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The TSU Toronados - E. Mark Windle

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Marking the passing of Ovide label owner Skipper Lee Frazier, I've taken the liberty of reprinting an excerpt from my second book of one of the label's most talented groups (no, not Archie and his boys): The TSU Toronadoes (a.k.a. Toronados) from Houston, Texas:

They were really were a band behind a band. Ironically whilst very under-recognised outside of rare soul circles, they were responsible for one of the most instantly recognisable 1960s soul dance classics “Tighten Up”. Archie Bell and the Drells may have been credited for this track; indeed vocals were provided by Archie. In reality it was the TSU Toronadoes who provided the instrumentation, gave the track its character using the unique phrasing of an infectious bass guitar riff and horn section – and even provided lead vocals. The boys have also given the northern soul scene a number of very collectable rarities on Ovide, Atlantic and Volt.

Founding members were Dwight Burns (drums), Clarence “Creeper” Harper (trumpet) and Robert “Crush” Sanders (organ), and Robert “Al” Leroy Lewis Jr. (vocals, saxophone) who shared the same dormitory at Texas Southern University (TSU), Houston in 1965. After some initial low key performances further members were recruited the following year in preparation for a talent show at the university campus. Thus Cal Thomas (guitar, vocals), Nelson Mills (horns) and also James Doss (trumpet, who left the band before their recording career commenced) were added to the line up. Peter Newman (bass) was another addition; not a TSU student but a neighbour of Cal Thomas. Other later members included Ted Taylor (lead vocal), Tanny Busby (bass, keyboards), and Jerry Jenkins (bass). The band’s title was derived in part from the university and from a popular GM sports car of that period. Clarence, Nelson and Al were all academic majors in music, and Al was nominated as band leader.

The TSU Toronadoes quickly gained popularity, playing gambling clubs in Las Vegas in the summer of 1966 and managing to secure backing work for the likes of Etta James and Marva Whitney. On their return to Houston they continued to pick up work via Chicago based touring acts including Jackie Wilson, Tyrone Davis and Marshall and the Chi-lites. The TSU Toronadoes’ signature tune they played at many of their gigs was a tight uptempo instrumental driven along by very prominent drums, heavy bass work and a two chord rhythmic approach. This was to be the precursor to “Tighten Up” a couple of years later.

Inevitably, the TSU Toronadoes came to the attention of Skipper Lee Frazier. A DJ on local stations KYOK and KCOH and a big name TV host on Houston Channel 2’s “Hip Skipper”, he also had an interest in managing acts and recording. The Texas black music scene at the time was mainly focused around blues output from the likes of Bobby Bland, O.V. Wright and Junior Parker on Don Robey’s Duke / Peacock / Backbeat imprints, or Huey ‘Crazy Cajun’ Meaux product such as Barbara Lynn. Skipper Lee supplemented his DJ career with his own Ovide label, which ultimately ran into the 1970s and produced a catalogue of around forty records.

Between Archie Bell and the Drells and the TSU Toronadoes, the two acts dominated more than half of the first dozen releases. Archie Bell had formed his vocal group the Drells in 1966 whilst at E.O. Smith Junior High. The Toronadoes had the second – and rarest - record on the label. “A Thousand Wonders” (Ovide 223), an uptempo uplifting soul dancer written by Cal Thomas and lead vocals provided by Ted Taylor, is one the most in-demand sounds for rare soul collectors from Europe and the UK in recent times.

For Ovide 228, Frazier brought both acts into the studio to record “Tighten up”. It is clear that Frazier wanted the musicians to capture the energy they provided with their instrumental theme which he had them play when they lifted the roof at the Cinder Club. Yet, whilst the studio version creates an atmosphere of a jam session given its spontaneous energy and apparent ad lib pseudo-lyric approach of Archie Bell, in reality more than twenty-five takes were required and recording continued well into the early morning before all were satisfied.

“Tighten Up” was presented as a flip side to “Dog Eat Dog” - and the 45 credited solely to Archie Bell and the Drells. However Frazier’s DJ colleague Gladys Hill at KCOH started giving “Tighten Up” airplay and the 45 instantly became a big seller. More than 80,000 copies were sold in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Frazier had his eye on even wider geographical distribution: as a favour Heuy Meaux took the recording to Atlantic A&R man Jerry Wexler.

The song was released on Atlantic 45-2478, again credited only to Archie Bell and the Drells, and with writers listed as Billy Buttier and Archie Bell. The TSU Toronadoes resented the fact that their contribution was not acknowledged, but at the time didn’t challenge their status. The record went on to sell 200,000 copies.

Just before Archie Bell was drafted for military service in Germany, Atlantic wanted the Drells to record an album. In an interview by Amelia Feathers for Blues Music Now, even Bell himself admitted that the Drells didn’t have enough material for an album. Tracks for the album “Tighten Up” (Atlantic SC 8181) were cobbled together over the next few months, in between stationing. A number of standard soul covers were employed. The TSU Toronadoes provided the instrumentation for all tracks on the LP except one. Tracks were: “Tighten Up (Parts 1 and 2)”, I Don’t Wanna Be a Playboy”, “You’re Mine”, “Knock On Wood”, “Give Me Time”, “In the Midnight Hour”, “When you Left Heartache Began”, “A Soldier’s Prayer” and “A Thousand Wonders”.

The versions of “A Thousand Wonders” differ on the LP, Spanish EP and the Ovide 45. Perhaps the most notable difference is the presence of female backing vocals and a slightly slower mix on the Ovide version. Contrary to previous assumption, Ted Taylor and not Cal Thomas provided lead vocals.

The LP was released 18 May 1968. Soon after this Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff showed an interest, and took Archie Bell and the Drells off to pastures new, initially with some further Atlantic 45s and then of course onto Philadelphia International Records.

The TSU Toronadoes were always the underdog on paper. However, following the original interest and Atlantic executive knowledge of who was behind “Tighten Up”, they did end up with an Atlantic outing in their own right called “Getting The Corners”, backed with “What Good Am I” (Atlantic 45-2579). This was also released as Ovide 233. “Getting The Corners” reached #37 in 1968. The following year saw the release of a second 45: “Got to Get Through to You” (Atlantic 45-2614).

Back at Ovide, the Toronadoes were behind several releases by other artists on the label and had another four 45 releases of their own including “My Thing is a Moving Thing” backed with “I Still Love You” (Ovide 243), which also appeared on Volt 4030 the same year. Both tracks were written by Al Lewis. Skipper Lee also shopped some of the Ovide tracks around and Stax picked some up for their Volt subsidiary: “My Thing Is A Moving Thing / I Still Love You (Volt 4030) and “Play The Music Tornadoes / One Flight Too Many” (Volt 4038). The last recording for Skipper Lee’s label, “Only Inside” (Ovide 250) in 1971 was characterised by an unusual stop-start phrasing. The flip “Nothing Can Stop Me” was an up-tempo take on Gene Chandler’s Chicago northern soul classic outing on Constellation.

The final release as the TSU Toronadoes was “Please Heart, Don’t Break” (Rampart Street RSRS-0644) again in 1971, after Ovide folded. At this point the original recording band had already parted partly over continued ill-feeling regarding “Tighten Up”, management issues with Skipper and also personnel politics. “Please Heart, Don’t Break” was recorded in Houston, but was quickly withdrawn due to licensing problems with Skipper Lee’s publishing company.

Al recounts: “When the group split, Cal and Dwight maintained the TSU's. I started my own group, Allison and South Funk Blvd. We travelled extensively with Joe Tex until he retired and when he came out of retirement we united with him again.  He took South Funk Blvd. and I accepted my call into the ministry.  My wife and I have been recording artists for thirty years and I have recorded fourteen CDs and produced other gospel artists. My wife and I perform as "Al and Pashion Lewis (The Love Couple)”. All of the TSUs still play in bands around Houston. Most do it as a side line these days, though Nelson Mills writes, arranges and plays with various groups full time.”

An excerpt from Rhythm Message by E. Mark Windle. Available in the new book section. 

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  • Tish on

    Hi Mark. I’m trying to contact Don Reynolds. Don and I went to San Jacinto High School he took me many times to see the TSU Toronados play. I lost contact with Donald. I heard he played drums for a while with the TSU’s. Would love some feedback. Thanks Tish

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