James passed away on Tuesday 26th October 2010
The funeral services for James was held at Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary located at 3801 W. Manchester Blvd Inglewood, Ca 90305
The viewing was held on Wed Nov 3rd between 3pm-8pm with the funeral held on Thur Nov 4th at 11:30am.
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UPDATE: NEW BOOK IN THE PIPELINE
I talked to James Phelps on the phone. Here below is an article to be found in issue 26 of 'In The Basement' (see below). James' memory is as good as ever - and his enthusiasm without borders!
Many thanks James.
There are certain artists who only made a handful of records on the soul scene and yet, such was their impact among aficionados that they joined the ranks of the 'greats' at the time and, all to often as the years rolled by, Othe great unknowns'. One such is James Phelps, a man who began his formative years in the gospel field, latterly singing in the Soul Stirrers, responsible for being a launching pad to send Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor and our man himself into the secular marketplace. Between the time of his talking with Barry Fowden and the publication date of this magazine, James - born in Shreveport, Louisiana on April 2, 1932 - will have become a septuagenarian but the years have not dimmed his recollections of his musical history nor, despite having principally turned his back on the business in 1972, of his clear enjoyment behind the microphone. In fact, when discussing his songwriting, James revealed that he is still actively pursuing that avenue and, as a result... I'm in the process of preparing myself to go in the studios and come up with something new.
James Phelps currently lives in the Los Angeles area of Southern California but the bulk of his life - certainly during his singing career - has been spent in Chicago, to where he moved from his native Shreveport while in his late teens. My older brother was in Chicago and he kept on after me for years. He wanted me there and it was a good move for me, he told Barry. The only musically-inclined member of the family, James had had three brothers and five sisters. It was a struggle for my parents to bring up so many children but we had fun even though everything wasn't great. We were a very close family. As long as I can remember, I have been singing. When I was just a little guy people used to come by my mom's house and I would be sitting on the steps singing. They would give me money saying this little guy can really sing. I was only about five or six years old.
Despite this, James stayed the amateur soloist throughout his time in Shreveport and it was not until he arrived in Chicago that he became a group member, stereotypically within a gospel outfit, initially this being the Gospel Songbirds. From there he joined the Holy Wonders, through which Lou Rawls was also coincidentally passing through. Lou Rawls, Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor... we were all messing around Chicago, said James. Sam Cooke had just left the Highway QC's and went with the Soul Stirrers. Lou Rawls and I were with a group called the Holy Wonders then Lou went to the Norfolk Singers and from there I got to organise the Clefs of Calvary. It was with the Clefs of Calvary that James made his first recordings, for Tru-Sound (later 45s also appeared on Hob and Checker), including two albums, 'Baptised' in 1962 and 'God's Light' in 1963. They were very successful, James recalled. As a matter of fact, I remember particularly the Dixie Hummingbirds. They told me they thought that every song was a hit and the albums made number one all over.However, the group did little more than local touring by way of promotion... Some of the guys had families and they had day jobs too, so they were a little afraid to venture. It was more of a hobby for the rest of the group but I always wanted to make things a little more professional. The one-hundred-per-cent professional move came for James by his joining the Soul Stirrers. [Group members] Paul Foster and Jimmie Outler had to gone out to California to do a television show and they needed an extra man to sing [with them]. They asked me if I would do it. As I look back on it now, it was really bad timing because it was the very day that the Clefs Of Calvary were having their anniversary and, after I went on television with the Soul Stirrers, the Clefs did not want me to sing with them. The Soul Stirrers thought I did not deserve the hassle and suggested I join them permanently, so I did. That really hurt [the Clefs] and they broke up shortly after that.
Asked if any of the (other) Clefs Of Calvary stayed within gospel music, James replied: 'I understand Calvin April has a gospel group somewhere in Ohio. I think he is the only one. Ezell Wilkins is still in Chicago. I'm still in contact with him. The Soul Stirrers were well established as one of the top groups in gospel when James Phelps joined the line-up. Barry wanted to have identified the lead voices on either side of the group's last single for Sam Cooke and J.W. Alexander's SAR Records - OLead Me To Calvary c/w OMother Don't Worry Bout Me' - and to learn something about Sam Cooke himself...
I'm doing 'Mother Don't Worry 'Bout Me' and Jimmie Outler is doing 'Lead Me To Calvary'. It was a little confusing for the public because everybody thought Jimmie was out front but we just switched it around and, in fact, on 'Lead Me To Calvary', that's actually Sam Cooke and I in the background. Sam is singing the top voice and I'm next to him and then [group member/guitarist] Sonny Mitchell. Sam was a really fantastic guy. To tell you the truth he always tried to make anyone comfortable that was in his presence. He treated everybody as if he had known them for years. He made the breakthrough really for black Americans in the music business. At the time he was the one that came out with the 'natural' hair-do and he was on the Ed Sullivan Show and he didn't wear a suit. He had on jeans and an open collar and everybody said OWhat is Sam trying to prove?. You know, he made a [secular] record called OLoveable' when he was still with the Soul Stirrers and he went under the name of Dale Cook. Round the country, everybody kept saying to Sam, OYou know that's you, that's you, That's when Sam Cooke first left the Soul Stirrers. He almost had to leave.
At the time he was killed, I was on the road with the Soul Stirrers. As a matter of fact, we talked to him that same night and we found out about his death next day through the radio. Our bus had broken down in Atlanta, Georgia. We called Sam and told him we needed some money because we were on our way to Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. Sam said OI'll get back to you guys first thing in the morning'. So, after we didn't hear from him, we went to Hertz and rented a car and on the way to Rocky Mountain we heard the bulletin on the radio and it was really shocking. The Soul Stirrers were making their move under the Chess umbrella (as signings to Checker) when the powers-that-be within the Company, most notably Gene Barge, singled out James Phelps for his first secular solo recording. Happy to comply, James went into the studios, cutting Barge's 'Love Is A Five-Letter Word', a piano and horn-led swinger in the style of Bobby Bland's material at the time but vocally more akin to an earthier Sam Cooke, something that came across even more on the Cooke-ish flip, 'I'll Do The Best I Can'. To this day, James calls 'Love Is A Five-Letter Word' rock n' roll but will concede the classification of rhythm & blues when pushed. That's what they said at the time, rock n' roll, rhythm & blues..., he said. An instant success (on the Company's Argo subsidiary); a number one in several cities and a national r&b chartster peaking on Billboard at #12 and an even better #4 with Cashbox. As a matter of fact, added James, when I made 'Love Is A Five-Letter Word', it was number one on several r&b hit parades. (Not his first taste of the top spot, however, as the Clefs Of Calvary's 'Standing Where Jesus Stood' was had topped the gospel charts).
Such an instant success meant that James would need to reconsider his tenure with the Soul Stirrers. Chess called me and told me that my record was going to be released. The group was going to New York, so I told [Jesse J.] Farley - who was the manager (and former bass singer) at the time - and I said I'm sorry I won't make it with you guys. They said Why?. I said I won't hurt the group, they've been through enough. I remember what Sam did and I said I've got a rock and roll record that's coming out and it will be out by the time you guys get to New York and I don't want to hurt you. In consequence, James and the Soul Stirrers parted company and he did not sing on any of their Checker recordings.
The success of 'Love Is A Five-Letter Word' led to the start of extensive touring. Did he have his own band? I only had a guitarist at the time because most of the places I was on the big shows with other attractions and they furnished the band,' he replied. The only background I had was in the studio. And you'll be surprised to know that on the vocal background for my [Chess] records is Jackie Ross, Fontella Bass, Minnie Riperton, Sugar Pie Desanto and Etta James... and Maurice White, who went on to Earth, Wind & Fire, was on drums.
I experienced a lot of what we called 'salt and pepper' gigs, especially when I left the Soul Stirrers and went into rock & roll... Otis Redding, James Brown and all. We used to work together and we had 'salt and pepper' gigs where we would play and, in some instances, the blacks couldn't come in. The whites would come in; we would sing to them first and then we would have an intermission and the blacks would come in. In some other cases, we would sing and the blacks would be in the balcony and the whites would be on the first floor dancing. Although I never felt my life was in any danger [from racism], I did feel real bad when the racial thing was so obvious. For example, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, after OLove Is A Five Letter Word' and I stayed at a hotel where blacks were only usually allowed to come through the back door and work. For some reason I'd been let to sit in the dining room to eat and the black workers were looking through the window and waving at me. And I felt bad because they could not come in and participate.
James follow-up was a chunky beater, 'La De Da, I'm A Fool In Love', another from the Gene Barge pen. Gene Barge, that's 'Daddy G', the horn player, qualified James. In 1965, he was the r&b director at Chess but he did cut an album that year called 'Dance With Daddy G'. He's still around - with the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings. I talked to him a few months ago and he told me he was going into the studio. He said he was going to cut 'Love Is A Five-Letter Word' again. With 'La De Da...' - and its ballad flip, 'Wasting Time', cut earlier by Jackie Ross - failing to repeat the success of its predecessor, his next outing (on Cadet, to which Argo had metamorphosed) coupled a rolling 'Action' with a swing-along, femme-backed 'Oh What A Feeling'. James was somewhat hesitant when asked if he was generally happy with your career at the time. 'I was happy with the way things were going but I think my life was right at the crossroads at that time. There were some things that happened but I don't think it would be good for me to go into that. Things began to change. Opportunities from different areas popped up, business opportunities and money could come from more than just singing, so that's the direction I started to lean towards'.
Nevertheless, by mid-1967, James was of his volition recording for Fontana where 'Walking The Floor Over You', the flip of his first single - a finger-clicking 'Don't Be A Cry Baby' - and one of his most up-tempo tracks became popular on the northern soul scene in Britain in the seventies. 'Is that right?' said James. 'That had the girls I told you about in the background. And did you know that's an old country & western song? Ernest Tubb did it several years ago. As a matter of fact, when I did it he sent me a telegram congratulating me.' Arguably, Fontana blew it with his second single, choosing as the A-side the appropriately-named 'The Wrong Number', a messy-sounding item thanks to an 'everything but the kitchen sink'-style backing, over his own composition, the melodic 'Fabulous One'. Barry noted that, although James had composed most of the material on the Clefs Of Calvary's two albums, this was his first secular song - or at least the first to carry a credit for his name. 'I've always been involved in writing but it didn't [always] come up with my name on it,' said James. 'A lot of things happened'.
There followed a gap of four years before James' next recordings while once more he turned to other business opportunities, most notably an involvement with a big glass contractor. He did, however, continue making public appearances - 'off and on' - and so, in 1971, he turned up on the independent Apache label. 'I had a friend that started that company and he asked me if I would record something to give it a send off. I said yes.' James explained. The results were a pair of ballads, 'You Were Made For Love' and 'The Look On Your Face', the former a strong, straight-forward item and the latter, also recorded a year later by John Edwards, boasting more of a gentle beat. 'They went good,' he remembered. 'You could say I've been blessed. Everything that I have recorded has been really... I won't say it's been a smash but it's done good'.
The last two newly-recorded works to bear the James Phelps name took place a year later... 'Gene Barge came to me and told me Paramount wanted me to do something.' Barge presented the mid-paced 'Check Yourself' and Phelps chose Otis Redding's 'My Lover's Prayer' for the flip. 'Gene said the song could be my choice. Otis Redding and I had become to be very good friends. I never did the song on stage but I did it in memory of Otis. I sing that song a lot now. But, at that time, I felt my career was slowly winding down. I had lots of engagements but there was a crossroads once again. I had lots of pressures, personalities, that I wouldn't care to go into right now, so I just opted to lean more towards [outside] business.' Did he have any offers to go back into recording over the years? 'I understand that there were several companies that were interested in me but I was doing so well in business that I didn't pursue anything.''Laughing, he added: 'Now, I'm wide open!'
Indeed, Jimmy has never completely abandoned performing. 'I go to Vegas and I sing my secular stuff. I'm usually at Caesar's or some place... I've always been a guest. But you know it's really hard for me to go to church and somebody won't recognise me. And then they have me up to sing.' At the time of the interview, James was in an enforced resting mode... 'It's really ironic,' he explained, 'because when we made the contact, I was just recuperating from quadruple heart surgery. Five weeks later, I had neck surgery but I'm pretty much put back together pretty good now.'
As a conclusion to this feature, we will cover some loose ends regarding James' recordings over the years. Asked if there was anything still in the can, he believed there might have been one or two items left with Fontana but, sadly, nothing else. Barry then mentioned a shared lp with George Freeman, entitled 'Soul From The Vaults', which appeared on ... at the start of the nineties and featuring six tracks by James and seven by George. This turned out to be unknown to James until that time. Finally, there came a query about one (early) track on Mecca called 'Bluepoint Drive' which apparently has the name of Jimmy Phelps on the label. Did he know anything about this? 'I know absolutely nothing about it,' replied James. 'As a matter of fact I want to hear it. I got a call from Atlanta, Georgia, the other night - a young fellow, a fan of mine - he called and said there's another record and Im on it, so I'm doing some research on that right now'.