December 31, 2009
The year 2009 has come to a close. As the end-of-the year and/or decade lists pile up in the blog world, it’s hard not to wonder which musicians have been overlooked. As much as we try to follow our intuition and stay on the cutting edge, sometimes we can’t help but feel like we’re in the middle of a pack of lemmings, all hurtling in the same direction at cyberspeed. That’s why we thought this story seemed fitting as a sort of atypical end-of-the-year post. It reminded us that it’s hard to say which of our favorite bands of 2009 we’ll want to revisit in ten, twenty, thirty years, and it’s exciting to think that a group we’ve overlooked this year might get a break long after we thought that time had passed.
Chicago’s Walter Smith, Cliff Frazier, Brad Donaldson, and Keith Donaldson (along with Brad and Keith’s brother, David, now deceased) recorded in the sixties and seventies as the Green Berets, High Society, Walter & the Admerations, and, with Andre Williams, as Velvet Hammer. They started singing soul music together in their early teens, and like so many young artists, they came away from the studio with no money and none of the rights to their records. Because they were all drafted during Vietnam – just as one of their records began to chart highly – the Green Berets could never fully take advantage of their shot at stardom. But in the forty years since their studio days, the Green Berets’ records have become much-desired by collectors, selling for up to $5000, and in June they were contacted by Bob Abrahamian to conduct an interview on his Chicago-based radio show, WHPK’s “Sitting in the Park.”
As the story goes, Richard Lewis of Dig Deeper heard them singing on the show and just had to get them out to New York to perform in concert. Richard, and Michael Robinson, the other man behind Dig Deeper, track down their favorite soul singers, many of whom have fallen off the radar for decades, and bring them to Brooklyn to perform in their monthly Dig Deeper concert series. JezebelMusic.com recently talked to Richard and Michael about what it means to them to get an opportunity to see these artists perform their own songs live, so we decided to talk to the artists, too, to see what this comeback show of sorts meant to them. Erin Sheehy sat down with the Green Berets just hours before their Dig Deeper show at Southpaw in late October. You can also read her interview with the Dig Deeper guys here.
JM.com: How you were contacted initially for the radio show?
Cliff: I had been doing some research on the records that we made. I had contacted the magazine called Rockin’ Records and they interviewed me a couple of years ago to find out some of the history of what we had done and suddenly there was some interest by some collectors. We came to find out that one of our records, a B Side in fact, was a big hit in the UK. And this radio station that Bob works for, WHPK in Chicago, got a hold of a musician that I knew and asked him if he could get a hold of me. And I said, “Great!” So I got the guys and told everybody what was going on and they were very excited about going down to the station to get the interview. While we were there we sang a little bit to the records, and he was taping it.
Keith: We were singing during the breaks when they were playing our music live, and I didn’t even know he was recording us.
Cliff: The thing Bob did, he put that interview on YouTube. Next thing, Richard got a hold of us and said, “Hey, can you guys come here and do a show?”
Walter: The thing about that is Richard had not literally ever heard us.
Cliff: He heard the interview on the radio.
Walter: Wasn’t like he’d ever heard us live.
Cliff: When we looked, we found that several of our other recordings were online, on YouTube, iMeem, and then I found out that our record, the Velvet Hammer album, is being sold online all around the world. It’s called Andre Williams and the Velvet Hammer. It’s still being sold, and we’re still broke! [Laughs]
Walter: Go figure.
JM.com: So you still hung out before this radio show? You’d kept in touch?
Walter: We’ve been friends for over forty years. We all stayed in the fine arts. Keith was directing church, me and Brad was doing the thing.
Cliff: I was doing acting and making plays and eventually got with another band. But it didn’t stop any of this. We just continued. We got together and we said, “Okay, let’s go to New York, let’s do this. Let’s see what we can do.”
Brad: What’s great about this is that we’ve never performed any of our own stuff live for an audience.
Walter: That’s what we’re so excited about.
JM.com: Wait, I’m confused. You never performed your own stuff live?
Cliff: We were doing a lot of recording back then. We did a few shows, but cover songs, we never actually got an opportunity to perform our own.
Brad: Some of the songs were never released, some were, but our own sound has never been out there. So I couldn’t tell you what our sound would be. Some of our stuff sounds disco-ish, bluesy, rock n roll-ish, it’s a combination of all the thoughts and the music that we were going through at that particular time when we recorded.
JM.com: Have you guys been rehearsing a lot?
Cliff: Getting together, rehearsing a lot, slapping each other upside the head.
Walter: See, we’re from Chicago, and in Chicago they will boo you real quick.
Cliff: That’s a tough market, Chicago. That’s what makes it difficult for a lot of new artists. They have to go somewhere else to get famous and then come back to Chicago. Even Marvin Gaye had to leave Chicago to get famous.
JM.com: Why did you guys never perform your own songs?
Cliff: The government. Military. Navy, Air Force. At separate times. He got drafted then he got drafted, Keith got drafted.
Walter: Next thing you know we got a hit record and there’s nobody there to sing it.
Cliff: Then when we came back, a lot of the people who were involved with pushing us out there were kind of disoriented or torn apart. Some people had died, some people lost the deals they’d had. Money wasn’t immediate anymore.
Brad: We continued to record though. Even when Cliff was gone, we recorded a few sides, and then when we all got back we recorded again in what, ’73?
Walter: What you’re going to hear tonight is not even half of the songs we’ve done. Some songs we recorded we’re not even going to do.
Cliff: And some songs we never recorded we’re going to do.
JM.com: A lot of your records are really valuable now.
Cliff: Yeah, to collectors, because they were a limited release.
Walter: What really got us is that it was the B Side!
Cliff: The one that was a hit in London was “Man Oh Man.”
Brad: Wow. That’s my first song that we ever recorded.
Cliff: As a unit. See what had happened is Walter was with a group called The Admirations. We – the three brothers and myself – were originally called The Ambassadors, then we became The Four Gents, and we were just performing, and David, their younger brother, got a hold of Walter.
Walter: We all went to school together. I went to their house one time, and at that point it was on, because I knew these guys had what we needed to have to do the job. So after that, things just went zoom as far as recording. We did a lot of recording. Wish we had some residuals, but hey.
Cliff: See we were very young and we didn’t know all the ins and outs, the business aspects of where the money was to go. And when we asked about our money, Andre [Williams] was always, “Oh well, you used it up on this, and you used it up here, and the session cost this,” and we were like, “Oh, we had to pay for that?”
Walter: Basically, [he had] a case of amnesia as far as paying us.
Cliff: And we ended up paying for all of the recordings that we did, and never got paid for them. Literally what happened.
Walter: Them days, it was standard.
Cliff: And if you listen to the tracks, you’ll hear that they did spend a lot of money on what we did, cause they’ve got violins, musicians that were playing horns. They had special arrangers coming in. They did a lot of good work.
Walter: They had a lot of guys who were gigging themselves, had them come in.
Cliff: Some of the Funk Brothers from Motown, the Stax musicians. We went to Memphis.
Walter: We had a lot of top-flight musicians playing our stuff.
Cliff: And like I said, we were just young kids. We didn’t know Bob from Bill. We didn’t know who they were.
Keith: There was definitely an investment in us.
Walter: They appreciated what they had.
Keith: We didn’t even know what we had.
Walter: Their [the Donaldsons’] father was a vocalist, my father used to play blues guitar, his [Cliff’s] mother used to sing, so it was in the genes too.
Cliff: Music is in our blood.
Walter: We bleed notes. Notes and bars.
JM.com: So now that you have this opportunity to perform in New York, do you think that when you’re in Chicago you’ll consider performing more there?
Cliff: Hopefully. Weigh our options when they present themselves. If something very positive emerges…
Walter: Say, if you got someone who wants to tour with us for six months, then there you go!
Brad: There’s a few people in the Chicago area who know us, know our names, and know what we’re about. Very few people heard our songs in the area.
Walter: Everybody else heard it!
Cliff: Because our record was bigger in every other city but Chicago. It was number one in DC, it was number two in Saint Louis, it made it up to number 37 on Billboard, it was in the Top 50. In all other cities, Philadelphia, everywhere but Chicago did it reach the top ten. It was number twenty-something, but it never broke the top ten in Chicago. Everywhere else it did. And that was right around the time when we were all getting sent somewhere else.
Brad: We couldn’t even take advantage of it.
Walter: I’m looking at the Billboard, I’m like, “Hey! That’s my record!” But I’m on a ship.
Cliff: Hey we got a hit record, I gotta get home!
Walter: In one piece.
Brad: We would like to be able to make this opportunity grow for us into something bigger.
Walter: It’s such a good feeling to be doing our own stuff. I’d rather go up there and do what we do versus some Motown, you know.
Cliff: Temptations, they do their songs. Four Tops, they do their songs. We want to do our songs.
JM.com: Now you say it was number one in all those cities. There are probably a lot of people who remember your songs but don’t have the records. Have you thought about digitizing them?
Walter: Well, you got a rights thing you’ve got to consider.
Cliff: We didn’t have any of the rights, you’ve got to remember. None of the publishing.
Walter: The only rights we had was the right to sing it.
Cliff: And not get paid.
Walter: And on the other hand, there’s still a possibility. We’ve still got a lot of other tunes. We might consider going into the studio and doing them maybe.
Cliff: The only problem is in today’s market, they want young kids. They don’t want guys who have been there, done that, cause they’re looking at the longevity of the entertainment, and how much money they can make.
Walter: It would have to be someone who wanted us, who’d heard of us and said, “Hey, I want to get you in the studio.” Other than that, they want some kids. And then they’ll probably do them like they did us when we were young. That’s another reason they want ’em young. Possibilities of recording sound good, but right now, I’m looking at short-term things like, maybe we can get a few shows lined up.
Cliff: We still got it! Want to sing a song?
Walter: No, save your voice.
JM.com: When you all came back from the service, what happened?
Walter: When we got back we started doing more recording in the early seventies. I was in Los Angeles in the eighties, and when I came back from Los Angeles in the early nineties we got back together again.
Cliff: We started singing in a club. It was like an open mic kind of thing. In fact, we used to work with Bernie Mac every Friday.
Walter: Before he blowed up.
Cliff: Bernie Mack would be there, and we would be up there singing. And we’d do it a capella. We would pack the house. They would come just to hear us sing. And to hear Bernie tell jokes. Cause he was funny.
Walter: Have you talked to Richard in the last day?
JM.com: Yeah, I talked to him on the phone this morning.
Walter: What’d he say? I’m curious to hear what he said.
JM.com: Oh I’d missed his call yesterday, so I was just calling him back.
Cliff: He was calling so you could hear our singing!
Walter: We blowed them away. Richard had heard us on the radio show, but when we got in the cab we did something for him there, and he started calling people then and there! The cab driver was like, “Whoa, you’re good!” We told him to come down to the show. The main thing is the joy that we are singing our tunes! We’re not singing The Temptations, we’re singing our songs!
Cliff: The first thing I noticed when we got back for this was that nothing had changed. The sound was still the same. The understanding of who was going to do what next was still there without hesitation, without missing a step, it falls into place, just like it did the first time we sat down and started singing on the porch.
Walter: We sneeze harmony.
Cliff: When you have it, it doesn’t go away.
Walter: The only thing that’s different is who’s singing bass. Their [Keith’s and Brad’s] brother started singing bass…
Cliff: He passed away. It would’ve been five of us, I’m sad that he’s not here to be doing this, because he would be very excited right now. He’s here.
JM.com: Hey, what else do you want people to know?
Keith: I’d like to thank Richard and JB for the unmerited support – just by the little bit that they’ve heard – it’s just amazing to me that people like them are still out here. People don’t care about people the way they used to, especially in this business, and it’s just a joy to be able to do what we love to do. I’m in the ministry, and I love to do that. I’ll go straight back to that no matter what. But this is something very special to me. So I’m very blessed to be here.
Cliff: Forty-five years later.
Keith: And we got support from our family and friends. It’s cost us a lot. Not even time, not even money, but it’s cost us a lot. It’s part of your life, it’s dedicated this purpose. And there are so many rewards that can’t be counted in money that come about from doing something that you love to do. So I’m so glad to be here today.
Cliff: Keith also said something earlier today. He said that little snippet that people heard on that interview, on the radio show, that little bit of singing; for Richard to bring us out here from that little bit of listening is a leap of faith. They sent for us, paid for our room.
Walter: That’s why I think Cliff, when he started singing in the car [with Richard], we automatically started singing. We were like, this guy has never really heard us hit it! And like Keith said, he’s taking a leap of faith on that! And, you know, when he heard us, he was definitely amazed. Not only do we wanna do a good show, we wanna do a good show on them!
Cliff: In fact, we got a good show to get to.
by Erin Sheehy
performance photos by Jacob Blickenstaff www.33-13.com
(There are a ton of great videos of the Green Berets performance, but we like this one of Brad busting a move)