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Published: 2006/09/19
by Brian Ferdman

Detroit Michigan – The Fabulous Peps

Detroit Michigan – The Fabulous Peps, Soul-Tay-Shus STD CD 6348
Northern Souljers Meet Hi-Rhythm – Various, Soul-Tay-Shus STD CD 6357

It wasn’t so many years ago that American pop music had a truly geographical focus, as a specific musical genre would be centered in one specific city. Of course, this was before American pop music became homogenized, over-processed, middle-of-the-road fluff, crafted to appeal to the broadest swath of mindless people. Back in the day, unique musical innovations were pioneered in certain cities, such as Seattle for grunge and its predecessor, the garage band sound, New York for punk and hip hop, and Los Angeles for singer-songwriters. Of course, one cannot forget the towering contributions of Detroit and its sophisticated Motown R&B sound. In the early to mid 1960s, impresario Berry Gordy and his Hitsville U.S.A. empire were changing the face of American pop music, employing a future Hall-of-Fame roster filled with the likes of The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and many more. Gordy was a bit of a control freak, but he knew the while America was embroiled in a turbulent civil rights struggle, his African American artists needed to be on their best behavior in order to appeal to a mainstream white audience. Naturally, every artist did not want to conform to Gordy’s strict rules, so many Detroit musicians attempted to forge their own path. None of these rebellious artists could match Gordy’s P.R. machine, so they never reached mainstream stardom, but several of these renegades did produce some interesting work. One of the more noteworthy second-tier Detroit groups were The Fabulous Peps.

The Fabulous Peps were comprised of singers Ronnie Abner, Tom Storm, and Joe Harris, along with guitarist Little Charlie Hearndon. With Detroit serving as a hotbed of soul music, each singer began his humble career in the world of doo wop before eventually joining backup vocal groups. Along the way, they individually established close relationships with such future luminaries as Edwin Starr, Mitch Ryder, and David Ruffin. Eventually, the three singers found themselves in a backup role in Norman Whitfield’s studio. Their chemistry was evident, so they formed a band. However, Motown’s roster was full, and their wild live show didn’t fit within Gordy’s required constraints. Thus, The Fabulous Peps took to the road in their formative years, logging a significant amount of time in Dayton, Ohio before ultimately finding themselves recording sessions in Memphis. It was here that some of their most significant recordings took place, as The Fabulous Peps, who were at their best in a live setting, were finally allowed to record live in the studio with a top-notch backing band.

Their sound was certainly soulful, but they lacked the slick polish of their Motown brethren. They also brought a certain grittiness and element of the unexpected to their music. Their cut of Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” bristles with fire, thanks to a soaring and somewhat jarring take on the chorus. With the aid of a funky rhythm section, The Fabulous Peps demonstrate how they weren’t afraid to explore darker themes on the slinking “Can’t Get Right.” Their version of soul was unique in that it often revolved around a pulsating backbeat, such as the one employed by the bluesy 6/8 feel of “Thinkin’ About You.” Of course, they also weren’t afraid to turn a song on its head, as demonstrated by their blistering rendition of “So Fine.” What was a once a little toe-tapper was transformed into a scorching funk number, complete with a psychedelic, bubbling organ and a twangy southern guitar. “I Love You” is a prime example of how the Peps merged the Memphis and Detroit sounds. On one hand, they had the smooth vocal harmonies of Motown, but they successfully paired this with the swinging shag-inspired rhythms of the south. It’s a great blend that really combines the best of both worlds.

Trips similar to The Fabulous Peps’ journey to Memphis are the inspiration behind the compilation The Northern Souljers Meet Hi-Rhythm. Indeed, the Peps were not the only Detroit vocalists to feel shutout of Motown’s stranglehold on their fair city. Thanks to the contacts of Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, a DJ who had transplanted from Memphis to Detroit, musical acts were able to make the pilgrimage down south for a novel experience. Many would find themselves at Producer Willie Mitchell’s well-known Hi-Records’ Royal studio, and these acts would rent studio time and backup musicians, as well as purchase songs from Mitchell’s in-house writing team, which was led by Don Bryant. Bryant and his fellow musicians would often write up a song, and if Mitchell liked it, they’d record a demo on the spot. These demos would be used to sell the song to visiting artists, and this compilation provides the listener with the opportunity of hearing five of Bryant’s demos as well as their finished versions by other artists. In Bryant’s renditions, one can hear a finely crafted song, but when the Master Keys took hold of Bryant’s "Weak & Broken Hearted," a whole new layer of depth and soul was added. The same holds true for the sultry vocals the Persians applied to "Talkin’ About That Girl of Mine." Of course, comparing the codas of both versions of this song shows some of the obvious differences between the Memphis and Detroit sounds. Bryant’s Memphis-inflected vocals are gruff and forceful, and he ends the song in an Otis Redding-style, fiery improvisation. On the other hand, the Persians opt for a smoother vocal interpretation and quicker fadeout.

In listening to these two albums, one can see truly how the sounds of Detroit and Memphis music differed. The Detroit vocalists had the soul, but artists like Al Gardner had to come to Memphis to find a backup band who could drop some serious funk and grit into a tune like “Watch Yourself.” These were great collaborations that yielded fantastic results. Stax Records was on fire in Memphis, but Hi-Records’ teaming with the “Northern Souljers” vocalists of The Motor City helped pioneer their own sound. Hi-Records provided a one-of-a-kind recording experience for these men of Detroit, in many cases giving them their only opportunity to play with a racially-mixed band. The music these men created came from the blending of two distinct worlds, each with distinct virtues that offset one another to form a thrilling collaboration.

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