Harvey Fuqua’s Moonglows cut some of the most immaculate doo-wop of the 1950s (Sincerely, Ten Commandments Of Love) for Chess Records. He helped connect Etta James with Chess, introduced Marvin Gaye to Motown, and with Gwen Gordy headed the Harvey and Tri-Phi labels in Detroit during the early ‘60s. Fuqua hired on as a Motown producer when Gwen’s brother Berry bought his labels up.
Fuqua hailed from Louisville, Kentucky, and in 1963 found time to assemble an instrumental outfit there with tenor saxist Tony Churchill called The Nite-Liters that included guitarist Charlie Hearndon, keyboardist James Baker, bassist Leroy Taylor, drummer Robin Russell, trumpeter Robert ‘Lurch’ Jackson, and baritone saxist Austin Lander. In 1969, Motown staffer Vernon Bullock conceptualized a touring company of groups and successfully pitched the idea to Fuqua. He brought in a male quartet, The Now Sound, the female foursome Mint Julep, and singer Alan Frey to sing with The Nite-Liters, billing the whole shebang as The New Birth.
They signed to RCA and both acts turned up on the R&B charts in 1971, The Nite-Liters with their instrumental K-Jee and The New Birth with a revival of Perry Como’s It’s Impossible . But Bullock wasn’t satisfied. Coming across the Detroit vocal trio Love, Peace and Happiness (ex-Marvelette Ann Bogan and gospel-trained brothers Leslie and Melvin Wilson, a duo originally from Muskegon, Michigan), he took Frey, Downes, and Loren from the old lineup and teamed them with the new threesome and The Nite-Liters. Here was a 15-piece New Birth designed to excel.
Both sides of a Nite-Liters single (Afro-Strut b/w [We’ve Got To] Pull Together) charted in ‘72, while The New Birth pulled R&B airplay on Umh Song. But it was 1973 when The New Birth came into their own. Bobby Womack wrote I Can Understand It as the lead track on his ’72 United Artists LP ‘Understanding’ but UA didn’t issue it as a single, leaving the door wide open for The New Birth to snag a funky #4 R&B/#35 pop seller for RCA during the spring of ’73 (Leslie Wilson expertly channeled Womack’s vocal approach). ‘Birth Day,’ the album it hailed from, also contained New Birth’s Fuqua-arranged followup hit, a luxurious revival of Buffy St. Marie’s Until It’s Time For You To Go (L.A. singer Susaye Greene guested as lead vocalist).
The group-generated It’s Been A Long Time and a cover of Skylark’s Wildflower did well for The New Birth in ’74. They did even better after splitting from Fuqua and signing with Buddah; a remake of Jerry Butler’s sumptuous ballad Dream Merchant, produced by Baker and Melvin Wilson, paced the R&B hit parade in 1975. Melvin and Leslie left the group in ’77, but there were stops at Warner Bros. and Ariola before The New Birth disappeared from the charts in the early ‘80s. Baker died in 1993, but the Wilsons have revived the brand in recent years.
- Bill Dahl -
Various - Sweet Soul Music 23 Scorching Classics From 1973