TSU TORONADOS: TEXAS SOUL EXTRAORDINAIRE


The last couple of years have been pretty good to me as the tempo of the records I'm looking for has slowed by a few mph, and therefore seem to be easier for me to find. In particular, I've picked up most, if not all, of the output of a late 60's soul group known as the TSU Toronados.

Most of the artists I've been lucky enough to meet over the years were vocalists who were "hired" (yet not paid) to sing over somebody else's backing track. What makes their records sound good to me is a combination of both the production work done on the backing track and the soulful vocal. That's why I collect 60's and 70's soul and not 90's soul. I want to hear that 60's or early 70's sound. How many times have you heard a record from Detroit and said, "Wow wouldn't it have been great to see so and so in concert." Well, most likely you'd have been somewhat disappointed. After all, you not only want to hear Garland Green's pleading vocal, you also want to hear Mike Terry's sax break. And most of the time you wouldn't have heard the same musicians in a live show as were on the record, especially if the singer was on tour and the session players were back in the studio cutting a record on some other young, aspiring vocalist. Imagine if those legendary Detroit (or Philly or Chicago...) session men had released records and toured under their own band's name and actually had several members who could sing as well. That would mean that when you went to hear them live, you really got what you paid for. Imagine my delight and surprise then when I found out that a group whose records I'd been accumulating over the years turned out to be not just a vocal group who recorded at the whim of a producer, but were actually a real soul band! Cal Thomas (guitar/vocals), Will Thomas(guitar/vocals), Peter Newman (bass), Darryll Busby (saxophone), Clarence "Creeper" Harper (trumpet), and Nelson Mills (horns)... are that band. They were able to create a unique soul sound during their recording career as the TSU Toronados and thereby support a good number of the releases on Ovide (both their own and those of other artists) that led to many great, yet commercially under- appreciated, songs (A thousand wonders, What good am I, Love with hope) and one huge hit in Tighten up with vocal group Archie Bell and the Drells singing over the TSU Toronados' uniquely rhythmic backing. Their style wasn't the mock-Motown sound of a thousand other artists of the time. It wasn't the straightforward blues-influenced chunkiness that Booker T and his MG's used over and over again at Stax. They weren't James Brown funk copyists. And they didn't play the southern fried sound emanating from Muscle Shoals. They developed a signature sound consisting of prominent rhythm guitar riffs, laid back drumming style, melodic bass lines, and staccato trumpets blended with smooth sax lines which led to a cohesive, danceable beat that is instantly recognizable, yet fresh sounding enough to keep you interested listen after listen.

They formed the group at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston, where they were all students. Cal Thomas had been in a vocal group known as the Arabian Knights (no relation to the group of the same name that recorded for the Jay Walking label) who had managed to perform on a local TV variety show in 1966. The newly formed TSU Toronados named themselves after their school and a car they all liked which had debuted from the GM company the previous year, the Toronado. Their first ever gig as the TSU Toronados was at the school's Newmann Center and cannot be described as one of their more successful, i.e. no one showed up. Undaunted, they continued practicing and eventually were able to secure bookings on campus and in local clubs.

Cal Thomas recalled for me that the TSU Toronados often backed up touring singing groups making their way through Houston. In particular, he told me they served as back-up for a Chicago-based tour consisting of Marshall and the Chi-lites, Tyrone Davis, Barbara Acklin, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James. (I wish I could have seen that show!) They began to build a reputation for themselves locally and were approached by a disc jockey at KCOH (the local station) to sign to a new record label he had founded.

Skipper Lee Frasier had been a mailman before landing the job of disc jockey at KCOH, but he harbored Motown-like ambitions for himself and moderately succeeded in becoming the Berry Gordy of Houston, Texas. Now, Houston was not exactly Detroit; it didn't have the same kind of jazz and R&B-based music scene. But it did have its share of local talent, including Buddy Ace, Bobby Bland and other blues- oriented musicians recording for Deadric Malone's Duke/Peacock set-up. It also had local white bands like Sunny and the Sunliners, recording for the Key-Lock label, and vocal groups and R&B musicians recording for the Copa label.

Skipper Lee's idea was to build up a stable of artists, nurture them locally on his Ovide label, and try to push them nationally through a bigger label with wider distribution. The first Ovide release was a disc by local singing group Archie Bell and the Drells, possibly using Sunny and the Sunliners as their rhythm section. She's my woman, she's my girl was released locally on Ovide, but Skipper Lee had no intention of letting that be the extent of his involvement, and he managed to strike a deal with Chess/Checker/Cadet. The record shows up on Chess discographies, but I have never seen a copy on any of these three labels. The record was subsequently released nationally on the East West subsidiary.

The TSU Toronados have the distinction of being the group on Ovide with the seemingly most sought after release, yet most people don't even know the record is theirs. A Thousand Wonders was their first recording for Ovide and was not picked up for distribution by any other label when it was initially released. In fact, it didn't even sell well locally. It was not until Archie Bell's success with Tighten Up that A Thousand Wonders would gain a wider release and that was only because Atlantic needed material to for the Drell's album to capitalize on the popularity of Tighten Up. Since Archie and his crew hadn't recorded much up to that point, and since Archie himself was in Germany with the US Army when Tighten Up hit, other Ovide tracks were put on the album. What nobody suspected was that a single would be released from the album in, of all places, Spain, and Archie Bell and the Drell's A Thousand Wonders would become a sought after European release among the British rare soul aficionados nearly thirty years later.

A Thousand Wonders is more uptempo than their subsequent releases, but it has all the hallmarks of their later work, including the melodic bass lines and punchy horns. [For all of you die-hard collectors out there, it might be interesting to note that the Ovide release is slightly different than the album track/Spanish single version. The Toronados' release on Ovide is a slightly slower mix than the Atlantic LP track and has female singers backing up Cal's lead vocal. The group backing him up on the LP and Spanish '45 are the Drells.] The flip side, The Toronado, is an instrumental and the official A-side of the record. The Toronado was the band's theme song and they incorporated it into all of their early live shows. There are numerous attempts at dance-craze success released on Ovide, none of which received much airplay until Tighten Up. Sunny and the Sunliners, not the Toronados, play on Dog eat dog, a mid tempo beach-style track which was the A- side of the Ovide and the original Atlantic releases of Tighten Up. The story surrounding the recording of that song was told to me numerous times by various people while I was in Houston and each one said pretty much the same thing.

Despite writing the song, the TSU Toronados were only paid $27.50 each for their musical talents in the studio. The group were playing variations on King Curtis' Memphis Soul Stew when they came up with the Tighten up riff. It was Creeper who told Archie Bell to "Say something, man. Like, 'tighten it up' or something..." Surprisingly, I did not get the impression from them that they feel bitter about this. The passage of time seems to have lessened this emotion considerably into mere resignation over the success of the song and their lack of participation in sharing the monetary fruits of their labor. On the up side of this, however, is that the success they had with this song, albeit somewhat by proxy, led to a deal with Atlantic, which resulted in the release of two singles, Gettin' the corners/What good am I (which also came out on Ovide) and The Goose/Got to get through to you (no Ovide release), both of which were relatively successful and allowed them to tour all over the United States in the late 60's. Another Ovide artist, Mark Putney, also garnered an Atlantic release of his Ovide outing, Today's man/Everything about you due to the success of Tighten up, before he left Houston to join the Younghearts in Los Angeles. After the four Atlantic sides, the TSU Toronados had two releases on the Volt label. I still love you/My thing is a moving thing (also on Ovide) and Play the music Toronados/Flight too many, the A-side of which is their backing track to the James Taylor Ovide release Love with hope, with a girlie vocal dubbed in repeatedly rapping the title words in a pseudo-seductive manner, instead of James Taylor's soulful singing. James Taylor was an original member of the TSU Toronados, but was replaced by Will Thomas when he left the band.

When the Volt singles failed to make household names out of the group, they were relegated to locally releasing Only Inside/ Nothing can stop me on Ovide, without a great deal of sales to show for it. After Skipper Lee closed down his Ovide set-up in 1971, the band split into two entities. Jerry Jenkins (who had replaced Peter Newman on bass), Nelson Mills, and Darryl Busby wanted to keep touring and formed a separate touring band. Cal and Will Thomas did not want to keep touring and preferred to continue recording. They took the TSU Toronados name and independently went into Rampart Street studios in Houston and recorded two more songs, Please heart don't break and Ain't nothing nowhere, with the intention of releasing it themselves. They asked Skipper Lee's advice about putting out the record, and he recommended they publish it with his publishing company, Orelia. A small quantity of the records were pressed up on the Rampart Street logo before Cal Thomas discovered that if they used Skipper Lee's publishing company, they would effectively relinquish all rights to the songs, as had happened with the Ovide releases. Their planned release was therefore withdrawn and the tracks were never published, regardless of what is stated on the label (i.e. Orelia Pub. BMI).

After this unfortunate turn of events, the group disbanded for the next 10 years. It was not until the 1980's that the band saw renewed interest in their work and re-grouped to play the occasional local gig. Cal Thomas has never stopped writing songs and has made numerous recordings of his own work, but none have been released. The group went into the studios in 1994 and re-recorded Tighten Up speaking their own name in the well-known opening lyrics, "Hi we're the TSU Toronados from Houston, Texas..." They released this themselves on a cassette, complete with a re-mixed dance version and a nifty group logo. Recently, they have made personal appearances at local Houston events (shopping mall openings, etc.), but all the members have day jobs that keep their families fed and have no intention of touring on a more wide-spread basis without some reassurances of decent financial remuneration. Cal Thomas runs a DJ service, Creeper is a music teacher, and Jerry is a studio musician who has played on several recent blues albums.

The other Ovide group who also had a number of releases were the Masters of Soul. The got their start as a doo-wop group, the Royal Masters, and were quite successful before their association with Ovide. The had record released on the Guyden label in the late 50's which now commands a considerable price from group collectors. They then recorded for the Copa label as the Masters of Houston before making the move to Skipper Lee's label. A contractual dispute with their former label meant that they could not continue as the Masters of Houston, so only one Ovide release bears that name. They changed their name to Masters of Soul and cut several more sides in the late 60's. At least one, Please wait for me was leased by Skipper Lee Frasier to Capitol Records. After Ovide, they moved to Deadric Malone's Duke/Peacock setup where they achieved their greatest success with Can you read the signs, distributed by ABC/Dunhill in the early 70's. They also recorded a pair of sides for Atlantic-distributed Peachtree, but those were shelved when that label went belly-up. Fred Kibble told me how the group underwent numerous personnel changes during its lifespan, spawning other groups such as the Fantastics who recorded for Copa and whose records were leased to the Sound Stage 7 label. For me, the Masters' best Ovide outing has to be Do you really love me, which is a mid tempo group number with a crossover feel to it.
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