Tuesday, August 21, 2007

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.


Blogger thisistomorrow said...

hi there... just wanted t let you know that i posted your guest mix today... thanks again for your interest and your time... mike

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog. I haven't heard of some of the artists but it's a good source of information on lesser known soul. You might like to check my blog at http://thevinylword.blogspot.com/

3:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Len Wade, My Uncle, has been a huge inspiration for me as a musician. I have always been proud of his accomplishments and his music. Way to go Uncle Len!!!!

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article! I'm so glad that the R& "B-side" of you is getting some of the recognition that you deserve. That first time I heard you warming up just before we walked across stage for a quick pre-gig introduction let me know that it was going to be an ejoyable show. Looking forward to more groove-time together!

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Len and I have done many gigs in the middle Ga area and it has always been a blast. Every time he touches those keys and opens his mouth he turns heads. I will never forget the first time I heard him bust out that little vocal yodel that he does, it killed me. Any one who sees Len will know that he loves to entertain. You go boy !

5:29 PM  
Blogger Mike Joachim said...


Here's a 1957 newspaper ad for Carmicheals:


Why Taylor Hicks' people aren't all over Len is a mystery to me.

Keep rockin'!

9:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Joachim said...

...and another (smaller) ad:


LOVE the blog - thanks for your research and devotion!

9:21 PM  
Blogger Mike Joachim said...

Alright - one more (including the actual sign) and I'll leave ya alone:


9:32 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Hey, thanks Mike!

Great stuff... I'm gonna switch out the photo of the sign in the post.

Good lookin' out!

7:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my gawd....I finally fouond someone other than myself who knows how wonderful Len is! Knew him in KY..back in '78. Tried to locate him and would love to be able to do so! Lasgt time I saw him was in Atlanta. To me he sounds lik Joe Cocker. Loved his music enough to name my son Len...my last name was Wade at the time. Wonderful voice!!!!!

6:42 PM  
Blogger Cindy McDaniel Phifer said...

Hey Uncle Len...I love you so much and was so glad to see you and Tami at the Family Reunion...We are planning one for June or July 08 so make sure you are there...I have always loved to hear you play the piano and sing...You have an awesome voice...when I was younger and growing up at home and I would hear you sing it always send chills all over my body...I especially loved it when you and Dad would get together and play...Dad loved you more than you will ever know...he was proud of you too...I love you Cindy

9:40 AM  
Blogger Ric Vitiello said...

Hey Len, Here's another ghost from the past. This is Ric Vitiello, AKA Ric Charles, drummer with Big George and the Imitations 1964-65. Carribian Lounge-Louisville, Boom Boom Room- Birmingham and Can Can Club- St. Louis. Playing the circuit at the same time as the Tikis. If you remember we used to come in when off and home in Louisville. I can still hear your sound in my head. Fan-Tastic! Great to find ya well. Years later after returning to Louisville I was in a weekend group with Hayes Hopper... Small world. Stay Great Dude!
Ric RicV@aol.com

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Len Wade has a Myspace now!!!! We hope to have some of his music up soon. Go there and leave him a message @ www.myspace.com/lenwade
Clyde Gulledge

8:09 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

Len, this is Charlie Heck. I managed Algonquin Bowling Center and the Carribean Lounge in the latter 60's. It's great locating you. I remember you came over to my house 1 afternoon and we pitched horseshoes. You guys were great. I will be there at Jim Porters Aug 20th.

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wish I could contact Len. Used to know him in the 60's to early 80's. Dan Sherry/Peter and the Wolf

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Dianne Bickel said...

Hey Len~Charlie Rogers & Dianne Bickel can't wait to hear ya @ Jim Porters 8/20~~~ready to get the groove on. WHAT A REUNION!!!!!

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Len,This is Paul Hayes. I knew you from Pappy's Club. I'm Gene Garrison's brother-in-law.Words can't describe how my soul was fed every time I heard you perform. I would love to see and hear you again.
What a talent you are.Take care and God Bless You

10:58 PM  
Blogger Paul Hayes said...

Hey Len,
I knew you from Pappy's club with Jerry Woodard. I was married to Gene Garrison's sister at the time. The old R&B has always filled my soul and you certainly do the same.I still play your recordings often. Would love to hear and see you perform again.I wish you much happiness in the future.
Paul (Pooney) Hayes

11:13 PM  
Anonymous Ginger said...

Hi Len, Here's another name from the far distant past. I'm so happy to see you well. I remember Pappy's Club and the Bessemer Highway clubs in Birmingham before you joined the Tiki's. A long time ago......... Ginger Trammell Lavett

2:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The recent Workplay show you and the Tikis did in Birmingham was a thrill for me. You and the guys (me included) were on our game, but most of all it was a fun night for all who attended.

10:44 AM  

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