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Voices from the Vault

Clarence Johnson/ Digging for Gold



Three years ago a bootleg compilation called Divas of the 70s began popping up in south-side record stores, and among its contents were three tracks by a Chicago soul group called the Lovelites. The female vocal trio had caused a minor stir in 1969 with a sweet, catchy midtempo tune called "How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad," in which lead singer Patti Hamilton wondered how to break the news to her folks that she was pregnant. That single, produced by an up-and-comer named Clarence Johnson, sold 55,000 copies locally and 400,000 nationally, peaking at number 15 on Billboard's soul chart and landing the group a deal with Uni Records, a division of MCA.

When Johnson, who's now 58 and still works as a producer in the area, heard about the bootleg, he set about getting his due. "I found out who was doing it, where they were doing, and I talked to my attorney," he says across the desk in the office of his Chi-City Productions, in an Alsip strip mall. "He said if I wanted to do something about it I should just put it out myself." So last month he released a 20-song CD, The Lovelite Years, on Lovelite Records, an imprint he briefly used in the early 70s. At the moment it's available only in Chicago and mostly on the south and west sides--though the north-side specialty shop Dusty Groove is also selling it via the Web--but Johnson is looking for distribution in the U.S. and Europe.

Hamilton's pretty, exuberant teenage vocals and the close harmonies of her bandmates are swaddled in lush strings, bright brass, and slinky grooves--a sound along the lines of the one developed by Chicago producers like Carl Davis and Curtis Mayfield--and though she was only 15 at the time, she showed promising talent as a songwriter. Unfortunately, "How Can I Tell Mom and Dad," with the line "Oh, he made me mother-to-be," was considered too risque for pop radio, and the group never made another record of the same magnitude--although "My Conscience," from 1970, came close.

But though the Lovelites may be only a footnote in the Billboard version of music history, the new CD is significant for a couple reasons. First, it's yet more proof of the astounding depth of talent this city boasted in the 60s and 70s. And second, although countless vintage soul reissues have been turning up in this country, few of them are made here. Japanese and especially British companies (including Sequel and Westside, Edsel, Goldmine, and Charly) have cornered the market in the last decade, reissuing loads of material from old Chicago greats like Gene Chandler, Barbara Acklin, the Artistics, the Chi-Lites, Otis Clay, Harold Burrage, and Tyrone Davis as well as far more obscure acts. Even Johnson, who produced only a handful of certified hits, has licensed 158 of the tracks he produced in that era--including the Lovelites' only full-length album, With Love From the Lovelites, in its entirety--to the Japanese reissue label P-Vine over the last decade, and has worked with a variety of British labels, including the UK division of BMG.

Johnson started out as a doo-wop singer in the 50s; he recorded with the Chaunteurs and was in the earliest incarnation of the Chi-Lites. He heard the Lovelites singing at a talent show near the Altgeld Gardens housing project, where the girls lived, and auditioned them at Hamilton's home a few days later. Satisfied, he rushed them into the studio to cut "How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad", which he cowrote with Hamilton, for Lock Records, a label in which he had part ownership. The group became huge in the Chicago area, but they were still in high school, so touring opportunities were limited. (Eventually someone capitalized on this situation by touring the midwest under the group's name and performing their hit songs. Johnson made sure there were pictures of the singers on the next record.) The Uni album flopped, and in 1972, the group recorded its last singles for the Altantic subsidiary Cotillion.

Typical for the time, Hamilton and her fellow singers--her sister Rozena and Ardell McDaniel, later replaced by Joan Berlmon and Rhonda Grayson--knew nothing about publishing rights, so they failed to notice until too late that Johnson had claimed them for himself. Hamilton says he also copyrighted their name without telling them or her mother, Bernice, who acted as the group's manager. Now 49, she says the girls were too busy swooning over their brushes with stardom--including a raucous food fight with Marvin Gaye while they were recording the album in LA. "[Johnson] was telling me he was going to give me the world and feeding me beans," says Hamilton, who currently drives a CTA bus and is trying to launch a career as a gospel singer. "But I don't have any malice toward the man." She says Johnson only told her about the compilation when it was a month or two from completion, and our conversation was the first she'd heard of the Lovelites stuff Johnson has licensed overseas. "Outside of the publicity there's really nothing I'm getting out of it," she says. "If there's money to be made, I don't think I'm going to see any."

In 1973, the Lovelites broke up. "Tension in the group kept growing," says Hamilton. "We were jumping from one of his labels to the next, and eventually [Johnson] decided our name should change to Patti & the Lovelites. I was against it, but he insisted that it was a good idea. It caused some animosity in the group and we started snapping at one another." Berlmon and Grayson became successful studio backup singers, but Hamilton never fronted another group. Johnson went on to produce records by Brighter Side of Darkness, Heaven and Earth, and Coffee; he also worked with Denise Chandler (aka Deniece Williams of "Let's Hear It for the Boy" fame), four of whose songs for Lock are tacked on to the end of The Lovelite Years. He had financial interest in a profusion of small labels, including Lovelite, Lock, G.E.C., and Starvue. But in 1975, the legendary soul station WVON--which was owned in its prime by Leonard Chess and had broken quite a few hits for Johnson--shut down, a casualty of the migration of the entertainment industry to the coasts, and Johnson's career ran up against the wall.

Though he hasn't had a hit in 20 years, he says he's more interested in making new records than rereleasing his old ones. He recently released an EP of nondescript contemporary R & B by the female vocal trio C-nario on his new Chi-City imprint, and an album by former Heaven and Earth singer Dean Williams is forthcoming. But fans of vintage soul will be pleased to hear that he's also planning to issue several more compilations that collect his productions from the 60s and 70s.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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