Finding Florida’s Soul
Pensacola, Gainesville, Greenville, Tallahassee, Orlando, and Miami aren’t the first cities that come to mind when you’re talking about soul music. Although country artists (the Bellamy Brothers, Bobby Braddock), rockers (Tom Petty, Don Felder, Bernie Leadon, Stephen Stills), and gospel singers (the Florida Boys Quartet, Ella Mae Wilson, Lillie B. Williams, Richard B. Williams, Johnny Brown) hail from the Sunshine State, the genealogical lines of soul music — at least the music that’s played on the radio and that climbs the charts — are most often drawn to Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Detroit, or Philadelphia.
In his new book, Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band (University Press of Florida), journalist and soul music fan John Capouya artfully remedies this oversight with profiles of 20 soul artists and producers and label owners who got their start in Florida or who were born in the state and launched their careers there. Drawing on interviews with the artists — except for Ray Charles and Noble Watts — Capouya chronicles the lives and music of singers ranging from Bobby and James Purify (Pensacola) and Lydia Lyndell (Gainesville) to KC and the Sunshine Band (Miami) and Sam Moore (Overtown). Capouya brings a fan’s love for the music — it’s telling that he dedicates the book to Felix Hernandez, the DJ who’s been spinning soul tunes on his show Rhythm Revue on WBGO in Newark, New Jersey, for 30 years — but the profiles are far from fawning fan’s notes.
Capouya allows the singers, producers, and musicians to tell their stories in their own words and to reveal the many hours they put in practicing and rehearsing their songs to tighten their harmonies and the challenges they often faced in a racially segregated society. They also discuss the ways they made creative decisions. “Tenor sax man Ernie Calhoun talks about solitary afternoon practice sessions in Tampa’s Ybor City that led to his hiring by a touring R&B band, sessions that his mother was forbidden to interrupt. Singer Ben Moore, who took the stage name Bobby Purify, says he and James Purify ‘rehearsed our harmonies so tight, our voices blended so close,’ that when they performed in Florida clubs, ‘we had people crying, man.’”
Lavell Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts Orchestra worked hard. They got their name from the night they accepted the challenge to play for 100 hours straight at the El Morocco Club in Fort Lauderdale; they played 45-minute sets with 15-minute breaks, and since Kamma was the band’s only vocalist, they would stretch the tunes they were playing — Willie Johns’ “Fever,” Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” — into extended jams so Kamma could preserve his stamina. During the late 1950s and into the mid-’60s, Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts became one of Florida’s preeminent show bands, largely due to Kamma’s showmanship. The band’s sax player, Charlie Blade, said, “he was an entertainer, with a crystalline soulful voice, and he danced every bit as good as James Brown.” Kamma told Capouya that the band did everything as a unit: “We did everything together, and we perfected our skills.” Kamma and the band cut “Try to Keep Yourself Uptight” for Houston’s Sure Shot Label in 1967, and the tune captures the soulful urgency of the band’s live shows.
Linda Lyndell, who was for a time in 1967 a singer with Kamma and his band, grew up singing gospel music at Bethel AME church just up the road from her family’s farm outside of Gainesville, Florida. She went to Bethel, she says, because she wanted to sing, not because she had any very clear ideas about religion. When she was 22, her powerhouse voice took her to Stax in Memphis, where she recorded “What a Man” (1968), which hit the Billboard charts and would eventually be recorded by other artists. However, before she headed to Stax, she fronted Kamma’s band, and she was often billed as the “New Queen of Soul” or the “Vivacious Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Counts’ guitarist Robert Berry recalls, “we were the only black group with a white guy on sax and a white girl singing back then, I can tell you that … . She used to do Aretha’s ‘Chain of Fools’ and she tore the house down with that. Linda was a strong singer.” Race issues raised their ugly head in a small town in Louisiana one night, though, and the local KKK showed up at the bar’s door after a patron noticed Lyndell dancing with the group’s drummer, who was black. Lyndell eventually left Kamma and his band and played with a few other bands before heading off to record at Stax. After her record came out, though, she received threats from the KKK, venomously condemning her for singing with blacks, as well as from blacks saying that they “didn’t need any white chicks at Stax,” and threatening her and her family. She recorded a few more songs in the mid-’70s before leaving music altogether.
Florida Soul offers a colorful glimpse into a vibrant chapter of music history. While many of the artists Capouya covers had illustrious national careers, many of them had to settle for regional recognition and limited musical careers. In his introduction, Capouya glowingly reveals his reasons for undertaking this book: “Why chronicle soul music at all, in Florida or elsewhere? Because it’s glorious. Like the good news that is gospel and the bad news of blues, the best soul music is thrilling, cathartic. Like God and good fortune, this uniquely American art form works in mysterious ways, but it most certainly works on the human organism. Its power to move bodies and stir hearts derives from an elusive but immediately, viscerally recognizable combination of rhythm, blue notes, and emotion, as conveyed by the wondrous human voice.”
Florida Soul is a message from the heart, and it encourages us to seek out the songs of the singers and musicians profiled here and listen to them again or for the first time.
Table of Contents
Ray Charles: Greenville/Jacksonville/Orlando/Tampa
Ernie Calhoun: Tampa
Noble “Thin Man” Watts: Deland
The Twist Came from Tampa: Tampa/Miami
Linda Lyndell: Gainesville
Lavell Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts: Jacksonville/Pahokee
Sam Moore, Soul Survivor: Overtown
James Purify: Pensacola
Bobby Purify: Pensacola
Papa Don Schroeder: Pensacola
Wayne Cochran: Miami
Willie Clarke and Deep City Records: Miami
Helene Smith: Miami
Henry Stone: Miami
The Miami Sound: Little Beaver, Chocolate Perry, and the T.K. Family
Frankie Gearing: St. Petersburg
Timmy Thomas: Miami
Jackie Moore: Jacksonville
KC and the Sunshine Band: Miami