The origins of this group go back to 1957 when the group The Marquees were singing around town and at sock hops, and originally included Frank Howard and older brother Bruce. Frank was school friends at Meigs High with Rufus Hunter. Rufus’ older brother Herbert was at the same school, and had already released his first record.. Herbert Hunter would be Frank’s inspiration to pursue a career in singing.
An early unnamed group existed which would eventually became the Commanders, before a recording contract was secured. Members at that point all worked for the same downtown department store and included Charlie Fite, Joe Holder and Wallace Simpson, along with Frank. In 1961 Frank, Charlie Fite and Hershel Carter teamed up and this would be the line-up thereafter.
The boys were involved in mid-week evening performances at Club Stealaway, run by Hoss Allen who had just returned from Chess as a promoter. Johnny Jones had penned a blues song called “Feels So Bad, Like A Ball Game On A Rainy Day”. It was initially tried on Frank, Charlie and Herschel, butAllen felt the song didn’t work for the Commanders, so he gave it to Johnny and Jimmy Hendrix, who would record it as a demo. Other than a few plays on Hoss’ own show at WLAC however, the demo wasn’t taken any further. Hoss Allen was aware of the potential of Frank and the boys and wanted to push them further. Now given the name Frank Howard and the Commanders, their first single, the ballad double-sider “Just Like Him” / “I Married An Angel” was recorded in late 1964, released early the following year on Allen’s own label (Hermitage H-870), and then again on Randy Wood’s Dot (Dot 16804).
The mid 1960s was a busy time for the Commanders. They provided backing vocals on Earl Gaines LP “The Best Of Luck To You” (HBR HLP 8508) along with a host of other well respected Nashville R&B singers and musicians. The author considers it likely that as a result of this Hoss Allen selected them as a resident vocal group on The !!!! Beat TV show. In July or August 1965, Billy Cox presented two of his own compositions, “I’m So Glad” and “I’m Sorry For You” to Frank Howard. Bill Allen was producing that session at Starday King studios on Dickerson Road. Jimi Hendrix was in the studio; Billy Cox previously commented that after Jimi Hendrix had left Little Richard’s band, he moved constantly backwards and forwards to Nashville, picking up odd jobs, before departing to join the Isley Brothers in New York. Other musicians on the session included Cox on bass, drummer Freeman Brown and a horn section led by Harrison Callaway. Allen just wanted Jimi to play a basic rhythm. Hendrix had a compulsion to express himself musically even at this stage, and demonstrated this in the session. Hoss didn’t think this was appropriate so turned his mic down on the session and “cut him in and out”. The record was ultimately released in 1966 on Barry, an Old Town subsidiary label (Barry 1008). Footage still exists of the group performing “I’m So Glad” on The !!!! Beat show and is available on a DVD collection on The !!!! Beat Vol. 1-6 (Bear Family, 2005).
The general consensus among UK northern soul collectors regarding “I’m So Glad” is that the record was rediscovered and first played in soul clubs in the late 1970s; initially by DJ Richard Searling at Wigan Casino, and by others at Rotherham’s Clifton Hall. The recording has remained a firm favourite among collectors and dancers ever since.
Frank Howard and the Commanders’ appearances on The !!!! Beat also featured them singing “I’m Sorry For You” and “It Didn’t Work Out”. The group would later back Little Milton’s appearance on the show with “We’re Gonna Make It”, and even demonstrated James Brown / Jackie Wilson style dance moves on “Shotgun”.
During this time the boys worked with a range of other soul stars. Franks remembers: “The Commanders worked with Major Lance in Sewanee, Tennessee at a college between Nashville and Chattanooga, when we were booked by Elmo Gains. Major was a great entertainer. He had a limo driver called Frances who also played bass when he came on stage. We loved seeing him perform “Monkey Time” - everybody would do this dance. Like, everybody!”
Frank’s first solo recording was for the Excello label, in 1967, leased to the label under Bill Allen’s Rogana production company. “Judy” (Excello 2291) was written by Lawrence “Larry” Lee, and was rumoured to be originally for The Spidells with whom Lee was closely associated, although the group never recorded it. This melodic mid-tempo song with lyrics extolling the singer’s admiration for his new girlfriend was also recorded in 1971 by Al Green on his “Let’s Stay Together” LP (Hi SH-32070), and released a year later (Green’s version also appeared on a Jamaican 45). The connection is unsurprising. Larry Lee was Al’s band leader around this point (although he wasn’t present at the particular recording session that utilised Willie Mitchell’s house band and Memphis Horns personnel). Frank confirms that a 1969 release by Frankie Howard which appeared on Don Robey’s Texan label Duke is another artist.
Chuck, Herschel and Frank eventually split as a group, but remained good friends and stayed in touched over the years. Frank joined with The Continentals for “Do What You Want To Do” (Deluxe 124) while still under Hoss Allen management, but would later leave music, temporarily, to undertake occupations as diverse as banking and car sales. He was also a major contributor to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibition Night Train to Nashville (celebrating local R&B talent of the 1960s) where he assisted curator and researcher Michael Gray with memories, memorabilia and previously unseen photographs of Nashville artists. More recently Frank returned to secular recording with a reformed Valentines group, managed by Mac Gayden. Chuck Fite passed away in May 2016. A live tribute at Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Café on Murfreesboro Pike was held in his honour, bringing together various artists of the day, including Jimmy Church, Frank Howard, and The Valentines.
Copyright E. Mark Windle (2017, 2018). Chapter excerpt from "House of Broken Hearts". Available from the new book section.