The Aqua Lads played largely as a revue act (later with The Chantells) around Charlotte, NC and Myrtle Beach, although they also backed national R&B bands further afield, including Canada. The group ran from 1963-1969 and had over twenty members during this period. Five 45s by The Aqua Lads were released; of particular northern soul interest are “I Remember” on Gold Bee (GB-1650) from 1965 and “I’ll Never Know” on Aqua, recorded with The Chantells on vocal lead in 1968.
Much has already been written about the legendary Stafford Top of the World all-nighters. Following northern soul’s commercial peak of the late seventies, many previous rare soul devotees left the scene altogether, feeling that the core philosophy and musical direction of the scene had lost its way. Rare soul returned truly underground in the next decade. However, the die-hards and new soul fans perceived the emergence of ‘Stafford’ and similar venues at the time as rescuers of the scene from a downward spiral of musical commercialism and the stale self-repetitive nature of the northern soul scene just passed. Sixties 'newies' and 'alternative' oldies (previous underplayed or unplayed soul in the UK) from the Stafford era are held up to this day as some of the finest soul from the scene's history. Anthony and the Aqua Lads' "I Remember" epitomised the sound of that period.
Mark Dobson (aka "Butch"), one of the most respected DJs and collectors on the scene for around 30 years, originally acquired the Aqua Lads, and introduced it to the UK soul crowd via renowned Stafford DJ Keb Darge. “I got the Anthony and the Aqua Lads track from the States in the early 1980s” Butch reported. “I met Keb Darge at the beginning of the Stafford all-nighters and played it to him. He thought it was great and we made a trade on it. In the late 1980’s I was in the Carolinas and met someone with an old travel case full of memorabilia from the 1960s including copies of Anthony and the Aqua Lads, an acetate of the record and some photos of the group. I got the records, but he wouldn't part with the photos. The acetate states the artist as Anthony 'Monor' and Aqualads and was from Greensboro, NC. The motto was We record anything worth keeping."
Of the Aqua Lads, Roy Edwards (co-founder, guitar, writer, arranger from 1963 to 1969), Anthony (Tony) Maner (vocals from 1963 to 1968) and a later band member Ken Hatley (bass guitar, 1967) were located for interview. Tony and Roy were asked about the early days, which included involvement in a US airforce band and a local black college group:
Roy Edwards (RE): It’s funny how time can make some things fade or blur. But I remember most of the things about the group. Tony and I were stationed in Libya, at Wheelus Air Force Base. In 1964 we played in a band called The Renegades. We played on base and downtown Tripoli. Tony got out early and went back to North Carolina.
Anthony Maner (AM): I had put a band together with five students from a local black college (Livingston). A local newspaper, The Salisbury Post, did an article with picture of me on my drums. The students left college and left the band. So I found a guitar player, Roger Goodman and Roy Edwards came into the picture about that time.
RE: The day I shipped out, Tony called me and asked me to help him out with a band to play from Livingston College. I helped them out on that weekend and was going to go home but the guys picked up a couple gigs and asked me to stay another week, which I did. My musical background was mostly doo-wop and rock and roll. But when I was in NC I saw James Brown live at the Civic Center in Raleigh. I was hooked on soul. Later I went to see Otis Redding too and was blown away by his voice and soulfulness. I turned 21 years old while I was first at Tony's in Salisbury, NC. Tony was originally the drummer. I played guitar and wrote or arranged the songs. The guys from Livingston College broke up so Tony and I started out with new men. I wanted us to do our material like James Brown. So Tony came off drums and went out front.
AM: We found the keyboard player Johnny Hess playing for a 4th July celebration from the back of a flatbed truck. A drummer was found playing in a small group in Salisbury. We started to practice in my parent's home. We practiced five days a week, 6 or 7 hours a day, for 3 months. When we were ready we took a trip to the beach and played in the Bowery Club. We played six shows, made $50.00, then came back to Salisbury and practiced again for another month.
AM: Before long the group were approached by a guy called Ralph Farmer, who asked if we needed a manager. Young and innocent, I said yes. Farmer got us an audition with the largest talent agency on the east coast of the United States. The president of the agency signed us on as Anthony and the Aqua Lads. We started playing in Charlotte, NC and it grew from that. The band by then consisted of Anthony Maner (vocals), Johnny Hess (keyboards), Roger Goodman (bass), Charlie Taylor (drums) and Roy Edwards (guitar).
Mark Windle (MW): Do you recall the release “I Remember” on Gold Bee records - how did you get signed to this label?
AM: We recorded “I Remember” in 10.6.65 in North Carolina. At the time we travelled the east coast. When we played Boston we were approached by Gold Bee records about a contract.
RE: We went to New York City, to Scepter Records and Al Goldner. We were looking for a label and Al put us on the Gold Bee label. He had a new group at the time called The Intruders.
MW: Did The Aqua Lads do any recordings which got as far as tapes or acetates, but maybe didn't make it to vinyl?
RE: We did a lot of songs but it was so expensive to record in those days, the money wasn't as good. The Beatles helped that a lot though. As far as I know I wrote all the songs for The Aqua Lads and did all the arranging except for the brass which I left to Spanky (Jeryl Smith), on tenor sax. I never got a penny for those songs I did for The Aqualads, The Chantells and Earl Dawkins in the early days.
The next members of the revue set up were to be The Chantells (not to be confused by the group of the same name who recorded Indian Giver on Verve), who were two young girls from High Point, NC called Vicki Skinner and Debbie Newton. Debbie is no longer in the singing business, but Vicki is still very active on the beach scene. Her musical influences were very much soul orientated, including Barbara Lewis and Mary Wells. The Aqua Lads asked them to join in the summer of 1966. The Chantells recorded “I’ll Never Know” on Aqua in 1968, which found its way to UK shores in the early eighties. “I was first to play The Chantells in the UK” says Butch. “Originally got it from John Anderson at Soul Bowl around 1981. It cost me £100, a lot of money at the time. I eventually got to play it later, around 1985 and had it covered-up as The Bobbettes. I think it got some plays at Tony’s New Empress Ballroom in Blackburn, London’s 100 Club and a few other places.”
Band members Roy and Ken explained how The Chantells joined the band, and the Aqua Lads’ recollection of recording “I’ll Never Know”:
MW: Do you remember The Chantells who recorded with you on Aqua? "I'll Never Know" has been a sought after sound on the northern scene over here for more than 20 years. Were they part of the Anthony and the Aqua Lads revue?
RE: Yes, I remember "I'll Never Know". I wrote it for Vicki Skinner and Debbie Newton. We were on our way back from a gig in Newbern, NC and saw a sign for a battle of the bands. So we stopped in and saw a blonde and brunette on stage that really had a great front and soulful sound. Thus The Aqua Lads and The Chantells met. We started touring almost immediately. Ralph Farmer found Earl Dawkins with a young band and brought him to replace Charles Taylor on drums. Earl was a terrific drummer. Later we found out he had a marvellous voice. That was the line up for the revue, the Anthony and the Aqua Lads Revue. We were a full scale boogie band with four horns and a complete rhythm section.
KH: The band became known with a series of singles, and dates filled up. The Aqua Lads played arenas, theatres, colleges and universities around the country and even Canada, playing major club venues. They were considered a popular R&B / soul band playing shows with James Brown, Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, Gary U.S. Bonds, The Drifters, The Tams, Jackie Wilson, Arthur Connelly, The Shirelles, Patti LaBelle and The Blue Bells, Arthur Conley, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and many more including the Motown groups.
Ken, Roy and Tony recalled how eventually the band broke up. Ken’s own website gives some indication of what direction he went in:
“In 1967 we were playing Charleston, SC, living in a condemned motel with no hot water that our manager owned behind his club, the Azalea Room. We were working our butts off almost every night, at the end of the week he might give us five dollars or if we were lucky, $20.00. Though we were making great money, he justified this by charging us rent and making us pay for the gas to gigs. Anthony and I had had enough. On a trip with him through Atlanta and $10.00 between us, we got out on the square in downtown Atlanta. We talked our way into the Piedmont Hotel and called an agent Nat Foster, who came up and actually put money in our pocket and got us back on track. God bless Nat, where ever he is today, a wonderful man.
During those times in Charleston, there was a band playing at the A&N club named the Chocolate Papers, which later became Dr. Hook. The Chocolate Papers, Anthony and myself were the only ones in the entire city of Charleston with long hair and were partaking of things that made you feel good. In 1967 I moved to Nashville, that is when I met and became friends with many of the great writers and artists such as Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Tompall Glaser, Kinky Friedman, Shel Silverstein, Johnny Darrell, Kent Westbury, Vince Matthews, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Kris Kristofferson, Eddie Rabbit, Bud Reneau, Harlan Howard, Cowboy Jack Clement, Captain Midnight, Bob Webster, and Jim Casey. That is also when I got my first deal as a writer and the world of publishing became a reality. These friends opened a lot of doors for me as a young musician and writer. To them and all of the R&B artists that I worked with, because of their belief in me and encouragement, I thank them. It is to all of those people I had the wonderful experience to work with that I owe the successes of my career.”
Tony and Roy gave their perspectives on the demise of the band:
AM: Roger Goodman was fired but the manager Ralph Farmer brought him back – I didn't care for that much. Over the next several years, I found out that Ralph Farmer was stealing from the band. The band chose to keep Farmer and I chose to leave. The Aqua Lads continued to record on Aqua records and used the name. Within the next 18 months it was done. I sued Ralph Farmer for monies due on Aqua. I won, but Ralph had no money. After leaving The Aqua Lads, I was offered to open for the Drifters, and travelled with them.
RE: When The Aqua Lads were on our tour in ‘69 in New England, we had a lot of young people in the group and there was a lot of friction between the girls and the brass section. It was my job as band leader to keep the peace. Unfortunately I had just too much on my plate and decided to end the tour. The band went back to NC and after a few months they went their separate ways. I know Earl Dawkins tried to hold it together but he also got tired of the constant bickering. Some of the brass went with other area bands. Debbie just quit singing altogether. Vicki went on with some of the area groups. Tony hooked up with Bill Pickney of the Drifters. Tony and Ken worked with them a while, then they broke it off and went on their own and hooked up with Harold Thomas. Earl worked with groups as a drummer. He was an excellent musician.
To conclude, Ken now runs the Catbone music distribution and recording company. He has had an impressive career in music and visual creative media as an executive and producer for a range of labels and companies. After The Aqua Lads he worked with many recording artists including Richie Havens, Four Tops, Willie Nelson, Johnny and June Cash, The Carter Family, and The Drifters. Executive roles have included Universal Studios, Polygram, Polydor, Verve, and Island Records. Roy still is very active writing, arranging and recording and works together with Ken at Catbone Records. Roger Goodman passed away. According to Tony, Johnny Hess has a truck parts store, although he may now be deceased. Charlie Taylor moved on to The Catalinas, a successful beach band; as to these days, well, nobody can locate him. Earl Dawkins has had a very active career with another long running beach band, The Entertainers.
Vicki of The Chantells continued her singing career performing as a lead vocalist in more than a dozen groups, and has opened for national groups such as The Drifters, Barbara Lewis and Junior Walker. She is still very active on the beach music scene and more recently appeared on the “Queens of Southern Soul” KHP / Southern Soul CD.
And Tony? After the Aqua Lads he went on to sing as lead on a number of hits with one of the versions of The Drifters. He still keeps his hand in music, and current band members include George Cummings from Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
This article is an excerpt from It's Better To Cry by E. Mark Windle, available from the new book section.