The TSU Toronadoes

The twisted history of "Tighten Up"

The TSU Toronadoes were left out in the cold.

What makes a song a song? More important, what makes a song — defined by Webster's as "a short musical composition of words and music" — a commodity, something its author or authors can take to the bank and (provided it's a hit) cash checks on for years to come?

Good luck answering that one, especially if the song in question is born of more than one musical parent. "Whether or not a song is a 'joint work' depends on the factual circumstances," writes Bay Area entertainment attorney Alan Korn in his online column Fine Print. "For example, imagine a friend writes an instrumental dance track with a great keyboard riff.

Soul to Soul: "Tighten Up"...
Tighten Up: The Autobiography of Skipper Lee Frazier"
Soul to Soul: "Tighten Up"...
and the Toronadoes' later hit "Getting the Corners"
Chris Gray
and the Toronadoes' later hit "Getting the Corners"

"Later," Korn continues, "you independently create a vocal melody and lyrics for this instrumental. Have you and your friend created a jointly authored work? The answer depends on whether your friend viewed the instrumental as a completed work when it was finished."

"Tighten Up" turns on the fact that the Toronadoes — some of them, anyway — did not think it was finished. The tune may have filled the dance floor every time the group played it, and they had even taken to calling it "Tighten Up" — although in terms of specific choreography, the titular dance had yet to be invented — but what's a song without words? For one thing, a very sticky musical gray area.

"Leroy Lewis [saxophone/vocals] said, 'We've got a record you ought to record, but we don't have lyrics for it," Frazier says. "They told me to come hear it over at the Cinder Club, and I said, 'Man, you've got to record this.'"

Naturally, even the lyrics' origins are a source of contention. In his book Tighten Up, Frazier writes that he dictated the lyrics to Bell the night they drove to the studio. Drummer Burns suggests Toronadoes trumpeter Clarence "Creeper" Hopper was feeding Bell the lines in the studio. Perhaps the best person to answer this would be Bell himself, but, — citing ongoing litigation in a completely unrelated case — both the singer and his attorneys declined multiple Houston Press requests for an interview. However, he did tell the Houston Chronicle earlier this year that he wrote the words based on a dance Butler invented.

"I have to give it up to Billy Butler," allows Burns. "He did come up with that dance."

Such ambiguity over a song's true origins (and authors) was all too common in those days, says Dr. Roger Wood. The author and local music scholar cites This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band by the celebrated Americana progenitors' former drummer as another example.

"He's got a big ax to grind because there's all these songs by the Band that Robbie Robertson gets full credit for writing," Wood says. "Levon Helm never disputes that Robbie wrote the words and the titles. What Levon complains about is how, in the studio, Robbie would describe, 'Okay, this song's going to start slow, with kind of a moody introduction.' The organ player might try something and Robbie would go, 'Yeah, give me more of that.' Levon was claiming in the studio how they created the music, that it wasn't something Robbie had written in whole cloth before the session. And I agree, that's probably the case."

One of many, Wood adds, because any music based at least in part on improvisation — blues, jazz, rock and roll, and their many descendants — is by nature collaborative. Even country would count in this category, he believes.

"I'm sure this happened a lot in Nashville where steel players, trumpet players, organ players and piano players create riffs that become key parts of the song, but fairly or not, they're not considered to be songwriters," Wood says. "There never to my knowledge has been a mechanism to appropriately quantify and credit every musician who brings his own instincts and skills to what happens in the recording."

The simple truth seems to be that the Toronadoes weren't cut out of the "Tighten Up" picture through any sort of subterfuge or deliberate malice, just simple country ignorance. In other words, Frazier didn't know enough about songwriting and publishing to realize the Toronadoes deserved at least some credit, and the band didn't know enough to demand it. "I didn't know anything about the business, they didn't know anything about the business," Frazier admits today.

In the end, Bell and Butler's names went down as the "Tighten Up" authors, Frazier was cut in via his Orellia publishing company and the Toronadoes had a chance to put on the brakes but didn't. The same February 1967 night Muhammad Ali captured the WBA title from Ernie Terrell at the Astrodome, the band held a meeting to vote on hiring Frazier as their manager and giving up the rights to their infectious, then-unrecorded instrumental. Ironically, the Toronadoes had just finished a gig backing Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye's brand-new duet partner, in her Houston debut. She was no relation to the boxer, whose sister Jean later replaced Diana Ross in the Supremes.

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