In his 1968 B-side track “I Got That Will,” Atlanta soul singer Hermon Hitson dreamed aloud of making it big in the music business, becoming a star, and having his name in lights. You gonna know me, he proclaimed exuberantly over a punchy, mid-tempo groove featuring a guitar riff based loosely on “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do),” Wilson Pickett’s 1966 hit. Pretty girls. Pretty clothes. Do you know? Dig it!
Hermon’s dream was perfectly plausible in the 1960s, when the city was flush with black nightclubs like the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue, which hosted nearly every top r&b act of the day—stars like Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, and the Contours—who’d perform for packed houses, backed by a local band. In the city’s Sweet Auburn district, just east of downtown, the traveling r&b stars would find not just enthusiastic audiences, but well-appointed black-owned hotels and restaurants. Despite the Jim Crow laws of the era, Atlanta was a hub for black talent and entrepreneurship, and Sweet Auburn was home to many African-American businesses—from one of the nation’s first black-owned insurance companies to Soulville Records. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in the neighborhood, and both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Julian Bond-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were based there. And as Bond recalled on a 2005 panel at the Atlanta History Center, it was common to move from meeting room to nightclub after important gatherings among civil rights leaders.
During Sweet Auburn’s heyday, a brotherhood of gifted guitar-playing soul singers, though largely unknown by a wide audience today, formed a loose collective. They wrote songs together, recorded them, encouraged one another, and competed fiercely, each believing in a coming personal glory that never came. Today, their records are coveted artifacts among deep soul collectors and DJs worldwide. Their stories can be accessed through their greatest songs.
Do you know? Dig it!
Heartbreak may be a cornerstone of memorable songwriting, but we all know there are different levels of pain. Take “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, with its finger-snapping, danceable beat, or the lushly orchestrated David Ruffin hit, “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me).” They sound downright cheerful. On the other end of the spectrum is James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album, of which critic Douglas Wolk wrote: “He sings as if his lover leaving him would be the end of the world.” With all due respect to the Godfather of Soul (and to Mr. Wolk), there’s another soul song that sounds practically apocalyptic by comparison. And it belongs at the very top of the cadre of Atlanta soul classics—a recording imbued with drama, grit, and tortured pain, with vocals delivered as throat-shredding screams. At the beginning of “Bad Girl,” Lee Moses says he’s going to tell us about “something that happened to me long time ago.” Listening to the song, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he could have just as easily been dumped in the parking lot of the recording studio.
Lee Moses was born in 1941, and he grew up in Mechanicsville, a neighborhood in southwest Atlanta. According to Rickey Andrews, a singer and founding member of Atlanta band the Fabulous Denos, Lee dropped out of high school to pursue work as a musician. His break likely came while performing at the famed 81 Theatre on Decatur Street, near downtown. In the late fifties, local radio station WAOK sponsored Tuesday-night talent shows at the 81, and the winner would earn a spot playing at a club on a weekend night. Lee thrived in this arrangement—as Andrews says, “He could play anything!”—and he soon became one of the most sought-after guitarists in town, fronting the Showstoppers, the house band at the Royal Peacock, the premier club on Auburn Avenue. Everybody wanted to play with Lee and capture his funky sound on their songs, but Moses wanted to release his own material. His first single was 1967’s “Diana (From N.Y.C.),” and later that year, he released two brilliantly arranged and performed instrumental covers: the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” backed by the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” Popular today with DJs, this record did not suggest the powerful voice that would appear when Moses’s version of “Bad Girl” hit shops later in 1967.
“Bad Girl” was originally penned by Bobby Lee Fears in 1964 for the Fabulous Denos, which Fears formed inside the walls of Booker T. Washington High School in Ashby Heights, near Atlanta’s historically black West End district. The Denos recorded the cautionary tale of teenage heartbreak in Macon at the same studio where James Brown made his first hit, “Please Please Please.” The Denos chased success—performing across the country and in Canada—but Bobby had a difficult time managing a number of vices; he had a reputation for being quick-tempered and prone to emotional decision making. Back in Atlanta, as band member Arthur “Dino” Merriwether recalls, Fears sold the song rights to “Bad Girl” to Lee Moses for drug money. (Other friends of Fears acknowledged that the drug money scenario is plausible, but would not go so far as to confirm Merriwether’s assertion.) Moses, who had also attended Washington High, before dropping out, recorded “Bad Girl” for the New York-based Musicor label—transforming Fears’s naive breakup ballad into an earth-shattering confession of the moment you know it’s over but you can’t come to terms with the pain. Where the Fabulous Denos’ original take on “Bad Girl” is a rather straightforward doo-wop to r&b reading taken at an upbeat tempo, Lee slowed it down, intensifying the emotion, and screamed his way through the vocals. It sounds as though he’s actually crying as he sings about an older woman who everyone warned him would break his heart. He didn’t listen, and he paid the price. Fears was wiped from the credits on the 1967 single.
Despite radio play throughout the Southeast, “Bad Girl” did not chart. Following a handful of additional singles, Moses released a solo LP in 1971 called Time and Place. It was a commercial flop, though it went on to achieve vaunted status among rare-record collectors, and it’s now available thanks to a 2007 reissue. Lee Moses never had a hit. He continued to gig in Atlanta until his death in 1997.
Many of Atlanta’s conventional clubs closed at midnight, but visiting and resident musicians would congregate for jam sessions at private venues after their advertised gigs. These were the places where friendships were bonded, business transacted, and scores settled. After he came to Atlanta in 1963, on tour with his band the Rockin Tonics, at age nineteen, Hermon Hitson was active in this scene. He built a reputation in Sweet Auburn as a talented musician (not to mention a self-professed player in the city’s healthy pimp culture). Nicknamed “Sweet Rose,” he drove Cadillacs, wore fine clothes, and relished the party life.
In 1967, Hermon was hired to play one weekend at the Night Cap club on Bankhead Highway to fill in for Lee Moses, who was off to New York to record with producer Johnny Brantley, a smooth “Italian looking fella,” as Hermon remembers (in fact, Brantley was African-American). When Lee returned to Atlanta, he met his temporary replacement, and the two musicians became fast friends. On Lee’s recommendation, Brantley secured Hermon a contract with ATCO Records, where his first nationally released single was issued in March the next year. The A-side, “You Are Too Much for the Human Heart,” was written by Lee Moses; the flip was one of Hermon’s called “I Got That Will.”
It didn’t take long for “You Are Too Much for the Human Heart” to build traction on r&b radio along the East Coast. Meanwhile, Hermon was working hard in the clubs. On weekends, he often played from 8 P.M. until midnight at the Plantation in Midtown, then headed out to Mamie’s Diner on Bankhead. By that hour, the front door at Mamie’s would have already been locked, but downstairs the after-hours club would keep the party going until sunrise.
On a rainy Friday night in the spring of 1968, Hermon was taking a young woman home from Mamie’s when he was attacked by two men who followed his car. During the confrontation, a knife fell to the ground, and Hermon picked it up and slashed one of his attackers so severely that the man died that night at the hospital. Hermon was arrested and charged with murder. Though he was later exonerated, radio stations quit playing his record, nightclubs shied away from booking him, and Hermon was dropped by ATCO altogether, halting the full-length album he thought he had coming.
The subsequent years brought further troubles. Thanks to Brantley, Hermon managed to record a couple singles on Minit Records, released to little fanfare (or sales). In 1969, his girlfriend was murdered and he was briefly jailed again, then released before any charges were filed. His opportunities at stardom fading, he turned to cocaine and heroin until he was barely able to function. “Everybody goes to Hell,” Hermon told me, of that era, “but everybody don’t make it back.”
Were it not for his friend James Shaw—better known as the Mighty Hannibal—Hermon might not have made it back, either. Hannibal grew up in Vine City, one of Atlanta’s most impoverished neighborhoods, and had moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s to pursue his recording career. In L.A., he became a pimp before converting to Islam and returning home. Hannibal stayed with his friend for thirty days straight to help him break his addiction. He worked Hermon through a cold-turkey detox and taught him about his faith. “Hannibal said that we weren’t devil’s food cake, and we weren’t angel food cake either,” Hermon remembers now. “That brought me to myself and after thirty days, I was cool.” Hermon converted to Islam in 1971.
The Mighty Hannibal also wanted to put Hermon’s artistry back on the map. When the after-hours clubs finally closed around 5 A.M., Hermon, Hannibal, and another friend, the guitarist Freddie Terrell, would head back to Freddie’s house, put on a pot of coffee, and write songs together. The redemptive “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” came out of their collaboration.
Early in 1972, Hannibal booked and paid for studio time at Cheshire Sound on Cheshire Bridge Road, recruiting Freddie’s Blue Rhythm Band to back Hermon. “Ain’t No Other Way” came from that session. From the very first note, the song jumps into a hard, vamping groove that announces itself with authority. There is no count-in, no introductory bars. Instead, the instruments come on at once: drums, horns, guitar, and bass. Throughout the song, Hermon sings: “I love you, yes I do now, baby, YOW! Sock it to me, with all my heart and soul.” The only hint of a reprieve from the heavy funk onslaught is a simple seven-note bridge on the guitar that only makes you want the next verse more.
Hannibal and Hermon shopped the song to a number of labels but came up empty: by then, no one seemed prepared to take another chance on Hermon and his checkered past. He made the decision to self-release the record, and it was pressed on his own Sweet Rose label—a nod to his earlier days as a pimp, and the name he gave to his guitar.
Hermon’s bond with his contemporaries was forged on the road with its meager monetary rewards. “A lot of people don’t understand what we went through,” he says. “You put all the miles on the car, pay all the musicians their cut, get a hotel and food night after night, and then try to explain to your woman why you don’t have any money when you get home. It’s hard, man.” Lee, Hermon, and Freddie Terrell, in particular, shared a close camaraderie—the proof is on the records themselves, where writing credits like Hitson-Moses or Hitson-Terrell are common. They shared songs, too. (“I Got That Will” was recorded at different times by Hermon Hitson, Lee Moses, and the Mighty Hannibal.) At heart, these men wanted each other to succeed.
Before Moses became bandleader for the Showstoppers, the group’s point man was Jay Floyd, a bassist who also played guitar for a local gospel group called the Southern Bells. That group included the thirteen-year-old Freddie Terrell, who learned guitar under the tutelage of Floyd. Within a few years, Freddie joined the Showstoppers, and not long after that he was hired by Wilson Pickett, who took him out on the road. When Freddie came home, in 1969, he was ready to put together his own group. The Blue Rhythm Band was born.
One night, they were playing a regular gig at Soul City, a large, integrated nightclub down the street from Cheshire Sound studio, when a couple of Capitol Records producers were in the audience scouting for talent. They approached Freddie between sets, and two weeks later he had a date to record at Atlanta’s Master Sound on Spring Street, the preferred studio for Bill Lowery, a music-publishing mogul with ties all across the industry, including a distribution deal with Capitol Records. Capitol put out “You Had It Made” and “Why Not Me?” in January of 1970.
Freddie had written “You Had It Made” with Hermon during one of their early-morning sessions. While there is a recognizable sweetness in the sound, similar to the vocal groups from Philadelphia and Chicago of that time, the influence of drummer Eddie Maxey—with his hard-hitting funky style and rough-edged vocalizations—roots the song in the South. If Lee Moses’s “Bad Girl” is the standard-bearer for an Atlanta sound, this single is a fine example of that sound three years later.
Like Jay Floyd, Lee had been an early mentor to Freddie and, as he had done for Hermon before, he introduced Freddie to his manager, Johnny Brantley, who agreed to use the Blue Rhythm Band on a Lionel Hampton album for Brunswick Records. The resulting Them Changes is a collection of hit songs of the period played in the soul idiom, with Hampton’s jazz vibraphone overdubbed from a separate recording session in New York. As it turned out, the album didn’t do much to boost Freddie’s career, though the exposure had a positive effect on the band. Freddie is cautious and wistful in his remembrance of this period. Today, he is semiretired from music, playing his guitar primarily in church, though he still occasionally takes the stage with the Buckboard Express, Hermon’s current r&b group. “A lot of the DJs worked the clubs as emcees in those days, so they knew all the musicians,” Freddie recalls. Many local DJs began to play the Hampton record, so more people came out to the shows. In a city like Memphis or Chicago, where there was a healthier studio and record label presence, the Blue Rhythm Band might have been able to quickly get back into the studio and keep their momentum moving forward. Instead, they cracked under pressure, allowing ego and politics to eat away at the band from the inside. “Once you get something going,” he remembers, “it goes to everyone’s head. Everyone is a superstar.” They split in 1971.
Today, there is little to be found of Atlanta’s colorful r&b scene. The construction of three interstate freeways in the late 1960s permanently splintered many of the city’s thriving black neighborhoods, which were further decimated by the construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Georgia Dome, and Turner Field. Mercedes-Benz Stadium—future home of the Falcons—has cut off access to downtown Atlanta via Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the west side, which is predominantly populated by African Americans. You can still walk by the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue, with its vintage marquee, though the historic venue is merely a shell of its former self. The countless clubs along Simpson Road (now Joseph E. Boone Boulevard) and Bankhead Highway (now Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway) have been torn down, boarded up, or otherwise forgotten. The city too busy to hate has evolved into the city too busy to remember.
If you walk east down Auburn Avenue from Peachtree Street to Boulevard, you can see a little bit of the magic that once was—like the Prince Hall Masonic Building, the first Mason lodge organized by African Americans and the onetime home to WERD, the first black-owned radio station in the United States. While you won’t hear much deep soul on the stages of Atlanta’s live music venues today, it is not difficult to trace the lineage of the city’s modern-day stars back to the 1960s. After-hours venues still exist—if you know where to look—as one generation of late-night partiers continually passes the torch on to the next. There is a worldwide network of collectors who hunt for original copies of records from the sixties-era soul brotherhood and their equally talented ilk—records like “Take Me Back and Try Me” by Roy Lee Johnson, whom Otis Redding planned to produce before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1967, or “Don’t Take It Out on Me” by Richard Marks, which has a polished simplicity. The legacy of “Bad Girl” alone has been passed on to a new generation of music fans, not only through its inclusion in the HBO show Girls, but thanks to young musicians like Eli “Paperboy” Reed, who recorded the song for his 2009 EP Ace of Spades.
Many of the old players have passed, but a few are still around. Hermon Hitson plays sporadic gigs when he’s asked, and from time to time his band includes Freddie Terrell on rhythm guitar. If you’re a bona fide regular at Northside Tavern, or if you’re lucky, you might catch Roy Lee Johnson sitting in with whatever band is playing that night.
The Sweet Auburn soul singers did not find the fame of contemporaries like Otis Redding, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin—all of whom get a generous shout-out in Hermon’s “I Got That Will.” Their names never did make it to the top. Still, their spirit lives on in contemporary Atlanta; the soul brotherhood helped create a collaborative environment that, decades later, would manifest in the hip-hop scene.
Performers and cities change over time, but quality music will find its way through the noise and endure for those curious enough to find it. Seek out these soul records and groove.
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