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Southern City: Hal and Jean, The Paramount Four and The Poodles - E. Mark Windle (excerpt from "House of Broken Hearts")

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Gallatin is a tiny rural town in Sumner County, a mere thirty miles from Nashville. New York author Ken Abraham notes in More Than Rivals that Gallatin was a typical segregated main street southern town in the 1960s with separate drinking fountains, parks and pools and engagement in sports activities. Working class families of both races did interface to some extent, finding themselves experiencing common financial hardship and living conditions, though blacks typically held the lowest paid jobs available in the area. Abraham explains that African-American entrepreneurship did gradually create community based services such as taxi services, dry-cleaners, barber shops and restaurants, schools and churches.

However, despite a desegregation ruling of schools in the mid-1950s, full integration in Sumner County wasn’t enforced until 1970. With very few exceptions, black students attended the all-black Union Elementary School, and Union High School from 9th grade upwards. Important for Gallatin’s contribution to R&B and soul music was Randy Wood’s record mailing and label empire. Wood, who would later be owner and president of Dot records, had an interest in making radio sets as a child, and was enlisted as a radio engineer in the military services during the Second World War. After he was discharged, he settled in Gallatin to open an electrical equipment store, which sold a few records initially as a side line. He quickly saw the potential in catering for white teenagers coming into the store looking for R&B records. The focus of his business turned to mail order. By the early 1950s he went into partnership to take on local radio WHIN and started his own record label, Dot, recording country, gospel and R&B singers. Through the 1960s, collaborative working with WLAC radio programmes also meant most records plugged on the station would be available for mail order largely from Randy in Gallatin or Ernie Young in Nashville. Eventually operations had to be moved to another shop premises to accommodate a warehouse for Randy’s high stock turnover, at one point 500,000 orders in twelve months.

The Southern City label may have had limited output, but was one example of how Gallatin’s black community was able to combine local musical talent (singers, production and song writing) in a business enterprise. Furthermore the legacy of these ambitious individuals is carried through later generations of their families, who to this day remain active within the music industry.

The Paramount Four vocal group are of particular interest to the northern soul scene and also to deep soul collectors. Baritone Caldwell Jenkins Jr. (b. 1943) was born and raised in Gallatin:

“I was born into a poor family and lived in a city which didn’t provide many jobs for black men. My family was a Christian family with different denominations between us but that did not seem to matter. My mother, aunts and uncles were always singing in churches and gospel groups in various locations. My aunt and uncle were part of the Straightway Gospel Singers, and are referenced in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. As a child I developed my interest in music at church, in high school and by listening to the radio. The Paramount Four initially consisted of myself, William Earl ‘Cat’ Turner (lead vocal; b. 1943 d. 2012), Sonny Brown (bass vocal) and Robert Lee Alexander (tenor/lead). We went to school together in Gallatin. Brown and Alexander were drafted to the military before we started recording, and so the group picked up James Wallace Simpson (tenor) and William Ellis Johnson (bass).”

Cat Turner graduated from Union High School, Class of 1961, and was enlisted in the United States Air Force where he was a part of a traveling singing group for a year before he was honourably discharge and returned to Tennessee.

“Motown was the big ticket at that time” Caldwell continues. “We all wanted to be the next group to make a name for ourselves. There was a club on every corner. The Paramount Four performed at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville and at clubs and colleges in and around Tennessee and Kentucky. Harold and Jean Gilbert who set up the Southern City label were also from Gallatin and went to the same school as us. We had hoped we could all make it together.”

“Harold and I knew each other since 1st grade” remembers Jean Gilbert. “His family had moved from Murray, Kentucky to Gallatin. We were always together from elementary school through high school to graduation. I was from a musical family. My mother sang, my Daddy was the minister. I developed a desire to sing in the church and play piano.”

Likewise, Harold Gilbert was from a musical family, with his father playing in a quartet. His sister would teach him how to play the piano and organ, and by high school he was also a competent trumpet player. Hal and Jean had already been played together in a high school band at sock hops and proms. In 1958, just after Hal’s father death, they married.

The couples’ first recording as Hal and Jean was a take on James Brown and the Famous Flames’ 1959 hit “Try Me”, appearing on a local custom label (Miki 1313). The flip “You Better Change” was reminiscent of Ray Charles’ R&B song “What I’d Say”. The Miki 45 drew enough interest to receive a three star popularity rating by Billboard in April 1963. Their chance with a major label came with “Hey You Standing There” / “Don’t Tell Me Lies” (Capitol 5041), released later that year. Billboard assigned a ‘four star’ popularity rating. Hal was inspired to set up his own label.

“His family had a restaurant and he had a small recording studio there” says Jean. “That’s how Southern City got started. The Paramount Four were Union High School students like us. Harold didn’t find them, they found him. Whenever Harold’s combo group would be playing and they would ask to sing. They didn’t have any gigs or original songs at that time. So when he found out they wanted to record, he wrote some material and recorded them. William Turner was their lead vocalist, but all of them were leaders in their own right. Each one of them bought the same amount of talent to the group.”

Southern City Records and the publishing company Hitsburgh Music Co. operated at 157 Ford Avenue, Gallatin, TN 37066. The first record for the label would be the instrumental “Blue Tears”, with Hal billed as ‘The Trumpet King’, cut with ‘Blues Queen’ Jean’s “I’m The World’s Gift To Man” as the flip (Southern City 1110).

The second Southern City release would be The Poodles “Step By Step” / “I Got A Good Thing (When I Got You)” (Southern City 1111/1112). Jean Gilbert has confirmed the Poodles were a girl group out of Murray, Kentucky; consisting of sisters Marilyn and Sue Cogdill and their cousin Sharon Cunningham, from Harold’s hometown. He knew they wanted to sing and wanted a hit record so he encouraged them to record. The low-fi recording of “Step By Step” is explained by the fact that it was only ever intended to be a demo, recorded in a Gallatin studio. Hal Gilbert’s plan was to re-record at a Nashville studio and had a string of other songs planned for them. In the end however, this was to be their only release.

No 45 release against catalogue number 1113 exists, and it is unclear whether this number was assigned to material which may have been recorded but unissued. “You Don’t Know (Till It Happens To You)” backed with “I’ve Made Up My Mind” (Southern City 1114 / 1115) by the Paramount Four was recorded in 1967 in a long forgotten studio in Nashville. Harold Gilbert provided the musical arrangements and played on both tracks. The Fantastic Dukes, comprising local musicians from Gallatin, Lebanon and Murfreesboro were the group’s regular back-up band when performing, and also provided the instrumentation on the session. Cat Turner sang lead on both sides. Robert “Bobby” Brinkley, credited with co-writing “You Don’t Know”, previously had a minor hit with a version of “Tobacco Road” (Monument 45-803). He also recorded the self-penned soul rarity “Would It Matter” in 1964 with The Squires (Squire S-602). The Detroit influence is very evident on “You Don’t Know”; a comparison to The Temptations’ “I’m Losing You” (released the previous year) -reinforcing Gilbert, Brinkley and the group’s desire to emulate the Motown sound. The contrasting flip is a searing emotional deep soul effort, set at a funeral pace and peppered with vocal harmony. “You Don’t Know” did receive some airplay on WVOL and WLAC and was distributed via Randy’s Gallatin record store as well as Nashville outlets. The eventual pressing run is unknown but clearly low given its persistent rarity to this day.

In the UK, “You Don’t Know” is associated with DJ Pat Brady who initially played it covered up as the “Lost Souls” on the northern soul scene in the mid to late 1980s. The ballad flip also appeals to some collectors in the US associated with the low rider scene.

Sometime after the recording, Cat Turner was involved in an accident, leaving him out of the group whilst they performed throughout Tennessee with Caldwell as lead. Cat who had married in 1964, had a family to look after and was now a carrier for the US postal service.

Eventually the group returned from their travels to the studio in Nashville around 1970, this time under the direction of Bob Holmes. “There were some bad business deals made by people involved with the Southern City release” says Caldwell. “The Paramount Four and the label suffered for it. Our record was blackballed and the radio stations stopped playing it. The group had some dates with Bob Holmes from earlier shows, and he knew about the problems. That’s how ‘Sorry Ain’t The Word’ came about.”

Caldwell Jenkins took lead on this track and also on a ballad called “You Must Leave Her Because You Love Her”. These recordings remained unreleased until both eventually surfaced after Kent Records in the UK secured the masters. “Sorry Ain’t The Word” was released as a 45 initially in 2010 (31st Kent Anniversary Special 6T 26) then more recently (Kent Select; City 021). “You Must Leave Her Because You Love Her” has appeared on CD “Deep Shadows: The Best Of Kent Ballads” (CD KEND 342). Caldwell reports that no other tracks were recorded by the group.

Surviving members at the time of writing other than Caldwell include William Johnson and James Simpson, who all live around Nashville and Gallatin. Cat Turner spent thirty-four years in the US postal service as a supervisor, though he continued to perform as part of Bill Turner and the Marksmen. He passed away a few years ago, aged sixty-nine years. Caldwell Jenkins continues to sing with Cat Turner’s younger brothers in a gospel group called the Turner Brothers.

Harold Gilbert would continue both the label and publishing company in later years, though the Southern City label lay dormant until 1975 when the odd ball release by The Fox Sex “Got To Get Back In His Arms” / “(You Know) I Really Love You”  (Southern City 1116), recorded in Hendersonville would mark the final release.

Jean Gilbert continues: “As the duo Hal & Jean, that put us in the company of other singers and musicians. Whenever they would have a Rhythm & Blues show in Nashville and surrounding areas our manager would get us on the billing with the likes of Dionne Warwick, Jackie Wilson, The Fascinations, The Chiffons and others. Harold also got us some engagements himself. It was all coming together, but I got really tired and dropped out. Harold found some new singers and he was able to carry on. I went back to doing what I really enjoyed doing, singing in church.”

Hal (again with Bobby Brinkley) appeared on the writing credits of Willie Hobbs’ blues / deep soul recording “(Please) Don’t Let Me Down” in 1972 (Seventy 7 77-113). He continued with the publishing company Hitsburgh Music Co. as the final business focus, catering for gospel and country music. Hal Gilbert passed away in December 2014.

House of Broken Hearts by E. Mark Windle is available to order in the new book section. Colour , black and white, hardcover and paperback options available.

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