The Last Of The Great Dance Bands
By any definition of the word, the Fatback Band are a truly remarkable group and their leader, drummer Bill Curtis, is an inspirational musician. Bill and the band’s career CV reads like a history of black, popular American music over the last seventy odd years. The Fatback Band have played jazz (of all kinds of hues), R&B (real R&B, that is), funk, disco, rap, hip-hop, nu-soul, modern soul, neo soul, classic soul and any other damn genre that overpayed and pretentious musicologists dream up. What’s more, Bill and the Fatbacks have played with many seminal names in Black Music’s vibrant story. I mean - Jesse Belvin, Ruth Brown, King Curtis, Cornell Dupree, The Moonglows, Jackie Wilson, Betty Wright, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin … to complete the list would take far too long and only be labouring the point. Gig-wise, the band have played everywhere and anywhere - from weddings and bar-mitzvahs in seedy bars and social centres to prestigious shows in some of the world’s best theatres and concert halls. In 2004, Bill even led his band on stage at the Glastonbury Festival. Record-wise, the Fatback Band’s latest albums are every bit as fresh and vital as the group’s first real recordings for the Perception label way back in the early seventies. But - and that’s a very big BUT, the story of the Fatback Band and Bill Curtis goes way, way back - back to the days of the chittlin’ circuit, the juke joint, and the smoky jazz cellar. The fact that the Fatback Band are still doing it - and doing it so strongly - surely makes them “The Last of The Great Dance Bands”.
In The Begining
Today Fayetteville, North Carolina proudly calls itself “The All American City". With a population just over 130,000 it’s the sixth largest town in North Carolinaand its biggest tourist attraction is the Cape Fear River Trail. Like all places it has its fair share of problems, but in general it's a pleasant and prosperous looking place.
In the 1930s things were very different. Typical of the old south, Fayetteville was a town of cultural extremes - of rich and poor; of black and white … and it was into that environment that Fatback founder Bill Curtis was born on 5th. August 1932. His mother, Clydiest Ellerbe came from a very, very poor family from Laurinburg, North Carolina. Her own mother had died when she was only five years old and her beleaguered father, Henry, gave his children away hoping they may enjoy some kind of better life. It didn’t work like that of course. Clydiest started working at the age of six, then aged just fourteen she ran away to look for her father, ending up in Fayetteville. Two years later she fell in with a local buck, Willie Martin, and was soon pregnant. On hearing the news, Willie left town pronto - and nobody batted an eyelid. For a couple of years Clydiest and baby Bill lived where they could. Then in 1934 mum married Cliff Curtis, an itinerant farm worker, who was ten years older than her. Cliff’s work took him away a lot and eventually the couple drifted apart with Mum and Bill finally finding a home in Ann St., Fayetteville. The house was run down with holes in the roof and no real floor, but at least it was theirs.
Young Bill started school when he was 6 and by the time he was nine he’d started piano lessons - inspired by Clydiest who had an old piano on which she would bang out the tunes of the day. Bill never quite got the hang of the piano - his heart wasn’t in it anyway. He thought it was an instrument for the girls and his friends would regularly poke fun at him when he’d have to leave them for his regular music lesson. Through it all his loving mother was his constant inspiration and role model. She worked long and hard - cleaning and cooking for well off white families. Each week she’d put a little away to pay for her dream - to go to beauty college, and after eight years she’d saved enough for the fees and enrolled at college in Atlanta leaving Bill with his Grandfather’ wife. Two years later Clydiest graduated and returned to Fayetteville where she convinced the owners of their little house to build a shop on empty, adjacent land. The shop was built and Mrs. Curtis had her business, which she proudly named the Mademoiselle Beauty Salon.
Though the beauty salon was in a poor location Mrs. Curtis made enough to get by and as a businesswoman she was determined to keep young Bill on the straight and narrow. By now he was aged 13 an in ninth grade at E.E. Smith High School, where he joined the school band as drummer. The school’s Musical Director was Mr. Willie Currie who introduced Bill to two other young drummers Hubert Drake and Belton Evans. They taught Bill the basics and went on to become his best friends. Bill always admits that at the beginning he found it hard to keep time and friends like Tina Brook told him he might be better to learn the horn. But young Billy persevered, bashing his battered snare drum whenever the opportunity offered itself. By this time Bill’s real father was back on the scene – at first for just a week. It was 1945 and Bill remembers it vividly, “I was around 13 - he just walked in as my mother was looking out the window and she said here comes Willie Martin, your father. I ran out to meet him - just like that. My father was a real man and once you met him you loved him. Everyone loved him - except my mother."
Willie had been living in New York and was working in a shoe repair business. After returning up North, Willie kept in occasional contact with his son and six months after that first visit a large, mysterious parcel arrived at the Mademoiselle Beauty Salon. It was addressed to young Bill and after ripping the packaging away he found a brand new Slingerland drum kit - a present from dad! Bill was now the envy of all his friends and though not a proficient player he practised over and over. More importantly, because he had his own kit, he found occasional work playing in the juke joints and service mens’ clubs that catered for the enlisted men stationed at Fort Bragg- just twelve miles down the road. One day, school friend Bo Fairley asked Bill to lend him the drums for a band he was putting together, trouble was the his drummer didn’t have any drums! The watchful Mrs. Curtis insisted that that drums weren’t leaving the house without Willie Jnr... To get the kit Bo had to agree, and Bill Curtis found himself in his first real band – or kind of half in a band – “I hardly knew how to set up the drums and Bo’s drummer was there too and asked me if he could play on one or two songs”. Bo was the band’s guitarist and his brother Junior played piano, and with their encouragement Bill finally learnt how to keep time - heavily influenced by well-known local drummer Earnest Moore.
Then in 1948 Bill had a truly life changing experience. His father invited him up to New Yorkand he started to take wide-eyed Bill to the Apollo Theatre. Bill clearly remembers - “I had the pleasure of seeing a lot of great entertainers and bands such as Big Sid Catlet, Buddy Johnson, Hot Lip Page, Louis Jordan and Lucky Millender. That’s when I really fell in love with music and I made a decision that I was going to be on that stage one day”.
You're In The Army Now
“After graduation in 1950 I made the decision no to go to college, but instead went to live with my father and his wife in New York City. I wanted to be closer to the schools of music of which there weren't any in Fayetteville. But not having enough money to go to school I was forced to get a job. I had a couple of small jobs here and there but finally made the decision to enter into the services"…. Bill's clear - it wasn’t the grandest entrance to the Big Apple. There were no fanfares - or, in Bill's case, drum rolls. But at least he had a base in the New York … a base he could touch during his army career … which actually got off to a bizarre start - as Bill reveals. "I enjoyed the army, but the funny thing about entering the army is that they sent me right back to Fort Bragg in my home town! The day I arrived at Fort Bragg, I entered the front door of the barracks and went right out the back door and on home!"
For the next five or six months Private Curtis lived a strange double life. Outwardly he was serving Uncle Sam but Uncle Sam didn't know that his boy was more often than not at home or playing drums in the small clubs and bars where he'd learned his trade before moving up to New York. One such club was Fayetteville's top venue, the 400 Club, which was very popular with the soldiers from the base, and they'd keep Bill up to speed about what was going on in camp. But he knew he was walking a very thin line, so to make his presence felt at Fort Bragg he got himself a posting in the camp cookhouse. However the drumming bug wouldn't go away and Bill did a deal with the other cooks which allowed him to work weekends so that weeknights he could slope off back to the bars and clubs. Bill's regiment was the 599th. Field Artillery and his moonlighting was cut short when the battalion was posted to Germany. The regiment moved around the old West Germany and Bill can still remember Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Dachau with its haunting past. It was in Dachau that Bill auditioned for the Army Band and was eventually transferred to the 80th. Army and then onto the 7th. Army Special Division - a kind of "entertainers platoon" who’s numbers also included Jesse Belvin, Vic Damone, and James Jamerson. During his three years with the Specials the drumming private toured all over Europe playing the US bases that had been hastily put together to monitor the frail peace that had fallen on post warEurope. By 1955, though, Bandsman Bill Curtis was ready for his discharge and longing for a return to New York City.
Native New Yorker?
New York was (and still is) famous for its music schools and academies - establishments of various qualities and pedigrees, willing (for a price) to offer tuition and advice to star struck wannabes. Fresh out of the Amy, Bill moved in with his father up in Queens at 130th. Avenue in the Jamaica district. His first job was to find a music school and he soon enrolled at a number of the Big Apple's music establishments, including Mannes College and the New York Music School Of Music. The schooling involved a lot of classical background and it didn't inspire our man, so by night, along with a group of friends, Bill would trawl the clubs and bars looking for work - but more often than not they'd end up jamming. School fees also meant a succession of part-time day jobs. Bill pumped gas, fitted tyres, delivered newspapers - indeed he'd try anything for those few extra bucks to help him by. Late nights, long hours and what Bill calls "messing around" turned him off College and he was ready to drop out. Then at a party he met Sandra Taylor - a friend of a friend of his father. She thought the handsome young Mr. Curtis was a classical musician – not an aspiring R&B and funk drummer. But, mutually impressed, they forged a romance that led to marriage. Bill married Sandra in November 1956 and the new commitment meant Bill needed steady work. Then, almost by chance, he landed himself his first real, proper, professional music job - drumming with the “king of the Hucklebuck”, Paul Williams.
Paul Williams was a Detroit sax player who had enjoyed a huge hit in 1949 with a rockin’ little tune called “The Hucklebuck”. As the 50s dawned Williams was still living off that hit and by the middle of the decade he was touring with a band that usually opened for the new generation of rock and rollers on their seemingly endless coast to coast tours. The drummer with the Williams’ band was Bill Curtis’ old school friend, Belton Evans, and after a couple of months on the road with Williams, Belton found himself under considerable domestic pressure. That pressure eventually meant he needed to quit. Evans recommended fellow Fayetteville drummer, Bill Curtis to the Detroit veteran and after the briefest of interviews fatbackin’ Bill was in –even though he’d never played with a full band before. Bill stayed with the Paul Williams Band for about eight months and has fond memories of the other musicians like Albert Winston, Steve Cooper, Cliff Smalls and the legendary Little Willie John. The work was harder than Bill had ever imagined – “The band played country wide four hours per night and seven days per week. The hardest thing for me to learn was how to play in the pocket. Paul would get so angry because I would mess up the groove and he often said that I knew how to mess up a good fuck!” But Bill stuck with it – learning all the time – “Williams described playing in the pocket like having good sex. When you find the groove, you just stay there and rock.”…. and for drumming like a sex God, Bill was paid $200 a week. Williams never really praised Bill too much, maybe because he knew what was coming. He had a son – Earl, who was just about to graduate, and surprise, surprise young Earl was a drummer. No surprise, then that after just eight months on the road young Bill Curtis was dropped. Nepotism was alive and well and living in New York City.
Nepotism of a kind brought Bill his next job. One of Williams’ old sax players Noble Watts had just gone on the road using the name Wildman Watts, and the wild man enlisted Bill into his band which consisted of tenor, baritone, upright bass, piano and drums. The band toured all over the East coast in just one small car and amongst the names they supported were Big Maybelle. Wynone Harris and Little Esther Philips, who even then, Bill sadly remembers, was ravaged by a drug habit. Bill Curtis stayed with Noble Watts for about six months before moving on to the King Curtis Band.
Texan sax star, “King” Curtis Ousley was based in New York City and in the fifties he led a hard-gigging road band. In late 1958 King Curtis’ drummer just happened to be our old friend Belton Evans. By this time though, Evans’s drumming status was such that at times he was often called up by top rock n’ roll entrepreneur Alan Freed to work his shows, leaving a part time vacancy on the King Curtis drum stool. Evans told the sax player that young Bill Curtis was the nearest sounding drummer to him and recommended him as temporary replacement. The fledgling drummer fondly remembers his time with “the best little band in New York”…. “I was very nervous and after the first set the band went straight to the bar. No one would speak to me or sit with me till we went back on stage. Bass player, Jim Lewis asked me did I drink. I answered no. He said, “On the next break try one to chill you out”. I did and on the very next set the ice was broken and Lewis said again,” since I have to play with you, I may as well teach you how to play”. I always tell people that I started at the top and worked my way down.” Bill also learned one drumming basic – “Worst thing that can happen to a band is to have a drummer who is not working together with the band… I mean compliment the players when they soloing. This is the group that got me ready and showed me the way.” Bill stayed with King Curtis till mid 1959 – then he hooked up with Sill Austin.
Sil Austin was a tenor sax man who was hot at the time with “Slow Walk” and he taught Bill a lot about making a show – “At this time tenor was king. These guys, during this era, were floorwalkers – on the tables or on the bars. It was nothing for them to play one tune for one whole hour. I remember a night in Cleveland, at the Horseshoe Club, which was right next door to another big bar.. Sil started playing “Fly Home” and walked out of our nightclub onto the street and right into the club next door, and when we looked up the sax man from that club walked in and played with us. This new sax man was Frank ”Floorshow” Culley and he blew all through our house and back out, then Sil came back in still playing. Now this was not a planned thing – it just happened and that one song could last about two hours”.
But despite his outward, big-hearted showmanship Sil Austin was a hard taskmaster, as the impressionable young Curtis learned at his first ever Apollo gig. The old Harlem theatre was packed and Austin counted in the first number. Bill will never forget what happened next – “I got the wrong tempo and Sil went up to the mike and said , “Ladies and gentlemen may I introduce you to our new drummer, Little Willie (which is what they called me at that time). Take a bow Little Willie. Now here’s the tempo – 1-2-3-4”. Man I never forgot that one.”
Without knowing it, Sil Austin also taught Bill a lot about man management – “Working with Sil was the basic 101 lesson in how NOT to run a band. All the things he did left a lasting impression on my life because I was so young then –sidemen were treated like, you know, nothing…. And when I started my Fatback, I made sure they my men had the same as I did.”
Austin left his drummer with many unpleasant memories – “I remember being stranded in Chicago. The band had no money and was living in a dump hotel. Sil was across town in a big famous hotel called The Parisian. He had about two or three chicks in his room and living it large with room service and all the luxuries. I went to ask him for the money to pay for our rooms and to get us something to eat and he refused to give it to us.” Things soon came to a head. “I found out the ins and out of playing after one year with Sil. Meantime I had to pay for my on the road expenses and also send money home to my family. We were at one gig and I asked Sil for more money. He told me that if I needed more money, maybe I should look for another band to play with.”
Bill did just that and joined up with ex G.I. and sax man Red Prysock, upping his pay to $300 a week. The Red Prysock band was a classier affair altogether and with the help of bassist Jimmy Merrick, Little Willie developed his art. From time to time Red shared his band with brother Arthur, but arguments between the siblings made for a strange atmosphere and after a year Bill left and for a while worked in a car wash. But he still wanted music schooling and tuition and was determined to get it, till Bill Doggett appeared on the scene.
Doggett had had a massive hit in 1956 with “Honky Tonk, which some critics describe as “the best rock and roll instrumental of the fifties”. His band featured Clifford Scott (tenor) and Billy Butler (guitar) but to keep on the road he needed a drummer and Bill Curtis seemed to suit. But the gig was a short one and after just seven weeks he was to move on to bigger and, some would say, better things.
Since 1955 the young Bill Curtis had come a long way and through all the ups and downs of his playing with the R&B road bands he’d learned a lot – “ From Paul Williams I learned how to stay in the pocket and how to deal with the members in the band…. From Noble Watts I learned no matter how large your audience is, when you hit the stage give it your best, like it’s the last one in your life…. From King Curtis I learned what my job was as drummer and my place in a combo….. From Sil Austin I learned how not to treat my men and it made me mentally and physically strong… From Red Prysock I learned to put it all together … and from Bill Doggett I developed the drive, the business end and being a classy gentleman. I learned that when you get your audience in the palm of your hands, just squeeze them and play your hits –that’s all.”.
Bill’s musical career was now set to enter another phase, when he teamed up with one of black music’s first true superstars, Clyde McPhatter.
Clyde McPhatter originally hailed from North Carolina, where, the son of Baptist minister, he won a reputation as a fine gospel singer. In 1950 he left the church behind and joined Billy Ward’s Dominoes. Then in 1953, he formed the Drifters as a vehicle for his distinctive high-tenor. It’s his voice that takes lead on the defining “Money Honey”. In 1956 after a spell in the USAF he embarked on a solo career and enjoyed a string of hits. To keep scoring the hits he undertook a busy touring schedule and ran a twelve piece band – it was that band that the ambitious Bill Curtis joined in 1960.
McPhatter was one of the first black entertainers to run his own shows. He would be the star, of course, and for his concerts he would add a second headliner and one support. The McPhatter Band would provide the music for all three artists. Guitarist Jimmy Oliver was the bandleader and he took Bill Curtis under his wing. From time to time McPhatter’s manager, Irwin Felt, would bookClydeonto “super shows” where he would be just one of maybe seven or eight top stars – black and white. But for those big occasions a disappointed Bill Curtis was dropped in favour of the more-experienced and seemingly omni-present drummer Belton Evans. Bill went along all the same and noticed how white performers like Bobby Darin would copy McPhatter’s moves. McPhatter eventually fell out with Felt and trimmed his big band down to a four piece – Jimmy Oliver, Albert Winston, Cliff Smalls and Bill Curtis –and though the hits were getting fewer and fewer, the band stayed on the road and like many black performers they had to face the sad indignities of segregation.
Bill remembers one night the band were playing in the Royal Peacock Club in Atlanta. – “It was a club where white and black partied together. Now that night one local white politician, Lester Mattock, heard about all that stuff going on and was shocked. He went and got a court order to close up the club and stop the whites from coming in. The next time we came to Atlanta we played at this all white club and the next night Clyde told the club owner he wasn’t going on unless he open the doors for everyone. The same thing happened in Clyde’s home town of Durham. There, he told the club owner he wasn’t going on unless his family could come in and see him. They were allowed in, but had to sit in a segregated section and the next night Clyde refused to play.”
The ugliness of racism also, surprisingly, extended into the studio. Bill Curtis; -“Clyde had this producer from Mercury Records – Shelby Singleton. Now Shelby wanted Clyde to record in Nashville, and Clyde was not happy about it, but he agreed. When he walked into the studio he didn’t see any black musicians, so he turned right round and walked out. The next day Singleton had black musicians ready to go.”
Bill remembers the fun times too. “One show, Clyde was starring with Jimmy Reed. I remember the band making a bet with Jimmy that he couldn’t go a week without drinking. The day after I saw Jimmy and I didn’t recognize him ‘cos it was so rough on him. He seemed to be very weak and during his shows two guys had to stand next to him while he performed, just in case you know… but he won the bet!”
McPhatter himself rates highly in Bill’s estimation. The drummer enthuses; - “Clyde treated us as part of his act. Everywhere Clyde stayed we stayed. He demanded that everyone treat his band members with respect. Everything was first class for us.” But first class or not, by 1968 Bill Curtis was ready to take on the music business on his own terms – a decision made easier by McPhatter’s move to the UK in an attempt to resurrect his failing career.
New York Days
By 1968 Bill Curtis was in his mid thirties and something of music biz veteran. He was also a family man and nursed strong ambitions. He was proud of his wife, “Sandra was a well-rounded person but she come from a broken home. She was the oldest of four and had to help raise the others, but they made it. She was the first New York girl I ever dated. She really swept me off my feet – you know a guy from the south hooking up with this city girl.”
The couple had their first child, Lydia Jeanne, in February 1957 and the struggling musician acknowledges the debt he owes to their respective families. Apart from his road work, Bill managed to pick up odd studio dates and without a baby sitter he was often forced to take Lydiaalong with him. “I told her to be cool and sit next to daddy and don’t move or talk,” Bill fondly remembers. At this time the family were living with Bill’s father in Queens but in 1959 they moved to Linden Boulevard to an apartment over a Chinese laundry. In 1965 a second daughter, Lisa, was born and the constant touring with the McPhatter band took him away from home more than he wanted. He resolved, therefore, to make it happen in the Big Apple – but, as thousands of others had already found, it wasn’t easy.
Despite his track record and experience, Curtis discovered it wasn’t easy penetrating the New York music fraternity and at first he contented himself with playing the lounges and cabarets that peppered the upstate resorts in the Catskill Mountains. For one gig Bill shared a room with future top writer/producer Burt DeCoteaux. Interestingly at the time, Bill recalls, DeCoteaux was studying Motown and trying to work out the formula that provided Berry Gordy with so many hits. “Find a formula and stick with it”, was Decoteaux’s conclusion. Occasionally, too, Bill found some employment at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre. At the time the house band was led by Reuben Philips and he hired and fired the musicians. Philips took Bill Curtis on for a number of dates and the Fatback man can remember providing the beats for Ketty Lester, Maxine Brown, Pigmeat Markham, the Impressions, Sam and Dave, Moms Mabley, Joe Tex, the Cadillacs and Marvin Gaye, whose Curtis-backed appearance was actually Gaye’s Apollo debut. Bill’s biggest move, though, was to establish his own small band which was soon dubbed The Soul Four. That seminal combo first got together at the Castle Inn in Queens.
The Castle Inn was on New York Boulevard in Queens. It was a well-known music venue and every Monday night the club held a jam session. When he was in town that’s where Bill hung out, eventually meeting the like minded Don Pullen and Charlie Williams. Pullen played a swinging organ and Williams blew a mean alto and the trio would jam. The venue’s manager, Eddie Roots, loved their tight, soulful sound and offered them the job as house band. They played the Castle Inn for a while but their reputation led them to a better offer from George Barkley, the owner of the Fantasy East Supper Club over in Hollis. The only stipulation that Barkley made was that the trio expand to a quartet by adding his friend- a tenor sax man, Bubba Brooks, to the line up. Thus The Soul Four were born. Bill describes the band as a “fun group”, but they were much more than that. Bill acknowledges, “My best buddies were in this group. We were like brothers. I don’t know how we bonded so well. It could have been that we all were ready to make a mark for ourselves. For whatever the reason was, we were eternal buddies.” The group were very popular at the Fantasy East – playing their own spots and providing the back line for the artists booked in by Barkley. Bill clearly recollects providing support for the likes Rita Decoco, Irene Reid, Etta James, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Arthur Prysock, Ruth Brown and Marlena Shaw. Real rehearsals though were few and far between. Bill clearly remembers; -“We never rehearsed for any acts. They would schedule a band to play, but the band would never turn up. We would talk over the show downstairs in the basement just before the acts would go on. Most of their music we didn’t know, but we would go on the bandstand just like we know it. They called that “head arrangement”. We would make new arrangements as we went along.” This ad hoc approach clearly impressed the visiting singers. “Some of the acts, we learned later, were bringing in their own arranger and copying our arrangements so they have them to use themselves”, recollects Bill.
The club hours, though, were long. The Soul Four played the Fantasy East four nights a week, led the regular Thursday night jam sessions and at weekends they did two shows a night. Inevitably, maybe, the long hours were sustained with alcohol. Bill remembers, “The band was a drinking band and would get fired up every night. I was so fired up one night that I fell off the bandstand in the middle of a song. The rest of the guys were so messed up they didn’t even miss me. The audience was cracking up.” Barkley was prepared to tolerate the behaviour - not just because of the quality of the Soul Four but because they came cheap. Bill Curtis is nothing if not honest – “The owner knew the band made his club and he knew he couldn’t find a bunch of guys that could do the shows at that price…. And we loved the gig because of the freedom we had.”
While a regular at the Fantasy East Bill started to pick up more studio work. Some of it involved laying down the demos for one of New York’s top session drummers, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Purdie was always overbooked and Bill Curtis would sometimes stand in. Bill remembers the initial difficulties –”I would hassle with my own kit down to the sessions and all the guys would joke about me bringing my own set. They say, “Don’t you know the studio have its own drums?” So the next time I got a session I didn’t bring any drums to this particular studio. Would you believe it! There was no drums – it was one of the largest sessions I had ever had. You know, I panic, ran out of the studio, looking for some drums. About two hours later I return with some drums, but was locked out of the studio.” The incident had a big effect, adds Bill, “Word got out how I didn’t show up for that session and so people didn’t call me no more. They say I cost the contractors money. In other words they say I wasn’t dependable. I was black-balled from recording”. Candidly, however, there might have been a bit more to the black-balling than the missing drum kit. “Sometimes I would make demos and get paid demo session prices. One day I heard one of my demos playing on the radio. I thought that was a demo session not to be played on the air, because we musicians had not been paid the full rates. So I went to the union to ask a few questions about it all. I brought some heat down on a few people. I upset people – but I got paid. I hadn’t learned yet that in the music business you just turn your head and keep going.”
As the sessions became more frequent, the Soul Four came under real pressure. To complicate matters, Bill was being offered higher paid weekend work with the Ron Anderson Band. Anderson’s band, who sometimes went out under the name “The Versatiles”, were one of New York’s top cabaret outfits and they were always heavily booked on the cabaret and wedding circuit. Don Pullen was the first leave the Soul Four. His replacement was Weldon Irvine a well-known Queen’s musician who went on to work with Tom Browne, Marcus Miller, Don Blackmon, and Najee. But even with Weldon in the line up, the band’s days were numbered. Bill does remember cutting some tracks with the Soul Four, most notably the music for “Trees And Grass And Things” which was credited to Charlie Williams. It came out on Mainstream Records and Bill bitterly remembers his lack of credits – both artistic and financial. Once again, he was learning the music business the hard way. The demise of the Soul Four coincided with Bill’s resolution to take control himself.
Since his earliest days in New York, Bill Curtis had always wanted to have his own business and to be able to call the shots himself. In that way he was no different to the thousands of others who were drawn to the Big Apple every year chasing that elusive American dream. As early as 1967 Bill started to rent a storefront in Linden Boulevard, Queens– right over the road from his apartment. His idea was simple. With his New York music contacts, he’d operate as a booking agent and maybe even start his own record label. He needed a name for the store and after some thought he came up with “The House of Funk”. Some histories suggest the shop was called “House Of Fatback” , but Bill’s adamant – and he should know. The confusion, it seems, stems from the wonderful picture of the store which has the “Home of Fatback” emblazoned right across the window along with numerous other posters. The word “Band” is just off shot – so the store’s proper billing, according to Bill, is “The House Of Funk … Home of the Fatback Band”– a direct reference to the group he was putting together. That new, evolving outfit was named after Bill’s “Fatback” style of drumming which was becoming so well known amongst the New York black music community. The term had originated in New Orleans, when someone who’d heard Bill’s distinctive double shuffle rhythms spiced with funk and Caribbean flavours, called it “a grease fatback beat”.
Bill’s earlier experiences with the Soul Four and the Ron Anderson Band had convinced him that there was a lot of work out there…. low key work maybe, but work nevertheless. His idea was that the exotically-named “House Of Funk” could provide the community’s live musical needs – be they weddings, cocktail parties, graduations, anniversaries, bar-mitzvahs, even divorces and funerals. Bill and the extended New York Curtis family were even prepared to sort out the catering! So for a carefully negotiated one-off fee, your party was sorted courtesy of Bill Curtis’ Best Band Agency at the House of Funk.
With such a set-up, it was obvious that Bill needed to find musicians and it’s equally obvious that work-seeking musicians would gravitate to Linden Boulevard hoping for work. It was that situation that saw the birth of the Fatback Band itself and the inception of the Fatback label.
Some of the inspiration for Bill to start his own label had come from one-time Paul Williams bandsman, Joe Evans. Evans was a talented sax player, who, like Bill Curtis, had done the rounds – even playing with Choker Campbell in the famed Motortown Revue. Like the thousands we mentioned previously, Evans wanted his own piece of the American dream and if Berry Gordy could do it, why couldn’t Joe Evans? So, by the late sixties Bill’s ex-colleague, Evans, was enjoying moderate success with his very own Carnival label. If Joe Evans could do it, why couldn’t Bill Curtis?
The very first release on new entrepreneur Curtis’ label came in August 1967. The song was a mournful ballad – “Stop Pretending”, and the artist was Mary Davis. Ms. Davis hailed from Brooklyn, though her roots were down south in Georgia and anoraks might like to know that she later went on to work with the SOS Band. The second Fatback release featured the Four Puzzles. The single coupled “Especially For You Baby” with “Right Or Wrong” and both songs, like the Mary Davis single, were written by Sam Culley and various members of his group the Diplomats – a very popular band on the New York circuit. Again anoraks might like to know that in the late sixties the Four Puzzles toured the UK, where an unscrupulous promoter had billed them as Little Anthony and the Imperials!
The Diplomats provided the songs for the Four Puzzles next record – “My Sweet Baby”/I Need You”, though by now the band had dropped the “Four” from their billing. Local interest meant these and other Fatback label records did well in Queens, but the big time remained elusive, even though the records were slickly produced. Bill Curtis’s musical CV was such that he could call on big names on the local scene to put his productions together. So, featured on the early Fatback releases were the likes of Joe “Carnival” Evans, Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, Jimmy Oliver, Cornell Dupree and Charlie “Soul 4” Williams.
Another early release on the Fatback label was “The Cat Walk”/Little Bit Of Soul” from Gerry and Paul and the Soul Emissaries. “Gerry” was Gerry Thomas – a local keyboard and trumpet player who Bill Curtis had met during his time with Ron Anderson. In 1968 Thomas went on to join the Jimmy Castor Bunch and he was to play with the troglodytes for ten years – off and on. Though he was 20 years younger than Bill, the pair became good friends and Gerry was to be crucial in the formation and evolution of the Fatback Band itself. The “Paul” from “The Cat Walk” was Paul Roland Martinez –a bass player, who’d also worked with Jimmy Castor. The Soul Emissaries were a pick-up, session band that boasted Richard Tee and Pretty Purdie in the line–up. That group’s next release came in November 1968 and it paired two more instrumentals – “Lone Ranger N Funky Tonto” and “Quiet Waters” and by now the band were dubbed G.P and the Soul Emissaries. Interestingly the single featured Jimmy Castor on tenor sax and, along with his Bunch, Castor went on to later re-work “Quiet Waters” as “Helpless”. Sadly the G.P. single was to be the last official Fatback label release. Cash flow problems and dodgy distribution deals left the Fatback label where so many other small labels had ended up – dead in the water! In 1969 the label was officially wound up.
Throughout all this, Curtis and his Best Band Service agency were providing bands for all kinds of functions and those early photographs of the Fatback shop show signs offering clients any kind of band ranging from one musician to “16 Peices” – their spelling, not mine! Amongst the musicians that Bill was regularly using were Warren Daniels, Johnny King, Johnny Flippin, Wayne Woodford, Earl Shelton, George Williams, George Adams and, of course, Gerry Thomas. Bill clearly remembers his first experiences with Gerry – “I met Gerry Thomas in the Ron Anderson Band. We hit it off right away. At that time he was playing downtown on Broadway in a production of “Two Gentlemen From Verona”. He was also doing freelancing, arranging and writing a few things for the Lloyd Price Band. Gerry had come to me with a few tunes to put on my label and we have been partners and friends ever since”.
In the midst of all this activity the Fatback conglomerate continued to diversify. Bill and his team would try anything to earn, and locally the House of Funk became very well known. Straight off the street, you could go into the store and book almost anything - all kinds of dancers – classical, go-go –even strippers; you could hire all sorts of music from a modern jazz ensemble to a steel band; you could even request a down-home soul food buffet – indeed Bill would offer anything and everything – almost. In what time he had on his hands, Bill also ran drum clinics, while Johnny King –who lived next door to the shop – offered guitar lessons. On the other side of the store, Bill set up a rehearsal room which he called “the Ponderosa” – a play on the “Bonanza” TV series. It eventually became a hang out for the Fatback musicians – as Bill says “the Ponderosa was the play pen; and you only enter by invitation.”
However with the demise of the label, the live gigs became the real bread winners. The embryonic Fatback Band played all over New Yorkand Bill, with some justification claims, “We were the hottest band in New York City.” But the players wanted more and they started to ask, “if Bill had recorded others, why didn’t he record them?” Bill; “O.K. so, I booked the studio and we went in with my idea of trying to get a country-funk-groove. Being a free form group we kinda drifted into a new kind of funk.”
These “new kind of funk” recordings needed an outlet so Bill formed another label – BC Project II - and the new imprint issued two singles. Both were credited to Johnny King and the Fatback Band. The A side of the first single was “Keep On Brother, Keep On” and the second single led with “Put It In”. “Peace, Love, Not war” was on the B-side of both discs. The lead billing went to Johnny King because he was the featured vocalist – and he was something of a personality around Queens. The other players on the records were Bill, Gerry Thomas, Sam Culley and Warren Daniel. Neither disc sold in any great quantity, but at least the Fatback name was out there –and before long the “name” was scoring hits.
The Doors of Perception
Bill Curtis had worked long and hard trying to launch his labels. Even then, he knew what he had to do and what the problems were. “I would start with a load of records and work my way through the South, stopping off at different radio stations from New York to Alabama trying to get air play. Then, on the way back I would stop off at the record shops selling my records. What put me out of business was the independent distributors…they can put you out of business quick. They will hold back part of your money till you brought them new product. But knowing you were small – they knew you couldn’t press new product without the money! If you don’t comeback with the new product, you don’t get the rest of your money.” Simple.
Bill knew if he was to succeed he needed a decent deal with a decent-sized company – so he began the rounds of the bigger labels. Bill; “I was going from record company to record company with demos – not the Fatback Band, but Fatback Records stuff. One day I ran into Boo Frazier in the street. I’d met him when I was working with Clyde McPhatter on his Mercury stuff and I told him about Fatback Records and what I was trying to do with my label and how I was selling out of the back of my car.”
It transpired that Boo Frazier was Vice President of New York’s Perception Records whose label roster was eclectic to say the least. Amongst the Perception acts, Boo told Bill, were bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Afro-American poetess Wanda Robinson. Frazier thought that the Fatback crew would be a perfect complement to their esotericism so he invited Bill down to the office for a business meeting with label boss Terry Philips. Bill clearly remembers the career-changing interview – “On my way down to Perception Records, I though of this bright idea with my band. I told Terry Philips I had an R&B/Country and Western Band! At that time Terry thought it was great idea and we got a deal!” However – as was often the way – things weren’t quite so straightforward. Perception were prepared to pay for the studio but Bill would have to pay the musicians out of his own pocket. Right away, Bill booked himself into New York’s Blue Rock studios and within four hours his band laid down 9 tracks. Two hours later, the album “Lets Do It Again” had been mixed! Bill acknowledges the input of the studio staff; “The guy responsible for our sound was Eddie Korvin – he was the engineer. He said he never heard a session recorded this way in his life – so he kept it the way we played.”
But that was only the start. Bill, again; “When I presented the album to Terry Philips he said he didn’t know what to do with it. The promotion men took the record out and couldn’t find any DJs that would play it”. Hardly surprising if you scan the track list. “Let’s Do It Again” boasted nine originals – but as Bill had promised there were three examples of his new music hybrid – Fatback Funk versions of “Wichita Lineman”, “The Green Green Grass Of Home” and “Baby I’m a Want You”. The promotion men persevered though and couple weeks after release New York’s no. 1 soul DJ Frankie Crocker picked up on the album. Bill maintains that when Crocker heard one particular track – “Goin’ To See My Baby”, he described it as “the funkiest thing he’d heard in years”. For Bill Curtis, “that was the turning point”. As important was the fact that the music on the debut LP defined the distinctive Fatback sound. That sound was a blend of tough riffing horns underpinned by a rock solid backbeat. Bill again – “You will find the Fatback style on our first Perception album. The tracks ‘Free Form’ and ‘Street Dance ‘are good examples … it’s the beat I created it and made famous. It’s what the public associate with us.”
The airplay for “Goin’ To See My Baby" prepared the way for “Street Dance” –the Fatback Band’s first ever chart hit in June 1972. At Perception they also enjoyed single success with “Njia Walk” and “Soul March”, both taken from the Band’s second album – 1973’s “People Music”. In 1974 the Fatback’s third album was released – “Feel My Soul” while their final effort at Perception was a single, “Dance Girl”, which was credited to “Fatback Brother Bill Curtis”.
During their time at Perception the line up of the Fatback was constantly evolving. Guitarist Johnny King, bass player John Flippin, sax men George Adams and Earl Shelton and trumpeter George Williams were ever-presents along with main man Bill Curtis. Other featured players at the time included Warren Daniels, Billy Hamilton, Wayne Wilford, Artie Simmons and, of course, Gerry Thomas who joined the sessions in between work with Jimmy Castor. Though the band's line-up was fluid, the sound wasn’t. At Perception the sound of the Fatback Band began to crystallise – minimal vocals, a solid rhythm, a strong pulse, a ticking hi-hat, a locked-in bass, duelling guitars and tight, tough, riffing horns – an irresistible, funky formula to dance! It was essentially a “live” sound and all too often a sound fuelled by good times and in-studio partying.” I remember one session,” says Bill “– I had two buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and three fifths of liquor, and by the time we got through two tunes everybody was tore down. We played for about five hours. We came back the next day and had to do the whole session over.”
Fatback music was party music and it kept the Band fully booked on the live circuit. Throughout the Perception years the group were booked solidly – still playing everything and anywhere - from theatres to cabarets and from private parties to swish lounges. They were even popular on the well-paying wedding, anniversary and bar-mitzvah circuit. But they worked at it – “We’re workers”, says Bill, “We call ourselves construction men. We hustle. When we come into a hall, we demolish the place! If we don’t get them roarin’ then somebody’s not playin… you know, if we didn’t have the people rollin’, then we weren’t doing our job’”.
Bill also notes that the early success of the Fatback Band was a spur for other groups. “We made it possible for other bands to start selling. Before Fatback was popular in New York no band had hits; now big companies started recording bands and breaking them nationally. We were the start; after us came bands like Kool and the Gang, B T Express, Confunktion, Brass Construction, Cameo, even the Commodores. These were the ones that were descended from the popularity of the Fatbacks.” Not that any of these bands would ever acknowledge the debt they owed to the Fatback Band. In fact there was a serious rivalry amongst the funk peddlers that often became dirty. Bill; “Cameo and Fatback didn’t get along. When Cameo were at their peak we supported them on one tour. Larry Blackmon wouldn’t let me use their drum kit and he would only give us half the sound system and just fifteen minutes on stage. But we still kicked ass and, one show, when we went a few minutes over time we almost fought.” The Fatback boys also ran into trouble with Lionel Richie’s Commodores – “When we toured with the Commodores they let us have four tunes, then cut us to three, then two, and we ended up just doing one for the rest of that tour and that still tore the house up. The Commodores pulled the PA system out on us one night ‘cos we were so hot!” All that rivalry though was for the future. Back in 1974 the Fatback had a new single to promote. But there were clouds ahead. It seemed that the Perception bubble was about to burst.
Soon after the release of “Dance Girl”, Perception owner, Terry Philips, filed for bankruptcy. He told a massively disappointed Bill Curtis, “Nothing personal – I got my family money back, and I’m gettin’ out.” “Dance Girl” dropped off the radar overnight – but the song was soon to enjoy some success in cover versions by the Rimshots and the Mighty Tom Cats – no consolation though for Fatbackin’ Bill and his success-hungry band! Even more disappointing was the lack of any royalties – “I have never received any royalties from that Perception stuff to this very day”, rues Bill.
The Fatback Band weren’t without a deal for too long. A matter of months after Perception had folded, Bill Curtis signed his band to Event, a subsidiary of Spring Records – a label that was hot with Joe Simon and Millie Jackson. Bill recalls what happened; “After Perception I went to Mercury, Polydor and all kinds of companies to see if I could get Fatback a deal. One day, coming out of Polydor I ran into Roy Rifkind, who - I didn’t know at the time - ran Spring Records. As it happened I was with my lawyer, Lou Harris, who knew Roy. Roy asked Lou what he was doing there and he explained about the Fatback Band. So Roy invited us over and we signed a deal.”
Roy Rifkind was a music biz veteran and had started Spring in the late sixties along with his brother Julie and Bill Spitalsky. Together they had developed their Event label as a teen-pop outlet and both labels were eventually tied to Polydor for promotion and distribution deals – which explains the chance meeting in the major label’s foyer. Both Bill Curtis and the Event/Spring team had been round the musical block many times and between them they struck a decidedly low-key deal. Bill, shrewdly, explains why – “We signed a low-budget deal that gave me the freedom to create and do whatever I do best”. He also knew that retaining control would bring it own problems – “ because Fatback was controlled and owned by Bill Curtis, and no big time whites - like the Polydor people –were involved, I didn’t t go for the big, headlining deals…. I was the manager, producer and artist and during those days if you were not sharing your money with the big management companies or part of a family you did nor get the big hits”.
Curtis’ astute and wary attitude to business dealings was deep-rooted – “My father, who wasn’t an entertainer or musician, often told me that black entertainers in the early days controlled all of their music. So, in order to get black entertainment you would have to go to places like Harlem; there, music was controlled. When the people downtown or on Broadway wanted entertainment they would have to come up to Harlem”. Bill’s attitude was also honed by his own early experiences in the business – “I wanted control because I felt like the record companies were unfair to musicians when I found out how royalties were paid, how they have control over what you record and how you never own your own master after you’ve paid for it. That’s why I wanted creation control, and will always manage the group. I never got involved with no managers.”
But despite obvious business suspicions, the relationship between Spring and the Fatback Band was one of the most enduring in music business history. In a nine year time span the Fatback team released 16 albums and scored 26 US R&B chart hits!
The Fatback/Spring relationship got off to an exceptional start on. The first two singles “Keep On Stepping” and “Wicky Wacky” both charted, before “Do The Bus Stop” established then as a major attraction. The first two songs were taken from the Fatback Band’s Event/Spring debut album – “Keep On Steppin’”. Recorded in 1974, it featured a classic band line-up;- Johnny King on guitar, Johnny Flippin on bass, George Williams on trumpet, Earl Shelton on tenor, George Adams on flute and tenor, Gerry Thomas on trumpet and organ, and, of course, Bill Curtis on drums. The Fatback’s follow up album – “Yum Yum” ( the one with the lollipop sucking cover) featured the same basic line up, with the addition of female backing singers, Elaine Clarke and Terri – who were later to evolve into Wild Sugar. The sleeve notes offered particular thanks to Gerry Thomas and to label owner Bill Spitalsky “for supplying pressure”. “Bus Stop” came from the third Event/Spring LP – “Raising Hell”. Recorded in ’75 at Media Sound Studios, the album’s seven tracks included a cover of the old Motown hit “I Can’t Help Myself”. From time to time Bill and the Band would record covers, simply, Bill says, “Because we like to have fun and we knew the label wasn’t going to listen so we put out our Fatback versions of the songs.” Again the album credits singled out Gerry Thomas and thanks were given “to our many friends who came by to party with us”. Indeed, that was the essence of the mid seventies Fatback sound . It was party music with its own distinct and unique feel. That special feel came from the way the music was recorded. The band would invite their family and friends along to the sessions to create a party atmosphere that became etched into the grooves. The template had been laid down in the Perception days and Bill defines his sound so succinctly –“My music was party music. I wanted the people to get the feeling of a party”. That special party music became very popular in the black dance clubs across the USA. In the UK the Fatback party sound was taken up in the soul clubs and it became extremely popular amongst the ex-pat West Indian community.
The “Raising Hell” album yielded the Fatback’s biggest hit of the mid seventies – “Spanish Hustle”. It peaked at no. 12 in the American R&B charts and crashed the UK top ten. The tune was written by Gerry Thomas and he had originally offered it to Jimmy Castor who was still his main employer. A trivial disagreement with Castor meant that Thomas could record the tune with the Fatback Band, and the result, as they say, is history! R&B hit followed R&B hit - most notably with the funkified “Double Dutch” and the Phyllis Hyman-vocalised “Night Fever. It was Gerry Thomas who secured the services of Hyman. Bill; “Gerry knew Onaje Allan Gumbs, who’d worked with Norman Connors and Phyllis. They’d been to school together and Onaje had worked with us too. So we asked if he could get Phyllis over on Fatback and it happened. Until then I didn’t know her.” With Gerry Thomas now a permanent band member, the late seventies yielded even bigger hits with “I Like Girls”, “Gotta Get My Hands On Some Money” and “Backstrokin’”. Bill Curtis is particularly fond of “Backstrokin’” and along with his other hits, it allows him to rightly stake a special claim – “We started the first disco beat and made line dancing popular - first with “Bus Stop” and then with “Double Dutch” and “Backstrokin’”…. They were all dances we started and created”.
This period also saw a distinguished crop of Fatback Band albums – “NYCNYCUSA” (1977), ”Man With The Band” (1978), “Fired Up, Kickin’ N’ Ready To Go” (1978), Fatback XII (1979) and “Bright Lites Big City” (1979).By now the band’s line up had evolved, though Flippin, Thomas and Williams were still in there from the early days. Other featured band members were Fred Demery (brass), Billy King (percussion),Jimmy Skelton (keyboards) and Cobra Butler (guitar). Interestingly the “Fired Up, N’ Kickin’” album’s credits offered special thanks to “the Soul Three – C. I. Williams, Don Pullen and Bubba Brooks”, while “Fatback XII” featured a truly seminal track – “King Tim III (Personality Jock)”.
I Found Rappin'
In the late seventies life in America’s urban ghettos was bleak – and whether turkey-necked Reagan or peanut farmer Carter sat in the Oval Office, prospects were getting bleaker. As is often the case when faced with hopelessness, some young people find an outlet in music and in those harsh, late seventies a new music rose from the streets – hip hop. It began in the South Bronx with pioneers like Afrika Bambaata, DJ Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash. The rap beat soon spread to Harlem, Brooklyn and eventually all major urban ghettos and the ever-musically-aware Bill Curtis was quick to pick up on the vibe. He explains; “I was doing a session in Media Sound Studios and I was not really happy because I had not found my hit. Then a bright idea hit me. The cats in the Bronx – Grand Master Flash and all – were doing rapping and no one had recorded them, so I decided to look that way. Our sound man, Tony Avery, told me he had a friend over in Harlem that rapped, so we brought him in. His name was Tim Washington, but he preferred King Tim III. We already had a tune recorded, ‘Catch The Beat’, written by Gerry Thomas, so we went back and opened it up and Tim just busted out!” The end result was the sparse but lively, six minute “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” – which most musicologists believe was the first commercially recorded rap track.
Bill believed the track was a potential smash. He took it down to a big DJ convention in Philadelphia– “I played it for a few jocks in Philly and they felt it would be the biggest thing on the market. After I got their approval I came back to Spring all fired up”. Bill’s eagerness though was soon spiked. He remembers the episode vividly –”I told Spring “King Tim” was IT! but they refused to put it out because they said the radio jockeys would not play it. I said ‘Hey man I just left their convention and I got their approval. They felt it would be the biggest thing ever.’ I can remember like it was yesterday when the Spring people said ‘Bill, if we go with this record we will not promote it or put money behind it. You will be out there on your own. We want to go with “You’re My Candy Sweet”’. I said, ‘Damn “You’re My Candy Sweet”!’ That was me singing that and I can’t even sing! I said OK if you go with that, well put “King Tim” on the B-side, and that’s how it came out”.
Bill’s disappointment deepened just a few weeks later when a rival label took up his idea. Bill remembers – “Now my old buddy Joe Robinson had this record label going (Sugarhill). He was turning out good records. His promotions man was out on the road and he ran across Fatback Records. Someone told him we had a monster record out there –but it was only a B-side. He called Joe Robinson and that evening Joe was in the studio cutting “Rappers Delight. He had it out in two days! It was a smash. Till this day that’s why we get no respect”.
Disgruntled pioneers or not, the Fatbacks continued to work and in the studio their music continued to evolve. They retained the funk edge but at times the sound became more polished and they were even to experiment with electro music. By the late seventies Bill had also dropped “band” from group’s name – “Club owners didn’t want to book bands in their clubs, anyway we felt we were much more than just a band – we were entertainers, so I dropped ‘Band’”. In 1980 two albums came out under the Fatback banner – “14 Karat” and “Hot Box”. The latter featured Tim Washington again and there was considerable vocal input from the Wild Sugar girls – who at that time were Robin Dunn, Janice Christie and Linda Blakely. Interestingly, the LP also featured Paul Williams - the very same “Hucklebuck” Paul Williams with whom Bill had started his professional career so many years before. Bill, of course, had used Williams before and knew his value – “He was a great session musician and one of the few baritone sax players in New York City.”
1981’s “Gigolo” set again featured Tim Washington and the same Wild Sugar girls. Amazingly, on this album, the nucleus of the band was still the same as when they’d started out. Johnny Flippin still pounded the bass; Johnny King still offered his guitar licks and the brass section still comprised George Williams and Fred Demery. Gerry Thomas was still an important part of the mix too, while the credits once again acknowledge the sax input from Paul Williams. Together they cut 8 tracks including a cover of Steam’s pop hit “Na, Na, Hey Hey, Kiss Her Goodbye”.
In 1983 the Fatbacks began to experiment with the “new” electronic instruments that were becoming the vogue. So, the “Is This The Future” album featured Robbie Kondor on moog while Bill himself dabbled with the Oberheim DMX. The music also boasted Arp strings, a Fender Rhodes and Vocoders. Bill has mixed feelings about electronic instruments – “Fatback was always looking for a new sound and ways to tighten up our groove. Electronics brought a whole new to tool to work with – but it’s just a tool and can never replace the human feeling. Those new instruments also knocked a lot of musicians out of work and they take the soul out of the music when used the wrong way. They made a lot of mechanical musicians and they help musicians who can’t play sound good.”
“Is This The Future” again featured Wild Sugar – along with a new lead vocalist, Michael Walker. Gerry Thomas described the LP’s music as “rap for a person of my age”, but the album also featured the smooth soul of “The Girl Is Fine”. That feeling had been heralded on “She’s My Shining Star” – a standout track on 1982’s “On The Floor” album, on which vocalistWalker had debuted.
The Fatbacks had picked up Walker– by coincidence – in Bill Curtis’ home town of Fayetteville on one of their extensive tours. The singer originally hailed from Weldon in North Carolinabut he’d attended college in Fayetteville where he majored in music. He was recommended to Bill Curtis by Malachi Sharpe who directed school bands in and around Fayetteville.
Previously, especially on the road, the Fatbacks had worked with singers, but mostly in a background capacity. Bill explains – “As we grew successful musically and started getting more jobs, I found my musicians did not have much talent for singing, so I had to find a way to hold the people’s attention, so I added girl singers and go-go dancers who I called Wild Sugar.” The first full-time girl in the band was Robin Dunn who was later joined by her sister Desiree. Bill develops his logic –“They were dancers and I felt I should expand a little more and added Deborah Cooper. She was a singer and we developed her as a dancer too. When Deborah dropped out we brought in Linda Blakely and that became the hottest Fatback ever! The girls just added versatility and after that the Fatbacks were unstoppable live. We were so good we could not get on some shows. Top headliners wanted no part of the Fatback. We played with bands like the Brothers Johnson and Pleasure, but the larger and more established artists – especially the female ones, felt intimidated.”
Bill’s also clear that the addition of Michael Walker changed the band’s sound – “This is when our music really began to change. We started doing more formal music and more songs with lyrics. He gave us a structure that we never had before. That is when we had our first really big hit – ‘I Found Loving’, which, of course, featured Michael.” Walker’s approach also added a different dimension the outfit. Bill remembers – “Michael was a great front man – a real ladies man”. It was Walker who co-write “I Found Loving” with bassist Johnny Flippin. That seminal song was recorded in 1983 at New York’s Right Track studio and was featured on the album “With Love”. The only regular Fatback crew featured on that album were Gerry Thomas, Johnny Flippin and of course Bill Curtis but that didn’t prevent the music being instantly identifiable as Fatback music.
“I Found Loving”, of course, was the LP’s big tune, but it wasn’t a hit on initial release. Indeed it had little impact in the States. In the UK however it became a soul club staple. In June 1984 the song peaked at no. 7 in the UK singles chart. It was loved by the general public and the more discerning soul crowd. What’s more, it was to chart again on re-release in 1987. The re-release was prompted by another version of the song which Steve Walsh had recorded. Walsh was an important and influential UK soul DJ. He had a huge presence amongst the soul community and ran popular soul weekenders. There, the demand for “I Found Loving” forced him to record his own version. Bill holds no grudges about the cover – “The UK love that song and we love the UK”. Anyway, the Fatbacks got the royalties and still do, as the song is constantly recycled, sampled and re-recorded. The most recent version of the song came form Ashanti. The self-proclaimed “Princess of R&B” recorded it in 2004 and Bill wasn’t too impressed – “She didn’t have to copy it word for word, note for note. She should have brought her personality to the record”. The continued popularity of the song makes it one of the most enduring dance tunes of all time.
Ironically the success of “I Found Loving” coincided with the end of the Fatback’s relationship with Spring who had just ended their own deal with Polydor. Bill explains the logic – “By 1984 I felt we had outgrown Spring. I knew we weren’t going to get the promotion we needed now, so I started looking.” That search was a short one and the Fatback team were soon signed to Cotillion.
A New Perspective
Cotillion was a New York label that was a part of the Atlantic group. Its roster was eclectic to say the least. At various times Cotillion was home to soul stalwarts like Brook Benton and the Impressions, a base for funk outfits like Slave and Mass Production, and maybe, more unusually, an American outlet for UK acts like ELP, Slade and Screaming Lord Sutch. Artists as varied as the Velvet Underground and Sister Sledge had pacted with Cotillion too and, interestingly, from a Fatback perspective, Jimmy Castor had been on the label. Bill offers his reason for going with Cotillion – “We felt like we had outgrown Spring. We felt that Cotillion could give us the support we needed and musically we did our best stuff with them.” That “best stuff” amounted to two albums – 1984’s “Phoenix” and 1985’s “So Delicious”
During the Cotillion period the band continued to evolve. Michael Walker left the band in 1985 and he’s now a teacher in New York. Walker was replaced by another Malachi Sharpe recomendee, John Duberry, but on the live shows Linda Blakely was the more dominant force and Duberry soon left. Blakely was from Louisville, Kentucky and she’d earlier replaced Deborah Cooper in Wild Sugar. Bill has very fond memories of her – “She was a very soulful singer and quite an entertainer… with her we had – one, two punch! And with Linda as front person we went up another level. She was nicknamed “the mean machine” and when promoters booked us the first thing they would ask is whether Linda was still in the band. We could not go on without her. She was dynamite…but sadly she died in 1995”
The unique Fatback live sound was captured in 1987 when a BBC concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon was released on UK based Start records. By then Bill and his band had split from Cotillion and again it was a story of music business machinations. Bill again; “At Cotillion we used new technology and new sounds and got real slick with a big sound. But the president of Cotillion, Henry Allen, was in a big corporate fight. At the time Atlantic wanted to shut down the black side of their business and Henry ended up resigning. We didn’t know what was going on until we were in there and by then it was too late”.
By the end of the eighties the Fatback Band was about to disband, when their whole catalogue was given a new lease of life – ironically by a musical movement that the Band had helped kick start. Hip hop artists had always used old records for their beats and backing tracks, but now the introduction of the Akai sampler meant that aspiring rappers could take their music to a whole new level. Breaks from old classics could now be sampled and digitally looped to create unique soundscapes over which the rhymes could be laid down. At the same time the Fatback Band’s Spring catalogue was becoming available again, as British company Ace Records acquired Spring’s licensing rights. All the Fatback albums were eventually re-issued and creative rappers were soon digging into them to find elusive and exciting beats. But it wasn’t just the hip hop crews who found inspiration in the Fatback funk. Artists as diverse as Bjork and Groove Armada have used Fatback sounds as inspiration and Bill Curtis has mixed feelings about it all. “Around ’88 the work started fading and the whole industry was in disarray, but the sampling started to bring in some royalties. The only thing I have against sampling is people using it as a quick way for not studying music; that is why music is at a standstill; only a very few are creating new music. I’m speaking from the black side. I remember when we were the leaders in music. Look back in the growth of music and you see what I’m talking about. When sampling came in they just kept going back – sampling old school and the growth stopped. Where will the new giant come from and what will happen to black music? Sampling is good – it kept us alive. I’m glad that we were able to leave some good funk… and its here to stay.”
Though the nineties bought some lean times that good funk was definitely “here to stay”. Bill left New York in 1993 and returned to Fayetteville to look after his mother – “She was not ill at the time, but was getting up in age. Being the only child, it was my duty to come home. I didn’t want her growing old alone.” Bill feels the sense of family loyalty very strongly and though he and his wife, Sandra, separated some twenty-year ago they remain good friends. Bill’s also honest enough to admit that it was his life as a musician that eventually caused the split – “I spent most of my time trying to stay afloat and I ran a kind of no-nonsense business. My first real record date didn’t come until I was forty years old, but when I turned thirty-five is when I made music my business. Before that, jazz was my thing and we dammed near went to the poor house for it. My family suffered a lot. My wife kind of carried everything. It was very hard on my wife being the wife of an up and coming musician. It took its toll. I owe my success to my family who made sacrifices during my early years.”
It’s because of that, that for Bill, family remains a priority; “I have two daughters – Lydia and Lisa and four grand kids. We’re a very close family – we spend all the holidays together. My wife is a retired nurse and one of my daughters is a nurse too. The other is a social worker. My wife and Lisa and her family live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Lydia lives in Washington DC. One of my granddaughters is in second year of college, two are in junior high and my grandson is just four years old.”
From his Fayetteville base, Bill continued to play right through the nineties – “Fatback always was a working band. We ready to go at the drop of a hat.” Bill even built himself a studio – not surprisingly called The House Of Funk. It was there that he recorded most of the tracks for the Fatback’s “comeback” album “Second Generation” which was released on Ace Records in 2004. Working with UK based label Ace was a natural progression from the way the label had dealt with the Spring re-issues. Indeed Bill had long been impressed with Ace’s attitude to the business and found the Ace management very different to their American counterparts. He says, “Ace is a company that only deals with old music; but they are better than the majors. They’re always out there, putting the music in your face. The Ace crew know and love the music. They’re no way like the men back home. For them it’s all a labour of love.”
“Second Generation” is a fifteen tracker and the nucleus of the musicians comprises Fatback Band long-stayers. So Johnny Flippin plays bass; Johnny King’s on guitar; Gerry Thomas contributes keyboards; and George Williams plays trumpet …. while Bill, of course, keeps the still rock steady beat. Other featured musicians include Kenny Oxendine (bass), Brian Morgan (Guitar), Robert Damper and Ed Grimes (keys), Preston Ross (moog) and Ledjerick Woods (trumpet). The album also features rappers Larry Crumbs and Derrick Barginere. But the standout contribution comes from vocalist Quenetta Simpson. Bill found “Miss Que” working in McDonalds and her vocals on “In The Morning” have drawn comparison with Etta James. Bill rates the album with his best – “It mixes the new with my old style. I’m just updating things.”
In the Summer of 2004, a revitalised Fatback Band were invited to play at England’s legendary Glastonbury Festival. The gig came about through pressure from a Bristol based DJ collective - The Bristol Soul Train Crew, who were big fans of the Fatbacks and their classic dance music. They convinced festival organisers that the time was ripe for Glastonbury to expand and include a Soul and Dance stage. So as incongruous as it may seem America’s finest funksters saw themselves playing on the famous Somerset mud! The Fatbacks shared billing with Sister Sledge and Bill relished the challenge, “We saw Glastonbury as a test of courage – a way to define our stamina, and we passed man, we passed the test!” In no time, the Fatback formula had wooed an audience more used to progressive rockers and laconic indie bands. Bill says, “We won that audience by doing what we always do. We just hit that old funk groove and everyone started to sing along. It was the largest choir I ever heard.”
In essence that’s the secret of the charm of the Fatback sound – they simply found the right groove - and then mined it for all its worth. Looking back, Bill Curtis is clear where his Band’s sound comes from – “My experiences with the Soul Four and Ron Anderson is where I found my sound and my style. There was a gap out there – with the Soul Four we played jazz and blues; with Ron we played R&B. I combined all three with a touch of the Caribbean and we haven’t looked back!”
Indeed ever-optimistic Bill and his Fatback boys are always looking forward and seeking new outlets. At the same time, through Ace’s promotion of their back catalogue, Fatback music reaches out to a whole new generation of fans. At the beginning of 2005 Bill Curtis and Johnny Flippin guested on UK band Bah Samba’s acclaimed album The Fatback Two added their dynamic rhythms to several tracks and were featured on Bah Samba’s version of their very own “Let The Drums Speak”. The tune had originally appeared on the Fatback Band’s 1975 “Yum Yum” album and together Flippin, Curtis and the Bah Samba band take the song to a whole new level. Bah Samba’s main man, Julian Bendall was delighted to have the opportunity to work with such legendary musicians who were introduced to him through his manager Byron Orme. Orme had long been part of the management behind the successful Southport Weekenders, where the Fatback Band are perennial favourites and it was a logical step to get Bill Curtis to record with younger musicians. “Our version of “Let The Drums Speak” just evolved”, says Bendall. “Together we just found a groove and that’s the real appeal of the Fatback Band and their music – it’s that special, unique groove.”
When asked what he’s doing now, 72 year old Bill is quick to respond – “What am I doing? Playing music! Six to eight times a month I play live. I now work with a smaller unit. It’s not called Fatback; it’s Bill Curtis’ Southern Connection and together we’re recording our first LP – “Bill Curtis And Friends”. I’m also laying down tracks for a new Fatback album and I also teach music. I run a non-profit jazz club and we do a big jazz picnic in the summer and have a big Christmas party. We’re trying to keep jazz alive –you could say we the “Keepers Of Jazz”. At the same time I’m trying to put together a world tour for the Fatbacks.” From a musician who’s gone from an army band to the chittlin' circuit and from New York’s Apollo to the Glastonbury Festival with stops at prestigious concert halls and even the White House on his way, you’d be foolhardy to doubt that Bill will achieve all that before too long.
It was way back in 1947 and 1948 that a then, very young Bill Curtis took his first steps as a musician, playing in that school band and then in a little local combo with the Fairley brothers. Since then he’s tasted the highs of professional success and suffered occasional lows. Through it all, with his various bands, he’s crafted an irresistible music – a music that is a clear and resounding clarion call to dance. His secret? Well, Bill’s not too sure there is a secret. He does admit though – “When people go one way, I tend to march in a different way”. That march has kept the people dancing; it’s made the Fatback Band, “The Last Of The Great Dance Bands”.
By Bill Buckley
Hustle! The Ultimate Fatback 1969-84
The definitive funky dance band and their definitive funky dance grooves.
The hit trail continued with the title track, which along with ‘Trompin’’ are still enough to cut a groove in any dance floor.
Both ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Spanish Hustle’ raised hell off this album, scoring heavily on both sides of the Atlantic.
Keep On Steppin'
The Fatback’s Spring debut after 3 R&B hits for Perception spawned the hit title track and the enduring ‘Wicky Wacky’- a big club sound to this day.
’Double Dutch’ spun off this and through the charts, though ‘Spank The Baby’ can still put those feet on the dance floor.
Man With the Band
’Master Booty’ leapt off this one for the now truncated Fatback, on the ironically titled “Man With The Band”.
Fired Up 'n' Kickin
Fatback funksters firing on more cylinders than a V8 engine - they like girls and get seriously freaky.
More solid gold Fatback funk from Bill Curtis and Gerry Thomas on this 1980 floor filler.
Here it is - number 13 of that Fatback thang, as Bill Curtis and Gerry Thomas drive their funky groove into the 80s
1981 outing sees Fatback still rockin’ to the beat.
Is This The Future?
The final Fatback album on Spring from 1983 as they lead the way again with the socio/politico comment of the title track.