The TSU Toronadoes

The twisted history of "Tighten Up"

Burns and vocalist/future Houston Oilers halfback James "Ted" Taylor voted "no" on both counts — they preferred to stick with their current manager, Houston big-band promoter Ed Gerlach — but were in the minority. "Leroy and them, being from the country, they were in love with Skip," Burns says. "He had the go-go girls, he had access to all that. I was all about business, so I said no."
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The Toronadoes first formed in 1965 while attending Texas Southern University, where founding members Burns, Hopper and Robert "Cush" Sanders (organ) all happened to live in the same dormitory. Taking their name from their school and the sporty two-door Oldsmobile model (which used the same body type as the Cadillac Eldorado), they recruited Lewis, James Doss (trumpet), Cal Thomas (lead guitar/vocals) and 16-year-old bassist Peter Newman for TSU's spring 1966 talent show.

Doss, who was from Las Vegas, arranged for the group to spend that summer playing in Sin City's gambling-fueled clubs. "Doss was very influential, a hell of a salesman and a pretty good trumpet player," remembers Burns.

Skipper Lee Frazier holds the box for the original "Tighten Up" master, recorded at Jones Studio in the Heights.
Skipper Lee Frazier holds the box for the original "Tighten Up" master, recorded at Jones Studio in the Heights.
Former Toronado Jerry Jenkins tightens up in the driveway of his Sunnyside home.
Former Toronado Jerry Jenkins tightens up in the driveway of his Sunnyside home.

Regular gigs in Vegas allowed the Toronadoes to cut their teeth and gave them some of their first big breaks. They backed Etta James at the Elks Lodge, and became the regular backing band for future James Brown Revue vocalist Marva Whitney.

"We were playing on a Wednesday night and were in competition with another band called the Blue Notes [later to become Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes]," says Burns. "We were doing a battle of the bands and started kicking butt, and people started going, 'Damn, who are these guys?'"

Unfortunately for the group, Whitney and her then-love interest/manager split town before they could record together. At summer's end, the band headed back to Houston, disappointed but with a brand-new bag of tricks and hungrier than ever.

Frazier recognized the Toronadoes' versatility and immediately put them to work as the backing band for his talent shows. "Those boys were bad, they were dancing and singing and put it to the music, and had those horns going," he says today. "They were good."

"The Toronadoes were a band that moved," says trumpeter Nelson Mills, who joined in early 1967 at all of 17 years old. "We caused a lot of people to stop sitting behind stands onstage."

After Frazier brokered a deal to manage the Toronadoes, the band quickly moved from the back of the stage to the front. They were soon the hottest band in town, and every club owner wanted them. "Ray Barnett owned more clubs in town than anyone at the time," recalls Jerry Jenkins. "He had the Cinder Club, Delta, 50 Yard Line, Casino Royale and Latin World. We could do entire tours of just his clubs."

A combination of James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, the Toronadoes had all the moves. A group that could write and perform their own music, and sing and dance, was almost unheard of at the time. One time they did a Motown revue and didn't even have to hire extra performers.

"When I was in Nashville, as a jock going to school, I used to emcee in nightclubs," remembers Wash Allen. "I used to work with a band there like the TSU Toronadoes. Everybody came to see them; they were packed every night. I didn't realize until later on I had worked for three years with Jimi Hendrix. He wasn't Jimi Hendrix then, he was just Jimi, but Jimi had a hell of a band. His music was so scintillating and so penetrating — well, the TSU Toronadoes were like that."

They lived like rock stars in Houston, with plenty of cash to burn. "I had an apartment, a 1969 performance-orange Roadrunner and money in my pocket," says Jenkins. "We were on salary. My whole monthly bills came up to about $250 and suddenly I had $2,200 a month, every month. It was like, 'You mean I can make this much money playing my bass?'"

The story was similar in other Texas cities, where, like Houston, their popularity far surpassed that of Archie Bell & the Drells. They headlined over the Chi-Lites and opened for James Brown at the Sam Houston Coliseum. The Toronadoes also managed to share the stage with early heavy-metal band Vanilla Fudge, and Who lead singer Roger Daltrey was so impressed he wanted to take them on tour. They were a soul band, but had no problem rocking out on occasion.

"We did a cover of 'Hey Jude' and did our destruction thing," remembers Burns. "We had things blowing up onstage because the guitarist, Cal, was into electronics. We had our own lights, smoke going and it looked like our instruments were on fire."

"Tighten Up" did land the Toronadoes on Atlantic Records, sort of — they backed up Archie Bell on his Tighten Up album, except for one song by another one of Frazier's bands, The Americans of 67. They stuck around for a couple of singles on Atlantic, "Getting the Corners" (first released on Frazier's Ovide label) and "The Goose." Two more singles came out on Stax subsidiary Volt, "My Thing Is a Moving Thing," also first released on Ovide, and the funky black rock masterpiece "Flight Too Many." "Getting the Corners" was their biggest hit, reaching No. 37. Not a bad résumé for any band, then or now, but still light-years away from the runaway success of "Tighten Up."

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