It takes a lot to blow the mind of a musician who specializes in cosmic space jazz.
"Oh man, I can't believe this," Lonnie Liston Smith Jr. says from his home in Short Pump. "I'm looking on the computer and ... I just didn't know."
(And it should blow our minds that the out-there jazz keyboardist who helped to bring the world such albums as "Expansions," the guy who swapped visionary riffs with the likes of Miles Davis, Max Roach and Pharoah Sanders, lives in Short Pump. But let's not digress. We'll get back to that.)
Smith recently learned that his father, as a member of the Richmond-based Harmonizing Four, sang at the White House in 1945 following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He's flabbergasted. "You've got to let Richmond know about this," he says.
History doesn't record what was sung for Mrs. Roosevelt on that important day, but no doubt it was appropriate for the occasion. The Harmonizing Four was nothing if not a group that understood tradition and the changing of the guard.
It was on a hot summer day in 1927 when four black teenagers, each from a different South Richmond church, got together to sing. What emerged from their early Dunbar Elementary School performances was a gospel brand that would sustain itself through countless lineup changes and shifting musical tastes for more than 60 years.
But the Harmonizing Four are little known today in their own hometown. There's no marker, no plaque, no signpost to symbolize the starting point for a musical unit that inspired listeners across the nation and kept Richmond alive with praise for generations.
"I don't think that Virginia, as a whole, knew how great this gospel group was worldwide," Richmond soul singer and drummer Tyrone Thomas says.
"The Harmonizing Four was a huge influence on groups — regionally as well as nationally," echoes Barksdale Haggins, the longtime owner of Barky's Spirituals on East Broad Street. The record store has been the hub of the Richmond gospel scene since 1956.
The "Four" (actually a quintet during their glory years) performed a form of a cappella music that had been popular in black culture since the late 19th century. One of the epicenters for the singing style was Hampton Roads, anchored by Hampton Institute's pioneering African-American quartets. But Richmond had its share (one of the earliest to record professionally was the Old South Quartette, a quartet that waxed songs in 1909 with white songster Polk Miller).
The Harmonizing Four came to prominence during the '30s and '40s, when black gospel singing was undergoing a transitional phase. Groups such as Norfolk's dynamic Golden Gate Quartet were speeding up the beat and engaging a younger audience with jubilee singing and modern phrasing, setting the stage for doo-wop. In contrast, the Harmonizing Four eschewed jazz influences for pure soulful four-part harmony.
"The Harmonizing Four were kind of hanging back," says folklorist Vaughan Webb at the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, near Roanoke. "They were in this realm between the old stand-up-straight quartet singing and the more modern music."
Webb was one of a group of researchers who, a quarter century ago, tracked down many of the then-living quartet singers to interview them. "The Harmonizing Four had a stronger grip than most groups on the roots of that tradition," he says.
Early on, the group lost its founding tenor and bass singers, Joe Curby and Willie Peyton. Thomas Johnson, whose precise lead vocals became the backbone of the Harmonizing sound, joined in 1933. "Gospel Joe" Williams became a member in 1936. A large man who could sing both baritone and alto, Williams would long serve as the group's business manager — and could be a tough customer.
"I called Gospel Joe," Webb recalls about his research. "He said, 'Come on over.' I went over to his house, sat in his living room, and he pretty much asked — 'What's in this for the Harmonizing Four?'"
Webb explained that the interview was to help scholars understand Virginia's legacy of gospel quartets. (At one time, hundreds of black a cappella groups existed across the commonwealth — more than a dozen recorded for national labels.)
"We're not interested," Williams said with a wave of his hand.
"So I called Lonnie," Webb says.
Lonnie Liston Smith Sr. replaced John Scott when the group's original tenor enlisted in the Army in 1943. Smith told Webb he was born in Andrews, S.C., in 1912, but the correct date is probably 1905. "I left South Carolina when I was just a youngster, y'know," he told Webb when they sat down in Smith's Oakwood Avenue home for a long, and heretofore unpublished, interview in July 1986. "Wasn't anything in the woods of South Carolina. I wanted to get in with something."
The twentysomething Smith took up seasonal work at a tobacco plant in Wilson, N.C. "I started singing with some boys there. We had kind of an odd sort of sound ... the Carolina Social Four. Those boys could sing. They were wild." Smith and his pals decided to travel to New Jersey but took a detour. "We stopped here in Richmond," he says. "Never got any farther."
The Carolina Social Four quickly got a show once a week on WRVA. At the same time the area's top quartet, the Harmonizing Four, was debuting on WRNL, where it soon would have Sunday breakfast with Richmond for nearly two decades, sponsored by People's Furniture.
Although styles were changing, most of these groups still sang dressed alike and standing upright. "We stood perfectly still," Smith recalled. "You know how they all move around and all that [today] — no sir. No clapping or anything. We sang flat-footed and sang harmony."
When the Carolina Four splintered, Smith formed the Christian Four Quartet, where he began playing a four-string tenor guitar, a rarity for that time. "The Christian Four, we had kind of a rough sound ... we sang more of a jump 'jubilee' style while the Harmonizing Four were more of a harmony group. In fact, they started singing faster after I got up with them, with a bit of 'jubilee' some."
Smith brought energy when the Harmonizing Four asked him to join in 1943. But, he said: "I still had to conform to their style of singing because the Harmonizing Four had a distinctive style. You can't change it if you want to, that's all they sing. Some groups can change up their sound — imitate — but not them."
A Harmonizing Four concert normally began with "Is Everybody Happy?" — "something to get them to start clapping and singing" — and then offer up a variety of well-known black spirituals. "That's what made us last as long as we lasted," Smith recalled. "We would do a hymn, maybe we'd do it a little bit different from the church. Not enough to hurt it because we always said, 'Stay with the church songs.' Because if they can sing it in church for a thousand years, why can't we? We just make it prettier than they sing it."
When Smith entered the group — completing a definitive lineup that included lead singers Johnson and Williams with baritone Vance Joyner and "basser" Levi Hansley — he brought his 4-string guitar. "They really got me as a tenor but I could play this guitar. So I asked them, 'Can I bring my guitar along?' and they said, 'By all means.'"
This was a big move, especially for a group that still sang flat-footed. "There were not many guitars at that time, no sirree. And when we went out to Chicago with that guitar, groups didn't want to sing with us. This was 1943, 1944. The [preacher] would have to explain very much to the people: 'Now, these are good Christian men. They just have an instrument here, a guitar.'"
The group's 1937 Buick, loaded down with luggage, potted meat and crackers, remained on the road for nine weeks at a time once the group members quit their day jobs and went professional in 1946. "They traveled a lot," recalls Lonnie Jr., who came along in 1939 and grew up with a dad constantly on the go. "My father would never sleep that much. We were all born with cataracts, except for my brother Ray, so my father never drove on those trips, but he would always stay awake to keep the driver straight."
The rewards could be few. "I remember one trip we took, we got crossed up by a promoter," Lonnie the father recalled. "We came back with 50 cents ... 10 cents a man."
That was the exception, though. There were also successful tours to and from Texas, a gospel hotbed, and sold-out performances with Sister Rosetta Tharp ("the good days," Smith recalled). In 1951, the group participated in the wedding of Tharp, a popular (and sometimes, to the church crowd, controversial) performer. The nuptials were held before 25,000 people at Washington's Griffin Stadium.
Off the road, members programmed local shows. "No one was promoting gospel in Richmond until the Harmonizing Four," Smith said. For decades, the group was host to sold-out anniversary performances at the Mosque [now the Landmark] that featured the cream of the national gospel scene mixed with regional acts.
The Harmonizing Four recorded for a slew of record labels through the years, including Atlantic Records and Vee Jay. But its most essential recordings were made with a Philadelphia label called Gotham Records. "This is when we started recording good numbers," Smith said, "like 'I Shall Not Be Moved' and 'Say a Word for Me.'"
Where did the songs come from? Hymnals mostly, Smith said, "but we would sometimes make them up. If someone brought a song in, that was his song." Thomas Johnson, who died in 2003, normally arranged the songs but each member contributed. "We'd put it together," Smith said. "Someone would say, 'Look, you have a chord here don't sound too right.' So we was all together."
And, yes, there was always pressure to perform nonreligious music. "Record companies would want us to do rhythm and blues. ... First it was R&B, then it was rock, and then something else," Smith recalled with a laugh.
As open as he was to other types of music, the 31st Baptist Church member would never alienate the religious audience by singing rock 'n' roll or "something else." There were others in the Smith household who would take the music to those places.
When Smith was interviewed in 1986, the Harmonizing Four were in their 59th year. Along the way they integrated electric instruments and other modern trappings; there was an exciting stint with bass singer Jimmy Jones in the mid-'50s ("that was the baddest basser from anywhere"). The group continued until Smith's death in 1995.
Lonnie Jr., the most famous of the sons, says that there was always a piano at the Smith family's Church Hill home (the first was 1227 N. 26st St. In 1959 it moved to Oakwood Avenue). The smiling keyboardist, always hidden behind dark shades, recalls taking piano lessons, though the teacher's name eludes him. "I don't remember," he says. "I wish my father was here, he remembers everything."
Lonnie, Ray and Donald — two younger sisters, Jackie and Lola, came later, when the boys were mostly gone — were into doo-wop and R&B. "I started playing in a band in high school," Lonnie Jr. says. One day, the bespectacled pianist began his ascent into the cosmos. "Someone played a record by Charlie Parker ... and I said, 'Man, what is that?' It was so beautiful. I mean he was playing jazz and improv, and I was like, 'Man, that's what I want to do.'"
As a budding musician, Lonnie Jr. couldn't help but be inspired by his surroundings. "It was great because we'd come home and there'd be the Dixie Hummingbirds. They would come by and visit because you know the Harmonizing Four would host festivals at the Mosque. Oh, and of course, Mom always fed them."
The late Elizabeth Smith, born in Wilson, Va., in 1906, sounds like a saint. "She kept everything together," Lonnie says of his mother, who passed away eight years ago. "She didn't come to any clubs, only the concerts. She was definitely not going to no clubs. And she ... helped us on the road. You know that's important to have a mother like that. And she really supported my father too."
And Lonnie Sr. knew it. "My wife stayed right here with these boys," he said in 1986. "She raised these children of ours."
According to his kids, dad was anything but judgmental when it came to the music they liked. "He listened to all kinds of music," Lonnie Jr. says. "He liked the King Sisters, Andy Williams, and then he could talk to you about Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He wasn't closed off at all."
The kids soaked up the open-mindedness. Lonnie Jr. earned a degree in music education from Baltimore's Morgan State University, honing his jazz chops in after-hours clubs. When he graduated, he joined the house band at the Royal Theater, where he backed a who's who of R&B, soul and pop stars, including Betty Carter and Sam Cooke. A couple of high-profile gigs came in rapid succession, with band leader Art Blakey, drummer Max Roach and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
By the late '60s Lonnie Jr. found himself performing with Pharaoh Sanders, a bold, out-there jazz visionary who demanded improvisational fire from his players. It was during the recording of a 1971 Sanders LP that Smith discovered the Fender Rhodes electric piano — and broke earth's atmosphere.
"I saw [it] in the corner. All I knew about [the Fender Rhodes] was Ray Charles. So I walked over, started messing, just having nothing to do and I wrote a 21st-century bar blues and called it 'Astral Traveling.'"
It became a pivotal moment for Smith — and, according to some critics, for jazz. Soon Lonnie, who was no stranger to working for eccentric musicians, got an invitation to join Miles Davis' band. At the first practice, Davis introduced him to a Yamaha electric organ, which he'd never played.
Lonnie was surprised. "He said, 'I want you to play that.' I said: 'Miles, I know nothing about that! Can I take it home?' He said, 'Nope.' Well, Miles Davis was a genius. He wanted the guys to come up with something new every night. Today you'd get fired for that ... because everything is so structured."
But working with Davis could be its own kind of space trip. "Miles would wake up the next morning and say, 'Man, I don't feel like rehearsing today.' You would show up and he would slam the door and say, 'Nobody home.' But, I mean ... that was Miles."
Lonnie released his debut record as a band leader in 1974; it was a mind-expanding affair appropriately titled "Astral Traveling." But it was "Expansions," two years later, that gave him his biggest hit; the album was a crossover jazz-funk smash that's still popular in France and the United Kingdom, yielding prominent samples in later years from artists such as Mary J. Blige and Jay Z. Not long after, Lonnie Jr. reconnected with, and married, his childhood sweetheart, Louise, and settled back home. A decade ago, he converted and became a Hebrew Israelite — his Hebrew name is Yehuwdah Israel.
A former member of Lonnie's Cosmic Echoes band, and an important voice missing from this story, is the youngest of the Smith sons, Donald. An accomplished pianist, flute player and jazz singer living in New York — he's worked with people such as Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter — Donald is, according to brother Ray, "phenomenally talented." But, he says, "He's also something of a loner. He's been like that ever since our parents died." Despite numerous requests, Donald did not return phone calls.
Lonnie Sr.'s middle child, Ray Smith, is the one who inherited his dad's vocal harmony gene.
At 70, he's the sole surviving member of Richmond's most prominent doo-wop export, the Jarmels, best known for a hit that was climbing the charts exactly 50 years ago: "Little Bit of Soap." Ray's time in the spotlight was comparatively brief, but lately he's been catching reflections of the stardust — the kind of doo-wop music he once sang is making a comeback.
Ray had formed the Jarmels, formerly the Cherokees, at Armstrong High School in the late '50s with Nathaniel Ruff, Earl Christian, Tommy Eldridge and frontman Paul Burnett. Ruff — nicknamed Muffin — was the funny one; he handled the stage patter. Burnett was a silky smooth presence on lead vocals, but each of the group's members took a song. Ray's number was the ballad, "For Your Love."
"Yeah, doo-wop. We were always a doo-wop group," Ray Smith says. "That's what we were all about."
Doo-wop — it was harmony singing, but quite unlike dad's brand. This was rock 'n' roll and there was a flourishing scene in Richmond. Before he left home to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ray's brother Donald accompanied the Jarmels on piano at gigs, helping the group navigate cover arrangements. "He taught us the parts," Ray says.
The Jarmels decided to approach a big star of the day. "Ben E. King came to the [Richmond Arena] and we went backstage to talk with him," Smith recalls. The group "auditioned" some songs and the singer of "Stand by Me" was impressed enough to introduce them to people in New York City.
Ray Smith couldn't go on the trip. "Because I was at Virginia Union at that time — this was 1960. But they went up and Ben E. took them to Laurie Records and the label signed them on the spot."
Laurie Records was one of the era's most dynamic independent labels. Its big 1958 hit was "I Wonder Why" by Dion and the Belmonts. The company seemed to specialize in breaking new artists but failing to sustain fan interest in them (see: the Chiffons, the Royal Guardsmen, et al). To oldies music followers, Laurie is the home of the one-hit wonders.
The Jarmels' first single, "Little Lonely One," didn't chart, but it made some regional noise. That was enough for Laurie to call the boys back to New York's RCA Studios to tackle a song written by Bert Berns, the songwriter behind "Twist and Shout." The group decided to try out Berns' tune in the subway stations of New York, using the echo. When they got back to RCA Victor studios, it took 27 live takes to nail "Little Bit of Soap" with a full orchestral backing.
"It came out right around April in 1961," Ray Smith says. "And then we were called to go on 'American Bandstand.'" "Soap" reached No. 12 on the Billboard charts, although subsequent Jarmels songs failed to catch fire. Without another hit, the group was fading on the road. At least there was a memorable finish.
"The last show I did with them was in Baltimore at the Royal Theater," Ray Smith says. "And at the theater, my brother Lonnie was the pianist with the band ... it's the only time he ever played with the Jarmels, that one time in Baltimore."
Ray married his wife, Karlyn, in February 1962, and his first son was born in November, right around the time Laurie dropped the Jarmels' contract. "After that I said it was time for me to provide for my family," he says. Ray got into the automobile business. While some of the other Jarmels continued to sing, and Ray occasionally performed in community groups, the Jarmels were rock 'n' roll history.
But "Little Bit of Soap" lived on. A British band, Showaddywaddy, had a huge U.K. hit with the song in the '70s, and it was memorably sampled by the hip-hop group De La Soul in 1989. It's also been used on movie soundtracks such as "We Own the Night."
"That one song has survived and thrived. I mean everybody knows it," brother Lonnie Jr. says admiringly. No doubt as you read this, some radio station, somewhere, is broadcasting "Little Bit of Soap."
Or maybe some public television station.
Sitting behind the computer at his home studio, a cramped space filled with sound equipment, the man known as Little Tommy reminisces about his long career in music — the formative years as a Richmond bandleader, key collaborations with Swamp Dogg and childhood friend Major Harris, his pioneering interracial group, the Whole Darn Family. To some folks, diminutive 63-year-old singer, drummer and dancer Tyrone Thomas is Richmond soul music.
"But this isn't about me," Thomas says after a time, changing the subject. "This is about the Jarmels."
Thomas was friends with the original Jarmels. He played on gigs with them when he led Tommy and the Teenagers. Facing his computer, he puts a lit cigarette in his mouth and presses down on the mouse. "I've got the PBS thing right here," he says. "Do you want to see it?"
After a call out to his wife, Cathy, for tech help, Thomas fires up the video. A segment from the PBS show, "My Music: Rock, Pop and Doo Wop" starts and a voice intones:
A slinky band and a sweeping string section join and sway into a swinging melody that's instantly familiar to oldies fans. That's when four — not five – nattily dressed singers take the stage. Alert viewers can tell that this isn't the original Jarmels — not that it matters these days (the Drifters haven't had an original Drifter in decades, if you catch my drift) — but you can spot Ray Smith at stage right.
And this isn't Jarmels lead singer Paul Burnett — he died in 2001. The man singing "Little Bit of Soap" for millions of doo-wop loving public-television supporters, sounding damn soulful and looking not unlike Prince's dapper uncle is ... Little Tommy. At song's end, taking the late Tommy Eldridge's place as bass singer, Ray Smith steps up to the mic to deliver the song's memorable break:
Have you heard when love begins to die
It leaves someone to cry, night and day
Like a bird, you left your robin's nest
And-a just like all the rest you flew away
This is a different kind of reunion oldies act, with a genuine Richmond soul legend fronting the city's most prominent doo-wop group.
"Little Tommy happened to call me one day," Ray Smith recalls. "He was living in New York at the time. And he said he wanted to come down and talk to me. And I said, About what? He said, Man we need to put the Jarmels back together.
"I said, 'I don't know about that.'" Ray promised to talk it over with his wife.
"We prayed," Smith says. "We made sure that this was what we were supposed to do because I do believe ..." he pauses. "There is a season for everything."
At first, Ray wanted to call baby brother Donald in to play piano behind the new group — just like the old days. "It didn't work and you know what — a guy like him, he's too good for the Jarmels," Tyrone Thomas says. "We'd hold him back ... he couldn't express himself."
"Donald never showed up for the rehearsal," Ray says, with a tinge of sadness.
A genuine Jarmels reunion has been impossible since 1968. That's when Earl Christian was murdered — the killing was never solved. The rest of the group reunited a few times throughout the years, once in the late '70s for a private concert. But Ray didn't participate in the few reunion appearances arranged in the '90s. Muffin died in 1995, and Thomas Eldridge died not long before Burnett.
Ray Smith called Tyrone Thomas back and said he'd like to revive the Jarmels. Thomas knew two other guys in the doo-wop scene.
"I said this is just perfect," Smith says. "I went to New York, stayed two days and they came over and we sang. I liked the sound."
The new Jarmels are Smith and Thomas, with relative youngsters Al Watkins and Donald Moyer. Now, after a successful sold-out performance last year, and the PBS appearance in reruns, the group is about to stage a second local reunion concert on April 30 at the Henrico Theatre.
Thomas has recorded a CD of new material with the group at his home studio, titled "50 Years." One of the standout tracks is an answer record to the Jarmels' big hit — a half-century later — called "More Soap."
"It's like the Jarmels never went away," Ray says.
And the Smith family marches on. S
The Jarmels will perform at the Henrico Theater, 305 E. Nine Mile Road, on Saturday, April 30, at 7 p.m. Also on the bill is the Happy Days Band and Show, along with emcee Kirby Carmichael and DJ Chocolate Chip. For information call 328-4491.
Special thanks to Vaughan Webb, the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College and the Valentine Richmond History Center for their invaluable assistance. This article has been corrected from the print edition.