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“Any freakin’ thing is possible…”

(YouTube playlist below)

In his comments after I posted episode one, Peter Nickols went on to say: “…surely Al Gardner’s ‘Just The Touch Of Your Hand’ is also superb… Don demoed that too. I know you feature the Gardner side in your audio samples but I think it’s worth a text mention – just my opinion.” Hmmm… I thought about that a while, then I remembered why I had decided not to ‘text mention it’ in the first place.

Sir-Rah 504

Although I totally agree with Peter’s assessment that Just A Touch Of Your Hand is a superb record, with Reggie Young’s guitar all over it, there is no mention of Willie Mitchell on the label… as a matter of fact, the label says ‘Supervised by Jack Ashford’… Huh? Like Motown Tambourine playing Funk Brother Jack Ashford? This obviously would place this as a Detroit production and, although it had been included on the Northern Souljers CD as being cut with Willie in Memphis, I figured I’d have trouble connecting those dots, and so I left it alone.

As Nickols mentioned, Don Bryant had also cut a demo version of Just A Touch Of Your Hand – a version so good it was released as a 45 (backed with Don’s equally awesome demo of Cloudy Days mentioned earlier) on Garry Cape’s Hit and Run label just last year. Unhindered by the syrupy strings and Motor City echo chamber of the Ashford supervised release, Don delivers the goods over what appears to be the same backing track. Wow! Bryant’s resurgence as one of the greatest living Soul singers still out there doing it has earned him a Grammy nomination for his excellent 2020 album You Make Me Feel. With The Grammys less than a week away, my friend (and producer of that record) Scott Bomar still took time out to ask Don if he could recall any details about how it is he cut this demo of somebody else’s song at Hi: “Unfortunately he didn’t recall any details about how the song came to him,” Scott said,  “…Willie was handling everything.”

Hmmm… maybe the names of the songwriters might offer us a clue? I had no idea who ‘H. Leeper’ might be, until Nickols put me on her trail: “…that’s a fairly unusual name and I think it is probably the influential North Carolina DJ known locally in Charlotte as Chatty Hattie Leeper. Like Martha Jean the Queen, Hattie was one of the first female R&B disk jockeys in the South, with a loyal following over 16,000 watt WGIV in Charlotte. It was through her position as secretary of the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers, however, that she also maintained close contacts with most of the major players in the mid-sixties Soul scene… more on that in a minute.

SS7 2653
SS7 2629

The other songwriter listed on the label was Allen Orange. The subject of our exhaustive Soul Detective Case Five (the case which would lead to our re-discovery of Sir Lattimore Brown), it didn’t seem possible that I hadn’t come across Hattie’s name before. Sound Stage 7 had released Paul Vann’s cover of the song as The Touch Of Your Hand (Means So Much) in February of 1970, with Orange listed as the sole composer. This is the version that we featured on the site back in 2007. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that SS7 had also issued it as Just The Touch Of Your Hand the year before, where ‘Hatty’ had also been given credit on the label. I still can’t decide if they are both the same recordings…

Bob Wilson 1966

In 1967, Orange was already working with John R at Sound Stage 7 alongside Bob Wilson in Nashville. How was it that this song had been recorded in Memphis via Detroit (and North Carolina) a full two years before the SS7 versions? Wilson had started out in Motor City with Ed Wingate at Golden World/Ric Tic before hiring on in Music City with Richbourg at Monument/SS7. It was through the aforementioned Case Five that I got to meet and hang out with him and do some amazing things (like cutting Sir Lattimore with him at Royal Studio in Memphis in 2008). Although we hadn’t spoken for a while, I figured I’d ask him: “I am on the Paul Vann cut, and have label credit as arranger, with Terry Burnside (Cincinnatti, white fellow, King Records background)… when we were with Willie, I don’t recall if I spoke of my background in Detroit, at Ric Tic, or not. I know he was very aware of my Sound Stage 7/Joe Simon/John R connection, but, don’t recall discussing Detroit. I never heard Willie Mitchell’s name spoken in Detroit, but, as you know, any freakin’ thing is possible…” It sure is.

There’s A Place In My Heart is another Allen Orange/Hattie Leeper song that was produced by Willie Mitchell at those sessions in Memphis in July of 1967 on a vocal group called The Appreciations. It appears once again that the same backing track was used as on the Don Bryant demo. In Mark Windle’s book It’s Better To Cry, there is an in-depth portrait of The Appreciations based on extensive interviews with several members of the group. They first got together as students at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina where they came to the attention of Chatty Hattie, who would become their manager and biggest advocate. After arranging a session with Jerry Wexler in New York for Atlantic that somehow ended up on Jubilee, Leeper set her sights on Detroit.

According to Windle: “Their next recording was I Can’t Hide It / No, No, No (Aware 1066). Hattie set up Aware for this sole release. The tracks were recorded in 1966 at the Golden World / Ric Tic Records Studios in Detroit. The group liked the Motown sound and wanted to be part of it. Willie Mitchell (band leader, producer, wind and keyboard player) coached and arranged the session and, according to Charles, played baritone sax. Mitchell is perhaps more associated with Memphis than Detroit. In reality however he wrote, produced, arranged and recorded a number of tracks for Lee Rogers, Buddy Lamp and others  on Detroit labels such as Wheelsville, Premium Stuff and D-Town, either from his Memphis base or in Detroit itself. ” Whoah… wait a minute – this is the first I’ve heard about Willie actually recording in Detroit! Windle goes on to explain “…the lead singer was adamant it was Willie. I questioned him two or three times to double check, as obviously I knew this would be an issue.” The baritone sax solo certainly sounds like Motown stalwart Mike Terry, but when asked years later, Terry said it wasn’t him. I suppose, if Willie actually was there at Golden World, his late great brother James, who was a killer baritone man in his own right, would probably have been there as well… like Wilson said “…any freakin’ thing is possible.” We may never know for sure, but that would certainly explain his connection with Hattie Leeper.

But what about our hypothesis last time out that it was another disk jockey, Detroit’s Ernie Durham, that cut those Sport and Sir-Rah tracks with Willie in Memphis? Perhaps the key to understanding all this lies in Stuart Cosgrove’s excellent Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul where he writes: “By 1967 Frantic Eddie Durham’s power was in decline and the old R&B radio station era he had come to personify was hanging on for dear life… the radio personalities that had inspired Gordy as a teenagerwere losing their grip on power.” Although it may not have seemed like it, Motown had begun to lose its grip as well, despite purchasing the Golden World studios shortly after the Aware sessions outlined above. Mickey Stevenson had abruptly left the company in early 1967, and people began to get the message that all was not well in Hitsville U.S.A.

Sensing that vulnerability, a Detroit big shot named Andrew Harris started up his own trio of labels (Boss, Sport and Sir-Rah), hiring some of the biggest names in Detroit in the process, like Andre Williams, Shelley Haims and the aforementioned Jack Ashford. According to Ady Croasdell’s liner notes to the Kent CD Pied Piper Finale, “Harris is remembered by Ashford as a wealthy older guy who wanted to get involved in records, and by Jay Johnson of The Four Sonics as a red-haired white guy who was reputed to have earned his fortune through gambling. Ashford’s initial meeting with him was notable for being the first time he had seen a $500 bill when Harris peeled one from a wad to cover expenses…” It’s certainly not much of a stretch to think that he might have peeled a few of those off and sent them in Frantic Ernie’s direction to cover those sessions in Memphis… “…any freakin’ thing is possible.

Hmmm… but what about Allen Orange’s collaboration with Hattie Leeper? Initially I thought that perhaps Orange had accompanied John R and Joe Simon to Royal Studio in March (more on those sessions soon), and somehow made the connection there. Then I remembered what Aaron Varnell had told Bob Wilson and I when we met with him in Nashville during our Case Five investigation all those years ago – that Allen had gone to live with relatives in North Carolina. It was Garry Cape who then told us he had met with Allen at an assisted living facility in Nashville in 2004, but the next time he tried to contact him they said he had moved out to be with relatives, and they were not at liberty to tell him where that was. All of that led to our discovery of this Death Notice in The Charlotte Observer from 2006, that would be Charlotte, North Carolina, Ms. Leeper’s home town. Although at this point it’s ‘purely conjecture’, I can’t help but think they had known each other ‘back in the day’ and had written these songs together way before any of this happened.

I’m attempting to reach Orange’s son, DeMarcus, who had contacted us during our initial investigation, to ask him about all this… stay tuned!

“Any Freakin’ Thing Is Possible…”

UPDATE: I went out and bought us a copy of Chatty Hatty The Legend, the autobiography, in hopes of shedding some light on all of this. Although she mentions her Chatlee publishing company, she doesn’t seem to talk much about her songwriting. In her chapter on managing The Appreciations, neither of the songs in question are listed. She does go on to say “I must mention these good associates as we had record deals and were in constant communication in the business,” then goes on to list thirty one names in no apparent order, other than her own estimation of their significance, I suppose. Our man Allen Orange is the second name on the list (although his location is given as Nashville, which makes sense). The only person mentioned in Detroit is Berry Gordy, and the only one from Memphis is Leroy Little. Not much help in this case, I’m afraid, but still fascinating to see the names of all these movers & shakers in the industry, from Jerry Wexler and Florence Greenberg to Marshall Sehorn and Hy Weiss. As Hatty says herself, “I was BIG!”

Special thanks to Don Bryant, Scott Bomar, Bob Wilson, Mark Windle, Garry Cape, Peter Nickols and Mark Nicholson, without whom this post would not have been possible.

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