BEHIND THE MUSIC—Sylvester “Sly” Washington produced live jam sessions for seasoned and mature musicians at The Venue nightclub in Ambridge on Friday nights. (Photo by Tim Cox)
(While their Big Brothers of Jazz will forever receive international acclaim, the Burgh’s funky brethren has toiled in local anonymity. This is the first in a multiple part series highlighting Pittsburgh’s live-music, funk legacy of the 1960s through the 1980s. This series will shed light on an important, vital legacy that should never be forgotten.)
It is well documented that the Pittsburgh region is one of America’s cherished locales when speaking of the development of American Classical Music better known as Jazz.
The unmentioned part of Pittsburgh’s rich musical tradition has been the contributions that so many talented individuals have made in developing the area’s rich Rhythm & Blues idiom—a tradition whose time has come to be told by those who lived it—before those knowledgeable griots have passed on and the real story is never shared.
Fortunately, this two-part article represents a rare opportunity to shine a light on our region’s rich and vibrant culture that featured various live musicians and bands that performed music in the ’60s and ’70s era including Rhythm & Blues, Soul and Funk.
So, where do we start?
Frankly, the inspiration for this article surfaced after reading about the recent success of nouveau hip-hop artist and Hazelwood product, Wiz Khalifa.
In speaking of Wiz Khalifa’s forerunners in the music industry, other area publishing agencies mention Pittsburgh-based artists like Norm Nardini, The Jaggerz, Billy Price’s Rhythm Kings and Donnie Iris, the Ellwood City native formerly of The Jaggerz.
While these artists are special to our region, there are hundreds of African-American musicians and bands that have never attained due recognition when it comes to the development of our city’s rich musical heritage—away from jazz.
Pittsburgh bands formed via regional, residential districts
In an extensive conversation with Harrison Rickman, a musician who performed with various groups at many Pittsburgh venues in the 1970s, he recalled how the city’s R&B band lineups were unofficially categorized by where you lived—or by what region of the city you resided.
For instance, a very rich live-music legacy was cultivated in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhoods.
Some of the bands that hailed from that part of the city included The Allen Brothers, New Identity Band led by guitarist Luther DeJaurnette, The Wilson Sisters and Six Day Thing, said Rickman, himself a North Side product and excellent bassman and keyboardist.
Unfortunately, Rickman died in late 2011, during the development of this archival journal.
On the East End, specifically in the Garfield-East Liberty area, you had a very talented crew of young brothers named Wantu Wazuri—obviously named for the Johnson hair care product that was promoted every week on TV’s Soul Train dance show. Uncle Jamm was another Garfield-based band.
While Wantu Wazuri hailed from the city, they really made their mark in the outer reaches of the city in Pittsburgh’s suburban and small-town steelworker communities like Beaver Falls, Aliquippa, Sewickley, Braddock, Coraopolis, “Little” Washington, Homestead, Duquesne, Whitaker, Donora and Clairton.
The Beaver Falls Elks Club on Third Avenue was a haven for many Pittsburgh-based bands who simply couldn’t land substantial work or decent pay at inner-city venues.
Beaver County: A safe haven for city and suburban musicians alike
Russell “Rusty” Carter, bandleader for Beaver County-based soul band LUV, formerly known as Black Love, confirmed the difficulties faced by many inner-city musicians.
“For some reason, they always had trouble finding work in Pittsburgh,” said Carter, while adding that he thinks the outskirt venues also paid better.
Carter said he enjoyed his musician life during the ‘60s up through about 1985. He, like many musicians of his era, said the Disco wave of the late ‘70s had an ill impact on live musicianship. Since the mid-‘80s, Carter said he hasn’t played much music and now concentrates on his livelihood as a computer technician who does installations for commercial facilities.
Carter, a Freedom, Pa. native, however, admits the live soul music era was unique in the ‘Burgh.
“It was a great time and there were some great and unforgettable experiences,” said the father of four daughters.
“Sure, my children know of my musical past and sometimes they’ll ask me about those times,” he said with a reflective smile concerning his family.
Carter recalls Black Love at its height, when they were a well sought-after performance act at various Pittsburgh area lounges and bars. At the height of their popularity in the mid-1970s, the band opened for James Brown at the Civic Arena.
“We even recorded some records, but it seems like that’s when it all came to an end,” he said with some remorse.
Meanwhile Bobby Short, the drummer/lead singer with Black Love, provides another view of this successful band.
Short lived in Rochester at the time when The Notations were formed in Beaver Falls. That band consisted of Short on drums, singers Ricky Brinson, Fletcher “Corky” Brooks Jr., Wayney Goosby and Chucky Dawson with Jack Lavette on keyboards.
“Corky’s dad, Fletcher Brooks Sr., was our booking agent,” said Short.
That outfit eventually transformed into the Sweet No Band, which ultimately became Black Love, he said.
Black Love recorded several records at Jeree’s Recording Studio in New Brighton.
“This was a special time for young musicians in the area,” said Short who also noted that keyboardist Francis “Jet” Barnes and vocalists Lina Lee and Lain Lee were special to the band’s success.
“We, in Beaver County along with Pittsburgh, were the bedrock for funk music in Western Pa. Black Love led the way for the El Pooks and later, Rare Experience—the two hottest bands from Aliquippa,” said Short.
The Crazy Quilt in Market Square was the cool, hip Downtown Pittsburgh night spot that regularly featured live music performed by Black bands, throughout the week.
“Black Love? We ran the Quilt,” boasted Short. “We performed there a lot and had a good following too.” He added that, for the times, his band made “good money” while playing week-long gigs at the Quilt. The Quilt was downstairs from Reflections disco, which was formerly known as Walt Harper’s Attic.
At their height, Black Love commanded $500 per man, at the end of a week-long stint at the Quilt, said Short.
The Crazy Quilt success also led to the band’s demise, Short admits. “That’s when the egos started flying and it led to our breakup. Just too many chiefs,” he said.
Meanwhile, when Black Love experienced a brief breakup due to “creative differences,” the group was reorganized by Rusty Carter in Spring 1972 and featured Ronnie Cox on keyboards, his 14-year-old brother, Timmy Cox on drums and a trio of lady vocalists from Aliquippa, including Debbie Hines and Gloria “Glo” Savage.
That faction of Black Love made its mark during the 1972 Black Arts Festival at the Mount Washington Housing (Projects) Apartments in Beaver Falls, an event which still looms legendary—considering it was a one-time successful ordeal that occurred during the height of Black consciousness nationwide.
Later that year, on August 20, 1972, the epic Wattstax concert in Los Angeles attracted more than 100,000 Black patrons to the LA Coliseum, for what’s now considered the largest-ever Black consciousness show of its kind—often dubbed the Black Woodstock.
Similar concerts occurred at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium in the form of Black arts festivals and jazz festivals, often sponsored by the KOOL cigarette company.
For more information about the Black Love experience and other Western Pa. bands, access the website www.IdigPgh.blogspot.com. This website was developed by a local niteclub owner and researcher named Jay Mulls, and provides a wealth of information about the Pittsburgh funk music scene from years gone by.
Hill District musicians always competitive
Ronnie Biggs remains a mainstay on Pittsburgh’s live-music circuit. He got his start on the Hill with The Deltones band.
“It’s almost like what we did back then doesn’t count,” said Biggs. “I’m thankful to be a part of this article. It’s an important piece of our city’s rich history,” said the bassist and recording engineer.
The Deltones were a 10-piece, funky horn band that played several gigs at Duquesne University and at area high school proms. They opened up for BT Express, Earth Wind and Fire and the Ohio Players, Biggs said. Popular jazz horn man, Tony Campbell, also got his start with the Deltones.
“All around our Sugartop (Hill) neighborhood, there were musicians,” said Biggs. “We competed with Family of Eve, Pamoja, The Caprells, Family Band, Brass Monkey with Flo and Minnie Wilson, and Pyramid Band,” said the Schenley High School graduate.
Dwayne Dolphin is another Schenley graduate who continues to enjoy a stellar musical career as Fred Wesley’s bass player. “It don’t get no funkier than working with James Brown’s trombone man,” said Dolphin during a recent national tour stop in Augusta, Ga. Dolphin’s older brother, Freddie, is also another talented Hill musician who played various funk and jazz sets at the Hurricane Lounge, the Lowendi Club and at after-hour sets at the Aurora Club.
Biggs also recalls winning KQV radio’s Summer in the City battle of the bands contest and the Super M talent show promoted by Walt Maddox, a former vocalist with The Marcels and Freddie Johnson of “Blue Moon” fame.
Biggs still owns his first bass guitar, a Kingston four-string he purchased from Pitt Loans (pawn shop) on East Ohio Street for $65, he admits. A 1972 Fender Precision bass is also still in his presence. “They both stay with me,” he said.
(Timothy Cox, a former Entertainment Editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier, is now based in Augusta, Ga., where he continues to write music columns while managing one of Georgia’s premier wedding bands. Before leaving Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, Cox was one of the most sought-after drummers on the city’s competitive jazz circuit. Cox is a Journalism-Communications graduate of Point Park University in Pittsburgh.)
Digital Daily Signup
Sign up now for the New Pittsburgh Courier Digital Daily newsletter!
- Obama's Morehouse visit shines spotlight on HBCUs (1)
- Janet Jackson, Wissam Al Mana Married In Secret Wedding (2)
- Fifth annual National Achievers Society inductions (2)
- Breast cancer survivor group targets young Black women (1)
- Wes Moore replaces Dr. Ben Carson as Johns Hopkins commencement speaker (3)