Sunday, August 22, 2010

Blacklove & Pittsburgh Funk

Photos courtesy of the Alan Leeds Archives

The sound of popular black music was changing in the mid-seventies, and during this time Blacklove was one of the prominent black groups in Pittsburgh. According to their manager and producer, Walt Maddox “That group was very successful. They were probably one of the most successful local bands, black bands, to come out of this area.” In 1975 James Brown released an album titled Sex Machine Today. The cover reads “Disco Soul – Dance, Dance, Dance.” Even the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk was high-stepping into the disco era. It just so happens that Alan Leeds, who worked with both Blacklove and James Brown, moved to Pittsburgh prior to becoming Brown’s road manager. “In ’69 I quit school to go on the road with Brown. And then I ended up coming back. I married a girl from Pittsburgh. I wanted to go to New York, but she wanted to go back home with her family. I moved back in ’73 or ’74. Walt was kind of managing and producing Blacklove. They were actually pretty hot for a couple of years. We’re kind of getting into the disco era here. It was around ’75. They became the hottest band in that region. You know … West Virginia, Eastern Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, the whole tri-state area.”

The core of the Blacklove originated west of the city in Beaver County. They were a spin off of the Notation Rock Band. According to drummer, Bobby Short “Those guys were older. They fell by the wayside and we picked things up. Rusty Carter, Francis Barnes (Jet) and me …we picked up a couple of other guys and kept going.” The first Blacklove recordings feature Short (drums), Barnes (keys) and Carter (bass) along with Lain and Lina Lee (vocals), John "Doc" Eberhardt (guitar) and Robert “Mousey” Thomas (conga). Barnes, originally from New Jersey, attended Slippery Rock University. Short explains that things came together after Barnes graduated and moved to Homewood to teach at Westinghouse High School. “Laine and Lina Lee were picked up when Jet moved to Pittsburgh. John Eberhardt was from McKees Rocks. We were at the Crazy Quilt and that’s where Jet met Walt Maddox.”

Walt Maddox's own recording career dates back to the late 50’s. He's perhaps best known for his involvement with vocal groups, The Blenders and The Marcels. In 1973 the American Tobacco Company launched a new brand of generic menthol cigarettes called Super M. Maddox was involved with promoting Super M sponsored events, namely the Super M Fresh Talent Hunt. “I was asked to participate with the Super M cigarettes. After I got to do this promotion for the cigarettes I thought “Super M”, so I kept it for my little production and record company. The cigarettes didn’t really last that long. I thought maybe there was a good luck omen in there someplace.”  

In 1975 Super M was set up as a subsidiary of Bill Lawrence’s Western World Records. Blacklove, who'd been playing for a year or so, were the first artists to record for the label. Barnes says “He (Maddox) was the entrepreneur that thought that he was going to turn Pittsburgh into another Detroit … Motown. That’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to have a house band and some really hot singers.” Leeds recalls “Bill was starting something. They had a recording studio and offices out in Carnegie. Walt Maddox had hooked up with Bill Lawrence and he wanted some help. So he asked me if I was interested and I came over to work with Walt under Bill Lawrence for about a year.”

"Get Down (When the Feelin' Hits Ya)" Pt.'s 1 & 2
(1975 Super M, SM-001)
issued twice with same catalog number.

"People Keep Changing" Pt.'s 1 & 2 (1975 Super M, SM-5000)

also issued as "disco copy (DJ-5000)" with different edit on the flip.
Blacklove’s first record on Super M was “Get Down (When The Feelin’ Hits You).” It was released shortly before Leeds got involved and then re-edited and re-released with a slight title alteration. "It might have been done before Western World was up and running and that’s where they remixed it. It stayed on Super-M, but it was repressed with the new mix and it was distributed through Western World.” Barnes recalls the group's earliest recording session being at Audio Innovators. “I think we did one session there. Then we took the master and we went to Walt’s studio.”

The first release of "Get Down" includes a minute-long introduction featuring a solo by guitarist John Eberhardt. There's just one short verse prior to the hook and then another solo by Francis Barnes on keys. The second release of the record is a noticeably different mix that places an equal amount of emphasis on musicianship over lyrical content. Instrumental versions are included on the flip side of both records. Maddox and Leeds co-produced Blacklove’s second single,
“People Keep Changing” later the same year. The two sides total just under six minutes and feature more by the way of socially conscious song writing and attention to the vocal arrangements. It's just as much danceable as the aforementioned recording.

There was a lot changing, even quicker than Blacklove was releasing records. Walt Maddox’s good luck omen with Super-M proved to be just the opposite. In his own words “Well, I bought the recording studio off of Western World. They went bankrupt. Six weeks later I was burglarized and three days later I was burnt out. So I got out of the studio business. The guys put out the next record. They kind of went on their own."

Photo courtesy of the Alan Leeds Archives. (f): Laine Lee, (b): Francis "Jet" Barnes
"Music is Designed (To Make You Move)" b/w
"Revolution Solution" (1975 Pgh. Funk, PF-5001)

Leeds’ involvement with the group continued after Super M. “Jet Barnes and Laine Lee asked me if I’d be interested in managing them. The Blacklove guys and I were really close. That was a project and a band that I really, really, really believed in.” Together they formed Pgh. Funk Records. Before the end of 1975 they went to Jeree Studios in New Brighton to do more recording. The debut release on Pgh. Funk was “Music is Designed (To Make You Move)” backed with “Revolution Solution.” “My brother, Eric Leeds, is a saxophonist who ended up playing with Prince and the Revolution for five years. He’s actually the sax player on 'Music Is Designed.' It’s just a little part at the end. The guys in the band wanted some horns so we brought him in." "Music is Designed (To Make You Move)" successfully does what the title implies, while "Revolution Solution" stands out stylistically from the material that the group had released prior. Perhaps brother and sister vocalists, Laine and Lina Lee, had been listening to the likes of husband and wife team, Doug and Jean Carne, while they were writing this tune.

Alan Leeds reminisces about his experiences with Blacklove and Pgh. Funk Records, "It was a very aggressively marketed band, as best as you could on a local level in that area with limited resources. WAMO gave us a lot of airplay on the singles. We managed to get the record into all of the stores. Of course National Record Mart was still huge then, dominating the market. We got it into all of the indy stores. I don’t know what you call a hit, but I considered it a hit. I think it was in the top five, or top ten of WAMO’s call ins and in local singles sales for the better part of three to four weeks … if not longer. It didn’t just sit on the shelf. We did some local TV. There were local community shows. It seemed like every station had a public service show on the weekends in the wee hours of the night that was aimed at the black community. We managed to do all of those.

Blacklove opened locally for national acts including Earth Wind & Fire, Bobby Womack and Leeds’ former employer, James Brown. Unfortunately the experience that Leeds gained on the road with Brown didn’t prepare him for getting a disco/funk band booked regularly in the city of Pittsburgh. Outside of the Crazy Quilt, which was a pre-dominantly black club located downtown off of Market Square, there weren’t many gigs to be found within the city limits. “We’d play Tuesday through Saturday and we’d play there every three or four weeks. That was a gig that was considered a better gig. Not so much because the money was better, but because the visibility was better. You were in downtown Pittsburgh in Market Square. Some of the Pirates, Dave Parker, used to hang out in there. Willie Stargell came in. Some of the Steelers back in the day, Joe Gilliam, came through there. It was a hang in black Pittsburgh, so there was a cachet to playing there.”

As for the other popular venues that existed at the time … “An all black band just wasn’t going to get into any of the major music rooms that booked bands seven nights a week. Most of the gigs had to be out of town in these little Elks Lodges, school auditoriums and dance halls out in the boondocks. There were several clubs in Pittsburgh that had black music, but most of them were into that kind of organ jazz. If you had an organ trio you could work for days, but if you had a funk band you couldn’t get arrested. Maybe it was a case where the clubs wanted a more mature audience. I’m not enough of a sociologist to figure out why, but it just seemed like a very kind of conservative music community. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me because if you went to National Record Mart you realized that Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire were definitely outselling Jimmy McGriff. So obviously there was an audience for this music, but the clubs weren’t really interested in having it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t make any sense then and it was very frustrating. At any rate to make a long story short there were still enough gigs. Particularly out in the boonies. We would play Elks Clubs, and all these different VFW lounges that you find out in Aliquippa and Beaver Falls and all of these kinds of places … Wheeling, Weirton and Youngstown. You name it and we played it.”

"Is it Love" b/w "Crazy Changes" (1976 Pgh. Funk, PF-5002)
"Crazy Changes" b/w "Is it Love" (1977 RCA, PB-10968)

Blacklove’s career moved at an accelerated pace. In 1975 they’d released two singles on Super M (four including alternate versions), a third on their own label, Pgh. Funk and then in 1976 … according to Leeds “What happened is we were shopping for a deal based on 'Music Is Designed.' There was a time when RCA had quite a few Pittsburgh guys there. A few guys became mid-level record executives in New York. We had a deal with RCA for Blacklove and then the group broke up. Everyone was a little disappointed because the flip side ('Revolution Solution') was mastered so poorly  … and there was just some discontent in the band. It was one of those things where some of the guys valued their day jobs and their obligations to family more than other guys. Some guys were more dedicated to the band and they wanted to hit the road and take a chance. Other guys were like ‘Hey man, if the money’s there I’ll quit my day job, but if there’s no money I can’t hit the road just to see what happens.’ They were all legitimate situations"

"They split and went in different directions and I kind of lost interest in the thing. I threw in the towel and got involved with some other projects. The irony is that they did make another record with what was left of the group. The band really broke up and then reformed as Luv’. They made one more record locally and that’s what finally got them the deal with RCA. When it came out I was totally surprised. I didn’t think anything was going to come from it. “ Walt Maddox re-enters the story as Leeds steps out. “I got them (RCA) to pick up the deal on it.” As for the name change “They changed it to Luv’ because they had a couple of white guys in the group.” Classic. Bobby Short elaborates on the line up change ”Luv’ was Francis Barnes, me, Rusty Carter, Dave Crisci and Joe Garrucio. Those were the two newest people we picked up. That was me (on vocals).” The song writing on the Luv’ single is attributed to Barnes, Carter and Jamilla Parris. Short says “Jamilla Parris was somebody Jet hooked up with. He was trying to publish her songs … get her recognition and so forth. We never got to that point”

In the earlier part of the seventies RCA released some huge hits that did very well on the black music and pop charts. They also had some particularly interesting soul and funk releases that included Jimmy Castor Bunch’s It’s Just Begun, albums by Nina Simone (as well as her band leader Weldon Irvine), various Harvey Fuqua-produced projects such as The Nite-liters, Boobie Knight & the Soul Society and of course New Birth. New Birth, The Main Ingredient, Friends of Distinction and perhaps The Hues Corporation would score the bigger hits for the label. What was left of RCA’s roster of black artists weren’t charting so high in record sales by 1976. Obviously they were searching for fresh talent. It wasn’t until a year or so later that they’d cash in with the likes of Evelyn Champagne King and Odyssey at the height of the disco era.

Maddox explains “That was probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made going with a national label. They buried the group. I was selling product in England at the time with a guy in Philadelphia. He was buying them with no return, 500 at a time. I should have stayed with him, but instead when RCA came we were like ‘This is it. We finally got a major contract.’ It was a mistake because it did nothing for them.” In 1977 RCA re-released Blacklove (now known as Luv')'s fourth single (sixth for those of you who are counting). They were pushing what was initially intended to be the B-side, “Crazy Changes.” The original A-side of the Pgh. Funk release was “Is It Love.” It's a nice ballad that adds diversity to Blacklove's small and mostly dance-oriented catalog. The group also sacrificed the rights to their publishing as part of the deal. Bobby Short gives a brief explanation of how things came to an end. “It started happening for us when we were selling records … as Blacklove. Then RCA stepped in and wanted a piece of the action. They were a name. They had other groups going on at the time. They didn’t do a damn thing. We didn’t get royalties. It ended with egos. There were too many questions that couldn’t be answered and we split. Just like the questions that you’re asking me … the band was asking. ‘Why aren’t we getting paid? Why aren’t we going on tour?’ I said ‘The hell with this. Goodbye.'"

That's how the story ends. While that may not be the happiest of endings, Blacklove worked hard for approximately three years and definitely made progress in that short period of time. They aspired to get signed to a major label, they managed to avoid a potential break up and they eventually accomplished that. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if things would have worked out differently and Walt Maddox's aspirations of creating what Barnes referred to as "another Motown" would have come closer to fruition. At the end of the day what's important is that the group managed to document their career by releasing a handful of records that we can still enjoy thirty-plus years later. Visit where you can listen to seven compositions by Blacklove.

Bobby Short is a groupleader in the corporate world by day, but he's also been performing consistently since the days of Blacklove. He's currently at Scoglio’s Restaurant in Robinson Township and Shakespeare’s Restaurant & Pub in Sewickley. He also makes regular appearances at the River's Casino and aboard the Gateway Clipper. Francis Barnes is still working in the public school system. He served as Secretary of Education for the State of Pennsylvania in 2004 and 2005. Walt Maddox still performs with The Marcels. He works with young people through his organization, Kids Against Drugs, where he once mentored a 10 year old Christina Aguilera. Alan Leeds went on to manage Prince's tour at the peak of his career. More recently he’s worked with the likes of D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq and Chris Rock. He’s largely regarded as one of the foremost authorities on James Brown. He co-edited The James Brown Reader along with Nelson George, which was published by Plume Books in 2008. 


idigpgh said...

I'm still waiting for an awesome comment on this one. Here go a few comments from the corresponding YouTube videos:

"Wow, after 35 years, Blacklove still sounds FUNKY. The names of the two lead singers were Lain Lee and Lena Lee (brother and sister) from Homewood. They attended Westinghouse High School and Taylor Alderdice HS, respectively.

Old School Blacklove Fan"

"I used to dance to this at Wigan Casino Northern Soul All-Nighters in the late 1970's, it was played by the DJ Keith Minshull. (P Funk)."

Unknown said...

Blacklove was a funky, funky group. They originated out of Beaver Falls, Rochester, Freedom and of course Jet had his roots in Homewood, Pittsburgh as a Westinghouse PhysEd teacher (Go Slippery Rock, Look What you Got). Thanks for creating this great website/blog.

I DIG PGH said...

@bftiger75 Thank you. That was the awesome comment I was waiting for. I'm glad that you enjoyed it!