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Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs - by E. Mark Windle

1960s beach music Carolina northern soul soul

Maurice Williams was originally from Lancaster, SC. His group involvement was a long one since the early 1950s, commencing with the Royal Charms, Junior Harmonizers and the Gladiolas. The Gladiolas hit pay dirt in 1957 with “Little Darlin’ ” on Excello when the group went to Nashville. 
The most important milestone for Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs was “Stay” released in 1960 on Al Silver’s New York Herald Records. “Stay” went straight to No.1. It became a huge early beach music hit and is now recognised as a doo-wop classic, having since been covered by The Four Seasons, Jackson Browne and others. Decades later the original was given a further lease of life via the Dirty Dancing movie soundtrack. Another couple of Herald releases followed in the early sixties but didn’t climb the charts. Maurice and the group then went with New Orlean’s Marshall Sehorn to produce “May I”. This also became a local radio and beach hit, if not a national one. 
Marshall Sehorn was a student at North Carolina State University before working for Bobby Robinson as the southern promotion man for Fire and Fury labels from the late 1950s onwards.  When these labels folded Sehorn and partner Allen Toussaint founded the Sansu, Deesu and Tou-Sea labels and the Sea-Saint Recording Studios in New Orleans, between 1963 and 1966. Sehorn and Toussaint released Williams on their Deesu label, producing a few fine northern soul winners in the mid sixties with the group and as a solo artist; “Being Without You” (Deesu 302), “Don’t Ever Leave Me” (Deesu 309) and “How to Pick a Winner” (Deesu 311). Another northern track on yet another related label from around this time was “Return” (Sea-horn 503), a sparse recording that sounds much earlier than its release date (circa 1964). Gladys Knight and the Pips appear on backing. The flip, “My Baby’s Gone” is a dramatic beat ballad and is an admirable demonstration of Williams’ vocal quality. A later release, given the big city soul production treatment, was “Nobody Knows” on Scepter (SCE 12113). This was yet another Sehorn production, perhaps currently under the rare soul radar but well suited to the northern scene. A second track which was destined for a Scepter release, but which never actually materialised, was the mid tempo “Look My Way”. Nat Speir, co-founder of The Rivieras, is pretty sure he remembers playing baritone sax on this one, recorded at Arthur Smith’s Studios in Charlotte around 1966 or 1967. Whilst it still sounds unfinished, “Look my way” was eventually pressed in the UK more than 20 years later via the various artists compilation LP “Soul Cities” (Kent 089) and on the Kent CD “Living the Nightlife” (CDKEND 104).  The Zodiacs managed to release a couple of their own LPs in the sixties, namely “Stay” on Herald in 1960/61 and a live LP recorded at Myrtle Beach in 1965. Nat Speir described his and Bob Meyer’s musical involvement with Maurice Williams:
“Maurice and The Zodiacs covered the typical territory of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida and parts of Kentucky. As an adult Maurice always lived in Charlotte. I played baritone sax and guitar with the Zodiacs in the early to mid sixties, and did some sessions with him in Charlotte and New York. Maurice and I got together several times to write songs, though I don't think anything came of that. Bob (Meyer) and I worked on the side with Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs. We went with Maurice to New York to record possible follow-ups for "Stay". Bob sang three songs written by Maurice, and I played sax. Recording in New York at Beltone Studios, in the same room in which Ray Charles, The Drifters and many others recorded, was a once in a lifetime thrill for a 17 year old white boy. We rehearsed above Small's Paradise in Harlem, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Gladys Knight and King Curtis. Horace Ott was to be the arranger, and Jimi Hendrix was the rhythm guitarist added to beef-up the bass. He was an unknown at that time. One never knows about these things, but nothing came of all this work. Maurice worked a lot with Marshall Sehorn. Sehorn was from a family of real estate professionals who came from the Charlotte area - although that would be hard to see if you met him. He was a character but to me he was a nice guy who was careful with money.”
Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs (of varied line ups) continued to perform on the beach music oldies circuit throughout the seventies and eighties. He still lives in Charlotte, NC today. On the back of the popularity of Dirty Dancing (which provided another eight million in sales of “Stay”) he is still actively touring the south east states, and has had recent appearances on Pittsburg PBS TV specials.
Copyright E. Mark Windle 2013 and 2018 (Modified chapter excerpt from the book "It's Better To Cry" by E. Mark Windle. Available in the new book section).

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