The TSU Toronadoes

The twisted history of "Tighten Up"

Lingering resentment over letting "Tighten Up" get away, management issues with Frazier, and Lewis and Cal Thomas's ongoing struggle over who the Toronadoes' true leader was all ultimately took their toll. The band splintered into two camps, effectively ending the Toronadoes around 1971. Lewis, Jenkins and Mills went on to form Allison South Funk Boulevard, a funk-soul group that recorded just one single before disbanding. Cal Thomas, his brother Will and a few others attempted to keep playing under the name TSU Toronadoes, but that attempt was short-lived.

Instead, the Toronadoes went down as surely one of the great could've-beens in American pop history. If Atlantic had put some real promotional weight behind the band — instead of releasing a couple of singles as a favor to Frazier for "Tighten Up" — or the Toronadoes had settled their leadership issues and fought a little harder to make it in the business, things might have been different, but the group just ran out of steam.

"I didn't hear the fire that I heard from Jimi and Bobby Womack and the O'Jays," offers Wash Allen, who briefly managed Womack and the O'Jays while DJing in Cleveland. "I just didn't hear that fire with them, like Bobo Williams [Bobo Mr. Soul, another of Frazier's artists] had. Bobo was desirous and always on it; he would never stop. I think the TSU Toronadoes, the only thing I can say is, I think they gave up. Bobby, the O'Jays, Jimi, Bobo, they would never give up."

The Toronadoes appeared on Frazier's (center, next to fellow KCOH DJ Gladys "Gee Gee" Hill) KPRC television show several times.
The Toronadoes appeared on Frazier's (center, next to fellow KCOH DJ Gladys "Gee Gee" Hill) KPRC television show several times.
Wash Allen in KCOH's famous control room, which looks south down Almeda Road
Wash Allen in KCOH's famous control room, which looks south down Almeda Road

KCOH was more than just where the Drells and Toronadoes found their manager. The station itself played an invaluable role in both bands' success. Since KCOH signed on at 1430 AM in 1953, it's been a vital resource for Houston's African-American community. Several of its DJs became local celebrities and used that popularity to launch and promote numerous auxiliary ventures, including Frazier's label Ovide Records and Allen's long-running "Happy Feet" dances. With FM radio in its infancy and only a handful of TV stations on the air — and, needless to say, no cable or Internet — KCOH was where most, if not all, black Houstonians turned for news, sports, community affairs and entertainment.

"It's always been the station in the city," says Wash Allen, who began at KCOH in 1971 and currently hosts the talk show Confessions weekdays at noon. "People around the world and around the country are aware of KCOH. You'd never catch Lou Rawls or Ray Charles coming to Houston and not coming to KCOH, or Jesse Jackson coming to the city and not knowing about KCOH."

The station's role as a hub of urban activity increased greatly when KCOH moved to its current location on Almeda in 1963. The control room's giant picture window overlooking the busy Third Ward thoroughfare meant DJs could be easily seen as well as heard, and they took full advantage. Frazier hired a pair of go-go dancers to entertain passersby (and drivers-by) during his afternoon-drive shifts. Since he knew many people driving by were also listening, he often called them out on the air.

"One day I saw a man pass by I knew was a pimp," Frazier, who came to KCOH in 1960 after three years at KYOK, writes in Tighten Up. "'Hey there, folks,' I said over the air. 'Pimping must be bad in Houston these days. Nitro just passed in his Volkswagen. I wonder what happened to his Cadillac?'

"I was known to say just about anything I saw about anyone I saw through the window," he adds. "Maybe I was a loudmouth, but it got a lot of laughs and people enjoyed my chatter."

"That's the image and the whole ambience of KCOH," adds Allen. "All the folks around the country know that's the station with the glass window, and there's hardly any station in the world like it. It's almost like the Space Center — there's only one."

Frazier also used to invite local musical talent to audition live on the air for the many talent shows he produced and hosted around the area; some drew thousands to venues as large as the Sam Houston Coliseum. Among many others, this is how Bell & the Drells, a vocal group that originally formed at Houston's Leo Smith Junior High School, came to his attention. The station even hosted many dances (then known as "record hops") in the large room next to the studio, where the Drells and Toronadoes, among many others, entertained.

"KCOH was the place you went to know what was going on," says Roger Wood. "So for local music artists, these were literally in many cases your friends and neighbors, and KCOH gave you a way to let these people know what was going on. KCOH had a lot to do with defining popular tastes locally in terms of the records it got behind and played."

Though it still plays some music, KCOH changed to a primarily talk-radio format in 1979. But even in today's media-­overloaded society, as the only locally owned station on the Houston airwaves, KCOH remains a crucial voice to and for local African-­Americans.

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