For over 15 years I wrote a monthly column in the now defunct Manifesto magazine, latterly under the editorship of Mike Ritson. This was a premier, glossy monthly publication that in my opinion surpassed everything since Black Music and hard copy Blues & Soul went under. Most of my submissions were record reviews interspersed with articles on labels and artists. My many box files contained information from various sources from old copies of the Detroit Free Press to heart felt letters from 60s artists seeking some sort of exposure in Britain. They were akin to bits of jigsaw, each one interesting but insufficient to create a complete picture.
In a long-forgotten Detroit / Motown box were some cassettes of unissued Motown tracks from LA record dealer and DJ, Bob Cattaneo and also one time Motown employee, Tom Depierro. Connected to the latter was a letter from Tom to Soul aficionado, Ian Clark who I first met at the early 6Ts nights in London in the mid 70s, the letter gave Ian the tragic news of the slaying of Lester Tipton and how Tom and Lester had become friends in Hollywood.
So here, along with other bits and pieces accumulated while preparing the `Groovesville USA` book were enough jigsaw pieces for an article but sadly Manifesto magazine ground to a halt in the spring of 2019 and the story remained unpublished, until now.
Lester Fred Tipton was born 1st September 1948 in Detroit Mi. along with twin sister Leslie Viola to their parents, Mr & Mrs Willard Tipton. The twins had two brothers, Larry and Eddie. Lester and Leslie attended Goldberg Elementary school on Marquette St. then Hutchins Jr High on Woodrow Wilson and on to Northern High, on Woodward. At Northern, Lester showed great skills in design and some of his creations were bought by local celebrities. By the mid 60s, 2000 of Northern’s students were Afro-American with the likes of Ron Banks, Smokey Robnison, Pete Moore, Sylvia Moy, Lorraine Chandler and Aretha Franklin graduating from there.
Lester and Leslie were keen singers at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on near by Elmhurst and soon after leaving school, Lester heard about a new record label that had opened up nearby at 6072 14th St. near Marquette in January ‘66 by Lou Beatty, called La Beat. Like other local young aspiring singers he would linger outside and stare in to the studios through the large windows. The building, originally a four bedroomed house was quite imposing which Beatty had converted, with the studio on street level and was well equipped with Crown two track recorders, Bogan mixers etc. Although he had experience in making music as a young saxophonist, Beatty’s inexperience in recording showed somewhat as 14th Street had heavy traffic and the recording room’s large windows allowed street noise in. He eventually overcame this by using the Universal Studios in Chicago for special sessions. No doubt in anticipation of his new venture, the previous year had seen him form a loose partnership with the Rev James Hendrix aka Hendricks who already had the Carrie label behind him, which featured both Motor City recordings as well as tracks leased from North Carolina and his home town Nashville. Hendrix’s labels originally had PO Box addresses prior to 6072 14th St. Soon other labels emerged that were connected to this address; Rambler, Arnold, Cool School and Mary Jane. Once La Beat got on its feet and Beatty became more confident he began distancing himself from Hendrix and engaged Teddy Harris Snr. as his music advisor.
La Beat Studios with Beatty
Beatty, who lived on LaSalle St like most other label owners in Detroit funded his sideline from his other business’, mainly Beatty Brothers Construction and motels, one of which stood almost opposite La Beat.
Lester managed to get the attention of Beatty who signed the 17 year old up for one session; La Beat 6607, “This Won’t Change” / “Go On”, written and produced by Johnny Mills and Curtis Trusell, both members of the LPTs (La Beat Production Team) but it made little to no impact on the Detroit music scene and so no more sessions followed. This was not the end of Lester’s venture into showbiz however as he and sister, who were great dancers entered a dance contest on Robin Seymour’s Swingin’ Time TV show on CKLW 9, broadcast around Detroit and went on to be the show’s regular dancers. When Seymour was asked who were his favourite dancers he nominated “The Tiptons, Lester & Leslie, they were probably the most famous. They were a black couple and great dancers, they were on the show every single day...Lester and Leslie would do things, and the other kids would try to copy them. They entered this national contest that Dick Clark had and won.. they won two Pontiac auto-mobiles.” Another competition prize was a trip to Florida and a third, a trip to Hollywood. Soon to become great friends, Tom Depierro said that on that occasion the siblings decided to stay there and they soon appeared as dancers in the film ‘Thank God It’s Friday` and Lester, with a different partner in `Cindy`, both released in 1978. He also appeared in a couple of TV sitcoms inc `Love Boat` and `Hollywood Dynasty`. But singing was still Lester’s driving ambition and in ‘75 he cut two sides with Jerome Russell but the record company were looking for a stereotypical Soul performer which Lester rejected as he knew what he wanted to achieve. The recordings remained in the can. By now he and Tom had formed a very strong friendship based around Lester’s musical aspirations but Tom began to witness Lester’s growing doubts about his singing ability which Tom described as “Ludicrous...he had rich natural tones, warmth, a wonderful sense of timing and harmonics, down to earth style and one ton of class. Why we couldn’t get a deal on him is something that remains a mystery”.
As many of you know Tom Depierro was in the music business and came to fame via his `From the Vaults` LP on Motown when he found hundreds of acetates that were in a skip outside a storage facility that originated from Motown when they were moving into 6255 Sunset in LA. They contained unreleased material from Detroit, recorded between 1960 – 67. With a plan to group together the best 35 tracks and then present a proposition to Motown, he approached the company but was rejected and “treated like a fool”. Instinctively however he knew the enormity of what he was sitting on and kept the idea on the back burner. He eventually found a position under Iris Gordy, Motown executive and wife of Johnny Bristol. Tom did not have a favourable opinion of Iris’s organisational skills and on one occasion when she was behind with a scheduled album release she impetuously demanded Tom deal with it. This was his opportunity to get his unreleased material onto vinyl and it was out on the streets before Motown realised it until reading about it in Billboard who had replaced a feature on Diana Ross with an article on `From the Vaults`. But by then 20,000 had been pressed and were selling well.
Tom also recalls a less favourable episode in his life when a well known record `entrepreneur` visited him at the time when Lester was living with him. When Lester relieved that he didn’t own a copy of his La Beat outing, the visitor reassured him he’d get him one and he also borrowed Andantes and Frank Wilson 45s from Tom. Tom revealed that Lester never did received his record and he never saw his two rare Motown discs again. Upon hearing of this episode from Tom, his long standing UK friend Ian Clark sent him a Grapevine copy to give to Lester who was over the moon with it and sent it on to Detroit for his family, most of whom had never heard it!
Tom said that he intended to record Lester on his own fledgling Airwaves label but at that point finances were not in place to promote Lester and get him the dates he deserved. By 1980 Lester had given up his dream and flew to New York City to the School of Cosmetology. Having qualified as a hairdresser he returned to California and rented in his own apartment in down town LA but on the night of 9th February 1982 someone broke in and beat him to death. The police suggested robbery was the motive but Tom made the point that Lester had few material possessions to steal only a couple of rings and a watch. His body was found five days later on Sunday 14th February by his now married sister, Leslie Russell. Ironically, `Love Boat`, the sit-com he had a part in was broadcast the following day.
His remains were taken back to Detroit and his funeral took place on Tuesday 23rd February 1982 at the Lincoln Memorial Park on 14 Mile at Gratiot and the service was held at the Charles T Cole Funeral Home on E Grand Boulevard with Rev John H Kearney officiating. Anthony Earl (Tony) Thornton sang a solo and Leonard Cheatem read the obituary. Now that she had the full story about his legendary status, she told Ian that someone in England should write about her brother.
La Beat Studios - The Masquraders
La Beat eventually closed down in 1972 and for any indie set up to last over five years was quite remarkable. Such was the demand for Beatty’s Detroit recordings in the UK that legendary Glaswegian record dealer John Anderson, struck a deal with Beatty in the late 70s to issue his recordings on his Grapevine label including of course, `This Won’t Change`. Having never been boot-legged, this gave Britain’s Soul fans the opportunity to own Detroit Soul’s holy grail as the original was virtually unobtainable. Lou Beatty passed away on 7th March, 2001 and very sadly, John on 2nd October 2019.
You will notice that I have not referred to the value of Lester’s 45s on La Beat or Grapevine. I learned something some twenty years ago when I was in contact with and eventually met Leonard King Jr. a contemporary of Lester’s in Detroit, back in the day. Leonard told me as tactfully as he could that most of us in the UK only viewed the Detroit Soul scene through a hole in a 7” piece of plastic and if a name didn’t appear on the aforementioned disc of vinyl, then we would probably never know about them. I eventually realised this was oh so true, certainly as far as I was concerned once I started looking through various 60s entertainment mags and newspapers from mid sixties Detroit. But I also know there are British guys around who know more than me because they’ve looked beyond monetary value and have been to the States and befriended these artists for more that wanting what was in their attic or garage. In Leonard’s case, as a teenager he and his band, the Soul Messengers who had one release on Impact Records were, he told me taken to the cleaners financially and so never recorded again. They, along with scores of other Detroit artists made their money and reputation on the live scene playing the hundreds of clubs, lounges, ballrooms, bar etc. in the city.
I would like to thank Graham Finch, Paul Mooney and Dave Welding for their invaluable research, Ron Murphy for newspaper photos, Stuart Russell for layout and Ian Clark in particular for specific information on Lester Tipton.