Image (Print 1417x1417) >>
Although he enjoyed several significant late 50s/early 60s R&B hits under his own steam (a couple of which crossed over to the Top 100) and later tasted further success as an early member of 70s Funksters Earth, Wind & Fire, Wade Flemons has somehow become one of the forgotten men of American Popular Music, something of a ‘Great Unknown’. Yet his first, self-penned record has also been a hit a couple of times over for other artists, and his body of solo work stands the test of time with some considerable aplomb. This compilation anthologises the first five years of Flemons’ recording career, between 1958-62, and includes all his solo hits.
Born Wade Herbert Flemons on September 25th, 1940, in Coffeyville, Kansas, he was raised in Wichita and first began to sing in church. He organised his own vocal Gospel group whilst at school, before moving to Battle Creek, Michigan, with his parents at the age of fifteen. By now he’d developed an ear for secular music and whilst at Battle Creek Central High, he and four other guys formed a vocal quintet, The Shifters, with whom he also played piano. Flemons began writing original material for the group and eventually, they felt sufficiently confident to record a demo.
One of the songs they demoed was Wade’s ‘Here I Stand’, which they sent to Vee Jay Records in Chicago, whose A&R chief Calvin Carter was sufficiently impressed to invite them along to audition. After a couple of studio sessions Carter realised that lead singer Flemons, with his warm, soulful voice, was the ace in the pack; and so although The Shifters - now renamed The Newcomers - backed him on the finished record, only Wade was offered a recording contract.
With its Soulful, neo-Latin/chalypso beat, ‘Here I Stand’ remains a timeless, irresistible debut, and propelled by a couple of crucial plugs on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and rotation airplay by Murray The K on WINS, it made the R&B Top 20 (where it peaked at #19) before crossing over to the Top 100, reaching #80 on Billboard, #58 on Cashbox (the song would be successfully revived by The Rip Chords in 1963, and Bitty McLean in 1994). A strong double-sider, the flip, ‘My Baby Likes To Rock’, is a loping, streetwise rocker, finding Wade and the boys deep in Coasters’ territory.
For a follow-up Flemons recorded Otis Blackwell’s ‘Hold Me Close’, which was given a very similar Latinesque arrangement to its predecessor. But although it sold well in markets like Chicago and New York it failed to break nationally, and was in turn followed a few months later by the upbeat, considerably stronger ‘Slow Motion’. Another song penned by Blackwell, it was pretty much identikit Dee Clark, being very similar to the latter’s recent Vee Jay hit ‘Just Keep It Up’. Again the disc sold extremely well in Chicago, Detroit and Midwest markets, and came very close to becoming a significant hit, reaching #101 Billboard, #91 Cashbox (although it inexplicably failed to dent Billboard’s R&B listings). The flip, a delicious revival of Savannah Churchill’s ‘Walking By The River’, provides a great showcase for Wade’s warm voice.
Released at the tail end of ’59, the ultra-commercial ‘What’s Happening’ (b/w a charming revival of labelmates The Spaniels’ ‘Goodnite, It’s Time To Go’), was another strong seller, climbing to #33 on Cashbox’s recently-inaugurated R&B chart early the following year - although, surprising, it failed to make Billboard’s R&B listing.
With three big sellers under his belt in his first year as a recording artist, Flemons was deemed worthy of an LP - Vee Jay were the first black-owned indie label to actively pursue the albums’ market - and his eponymously-titled set duly appeared in April 1960, commensurate with a new release, ‘Easy Lovin’’/‘Woops Now’. The topside, penned by Jesse Stone, was a classy, bluesy number which registered immediately to become Wade’s biggest hit, reaching #10 R&B and #70 Pop, selling in huge quantities over several months. Elsewhere, the flip - a rather ‘Poppier’, more commercial affair - enjoyed considerable popularity under its own steam.
The LP itself, meanwhile, was a superb set. In addition to the latest 45 it comprised both sides of Flemons’ first single, plus his three other A-sides, therefore presenting five ‘new’ performances. The best of these were Otis Blackwell’s lilting ‘Too Long Will Be Too Late’, Brook Benton & Clyde Otis’ doowopper ‘It’s So Much Fun’, and The Staple Singers’ ‘Don’t Be Careless’ (the latter being an old recording, from one of Wade’s initial sessions, which also featured The Newcomers - as did another album track, ‘Purposely’).
However, as intriguing as it was, Flemons’ follow-up single - a brassy, Big Beat-styled revival of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’ - made for an unlikely A-side, and it failed to do very much business. Possibly its flip, the Sam Cooke-styled ‘I’ll Come Runnin’’, would have made for a stronger plug-side. That said, even more surprising was the failure of Wade’s next release, ‘At The Party’/‘Devil In Your Soul’, both sides written, arranged and produced by Curtis Mayfield (who, for good measure, also played guitar on the session) which nonetheless remains one of his strongest-ever releases. Once again it sold well on Wade’s home patch, Chicago, and several other regional R&B markets, but was unable to break through nationally.
His next release, a classy, Brook Benton-like revival of Percy Mayfield’s ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ was perhaps another unlikely choice of material, but it restored Flemons to the R&B charts, reaching #20 in the Fall of 1961 (conversely, the self-penned flip, ‘Keep On Loving Me’, evinced something of a contemporary popcorn Brill Building feel). In much the same ballad vein as ‘Please Send Me…’ they tried next with an early Don Covay co-write, ‘Welcome Stranger’, a disc which rather anticipated the Soul ballad sound of the early 60s - in which case it was a couple of years too early, as its disappointing sales confirmed.
Indeed, by 1962 the winds of change were well and truly coursing through black/R&B music, and many established artists were struggling to come to terms with shifting market trends and new sounds and styles. Ray Charles had well and truly thrown the proverbial cat among the pigeons with his multi-million-selling Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music, and its equally multi-million-selling spinoff hit singles. Vee Jay clearly decided to try and gatecrash the C&W party with Wade Flemons, to which end he was taken to Nashville for his next release, on which he was backed by more or less the entire Bradley’s Barn A-team, including Boots Randolph on sax and Floyd Cramer on piano, with Bill Justice both arranging and producing. The resultant ‘
I Hope, I Think, I Wish’/‘Ain’t These Tears’ is one of the whitest-sounding black records ever made, taking Wade deep into what would, five years hence, be Charlie Pride territory.
But the disc emphatically failed to makes waves and although he was still only twenty-two years of age, it transpired that Wade’s hitmaking days were behind him. He remained with Vee Jay for a couple more years, recording singles backed by both The Dells and The Four Seasons, but with no further success (ironically, he wrote ‘Stay In My Corner’ for The Dells, which restored them to the R&B charts in 1965 after a nine-year gap!)
In 1968 Flemons recorded ‘Jeanette’, a one-off shot for an obscure Chicago label, Ramsel, which has gone on to become a valuable, much sought-after Northern Soul item. The following year he teamed up with former Vee Jay house drummer Maurice White to form The Salty Peppers Trio, who would expand into Earth Wind And Fire a couple of years hence. But that’s a whole different musical ball game…
Acknowledgments: Big Thanks to Opal Louis Nations, and also to Robert Pruter, Peter Burns and Rob Hughes.
This release is dedicated to the late Tony Wilkinson, whose original concept it was and without whom it would never have come to fruition.