If that last band name brings some confusion, fear not. From the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, Seattle was bumping to dozens of hard-working artists who featured prominently on the KYAC playlist, yet have since all but vanished. And when critics cite great Seattle African-American musicians, they repeat the same names: Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Ernestine Anderson, Jimi Hendrix, Sir Mix-A-Lot. But this is not their story.
This is a tale of Black on White Affair; Cold, Bold & Together; Patrinell Staten; Robbie Hill; and the rest of Seattle's forgotten soul and funk crew. For all the rare soul compilations out there, only one exponent of this scene garnered international attention after their brief heyday. That is, until now, and the arrival of local label Light in the Attic's celebration of this chapter of musical history, the anthology Wheedle's Groove: Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul, 1965-75.
Previously, the cuts on Wheedle's Groove were known essentially to folks who heard them in the day, and a select cadre of collectors. The lone 45 by the Soul Swingers, 1969's "Ca'-Ba'-Dab," can sell for $800. Patrinell Staten, who cut just one single, "Little Love Affair," was startled when a fan from England's Northern Soul scene (a subculture where devotees come together to dance to, swap, and sell R&B rarities) traveled across the Atlantic to pay her homage. "I just wanted to see a real icon," she told the singer.
One such groove fanatic, Seattle's own Daniel Clavesilla--AKA DJ Mr. Supreme, of Light in the Attic recording artists the Sharpshooters--originally dreamt up this set. Yet even Supreme, who grew up here, was largely unaware of the city's funk history, until he began to notice that occasionally, an unfamiliar 45 excavated from some dusty bin bore a Seattle imprint. "I figured there must be more out there," he says.
There were. Only trouble was, other collectors wanted them more passionately. "I'd have friends overseas saying, 'Hey, can you get this or that for me?'" recalls Clavesilla. So he'd surrender his copy, figuring he'd come across others. "It's Seattle," he shrugs. "And then I'd never find them again." He's since recovered most of the lost gems, but in assembling Wheedle's Groove--which used primarily original vinyl for the source material, as master tapes were scarce--he still had to borrow some records.
To license and assemble the compilation, Light in the Attic's Matt Sullivan spent a year playing detective, trawling the white pages and the Internet, calling old radio stations and record stores, to flush out participants credited on the vintage 45s and LPs. It was a process that slowly snowballed, especially once former KYAC DJ and music director Robert Nesbitt came on board.
Still, many of the participants remain hopelessly MIA, such as Earnestine Wilkins of the Soul Swingers. "I've found exactly three Earnestine Wilkins in the whole United States, and I've called them all," says Sullivan. Sometimes the inquiries, however brief, were a bit awkward. "I'm looking for the Soul Swingers," he'd explain. "It sounds like you're calling about a porn flick."
Even those aware of the project didn't always leap at the opportunity to be involved. Patrinell Staten waited 10 months before consenting to participate. "I didn't want to get stiffed," she admits. "To me, it was more logical to have [the single] sitting in the safe deposit box than to do anything else with it. But then one day, I decided, 'No Pat, everybody needs to leave some footprints in the sands of time.'"
Of all the artists on Wheedle's Groove, the Rev. Patrinell Staten Wright, 60, should be the least concerned about her legacy. "Pastor Pat" to her parishioners, the charismatic Wright is cofounder of the Oneness Christian Center, as well as founder and artistic director of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, the Northwest's oldest, most successful African-American choir. But back in the late '60s, like many great soul singers--Sam Cooke, Al Green--Patrinell Staten found herself at the crossroads of secular and sacred music.
A native of Carthage, Texas, Staten was forbidden to listen to pop songs. A preacher's daughter, she moved to Seattle in 1964; in 1967, while singing and playing at True Vine Baptist Church, she was approached by LaVera Clark, a Louisiana transplant determined to make her name in the music business. Staten, she reckoned, had the talent to help her do so.
Clark invited Staten to check out some of her original compositions. "I went to her house, listened to what she had written... and I didn't like any of it." Yet Clark had one new idea that Staten took a shine to. Together, the two penned "Little Love Affair," a bubbling, bittersweet pop tune, sung with full-throated fervor. As the star attraction on Clark's tiny Sepia Records, Staten spent the next three years, from 1969 to 1972, touring the West Coast, promoting the song. The recorded version, and its flip side, "I Let a Good Man Go," were cut in just an hour. "She said to me: 'Sing like you've never sung before, because we're not going to be here all day.' I got it on the first take. Both sides."
Clark shielded her naive charge from the cruder aspects of show business. Staten primarily worked big, upscale venues, like the Cotton Club in Portland. And she played the part. "I always walked in like I owned the place. I had on my evening gowns, and my hair done up. And the earrings, they were cheap rhinestones, but looked good in the lights." Her natural charm made it easier to deflect requests for the popular songs she didn't know; her program leaned heavily on originals, and, later in the evenings ("when people were zonkered"), smatterings of gospel. She would play two 90-minute sets, with one 15-minute break, then leave immediately.
But Staten's experience was an exception. Most bands worked much harder, for fewer returns. Tony Gable was the percussionist for Cold, Bold & Together, an ensemble heavily influenced by War, Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone. "In those days, there were band houses, kind of like communes," he remembers. "Sometimes, we'd play a gig, and get paid $300 a week, for the whole band. It all went into a central fund. It paid the rent, and if somebody's instrument broke, collectively we bought them a new one." Payday inevitably meant a group outing to the grocer, "so everybody could get their favorite type of cereal."
Although competition between bands was fierce, there was just as much diversity between venues as there was between artists. The Trojan Horse favored jazzier fare, such as the Overton Berry Trio (who contribute a free-wheeling cover of "Hey Jude" to Wheedle's Groove). At the Golden Crown Up, operated by Nesbitt from 1975 to 1984, local acts including Onyx and Broham shared bills with Teddy Pendergrass and Billy Preston. Within Seattle alone, Nesbitt estimates, there were 25 live-music clubs dedicated to soul.
"Like the O'Jays sang it, we lived for the weekend," he says. "And in Seattle, the weekend could start as early as Wednesday." And yet, for all the excitement, Nesbitt claims patrons rarely got out of hand. "When you went out in the '70s, you were part of the performance. We didn't want to get our suits dirty, and our ladies had on makeup and nice dresses. People didn't start any crap. The one-upmanship came in your deportment. The reason for going out was to step out, have a great time, listen to some music, and be an adult."
Violence wasn't a problem, but racism was, says Gable. No matter how popular they became, African-American acts were unwelcome in particular venues. "There was a distinguishable degree of prejudice in the scene in the '70s," he recalls. "There were certain agencies that would not book you, certain clubs we could not play. One time, we went to play a club--I think it was an Elks Lodge, in the North End--and they thought we were just moving the equipment, and asked where the band was. And I said, 'We are the band.' And they wouldn't let us perform."
Listening to Wheedle's Groove, it's easy to hear why KYAC harbored no reservations about programming local artists next to big stars. So how can it be that not a single Seattle soul hit ever broke out nationally?
Gable recalls how almost everyone in town was positive the Pacific Northwest would be the next hot spot. Not only were bands coming out of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but even Dayton, Ohio spawned big groups (Ohio Players, Zapp). "A lot of us were expecting somebody to come discover us," admits Gable. "For Quincy Jones to be sitting in the audience one night. That was one of the major mistakes we made. You pretty much had to leave, like Jimi Hendrix did, and go someplace else to get famous."
In the early '70s, Black on White Affair, an outfit featuring back-flipping bassist Manuel Stanton, and coordinated two-tone suits, did just that, moving to Los Angeles. "We expected a struggle, and a struggle is what we got," recalls Robbie Hill, one of the band's two drummers at the time. Eventually, they scored gigs at the Coconut Grove and the Greek Theater. At one point, says Hill, Curtis Mayfield tried to lure him away from BOWA, just as Superfly was about to drop, but he declined. It's a decision he regrets. "I should have taken that gig, because it would have opened doors."
After leaving BOWA in 1971, Hill put together Robbie Hill's Family Affair, featuring his brothers, William and Kenny Hill, up front. "They had golden voices, like the Chi-Lites," he reminisces. When "I Just Want to Be (Like Myself)" took off in 1973, he tried California again. This time, his luck fared better. The band landed tours on both coasts, and got a standing ovation on The Dinah Shore Show. They also served as the backing band for R&B vocal trio the Main Ingredient ("Everybody Plays the Fool"). But eventually, hard work exacted a toll. "Some of the guys got homesick, a couple started drinking a lot." Hill disbanded the Family Affair; today, he works as a custodian at Seattle Central Community College.
Another factor that hindered artists was the absence of a hometown label with national muscle. While Detroit was synonymous with Motown (which LaVera Clark courted, unsuccessfully, for months), Chicago had Chess, and Memphis hosted Stax, Seattle options were slim. Although many cuts on Wheedle's Groove are credited to Kearny Barton's Topaz Records, in reality, Topaz was essentially a vanity press, run in association with Barton's Audio Recording studio, so that artists had an affordable way to press up singles of their sessions. Most only did runs of a few hundred 45s, sold via local vendors like Toshi's One Stop Record Store on Rainier Avenue--or, more often, from the trunk of their car, post-show.
Topaz did have one close call. In 1970, Black on White Affair's "Sweet Soul Lady," recorded and issued by Barton, went #1 on KYAC. Barton contacted Scepter/Wand Records, home to the Kingsmen, about getting wider distribution, and they were receptive. But when he told the band, they informed him they had already made an arrangement with Quincy Jones. Barton got suspicious when they asked him to call Jones, to seal the deal.
"I'd been friends with Quincy, done some work for him," recalls Barton. "So I called and told him I had this record that was #1, and he said, 'Hey, that sounds great. Send me a copy!'" But the minute Barton mentioned the artist, Jones' disposition changed. "He said, 'I don't want to hear their name.'" Barton was stunned: "They told me they had a deal with you."
"They did have a deal, until they started telling me how to run my label," replied Jones. "I'm in music to enjoy it. I don't need that hassle." Barton called the band, and chewed them out. They asked him to go back to Scepter/Wand. It was too late. "They said, 'We were interested a few days ago, but if this group is screwing around, we don't want anything to do with them.'"
In the end, the Seattle funk scene was felled by two factors. The rise of disco made it easier for club owners to supply their patrons with a nonstop evening of hits, with less overhead. Plus, many established acts in town were tiring of playing sets heavy on other artists' songs. Toward the end, Cold, Bold & Together were fired from a gig for dropping a jazz tune after the Bee Gees. "We didn't want to become a band that only played hotels, and only played covers," remembers Gable.
Yet Cold, Bold & Together is the only one of these groups you'll find mentioned in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. Circa 1975, the band expanded its lineup, and added a horn section. Among the new recruits was a white high-school saxophonist and flute player named Kenny Gorelick. Though Gorelick's parents expressed strong reservations, Gable convinced them to give their consent.
At first, Gorelick seemed "nerdy" and "square" in contrast to the rest of the group. "We used to make him sing 'Play That Funky Music White Boy,' by Wild Cherry, in the act," says Gable. "Just for laughs." Gorelick didn't remain bashful for long. "After a while, he started getting comfortable and talking to the audience. And now he's a great entertainer." In fact, one of the best-selling instrumental recording artists in history: Kenny G.
If the public responds to Wheedle's Groove enthusiastically, perhaps Seattle's old-school funk and soul scene will finally be recognized for more than a footnote in Kenny G's career. Robbie Hill is assembling a compilation of unreleased Family Affair material, and DJ Supreme has dug up enough previously overlooked local gems to lay the foundation for a sequel. A London label has approached Patrinell Staten Wright about licensing "Little Love Affair" for overseas release. But if offered the chance--and the money--to go perform at a Northern Soul all-nighter, would she accept? "Why of course!" If a visit from England hinted that her pop career hadn't been in vain, a visit to the UK would cement it. And only 35 years later.
The CD release party for Wheedle's Groove: Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul, 1965-75 is at Chop Suey on Sat Aug 21 at 9 pm, $10. Hosted by Reggie Watts, the show features special appearances and live performances from members of Black on White Affair, Overton Berry, Broham, Ron Buford, Cold Bold & Together, Cookin Bag, Johnny Lewis, Robbie Hill's Family Affair, and Pastor Patrinell Staten Wright, with DJ sets by Mr. Supreme (Sharpshooters) and Dynomite D.