Deborah Buckmon, 25, straightened the sleeves of her black, V-necked jumpsuit, patted her perfectly sculptured french twist hairdo and took one last breath before flitting onto the Constitution Hall stage with her sisters, Liane and Evangeline. For these three women from Northeast Washington, it was a long way from talent shows at McKinley High School and a considerable step up from the Kenilworth Avenue supper club where they had sung previously.
The Buckmon sisters, members of a group called Special Touch, were the opening act of an oldies show Saturday night, which featured rhythm-and-blues luminaries such as Mary ("My Guy") Wells and the Shirelles, of "Soldier Boy" fame, crooning down memory lane, 1950s-style.
The Buckmon sisters weren't on the billing, didn't have a dress rehearsal and weren't introduced to the audience before the band struck the chords to their opening number. Nevertheless, the anxious sister trio filled the spotlight and did all it could to sound like another oldies group, the Marvelettes, in this glimmer of a warm-up set.
Their mother, godmother, co-workers and siblings staked out nearly two rows of prime viewing seats to savor the sisters' performance. Pulling for them in the balcony was a Wonder Bread Co. worker who arranged and produced their oldies act. Coaching them from his berth in the band was their manager and guitar player, the oldest sister's boyfriend.
Theirs is a story of struggles and letdowns and of a 10-minute taste of stardom.
It was during the end of the doo-wopping 1960s, when Aretha Franklin was at her peak and Diana Ross was still a Supreme, that the pre-teen Buckmon sisters started snapping their fingers and pretending they were a singing group as they sang along with Motown records.
The gold-carpeted living room of their red-brick row house on 14th Street NE, just off New York Avenue, served as their studio while the family's Delmonico stereo played backup.
In those days, the two oldest daughters of an office cleaner, Evangeline and Deborah, got together with girls down the street and formed a fledging neighborhood singing group.
They called themselves the Tribulations and rotated the third singer until they discovered that Liane, the fourth of the family's eight children, could sing a pleasant second soprano. She joined her sisters and they started the talent show circuit billed as Black Ice -- until they found that they weren't the only Black Ice in town. They took the name Special Touch from a poster they liked.
Their first performance was at the McKinley High School talent show in 1972.
Just before the show, with their Afros in shape and their costumes in hand, the older two sisters, Evangeline and Deborah, went to pick up Liane from Slowe Elementary School, but they had forgotten to get a written excuse from their mother.
"So they forged a note and put a phone number on it to make it look official," said Liane, 22, who is now a junior at the University of the District of Columbia. "I felt so important -- I was leaving school early, singing with my older sisters. They were shaking like leaves -- I got on stage and had a ball."
"But we didn't win," said Evangeline, 26, who works as a control clerk at the D.C. Office of Personnel Management. "Didn't even place."
In the past few years, the group has outgrown its high school stiffness, graduating from teen-age talent shows and moving on to smoke-filled clubs such as the Odyssey on Kenilworth Avenue NE, the Panorama Room on Morris Road SE and Rand's at 14th and K streets NW.
During their performances, the sisters sing soft sugar music for the WHUR "Quiet Storm" set, with a smattering of up-tempo Top 40 hits for the younger crowd. "We're not into that be-bop jungle stuff the teen-agers go for," said Deborah, a hair designer at Matthew's Styling Salon on H Street NE. "But we'll sing 'He's the Greatest Dancer' by Sister Sledge. They'll sit through that."
"People hype you up and let you down," said Deborah of the group's earlier years, when quasi-managers shuffled in and out of their lives. "It got to a point where we'd heard so many things that we didn't get excited about every little show."
"If we'd had somebody really coaching us and helping us with our finances, maybe things would be different for us," said Evangeline. "We don't know how to read music or write it. We've never had voice training lessons. We just go by our own ears."
Things took a turn for the better after she wandered into the Shoe World store on Minnesota Avenue NE one day in 1978. There she spotted a young man whose group, the Mystic Fourth, had beaten her trio in that talent show at McKinley.
She said she never forgot that black-and-white-suited male quartet, which piped old Temptations tunes and shuffled across the stage in a tireless dance routine, "robot"-style. She got up the nerve to speak to Mike Jones, a former member of the quartet, as he was stacking shoe boxes.
The two started dating and eventually Jones became the manager of Special Touch, arranging gigs, organizing the backup band, directing practice sessions.
"They kind of made me their manager," said Jones, who now works as a mail sorter for the U.S. Postal Service. "Whenever something came up, they'd call on Mikey. I'm their guitar player, big brother, chauffeur, trouble-shooter. I guess I'm everything."
"What they need though is a following, a track record and exposure," said Jones.
Enter Joe Haertel, an avid rock 'n' roll fan who manages several local bands and works during the day at the Wonder Bread bakery.
Haertel said he heard that an oldies show was scheduled for Constitution Hall and saw this as his chance to fulfill his dream: to put together a female vocal act for an oldies show. He went to the D.C. Department of Recreation for leads on a suitable vocal group and Special Touch turned up.
After a number of auditions in June with the show's promoters, the group landed the spot as an unbilled, unpaid opening act.
For the past few months the group trekked twice a week to the Rock Springs Congregational Church in Arlington for practice sessions, refining their '50s sound under Haertel's tutelage. They later performed a trial run of their routine at the Empress, an oldies club on Connecticut Avenue.
Everything would be on the line for Special Touch Saturday night, said Haertel a few days before the show. "They're opening to a stone-cold audience," he said. "People are going to remember them either way. Either they're going to go over well or they're going to flop. And they only have 10 minutes to prove themselves."
"We'll get the point across before we leave the stage," said Liane a few hours before the show. "We come out first, so we set the standard for the biggies. They have to come out and be better than us."
"Are we that good?" wondered Deborah.
"We can be," said Liane. "We got to be."
The group's sound check/dress rehearsal at Constitution Hall was set for 4 p.m., the day of the show. But they were in their seats an hour-and-a half early, just in time to catch the billed opening act, the Velons, practice.
Perched two rows in front of Special Touch were three female singers who were in the Buckmon sisters' shoes a quarter-century ago. They named themselves the Shirelles and went on to crank out hit after hit during the late '50s and early '60s.
"I know what they're going through," said Doris Kenner of the Shirelles. "I was scared to death -- petrified when we first sang at the Apollo. But the audience liked us. Maybe they knew how scared we were and didn't want to discourage us."
A gesture signaled it was the Shirelles' turn on stage. They made their way past the rows of empty seats, sporting jeans and jheri curls, seemingly eons from the bouffant wigs and sequinned gowns they donned during their heyday.
"This is dedicated," sang Kenner, "to the one I love. . . ."
"Now I'm getting nervous," groaned Evangeline.
"I don't know why," said Liane. "We sound just as good as they do."
"We'll see," said Evangeline.
"Tonight you're mine, comple-e-etely," chimed Liane. ". . . But will you love me tomorrow. . . . I'm singing backup for them," she explained.
Although Special Touch was scheduled to rehearse after the Shirelles, a tight schedule bumped the group completely from the lineup. The group and its band wouldn't even have a sound check before they went on stage.
"The best laid plans of mice and men, right?" said Haertel, pacing the stage floor as time for the show grew closer. "The show's running late and if anybody gets cut, it'll be us."
"He's so hyped up," said Liane as she rolled her hair with a curling iron. "I'm just waiting for him to pass out so I can practice my CPR on a live victim. He's so afraid something will go wrong."
She and her sisters calmly slipped into their costumes in their makeshift dressing room, the door of which read "Ladies." As they buckled their sandals and brushed on eye shadow, women filed in and out, looking quizzically at the sisters. "It's okay," Deborah would say. "We're in the show."
The moment of truth came nearly a half-hour late. The Buckmon sisters, in their black, V-necked jumpsuits, stood on the side of the stage, waiting for their cue.
It never came. They were told, instead, simply to walk on stage to their band's musical intro and take it from there.
Before Evangeline could get through the first bar of "I Love You So" by the Chantels, the mostly over-30 crowd broke in with booming applause.
Ten minutes, four tunes . . . and it was over.
"Hey, I'm ready to to do it again!" said Deborah, smiling breathlessly.
"My hands are shaking like you wouldn't believe," said Evangeline.
"This is what I did before I went out there," said Liane, describing her method of nerve-control. "I just took a deep breath and told myself this was just like performing at McKinley."
Special Touch left Constitution Hall with a handful of business cards. "We're not getting our hopes up too high," said Liane. "We'll see where it goes."