In the early 60's as a blossoming soul "scene" emerged from the RnB influenced sounds of the late 50's, and record company’s A & R men were trawling the sock hops, the talent contests and checking out the street corner quartets in search of the next generation of artists to turn into "Recording Artists", a symbiotic chain of events was taking place in the heart of one of Americas greatest cities - Chicago.
Just as the Brewster Housing Project in Detroit had provided Motown with many of it’s future stars Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Projects, on the North Side of town, would also produce talents that would feed the city’s ever vibrant recording industry. By the early 60's, VeeJay Records was establishing itself as a leader in the soul market and the major labels already had their distribution set-ups in place within the now famous area known as "Record Row", and were looking to cash in on the new genre.
The Impressions (pictured right) fronted by both Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield had emerged as the city’s premier group when it came to soulful harmonies and nifty line in footwork on stage, and the introduction of strings, vibes, horns, and signature vocals was convincing lots of record buyers that soul was "where it’s at". It is into this cauldron of hustle and bustle of groups trying their luck for the first time, the DooWop and RnB groups morphing into Soul groups, that we delve and discover a group that were not only to become legendary in the Rare/Northern Scenes, but would in fact provide a vehicle for the talents of a growing list of writers, producers, and arrangers, as well as their own talent.
THE EARLY YEARS
The Artistics were Chicago born and bred and started life as a vocal harmony group in 1958 and as was usual they worked on their harmonies by imitating the street corner serenaders of that decade. Whilst Curt Thomas (Lead), Larry Johnson and Jesse Bolian (Tenors) and Aaron Floyd were still freshmen at the city’s Marshall High School they could be found performing at the teenage gigs associated with era. In 1960 they elected to adopt Robert Dobnye as their new lead singer. They were reputedly discovered by Major Lance who heard them rehearsing and introduced them to the guy who was about to become one of the most prolific and successful A&R, writer and producer of soul in the entire city. Carl Davis. Davis cut their first single "I Need Your Love" on Okeh (7177) but with no success. In fact none of the Okeh 45's achieved any commercial success but they did galvanize the group’s talents and provide a taste of what was to come.
At this stage Robert Dobnye left (acrimoniously by all accounts), and was replaced by ex - Dukays member Charles Davis. No records were released with Davis at the lead and it wasn’t really until the group found it’s next lead singer that they showed any real promise. Step up ex - El Dorados member Marvin Smith. Marvin brought a distinctive smooth yet slightly raspy tonal quality to the groups ever tightening harmonies. In Chicago’s North Side, the wannabe groups would hang around the Seward Park Recreation Center, a sort of community center that the new soul groups and artists would use to rehearse their songs and routines under each others critical eyes. Many a future soul superstar could be found singing under the shadow of the Cabrini-Green Projects in the Seward Building. The group was now poised for it’s first real foray into the studios.
|The Seward Recreational Building overshadowed by the Cabrini -Green Housing Project. Lots of Chicago’s future soul stars would owe their success to the hours spent rehearsing here. |
With Marvin Smith performing the duties on lead, Davis recorded the group in mid ‘64 on a Marvin Gaye/Smokey Robinson penned Detroit soundalike "Get My Hands On Some Lovin’" - Okeh (7193). It provided the group with their first success albiet mainly local. The group’s tight supporting harmonies in the "Oooh's and Aaah's" that had been polished in their informative years proved to be the key and so provided Marvin’s smooth but ever so slight strained vocal just the right platform for the song and it gained respectable sales in Chicago and surrounding area, resulting in a creditable showing in the middle reaches of the Cash Box 100 RnB Chart. The next outing by the group was a double sider that has provided many a full dance floor to a Raresoul/Northern DJ. Once again the strong Detroit connection is witnessed as the group recorded a couple of Barrett Strong songs back to back. "This Heart Of Mine" b/w "I’ll come Running" Okeh (7232). These 2 tracks are classic Northern Soul and although the sound is unmistakenly of the drum filled Detroit style, it’s the vocals once again that distinguish the records. "This Heart Of Mine" is an midtempo dancer of the highest order. Reactivated on the UK scene a few years ago it proved to be a dance floor favorite at most venues. Marvin’s lead vocal once again is ably supported by the guys and the song fair bounces along as he relates the pain of losing his love which is the reason for the pain in "This Heart Of Mine". The flipside "I’ll Come Running" is a shade more uptempo and is a drum driven "crash, bang, wallop" type of song that I actually prefer to the other side. Lots of background "Oooh's and Aaah's" in all the right places it showcases the direction that the group was heading in musically and they really were a tight group harmony wise by now. Marvin had managed to start the beginnings of a signature vocal style and the group managed another medium success with this 45 at the end of ‘65 spending a number of weeks in the national R’n’b chart. The group now had the foundations of their career in place and even managed to secure gig alongside The Impressions at the Regal Theatre, one of the more prestigious venues at the time.
The group had 2 other releases on the Okeh label, "So Much Love In My Heart" Okeh 7243 and "In Another Man’s Arms" Okeh (7217) which are also worth picking up if you see them around. At this point it is worth noting that at Okeh during this period the group were under the supervision of some of the Chicago arrangers and producers that were to play a pivotal role in not just The Artistics careers but in many other legendary Chicago groups too. The arranging talents of Johnny Pate and Sonny Sanders alongside the production skills of A&R supremo Carl Davis and Gerald Sims would steer many local performers to national success including The Marvellos, Major Lance, Billy Butler, The Opals, the Trends, Tyrone Davis, Barbara Acklin, to name but a few.
END OF AN ERA
It would appear that The Artistics under the guidance of such luminaries and with the tight group harmony sound down to a fine art would now springboard on to become soul superstars. Alas, all was not well in the Artistics camp once again and the departure of Marvin Smith was imminent. This, coupled with the fact that Okeh’s success was about to come down to Earth with a bump as Davis’ time at the label came to a somewhat acrimonious end meant that things did not bode well for the group’s future.
However ... the slump at Okeh Records and the machinations behind it are all well documented elsewhere and in true Hitsville tradition the music stays at center stage. And although upheaval was imminent (and major success was still elusive as far as the national Billboard Chart was concerned) the groups contribution to the Rare/Northern Soul scene was to continue, although it would come in the form of a different sound and a different label ...
The Brunswick Era
Carl Davis’ exit from Okeh offered up the opportunity for him to take up the reigns of the Decca subsidiary of Brunswick Records. At the beginning of ‘66 in a deal that would leave him with the title of "Director of A & R”, Davis arrived with the artists under his management, including The Artistics, in tow. He then proceeded to churn out hit after hit for the revitalized label.
Marvin Smith’s exit from the group came about a year or so after their Brunswick move occurred. Marvin had at this stage, an eye on a solo career and was about to record his first solo outing under Davis’ production - "Time Stopped" b/w "Have More Time" - Brunswick (55299), the B side of which was to become a firm dance floor favorite on the Rare/Northern Scene. No longer the Detroit sound-a-like imitation although the song was penned by Barrett Strong, this is Marvin let loose to do his own thing and the end result is a real high caliber dance tune that has stood the test of time. Piano driven alongside a constant upbeat drum beat, the vocal is based on Marvin’s lament that he works so hard that he ain’t got enough time to see his "Sugar Baby". Hence his attempt to change his job situation. This 45 can still be found for a few $'s and should really have a home in every soul collectors boxes. A point of note is that the Demo copies are sometimes double sided with "Time Stopped" on both sides. The A side is a slower, ballad type affair that Marvin co wrote with Davis.
At this point it’s also worth noting that Marvin, and in fact the other members of the group, were starting to write, or at least collaborate on their own material. The next few records issued by them showcase their talents as writers as well as vocalists. It’s at this time that the group took on yet another lead singer and Tommy Green their old acquaintance from schooldays was given the role in Marvin’s place. Bernard Reed, a bass player and choreographer was also admitted to the group around this time and took on the responsibility for their dance "moves". Marvin would continue to collaborate on songs and even used the guys as backing singers on the above discs but the group was now a five part harmony and Marvin was "going it alone" so to speak. The vocals of the group didn’t change though, marvin continued to collaborate in the studio and the new lead vocals were almost identical, so much so that it’s difficult to tell who sang what on some of the records.
The groups output over the next few years was, for the author, their finest work.
Under the guidance of the now legendary producer Davis, the group’s writing talents began to show through and then Davis could call upon the talents of two of the best arrangers in the Chicago business at the time - Sonny Sanders and Gerald Sims. The background team was now a real force in the industry and they too over the next few years would achieve success with both Brunswick and the newly formed subsidiary, Dakar Records. The introduction of Green as lead ensured a smooth transition in terms of continuity and the group now produced some the labels best soul music of the era.
DANCE FLOOR 'FILLERS'
Amongst the discography of The Artistics are some of my favorite Chicago 45's. Their sound has now become much smoother, the harmonies and support vocals that were good have now become great and together with the immense talents of their production team they are taking a more dominant role in the writing of their songs. Here are a few of the cream of their recordings. (Please, don’t forget to scroll your mouse over the records, this is Hitsville and you never know what might happen!)
First up from this prolific period is "I’ll Always Love You" b/w "Love Song" - Brunswick (55326). A really classy record that showcases what most collectors/fans would come to recognize as a sort of signature Artistics sound. Written in conjunction with group member Jesse Bolian, Davis’ hand is evident again in the piano/drum combo sound. Green’s lead vocal almost verges on the alto and he has a knack of allowing his voice to effortlessly glide over the music. This outing is a simple pledge to his lover that he will "always love you", after she had turned his life around. The flip is another dancer that is often overlooked by collectors and is included here under it’s own merits and not just as a flip to the other side. A slightly more impassioned vocal on this record and it certainly deserves more turntable/dance floor action.
The next offering as another outstanding double sider that is maybe a shade to quick for today’s less pacier scene but is certainly a record that has seen it’s fair share of full dance floors. "Girl, I Need You" b/w "Glad I Met You" - Brunswick (55315) ranks up with best tracks the group ever put out. Once again the group appear on the writing credits and this time it’s group member Tommy Green who gets in on the act and takes the mantle of Lead Vocal. The production team of Davis, Sanders and Sims are now in full flight and both these tracks are a testament to their skills as much as the group.
The "Girl I Need You" track starts with a swirling string intro which kicks off an uptempo fiesta. Smooth, slick, instrumentation and the now familiar lead supported by the tight harmonies produced a great 45 that collectors and dancers alike still find themselves at least thinking if not saying ... "WOW - I’d forgotten how good that was!" The other side of this 45 is a version of the probably more familiar Otis Leavill outing on Dakar. I should imagine that this was the original version and it’s a slightly slower and more plaintive sounding record than the late great Otis’. For people who know Otis’ version but not the Artistics then give it a spin. I think you’ll be pleasantly suprised. To be honest I can’t remember the last time/place I heard this version. (Apart from my record room!). The almost falsetto vocal (in places) sound really good and the arrangement is top class, a certain Mr Gerald Sims at his very best. A haunting violin supports the harmonies at times and Green’s long drawn out Is(Ayes), in the chorus are simply magical. Once again this disc is quite easily obtainable for a few $'s and should find a home in all collectors boxes, that’s for sure.
The next record up is the one record that most collectors and dancers would
immediately associate with The Artistics in any form be it the Okeh version or the Brunswick one. "Hope We Have" b/w "I’m Gonna Miss You" - Brunswick (55301) has probably seen more turntable action than any other of their recordings. The A side opens with a steady on the fours drumbeat including a sort of popping tom/bongo drum, which is joined by the rhythm guitar and tambourine which together form one of the classic intros to any soul dance record. There’s also a killer tenor sax break half way through and the guys vocals are as tight as ever as they try to convince the lady of the hour to "try it" as the only hope they have against the world is " in our hearts". Great stuff that deserves it’s place amongst the often over-used phrase 'classic'. The "I’m Gonna Miss You" side is the type of record that showcases their harmony skills even more but this time to a more sedate pace and the song almost becomes a ballad. Great record to help sip a beer and sit back while the music washes over you. The good news is that once again a few $'s should see this 45 safely placed in your box.
The next 45 is another double sider that ranks with the very highest in terms of quality. "Nothing but Heartaches" b/w "You Made Me Happy" - Brunswick (55353) is regarded by many as the groups finest hour on Brunswick. It’s hard to disagree when you listen to the songs. The A Side has what is now the tell tale swirling string arrangement preferred by Mr Sims, and the instrumentation is becoming signature like for the emerging "Chicago Sound", courtesy of his mentor Carl Davis. A record that never gets played only once in the Moore household, always seem to find myself playing it a couple of times just to make sure I get the full benefit!
The other side is an often overlooked dancer too, written by that legendary writer, producer, artist, and general genius Van McCoy. When you look at the guys involved in this record it never ceases to dumbfound collectors everywhere as to how on Earth these records slipped past the vinyl buying public at the time. Check out the picture to the right and tell me you wouldn’t buy this record without even hearing a note! A real happy "good feeling" upbeat dancer that if you haven’t heard is definitely worth a few minutes of your time. Once again the cost of this record is quite cheap and should set you back only a few $'s on 'Ebay' ® or Gemm.com ®. Most dealers will have a copy for sale somewhere.
But, the era was about to close and there was a new pulse was in the air!
The Conclusion and Musicians
As the decade moved towards the 70's there becomes an apparent 'harder edge' to the group’s sound, not quite a funky sound, but there are definite changes in the all round sound of the group. This next 45 "What Happened" b/w "Walking Tall" - Brunswick (55404), is a good example that shows how the group’s sound was evolving. The introduction of Eugene Record, (of The Chi-lites), as a writer, coupled with Barbara Acklin on this particular disc, would bring a 'rougher' sound to the groups work. The title track of their album, "What Happened" sets the pace for the whole album. Gone is the "on the fours" beat which is replaced by a more 'upfront'; sound. The B Side is similar in style but is in my opinion, a much better song that for some reason reminds me of Levi Stubbs’ (Four Tops), performances of the same dateline.
It’s probably worth pointing out at this stage too that Carl Davis had handed over the writing chores for the group and Gerald Sims was also about to exit from the company, although another iconic producer was brought in to be the 'guidance' for the groups arrangements Mr. Willie Henderson. Another example of Eugene Record's influence on the group’s output is the "Just Another Heartache" b/w "Ain’t It Strange" - Brunswick (755431). On the A side the song is one that the listener could imagine The Chi Lites recording. 'Sweet Soul' would be a good description, lots of tight harmonies still and the arrangement is top notch, but for this reviewer the change has not added to the group’s performance and they seem to be in musical limbo at this stage. The B Side "Ain’t It Strange" is hard edged uptempo outing that sees the intro of the 'upfront' rhythm guitar and frantic drumming that surely warns the listener that the 'Disco Era' is about be unleashed.
For me The Artistics as a group have now become like many others of the era and their individuality/uniqueness has been lost. As the fashions changed so did the music and they are attempting to keep up with the innovations like many others artists/groups did.
We now take a step backwards in our exploration of the Artistics. It would seem unfair to leave this article with the tones of the emerging 'Disco-Sound' ringing in our ears when The Artistics provided so much 'Real Deal Soul' music of the era. Therefore I have taken a liberty and have saved what is, in my opinion, the best for last again. It would seem prudent at this stage to introduce the record that many collectors and dancers regard as the archetypal Artistics record. "The Chase is on" b/w "One Last Chance" - Brunswick (9-78022). This record contains just about all the components that the group became famous for. The opening drum beat, the up front bongo that became a signature, a strong lead vocal supported by the tight group harmonies. It’s no wonder that the record dominated dance floors throughout the 70's hey-day.
The song was also recorded by Johnny Howard on Bashie and was 'reactivated' all over Europe recently to great dance floor reaction. A slightly more aggressive sounding version, it still does justice to the original. Also worth noting is that the song was co written by Jerry Butler’s brother Billy who also had hits in tandem with the Artistics on both Okeh and Brunswick labels under the guidance of Carl Davis.
The final 45 we take a look at/listen too is for me the best record the Artistics ever made. "You Left Me" b/w "Lonely Old World" - Brunswick (55384) was once again produced by the trio of guys who we now recognize as one of the great production teams of the era Carl Davis, Gerald Sims and Sonny Sanders. "Lonely Old World" is a mid-tempo outing that relies heavily on a basic pounding drumbeat and a very strong vocal performance from all the guys. A short but effective sax break a third way through hits the mark perfectly. Another record that get’s a lot of plays in the record room. This is a record that has been overlooked for years and trounces the pants off a lot of stuff that dance floors get subjected to nowadays. Pure quality.
Now we arrive at the best actual song/side the group ever recorded in my opinion. The same trio are involved and Mr Butler once again appears on the credits. "You Left Me" starts with a short double drum beat and that is followed up with the signature piano riff that lays the foundation for a vocal performance to match just about any other. The lead vocal simply glides along with the track and the supporting (you can’t really class these guys as backing singers!), harmonies are absolutely at the top of their game. Not an obvious up-tempo dancer at first hearing, I defy you to listen to this record and then move on. Bet you play it again ... and again ... and again! Fantastic track by a fantastic group and a great way to finish this article, with the refrains of "Left Me" fading from our ears.
The group put out a couple more 45 in the early 70's, but couldn’t match their earlier successes and they finally broke up in 1973. I’m sure you’ll agree that their legacy to the Rare/Northern Soul scene is a tribute to all the talents of the people involved.
(Artistic and Solo recording artist)
Although Marvin didn’t achieve the commercial success he envisaged as the Brunswick era commenced for the Artistics, he did however link up with another iconic producer to record what became a classic on the 'Rare/Northern Soul' circuit. To explore the life’s work of Curtis Mayfield would take a whole book, (come to think of it this has been done!), but his collaboration with Marvin on "Who Will Do You’re Running Now" b/w "You’re Really Something Sadie" - Mayfield (MA 942) is one of his best. The A side is a mid to up-tempo gem filled with strings, the signature "bongos", and the introduction of the subtle vibes is a stroke of genius by “Mr Chicago” himself. Marvin’s vocal is faultless and he even gets away with a strained, almost falsetto “Ohh Ohh Ohh” half way through. A fantastic record that ranks with best output from a great city that was producing fantastic music on a daily basis. If you would like to hear more of the group but don’t collect vinyl (shame on you!), then the CDs to the left can be found at most dealers or on the internet and are a great representation of the group’s work.
As usual when producing these articles, Hitsville would like to ensure that the great musicians who produced the tracks that these songs were built upon finally receive the distinction that their talents deserve.
In the case of Brunswick Records this is not an easy task to do individually. As was usual in the industry at the time, many musicians were contracted to the studios and hence no credits were given on the actual recordings. It’s possible though to make an educated guess who is playing on the tracks and when combined with the fact that Carl Davis used his already proven Okeh musicians on his Brunswick sessions, it’s a reasonable assumption that the following virtuosos were all on at least some of the recordings we have enjoyed over the years:
The string arrangements that became such a marvelous feature of the Artistics records were the brainchild of Sol Bobrov, a guy who’s string arrangements would appear on most of the Chicago soul labels of the era. The actual string instruments were played by Sol and his partner Elliot Gorub.
|ARTISTICS DISCOGRAPHY |
|Label & # ||A-Side ||B-Side ||Year |
|Okeh 7177 ||What’ll I do ||I need your lover ||1963 |
|OKeh 7193 ||Get my hands on some lovin’ ||I’ll leave it up to you ||1964 |
|Okeh 7217 ||In another man’s arms ||Patty cakes ||1965 |
|Okeh 7232 ||This heart of mine ||I’ll come running ||1965 |
|Okeh 7243 ||So much love in my heart ||Loveland ||1965 |
|Okeh 111809 ||This heart of mine ||Stay away from my baby |
(by Ted Taylor promo only purple vinyl)
|Brunswick 55301 ||Hope we have ||I’m gonna miss you ||1966 |
|Brunswick 55315 ||Girl I need you ||Glad I met you ||1967 |
|Brunswick 55326 ||I’ll always love you ||Love Song ||1967 |
|Brunswick 55342 ||The chase is on ||One last chance ||1967 |
|Brunswick 55353 ||Nothing but heartaches ||You make me happy ||1967 |
|Brunswick 55370 ||Hard to carry on ||Trouble, heartache and pain ||1968 |
|Brunswick 55378 ||Hard to carry on ||Trouble, heartache and pain ||1968 |
|Brunswick 55384 ||You left me ||Lonely old world ||1968 |
|Brunswick 55404 ||What happened ? ||Walking tall ||1969 |
|Brunswick 55416 ||Yesterday’s girl ||Price of love ||1969 |
|Brunswick 55431 ||Just another heartache ||Ain’t it strange ||1970 |
|Brunswick 55444 ||Make my life over ||Sugar Cane ||1971 |
|Brunswick 55477 ||It’s those little things that count ||Being in love ||1972 |
|Brunswick 55493 ||She’s heaven ||Look out I’m gonna get you ||1973 |