I recently went to an actual movie in a theater — something I seldom do — and during the seemingly endless previews of coming attractions I saw one that caught my attention. It was for a film called The Sapphires, and it was about an R&B quartet from the 1960s that featured indigenous Australians — then called aborigines but now more properly known as Koori — who found some success by performing for soldiers during the war in Vietnam. (You can see it in the video below.)
As I said, I perked up when it came on because it was supposed to be based on a true story, and I was pretty sure I remembered a singing group from the era with that name. Turns out I was right — the Sapphires did find some success in the 1960s — but it certainly wasn’t the group portrayed in the movie. In fact, it wasn’t even a quartet.
A trio formed in the early 1960s in Philadelphia, the original Sapphires consisted of George Gainer, Joe Livingston, and Carol Jackson. The threesome polished the act locally and then hit the recording studio with the help of producer Jerry Ross and Kenny Gamble, who was in the early stages of what would be a long career as a composer and music producer. Also on hand for initial efforts were some talented musicians, among them Leon Huff and Thom Bell, who would also find a lot of success through the years.
The trio’s first record featured “Where Is Johnny Now” on the ‘A’ side and “Your True Love” on the reverse, and it was well received but didn’t dent the charts. However, “Who Do You Love” soon followed and did much better, climbing to number 25. The group’s next couple of records didn’t chart but the trio had established itself as a solid success and soon moved to New York, continuing to hit the studio with regularity and generate enough output to fill an album. Before long, “Gotta Be More Than Friends” would put the Sapphires back on the charts. But even though the trio would continue to record a lot of good songs, sales gradually slowed and by the end of the decade the original Sapphires had dissolved.
The Sapphires – “Who Do You Love”
Being born and raised in New Orleans has always pretty much guaranteed that someone would be exposed to good music while growing up. In a lot of cases, that in turn led to a musical career like the one enjoyed by Robert Parker, who began as an instrumentalist but later added singing to his act, and had a huge hit in 1966 with his signature song, “Barefootin’.”
Parker first began to show up on the New Orleans music scene in the late 1940s while working with the legendary Professor Longhair. Over the next few years he flashed his sax skills alongside other local stars like Fats Domino, and eventually began breaking out as a solo artist too. He also hit the recording studio and enjoyed a minor hit with “All Night Long” in 1958.
By the 1960s he’d added singing to his performances, and as his popularity grew he recorded a song he wrote that would become his biggest hit, “Barefootin’.” Although he wasn’t able to hit those heights with subsequent records, he did make quite a few good ones, among them “Get Ta Steppin’,” “Skinny Dippin’,” and “Tip Toe,” all of which played into his signature style.
As the years passed Parker found that he was more popular in Great Britain, where he often toured and performed for appreciative fans. Although his career eventually wound down, he has remained for many years a popular part of the New Orleans night life, appearing from time to time in area nightspots and music festivals. But he still ventures out sometimes too — just a couple of years ago he appeared (at age 79) on stage at Lincoln Center in New York, but he probably kept his shoes on.
Robert Parker – “Get Ta Steppin’”
It’s often difficult to pin down key moments in the early days of rock and roll, but one event that seems a likely candidate occurred in 1954 when a jive band led by a set of identical twins appeared on TV’s Colgate Comedy Hour, hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Most experts feel that when that group — the Treniers — brought its act to the tube, it was the first time that rock and roll was shown on national TV.
Cliff and Claude Trenier had by that point already logged a lot of years in a career that began during the swing era, when they sang in Jimmie Lunceford’s band. By the early 1950s they’d started to transform their style of hot blues into something else, adding brothers Milt and Buddy to the mix along with some instrumental sidemen, including a honkin’ sax player.
It sure sounded a lot like what we would come to know as rock and roll, and the titles of a lot of the songs fit the mold too. Some of the Treniers’ best selling records included “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Rock-A-Way,” “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie,” and “Rock And Roll Call.”
But even though the Treniers found spots in a couple of musical movies and made a lot of records, including a minor hit with a 1955 novelty song — “Say Hey” — that featured a cameo by Willy Mays, the group eventually faded from view. Not much information is available about the later years of the original Trenier twins, but at last report brother Milt is still entertaining fans, and he’s now in his eighties.
The Treniers – “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie”