The Tikis Vocal by Len Wade - I Was Doin' Alright (Minaret 111)
I Was Doin' Alright
Len Wade grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, singing Gospel along with his mother while his older brother accompanied them on the guitar.
While still in grammar school, he began hanging around on Graymont Avenue, out near Legion Field. Bars like The Quarterback and The Touchdown let him sing along with the jukebox for tips, and he did pretty good. Before long, the young kid with the big voice got to be somewhat of a fixture down there, and the owners of the establishments would sneak him a few beers. Len loved performing for the crowd, and by the time he reached high school, he was playing the bass and leading his own band.
In his senior year, The Len Wade Band was holding down a regular gig at Carmichael's, a popular 'show-bar' in town. As fate would have it, a group that had recently been formed down in Florida was passing through town, and caught Len's act. Their keyboard player, a bonafide original by the name of 'Obed', had just banged himself up pretty bad in a car wreck, and they were looking for somebody to take his place. Despite Len's protestaions that he didn't know how to play the piano, they convinced him to come along and, as soon as he finished school, he went down to join them in Fort Walton Beach on the Florida 'Panhandle'.
Founded by their drummer and road-manager, Billy Self, The Tikis included Clyde Masters on bass, Phil Scott on trumpet and Hayes Hopper on the saxophone. With the addition of the soulful Wade on vocals, the band became quite popular, drilling themselves on the tight dance routines and horn lines that made them kind of like a deep-south version of the Mar-Keys. Working with Clyde, Len began to develop his own bluesy piano style, and they'd bring the house down every night as he led them to the 'big finish' behind his high octane R&B delivery.
Carmichael's opened up a branch office on the Panhandle called the Club Lido, and The Tikis soon became the house band. They got to know the movers and shakers on the local music scene, including Tom Smith, the program director at Pensacola's WNVY, and a guy named Finley Duncan, who operated a regional jukebox and pinball machine operation. In those days, the guys with the jukebox routes were considered an important part of the record game, and so developed a lot of 'connections' inside the industry. Duncan liked The Tikis a lot, becoming almost like a father figure to the band, and began taking them up to Nashville to record.
Finley had formed the Minaret label in 1963, and began collaborating with Herb Schucher, who had been the drummer in Brenda Lee's band, The Casuals. Together they owned Chu-Fin, the label's publishing company, and Herb also ran a booking agency called 'One-Nighters Incorporated' that represented the band. Today's cool selection (the flip of My Bonnie, the Tikis first 45 for Minaret) was produced by Schucher, and arranged by the ubiquitous Cliff Parman. Len's really going off there at the end, huh?
Herb kept The Tikis out on the road, playing gigs all over the place as they followed other R&B and 'blue-eyed soul' acts around 'the circuit'. In addition to recording them in Nashvillle, Duncan and Schucher also began bringing them down to a new facility that had just opened for business, Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals. They'd also record in the office of Duncan's amusement company down in Florida when they had to.
Len was told by many in 'music city' that he sounded 'too black'. That didn't bother the great Buddy Killen, and he signed The Tikis to his Dial label in 1966. It was Killen who decided to record Wade as a solo act as well, creating one of the true masterpieces of southern soul in the process. Produced by Finley Duncan himself at Fame that summer, It Comes And It Goes is just an amazing song. It was written by R.J. Benninghoff, a Nashville songwriter who would go on to work full time for Duncan later on. Killen would also release one subsequent Tikis single but, despite Dial's superior distribution agreement with Atlantic, neither record did anything.
By the end of the decade, Len had signed with United Artists, waxing what would become a big 'northern soul' record later on, The Night The Angels Cried. The big label wasn't quite sure what to do with him, however (their biggest selling artist at the time was Bobby Goldsboro), and by the early seventies, Len had moved on to Louisville to study music theory at Bellarmine College.
His professor, a 'jazz cat' named Don Murray was amazed at the chords and voicings Len had developed back when he was 'learning piano by the seat of his pants', and the two men taught each other. Len would hook up with other Louisville blue-eyed soul brothers like Wayne Young and Marvin Maxwell of Soul Incorporated, and play regulary in the area. He got work in TV, and made Kentucky his second home.
In the mid eighties, Len Wade decided to give it one more go, and signed with Mercury-Polygram, in a deal put together by old Nashville friends in 'the industry' (like Brenda Lee's husband Ronnie Shacklett). Despite sympathetic production from Jerry Kennedy, syrupy singles like Close Enough To Love and It Sure Feels Like Love Tonight reflected the vision the record company had for him. It was just too much for the guys in the front office to think of a white guy recording in Nashville as anything but Country.
Appearences on Nashville Now and all of that kept his records kicking around the bottom of the Country charts, but Len just couldn't deal with the image they were projecting - somewhere between Kenny Rogers and David Clayton Thomas. His R&B self was just dying on the inside and eventually he just walked away, building himself a place out in the Georgia piney woods, far from Music Row...
Back in 1969, Finley Duncan had become partners with Shelby Singleton in building a recording studio adjacent to Duncan's amusement office. They named it Playground, and set about recording some incredible music. With the death of Duncan in 1989, the studio fell into major disrepair. When new owner Jim Lancaster set about the formidable task of restoring the facility, he discovered hours and hours of tapes from 'back in the day'. On a tape from 1966, he found Len Wade performing an alternate version of It Comes And It Goes and another incredible R.J. Benninghoff tune, Everybody's Clown. Unreal. Those two amazing songs, along with a slew of other great stuff, have been released by Lancaster on a CD called Soul Resurrection Volume One. You need to own one.
When I heard Everybody's Clown I was just knocked out. How could something this good have gone unreleased? How could somebody with a voice like this not have been huge? Whatever became of him? Well folks, thanks to the wonders of the internet, your very own soul detective was able to track Len down (due in large part to the efforts of Marvin Maxwell - thanks, bro!), and he consented to meet with me this past June, after I left Nashville. Len was kind enough to share his story with us over catfish and cornbread, and have me back to his house so I could take pictures of all this cool memorabilia (like the 3 foot square oil painting of The Tikis pictured above!).
Len said he couldn't believe it when he got a call from R.J.Benninghoff recently telling him to expect a check in the mail. The producers of The Sopranos had decided to use Everybody's Clown during their last season on HBO. Now, how cool is that? We talked for a while about the resurgence of interest in soul music, and how there seemed to be an audience out there that was ready for it. He told me that he still performs from time to time, and had just had a gig that past weekend at the local Mexican restaurant (they loved him).
Then Len did something that totally blew me away. He sat down at his piano and played for me. I was in awe as he worked his way through some Brother Ray, Fats Domino, and even some Ernie K-Doe! He was GREAT! I mean, he's more than kept up his 'chops' on the keys... and that VOICE! Just as good as it ever was, man. I'll tell ya what, if I owned a record company, or was any kind of a promoter or anything, I'd sign this guy up in a New York minute! Seriously, here is a major talent just waiting to be rediscovered, folks.
He's the real deal.