Posts Tagged ‘E.M. Franklin’

Dealing with the devil: Houston gospel from the house of Robey

Posted by mcorcoran on October 25, 2017


Don and Evelyn

Houston’s Don Deadric Robey- half black, half Jewish, all gangster- beat Berry Gordy by 10 years to become the first African American record mogul. A gambler and a hustler, he did not get there by playing fair, but Robey put out some of the greatest gospel, R&B and rock n’ roll records of the 1950s and ‘60s from a building in Houston’s tough Fifth Ward. As Stax would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Southern music for an audience more into getting down than fitting in.

The 2809 Erastus Street address housed Robey’s sophisticated Bronze Peacock Dinner Club from 1945 to ‘53, and in a back office he launched Peacock Records to try and make his discovery Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown a star. That didn’t quite happen, but Peacock hit it big in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” predating the sensational Elvis Presley cover by three years. After he acquired the Duke label in the early ‘50s, Robey’s stable of acts contained not only Gatemouth, but Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright.

Robey’s empire included the Buffalo Booking Agency, run by the irreplaceable Evelyn Johnson, which repped many black entertainers out on the “chitlin circuit” and gospel highway. Robey insisted that his acts tour incessantly and if they had jobs they couldn’t leave, like Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951, he sent out singers to pose as them. As a one-stop operation, Robey got a piece of everything and used strong-armed intimidation to make negotiations go his way.

“He might’ve ripped me off,” Gatemouth Brown told me in 2004, “but if it wasn’t for Don Robey, nobody would’ve ever heard of me.” Such sentiments fueled impressario greed across the board in the music business at the time. Getting paid to do something you love was a novel concept after the Depression and WWII.

What was important was that Robey allowed musicians to make records, and the style didn’t matter as long a people were buying them. Robey had five labels, including Back Beat (Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” in ’65) and Song Bird (“Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” by Inez Andrews in ’73.)

As the label of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales, led by the volcanic housewreckers Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, respectively, Peacock was primarily known, in its early years, as the home of hard gospel. Add the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers from Chicago, Rev. Cleothus Robinson from Mississippi, Sister Jessie Mae Renfro of Waxahachie, the Christland Singers with R.H. Harris- and Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.

Robey with Al “TNT” Braggs and Bobby Blue Bland.

Chicago was still the headquarters for black gospel music, but because of Robey’s label and booking agency, Houston was gospel’s second in command.

It all started with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday when you mentioned “The Five Blind Boys” you were talking about the guys who formed at the Piney Wood School for the Blind near Jackson, Miss. Besides shoutmaster Brownlee, the original group, which was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937, included tenor Lawrence “Shorty” Abrams, baritone Lloyd Woodard and bass singer Joseph Ford (replaced by J.T. Clinkscales in the late ’40s).

After school, the group began singing professionally as the Jackson Harmoneers and moved to New Orleans for better opportunities. There, they picked up fifth member Percell Perkins and recorded obscure singles for the Excelsior and Coleman labels. Booked in New Jersey with another blind group, a promoter billed the concert as a battle between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama- and both acts ended up keeping the new names.

On tour in Houston in 1950, the Mississippi Boys met Robey, who decided he could sell some gospel records by adding a drum beat to quartet singing. While the first session with the “Original Five Blind Boys” did not produce a hit, the second session created a monster with “Our Father.” That intensifying of The Lord’s Prayer, over a repetitive bass drum, validated Robey’s vision by being the first black gospel record to hit the jukebox. Before that, almost all quartet records were a capella. After “Our Father” hit, almost none were.

Early Bells of Joy

Robey required all his studio drummers to follow the beat of a red light in the studio that simulated the rhythm of a human heart. Austin gospel group the Bells of Joy had a huge hit in 1951 following that Robey formula on “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” The lyrics were written by Lavada Durst, the KVET disc jockey who’d just recorded a piano blues single for Peacock as “Dr. Hepcat.” With sales of 700,000 copies, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” won the Cashbox award for best-selling religious single of 1951.

Before 1956, when a full studio was built at 2809 Erastus, Robey and musical directors Joe Scott and Dave Clark used Bill Holford’s ACA (Audio Company of America) studio on Westheimer. Peacock artists were in and out of there all the time, as Robey kept signing acts like the Southern Wonders, Christian Travelers, Stars of Hope, Golden Harps and Gospelaires.

Peacock got thick in the game in 1952 when Robey signed established gospel stars the Dixie Hummingbirds, who rival the Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones as the most consistently great gospel quartet of them all. Led by the inventive, charismatic Ira Tucker, the “Birds” could sing it all, exemplified by 1953 smash “Let’s Go Out To the Programs,” in which the group delivered perfect imitations of the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Bells of Joy and, lastly, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Tucker told interviewer Seamus McGarvey years later that he never really had a problem with Robey. “The only thing that you had to watch was, if you had a deal with Don, you had to keep him with the deal (because) if he could talk you out of it, he would…If he could scare you down, he would.”

Roscoe Robinson of the Five Blind Boys, who replaced Brownlee as lead singer in 1960 after the great shouter died of pneumonia at age 35, said Robey paid the group with a new car and performing uniforms, but they never received royalties. Like all Peacock acts, they made their money on the road. “After our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said ‘no,’ so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago,” said Robinson, 86. But after the Five Blind Boys made a record for Chess subsidiary Checker Records in ’62, Robey had a scheme to defraud Chess by producing a contract with the Blind Boys that he had back-dated. “He said he would cut us in on a lot of money (Peacock sued Chess for $450,000) if we signed the contract, but me and Shorty refused, so they kicked us out of the group,” said Robinson. Robey put it out there that Robinson went against his own to sign with a white man, so he was effectively blackballed, he said, and had to leave gospel for R&B, having a minor hit in 1966 with “That’s Enough.”

By all accounts- and I do mean all– Robey was the black Lucky Luciano, ruling his musical turf as a ruthless boss. Such was Robey’s rep that when his rising star Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself to death on Christmas Day 1954, rumors started that it was actually a hit on an artist looking to leave his label. (Disproven by eyewitnesses, including Big Mama Thornton.)


In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke (reportedly using a Colt .45 as a bargaining chip), Robey started a gospel series on that label, including two releases by acts with ties to Austin’s first family of gospel, the Franklins. The Paramount Singers, who were co-founded by Ermant M. Franklin, but relocated to Oakland during WWII, and the Chariettes, featuring E.M.’s daughter Evelyn Franklin, recorded singles for Duke.

The Franklins who would have the biggest impact on Peacock were Ermant Jr. and brother Elmo, whose Mighty Clouds of Joy signed with Robey in 1960 and changed gospel music forever by making the full, funky band essential. The group, who would go on to be known as “The Temptations of Gospel,” recorded the spiritual hit “Ain’t Got Long Here” at their very first Peacock session and had enormous LP sales with Family Circle in ’62 and Live At the Music Hall in ’67. Clouds lead singer Joe Ligon, a native of Troy, Alabama, was an acolyte of Brownlee and Cheeks, taking Peacock’s anguished rasp sound full-circle. The band’s soul-funk influence is still prominent in current Texas gospel acts like the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers.

Little Richard was also on Peacock Records for a spell, in 1953, with his band the Tempo Toppers. In an interview with Dave Booth, Little Richard recalled that his signing was not voluntary. “I wouldn’t sign that contract,” Richard said, “and I ended up signing it because he beat me so bad. I had ran away from home…and he took advantage of it.”

By the late ’60s, Robey was spending more and more time at his ranch near Crosby, where he raised thoroughbreds and sometimes even competed in rodeos. As in the music biz, his specialty was calf-roping and tieing.

When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several co-“written” by Deadric Malone, Robey’s pen name), to ABC/Dunhill for an undisclosed amount. The deal called for Robey to remain a consultant on his catalog, but that gig was shortlived. The mogul died of a heart attack in 1975. Made a lot of money that’s probably all long gone. But also made a lot of records that will last forever.



Sources include “Let’s Go Out To the Programs” by Ray Funk, Rejoice! magazine 1990. Thanks to Robert Darden.

Listen to a playlist of Peacock gospel.


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Death of a Mailman

Posted by mcorcoran on April 25, 2014

From 2014

Bill Martin, who married into the Franklins, Austin’s first family of gospel, delivered good news.

The night before East Austin’s legendary gospel announcer and promoter Bill “The Mailman” Martin was laid to rest at age 81, there was a musical memorial at the St. James Missionary Baptist Church on MLK pastored by his father-in-law E.M. Franklin from 1953 –1981. The songs were mournful, the speeches reverent on that Good Friday. Bill Martin was an actual mailman in East Austin for three decades before he took over for his mentor Elmer Akins as the face and voice of black gospel music in Austin, so he was doubly beloved. Sad to think that we’ll never again engage with Brother Bill, a man so full of life and care.

But gospel music does nothing if not lift you up when you’re down. In the midst of the musical tribute to the Mailman there was a Elgin preacher named Luchus McShann who got the crowd on its feet, urging him on, as he sang a ballad about Jesus in a haunting falsetto. When he squeezed out every bit of emotion on the last note of each line, spontaneously shrieks cut through the ominous atmosphere. Hands were shaking in the air. The huge auditorium filled with the spirit.

It was like the moments that changed the life of Bill Martin, who married into Austin sacred music  royalty and was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame on his own in 2009.

He had grown up wanting to be a sax player like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young and moved to New York City after graduating from high school in Asheville, North Carolina. Martin passed an audition at Julliard, but he didn’t have the money, so he joined the Air Force during the Korean War with plans to attend Julliard on the G.I. Bill.

While stationed in 1953 at Bergstrom Air Force Base, where the Austin airport is now, he met a Huston-Tillotson student named Evelyn Franklin at her grocery store checkout job in East Austin and asked her out. “You gotta talk to my daddy first,” said Evelyn, who everyone called “Tutter.”

Can’t imagine there are too many things in life more intimidating than facing legendary East Austin preacher E.M. Franklin and asking him to entrust his daughter to you for an evening. The old man asked the airman what church he belonged to and when Martin said it wasn’t a member of any church, the audition was over. But Bill was in the front pew at St. James the next Sunday and he served the church with enthusiastic dedication for almost 60 years. Bill and Evelyn married in 1955 and stayed that way for 50 years. Evelyn passed away nine years ago.

She was a Franklin, back when that surname on the Eastside defined gospel music, not stand-in-line barbecue. E.M. Franklin was the family’s lightning rod. Born in 1910, one of 17 children of porter Ananias and Callie Franklin in the Pilot Knob community nine miles southeast of Austin, E.M. grew up in the church. He co-founded Austin’s first recorded gospel group, the Paramount Singers, with his brother A.C. in 1936.

Named after the theater on Congress Avenue which they couldn’t enter because of segregation, the Paramounts had a radio show on KTBC for five years and recorded for the Library of Congress in 1941.

World War II broke up the a capella group when the other co-founding brothers, Kermit and Geno Terrell, were drafted. Upon returning, the Terrells settled in Oakland and restarted the Paramount Singers with the fifth original member James Haywood Medlock. The Franklins decided to remain pastors of their churches — A.C. in Los Angeles and E.M. in Austin. Known to “wreck a house” with his passionate sermonizing and then move the throngs to tears as he sang his signature tune, “Yes, God Is Real,” A.C. preached alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1968. Everybody in Austin knew him as “Uncle Koot.”

Evelyn Franklin and her sister Dorothy were members of Austin’s first girl group, the Chariettes, who had a minor hit in 1953 on Houston’s Duke/Peacock label with “Step By Step.” Since some of the members were still in high school, they couldn’t hit the road, so Duke’s Don Robey dropped the group, which was managed by Lavada Durst. KVET’s jive-talking Dr. Hepcat was well-respected by Robey, who sold a million copies of Durst composition “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951.

It was the Gospel Highway or no way back in those days and Rev. E.M. Franklin no doubt wanted to keep his young daughters near him. (Years later, daughter Barbara Franklin went on the road with Ray Charles as a Raelette, which reportedly didn’t sit well with the Reverend.)

“We could’ve been the next Caravans,”Evelyn told me in 2000, when the Chariettes reunited for a 50th anniversary concert. (They were joined by an 82-year-old Rosie Lee “Miss Kitty” Alexander, one of the hottest piano players in town in the ‘40s and ‘50s.) “But there are no regrets.”

After a year of marriage, Bill hungered to give his musical dreams another shot and convinced Evelyn to move to New York City. He got a job driving a subway train and, at night, would tote his sax to jazz clubs in Harlem. But four years in the service left him rusty and his old musician pals, including nephew Johnny “Spider” Martin, had passed him in skill. But Martin was starting to become interested in gospel music, especially since the Mighty Clouds of Joy, featuring Evelyn’s brothers Ermant Jr. and Elmo, played the Apollo Theater every December. “Now, the Apollo was some place I dreamed of playing as a jazz musician,” Martin told me in 2001. “Seeing those gospel shows there opened my mind to the possibilities of where church music could be performed.”

After ten years of living in the South Bronx, just across the river from Harlem, the neighborhood started getting too dangerous and the Martins, who now had five children, moved back to Austin at Evelyn’s insistence in 1966. “I liked the New York pace,” Martin told me in 2001. “But what could I do?” He said he had never regretted the decision, however.

The ‘60s were a great time for Evelyn’s older brother Junior, who had become a major player in the national gospel scene by co-founding and managing the Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as playing guitar and singing harmony. Junior Franklin moved to L.A. in the late ‘50s and started a new version of his Austin group Sensational Wonders, who played the same circuit as a teenage holy ghost shouter from Troy, AL named Willie Joe Ligon. What Ligon liked in the Wonders was a full band backing, unheard of in gospel at the time. In Ligon, Junior saw a singer who could match the intensity of June Cheeks and Archie Brownlee, the two greatest hard gospel voices of the ’50s. Together they became the Mighty Clouds of Joy, a group that revolutionized gospel music. They were called “The Temptations of Gospel” for their soul and choreography. But even more significantly was the funk bass lines they brought to religious music. Such current Texas gospel acts as the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers are direct descendants of that Motown gospel sound.

As much a Texas group as one from L.A., the Clouds made their first record in 1960 for Houston-based Peacock Records, having a hit right away with “Ain’t Got Long Here” (renamed “Stealing Away To Jesus” on some reissues). Though the Clouds, who had a disco hit in 1975 with “Mighty High,” were frowned upon by religious purists, they brought church to the charts while never losing the sanctifying conviction.

Junior Franklin moved back to Austin in ’79 to see after his ailing mother. At the time, Bill was delivering mail all over East Austin, then after work he’d get together with Elmer Akins, a man he met on his route. Also originally from Pilot Knob, Akins had the “Gospel Train” radio show on KVET from 1947 until his passing in ’98 and also promoted gospel concerts, usually at Doris Miller Auditorium. They’d attach a loudspeaker to the top of Akins’ car and Martin would drive while Akins barked. “The Soul Stirrers, with Austin boy James Medlock, are playing this Saturday night! With Shirley Caesar from the Caravans! Come to the program! It’s a joyful noise!” At the corner of 12th and Chicon, Martin would pull over as Akins, 21 years his senior, played records by upcoming acts over the loudspeaker.

What Martin didn’t learn from Akins he picked up from Junior Franklin, who went into the poster business after checking out a book about printing from the library. The Franklin–Stewart Printing company, known for day-glo posters, was shut down by the Dept. of Treasury in 1985 over counterfeiting charges, though details were not made public. Junior Franklin became a minister in 1991 and died of a stroke in 1996 at age 64.

“Junior convinced me to stick with radio when I was ready to give it up,” Martin said of his rough start at KIXL in 1980. “My first show was a disaster. I didn’t know I was supposed to turn off the mike when the records played, so they heard me talking on the phone over the music. I was so embarrassed; I tried to hide from everybody. But Junior kept telling me I could make a difference in gospel music if I stayed on the radio.” Martin went back to KIXL the next Sunday and kept going back for 34 years, even after KIXL became KGLO.

Just as Junior Franklin and Bill “the Mailman” Martin took over for E.M. Franklin and Elmer Akins, gospel music is a tradition to be passed on. The Franklin legacy is firmly in the hands of the remarkable Claudia Williams, who has been choir director at St. James since she was 16. Claudia was handpicked by E.M. Franklin after she led a bicentennial choir at the church in 1976. That was 38 years ago and in that time Williams, whose frantic motions and facial contortions resemble Mick Jagger as much as anyone in gospel, has become nationally known in mass choir circles.

Last weekend was quite a busy one for Williams, who is a Franklin on her great grandmother’s side. Good Friday was the musical memorial to the Mailman, and the funeral was the next day. Sunday was Easter. Williams led several hours of music over those three days, but gospel doesn’t pay all the bills and so Williams was back at her job early Monday morning.

Claudia Williams has been a mail carrier for 28 years.

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