Friday, 8 January 2010

Interview with Sidney Barnes of Rotary Connection - April 2006

You may not know Sidney Barnes’ name but you almost certainly own some of his records. Throughout a forty year career Sidney has worked as a song writing partner to both George Clinton and Charles Stepney, supported both Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and acted as a musical mentor to, amongst others, Donnie Hathaway, Chaka Khan and Minnie Ripperton, as well as putting his name and voice to some of the most celebrated northern soul records ever in I hurt on the other side and What can I do?.

Sidney lives a quiet life now, in North Carolina, a million miles away from the recording studios of Detroit, Chicago and New York where he was at the heart of the funk and soul movements of the 1960’s and 70’s but he is an easy, outgoing man, happy to share his story and continuing to record as well as write his autobiography.

How did you get into music?

I grew up in West Virginia and started out liking country getting into Gene Artry, Mel Torme, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray and then from there into Sam Cooke and the whole soul thing.

My family moved to Washington DC and I knew there was a scene. I would hang backstage at the Howard Theatre where a lot of the black acts played. My parents were really supportive of my career and then moved to New Jersey and I could visit New York where I was able to get into the business.

And then you ended up at Motown?

Yes, I heard Berry Gordy was setting up a branch in New York and my band (the Serenaders) got signed.

And that’s where you met George Clinton, right?

Yeah, working with George was one of the best experiences of my life. We were in the same pocket. I started to work in the studio with Parliament once they signed and we went to Detroit. George was a fast worker in the studio but witty too. I worked with him on the tune Heart Trouble (1966). I admire him a lot.

How did you end up at Chess?

I was in Detroit with George and Andre Williams. Andre had a deal with Chess and took me along for a few sessions. I stuck around and did a few sessions for Muddy Waters and others. Billy Davies at Chess asked me to write a rock album and it’s my greatest regret that I turned it down but Muddy started working on Electric Mud and because I was known as the rock dude they asked me to write a song. I wrote a song about the underground newspapers of the day (Herbert Harper’s Free Press News) and played some percussion and things.

How did Rotary Connection come about?

By this time Leonard Chess had given his son Marshall Cadet Records and Marshall had this idea of getting a mixed soul and rock group together.

At first, Marshall would produce, Richard Evans was the arranger and Charles (Stepney) was a copyist. He would write the horn parts, that sort of thing. It wasn’t until the second and third albums until Charles took over the production completely. The idea was that we would take the hits of the day and rearrange them. I was really into the Beatles and had written Turn me on which made it onto the album. (Rotary Connection 1967)

And Minnie was a secretary before joining the band?

Yes, at first she didn’t do the high thing because everyone was into Aretha Franklin sounding voices but the first time she did it in the studio we were just sat looking at each other thinking what the hell is that? We saw this as a gimmick we could use but she took some convincing.

How did Charles work in the studio?

He was so engrossed in the orchestration and arrangements. He wasn’t really a collaborative producer and hated rock n roll. He wanted this 5th dimension thing. He could be pretty hard on the musicians but everyone was able to pitch in ideas and it was a lot of fun. We would have 20-30 pieces in the orchestra so there was a lot of joking too. Despite the number of musicians we would only have a couple of takes for most songs.

What was it like playing as a live act?

Very different. Where Charles was the leader in the studio, we couldn’t replicate a lot of the arrangements live, so inevitably I took on more of a leadership role for the live thing. The first gigs we did were in Chicago at Aaron Russo’s place downtown. I had to take Minnie shopping to get the wigs and tie die garb. She wouldn’t do the high thing so the first night Charles used a theramin, by the time we were through the place was goin crazy so she agreed to do it the next night.

Of course, people were dropping acid and mescalin and there were strobe lights and everything and when she did it they’d freak so she’d do it some more and they’d freak some more! After that we were signing autographs and doing radio.

You played with everyone at that time

Yeah, we turned down Woodstock but we did the Texas Pop festival to 90,000 and that was a ball though someone tricked me into taking a load of downers and I collapsed. It was certainly an experience! I remember the Butterqueen was there (infamous groupie who supposedly used butter to pleasure her conquests). It was wild. We played with everyone.1968-69 were the golden years although we later found out that our booking agents were robbing us.

What do you consider the best Rotary Connection record?

I think either the Christmas album (Peace 1968) or Songs (1969). Minnie hits some notes on We’re going wrong which I’m sure no human has never hit before or since. The kids on the cover were Marshall’s son and Charles’ daughter.

Did you encounter issues as a mixed race group?

We had some promotion in Wisconsin but it wasn’t as integrated down there so we only sent the white part of the group to promote the record. Of course, without me and Minnie it didn’t sound so good so they came back! In general though, for me, it was actually better. The white acts generally got better venues.

How did your involvement with Rotary come to an end?

It all went downhill after Songs. Leonard Chess had died and the new record company didn’t really know what we were about and how to promote us. We were all fighting each other because we didn’t have any money. Charles was also getting touchy in the studio. Everyone was telling him he was a genius and I wanted my own publishing company so I quit. Minnie was also wanting to do her own thing by then, she had a lot of ideas but Charles didn’t really want to hear them, although she came back for the Hey Love album.

You worked with Minnie again though?

Yes, she called me up once she had moved down to Florida with Dick (Rudolph – her husband and fellow band member). When she went on the road I would be her back up act. She was a little nervous at first when she went solo but after a while she was a really good performer. I watched her grow up from a little girl into a real diva.I did a couple of tours with her when she was having chemotherapy, there were times where she couldn’t move her arm when she was performing. I remember us both crying at each other at the mic when we sang Back down memory lane one time. She even talked about putting Rotary Connection back together and we talked about who could do the arrangements (Charles had died in Chicago in 1976) but I knew that it wouldn’t happen because she was so ill.

And you and Charles worked together again?

Maurice White and Charles wanted to put together an act sort of based upon Rotary Connection. At first they wanted to call it Salty Pepper. Maurice didn’t want to sing and I’d worked with Maurice on a Deniece Williams record. He wanted either me or Philip Bailey to sing in this group. I said, you get Phillip – the rest is history. The band became Earth, Wind and Fire. Maurice used the whole production thing Charles had used.

Do you think Rotary Connection’s work stands up today?

Sure, I was reading an interview with Elton John in Billboard and he was saying that he got the idea for fusing popular and classical music through Charles Stepney’s arrangements. There has been a real resurgence of interest in the last few years. People now are inspired by the people who were inspired by us. I think Rotary Connection was the right thing at the right time and some of those records are pretty fucking wild!

When did you first know that your solo recordings were so big on the English Northern Soul scene?

I’d heard things as far back as the 60’s – Marvin (Gaye) and Edwin Starr both told me my records were being played over there but it was in 2001 when I got a call from (legendary Northern Soul DJ) Ian Levine, I got on the internet and was really surprised at the interest in songs like Standing on Solid Ground. Ian sent a crew over to take some shots and then I was asked to do a show at the Dome. I’ve been over dozen’s of times since. I love playing Cleethorpes. I’m always amazed at all the stuff they know about me.

What are you doing now?

I still write. I will be releasing a CD later in the year and there is a song on there I’ve done with George. There is also a song called I remember Minnie. The Single Your old lady turns me on comes out in July and I’ll be doing a few shows in North Carolina.

Tom Berry is a DJ and journalist living in London

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