How To Sing Your Way Out Of Jail: The Charles L. Blakely Story
In 1969, a 20 year old Charles Lorenzo Blakely along with fellow members of the street gang he hung out with became involved in a shoot out with another rival Milwaukee street gang which resulted in the death of one of their rivals members.
Following the arrival of the Police, the shoot out developed into a high speed car chase with Charles being the driver of one of one of the evading vehicles. Charles’s vehicle was eventually brought to a halt when the Cops shot all four tyres out which caused the car to crash at 90mph into a department store called Schuster’s Warehouse. The other occupants of the vehicle managed to get away with the exception of Charles (who himself was packing a gun) being shot twice by the Cops in the back and shoulder as tried to vacate the vehicle as well as sporting a broken arm received in the crash.
Following his arrest and conviction he was sentenced to 30 years for ‘Attempted 1st Degree Murder’ (due to the shots being exchanged with the Police) and a consecutive 10 year sentence for ‘Eluding’ (evading) arrest in a high speed car chase. After a subsequent retrial Charles as the car driver was found not to have been directly involved in actually shooting at the Police, so the initial 30 year sentence was quashed. This left Charles to continue serving his other 10 year sentence at the high security Green Bay Reformatory in Allouez, Wisconsin.
At the time a common practice within the US Prison System was to encourage inmates who had shown some musical ability to channel their energy into performing as groups for their own and their inmate’s entertainment. Thus in 1970 Charles Blakely formed his first ensemble under the name of the Mansion, a name he chose after reading a book on English Stately Homes!
The Mansion’s line up included at different times Michael Locke, Stanley Newburn, Carl Anderson, John Crawford, Michael Smith, Larry Moses, Ronald Hardin, Jerome Wagner, Lewis Lister, Maurice Payne and Charles himself. One day while rehearsing in the prison chapel, The Mansion attracted the attention of the warden’s wife who happened to be showing some local dignitaries around. Impressed by what she heard the warden’s wife was instrumental in The Mansion being invited to perform for the city’s television station WBAY, where they recording two holiday programs.
The warden later gave them permission to perform outside the prison which brought them to the attention of a Milwaukee neighbourhood program adviser by the name of Al Dunlap of the Commando Project One. It was through Dunlap that The Mansion recorded their solitary 45 release in 1974 “The Girl Next Door /Stop! Let Your Heart Be Your Guide” for the local Milwaukee label Gibbs (406). The label’s owner Bill Gibbs held the release back until some of the members of The Mansion were granted their release papers, as Prisoners were unable to sign contract agreements while still incarcerated at that time.
Although Charles Blakely remained incarcerated, he was later moved to a medium security prison in Fox Lake County, Wisconsin. While there he formed a further group, a gospel ensemble called the ‘Bell Tones’ who’s line up included Charles, Mayweather Lee, Joe Hayes, and Levell Rudd. The formation of this group was seen as major factor in Charles’s rehabilitation which led to his eventual parole in late 1976, thus serving 7 years of his initial 10 year sentence.
The Final Chapter James Taylor Charles (Sonny) Bryant Charles L. Blakely Van Kimble
Once on the outside Charles with former ‘Bell Tone” member Mayweather Lee were joined by Charles (Sonny) Bryant and Jimmy Taylor to form a new ensemble by the name of The “Final Chapter”. As the final Chapter in 1980 they recorded a solitary release for Milwaukee main man Marvel Love’s New World Label “Now I Know/Get Down For Your Action” (NW800), a brief association that for several reasons was to eventually break down. Although Jimmy Taylor left to pursue a career as a blues musician the remaining three members of the ‘Final Chapter’ continued to perform until they finally disbanded in 1987. Although recorded, further Final Chapter songs post to their new World release remained unissued, a situation soon to be rectified with their inclusion as part of a future Soul Junction project.
New World 45
Charles himself is still active in the music business and is currently working on a gospel project. Following his parole in 1976 Charles has left his notorious past behind him and has stayed on the right side of the law with not even as much as a speeding ticket to his name to this day.
The Mansion Group Photo taken in the Prison Chapel during 1972
The group line-up as follows:
Back row Left to Right: Michael Locke- Ronald Hardin- Morris Payne- Charles Blakely
Front Row Left To Right: Carl Anderson- John Crawford.
Words By: David Welding
Acknowledgements to: Charles L. Blakely for the colourful interview and photographs.
Label scans courtesy of Mark (Butch) Dobson.
The above article is an extended version from the sleeve notes of the forthcoming Soul Junction CD album “We Got A Sweet Thing Going On” catalogue number SJCD 5009. Which will feature both sides of ‘The Mansion’ 45.
Listen: Sample #1