Ques: Can you tell us some of the good things that happened to you. People or places that stick out in your mind. A certain person who was extra kind to you or someone who went out of their way Are you married and have children? Was you wife a fan? How did you meet? (Donna Whitmore —AKA the DooWop Lady)
Ans: I think the best thing that happened to the Four Fellows was our manger, Philip Rose. During a time when managers and record companies were notorious for ripping off artists, Phil Rose was a totally honest man. While on tour I used to send my money back to Phil to hold for me. One time I even sent 200 dollars, in cash, through the regular mail. Phil was very upset that I did that, arguing that it was thoughtless; the money could have easily been lost or stolen. At the same time, I believe Phil felt good about it for, even though I should have exercised better sense, by sending my money to him I was demonstrating the complete trust I had in him. He gave me back every cent – which is impressive considering the fact that, Phil Rose never took a commission of any of the money we made. Never.
Although Phil would probably never mentioned it, I firmly believe he spent more money on the Four Fellows than he made. For example, while we were on tour I developed a bone infection in the large toe on my right foot and had to be flown back to New York. I was deposited in Mount Sinai Hospital where part of the toe was removed.. Phil paid my entire hospital bill. I was hospitalized again in January of 1956, and again Phil paid my entire hospital bill, Phil never asked to be paid back.
My complete trust in Phil Rose was shared by the other fellows in the group. we all felt that Phil was a totally honest man. Unfortunately, we took it for granted and never appreciate it.
Musically, Phil, like the late Gordon Payne, was highly intuitive. He seemed to me to have a sixth sense of what was good and, most of all, what would sell. As I describe in my book, the very instant Phil heard "Soldier Boy," he knew it was going to be a hit, even though David Jones originally sang it to him – not me. And he knew right away that I should be the one to sing it, even though I didn’t want to, and did my best to discourage him from wanting me to. You know the rest of the story.
Phil did the same with Vince Martin. Vince came to Phil’s Office with a friend who had a much better voice. The guy sounded, to me, like Vic Damone. But Phil quickly dismissed him and decided to record Vince. I thought Phil had made a serious mistake. I could not have been more "wrong." Vince’s first record was a smash hit, "Cindy, Oh Cindy." Phil did the same thing with the Tarriers. Among the hundreds of guys and girls and groups with banjos and guitars singing in Greenwich Village, Phil picked out three guys who called themselves the Tarriers and recorded them. It was "deja vu all over again." The Tarriers’ very first recording was a smash hit, "The Banana Boat Song." As a matter of fact Phil recorded Vince and the Tarriers at the same session. Besides doing their own recording, "The Banana Boat Song," Phil used the Tarriers to back Vince Martin on "Cindy, Oh Cindy." And of course Phil’s very first play, "A Raisin in the Sun," by a then unknown, writer Lorraine Hansberry, was not only a smash hit, but has now become a standard.
To be sure, Phil’s "Midas touch" didn’t work all the time. Although I believe he was the A & R man for Bette McLaurin’s only hit record, "My Heart Belongs to Only You"(on the Derby Label), he could never come up with a hit for her on his own label,—Glory. This was surprising to me for I consider Bette to be one of the two best female vocalists of the 50's – the other is Connie Francis. What pure voices these two women have. Bette was known as "The Little Girl with the Big Voice," a soubriquet that, in my opinion, is very fitting. She is small in stature and petite, but with a voice that, if you close your eyes and just listen you’d think it was coming from a much larger woman. It is my opinion that Bette never really made it because, in that music, there never was a song big enough for her voice. Connie Francis came up with "Mama," a song with which she could really show off that great voice she has. With the exception of "I’m Past Sixteen" (which barely scratched the surface of her talent) Bette had no such challenge. To me, she was always singing songs that were beneath her ability. So I heard she turned to opera, which is where she probably should have been in the first place.
Ques: Did you ever date any of the girls who toured with you? Anyone we would know? (Donna Whitmore —AKA the DooWop Lady)
Ans: There were only two females that I toured with: Ella Johnson, sister of the band leader, Buddy Johnson, and "Queenie," a shake dancer. I never dated either of them. However, I dated girls that I met while on tour. One was old enough to be my grandmother (I didn’t know it, of course). She had a daughter my age, and her daughter had a child. That made her a grandmother. Although the relationship was brief, it was beautiful while it lasted. I must say I matured quickly in my relationships with women because of her.
On the other hand, I had a crush on Etta Jones, whom I met during the Four fellows’ debut at the Apollo Theater, in June of 1955. Again, she was an older women. I wanted to establish a relationship with her, but she felt I was too young. Interestingly enough, about 15 years ago one of my older brothers ran into her at a club – somewhere in upstate New York. He introduced himself as me. However, he didn’t fool her. She knew he wasn’t me. During their conversation, she spoke about me and said that she did regret not establishing a relationship with me just because I was younger. She felt things could have worked out. A few years ago, she appeared at the Blue Note, down in Philly. I went to see her. It was a great reunion.
Incidently, I heard that Etta Jones was one of the Dandridge Sisters – that is, that she sang with the late Dorothy Dandridge and her sister, Vivian during the fifties. There’s a picture of the three in Donald Bogel’s biography, Dorothy Dandridge. It looks like Etta Jones, but I’m not sure. If you know for sure, let me know.
And speaking of Dorothy Dandridge, I sang on the same stage as she at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (when we were the Four Toppers) in February of 1952. She was standing about 5 feet away and looking in our direction. I thought I would melt when I saw her, In spite of her beauty, she seemed gentle and fragile. There was a air of sadness about her. But I dismissed that feeling for, in my 19 year-old mind she was so exquisitely beautiful, famous and rich, there was no logical reason for her to be sad. But the memory and the feeling I had that day came rushing back to me years later when I read of her tragic death.
Chuck Berry and I dated a couple of girls while we were in Atlanta, Georgia, and I dated a few girls that I met in other cities. But by and large, life on the road really doesn’t leave much time for dating. You hit the town, you do the show, then you’re back on the bus and you’re out of there; you’re on your way to the next town to start all over again. Of course when the show was over you could stop and have a date if you wanted to, but we had to always be aware that we had a bus driver who didn’t play – "Willie, the Bus Driver." I talk about him in my book. When Willie said "This bus leaves at 7: o’clock in the morning," your ass had better be on that bus before 7 or you had to find another way to get to the next town. So to most of the performers, making sure they got on that bus on time was more important than going on a date. But, of course, there was always a few who thought Willie was kidding. . . They found out that he wasn’t.
On the other hand, when we hit places like the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington and the Royal Theater in Baltimore, where we played for a week, we had time to date girls. Other than that it was "hit it and quit it."
Ques: One of the first things that jumps out at me is the section in your book about the storefront churches in Brooklyn. What was the atmosphere in these churches like? (Todd Baptista, author)
Ans: In order to fully appreciate the atmosphere in the storefront churches I think it’s best to first review a little of the history of the storefront churches: The storefront churches were borne out of the needs of a people—then called "Negroes"—forced onto the low rung of the socio-economic ladder of society mainly because of their race. They rented stores from white owners who, for whatever means, vacated them and the neighborhoods where these Negroes lived, and used them as churches. Because the rent for these storefront churches were paid by the combined contributions of the church members, it was an affordable means by which these people could have a place to worship. In time, with dedication and devotion by it’s members, some of these storefront churches grew to where they could purchase a larger facility. Sometimes they acquired a small church from another denomination who themselves moved on to a larger church. Sometimes they raised enough money to eventually build their own church. The First Baptist Church of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, of which my mother’s family was a part, is an example. That church started in 1899 with nothing more than the dream of one woman, "Mother" Maria Fisher. She began by holding prayer meetings in her parlor and in anyone's front room who was gracious enough to allow it. She knew that the men who worked in the Sheepshead Boy Race Track and their families needed a place to worship. She recruited members of the large and well-established Concord Baptist Church and, together, they forged their first church on the corner of Avenue "X" and East 15th Street in Sheepshead Bay. The Pulpit was an old ice box, and the lamps and chairs were brought in by the members. With time and dedication over the years the church has today become a beautiful gray stone building with a choir loft, air conditioning, a modern Hammond electric organ and a playground. It is a Sheepshead Bay landmark, popularly known as "The Lighthouse on the Bay." Numerous articles have been written about it. It started as a storefront church.
Being originally stores, the Brooklyn storefront churches seated only a few people—20-25 at the most. The people who attended the storefront churches in Brooklyn were plain and ordinary Negroes. During the early part of the 20th century most of them barely had a high school diploma. I doubt that many of the storefront preachers were actually ordained ministers. But what they did have was an intense devotion to God, unfettered by the restraint, convention and more conservative worship practice of some of the larger, more established black churches of the time. And there were indeed many established black churches in Brooklyn at that time. Many of them existed even before New York abolished slavery in 1827. My great great grandfather, Samuel Anderson who, before he died in 1903 (when he was 90 years-old), and had earned the dubious distinction of being the "last living slave in Brooklyn," was a member of one of these early churches.
"However by 1800, the black segment of Brooklyn’s population was concentrated in the downtown section—Fort Greene and Williamsburg. Two smaller communities, Weeksville and Carrville, were located in the then semi-rural central area of Brooklyn. They would later become Bedford-Stuyvesant. These [four] areas saw the formation of the first black churches of Brooklyn."
But by and large, it was the storefronts that comprised the greater number of churches throughout Brooklyn as I remember it. One could sometimes find several storefront churches in one block. My guess is that the large number of storefront churches is probably the reason Brooklyn became known as the "Borough of Churches."
Even though open prejudice was rarely practiced in Brooklyn during those times, discrimination did exist. There were no black policemen or firemen, or letter carriers or bus drivers, or teachers, or people of color in any responsible position. So Negroes, in general, were a people living with little or no hope of advancement, except in music (These were the days before Jackie Robinson, so there was little hope for advancement even in sports). There was only music. And so, dispirited and unrestrained by conventional/conservative means of worship, the people who worshipped in the storefront churches took literally the biblical expression to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord." And so they sang, and they accompanied their songs with rhythmic foot-stomping and hand-clapping, and banging on tambourines. Occasionally someone would bring a drum, or a horn. That’s when the realization came to my young mind that there was indeed some truth to the stereotype that "Negroes got rhythm." The people I witnessed in those storefront churches weren’t just singing and shouting, and stomping, and clapping and banging. The women, especially, seemed to have a sixth sense concerning rhythm. They stomped their feet to the beat, and clapped their hands on the beat, and in between the beats. Sometimes they double-clapped—even triple-clapped—on and in between the beats. Meanwhile, others banged on tambourines, while someone played a drum, or a horn. It seemed that everybody did whatever they wanted—clap, stomp, bang, whatever. Yet they never stopped singing, and it was all synchronized. The only analogy I can give to describe it was that it was like a New Orleans jazz band, but far more emotional, in which every body expressed what they felt but never lost sight of what they all were singing. It boggled my mind.
In time, the singing, and the shouting, and the stomping, and the clapping and the banging, over and over and over, would invariably have the effect of sending some of the members into a state of such emotional excitement they would become, as the saying goes, "taken with the Spirit." I personally witnessed many of them—men and women— so "taken with the Spirit" they would shake uncontrollably, shouting "Hallelujah," "Amen," "Yes, Jesus," "Praise the Lord," until they seem to pass out and had to be carried to the back of the church where they were administered to by ushers or other church members. I witnessed occasions when the Spirit seemed to move among the masses and several members of the church would become taken with the Spirit at the same time, or one right after the other, in rapid succession. I recall seeing an occasional member of a vocal group also become taken with the Spirit, even while he or she was singing, and had to be restrained by the other members of the group. But this did not stop the singing. The singing went on, and so did the foot-stomping, and the hand-clapping, and the drums, and the horns, and the tambourines. And yet, the attitude toward this highly emotional experience was positive, it was accepted without question by the rest of the congregation that those who were taken with the Spirit had truly been redeemed; had truly seen the light. . .if only for that evening.
Because it was considered to be a positive experience, many of the vocal groups—particularly those who sang the emotional gospel style—sang with the specific intention of bringing about this experience in the church members. This was called "lighting up the church." They often used a device called "squalling." Squalling is hard to describe. It’s used almost exclusively in gospel singing. It’s a way of singing a pertinent part of the song in a manner in which you are shouting, or screaming (almost hysterically) in a hoarse voice. It’s an emotional out-cry reflecting the intense feeling of the singer. It often has the effect of lighting up some of the members of the church; causing them to be taken with the Spirit. Examples of squalling can be found in the Soul Stirrers’ recording, "Were You There When They Crucified The Lord," and in the Swan Silvertones’ recording, "Well, Well, Well." both the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones were gospel-singing vocal groups.
How well a group sang was based on whether or not they caused church members to be taken with the Spirit. One memorable moment in my experience was witnessing a battle of songs between the Dixie Hummingbirds and the National Clouds of Joy (the latter was not called the "Mighty Clouds of Joy" till much later). This was down at a fairly large church near Halsey Street and Saratoga Avenue in Brooklyn. The "Clouds" and the "Birds" certainly put on a great show that night. One would be hard put to determine who was winning the battle. However, during an intermission they made the mistake of introducing Archie and the Five Blind Boys. With Archie singing lead, the Blind Boys performed "I Can See Everybody’s Mother—But, Oh Lord, I Can’t See Mine." Archie’s squalling-emotional portrayal of the song was so powerful, all I can tell you is that I’d never seen so many women become taken with the Holy Spirit in all my days. The ushers were carrying them to the back of the church like firemen pulling people from a burning building. And that analogy is apt, for the Blind Boys set that church on fire.
Looking back, I think that in their racial subconscious the Negroes of the storefront churches brought into their worshipping elements of the worship practice of the plantation slaves: a deep emotional outcry to God to help them change their condition. For example
"Separate religious gatherings by blacks were discouraged throughout the history of American slavery for fear of insurrectionist plots. Despite the prospects of punishment though, slaves formed prayer groups with self-trained, often itinerant black preachers who found the zealous evangelical character of the Methodist and the Baptists most adaptable to the spiritual requirements of their flocks. (pamphlet - Brooklyn’s Black Churches, Weeksville/Careville Historical Foundation, no p)"
Certainly the condition of the Negroes in the storefronts were not as harsh as that of slavery, but the oppression was there, and they felt it, and it was to them real.
The tendency is to think that becoming possessed, or taken with the Spirit and falling out is native to Negroes. However, the Religious Society of Friends are popularly known as the "Quakers." The major tenet of Quakerism is that "there is that of god in every one." The Quakers called this the Inner Light, and believe life’s purpose is, in the words of Jesus, to let your light shine. Hence in the Quaker religious practice there is a silent waiting and dwelling on the light within. In the early days of that faith, during intense periods of meditation and dwelling on the light within, many members became so possessed with the Spirit of God within them that their bodies "quaked," as the saying goes. Hence they became known as "Quakers." This is also true of the religious group known as the "Shakers." So there were, and probably still are, many religious groups whose members become possessed with the holy Spirit and quake, shake, or fall out. However, if there is a difference between the Negroes in the storefront churches and the other religious groups, I think it is that, with the Negroes, the experience was brought about by music: by the male and female solo gospel singers, and the vocal groups, particularly those vocal groups who sang the gospel style. But certainly the often passionate preaching contributed as well.
On a summer night one could hear the singing and shouting, clapping and stomping emanating from the storefront churches up and down any given block. It was simply a part of Negro-life in Brooklyn during the times when I was a teenager. But it should not be construed that the storefront worship practice was common to all Negro churches. Some Negro churches sang hymns and worshipped in a manner similar to white churches.
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