Wednesday, June 10, 2009


The Magnetics (Volumes)

The Bonnie label single from the Magnetics is up there amongst the most sought after soul 45’s ever released. But until recently, the actual group’s history has been shrouded in mystery. This situation can now be corrected, thanks to the fact that the Volumes were booked to perform at the big UK Northern Soul Weekender in Prestatyn this March. During research, undertaken to enable a Volume’s bio to be pieced together, it became evident that the surviving members of the group that cut “Lady In Green” were current members of the Volumes. Not one to let such an opportunity pass me by; I took Volumes member Bobby Peterson aside to get the facts on the Magnetics.

Bobby was born in downtown Detroit in May 1939. He grew up there, as did the other members of the Magnetics & Volumes. They all went to the same schools, Bobby himself being educated at Central High School. During that period, he started singing on street corners with his friends. They soon developed their harmony skills to a level where they were good enough to perform at parties & appear on local variety shows. This was in 1959 and the group took the name, the Marvelous Marveliers. Their line-up was Bobby Peterson, his younger sister, Sharon Peterson, Tony Johnson, Jackie Perkins and Candi (Fagan) Bell. They met some guys who were so impressed with their efforts that they wanted to fund a recording session. The offer accepted, the group cut “Down (On My Knees)” and “When We Dance”, both songs being written by Tony Johnson. Under the guidance of Gil Martin (who was later to work for Motown), Tony handled lead vocal duties on both songs.

These cuts were released (as by the Marveliers) on the Cougar label in 1960 but failed to make much impact. Disappointed at the lack of success for their record, the group soldiered on but they were going nowhere and so decided a change was needed. The members of the group still got on well though, so it was decided that their new start would just involve a change of name. As a result, the Magnetics were launched onto the Detroit music scene. Under their new name, they quickly established a good following and again created enough interest to come to the attention of a local record company. The group went into Continental Recording (at 9022 Twelfth Avenue) with Popcorn Wylie and recorded “The Train” (written by Popcorn & Tony Johnson). This was released in June 1962 on Continental’s in-house label, Allrite. The other side of the single was “Where Are You” (again an R Johnson composition) which had a ‘throwback’ feel, being quite doo wop sounding. This 45 managed to gain quite a bit of radio airplay in Detroit and led to the group securing bookings at venues such as the 20 Grand, Mr Kellys, Phelps & Henrys.

A return to the recording studio was called for and the group laid down some new songs; “Wonderful Moment” and “I Walk Alone (?). Again Tony Johnson wrote the songs and sang lead on them but for some reason they were never released. The Magnetics must have been quite envious of their old friends in the Volumes who were by then touring across the States on the back of their national pop chart hit “I Love You” (by a strange co-incidence Popcorn Wylie had worked with the Volumes on “I Love You”, as he had with the Magnetics on “The Train”). Yet again, the group’s career stalled, they weren’t making any headway and were starting to become stale. So Bobby, the leader, took the decision to wind the group up and its members looked for new challenges. Tony Johnson went on to team with Tyrone Pickens and they cut "Please Operator” for Ted White’s Ram Brock / Ston-Roc set-up (as Tony & Tyrone).

Meanwhile, the Volumes were still soldiering on. The group had numerous fine 45’s released but unfortunately none of these would enjoy the success of their initial single. In 1965, the group had their last release on the American Arts label; “I Just Can't Help Myself”. Although released on a Pittsburgh based label, this track had been cut back in Detroit (at Specialty Studios on East Grand Boulevard) and featured the likes of Dennis Coffey on the backing track. But Eddie Union had become disillusioned with the treatment the group was receiving and so he quit, going solo. This resulted in a shake up of the group’s membership and when things settled down again, Gerald Mathis was their new lead singer (he had been recruited to this position as he sounded quite like Eddie). The group now consisted of Gerald (out front), Elijah Davis, Ernest Newsome, Bobby Peterson & William ‘Pete’ Crawford (who had started out in the Distants with Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams and Richard Street). With Gerald on lead vocals, the single “The Trouble I've Seen / That Same Old Feeling” was released on Impact. But since Eddie Union had gone solo, only two of the five strong group were original members. They started getting grief because of this and so (at Bobby’s prompting) they decided to take the Magnetics name for some gigs and to record.

Thus the cuts “Lady In Green” and “Heart, You're Made of Stone” escaped on a Bonnie 45 under the name of the Magnetics. Once again, Gerald Mathis handled lead vocal duties on these tracks. As they had done on their Volumes recording sessions, the group worked with Duke Browner. The guys appreciated his writing (Duke wrote “Lady In Green”) and arranging skills, so had no problem working with him yet again. In support of their new 45, they played live gigs around the Detroit area under the Magnetics name (at venues such as the 20 Grand and Mr. Kellys) and even ventured as far away as Chicago and Cleveland for other gigs. “Lady In Green” didn’t manage to make much of an impact with the record buying public (probably due to the lack of copies of the 45 in the shops) but undaunted, they returned to the studio to cut some more songs. Yet again Duke Browner was the composer of these songs; “Hard On You” was an up-tempo number with “Some Day, Some Way” being a ballad. Unfortunately for the group these two cuts didn’t even manage to escape from the tape vaults. This set-back, coupled with the general lack of progress they were making and the struggle to maintain regular live bookings led them to throw in the towel.

After Eddie Union had quit the Volumes to go solo, he found himself working with a guy who was in a soul group that was looking for a lead singer. This guy was constantly on Eddie’s case, trying to get him to join them. Finally Eddie agreed to become their lead singer, figuring that becoming a member of the Metros might not result in history just repeating itself. So Eddie sang lead with the group for a short time and they built up a decent repertoire of songs to perform. But the other guys; Gordon Dunn, Al(fred) Mitchell, Rob(ert) Suttles and Joe Buckman, soon decided that they were ready to record. This was something that Eddie didn't want to do again, so soon after his experiences with the Volumes. He told them that he just couldn't go through all the tribulations that signing a recording deal entailed and quit the group. Undaunted, the other guys (Gordon, Al, Rob and Joe) with Percy Williams on lead signed with Jack Ashford’s Pied Piper set-up and were in the studio early in 1966 laying down tracks that would be released on RCA.
After the Volumes / Magnetics members went their own way, the Volumes re-formed and went on to record yet more tracks for Harry Balk & Duke Browner. They even ended up with a 45 on the Motown distributed Inferno label in 1968 (“Ain't That Loving You”). But there was too much competition from other groups at Motown and they soon got lost in the shuffle. Eddie was recruited back into the group, re-joining Elijah Davis & Ernest Newsome, and after drifting for a while Ollie McLaughlin signed them to his Karen label. In 1970, another Volumes single escaped, “Ain't Gonna Give You Up”, but this was to be the group’s last release. Meanwhile, Bobby Peterson & ‘Pete’ Crawford went off to form a number of new groups, one going by the name of the Premiers. Bobby had decided not to use the Magnetics name yet again and some of their outfits didn't even last long enough to be given names. One such nameless group was soon singing so well together that they were taken into the studio by gifted piano player & arranger Joe Hunter. Joe had worked closely with Jack Ashford & Lorraine Chandler at Pied Piper Productions (with the likes of the Metros). But on occasions Joe also took on the producer’s role and it was in this capacity that he cut three tracks with Bobby & Petes’ new group. The songs involved were “Only A Man”, ”No Money Down” & “Love Me, Hate Me”.

If any of these tracks had been released, a name would have had to have been found for this 'new' group but local events conspired to prevent this from happening. In the early hours of Sunday June 23rd, 1967, the Detroit riots kicked off. Police abuse, segregation, lack of affordable housing and economic inequality coupled with rising black militancy meant that unrest in the city bubbled just below the surface. A heavy handed police operation sparked off events and 5 days later 43 people were dead, 500 injured, 7,200 arrested with more than 2,000 buildings being left in ruins. Many record company offices, studios and clubs were located in areas that suffered heavily during the riots and this just added to the chaos that followed. With most things being in turmoil, it wasn’t the time to be releasing 45’s. Locals had many important issues to resolve and buying records ranked low down on their list of priorities. Thus any plans Joe Hunter had for the tracks he had just cut were abandoned and so Bobby & Petes’ new group was stillborn. Bobby decided that his main priority lay with his family and so concentrated on his 9 to 5 job with Chrysler, so the group just fell apart.

With the Magnetics now just a fading memory, it wasn’t too long before the Volumes also broke up again. Ernest Newsome however was interested in staying in the business. When approached by the Fantastic Four, he joined that outfit and enjoyed even more years of recording & performing. The years passed and the oldies scene in the US developed from strength to strength. Doo wop concerts began to be staged on a regular basis and when the Volumes were approached to appear on one of these, they re-formed. The members were now Eddie Union, Elijah Davis, William (Pete) Crawford and Bobby Peterson. Unfortunately Ernest Newsome had passed away in 1990 and ex lead singer Gerald Mathis also passed away some years ago. Another of the Volume’s ex lead singers Jimmy Burger had become a minister and was no longer interested in performing secular music. Under Eddie Union’s leadership, the four guys had a great time performing on doo wop shows and soon appeared on a PBS TV special. Now re-established on the US circuit, it wasn’t too long before UK Northern Soul fans started to show an interest. They weren’t however too interested in getting the group to sing their big hit (“I Love You”) but wanted to know if the group would be willing to perform their mid to late 60’s soul tracks for UK fans. Discussions took place, a contract was offered, accepted and all the arrangements were made for the guys to fly over here to perform at the Prestatyn Soul Weekender in March 2009.

What had long been suspected by the more astute British soul fans emerged to be true. The three surviving members of the Magnetics were all in the current Volumes line up. The guys were asked if they would mind adding a couple of Magnetics numbers to their proposed show here and even Eddie (the only non Magnetic) was only too pleased to agree to the idea. So with Eddie on lead vocals, the four Volumes up on the stage at the weekender asked if there were any women in the audience dressed in green. After a positive response the guys announced … well this is for the “Lady In Green”. As the Magnetics performed the song for the first time in 40 years, the roof nearly came off the arena. The buzz around the site for the remainder of the weekender was truly incredible and the guys themselves were blown away with their reception. Bobby was so ecstatic about the audience response to their show and the interest that had been generated in them (as both the Volumes & Magnetics) that he couldn’t sleep in the hours following the show. Many questions were fired at all of them and it was ascertained that Pete was the only guy in the group to ask for (& get) a copy of the Bonnie 45 when it had been originally released. When he was told how much this 45 was now worth, he nearly collapsed. All four were truly happy with their first UK trip and are already looking forward to a return visit.

JOHN SMITH; April 2009

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