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The Embers Story - E. Mark Windle

1960s beach music blue eyed soul Carolina northern soul R&B rare soul rhythm and blues soul southern soul

The Embers were formed in Raleigh, NC in 1958 by Bobby Tomlinson (drums) and Jackie Gore (vocals, guitar). They mainly played frat parties and Raleigh clubs. The Embers are one of the longest running beach music bands and one of the most widely known, both within and outside the region. 
In the late fifties until around 1963/1964 they toured and recorded as The Swinging Embers, before the name change. The Embers had a very prolific recording career for both singles and albums. However UK soul collectors are likely to be most interested in their recording career between 1964 and 1969 for JCP, eEe, Bell and Atlantic. In addition to Bobby and Jackie, members during this phase have included Dave Norket (keyboards until 1964, then Martin Durwood, Doug Harrison, Rick Whitfield or Mark Hammer for the remainder of the decade), Frank Reich (saxophone until 1969, then Don Holloway), Johnny Hopkins (trumpet), John Thompson (bass, vocals) and Blair Ellis (vocals). The band who recorded as The Embers on the northern soul rarity “You Can Lump It” for Act IV was unrelated; a temporary name change for The Seminoles from Detroit.
The Embers’ “First Time” (JCP 1034) was likely released around 1964. JCP was set up by Jimmy Capps, who had been a Raleigh radio announcer / DJ since the late forties for WTPF, and his radio station engineer Larry Gardner, with the aim to promote local bands in the area. JCP had its own studio in the basement of an old movie theatre in Raleigh. Nearly sixty releases appeared on the label, including Frankie and the Damon’s “Man From Soul” (JCP 1057) which will be familiar to some UK scene collectors. Leader Frankie Presnell’s father knew The Embers’ parents well; Frankie and the Damons even played at The Embers Club, despite being under age. 
“First Time” was initially played out in the UK by Guy Hennigan (covered up as Mill Evans and the Esquires) at Tony’s New Empress Ballroom in Blackburn, Lancashire, in the mid to late eighties. It even got an airing on national radio when Guy was interviewed on DJ Janice Long’s BBC Radio 1 show. At that time there was only a handful of known copies on the UK. More have surfaced since, but it remains a very hard find these days, on either side of the Atlantic.
In 1965 their parents bought a nightclub and opened it as the Embers Club in Raleigh. “Back in the 60s, I would take dates to the Embers Club, before we were old enough to get in" says beach fan Bob McNair. "It was about 45 minutes from my hometown of Sanford. As long as you were dressed nicely with a date, behaved yourself and had the cover charge, they weren’t too concerned about your age and would let you in.  As I remember the club was in an old converted warehouse with a railroad loading dock on the side. We got to see some fantastic bands live and consume some adult malt beverages!  Numerous soul and R&B artists shared the stage with The Embers at their club.....Jackie Wilson, Little Anthony, Billy Stewart, Fats Domino, The Drifters, The Clovers and many more.” Three years later another club was opened in Atlantic Beach NC, where The Embers opened for the Rolling Stones. In the seventies the Embers Club in Raleigh relocated to an upmarket night club elsewhere in the city, and finally to the Hilton Hotel near NC State University in 1975."
Chicago soul releases were extremely popular with teenagers and bands of the south east in the mid sixties. The Impressions and Okeh artists such as The Artistics and Major Lance, in fact just about anything related to Curtis Mayfield either in a song writing, production or artistic capacity, featured heavily on jukeboxes on the beaches and inland waterways of the Carolinas, and  within live band playlists. Chicago influences are certainly very clear when The Embers' LP recordings are considered.  No surprise too then that The Embers would provide us with a very competent Impressions-like group version of “It Ain’t Necessary”. This track was originally Mamie Galore’s third release, and only hit, for the Windy City’s St. Lawrence label, with Jerry Butler in the writing credits. The female version is a northern soul classic in its own right. The Embers take on “It Ain’t Necessary” was first released on JCP (1054) in 1966, one of the last releases in the label discography, and also gained a national release the following year (Bell 644).
Next up was “Just Crazy ‘Bout You Baby”, released twice in 1967 on eEe (Embers Entertainment Enterprises), with different flips: the first with “We’ve Come a Long Way Together” (eEe 0069) and the second with “Aware of Love” (eEe 0070). “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby” was played out in the UK by Gary Rushbrook in the very early eighties, toward the closure of Wigan Casino.  Much more recently, The Embers take on Jerry Butler’s “Aware of Love” has also received plays on the northern scene.  
By now The Embers were clearly making some headway in getting noticed outside of the south east, reflected in the fact that their last two releases of the decade were picked up by major labels. “Far Away Places” (MGM 14167) is a curious spin on an old 1940s standard, using a bass riff and rhythm influenced by Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up”.  According to Bobby Tomlinson in Rick Simmons’ Carolina Beach Music, Bob Crewe facilitated The Embers signing to MGM after hearing a demo tape of the song. The musicians on “Far Away Places” (and presumably on its flip also) were MGM’s own staff from New York, and The Embers laid the vocals. The record received airplay in 1969 but its promotion was cut short when Bob Crewe was fired from MGM, hence the relative rarity for a release on such a major label, for both demo copies and issues. “Far Away Places” became a permanent feature in the bands’ live repertoire which helped cement it as a classic for beach music lovers in the US. Whilst this side is very unlikely to hold any interest for northern soul collectors, the flip “Watch Out Girl” is an established northern soul classic. It was known to be played by Colin Curtis at the Blackpool Mecca around 1975, though Soul Sam or Pep may have been first to break it.
“Where Did I Go Wrong”, by Jackie Gore and probably their most up tempo affair, was released in April 1969 for Atlantic (45-2627). It received plays in Summer 1969 via radio station Channel 85 WKIX which served the college and university dominated areas of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. On the other side of the Atlantic on the northern scene, this was played again at the Blackpool Mecca though it may well have had its first UK airing via the Catacombs in Wolverhampton  in the early 1970s.
The Embers released three LPs in the 1960s on local Raleigh, NC labels; JCP and eEe. The first LP “The Embers Roll Eleven” (JCP) was released in 1963.  This was a live LP (recorded at North Carolina State University’s Erdahl Cloyd Student Union). Tracks included a number of Curtis Mayfield / Impressions, Major Lance and Motown covers and a version of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' beach classic “Stay”. The other two studio based LPs again showcased competent standard soul covers but also provided a couple of tracks of particular interest for the rare soul collector. “Just for the Birds” (JCP) in 1964 offered further covers of Little Anthony, The Drifters and an LP only version of The Impressions' “Little Young Lover”. The last LP of the decade was “Burn You a New One” (eEe) in 1967. This featured tracks such as “Ain’t No Big Thing”, more Little Anthony and the Imperials covers (“Hurt So Bad” and “Reputation”), and undoubtedly the best track on the LP:  a version of Jerry Butler’s “Aware of Love”, which as discussed was also released as a 45 on eEe. 
“The Embers were a favourite regional beach music group throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s” says Bob McNair. “They are still performing today with only one original member left, the drummer, Bobby Tomlinson. He is over 72 years old and still going strong.  In the late 60s I attended Campbell College. One of my classmates, Johnny Hopkins, joined The Embers in 1967 as their trumpet player.  Johnny and I and some of his buddies from Raleigh were all day students and got to be friends in our business administration classes.  We still remain casual acquaintances when we see each other.  Johnny played full time with The Embers for over 35 years and now plays with the beach band North Tower.”
Jackie Gore left The Embers in 1994 and now sings with The Legends of Beach and other bands. 
Copyright  E. Mark Windle (2013, 2018). Chapter excerpt from the book It’s Better to Cry, available to order in the new book section. 
 


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  • Larry Nixon on

    Yep, I remember Blair. The Embers played for the Sig Ep fraternity with Jackie Gore, Bobbt Thomlinson, Blair Ellis and black sax player, Doug I think his name was. Jackie and Bobby were in high school. I played in a beach group at the time called the IFC’s. We bought Blair’s electric piano from him.

  • David Matthews on

    I remember my fraternity, Blair Ellis, played piano for the Embers about when they started in the late fifties. We often hired them to play at our frat parties for about $75. We were Kappa Sigs at NC State. Blair should be about 80 or 81 now and was a super fun guy.

  • DaveSwift on

    Excellent write up


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