BARBARA STANT / SHIPTOWN RECORDS
Barbara Stant got into the recording business at the end of the 1960’s after she dropped in on the offices of Shiptown Records in Norfolk, Virginia. Just about anyone with talent was welcome to call by at Shiptown Records, which was based out of the Nimrod Record Store at 726 Church Street. The owner, Noah Biggs, was a man with good business acumen and a sharp sense of fashion. He encouraged all talented entertainers and signed numerous singers / musicians / groups (both black & white) to his booking agency, however a fair proportion of them would never manage to gain a release on his labels. His label’s base, Church Street was the hub of the black entertainment district in the city and was where the ‘Norfolk Sound’ first developed back in the mid to late 50’s.
Norfolk has a long & distinguished history, being a strategic military and transportation centre that is the cultural heart of the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. The city developed around its waterfront where naval bases, shipyards, docks, warehouses and railroad yards grew up. With all the military personnel based locally, there were always hordes of people looking to a have a good time and so a thriving entertainment scene had grown up by the 1950’s. Church Street, being situated just inland from the Elizabeth River waterfront was ideally located and it became the street where blacks in particular headed to enjoy themselves. American comedian, Tim Reed, spent many of his formative years living in or around Church Street. He remembers it as a bustling narrow thoroughfare lined with wooden framed three storey buildings. Life’s lessons were learnt as much on the street there as in school, but the strong racial divide that still existed then wasn’t always obvious to local youngsters. By the mid fifties, a street gang by the name of the Corner Boys stalked the junctions of the area. At night, lots of drunken sailors would stagger down the street and members of the Corner Boys took great delight in relieving them of their wallets or engaging in other acts of petty theft. Teenage boys were expected to join the gang and it was all too easy for them to slip into a life of crime, only the church or school was there to lift them above the fray. As time progressed, the character of the street changed, as the buildings on one side of the road were demolished to allow the highway to be widened. Though this started to change the local ambiance, Church Street was still a place where guys in zoot suits helped run bars and clubs full of revelers intent on eating, drinking, singing and dancing.
The section of Church Street between Brambleton Avenue and Princess Anne Road was where most of the clubs, bars, restaurants and seedy boarding houses (plus some churches) were to be found. The focal point of this exciting district was Attucks Theatre (known locally as the Apollo of the south). Built in 1919, this impressive building hosted shows by the likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ruth Brown, the Flamingoes and Clyde McPhatter. Sadly it started to fall into decline in the 1950’s before ceasing to function as a theatre altogether. Luckily, after many years in disrepair, it was saved, renovated and reopened in 2004. However, the Attucks is just about the only building on Church Street in the 1960’s that is still standing. Just to the north of the Attucks (which is located on the corner of Virginia Beach Boulevard) was the church where cult preacher Daddy ‘G’ Grace held court. His House of Prayer congregation dispensed a fervent gospel soundtrack to ward off the Devil’s music escaping from rowdy bars such as the Congo Lounge, Jamaican Room, Queens Lounge and Mark IV Lounge. The ‘Norfolk Sound’ was born following Bronx born Frank Guida’s relocation to Norfolk. Initially he ran a record shop (Frankie’s Birdland) on Church Street but by 1958 he had also opened a recording studio and hired a house band which included Gene Barge on sax. The first success this outfit enjoyed was with an instrumental “A Night With Daddy G” credited to the Church Street Five. The tune basically formed the template for his 1960 Legrand label smash hit ”Quarter To Three” by Gary US Bonds. The Church Street Five would play live gigs all around the Tidewater area and a young Bill Deal would travel from his home in Portsmouth (across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk) to the Ebb Tide Club in Ocean View to catch the group’s show. Inspired by what he heard, along with many other young men he would frequent the Church Street record stores to buy new R&B 45’s. From there, he learnt to play the organ and with some friends formed Bill Deal & the Rhondells.
With hit sounds now being recorded locally, a rival record shop made good business sense. Noah Biggs already had music industry connections, in the late 1950’s he managed local group the Humdingers. This group was led by ‘General’ Norman Johnson. Mr. Biggs organized a recording session for the group and then sent their demo tape to Joe Banashak in New Orleans. Joe liked what he heard and so signed the group to a deal with Minit Records, changing their name to the Showmen at the same time. In 1961 and 1964 the group enjoyed great success (with “It Will Stand”) and so it was a logical move when Noah Biggs opened Nimrod Record Store at 726 Church Street. The store soon became a focal point for local youngsters interested in music. Shortly afterwards, he started a booking agency that was also based out of the shop. The Showmen may have moved on (label-wise), but this didn’t curb Noah’s talent scouting activities. After Joe Webster and the Anglos made their mark locally, they headed off to New Jersey to record “Incense” which following an initial release on the Orbit label went on to gain national & international distribution. The track would be quite influential as it became a massive sound on the British mod scene of the mid 1960’s.
Many of the guys on the Norfolk soul scene collaborated at times. So the likes of Lenis Guess and Jerry Williams worked with Frank Guida and later also with Noah Biggs. In fact, Jerry's brother, Wilson Williams, sang vocals on cuts recorded by the Positive Sounds (“Almost Blew My Mind” + “You’re The One I Need”) and later recorded for Noah's How Big label. The Positive Sounds were an ex jazz group that hooked up with Noah Biggs in 1963, not too long after he had opened his record shop. Noah soon set up a basic studio in the back of the shop (remembered fondly as “that little storefront studio”). Here, the Positive Sounds would back up other artists signed by Noah. A regular in Nimrod Records (in the bible, Nimrod was Noah's son!) was James Gregory. He was interested in a 4 strong girl group who had started out singing background vocals on recording sessions for Frank Guida.
In 1964 this group, the Dream Team (managed by Noah Biggs & Mr Gregory), cut the song "Beg Me" for Epic in New York. However, the song became a hit for Chuck Jackson (on Wand) and it is unsure if the original by the Dream Team was actually ever released. The girls did however manage to get a 45 release in 1967, this being on the Gregory label ("I'm Not Satisfied"). This song was cut (with the Positive Sounds) in Nimrod Studio under the supervision of Norman Johnson & Joe Weaver (of the Anglos). The Anglos themselves were to record for Shiptown in 1967. Another local record store and label owner was Leroy Little. He had the Waxy Maxy Record Store on 35th Street and ran the Tri-It & Tri-Us labels. He was Wilson Williams’ first manager and Wilson would end up on his Tri-Us label in the mid 70’s. “Losing You”, a Tri-Us outing for Wilson, being produced by Lenis Guess (whose recording studio was also located on 35th Street)."¨"¨Shiptown releases are extremely hard to track down because most had very limited pressing runs (sometimes 200 or less) and the majority of copies never made it any further than the shelves of Nimrod Record Store. Here, the staff would push each release & with plays on local radio shows, most would be sold to locals or servicemen based in the area. Noah really only pressed up enough copies of each 45 to generate interest from a larger label (in either signing his artist or in using the actual song on one of their acts). After Noah found ‘Little” Ida Randall, Norman Johnson took her up to Cameo Parkway’s studio in Philadelphia to cut his song “Lets Get Married” (sometime around late 1964). Noah decided to release the song on his own record label, under the name of Ida Sands. With Norfolk’s strong maritime connections, he named his new label Shiptown Records. In summer 1965, Little Ida (Ida Sands) & Little Daddy (Joe Webster of the Anglos) were teamed up in Virtue Recording studio (1618 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia) to record under the supervision of Jerry Williams. Shiptown’s connections with Philadelphia were to be continued, the strings on some of their later cuts being handled there by the likes of Leon Huff. "¨"¨The 1st 45 on Shiptown to make any waves was Ida Sands "Rescue Me"; this being licensed to Chief Records in New York. Other 45's came thick & fast; the Idets "Look My Way / Doggie In The Window" also in 1967, plus the Anglos "Since You've Been Gone / Small Town Boy" (again in 1967) which were picked up by Scepter for national distribution. Flip Flop Stevens "Let's Do That Thing Part 1 / Part 2" followed in 68 with the Soul Duo's (Ida & Joe Webster) "This Is Your Day / Are You Lonely For Me Baby" following in 69 (this was licensed by Jubilee Records & released in mid 69 as Josie #1007). The same pairing's "Can't Nobody Love Me / Just A Sad Xmas" came out a little later. Noah started a second label in 1969, the How Big label being named after his son Howard Biggs. The first 45 release on his new label featured Ida Sands (Noah’s wife and Howard’s mother) on “Start All Over Again”. Anothr How Big 45 was "Too Many Skeletons in my cupboard" by Nat Fross (How Big 202936). Noah realized that, with Shiptown 45’s limited pressing runs, he had to get some exposure for his releases to stand any chance of them making any impact. So he cultivated radio DJ’s on black stations within easy reach of Norfolk. Thus, not only would he make certain that copies of his label’s 45’s were sent to these guys, but he would ensure his artists dropped in on them to plug their wares.
The prominent radio stations in Norfolk itself were WGH, WRAP & WHIH and so Shiptown’s artists would visit the likes of DJ Jack Holmes (WRAP), Scotty Andrews (WHIH) and Gene Loving (WGH) for on air chats and these guys soon became close friends. Some farther flung stations were also supportive, DJ Hot Dog at WOOK in Washington being one of these. When Ida Sands’ “Start All Over Again” was released in late summer 1969, as well as getting good exposure on the above stations, the likes of Maurice 'Hot Rod' Hulbert (WWIN, Baltimore), Bob Hatten (WEHW, Hartford), John Lee (WAUG, Augusta) Lannie Kaye (WYNN, Florence) and Charles Johnson (WCEC, Rocky Mount) also got behind it. With the prospect of a first hit for one of his labels, Noah gave the track every change of breaking out nationally by placing an ad in Billboard magazine. This was quite a bold move for a label that hadn’t even attempted to secure a national distribution deal for their sought after record (perhaps Noah had been ‘short changed’ in earlier licensing deals). It would be Noah’s insistence on going it alone, and not seeking bigger label’s help with reliable distribution, that would hold back greater commercial success for his releases / artists.
Nimrod Studio was quite a basic place. It started out with just rudimentary 4 track equipment but was then upgraded to an 8 track. By the early 1970’s it was only really used for rehearsal purposes and to make in—house demos. Just about all the tracks cut there were done live, the singer/s and backing band all laying down their efforts at the same time. Nevertheless, Noah and his set-up soon become well known around the Norfolk area. His policy of giving local talent a chance brought many aspiring singers to his door. Barbara Holmes was born in Petersburg, Virginia (1947), but her parents moved back to Norfolk when she was an infant. She started singing in her church choir when around 10 / 11 years old. About a year later, she was asked to join a gospel group (6/7 strong) made up of pre-teens from the same church. Although they sounded good, there was a certain spark missing and wanting to improve, the girls were always trying to find the ‘missing piece’. One night, they were down to perform on a program with other groups and decided to watch their rivals. One of the other groups consisted of a bunch of adults with one young lady. This ‘youngster’ both played the piano & sang. Knocked out by her abilities, they made it their mission to get her to join up with them. This young ladies name was Maddie (better known now as Debbie Taylor) and luckily they succeeded in getting her to join their group. The girls were soon very close friends and they have remained so ever since.
Norfolk had a thriving gospel music scene back then and other acquaintances also followed a similar career path. Both Debbie Taylor and Wilson Williams had sung in the group, Gospel Union. Shirley Johnson went from gospel singing to signing with Shiptown before she eventually moved to Chicago where she has established a successful career singing the blues. Anyway, time past and after Barbara Holmes finished high school, she took a job in a theatre on Church Street. About a year later (1967), Debbie Taylor (who cut demo’s for Shiptown and then went on to record for the likes of GWP and Arista) told Barbara about Shiptown Records. Intrigued, the girls went to see Mr. Biggs to determine if they could get themselves a shot at fame. Luckily the day Debbie and Barbara turned up at Shiptown, Noah was in his office and he asked them why they had come to see him. Barbara spoke up, saying that she had come down to sing and so she was asked to perform a song. Not one to pass up a chance, Barbara sang an Aretha Franklin number, perhaps not the easiest choice a young singer could make. However before she had even finished the song, Noah hired her and asked if she was ready to work. The next thing she knew, she was under contract and singing with the Idets on backing vocals for several other artists. Noah was really impressed with Barbara and soon decided that her vocal talent was not being fully realized in a group setting. He decided that she should be developed as a solo artist and Ida came up with her stage name, Barbara Stant. So by 1971, in addition to her starting to record as a solo singer, Barbara had begun to perform live in her own right alongside her label mates.
In conjunction with the likes of the Showmen, Ida Sands, the Anglos, the Soul Duo, the Idets, Wilson Williams, Shirley Johnson, Nat Fross, Little Scotty and the Positive Sounds band she was soon learning her trade on numerous live shows. The Shiptown artists made a formidable team that easily rivaled any other local touring company and so their concert packages were always a popular draw. Noah didn’t just promote Shiptown artist packages; he also fetched many top live acts to the area for concerts. He promoted local shows, which were headlined by the likes of Al Green, the Supremes, the Stylistics, the Delfonics, James Brown, the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Isley Brothers. Of course, he ensured that some of his own artists would be the support acts at these concerts. These shows would be staged at venues such as the Norfolk Scope Arena (which opened in 1971), the Hampton Coliseum, Old Dominion University (ODU), Longshoreman’s Hall, the Monticello Hotel, the Golden Triangle and the Nansemond Hotel (Ocean View). Appearing on shows with such accomplished artists, it wasn’t suprising that the Shiptown acts swiftly became quite proficient and were soon sought after artists on the local soul scene. Barbara was one of those who learnt quickly and after a few sessions in the studio, she was soon delivering tracks that warranted release. Most of her recording work was undertaken in Norfolk but she would also travel to New York, Philadelphia and Maryland for some sessions. Her first 45 release coupled “That Man Of Mine” with “Shadow In Your Footsteps” both of which had been laid down in July 1972. “Shadows In Your Footsteps” is an uptempo item on which the backing band’s brass section plays a major role supporting Barbara’s strong vocal performance.
This 45 launched Barbara’s recording career and paved the way for a follow-up (also recorded at the same session); “My Mind Holds Onto Yesterday”. This song was written by Charles Hunter (the drummer in Positive Sounds) and Barbara herself and it was laid down at Track Studios in Silver Spring (a northern suburb of Washington DC). Produced by Charles Hunter in conjunction with Noah Biggs, it was initially released as a ‘normal’ Shiptown 45 (catalogue no. 203276). However a second version of this release is much more widely known and this features a completely remixed version of the track. From information detailed on the label of the second version of this 45, the remix appears to have been undertaken in New York with the additional strings being handled by Robert Banks. In summer 1972, the Positive Sounds (now managed by Ruth Brown) had been employed as the house band at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Whilst based in New York they hooked up with A Dish-A-Tunes Productions for whom they recorded “The Creeper” which was licensed for release on Chelsea Records in 1973. The main creative forces at Dish-A-Tunes were J R Bailey and Ken Williams and their team wrote songs recorded by the likes of the Superiors, Troy Keyes, the Spellbinders, Lenny Welch, Donny Hathaway, the Main Ingredient, Four Tops & Ace Spectrum. Around the same time that the Positive Sounds were cutting for A Dish-A-Tunes, group member Charles Hunter must have presented them with the original master tapes for Barbara’s two tracks. In no time a new version of “My Mind Holds Onto Yesterday” with Dish-A-Tunes name attached to it had been issued on Shiptown under catalogue no. 70822. Robert Bank’s efforts on the strings really give this outing a touch of class and sophistication that fully compliments Barbara’s great vocal performance. It would be hard to find a better example of pure Northern Soul than the second version of this tune.
Unfortunately Shiptown’s lack of an effective distribution network meant that this record remained just a Tidewater area favourite, until discovered by UK soul fans years later. It would be two years before another single featuring Barbara would hit the record shops. Recorded in the summer of 1974, the coupling of “Baby I Love You / I’m Going To Outfit You” formed it. “Outfit You” is again uptempo but with a more funky feel. The song was written by Noah Briggs and the track was arranged by Wilson Williams. The 45’s catalogue number would imply that it was actually Barbara’s first release, but Howard Biggs (& Barbara herself) assure me that it wasn’t (Shiptown’s numbering system has to be just about the most confusing ever devised). For her next release, Shiptown went outside their team of in-house and associated local writers. Sam Dees “Unsatisfied Woman” was selected and cut with Charles Hunter (in conjunction with Noah) again handling production and arranging duties. A reworking of “Shadow In Your Footsteps’ was teamed up with “Hung On” (another song on which Noah collaborated with Lenis Guess and Dorsey Brockington) to form yet another single. Though Barbara was the best served Shiptown artist (release wise), other artists still managed to secure releases on the label (white outfit Art Ensley & Fabulous Echoes cover of "Open The Door To Your Heart" being one of these).
By the mid 1970’s, the original shop premises had seen better days and with demolition threatened to allow road widening, Noah (now getting on in years) relocated across the road. He set up his new base at 707 Church Street and hired Martin Culpepper as his new studio engineer. Culpepper had worked on a couple of gospel 45’s that had been released on the Jobs label (which had ties with Leroy Little’s Tri-Us Records). This deal also brought the Grooms into the Shiptown (Jobs) family. For Barbara’s last release in 1977, Noah handed the reigns over to Lenis Guess. Cut at Guess studios, “(I Found Me A) Real Man” was part written, arranged and produced by Lenis. He remembers Barbara as being very pretty, a pleasure to work with and that she could sing like an angel. Test pressings of “(I Found Me A) Real Man” (c/w “You've Got To Try Again”) were made up at GRT Records and these were (mostly) retained by the engineering staff who worked in the label's studio. But the days of little independent labels securing national breakouts had come to an end. The record business was by now dominated by the big labels and disco sounds now monopolised the charts. The more soulful sounds that the Shiptown team was still turning out found themselves out of favour and securing sales became difficult. The label’s activities may have slowed anyway, but Noah Biggs death in 1978 signalled the end of the line for the organization. The office was closed almost immediately and all the label’s current acts were left high and dry. The local soul scene in general was struggling by then. None of Frank Guida’s roster was still enjoying hits, Jerry and Wilson Williams had moved on to progress their recording careers and even Lenis Guess was ready to up sticks and head out to New York. The ‘Norfolk Sound’ had run its course.
With Shiptown in disarray, Barbara took a break. After this, she teamed up with a jazz band and started to sing again on a few local live shows. But things just weren’t the same for her and so she went back to her roots in the church. Control of the label’s catalogue slipped away from the family and that could have been it for Shiptown. But record collectors started to unearth the label’s old 45’s and those that found favour were soon commanding high prices. Howard Biggs moved on in life and pursued his own career path but 25 years on, he discovered the unending interest in his father’s record label. Encouraged, he managed to get control of the label back after realising that it was still something worth owning. With many of the old Shiptown artists prepared to support Howard, he set about re-establishing the label. Deals have been done to get some of the old tracks re-released and this resulted in “Superman” by Raw Soul (also known as the 35th Street Gang) featuring Barbara on vocals being issued on 45 in the recent past. This track being another that was produced by Lenis Guess and he also wrote the song. Still singing in church, Barbara decided the time was now right to stage a come back. Plans were made for her to record again and the master tapes for previously unreleased tracks such as “What Goes Around’ & “Stay’’ have been unearthed.
Today, Church Street is a wide dual carriageway road that speeds high volumes of traffic past large warehouse type commercial buildings and newish public housing estates. It is totally unrecognisable as the street that was once the heart of Norfolk’s lively entertainment area. Thankfully Attucks Theatre has been brought back from the brink and now stands as a monument to what used to be. Interest from around the world in the music released on Noah Bigg’s record labels has sparked resurgence for some of his original artists. I’m sure Noah would greatly approve of his son’s efforts to resurrect the Shiptown / How Big concern. A major first step in these efforts occurred on the 1st November 2009 when a big reunion show was staged at the Broadway Club on East Virginia Beach Boulevard in Norfolk (a road that intersects with Church Street). Barbara Stant was amongst the label’s artists who participated in the show and her vocal efforts were very well received.