A Local Life: Harmon Bethea, 86
Harmon Bethea, 86; pop singer of many groups, many styles
Sunday, January 10, 2010
While holding down a day job as an Army Department mail clerk, Harmon Bethea struggled for decades to achieve a breakthrough singing group. He went at it so long, and through so many changes in pop vocal trends, that he tried to become famous in jive, doo-wop, rhythm-and-blues and Motown-tinged soul. At one time, he led a gospel group.
"If patience is a virtue, Harmon Bethea would be a saint," music historian Jay Warner once wrote. Warner wrote that Mr. Bethea was in 10 vocal groups over 22 years before finding his elusive hit.
The turning point was a timely gimmick. In the 1960s, Mr. Bethea found his niche when he put on a mask and became the Mask Man. In honor of James Bond and the spy craze, his three backup singers, formerly known as the Cap-Tans, became the Agents.
Mr. Bethea, 86, who died of a heart ailment Dec. 18 in Washington, first donned his mask in 1964 and started focusing on humorous material. He was in his early 40s, old by the standards of the music industry. With the British Invasion dominating the airwaves, Mr. Bethea needed something to make him stand out.
"I remember him as a friendly but low-key guy," said Dick Lillard, a music director at WOL in the 1960s. "I think that Mask Man persona was a way of taking a guy who was not that wild and making him look wild."
"He had color streaks in his process [hairdo] that matched his suit," said Robert Fry, a disc jockey who goes by the on-air name Captain Fly. "Today we would say fuchsia, but it was almost pink."
Through his Mask Man persona, Mr. Bethea found an avenue for down-home, streetwise humor. His shows revolved around the Agents' choreography and Mr. Bethea's comedy. In the song "Roaches," Mr. Bethea delivered pointed, but humorous commentary on the gap between the goals of the civil rights movement and the reality of inner-city life. When they performed the song on local television shows, the Agents worked themselves into a frenzy, pretending to fumigate bugs with hand-pumped sprayers.
On one song Mr. Bethea wrote, "Talkin' 'Bout the Boss Man and I," he ripped into the boss for calling him a boy, telling him, "If you ever slip up and call me a boy again, I'll hang a sign up on your eye that says, 'Closed for the weekend.' "
"He was taking the day-to-day circumstances that everybody could relate to, almost like a musical Richard Pryor," Fry said.
Mask Man and the Agents were rewarded with two national hits in the late 1960s, "One Eye Open" and "My Woman, My Dog and My Cat."
While the records sold well, Mr. Bethea never left his day job for an extended tour, which limited his national exposure. The Mask Man played his last show in 1992.
Mr. Bethea, the son of a sawmill worker, came to Washington from his native Dillon, S.C., after serving in the Army in Europe during World War II. He attended a local conservatory before launching a singing career in 1948 with the Progressive Four, a group in the jazzy, scat-inflected style of the Mills Brothers. His talents impressed Lillian Claiborne, who co-owned a District record label.
She introduced Mr. Bethea to the Cap-Tans, a group she managed that sang in the newer doo-wop style. The Cap-Tans never found a hit, although they came close. A ballad, "I'm So Crazy for Love," appeared in 1950, but it lost sales to more-successful cover versions by Billy Eckstine, the Ravens and Lonnie Johnson. A humorous jump number Mr. Bethea wrote, "Chief Turn the Hose on Me" (1950), was covered as "Call the Doctor" in 1953 by a Harlem doo-wop group called the Crows.
Even without a hit, the Cap-Tans appeared on local television variety shows. They performed at the Howard Theater and cabarets and headlined shows at Chesapeake Bay resorts that catered to black Washingtonians.
Mr. Bethea often changed his groups' members and names, even rechristening the Cap-Tans as the more exotic-sounding L'Captans.
"Our key phrase back then was, 'I don't turn down nothin' but my collar,' " recalled Steve Charles, a singer with the Clovers, who sometimes appeared on show bills with Mask Man and the Agents. "There was a constant exchange of phone numbers in the groups."
Mr. Bethea's wife of 50 years, Ruth Ann Dixon, died in 1997. His only child, Harmon M. Bethea Jr., was shot to death in 1979 in what his family called an unsolved homicide. Survivors include three brothers, Cleo Bethea of Camp Springs, Thomas Bethea of Dillon and Ralph Bethea of Woodbridge; and a sister, Queen Ester Bethea of Dillon.
If Harmon Bethea never reached the pinnacle of national success, it might have been some consolation that his records are today much prized by collectors of doo-wop and Northern Soul music and live on through music blogs and YouTube playlists.