The Neptunes provide a central link to a couple of Nashville solo artists who are recognised on the rare soul scene. Between 1958 and 1964 the group recorded a handful of 45s, including Payson, Checker, Instant and Victoria. Discographies to date are not consistently accurate due to the existence of at least two or three ‘Neptunes’ around in the early to mid-1960s, including at least one LA based outfit. In reference to the Nashville group, various on-line sources also confuse individuals who were producers, promoters and song writers as group members.
The 'Nashville' Neptunes were founded in the 1950s with Hal Hardy as their lead singer. Other members included Paul William (P.W.) Hendricks (d. 2016), Robert “Dickey Doo” a.k.a Bob Dixon (b. 1934 d. 2002), Joe Wade (nephew of ex-Prisonaire and solo singer Johnny Bragg), James Porter Box and Henry “Sonny” Short.
“Daddy was born in Franklin, Tennessee; he was the middle son of nine children” recalls Carissia Dixon-Malone, daughter of Robert Dixon. “He was a unique person who walked around with a captivating smile drawing people into his web. He was a very proud man and it showed. As I watched and listened to him when I was a child, he constantly stressed for me not to get into the entertainment business and to select a stable job career with benefits. He was very serious about all of his children getting a good education and graduating from high school. We all accomplished that goal.”
Boxing was perhaps Robert Dixon’s first passion. As a child he loved sports, and his skills in the ring were developed whilst stationed with the military in the north-east. Between 1952 and 1954 he held the first US army boxing championship award. After an honourable discharge he started a number of gospel groups with friends including The SilverTones. “He started singing in churches when he was young” Crissia continues. “Along with the fellow singers from The Neptunes he would visit our home to rehearse or show up in his convertible car on the nights of their gigs, to profile their outfits. Believe me, as a child these men were dressed sharp to the bone. Daddy would tell me that dressing with glitz is a major part of the performance. Robert Dixon had swag! Intelligent and perceptive; an awesome entertainer and smart businessman. He always believed in himself and played the role of a successful man no matter what negative things people said about black men.”
The group’s recording of particular interest to the early soul record collector is “House Of Heartaches” (Instant 3255), recorded in February 1963. Writing credits are attributed to Allen and Holbert, a reference to WLAC DJ Bill Hoss Allen, and their manager Tom Holbert. Allen’s Rogana Productions outfit leased out their artists recordings to several extra-regional labels through the 1960s. The Neptunes were under Rogana’s wing early in the decade, with “House Of Heartaches” released on the New Orleans label. Rare soul collector Dave Flynn remembers coming across half a dozen different takes of the song, from some master tapes which had arrived from Instant / Minit / Joe Banashak archives, whilst working for the UK Charly reissue label.
By the mid-1960s a number of the members attempted to forge their own careers. Hal Hardy (b. unknown, d. 2009) was known in Nashville for his appearances on the Night Train TV show, and his 1965 version of “House Of Broken Hearts” (Hollywood 1516) was a popular recording on the UK northern soul scene. The Hollywood label had originated on the west coast but relocated to Nashville in the mid to late 1960s, when Starday Records took control. Writing credits on Hardy’s 45 were given to Holbert and McGlothin; though the same song as the Neptunes’ Instant release, with a subtle change in song title. The Hal Hardy 45 was discovered and played on the soul scene in the eighties by DJ Guy Hennigan: “Think I came across this one in the States. Hal Hardy was played at the Tony's New Empress Ballroom all-nighter in Blackburn, covered-up as McKinley. As in McKinley Mitchell but without acknowledging the Mitchell bit...in order to lead people up the wrong path.” Hardy recorded the song with the Billy Cox Band as part of weekly recording sessions at the Starday/King studio. These sessions were facilitated by Bill Hoss Allen for his Rogana artists.
“Bill Allen and I started the first independent promotion company, Rogana, in Nashville” says singer, promoter and producer Gene Kennedy. “We were promoting R&B records - everyone thought Hoss was black because he was a DJ who played R&B records from 10 p.m. at night to 1 a.m. on WLAC. I got involved with The Neptunes during this time. Wesley Rose called Hoss at the office one day to hire us for a job. Wesley wanted us to help promote a record for Hickory that had broken in Boston but they couldn’t get it played in the south, so he hired us to promote it. We broke the record and it ended up selling a million records. Later, Wesley asked me if I wanted to join Hickory on a more permanent basis. Hoss was OK with that, so I started to work for Hickory. Wesley knew that I had previously recorded as a singer for Old Town records, so it was only natural that I would record for Hickory too. My first record for Hickory was the Pick Hit on WSAI in Cincinnati, Ohio and WHK in Cleveland, Ohio. The distributors ordered 6500 records each. At this point Wesley asked if I wanted to be an artist or an executive. When he expanded on the ‘executive’ part, he said he wanted to make me the national promoter for Hickory and Acuff-Rose. I took him up on it. He killed my record and didn’t ship it to the distributors. As I was already working with the Neptunes, Wesley suggested putting them out on Hickory.”
Located on 8th Avenue South in the Melrose district, the label was owned by Acuff-Rose Music, the publishing arm of country singer and musician Roy Claxton Acuff and Wesley Rose. Wesley was the son of respected Nashville talent scout Fred Rose, the original partner in the Acuff-Rose empire, who had passed away just before Hickory was formed in 1955. The first run of the label continued for around eighteen years. Initially known for its country output, Hickory turned its hand to pop and pop-soul as this music form evolved through the 1960s. Although not exactly a record collectors’ “go-to” for rich source of earthy R&B and soul music, Hickory was responsible for a few pop-soul and northern soul classics from artists such as Frankie and Johnny (“I’ll Hold You”), Charlie Romans (“Twenty Four Hour Service”) and Barbara Mills (“Queen Of Fools”).
In the end, The Neptunes didn’t make it as a collective on Hickory, though Paul Hendricks had four solo releases between 1966 and 1967 under the name of P.W. Cannon.
“We changed his name so that it would seem like he was a new artist” says Gene Kennedy. One of Hendricks’ first solo recordings was the worthy soul ballad “Hanging Out My Tears To Dry” (Hickory 45-P-1412) in March 1966. The following February, “Beating of My Lonely Heart” (Hickory 45-P-1396) appeared. This track caught the attention of the UK northern soul scene in the mid-1980s. DJ, collector, promoter and record dealer Dave Thorley is the first individual associated with breaking this record on the UK soul scene at Stafford Top of the World all-nighters. It also went on to become a popular record at a number of Scottish venues.
Clifford Curry reported on the Brown Eyed Handsome Man blog by Red Kelly that Hal Hardy moved to Knoxville with Sir Lattimore Brown soon after cutting the Hollywood 45, and pretty much took up permanent residence there. In later years Hardy appeared in a local blues review there for several summers. Robert Dixon’s concern was always for providing for his family and children. He gained a reputation as an entrepreneur, driving and running his own passenger taxi cab business as a sub-contractor at Harlem Cab Company located in south Nashville. Boxing continued to feature in his life; Dixon helped to build the amateur boxing circuit in Nashville, trained with Sugar Ray Leonard, and worked with young boxers and the Tennessee Metro Sherriff Department. As his 2002 obituary states, Coach Dixon believed that helping young people to achieve through sport was key to building positive individual character and a way to help unite the community. Paul Hendricks passed away August 2016.
Copyright E. Mark Windle (2017, 2018). Modified chapter excerpt from "House of Broken Hearts: The Soul of 1960s Nashville" available to order in the new book section.