Heart and Soul

Miami's soul-music era may be over, but singers like Bobby Stringer are struggling to revive the genre

In his mind, Bobby Stringer is standing on the stage at Overtown's packed Cotton Club, and the crowd is going wild. It's not a fantasy, but a memory, one that takes Stringer back three decades. He was 21 years old in 1968 when he sauntered shakily to the stage for the first time in his life, whispering the Lord's Prayer. Blue smoke rising from the floor below made him squint, and he fumbled the opening line of the Temptations hit "I Wish It Would Rain." Soon he was soaring and the crowd was howling in appreciation.

That was amateur night and nobody knew Bobby Stringer, a Coconut Grove native. Nobody knew him until he started to sing. He sang for his mother, who died of meningitis when he was only seventeen. He sang for his mentor, rhythm and blues guitarist Peter Seegram. He sang for himself and his fantasy that one day he'd be a superstar like Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, or Wilson Pickett. He sang for the crowd. And when the master of ceremonies asked the audience to select the best act, the skinny young stranger got a thunderous ovation. He took home the $25 prize. He would take home the money three times, never slipping to the second prize of a fifth of whiskey. (Third prize was a pint.)

By the time Stringer stepped up to the stage of the Cotton Club, Miami had been a nationally known, if modest, incubator of black music for decades. Performers like Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were welcome to play the grand ballrooms of Miami Beach's hotels in the Forties and Fifties, but they had to sleep in Overtown hotels like the Sir John and the Mary Elizabeth. After playing for whites in the evening, they'd jam into the wee hours at Overtown and Liberty City clubs that charged black patrons rock-bottom prices. By the mid-Fifties vocal groups such as the Drifters and the Coasters were wintering in Miami. At the dawn of the new decade, Miami spawned its first nationally known act when two local soul singers named Sam Moore and David Prater ran into each other at the King of Hearts club. Signed to Stax Records and relocated to Memphis, they would become huge R&B stars, with a series of hits that included "Hold On! I'm Comin'," "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby," and "Soul Man."

To profit from the blossoming music business, entrepreneurs opened more than a dozen nightclubs in Liberty City and Overtown, with names like Harlem Square, Bottlecap, Galaxy, Rockland Palace, Soul Place, and Golden Tornado. Throughout the Sixties soul stars such as Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett made the trip south. Sam Cooke recorded a live album at Harlem Square. On busy weekend nights, contented crowds ambled from club to club, and singers often added matinee performances for screaming teenagers. Bobby Stringer was one of those teenagers. "They were great singers and they made chills come over you when they sang," he recalls. That was the kind of singer Bobby Stringer wanted to be.

And for seven years, at least, he was. He tamed his Afro with Vaseline, giving the coils of his coal-black hair a bluish sheen. He donned garish bell-bottoms and blazers and stood tall in black-patent platforms. And then he went out to make his name. He played Knight Beat. He played Jetaway. He played the Soul Place. The checks came in, for $40 or $50 per week, and they weren't always enough to feed his fledgling family -- his wife, a daughter, and eight younger brothers and sisters -- so Stringer supplemented his performing wages by taking odd jobs as a dishwasher or car wash attendant. But the clubs were where he came alive. "That went on for years and years, singing in the clubs, establishing my popularity," Stringer says. "People were beginning to recognize that I could sing. I developed a following and people were advertising it on the radio, that I was going to be at a certain club this weekend. All over, when they advertised me, I'd have my crowd. They came from Homestead. When I did my show, I was the spotlight. I was the showman."

Bobby Stringer rode the soul music trend until its wane. A talent scout named Joe Balls who heard him sing at Jetaway in 1977 was impressed with what he heard, and he took the singer to Mississippi to cut a single called "Before You." Recalls Stinger: "I recorded at Monaco Records. We were under their label called Swar, recorded at their studios. Matter of fact, I wish they could have hooked me up with Monaco Records. They're really big now; they have all the blues singers. I met some prominent musicians there."

Stringer was driving to Richmond Heights one afternoon when he heard his song on the radio for the first time. "I was thrilled," he recalls. Agents from Los Angeles-based Arista Records conferred with Stringer. "They wanted to get it. But the [Swar] people weren't going to turn it loose," he says regretfully. "I felt sort of bad, but it was out of my hands. I'm the artist, and they were the ones who took care of business. That's what they always told me."

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