Heart and Soul

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

Finally Stringer hit upon an idea that combined his love for soul performance with what he had learned about the cash cow of vintage vocal groups. In 1992, he says, he copyrighted the name the International Platters, and he invited female vocalist Louise Freeman to join the group. Membership currently includes Stringer, Freeman, and Barry White, as well as Johnny Stewart (who claims to have been with the Drifters) and James Jenkins, who played with South Florida funk/disco kings KC and the Sunshine Band. The International Platters still tour Europe and Latin America. "Foreign audiences are so great," declares White, who taught himself Spanish while on the road. "When you're performing, they are singing every song with you."

Foreign crowds may be great, but Stringer has always understood that his ticket to success -- let alone stardom -- depends on American, and specifically white American, audiences. At the moment only a handful of Dade County venues draw multiracial audiences for R&B acts. Tobacco Road has traditionally booked rhythm and blues outfits like AJ and the Stick People and gritty blues bands like Sheba and the Rhythm Kings, as well as acts that perform roots music unspoiled by commercial influences. And three Miami Beach bars -- Stella Blue, the Chili Pepper, and Rose's Bar & Music Lounge -- irregularly book R&B acts.

Even those clubs have found soul music anything but smooth going. When Arthur Barron opened Rose's, a room with a velveteen canopy over the stage and neoclassical wall murals, he aimed to create a live black music club, but by the next year rock acts were beginning to creep into his bookings. "We were running out of funk bands, and the blues singers just weren't drawing," he says. Barron charges three to five dollars per person for local acts, and he can't always attract enough people to pay each member of the ensemble a reasonable amount, though he still books as many blues bands as he can. In short, nothing has filled the vacuum that was created when the black clubs of the Sixties closed. There are no amateur nights, no talent shows, no Knight Beat. "There is really very limited opportunity for discovery," says Betty Wright, who owns her own Miami-based studio called Miss B records; she reviews as many as 80 tapes each week sent her by aspiring artists. "Most of the time [if a national act] is in concert here, musicians will go with their little cassette and just start bebopping and rapping, right there. The venues are very scarce. A lot of really superstar-potential people will fall through the cracks, just by virtue of [stars and producers] not having time."

Bobby Stringer has nothing but time. It's about ten on a weeknight and he's twitching in his seat near the door of Stella Blue. Elegant wood panels and a massive mahogany bar bracket 50 tables with white linen tablecloths. The clientele -- mostly in their twenties and thirties, and casually attired -- completes the portrait of a comfortable but respectable saloon. It's just the kind of place in which Stringer needs to work. An acquaintance has introduced him to popular gospel vocalist Mareyl Epps, and Stringer hopes to sit in on her act. But she has already shared one gig with him -- a brunch at Yuca restaurant. Listeners praised Stringer's performance, but now Epps isn't sure whether she should continue to help Stringer, not when she has her own career to care for. "You don't know how many people have called me and asked to sit in," she fusses. "My friends tell me, 'Mareyl, we've come to hear you.'"

Still, there's a strong sense of community among performers -- if you help someone on the way up, maybe they'll help you when you're on the way down -- and before the end of the night, in the middle of the gospel standard "Amazing Grace," Epps steps over to Stringer's table and puts the microphone in his face. The unflappable artist looks up and sings -- shaping a few phrases, lifting notes, stretching them. He never even stands up. As Epps completes her performance and begins to fold her music stand, Stringer scampers to the club's host and begs for an opportunity to sing just two tunes. He'll sing over taped tracks, he says, and if the audience likes him, maybe he can bring his band back. The host agrees, and Stringer dashes for his car to retrieve his tapes.

When he returns, his eyes sparkle. Some customers look slightly bewildered at the middle-aged man who smiles earnestly as he bounds onto the stage. Maybe it's the outfit -- green pants and a green and white shirt. Some of the audience members don't even look up; they just twirl the ice in their drinks. But by the second note of the Arthur Conley hit "Sweet Soul Music," the glasses are silent. Many of the patrons are moving in their seats and snapping their fingers. Someone whoops loudly when Stringer launches into the Temptations classic "My Girl."

"Do you like me enough you want me to come back?" Stringer yells.
"Yes!" the crowd responds.
At the end, after Stringer has collected his backing tape from the bar's soundman, a black woman in her late twenties approaches. "Thank you. I love this music," she tells him. "My granddaddy used to play it all the time." A bar employee also offers her praise: "I love these old songs, I used to listen to them when I was a child."

Stringer has never returned to Stella Blue.

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