Heart and Soul

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

Nonetheless Stringer's career advanced, and by the end of the Seventies he was opening for national acts in New York City, at a club called the Baby Grand. His ambitions soared even higher: "I expected big things -- to get on the national charts and to travel and perform all over, and for people to really see me worldwide, and to make money. I already planned on the big home, to do something for my family."

But the jobs got fewer and more scattershot. In Manhattan he recorded a rap single called "Sarge," and he employed his knowledge of R&B classics for an album called Reggae Love Songs that hit the charts in Europe but was never sold in the United States. He also learned some lessons in economics. "[The producers] gave me about $5000 up-front," Stringer recalls. "All of a sudden they disappeared and the next thing I know the album is number five in France. They had an office [in New York], then they disbanded and they were gone."

When his manager died of cancer, in the mid-Eighties, Stringer found himself rudderless, with neither the business acumen nor the connections he needed to navigate that competitive music world. So he headed back to Florida. "I didn't ever go back to New York," he says mournfully. "My family was still there, but I was on the road."

When Stringer arrived in Miami, his own career at a standstill, the black community had also changed. The streets of Liberty City, where young lovers had once strolled to clubs, had been ransacked and looted during the McDuffie riots that exploded in 1980. The construction of I-95 had long ago split the community. Urban renewal projects raked clean the core of Overtown, leaving acres of vacant lots. The club Jetaway, where Joe Balls had watched Stringer sing, fell to the wrecking ball. Other venerable nightspots became strip clubs -- Trader John's is now Rollxx and the Galaxy is Club Ice. "When they put in the expressway, it took away the so-called schools for the talent, and then the talent had nowhere to go and started drifting out of the city," relates Steve Alaimo, who cofounded the popular label TK records and is now part owner of Vision Records.

Bob Tillman, who served as a master of ceremonies at many of the clubs and who owned the Apollo South, puts the matter even more bluntly: "Where young people were standing there singing, now they are out there selling drugs."

Even before the demise of black music clubs in Overtown, music trends had left soul behind. Disco reduced dance music to its basics -- floor-shaking drumbeats and thumping bass. And then rap and hip-hop displaced disco as the country's mainstream black music. "A bitterness comes from all of the R&B acts that were primarily local," says Betty Wright, who shot up the charts as a young Miami teenager with late-Sixties hits such as "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do" and the 1971 smash "Clean Up Woman," released when Wright was only eighteen. "When the club scene died, they didn't have any other access to venues outside a 60-mile radius. They just didn't get the business. They sang and they danced, but they didn't get the hang of the business. I've been doing this for 30 years; what I did learn is what you have to have is business acumen, not just talent. Raw talent speaks for nothing."

Bobby Stringer learned this lesson the hard way. In the late Eighties, desperate for work, Stringer turned to Jesse Ferguson, a long-time associate. Ferguson had spent the Seventies and Eighties touring with a vocal group billed as "the original Platters," which purported to be a modern version of the classic doo-wop ensemble responsible for hits such as "The Great Pretender," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and "Twilight Time." Ferguson wasn't really an original Platter, but that hardly mattered. For years doo-wop groups have been cloned and recloned for touring purposes, and no group has been cloned more than the Platters -- there are more than 100 Platters offshoot groups taking the stage around the world. "You could write a whole book about the Platters," remarks soul singer Barry White (a veteran associate of Stringer, not the rotund, hit-making White). "At one time five people toured in the band, and nobody has ever won the right to exclusive use of the name." Off and on during the Eighties, Stringer toured Europe with Ferguson's version of the Platters.

But the partnership wasn't meant to be. Stringer quarreled with Ferguson over money and severed his relationship with him in the early Nineties. He also had a personal disappointment to nurse. While touring he had met and married his second wife, twenty years his junior, but that marriage soon dissolved. "If I could do it all over, I would have done a lot of things different," Stringer laments. "She was way too young for me. I only stayed with her two years. I realized I didn't marry her because she knew how to cook or clean, because she didn't. It was a fantasy to her because of who I was. I got out of it."

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