Wednesday, November 08, 2006
EDWIN STARR’S CLEVELAND YEARS
The group got its name by adapting the name of an established local group, the Metrotones. The Metrotones had started up a year earlier and had quickly built up a local following. Their popularity soon led to them securing a recording contract and in 1958 they had enjoyed a release on the local Reserve label, ‘Please Come Back / Skitter Skatter’. The links between the two groups went further than just similar names though. The two groups came from the same area of the city and the Metrotones leader, Sonny Turner, took Edwin under his wing and helped teach him to sing properly. The Reserve single was to prove to be the high point of the Metrotones career however Sonny Turner was to go on to become lead singer with the Platters in the 60’s while another member, Leonard Veal ended up joining the Hesitations a few years later.
The FutureTones consisted of Edwin, John Berry, Parnell Burks, Richard Isom and Roosevelt Harris. The group performed at school shows and set about increasing their profile locally after Edwin graduated from school in 1956. They became ground breakers on the Cleveland scene as they soon became the first local outfit to be fully self contained, having their own instrumentalists as members. The musician members of the group were Russel Evans (guitar), Pinhead (trumpet), Julius Robertson (bass), Brownie (drummer) and Gus Hawkins (sax). The group would enter local talent contests such as those that were held at the Circle Ballroom. At these they would be up against other aspiring groups of young hopefuls trying to get onto the bottom rung of the ladder they hoped would eventually lead to recording success. Group names that Edwin recalls are the Sahibs, the Monarks and the Crescents.
The Sahibs had also been formed at a local school, this time though it had been Rawlings Junior High School. At the time one of their members was George Hendricks who was later to become a member of Way Out group, the Exceptional 3. A couple of years later Lou Ragland was to be co-opted into the group by its leader, James Dotson. Edwin acknowledges that the Sahib’s would almost always put on a fantastic performance, which his outfit had to strive to top. The FutureTones would usually perform the Metrotones song ‘Skitter Skatter’ and they must have done it well as they won contests on 8 or 9 separate occasions. Edwin puts this down, in part, to his outfit’s better stage act as they were better dancers than most of their rivals. Edwin particularly remembers one contest though, at this the FutureTones and Sahibs were pitted against each other and their performances couldn’t be separated. As a result of this, the two groups were adjudged joint winners.
The leader of the Crescents was William Burrell, who adopted the professional name of Billy Wells. Billy went on to enjoy a long and successful recording career both with the Crescents and later with the Invaders and the Outer Realm. Billy relocated to Florida in the 60’s and here he cut a track, ‘This Heart, These Hands’ that was to go on to find favour with UK northern soul fans. The Monarks, Edwin recalls, would perform mostly El Dorados and Spaniels type tunes.
Other local outfits around at the time were the Fabulous Flames, Annuals and Cashmeres. The Fabulous Flames would enjoy releases in the late 50’s and early 60’s on Rex, Time and Baytone. Their line-up included Harvey Hall who would later go solo and record for Thomas Boddie’s Luau label. The group would alternate between having four and five members and so would always be taking on temporary members. One such member was Richard Fisher (Jessie’s brother) who was to relocate to New York in the sixties and join the Jive Five. The Annuals later secured a recording contract through their manager, Marty Conn, who started his own label, Marrconn Records. When the group broke up, members went on to join the Springers (Jeff Crutchfield) and Hesitations (Arthur Blakeley). The Cashmeres, like the Sahib’s, never recorded in their own right, but the outfit’s Kenny Redd made it into the studio’s in the early 70’s when he was with Miystic Insight group True Movement.
The FutureTones, along with the other groups mentioned, would do the rounds of all the Cleveland live venues. The Mercury Ballroom, the Lucky Strike, Gleason’s, the Che Breau Club, the Rose Room at the Majestic Hotel, the Cedar Gardens, Playmor and Chatterbox Club. Joan Bias, who recorded for Way Out in 1963, recalls watching a really good FutureTones performance at the Cedar Gardens in the late 50’s. The Majestic Hotel was at that time employing two émigré’s from down south, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. Eddie was employed in the kitchen while Paul was a bell hop. The pair were using their positions at the hotel to good effect though. They would rehearse songs after work from around midnight to 3am along with the third member of their outfit, Kell Osbourne. They would also occasionally secure bookings to perform properly at the hotel. However the pair soon decided that Cleveland didn’t offer them the musical opportunities they were seeking and so they moved on to Detroit.
Eventually the FutureTones got to appear on a local TV show, the Gene Carroll Talent Show and not long afterwards they went professional. The first engagement they secured after this was at the Chatterbox Club, which was located on Woodland near 55th Street, as support act to Billie Holliday. Edwin was totally in awe of Billie and although he got the opportunity to visit her dressing room to speak with her he doesn’t think that his attempts at conversation would have been too coherent. Further successful engagements followed and in 1959 the group secured a recording contract with Tress Records. A single, ‘ I Know / Rolling On’ was released and made a few waves locally.
With a promising future in prospect for the group things appeared to be on the up for its members but fate was to take a hand. In 1960 Edwin was drafted into the Army, here his obvious talent as a singer was soon recognised and he got to perform for other servicemen at bases across the USA and Germany. Upon his discharge in 1962 he returned to Cleveland and attempted to pick up the reigns with the group again. In his absence, one of his old friends Demon (William Isom) had joined the group but they hadn’t been able to progress their career. With Edwin back in the fold they continued to perform locally but they had lost the impetus they had possessed a few years earlier. In 1963 Bill Doggett and his group swung through Cleveland and at the time Doggett was on the lookout for a new vocalist. Edwin caught his eye and so was offered the position. He accepted, quit the FutureTones and left town to tour with his new outfit. Bill Doggett had a great influence on Edwin, especially with regard to his professional attitude to the business. He didn’t drink, always expected good discipline and insisted that those associated with him were accessible to the people they came in contact with. After a couple of years on the road with Doggett, Edwin began to develop his song writing skills and inspired by a James Bond movie he wrote ‘Agent OO Soul’. He thought the song had commercial potential but knew that to tie in with the hype currently associated with the spy movie it would have to be recorded straight away. He took the song to Doggett but, obviously not wanting to lose his talented vocalist, Doggett suggested it was too early for him to be contemplating cutting a record.
Luckily for Edwin one of their next live performances was at the Twenty Grand in Detroit. At this he was approached by Lebaron Taylor, this led to an introduction to Ric Tic Records and the rest is history. With an instant solo hit on his hands, Edwin had to immediately put together a backing band so that he could tour to cash in on his new found success. He didn’t really know too many available musicians in Detroit so it was only natural that he returned to Cleveland to recruit the backbone of his needed line-up. The FutureTones had soldiered on after Edwin had left them but the vocalist’s in the line-up began to loose interest and gradually drifted away into normal 9 to 5 jobs. In fact no other vocalist from the group would go on to forge a career in the music industry. The musician side of the group however had gone from strength to strength. They found employment around Cleveland backing up visiting acts such as the Temptations. The respect that they commanded locally also led to them being used on recording sessions, with work on O’Jays and Intertains sessions being amongst those secured.
On Edwin’s return to scout out members for his tour band he sought out his old friends and in no time he had persuaded Gus Hawkins and Julius Robertson to go on the road with him. The pair stayed with him for some time before they eventually tired of living out of a suitcase and returned home to Cleveland. The pair’s departure with Edwin had finally signalled the end for the FutureTones and leader Russell Evans took a position in the O’Jays backing band. In the 70’s Gus Hawkins was to become a member of Musicor recording group S.O.U.L. and Russell Evans was to lead the backing band for Sounds of Cleveland / Devaki recording group, Truth. Edwin hadn’t finally severed his links with Cleveland though as in 1970 he returned to the city once again. This time he recruited local outfit, Mother Braintree, as his road band. After a year or so they also returned home where members were to merge with another local outfit to form the Dazz Band.
Edwin’s many years of commercial world-wide success only took off after he had left Cleveland however he had spent his formative years in the city and without the grounding he gained there who can say how his career would have progressed. He is certainly well remembered by many residents of the city, among them old friend William ‘Demon’ Isom who today works at Republic Steel.