Stax records had many prolific artists on its roster. The Astors are perhaps less well known outside the US than the likes of labelmates Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas. Nonetheless, perhaps like The Showmen, they produced some quality sides of interest not only to the US beach music fan but also the rare soul enthusiasts in the UK and Europe. The Astors were also one of the earliest groups to appear on Stax. Curtis Johnson and his friends all came from the same neighbourhood in Memphis, TN. Orange Mound, built in the 1890s on what was previously plantation owner property, was one of the first districts to be purpose built by and for the black community. The area was a source of affordable housing for African-Americans coming to Memphis from the surrounding rural areas, looking for work. The Melrose High School boys came together as a group in 1958, for an audition held by a local pianist:
"Orange Mound was and is a community of families, churches, and businesses with a lot of civic pride" says Curtis Johnson. "As children growing up there, we felt the pride and enjoyed the love and support of the families in a community that was like a small town in Memphis. Parents watched out for and corrected neighbours' children. We attended and graduated from Melrose High School, the pride of Orange Mound. I sang in church vocal groups organized by my grandmother who played piano, sang and directed the church choirs. I took piano lessons from a music teacher as a child, played horn in the Melrose High Band and was in the school choir Glee Club. Sam Jones also sang in the Glee Club. Eliehue Stanback and I were classmates at Melrose, and we became good friends. He and I would get together after school to sing and harmonize old doo-wop songs. We heard about this guy in our community that put the word out, that he would be auditioning students to put a teenage vocal group together. Herman "Red" Arnett had played piano with several bands around Memphis nightspots. He was having auditions after school at his home in Orange Mound. Eliehue and I decided to try out. It was at these auditions that Eliehue and I met Sam Jones, Richard Harris, Richard Griffin, and George Harper, who also had been singing with their own doo-wop groups. Red auditioned others, but kept the six of us coming back for months of rehearsals. We formed The Duntinos. We auditioned at clubs and performed at talent shows and school functions. Richard Griffin and George Harper eventually left the group. Red managed us for a while, but gave up managing and began playing again."
Under the supervision of Rufus Thomas, they performed initially as The Duntinos, performing weekly gigs at clubs such as The Plantation Inn, around West Memphis, Arkansas and at Club Handy on Beale St. in Memphis:
"We competed on a few talent shows with Carla Thomas and other local artists" remembers Curtis. "Carla's father Rufus Thomas liked our group. Rufus was an on-air radio personality at Radio Station WDIA as well as a comedian and singer. He had a band that toured small towns near Memphis and took us on many of those gigs to open his show. Under Rufus' tutelage, we begin to learn showmanship. We made our rounds to local recording studios including Sun Records. None were interested in recording us. Without a manager, we handled our business ourselves; sometimes getting our song lyrics and melodies stolen because we didn't know about copyrighting."
Then followed a brief spell in New York as The Dutinos looked for a recording contract, before Curtis and the boys ended up with Jim Stewart at Satellite, the precursor to Stax:
"My mother, younger sister Dorothy and brother Harold had lived in Buffalo, N.Y. Eliehue and I had graduated from Melrose. Since we hadn't been able to get a recording deal in Memphis, Eliehue, Richard Harris, Sam, and I decided to go to Buffalo for the summer, with hopes of getting a break. At that time New York City was known as The Big Apple where good things were happening for young entertainers. We thought we might have a better chance there. But we didn't realize that Buffalo was nearly 500 miles from New York City. We didn't have much luck in Buffalo. We played the bars and taverns, earning tips and working odd jobs during the day. Richard and Sam had to return to Memphis at the end of the summer break to go back to school.
After they returned, Carla Thomas contacted Sam, telling him about a new recording studio that opened in an old theatre building in south Memphis. She said that she and Rufus were getting ready to record there, and advised Sam to look into it. After he did Sam asked Eliehue and I to come back home, telling us that Rufus might want to use us on backup vocals for a recording that he and Carla were about to do. We quickly returned to Memphis and Rufus introduced us to Jim Stewart. We began with backup voice work at Satellite Records for Rufus and Carla, Nick Charles and others. After a period of time, session guitarist, songwriter and producer Chips Moman spoke to Jim Stewart about producing a record on us. We recorded two songs."
These tracks were "You Make Me Feel So Good", penned Curtis who sang lead vocal and "As You Can See", written by Eliehue Stanback with Eliehue on lead. Both were to feature on their first 45 (Satellite S-105), released in January 1961. For this release the group name was changed to The Chips, derived from producer Chips Moman. Later that year, Curtis entered the United States Air Force. Each time he returned home on leave they would write and practice songs for each session over two or three days at a time. In 1963, after yet another name change to The Astors, "What Can It Be" was released, backed with "Just Enough to Hurt Me" (Stax S-139). These were written by friend and guitarist Larry Lee, with Curtis taking lead vocals.
"Larry Lee lived just a few doors from the Stax studio. He would introduce his songs to us when I'd come home. We would work them up with him then introduce them to Jim Stewart. Other songs of Lee's we recorded during that period, but not released until the 1990s were "A Woman Who Needs The Love Of A Man" and "Uncle Willie Good Time" released on "4000 Volts Of Stax" (Stax CDSXD 107) and "Be My Lady" on "Do The Crossover Baby" (Kent CDKEND105). Larry Lee later played guitar with Jimi Hendrix at the Woodstock Festival, and spent over 20 years as Al Green's on-the-road guitarist and band leader.
Unlike other acts who recorded for Stax, particularly later in the decade, The Astors' output was often focussed on group harmonies, with instrumentation complementing but not dominating the vocal performance. "Just Enough to Hurt Me" typified this approach, providing a magnificent mid-tempo track reminiscent of The Impressions, just on the cusp of doo-wop and soul. This record is both rare and in-demand, carrying one of the heaviest collector price tags on the Stax label. Demand for this 45 has primarily been from US group doo-wop / early soul collectors, although it is now also beginning to attract the interest of UK northern soul collectors.
The Astors' biggest hit for the label was "Candy" (Stax S-170) backed with "I Found Out", reaching number 12 on the Billboard top 100 charts in 1965. "Candy" was written by Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes. The success of "Candy", particularly in the south east (and retrospectively becoming labelled as a beach music classic), gave the group a promotional boost to perform across the US in Philadelphia, Chicago and at the Apollo in New York. The Astors also took up a number of TV appearances during this period. From the perspective of the northern soul scene, "Candy" as an established soul oldie always overshadowed the flip. More recently however, attention is now being paid to the quirky dancer, with the plodding tempo of "I Found Out".
"Candy" our biggest record, was also recorded when I was home on military leave" says Curtis. "It began moving up the national record charts, but I was not able to tour until I was blessed with the opportunity to get an honourable "Early-Out" discharge from USAF due to the government closing the base where I was stationed. After getting out of Military, we first performed at the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, PA for ten days, doing three shows per day. The line-up for that booking included The O'Jays, The Coasters, Esther "Little Esther" Phillips, The Knight Brothers, Bessie Griffin and The Gospel Pearls and Redd Foxx. While in Philadelphia, we got a manager (Herb Nahan, an auto Dealer) and Chrysler Station wagon, and signed with Ruth Bowen of the Queen Booking Agency. We toured other venues mostly in the north-east with artists such as Chuck Berry, comedian ventriloquist Willey Tyler & "Lester", Major Lance, Walter Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions and many others. We spent several weeks on tour with The James Brown Review. We also played The Apollo Theater in New York, The Regal Theater in Chicago and The Howard Theater in Washington, DC, all seven to ten day stands. Later we made a return ten day stand at The Uptown Theater with James Brown.
During the summer of 1965 we flew from the east coast to Los Angeles, CA where we met up with some of the other Stax artists. We spent 13 days filming TV shows "Where The Action Is" (a Dick Clark production), music variety shows like Shivaree, Shebang and Hollywood-A-Go-Go. In the evenings we performed with Billy Preston on Sunset Strip and at the 5/4 Ballroom with Rufus, Carla Thomas, Booker T & MG's, William Bell, The Mad-Lads, Wilson Pickett, and others. This two night show was recorded and ultimately released on "Funky Broadway: Stax Live At The 5/4 Ballroom" (SCD-8567-2). We returned to Memphis just as the Watts Riots broke out in the Watts neighbourhood of south LA. The riots stranded some of the Stax artists in Los Angeles for days.
The forth Satellite-Stax release was "In the Twilight Zone" (Stax S-179), penned by Isaac Hayes, Dave Porter and Sidney Bailey and again with Curtis on lead vocal. This is probably the hardest to find of the three Stax label releases. Whereas "Candy" with its up tempo danceable approach is understandably a long time favourite on the northern scene with the "oldies" crowd, "Twilight Zone" complete with its eerie theme intro and moody mid tempo quality has attracted more recent interest on the rare soul scene in the UK.
"We returned to touring for a while and opened in Memphis at a large new nightclub called The Hippodrome" continues Curtis. "The Astors performed there nightly for several months, introducing a group of young elementary school musicians, our backup band, that went on to become The Bar-Kays. We recorded two more songs in 1967 at Stax with my brother Harold Johnson, after Richard Harris left the group for a while to spend more time with his family. Those songs were "Daddy Didn't Tell Me" written by Booker T. Jones, and "More Power to You" (Stax 45-232) written by David Porter and I.
Sam and Eliehue were drafted into the Army. After performing as a three member group for a while, we decided to go our separate ways. I took a song writing position for the local division of Mercury Records, and became producer and director of A&R R&B products. I wrote for and produced a number of Mercury artists such as Margie Hendricks and Bobby Hebb. In 1969 Harold and I helped to form a group of singers and musicians called Brothers Unlimited. This fourteen member group toured the Gulf Coast cities and local Memphis nightclubs. We recorded an album, "Who's For The Young" which was released in 1970 on Capitol Records, and reissued on CD by Fallout Records in 2008. The group continued to perform until disco came along. We disbanded in 1971. I moved to Buffalo, NY. In 1975 Sam Jones, Harold "Quake" Johnson, John "Cousey" Harris, (one of the founders of Brothers Unlimited) and I started our own production company Funk Factory Productions, Promotions, Inc., and Funk Factory Publishing Co., based out of Dayton OH, Buffalo NY, and Memphis. In the late seventies the four of us came together in Buffalo, and produced, recorded and released "Wake Up (You're Sleeping A Bit Too Late)" backed with "If You Ain't Got No Money (You Can't Get No Honey)" (Funk Factory Records FFA1001), under the name C.Q.C' S. (Curtis-Quake-Cousey-Sam). A reissue appeared in 1980 on QCA Red Mark Records. The Astors had not performed on stage together since 1968. Recently we were asked by Tim Sampson, Communications Director Soulsville Foundation, to perform at the 4th Annual Stax To The Max Festival on the grounds of the Stax Museum, Stax Music Academy, Soulsville Foundation, and Soulsville Charter School. We were very honoured, but hesitated because we hadn't performed together other than at birthdays or family get togethers for approximately forty-five years. We talked it over and decided it would be fun. We put in the time necessary to get back in shape musically for the show. We had fun times in rehearsals, remembering the past and really enjoyed our time being around Stax getting to meet and enjoy performances by the students of the wonderful Schools of Soulsville. As far as the show April 28, 2013 was concerned, we enjoyed being back on stage together again. Performing with the other Stax artists was fun. Our children, grandchildren, and some of our spouses had never seen us performing on stage live. It was a wonderful and humbling experience."
This article is an excerpt from the book "Rhythm Message" by E. Mark Windle. Available to order in the new book section.