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Half of 60s Phoenix soul duo plucked from obscurity

Half of 60s Phoenix soul duo plucked from obscurity cover

Half of 60s Phoenix soul duo plucked from obscurity

“I’ll need to get a ride with you," said Ernie out of the middle of nowhere. We were waiting for his turn to sing Karaoke at the AmVet Post #15 at 7th St. and Broadway in South Phoenix Wednesday night. "I live at 13th and Pima on the west side,” he followed. "I wish I would have known you were going to need a ride, Ernie," I said. "I have to leave early, before you sing the last time, sorry."

He walked from there and would walk "home" - more like a backyard to put his stuff and sometimes a night on the couch in the house - a round trip of nearly 7 miles. I left without taking him since I needed to quickly get back to Phoenix to watch another band play before the bars shut down. The next day I asked him if he was able to find a ride and he said, "I started walking and a friend of mine saw me and picked me up. He said, 'Man you walk fast. Aren’t you tired?' I said 'no, I walk this 2 or 3 times a day.'"

 Ernie was dressed casually, sporting a canvas derby, a white floral print shirt and sandals with white socks, in contrast to the stylin’ white suit he wore the previous week. Both times he looked good but tonight what set off his outfit was a pair of expensive looking sunglasses with three diamond inlays on the arms. I asked him about the shades and he said, "You know what, I found these glasses on the ground. I find all kinds of things when I’m walking. People say to me 'Ernie those look like real diamonds.' I say it doesn’t matter as long as they shine."

And shine he did Wednesday night at this open mic Karaoke night, up against such formidable talent as OG Charles, Brenda, and a crowd-pleasing, dance-floor-filling dude known only as “The Artist.” DJ Charles Ray Hayes welcomed folks to the post, encouraging them to “share their talent from 10 o’clock all the way to the top, 1 a.m.”

Ernie started out with a killer version of “If Something is wrong with my baby,” written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, though it was a rough start. When DJ Hayes called the name Ernie Sweetwater Johnson - “Ernie Johnson is my real name, Sweetwater is my new name,” he told me last week - Sweetwater was nowhere to be found. It turns out he was in the bathroom when the song started, though the DJ re-cued the song and introduced him when he appeared.

He had moves, his voice was note perfect and electric and his open-throated falsetto “whhooo hooos!” at the end got folks going, so naturally Ernie kept going after the song was over. For a moment he looked transported to another time - cue a wiggling TV screen indicating a memory - all the way back to 1965 when Eddie and Ernie, a duo born in Phoenix, had a hit in New York and were being flown out to the Apollo for an extended gig playing a package show.

“In 1965 ‘Time waits for no one’ (a song written and performed by Eddie & Ernie) was released and it hit the charts,” said Ernie when I reached him by phone. “It was #1 on WWRL in NYC and it was about number 100 or so in Billboard. The next thing we knew, we have two tickets to New York to play the Apollo Theater,” he said. “We did five shows a day, and we worked with people like Wilson Pickett, The Marveletts and Patty Labelle and the Blue Bells, Gene Chandler, The Impressions, The Four Tops, we worked with a lot of artists.”

Eddie and Ernie had all the right elements to be a top R&B; duo, they were young (when they first started playing clubs Ernie was 16 and Eddie 19), they were good looking, and they had great voices that sounded even better together. Ernie’s voice was high-register and Eddie was in the middle, and their voices harmonized extremely well. Their songs (mostly originals) got play in other markets and at their peak they had singles on Chess and Columbia. But they never had a proper hit. They cut many sides and toured but not extensively, and because of the lack of hits and bad management, the duo petered out on its own in 1972.

The last show they played was with Al Green at the California Club after reconciling for a last go around. Eddie Campbell moved to California and had a respectable songwriting career which provided him an income as well as royalties from past records being anthologized and covered, though he had a problem with drink and eventually passed away from cirrhosis of the liver.

Ernie drifted, tried to make a go on his own, but couldn’t keep up a steady address for the royalties he was due. He spiraled into homelessness, working day labor and doing some time in jail, always hoping to make more music or receive some money from his past efforts.

Without management and a musical partner and with plenty of bad luck, Ernie was in creative and spiritual limbo. When speaking with Ernie, it’s almost as if he remembers the time between 1972 and 2002 as one very long, bad year. In 2002, English soul music guru Dave Godin started actively tracking down rare Eddie and Ernie music for a compilation. Godin is a huge force in the popular north London trend known as “Northern Soul,” a term which Godin coined and has championed since 1971.

The trend, which has enjoyed resurgence in the last 15 years or so, is focused on forgotten or overlooked American soul and R&B; music from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

John Dixon, aka Johnny D., Phoenix musicologist and endless source of all things musical Arizona, explains what Northern Soul is about:

“Playing a track all the way through. No talking over it, no fading, it’s very straight. It’s a dance tempo thing, it’s all tempo and you have to be able to dance to it. It’s got to be obscure black American music. The more obscure, the better. Those are about the only two generalizations I can see because it’s a pretty wide spectrum. Eddie and Ernie were obscure enough and a lot of the songs are very poppy and danceable Dave Godin, who’s the god of Northern soul writing and coined the term and all, was telling people that E&E; were the greatest thing since Sam and Dave if not better than, so his credibility helped a lot.”

If you are interested in more info about Northern Soul there are many Web sites a google away, but I found this site to be fairly understandable for the uninitiated, myself included.

Eddie and Ernie have been popular as Northern Soul artists in England almost since they stopped making music in the early ‘70s, and Godin has touted them as the one of the best exemplars of Northern Soul, so he was eager to put together a comprehensive CD. He had featured songs by E&E; on all of his “Artistry in Soul” compilations for the English soul label Kent. Godin wanted to get all the E&E; music in one place and put out a compilation, but this turned out to be a huge undertaking.

 
Songs had been sitting on shelves for 30 years untouched. Old vinyl was almost non-existent. The duo recorded under at least 4 names on many labels, many of which no longer existed or had been bought out long ago. A huge amount of detective work went into the effort, but in late 2002 Eddie & Ernie, Lost Friends came out on Ace records subsidiary Kent.

Ernie was thought by the English fans of the duo to be lost to the street, but in 2002 John Dixon found him. “I had heard as I went around town ‘Oh yeah, He’s still around, we saw him a couple of months ago’ that sort of thing,” said Dixon. “I went around to a couple of the Salvation Armies in South Phoenix and there’s a big St. Vincent De Paul on 7th St. I went in there they said ‘Last time we saw him was a couple of months ago.’ So I knew he was around,” explained Johnny D.

“I went over to see Gene Blue (CEO and founder) of OIC.” OIC stands for Arizona Opportunities Industrialization Center, a charity that has worked since 1967 to help people get back on their feet in many ways, from GEDs to computer training to helping people with social security issues. “Gene Blue said ‘Oh yeah, Ernie comes around every so often,’ so that was it, and I didn’t think about it for a couple of months,” said Johnny D.

“One morning Gene called and said ‘You’ll never guess who’s sitting across from me in the office’ and it was Ernie and so I arranged to pick him up the next day and took him down for breakfast at Denny’s and introduced myself and I took all the records and showed him and he was very impressed.” Dixon told him about Northern Soul and Dave Godin and about the effort to put together a compilation CD. Ernie was excited and consented to his first interview in many years, which Dixon recorded and transcribed for use in the anthology.

Later that year with many of the songwriting rights reverting back to Ernie “Lost Friends” came out and through Johnny D’s help, Ernie also received some back royalties from Johnny's research and new money from the issuing of the CD.

Part of what intrigued Dixon in the interview and brought this story to me via former New Times music editor Chris O’Connor was that Ernie Johnson, a man who played the Apollo at a very young age and tasted modest musical success, who might have been rich and famous if given proper guidance, was now singing Karaoke at a downtown club called Big Al’s and living on the street.

The gig at Big Al’s has been over for a while, and Ernie does his thing most Wednesdays at the AmVet in South Phoenix. The release of the CD and some past royalties helped get Ernie in a good place for a while, but the money is all gone now. “After I paid some people some bills it was gone,” says Ernie. “We get royalties twice a year so maybe something will come up. I have got a few debts which doesn’t feel too good, but I hope they are people that trust and believe that when I get some money I will try to pay them,” he says.

So Ernie, at 60, is singing Karaoke in hopes of his big comeback. “Something’s got to give and it’s got to give real quick,” says Sweetwater of his situation. “Time’s winding up, and I know that. This is my last time around and I want to go to the top. All the way. So I’m freelancing, I’ve got no contracts with nobody and I want to work with somebody that wants to work and I know that we’ll be successful if the music is heard.”

Unfortunately there are a few strikes against Ernie getting something together musically at this juncture in his life. I asked Johnny D. if he thought Ernie could have success at his age in his current situation “That’s a hard call,” he said. “I would like to think he could, but he’s just kind of on that level, no wheels, everybody around town kind of knows him and has an opinion already, and he’s burned quite a few bridges. I’d like to think he could talent-wise because he’s been writing songs, mostly gospel. He sings them to me, a capella in the car, and there’s some potential there.”

He can sing, there is no question. And he is a social butterfly, a smooth operator. Drinks would appear in his hand when he returned from his frequent socializing that I know he didn’t pay for. He told stories of people shaking his hand and giving him money folded in their hands because “I think people do that because they know I deserve much more then I’m given, which is nothing but a clap of the hands and pat on the back.”

When he asked if I was going to pay him for interviewing him I explained that the interview wasn’t going to be broadcast so there would be no gratuity, but hopefully the story might generate a few sales of the CD, which would trickle down to him eventually. To this he said rather cryptically “Yeah, somebody should hear and feel and know.”

Pan out on the Wednesday night Karaoke at the AmVet Post #15 where Ernie Sweetwater Johnson can be found, working the room in more ways than one and enjoying the momentary spotlight. Picture he and I, seated at a long table waiting for his turn, when an impressive female singer starts tearing it up on the mic. Sweetwater turned to me and said, “She can sing good too. Sweetwater and you ain't the only superstars in the house!”


Thanks to Chris O’Connor for additional info.

http://www.aznightbuzz.com/mt/000119.html

...... ending with the footnote

When he asked if I was going to pay him for interviewing him I explained that the interview wasn’t going to be broadcast so there would be no gratuity, but hopefully the story might generate a few sales of the CD, which would trickle down to him eventually. To this he said rather cryptically “Yeah, somebody should hear and feel and know.”

Pan out on the Wednesday night Karaoke at the AmVet Post #15 where Ernie Sweetwater Johnson can be found, working the room in more ways than one and enjoying the momentary spotlight. Picture he and I, seated at a long table waiting for his turn, when an impressive female singer starts tearing it up on the mic. Sweetwater turned to me and said, “She can sing good too. Sweetwater and you aint the only superstars in the house

 

site note

the article above was orig up on azbuzz which is no longer online - updated in 2018




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