The TSU Toronadoes

The twisted history of "Tighten Up"

"Skipper Lee, tell us your story. When did you come to Houston and why? This is my story. Last night as I tried to sleep, it seemed I could hear voices. These voices kept telling me, 'Skipper Lee, steal away and carry a mountain of soul to Houston.' Over and over again I kept hearing the same voices. 'Skipper Lee, steal away and carry a mountain of soul to Houston.' Over and over again I kept hearing those voices. So I called my mother and I kissed her goodbye. I called my father in and shook his hand. As I walked out the door with my bags in my hand, I knelt down and kissed my little sister. Then I began the long, lonesome journey to carry a mountain of soul to Houston because I could not ignore those voices. Over and over again I kept hearing those same voices. 'Skipper Lee, steal away and carry a mountain of soul to Houston.' Have mercy, have mercy. So here I am Houston! Here I am, Houston! I've brought a mountain of soul to this city. Have mercy, have mercy."

Skipper Lee Frazier's introduction to his 1960s radio show on KCOH

The TSU Toronadoes, with trumpeter Clarence "Creeper" Hopper atop their touring van, circa late 1968
Daniel Kramer
The TSU Toronadoes, with trumpeter Clarence "Creeper" Hopper atop their touring van, circa late 1968
Archie Bell & the Drells in their heyday
Chris Gray
Archie Bell & the Drells in their heyday

Skipper Lee Frazier brought a mountain of soul to Houston — via Orange, Southern University in Baton Rouge and the tiny Jasper County community of Magnolia Springs — and then some. As a DJ on KYOK and then KCOH, and host of his own TV show on Channel 2, "Hip Skipper" became one of Houston's most recognizable personalities, black or white, in the 1960s and '70s. He hobnobbed with the likes of Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Bill Cosby and Barbara Jordan, and the thank-yous of his 2001 book Tighten Up: The Autobiography of Skipper Lee Frazier are packed with well-known names from Houston's political, musical, media and religious communities.

"If there are 1,000 people in the audience, you can hear Skip," says Wash Allen, himself a fixture on local TV and radio airwaves for decades. "He's one of those kinds of spirits that when he walks in a room, you're aware of it."

But as popular as he was (and is), Frazier's greatest achievement may be acting as midwife for arguably the most famous piece of music ever to come out of Houston, Archie Bell & the Drells' 1967/68 smash "Tighten Up" — a song that, both musically and lyrically, came about almost completely by accident.

"Tighten Up" began as an instrumental jam that local R&B group the TSU Toronadoes played at their shows. Built around a buoyant two-chord-vamp of guitar, bass and drums, and smoothed out by mellow horns and B-3 organs, it instantly filled the dance floor every time. "That was our riff, our theme song," nods Toronadoes drummer Dwight Burns. "Any time we wanted people to dance, we'd play that."

Frazier, whose DJ career led him into managing both the Toronadoes and Bell & the Drells, put two and two together and brought Bell into the studio to record some hastily written lines about "tightening up" on the drums, bass, organ and so forth. As tossed-off as the final product sounds, recording it was anything but.

"I can't remember how many times we tried it, over and over again — maybe 25 or 30 takes — before Archie said 'tighten up' to everything," Frazier writes. "We wound up staying in the studio until three in the morning getting that one tune down."

Despite its protracted birth, "Tighten Up" sounds completely spontaneous, like Bell is leading a party in the studio. Allen Hill, frontman for Houston's Allen Oldies Band, figures he's played the song hundreds of times, and says that spontaneity makes capturing the essence of "Tighten Up" nearly impossible.

"That was such a spontaneous recording," Hill says. "The vocals, there's not really a verse. Archie is ad-libbing a bunch of really, really cool stuff. I've heard it thousands of times and played it with Archie plenty, and it's doing it in such an ad-libbed way that makes it difficult."

Frazier originally released "Tighten Up" on his label, Ovide Records, as a B-side to the song "Dog Eat Dog." But fellow KCOH DJ Gladys "Gee Gee" Hill began playing "Tighten Up" instead, and eventually convinced Frazier to follow suit. "Tighten Up" couldn't fly out of the trunk of his car fast enough.

"Suddenly I had the entire city of Houston in my hand," he writes. "The record started selling even better and became an even bigger hit."

So big that notorious Gulf Coast producer and promoter Huey P. Meaux, who knew Frazier from hawking songs on his Crazy Cajun label to the DJ, offered to see if Atlantic Records might be interested. The same ears that introduced Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and the solid soul of Memphis's Stax Records to America didn't even think twice.

"It came across our desks and we liked it," says former Atlantic partner and A&R genius Jerry Wexler. "Great record."

Indeed, "Tighten Up" was as big a hit nationally as it had been in Houston, and topped Billboard's Hot 100 for two weeks in late spring 1968. But as "Tighten Up" was sweeping the nation, it did so with Bell and bandmate Billy Butler listed as the sole writers, and no acknowledgement of or compensation to its original creators.

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