Located on 17th Avenue, North and Jo Johnston, Pearl High School (now Martin Luther King High) was a rich source of black sports and musical talent. In the early 1960s the Bard sisters Francesca (“Fran”, b. unknown d. 1991) and Beverly (now Bard-Smith, b. unknown) formed their group, The Avons, along with schoolmate Paula Hester. Their recordings should not be confused with at least two other groups with same name who recorded around the same time outside of Tennessee. The Avons first taste of the studio was an initial one-off hire for budget label Hit, providing uncredited backing vocals to Peggy Gaines’ cover of The Marvelettes’ “Playboy” (Hit 17).
By the time The Avons started recording, RCA Victor had already firmly established itself in Nashville with offices and studios to facilitate country and pop releases. It may have been a little behind its major competitor Atlantic in tapping R&B but was aware enough of the developing phenomenon to set up its own race music label, Groove. The RCA subsidiary was associated with more than one hundred releases; perhaps most notable as a vehicle at one point for Mickey and Sylvia’s mid-1950s million seller “Love Is Strange”. The label also holds the attention of soul collectors for Johnny Nash’s “I’m Leavin’ “ (Groove 58-0030) and also The Channels’ “I’ve Got My Eyes On You” (Groove 58-0046) and “You Can Count On Me” (Groove 58-0061). The Avons’ first scheduled session for Groove was in July 1963. By that time, Fran had graduated from school, although Beverly was still a student at Pearl High. “Push a Little Harder”/“Oh Gee Baby” (Groove 58-0022) was released the following month. Whilst the single failed to break the Billboard charts, it was a regional hit around Tennessee, Boston and Florida, prompting RCA to release the 45 internationally, including in Australia (RCA 101532).
Late that summer The Impressions already a nationally established hot ticket item; they had just recorded “It’s All Right” for ABC Paramount. Nashville promotion man Isaac Washington took on the task of organising a one month tour of the south for them to promote the record, putting together a supporting artist package. The Avons were selected for this, along with Peggy Gaines and The Bonnevilles.
The Avons’ second outing “Words Written On Water” / “Rolling Stone” (Groove 58-0033) came in March 1964, and a third “Tonight Kiss Your Baby Goodbye” / “Whatever Happened To Our Love (Groove 58-0039) a couple of months later. “Rolling Stone” would represent the first professional interaction between the group and band leader, arranger and Excello staff writer Bob Holmes.
When WLAC gave Bob Holmes the role as musical director for Night Train in 1964, this also put him in the position to select artists for the TV show. A number of local and national acts were utilised, though local acts were reserved for backing vocals or as support, paid at $25 for three songs. Initially Hester and the Bard sisters were a little put out by their secondary status, until they realised that they were among the only ones being paid for the work. The Avons appeared on a number of episodes, and did still perform some of their original songs plus a few covers: “Everybody Loves A Lover”, “Back In My Arms Again”, “Talk To Me”, “Be My Baby”, “You Send Me” and “Heatwave”.
Unfortunately, TV appearances did little to boost sales of their later Groove efforts. From 1964 the girls would return to Hit, moonlighting as Jenny and the Jewels. Releases on Hit appeared regularly between 1964 and 1967. Covers of The Supremes’ “Baby Love” (Hit 153) and “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” (Hit 257) came in 1966, and a final release “In And Out Of Love” (Hit 313) a year later. The Avons were eventually dropped by RCA after “Tonight Kiss Your Baby Goodbye”, despite having six more tracks on tape.
Whilst most Sound Stage 7 material was produced via John Richbourg’s JR Enterprises, a few artists appeared independently via connections with parent label Monument and owner Fred Foster. John ‘Bucky’ Wilkin composed The Avons’ “Be Good To Your Baby” (Sound Stage 7 45-2561) along with fellow Daytona member Bobby Russell. As “Bucky and Bobby” they also produced the flipside, a melodic beat ballad “Just As Long As I Live” (composed by Bob Holmes). This 45 was released in May 1966. Bucky’s entry into the music business occurred via his group Ronny and the Daytonas, and the professional relationship between his song-writing mother Marijohn Wilkin and musician / arranger Bill Justis, with their Buckhorn Music publishing company. The Daytonas’ first surf / hot rod record “G.T.O” for Mala had become a national top ten hit a couple of years before Bucky became connected with The Avon’s Sound Stage 7 45.
“Bill Justis was friendly with Fred Foster at Monument” remembers Bucky. “Sound Stage 7 was a subsidiary. I think it was probably Bill who introduced me to The Avons. I did one session with them. On “Be Good To Your Baby” I was trying to imitate the Phil Spector Wall of Sound thing, which could be accomplished with enough overdubs. I was very young and didn’t know what I was doing, and there was no big promotional push behind it. So it just slipped through the cracks, as they say.”
Producer, arranger, and writer Bob Holmes composed “Just As Long As I Live” whilst still working as staff at Excello, and was likely the connection to The Avons’ next move to that label. By the mid-1960s Excello was moving away from its signature raw R&B sound. As Ted Jarrett commented in his autobiography, he and others like him, such as Bob Holmes, were desperate to capture elements of the sophisticated soul sound of the major cities of the north, including Detroit and Chicago. An earlier version by The Avons of Peggy Gaines’ “When the Boy That You Love” (both previously unissued) is arguably from this period - if not intended for Excello then possibly for Bob Holmes’ Southern Artists label or leasing to a third party label whilst Holmes was still producing for Excello and related labels. In the liner notes of Kent Record’s Northern Soul’s Classiest Rarities: Volume 5 (CD KEND 432), Ady Croasdell presents a summary of their unissued material around this period:
“….By 1967 Bob Holmes had taken over all the writing and production duties and this continued throughout their later career. Further singles followed on Excello (and later on Ref-O-Ree) with at least four unissued numbers. One of these, ‘I Would If I Could’, came via the Excello tapes. I was given some titles by Holmes when visiting him in Nashville; one was a jingle for a local DJ: ‘Ooh Gilly Baby’ and the delectable version of ‘When The Boy That You Love (Is Loving You)’. The song was unknown to all apart from the participants until the late 90s, when a master of Peggy Gaines’ version was discovered in Ted Jarrett’s tapes. It was played out at rare soul dances, creating heavy demand and was eventually released as a Kent 100 Club Anniversary single. The Avons’ version was the first recording of this beautiful mid-tempo song, probably from around 1967, pre-dating Peggy Gaines’ take by a couple of years. This production is fuller, with strings, vibes and horns; the pace is also noticeably faster. As ever, the girls’ harmonies are immaculate….” The Avons’ take of “When The Boy That You Love” did eventually receive a vinyl 45 outing in the UK (Kent Select City 041).
The girls managed a single Excello release “He’s My Hero” / “Since I Met You Baby” (Excello 2296); a couple of inconspicuous tracks which again failed to sell well. The pop-soul sound of “Since I Met You Baby” was perhaps the more commercial track, though oddly did not feature as the plug side. “I Would If I Could”, like “Boy” remained unissued, until a UK release thirty years later on the Kent CD Uptown Down South (CDKEND 121).
The Avons also provided backing vocals on a couple of tracks by other artists for Excello. One such track was for Roger Hatcher. Hatcher was originally from Birmingham, Alabama, although his initial recording career was in Detroit after a family relocation. A couple of releases for Dotty’s and Del-La as Little Roger Hatcher ensued, but by the late 1960s he decided Nashville was where he wanted to progress his career. As soul music collector John R. Smith reported in his account of Roger Hatcher’s career:
“…..Roger had travelled home to Birmingham for Christmas 1967 and as his bus journey took him through Nashville he made the decision to call in on Nashboro Records while he was there. His visit proved successful and he was signed to a record contract by Shannon Williams. When he returned to Nashville for his first recording session with Excello, Bob Holmes went through Roger's file of self-written songs (about 300 in all) and selected two of them for him to cut. So "I'm Gonna Dedicate My Song To You" and "Sweetest Girl In The World" were recorded and a single was released in April or June 1968 (Excello 2297). Bob Holmes did the musical arrangement for the songs and the backing singers on the session were another Excello group, The Avons of "Since I Met You Baby" fame. Roger had written "Sweetest Girl..." for his high school sweetheart, Linda Doyle. The A side, "I’m Gonna Dedicate My Song To You" sold well and became a hit in various regions. However due to the company’s lack of co-ordinated national promotion, this success occurred over a period of some months. By the time the record was becoming popular in one major market, it was going down the local charts in others. It never made the Billboard national soul chart. Sales in the US did lead to a release for the track though (backed with a Freddie North song) on UK President. "Sweetest Girl In The World" wasn't issued in the UK, but was the side which was to go on to become a favourite with northern soul fans….” Excello’s umbrella company Nashboro agreed to draw up a three year contract for Hatcher but things set off on the wrong foot. A missed plane delayed what was intended to be the first of a long series of recording sessions, and irked the company. His contract for Excello was cut short, though Hatcher would continue to work on and off with Bob Holmes well into the mid-1970s.
Another isolated label release “Talk To Me” / “Got To Get Used To You” (A-Bet 9419) appeared in 1967; A-Bet being set up that year by parent company Nashboro. Then in 1968, Ted Jarrett and fellow writer-producer-arranger Bob Holmes created their own Ref-O-Ree label. Holmes brought the idea to the table of recording The Avons. The pair composed, produced and arranged The Avons’ “Tell Me Baby (Who Would I Be)” and used it as the initial release for the label (Ref-O-Ree 700). The song was promoted locally but made no impact on the Billboard charts. An alternate take from the same recording session was released in 2007 on the German CD The Ref-O-Ree Records Story - Southern Soul (Blue Label CD SPV 95882).
The Ref-O-Ree 45 was to be the Avons’ final release. Little is known regarding the singing careers of Fran, Beverly or Paula beyond this point. Fran appears to have settled to bring up a family. She passed away in late 1991 survived by her two sons. Beverly was last reported as still performing in Troy, Michigan. The whereabouts of Paula Hester is also unknown.
Chapter exceprt from House of Broken Hearts". Available to order from the new book section. Copyright E. Mark Windle, 2017, 2018.