The TSU Toronadoes
"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
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
"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 urbandictionary.com as slang for "get your act together."
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."