Heart and Soul
The glitter on the black painted board glints like silver in the light of the DJ booth. The booth rises from the barroom floor of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 8195 in west Hollywood. In the room's shadows, patrons rock back and forth as rhythm and blues tunes pour from colossal speakers. Strands of tinsel dangle from a sagging ceiling, and a string of tiny red Christmas bulbs winds around mirrors and across the wood-paneled walls. Bobby Stringer, the man of the hour, stands in the doorway, spotlighted by the glare of an illuminated hall that leads to the bar. The journeyman soul singer is scheduled to start at 11:00 this Friday night, but it's already 11:30; Stringer is pacing the room restlessly, glad-handing customers, patting men's backs, sweet-talking the women.
At half past midnight DJ Bobby White, the commander of the west Hollywood VFW post, cues a cassette and speaks sweetly into the microphone: "Bobby Stringer, coming up live in about a few minutes. We're going to have some fun tonight. We'll be giving away some prizes -- three oil changes we're giving away tonight."
On-stage now, Stringer is standing perfectly straight, his hair carded into a soft ridge that adds height to his six-foot stature. His shirt clings to a torso kept trim by a generation of vigorous performances, and he looks a decade younger than his 50 years. What gives him away is the rest of his outfit, the overshirt with kelly green and russet embroidery, the matching loose-fitting green trousers. It looks like a costume from a musical about the early Seventies.
"How about a hand for Joanne, your bartender?" Stringer implores, taking measure of the 75 or so working- and middle-class patrons. "That's not a hand, now come on," he says after the audience produces a smattering of applause, and the group responds vigorously enough that Stringer begins to sing.
"I'm at the turning point," he croons, moving in the arc of light created by an open door near the stage. The song, "Turning Point," was first recorded by Chicago soulman Tyrone Davis in 1976, and it's been played on R&B radio ever since. At the sound of the familiar words the crowd comes to attention; by the second chorus people are bobbing to the music. "Shubalu," Stringer calls out. "Shubalu," the audience returns, the way a church congregation chants its portion of the morning liturgy. The resemblance is not lost on Stringer. "Can I get a witness?" he cries as he finishes the chorus. But the singer's midnight sermon is purely secular. "Any time that you get love, you can't get enough," he imparts. "Just not enough. Everybody needs love." The spoken words float into the first line of his next tune, the Barry White classic "Can't Get Enough of Your Love."
As Stringer moves through his repertoire, his stage presence grows, aided both by calculated histrionics and genuine passion. He drags a chair to the doorway and stands on it, still singing. Then he hops his way across the stage, shaking with an almost evangelical frenzy. Sweat bathes his face, but he doesn't get winded. He turns his back to his audience. He walks down the hall, improvising notes, making up lyrics. The crowd calls him back. A woman screeches. Men murmur. At last he turns and re-enters the room with a flourish. The crowd stomps the floor and bangs the tables, and Stringer does what any consummate showman would do -- he turns cold on the crowd until they beg him to turn up the heat again.
Stringer is no stranger to this scene. For 30 years he has sung these sensual soul ballads, learned to break them down and build them back up with a dazzling array of vocal and theatrical strategies. He doesn't read music, but prides himself on his knowledge of 500 songs, written mostly between 1963 and 1975. And like the soul legends who are his idols -- James Brown, Otis Redding -- he has also developed a set of dance moves, jumps, and gestures that thrill spectators and make every night a night to remember.
The soul music era ended long ago. Gone are the heady forces -- the civil rights movement and integration, the upheaval of the Sixties and the exchange of energy with a burgeoning rock and roll scene -- that catalyzed black music of that era. Still, Stringer holds on. He's now married to his third wife, past the days when the wayward life of a touring musician brought him a succession of mistresses and seven children by seven different mothers, past the days when poverty hounded him and drugs tempted him.
But still he sings. It's what Bobby Stringer does. He has watched dozens of performers stop singing, hang up their stage shoes, put their instruments on a rack, and surrender to the nine-to-five grind. But Stringer never stops, never wants to stop. "I've seen a lot of them give up," he says. "They lose out and end up getting a truck driver's job. I don't want to be in that situation. I keep doing it. I just keep doing it, keep driving on."
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."
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."
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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