A Celebration of Home-Grown Soul

Margie Clarke, left, Sandra Bears and Grace Ruffin of the Jewels, a doo-wop ensemble that recorded in the early '60s, broke up and reunited in the '80s.
Margie Clarke, left, Sandra Bears and Grace Ruffin of the Jewels, a doo-wop ensemble that recorded in the early '60s, broke up and reunited in the '80s. (Handout Photo)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

The last of three free Weekend's Weekends summer concerts hosted by The Post and the Weekend section, featuring a variety of music from top local talent in our community, is Friday. The concerts at Carter Barron Amphitheatre are presented in cooperation with the National Park Service/Rock Creek Park.

Soul of the City Night is a celebration of four decades of soul. The earliest examples come courtesy of the Legendary Orioles, sustaining the legacy of doo-wop pioneers Sonny Til and the Orioles (leader Albert "Diz" Russell joined in the mid-'50s) and Pookie Hudson & the Spaniels, whose "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" is a certified doo-wop classic. Hudson, from Gary, Ind., started to achieve success in Chicago and eventually became a longtime Washington resident.

"This is home for him, and his legacy is timeless," says WPFW DJ Captain Fly, who put together the DC Allstars a few years ago and will host tonight's event with comedian/ventriloquist Ernie Fields and his sidekick, Cockroach.

Also on the program: veteran ensembles the Velons, Skip Mahoney & the Casuals, the Jewels, the Winstons Orchestra and vocalist Jay Wiggins, and newcomers Shadz of Soul, Step 4, Nu Era, H.A.L.O. and Melissa Neal, all honoring their forebears.

Most of the older artists are featured on "The DC AllStars" DVD, which was filmed at the Birchmere in 2004. Captain Fly (aka Robert Frye) is a D.C. native who spent 20 years with the Metropolitan Police Department, joining WPFW after retiring in 1995. On Saturday mornings, he hosts "The Oldies House Party," celebrating the golden era of soul beginning in the mid-'50s and running into the '70s. Showcasing Washington's role in that history isn't much of a stretch.

"We've been having a great time," says Frye, who put together the DC Allstars for the Birchmere show mostly to create a permanent record while the artists were still able to perform. The concert film was directed by local filmmaker Beverly Lindsey-Johnson, who produced the recent "Dance Party: The Teenarama Story," a documentary about Washington's black "American Bandstand" in the 1960s.

"We did the show chronologically, so you can follow the era's timeline," Frye says of the film. "And with all the camaraderie, the artists come out like a winning team." Most of the participants are also shareholders in the DVD project. The DC Allstars have played the Birchmere three times -- including Mother's Day and Valentine's Day this year -- and all the shows have been sellouts.

Frye obviously has a little Don King in him. He's setting up an old-fashioned battle of the soul clans -- the DC Allstars vs. the New York Allstars. "When you say New York and doo-wop, that's unbelievable," Frye says. "It will be a battle of bands one degree higher." After that, Frye envisions musical battles with Chicago and Philadelphia.

The latter could be tricky -- "the biggest battle," Frye says -- because Philadelphia's historic ensembles include the Delfonics, the Stylistics and the Intruders. Since the mid-'90s, Frye has frequently sung with the Intruders, filling in for the late Eugene "Bird" Daughtry. (Frye caught the singing bug while working as tour manager for R&B singer James Ingram.) Plus, the Intruders had a No. 14 R&B hit in 1969 with "Sad Girl," a memorable ballad written and recorded in 1963 by another of tonight's DC Allstars, Jay Wiggins. You can find Wiggins's original version on Rhino Records' "Beg, Scream & Shout: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul."

Another great Rhino box set, last year's "One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found," is the place to hear the Jewels' "Opportunity." The divas of doo-wop's only national hit came in 1964 on the Dimensions label owned by singer/songwriter Carole King. The single reached No. 64 on the R&B chart; the followup, "But I Do," didn't do nearly as well, and the label folded a year later.

Sandra Bears, Grace Ruffin, Margie Clarke and Carrie Mingo first met in 1959 as 10th-graders at Roosevelt High School and began recording in the early '60s, first as the Impalas and then as the Four Jewels. (Maybe those school days inspired "That's What They Put Erasers on Pencils For.") After Mingo left the group in the early '60s, the trio downsized to the Jewels, sang backup for James Brown for a year and broke up in 1968. When the original lineup reunited in 1985 and re-recorded their old hits for the album "Loaded With Goodies," Brown, who wrote "Papa Left Mama Holding the Bag" for the Jewels, sent a congratulatory message. One of the rare female doo-wop ensembles, the Jewels have been delivering those goodies ever since.

Joe Phillips, who will conduct the Winstons Orchestra and back up several of tonight's artists, wasn't actually in the brief-lived Winstons, but he owns the trademark and sustains the legacy of the group's best-known song, "Color Him Father." A Father's Day radio staple, the 1969 hit about a man who marries a woman with seven kids and raises them as his own, was written by Richard Spencer. Spencer, a North Carolina native who moved to Washington in 1962, worked in local bands before finding success with the Winstons. The group also included guitarist Quincy Mattison and drummer G.C. Coleman, veterans of Otis Redding's band.

"Color Him Father" was a No. 2 R&B hit and reached No. 7 on the pop chart; Linda Martell's cover version reached No. 14 on the country chart, and Martell became the first black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. It also earned Spencer a 1970 Grammy for best R&B song.

Phillips remembers first hearing "Color Him Father" in 1969 and "thinking it was definitely a great song and a wonderful tribute to the fathers. I'm just happy that I'm able to continue it and keep it alive."

Spencer never repeated the success he had with "Color Him Father." A followup, "Love of the Common People," didn't even chart, and after the Winstons broke up in 1970, he left the music business, got degrees from UDC and Howard University, worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority until 2000 and eventually returned to North Carolina to become a high school social studies teacher.

In 1996, a concert promoter looking to book the Winstons asked Phillips, who had worked as a guitarist and musical director for such artists as Barry White, the Stylistics and the Delfonics, to reorganize the group. After Spencer said he wasn't interested, Phillips acquired the trademark to the name and put together a new Winstons to perform "Color Him Father" across the country.

"It was recorded more than 35 years ago, so we try to keep it out there for a newer generation," says Phillips, adding, "It's a year-round song, a perennial at boat rides and family functions." A new version of the song appears on the Winstons' 2005 album, "Keeping Old School Alive," along with the equal-time "Happy Mother's Day."

Comedian Bernie Mac liked the Winstons' 2002 recording of "(New) Electric Slide" so much that he used it this year on the 100th episode of "The Bernie Mac Show." The Winstons' latest CD is a tribute to Mac titled "I Ain't Scared of You Mothers." Different mothers, we suspect.

"The DC Allstars" DVD will be available at Carter Barron, and before the concert, the musicians will gather onstage for a "Great Day in Harlem"-style group portrait, which will include Al Johnson, William DeVaughn, Sir Joe Quarterman, Mark Green and the Hardway Connection -- Allstars who aren't on the Carter Barron program but will perform separately in a free concert at Fort Dupont Park on July 15.

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