Saturday, November 29, 2008

Return of The Masqueraders

There was another request to repost Jim C's Masqueraders story. This is the third time which ties the Masqueraders with Art In The Dark and The Method Actors as our most requested posts.

Here it is again:
My friend Jim Cavender made me a CD of a band called the Masqueraders. I think it's great and was going to write something up about the band. I asked Jim about the band and realized that he should write something instead. So here's something from our first guest blogger. Here's Jim, who is welcome to post anytime he wants to:

I first discovered the Masqueraders in 1979. I was 17, and my mom had remarried, so we'd moved in with the stepfamily. Their attic was full of the usual stuff, including a shelf of 45s, many of which had already melted from the annual oppressive summer heat. Among the survivors was one with a red and black AGP label, "I'm Just An Average Guy"/"I Ain't Gonna Stop" by the Masqueraders, whom I'd never heard of, but since the fine print said it was produced by Tommy Cogbill, who I knew to be the bassist on Elvis's '69 Memphis sessions, I figured it'd be worth a listen (I have no idea who'd bought that 45 in the first place, or why; my stepsisters were far too young and musically uninclined to be interested in an obscure soul group, and my stepfather had no interest in music at all). One listen and I knew I'd hit the jackpot. Their harmony was tight, assertive and richly textured, as if everyone in the group could be an outstanding lead singer. The actual lead vocalist had an explosive presence, like the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs, but with southern flavor. The A-side was a deep soul ballad that gave the lead singer plenty of room to testify, and the flip was a hip dance number with a streamlined groove that showed off those tight harmonies. I loved it, and it soon found a place on a compilation cassette that I played in my car so often my friends probably still have it memorized.

Flash forward to 1990, and my wife and I were making a weekend ritual of hitting an open-air flea market in a huge parking lot near our apartment. I came across a bunch of 45s melting in the hot sun, and bought the whole box just to rescue all that precious vinyl, much of which perished anyway. One of the more resilient pieces had a blue and silver Bell label, "I Ain't Got To Love Nobody Else"/"I Got It" by The Masqueraders. I'd loved my earlier discovery, but figured it was a one-shot by a group that missed the brass ring and never got a second chance, yet here they were again. The A-side is probably my favorite southern soul side ever. Their harmony sounds like commitment -- to the song, and to each other, like they'll be singing together as long as they live. The B-side is another dance number, this time distinguished by an odd arrangement that really shows off the American Sound rhythm section. So now I'm hooked: who are these guys (and what an appropriate name for such men of mystery)?

Once we got a decent Mac and the internet became all-pervasive, I started occasionally looking for clues. Several years ago, both of my previous finds surfaced on a comp CD called Lifestyles Of The Slow & Low, aimed at fans of low rider soul. A soul fan in Israel posted RealAudio renderings of some of their other sides, and provided some impressive biographical detail. And then, while searching (the British version has lots of stuff won't list), I found a Masqueraders comp called Unmasked. The good news was that it had a lot of great stuff on it; the bad news was that some of it was mastered horribly, and my scratchy 45s and those midrangy RealAudio renderings actually sound better than some of those CD tracks.

Besides those earlier discoveries, I particularly like "I Don't Want Nobody To Lead Me On", "Poor Boy's Dream", the Bacharach-ish waltz (!) "Tell Me You Love Me" and especially "This Heart Is Haunted" (originally credited to Lee Jones & The Sounds Of Soul, and issued on Bell's Amy subsidiary), but really, these guys could do no wrong. They don't sound as rustic as, say, Otis Redding, but they're every bit as soulful. In the same way that Elvis sounded southern but never sounded like a country singer, these guys sound southern, yet urban, with a delivery as polished as their Detroit and Philly counterparts and a passion as pronounced as Otis, Wilson Pickett and all the rest. They were also fantastic songwriters who steered clear of stock musical underpinnings, which means their stuff still sounds amazingly fresh today. Until recently, they actually had a website, and it showed photos of recent gigs they'd played in Memphis (even though some of them live in Memphis and others in Dallas, which means they go to a lot of trouble to keep performing together -- again, commitment). How they never hit with crossover success is still a mystery, but at least now we get to listen to these sides without any of those annoying associations with Big Chill soundtracks and saturation airplay on goodtime oldies stations. Enjoy.


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