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Breakaway! The Valentines, Ann Sexton and the Closure of Sound Stage 7 (Part 3) - E. Mark Windle.

nashville northern soul R&B rare soul rhythm and blues soul

The Valentines

The Valentines were originally formed in 1966 by James Moon, Charles Myers, Paul Granberry, Ellis Kelly and Thomas Morrow. After winning the local “Discovery Of The Year” talent competition that summer, they performed over the next couple of years with local combos King James and the Sceptres, The Charades, The Majestics, The Imperials,  and Raymond and the Soul Searchers Combo from the Donelson area.

After a series of personnel changes, Moon and Myers along with new members Paul Easley and James Clemmons were signed to J.R. Enterprises. A sweet soul track “Gotta Get Yourself Together” (Sound Stage 7 SS7-2646) was recorded in 1969. The lead vocal was provided by Charles Myers on this song, penned by Mac and Phyllis Gayden. A year later, “Breakaway” (Sound Stage 7 SS7-2663) was released, again involving writer Mac Gayden, music partner Buzz Cason and arranger Bergen White, and James Clemmons on lead vocal, which could easily have competed with any up-tempo Detroit male group recording had it been made a year or two earlier. Despite both records failing to score well nationally, “Breakaway” became hugely popular track on the UK rare soul scene in the mid to late 1970s and is now considered a northern soul classic.

The Valentines continued to appear in the media and provided some session work for Richbourg, but disbanded in 1974. Thirty years later, interest in The Valentines was revived via the Night Train to Nashville CD (Lost Highway Records). In 2015 the original Sound Stage 7 line up reformed, minus Clemmons but including veteran Frank Howard Sr., formerly of Frank Howard and the Commanders, and Billy Gaines. Their CD Old School Knew, released again under the auspices of Mac Gayden on his own label Wild Child Records, was released in February 2015.


Ann Sexton

Several other artists on the label were not native to Nashville. Examples include two artists from Montgomery, Alabama, Gwen Davis and Ted Ford. Gwen Davis provided two incredible sides: “My Man Think I Don’t Know” / “I Can’t Be Your Part Time Baby” (SS7 2557), which were her only 45 releases for any label; and Ted Ford recorded “You’re Gonna Need Me” (SS7 45 2604), penned by his manager Buddy Spears and recorded at Chip Moman’s studio in Memphis.

Ann Sexton (b. 1950) was born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina, though she did record in Nashville, Memphis and Muscle Shoals for Richbourg. One of the later artists to be associated with him, her 1971 release “You’ve Been Gone Too Long” on a later Richbourg imprint (Seventy Seven 77-104) technically lies outside the chronological remit of this book but reference is unavoidable as this song is historically the pinnacle of northern soul interest.  As soul fan and DJ Dave Box reports in his article for the Soulsource website, the song first appeared on Impel, a North Carolina label run by musician, arranger, and record shop owner David Lee:

“….Impel SS-ASS-103 was originally released in 1971; only 500 copies were produced and it sold respectably in North and South Carolina, and was played on jukeboxes and managed a degree of regional radio play. While selling some Impel 45s, David learned that WLAC DJ John Richbourg was visiting, and asked for an introduction.  David mustered the courage to play the famous DJ his new Ann Sexton record.  After that first encounter, John R. agreed to give the record a spin on WLAC.  He broadcast it for two to three weeks on his radio show, and then pulled the 45.  David was so distraught that he drove to Nashville to confront the DJ, but John R. was just waiting for David to sign a licensing and distribution contract. The Impel release was reissued in two editions of John R’s Seventy-Seven label, and sold more than 90,000 copies in the ‘70s. The first re-issue was on the pale yellow original Seventy-Seven label, and then on the slightly later multi-coloured repress; also white demos were issued for promotion purposes. David Lee then travelled to Memphis with Ann and Melvin and John R. to produce three additional records, including the David Lee composition “Love, Love, Love (I Want To Be Loved)” and four of Melvin and Ann’s compositions. Ann was now moving up, her recording of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” making the top 50 on the R&B charts in 1973.  “Love, Love, Love” was gaining popularity and Ann and David Lee were ready for a national breakthrough.  Sadly their relationship soured after Ann and Melvin didn’t show for a Johnson City, Tennessee show David had booked; it was clear the band wouldn’t make the show – they were in Texas. Ann was poorly managed by Melvin, Richbourg lost interest as a result, and Ann’s career took a knock….”

Nevertheless, Ann Sexton would continue to provide further 45s including the sister funk of “I Still Love You” (Seventy Seven 77-114) and two LPs for Richbourg; “The Beginning” (Sound Stage Seven SS-1500) and “Loving You, Loving Me” (Seventy Seven 77-107). She took a break from the music industry to pursue a lengthy career in education, retiring in 2010. However she returned to the studio, and remains very active musically, performing to northern and modern soul crowds in Germany and the UK in recent years.


Label closure

Well over one hundred singles were released on Sound Stage 7 between 1965 and 1970, which would provide minor R&B Chart hits by many more artists than those already discussed, including regulars Ella Washington, Latimore Brown and Roscoe Robinson. However things were beginning to change by the end of the decade for Richbourg. Not only was the national musical direction moving toward alternative musical forms such as folk and psychedelia, but country music was continuing to tighten its grip on Nashville. Roscoe Shelton stepped away from the recording scene at this point entirely (not to return fully until decades later). Foster wanted to focus on country artists, and had signed a distribution deal with Columbia for Monument. This would mean the end of Sound Stage 7. It was 1970. From then on Bergen White forged a successful career for himself, working on Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie”, Elvis Presley for his Las Vegas shows and in later years a range of country stars such as the Oak Ridge Boys, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. He remains active in music today.

Now that he had parted with Foster, and also finishing with WLAC around this time, Richbourg’s attention turned to creating new labels, Seventy Seven and Sound Plus. He continued to support Joe Simon through his career as he moved onto Spring. With his own labels, Richbourg entered another prolific phase, still utilising some artists from Sound Stage 7 days, but also finding new singers like Ann Sexton. For a while at least, things were profitable. Richbourg continued to produce, promote and manage R&B acts. As he owned the old masters as part of the severance deal with Fred Foster, he was also in a position to reissue tracks. Record dealer Garry Cape from the UK gives some insight into how Richbourg’s activities in the 1970s interfaced with the UK and global collector market interest in blues and soul output from his labels:

“I'd already been doing quite a bit of business with John by mail starting in the mid-1970s.  At that point I was about the only English dealer selling to Japan. J.R. had started reissuing a lot of deep soul from Sound Stage 7 on his Sound Plus label. I also developed a market in Holland with the Surinam guys who were into the same stuff, and was buying thousands of Sound Plus 45s from him by this time. I met John face to face when I was in Louisiana in 1978. John had a brother in New Orleans, so he drove down from Nashville and we had spent some time together. He was a great guy, always very courteous. He tried to sell me his masters but I declined.  Seems kinda nuts now but at that time he'd just leased them to Japan who had produced a range of related LPs. I also had J.R. repress several things for me which he had not already done. Sometimes they would be on Sound Plus. Sometimes they would end up being on his other label Seventy 7 as he had thousands of untitled Seventy 7 labels which he needed to use up! I recall having him press me 5,000 copies of Ann Sexton - I sold half of them in the UK for the Northern side and the others in Holland and Japan for the deep flip.”

Richbourg died from cancer in 1986, shortly after returning to renewed production activities with Joe Simon. The remainder of Richbourg’s business effects and memoirs are now contained within a few boxes in the J.D. Williams Library archive at Mississippi University. An inventory list refers to reel tapes of his 1960s radio programs, cassettes of commercials used on his broadcasts, and framed certificates and memorabilia, and “….a mounted plaque from Sound Stage 7 Records: ‘For contributing to developing Joe Simon into a major recording artist, enabling his recording of "The Chokin' Kind" for Sound Stage Seven Records, Inc. to sell in excess of 1,000,000 records”. Signed by John D. Richbourg and Allen J. Orange….

Copyright 2017, 2018. Modified chapter excerpt from House of Broken Hearts by E. Mark Windle. Available to order in the new book section. 

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