The TSU Toronadoes

The twisted history of "Tighten Up"

"With all the communications outlets in the world and in the city, you'd think we'd be swallowed up," Allen says. "I'm sure because the city's so huge, there are people who don't know about us. But according to the people that do, the significance of KCOH is quite prominent. It's an institution.

"A person coming to Houston [and] trying to get to the African-American market is crazy for not buying KCOH," he adds. "A person that buys Majic 102 or any other station and skips KCOH, they're not doing their job. As a matter of fact, they should be fired."

Forty years later, "Tighten Up" has endured right alongside the station that first made it a hit. It topped the Press's "Houston 100," our list of popular and/or influential songs from or about Houston, this summer. Besides lending its name to a ubiquitous car-insurance commercial a few years ago and a UK reggae label in the early '70s, the title has long since entered the U.S. vernacular, even surfacing on as slang for "get your act together."

A poster from the Toronadoes' brief tenure on Stax Records subsidiary Volt in the early 1970s.
A poster from the Toronadoes' brief tenure on Stax Records subsidiary Volt in the early 1970s.

He still does a daily hour-long gospel show on KCOH, but otherwise Frazier, now 80, has long since left the music business and today, with his son Ovide, runs the Eternal Rest Funeral Home off Wayside Drive near Loop 610. Bell remains a reliable draw on the oldies circuit, playing more than 100 shows a year in both the Southwest and the East Coast's beach-music scene.

Minus Lewis, the Toronadoes reunited briefly in the mid-'90s, but that stalled out when Burns injured his arm. Cal Thomas passed away in 2005, and his brother Will is in the wind — no one seems to know where he is — but the other surviving Toronadoes are all still somewhat musically active. Lewis is a minister in Birmingham, Alabama, who has released gospel records under the name "Reverend Al." Burns occasionally plays drums for his Dickinson church and manages his "holy hip-hopper" daughter, Sanders teaches music at Prairie View A&M and Mills is working on the arrangements for Johnny Bush's next album. Jenkins has since played bass for Houston R&B totems Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Johnny Clyde Copeland and Sherman Robertson, and his predecessor Newman still plays with a group in Beaumont.

The Toronadoes' output is still readily available. New York specialty label Tuff City released the albums And Now... the TSU Toronadoes and One Flight Too Many, as well as Houston compilation Funky, Funky Houston, several years ago, and the records remain in print. "Getting the Corners" resurfaced on Rhino's R&B/funk box set What It Is! last year.

And although they can't help but wonder what might have been, the Toronadoes have by and large come to terms with being left off the "Tighten Up" credits. "You can't always look back," says Burns. "If you do, you'll run into something, and you can't move forward looking back."

Besides, the Toronadoes did get the last laugh, sort of. The fact that they were as responsible as anyone for "Tighten Up" wasn't much of a secret then, and it's even less of one today. Before Bell played last fall's Masters of Soul show at the Continental Club with Roy Head, Barbara Lynn and Barbara Mason, Burns says he was inundated with phone calls from people who thought the Toronadoes would be Bell's backing band. It was actually the Allen Oldies Band, but the idea was out there nonetheless.

"So many people called me because they had the mental impression the Toronadoes were going to back Archie at the Continental Club that night, and they were going to catch us playing 'Tighten Up,'" Burns says. The night of the show, he adds, "Man, people my age — white, green, black, gray and yellow — they had a line around the corner."

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