"We're not looking for any pie in the sky at this date," Buddy Owens of the Velons says matter-of-factly. "We know we're working under a geographical handicap. We could do very well in New York City, and given any kind of chance in D.C. nightclubs or concerts we could do well here. We can still pump hard, and we've got a tremendous sound. I don't think there are too many vocal groups that could hang in there with us."
Owens is hardly exaggerating about this D.C. vocal group whose history stretches back 26 years to the golden era of doo-wop. Anyone who has caught the quintet of Owens, Gilbert Farrall, Jimmy Falwell, Carrie Mingo and Bobby Horn at an oldies show knows that the Velons' sophisticated arrangements and smooth harmonies made more than a few more famous vocal groups sound downright creaky in comparison.
It was at one of these shows at the Howard Theater in 1979 that independent producer Max Oates first saw the Velons. Impressed, he teamed up with the band's manager, Lawrence Berry, and the result was "Remember When," an album of sleekly refined oldies. The record was impressive enough to be reissued as "Come and Get These Memories" in 1981 by Solid Smoke Records, a prominent San Francisco independent label with a distinguished catalogue of R&B reissues. Now Solid Smoke has released a new Velons mini-album, "Moonlight and Music." While it is a more contemporary-sounding record, it is still gorgeously romantic and full of the beauty and richness of five voices in rapturous consort.
Like other urban centers in the '50s, the Washington-Baltimore area developed a rich vocal group tradition with pioneers like the Orioles, Cardinals and Clovers and talented acts like the Rainbows (which included Marvin Gaye, Don Covay and Billy Stewart), the Clefs and the Four Buddies. One of the reasons the current Velons seem so faultlessly professional and so thoroughly schooled in the nuances of group harmony is that its members are steeped in this tradition. In fact, the group is almost a local music history unto itself.
The original Velons, which included Farrall and Falwell, started singing together as students at McKinley High School in 1958. At the time, future Velon Buddy Owens was a member of the Versatiles, which included Jay Wiggins of "Sad Girl" fame. Horn (cousin of jazz performer Shirley Horn), another future Velon, was a member of the Ambassadors, which included future disco star Van McCoy.
"The Velons, the Versatiles, the Ambassadors, the Scholars, we used to all sing on the same circuit," recalls Owens. "There was something like a junior chitlin' circuit around D.C. in the late '50s. We used to perform at the area military bases, the Penn Theater, the Tivoli and the Langston. Marvin Gaye played drums for us on a couple of occasions around 1960. This was right before he went to Motown and got started drumming behind the Miracles."
Although the Velons plugged away throughout the '60s, tailoring their sound to the more soul-oriented pop of the period, their career was hurt by a lack of record releases. Both Owens and Falwell (Falwell under the name of Jimmy Valentine) had solo releases on the TEC label in 1963, but it wasn't until 1968 that the Velons reached vinyl with two singles, "Why Don't You Write?" and "That's What Love Can Do," on the local BJM label. By 1970 the group had temporarily disbanded because of a lack of offers. Three of the group's members, Falwell, Farrall and John King (known as J.J.&G.), recorded a single for Atlantic, "That's What I Get for Loving You," which enjoyed some local success.
Around 1974 the Velons got back together to work with local jazz singer Jean Quander. After one single, Quander left, and the Velons decided to look for another female singer. They approached the sweet- and sultry-voiced Carrie Mingo, who had sung throughout the '60s in the Four Jewels, a local female vocal group. The Four Jewels were discovered in the early '60s by Bo Diddley, who landed them a contract with Checker Records, where they recorded some excellent singles, as well as backed up Billy Stewart's releases.
"Carrie was reluctant at first," Owens says, "so we got together for a rehearsal and tried some old songs. Everybody was pleased, including Carrie, so we decided to give it a go. Gilbert Farrall had rejoined, so all of a sudden we were full strength and had a sound we were crazy about."
Of course, that's the sound -- polished, intricate and yet openly emotional -- that is evident in the group's rare appearances and on their two albums. Despite the quality of their records, the Velons harbor no illusions about overnight success. After 25 years of hard work and harmony, the band is nothing if not realistic.
"The problem has always been, to get anywhere, you had to leave this town," Owens confides. "It's sad but it's true. Nobody really has enjoyed success out of this town, and it's hard to put your finger on why. Those that left, became successful and could have helped, never really returned to assist local acts. Everybody gets discouraged, but at least people are listening to voices again. On our new album, we've tried to come up with something for our fans and hopefully something to reach others. Like everything else, it's a shot."