, and Mahoaney began planning a third album. But then Nashboro abruptly exited the soul businessthe rise of disco and synthesizers had eliminated the industry’s need for pure tenors like Mahoaney. The established labels rejected his overtures for a new deal. Booking dates faded. The ensuing pressure tore apart the production company. Purdie and Carpin went on to produce “Bustin’ Loose,” a funky No. 1 hit for D.C. go-go king Chuck Brown of the Soul Searchers. Mahoaneybankrupt, divorced, and temporarily estranged from Purdiereturned to his parents’ house. He managed to retain the treasured automobile, but one night his ex-wife used her spare keys to drive it away as well.
By 1978, Mahoaney had come to believe that he had forever lost his ties to the radio. He was now reduced to walking and taking the bus, and word quickly spread about his downfall. “In D.C., if you’re known and then don’t make it, it’s like everybody can kick you as you’re coming down,” Mahoaney remarks. “One time, I took a job working temporary in a warehouse. This guy asks me, ‘Hey, aren’t you Skip Mahoaney? Man, what you doing here?’ I told him I was trying to make a living just like he was.”
“Another time, a few years later,” he continues, “I was standing in a park. I heard these guys talking. They were mentioning all these groups. My name came up. One guy asked, ‘What ever happened to Skip Mahoaney?’ Then the other guy said, ‘Oh man, he died. Yeah, he OD’d in ’78, ’79. That was a singing mahfucka.’”
“I couldn’t believe it. They thought I was dead. I told them I was Skip, and I wasn’t dead. But they wouldn’t believe me,” he says with a shake of the head.
Purdie eventually phoned Mahoaney in the depths of his despair and invited him to come out to Hollywood; Purdie was trying his hand at A&R for Source Records. The California deal fizzled, but Purdie then produced Mahoaney’s first and only solo release, a 1979 disco track titled “Janice” for Salsoul Records. By the time Salsoul distributed the recording in 1981, disco had run its course, and the careers of both Mahoaney and Purdie vanished with it.
Mahoaney scrambled to sustain himself. He teamed up with Thomas Crosby, a local guitarist who had played on “Land of Love,” and joined an integrated band called Third Generation. The group soon became a hot item on the local hotel circuit, performing in lounges hungry for live music. Mahoaney notes, “I was working steady. Even had a new car, a nice 1975 bronze Thunderbird.” Occasionally, faces from the old neighborhood would recognize Mahoaney in a hotel lobby or wedding party. They often requested that he sing one of the cherished songs from the old days, but Mahoaney always refused. He was convinced the world had outgrown his distinct
brand of soul. “I stuck to doing contemporary covers of Top 40 stuffLionel Ritchie, James Ingram.
You should have heard my ‘Thriller.’
I did the meanest Michael Jackson
on the circuit.”
For many people, the drop from impressive venues to smoke-filled lounges would have been unbearable. But Mahoaney reasoned that things could always be worse. Besides, he was singing again. Third Generation received regular bookings for five years, but by 1987 business had slowed throughout the region. The circuit ground to a halt.
Mahoaney finally shelved his singing ambitions and enrolled at Lincoln Tech, obtaining a degree in heating and refrigeration. “I graduated at the top of the class and was the first to get a job,” Mahoaney boasts. He took up privately tutoring other students in his basement, and he discovered that he had a knack for imparting knowledge, so he elected to teach full-time. “Instead of selling songs, I sell ideas,” he says of his current position as a vocational high-school instructor.
In 1990, Mahoaney was invited to join resurgent local Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers the Orioles. At last, he had returned to his doo-wop roots. Then, in 1993, Robert Brown, the Casuals’ former manager, phoned Mahoaney and urged him to reassemble the old group. The national rediscovery of “old school” sounds and the local rise of ballad-heavy radio stations suggested that the time was ripe for a comeback. First, Mahoaney contacted his cousin, Jones, who had never lost his passion for singing. The entire group then met at Mahoaney’s house.
As Mahoaney tells it, “Me and the guys had already started talking from time to time. I would run into them on occasion. The feud was over; it had been too many years. We got together and talked about everything. We aired our grievances. They said I left, and I told them I felt I was abandoned.
“You know, it’s funny. After it was all out, we just started singing again, right here, like nothing had happened. We always could just get together and sing all night.”
By 1994, Skip Mahoney (he had decided to drop the second “a” from his stage name) and the Casuals had opened locally for the Bar-Kays and performed at Magic FM and WOL’s wildly popular Stone Soul Picnic retro festival. The group even released a new CD, Now and Then, which featured four new songs and six classics, including their only recording of “Never Let Me Go,” the song that had won them the 1970 All City Talent Show.
Back onstage, sweat begins to stream down Mahoaney’s face as he completes the second of the four songs the group will perform at the NCO club. Jones smoothly handles lead on a driving Philadelphia International hit, “The Love I Lost,” a gold record for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. With Mahoaney tackling the high end and Norris and Chapman bringing up the middle and bass, it feels like the old days again. With their voices amplifying one another, their bodies locked in step, you can almost see in their eyes postcards from the past: the laundromat, the neighborhood, the city as it was.
Mahoaney and the Casuals now move into “I Need Your Love.” With his swinging arms serving as an external pump feeding a private fire, Mahoaney’s falsetto is still strong and clear, but the colors glow deeper than before. No longer the innocent singing about the idea of love, now he understands its cost.
I need your love
More than before
Caressing the microphone, perhaps drunk with the wine of remembrance, Mahoaney steps out off the stage and moves closer to the small crowd beaming in soulful appreciation.
More, more than before.
His arms stop their rhythm, and he reaches toward the audience. “Can I reminisce a while?” he asks, and not even waiting for a response, repeats himself. “I said, can I reminisce awhile?” While Mahoaney’s silky voice moves effortlessly up and down the scale, the young man at the next table implores loudly, “Sing your song, man. Sing your song.”
Inching back toward the stage, his forehead dripping, Mahoaney appears to look out past the empty tables, past the two ladies who have suddenly paused at the exit, coats in hand, and turned back toward the stage. He squeezes the air with both hands nownot as though it were a woman but rather a lifetimehis arms seeming to lift his voice up and over an unseen barrier, allowing it to fly steadily to peak power before landing softly on the other side. The Casuals beam. Mahoaney’s still-masterful control surprises even Purdie, who privately feared that time had diminished Mahoaney’s gift. The spotlight is Mahoaney’s now.
In a society that often measures victory by the number of possessions one drags to the finish line, how do you fairly assess the runner who travels lightly, carrying little more than a satchel full of memories and a heavenly voice on his feverish pursuit?
“I used to think I was a failure,” Mahoaney admits. “We never did get a gold record. I wasn’t a Hollywood success. Some people tell me it wasn’t fair. They ask, ‘Why didn’t you make it?’” After a loud silence, Mahoaney continues. “But I learned lessons that helped me. I became educated in life. I’m blessed to still be able to walk out onstage and perform, and sing it the right way like when I was young.”
Mahoaney is especially pleased that the original Casuals are with him. “I feel like I got a chance to show them what they missed out there. I told them that now they get to live in the house that they helped build. I think they thought I was just a fast talker, but I wasn’t so crazy after all,” he notes fondly.
The group now regularly performs with acts it once could only admire on the radio. Only now, when they appear with the Chi-Lites or the Delfonics, it is Skip Mahoaney and the Casuals who receive the loudest ovation. While the other tenors try to conceal their weakened voices, Skip Mahoaney can still blow.CP