Monotrematous Funk

An Interview with Platypus

by Christian John Wikane

16 April 2009


There must be something in the water in Dayton, Ohio. Lakeside, Ohio Players, Slave, Shirley Murdock, Zapp, and Van Hunt represent just a handful of the acts to unravel the musical DNA of this small Midwestern metropolis on the world stage. Their contributions to the worlds of funk, hip-hop, and R&B extend far beyond the city’s 155,671 residents.

From this particular geographical genome grew Platypus, a band known to the dwellers of Dayton as the purveyors of funk-infused progressive rock and perhaps the first black band ever to inhabit the orbit of Yes and Genesis. To the staff at Motown during the late-‘70s, they were something a little different: their close relationship with producer Hal Davis facilitated their participation in records by Michael Jackson, Thelma Houston, Diana Ross, and The 5th Dimension.  To present-day DJ’s and crate-diggers, they remain the force behind “Dancing in the Moonlight”, an infectious disco romp that lit up dancefloors for a spell in 1979. To most everyone else, they are something of a question mark, a curious footnote in the discography of Casablanca Records, which released their only two albums, Platypus (1979) and Cherry (1980).

However, the Platypus story began well before those two albums, dating all the way back to 1972 when the band packed up from Dayton and moved to Los Angeles.  They immersed themselves in the scene and were quickly noticed by fellow artists and industry tastemakers. Everyone from Rick Wakeman to Roberta Flack recognized the band’s exceptional musicianship and booking agents far across the globe in Japan and Australia invited Platypus to play for extended jaunts. Record executives from Motown and Atlantic were impressed by what they heard but were also challenged by the band’s forward-thinking fusion of musical influences. Even when the band conceded to commercial strictures they still retained a distinct style that was honed from performing together for the better part of a decade. It’s little wonder that Casablanca, which signed and promoted every kind of act imaginable, was ultimately the label that took an interest in Platypus.

Once the act entered into a major label contract, two irreparable events dissolved what Platypus had taken years to create.  The tragic death of lead guitarist Larry Hines brought their momentum to a halt while the sale of Casablanca to PolyGram generated drastic personnel changes at the label. Under a new regime, Casablanca dismantled its roster and internal fissures between band members ended the nearly decade-long career of Platypus.

The principle members of Platypus – Lloyd Jones, Kerry Rutledge, Curtis Sanford, and Arthur “Hakim” Stokes – have not played together since 1980, yet all four musicians are still recording, producing, and performing with other entities. 30 years after their debut, Platypus shared their memories of how they came together, toured the world, and made innovative music during one of the most creatively fertile decades in popular music. (Note: additional portions of the interviews with the members of Platypus will appear in PopMatters’ forthcoming retrospective celebrating the 35th anniversary of Casablanca Records.)

Tell me how Platypus formed.

Arthur “Hakim” Stokes: We started in Dayton, Ohio. The group was called The Four Corners and it was originally four singers: Dana Meyers, Floyd Weatherspoon, myself, and Jerome Johnson.

Kerry Rutledge: I was in a group called The Bad Bunch. What happened is The Bad Bunch did a gig in Cincinnati and on the way back, the lead singer fell asleep and ended up crashing the van. He ended up passing in two days and the other singer was crippled and one guy lost the use of his legs. My cousin walked away unscathed.

Curtis Sanford: I was in the band with Kerry. In the meantime, The Four Corners weren’t really touring or playing that much so some of their members came to fill in for the guys that we lost. When The Four Corners decided to start back up, one of their members quit, and they took Kerry along with them. It just so happened that their drummer was leaving too. Kerry mentioned that I was available, so then I became part of that band that backed up The Four Corners.

Stokes: The three-piece backup band was Larry Hines, Lloyd Jones, and Curtis Sanford.

Lloyd Jones: It just kind of evolved. We dropped the “The” and we were just “Four Corners”. Little by little it turned more into a self-contained unit, rather than a singing group and back-up band.

Why did you move from Dayton out to Los Angeles?

Stokes: Hal Davis, who has passed on, was from Cincinnati. He was also the Jackson Five’s producer. We had written a song called “What Goes Around Comes Around”. Hal had come to Dayton through a mutual friend, Levinsky Allen. He heard it, liked it, and ended up recording it for Michael Jackson on the Ben (1972) album.

Rutledge: It was good timing for the group to use that vehicle of being on the album with Michael to get into Motown. It was on my 19th birthday that we arrived in California. So on my 19th birthday, I was in Berry Gordy’s Sunset Studio with Hal Davis and Four Corners.

Sanford: The guys who were co-writers were scheduled to receive the royalty check for “What Goes Around Comes Around” so we decided that we could use that money to supplement us while we’re there. Those guys graciously offered to donate a good portion of that money to help us pay expenses, hotel bills, and food. We didn’t know what we were going to be in for. None of us had ever been out there.

Jones: We didn’t know anybody in Los Angeles except our friends in Lakeside, because they were also from our hometown and they got there maybe a year or two before.

Stokes: We met a young lady called Sandy Newman. I can’t remember who was with me but somebody else from the group. We were at a shop on Hollywood Boulevard and being the person that I am—friendly and just talks to people—Sandy Newman and I started talking. At that time, she was the manager for the Bar-Kays, Robert King, and Lenny Williams, who was the lead vocalist with Tower of Power. We talked and we exchanged numbers and everything. She ended up managing Platypus. When she managed us, she had another woman named Beverly Smolen, who became her co-manager.

How did Four Corners become “Platypus”?

Sanford: We were just kind of pow-wowing. In the beginning, we were a four-man singing group with a back-up band but we were always kind of one unit. One of the bands that we kind of patterned ourselves after in the early days was Three Dog Night because they had three singers and they had a back-up band but they were all under one name. We were trying to come up with names and coming up with names, to me, is one of the hardest things. We just got to the point where we were just saying anything. We just got so fed up with it. We just said, “The next name we come up with, we’re going to keep it whether we hate it or not”. 

Stokes: I believe Beverly Smolen was the one who came up with the name “Platypus”. It had such a nice ring to it that we were okay with it. There were a lot of other names in the hat but we went with Platypus. A platypus is a mixture of a few different animals. It has webbed feet like a duck, its body is kind of like a beaver, and it has a duckbill. The interesting thing about that is our music was a mixture of different sounds. It went on to represent what our music was.

Jones: We thought it was apropos. We actually were interested in the rock and roll side of the business but, being black kids, we grew up hearing a lot of jazz and R&B in all of our respective homes and around our friends. A lot of us were interested in progressive rock.

So Platypus was really a poetic way to encapsulate what your band was about.

Sanford: Coincidentally, as soon as we came up with the name Platypus, in less than a year, we were in Sydney, Australia.

Which is native to the animal! How did you get the gig in Australia?

Sanford: Sandy had connections overseas with club owners. He was looking for a band at the time. She sent info on us and he accepted us.

Rutledge: We performed there for about two or three months. We actually got a chance to meet Joe Cocker. He came to see us. Rick Wakeman came to see us. We played the song “Roundabout”. He basically told us point blank that we were the first group he’d ever seen play it absolutely correctly. When Chris Squire and Jon Anderson recorded the ending to “Roundabout”, Rick said that they had to slow the machine down to get it to sound that high. We just did it naturally.

What a compliment!

Sanford: Oh, it was a bigcompliment. Our heads kind of swelled. When he told us that, we were just on cloud nine. We were the most serious Yes-heads. Everybody was into Yes. My first time hearing them, it just blew me away. We were eager to hear something different than the norm. John McLaughlin and the Mahavisnu Orchestra was a big influence on the musicians in the band. They were all instrumental, not much vocals. Genesis was one of our big influences. When people heard us, we were a cross between Yes and Earth, Wind & Fire meets Stevie Wonder meets Genesis meets Mahavishu Orchestra meets Rufus and Chaka Khan. We played and loved all kinds of music. Yes just really intrigued us because they were just so wide open. It seemed like whatever came in their head, they played well.

Rutledge: That’s the kind of music that we were about, man. We weren’t Con Funk Shun.

Jones: We didn’t want to be like everybody else. We wanted to create something new. When Living Colour came along, we were kind of like, “Man you know what? That should have been us”, because we were an edgy band like that but when we got signed, we thought that we had to start playing the game. We struggled to actually play what they wanted us to play. I know I wasn’t a good soul player. I never really played that kind of stuff. My interests were always more towards the rock kind of stuff.

I actually heard some tracks that sounded like they were recorded years before you signed with Casablanca. The Yes influence really comes across.

Stokes: We were working with a guy named Frank Byron Clark. He was the main engineer/producer that (later) worked with Total Experience Records. Total Experience Records ended up recording Yarbrough & Peoples and the Gap Band.

Jones: He wanted to record what the group really was, not a commercial version of it. Some of the stuff that we recorded early on, I was listening to the other week.  I’d like to do some of these over because I could really do them justice now. Some of the ideas, to me, are better than the musicianship at the time. The ideas were really solid I thought. I’d love to get a shot at doing it over again. Some of those songs I just really love.

Stokes: One of the songs that we did during that time was a song called “Appreciate Your Love”. That song was written by Dana, Floyd, and myself but we ended up recording that song on our second album, Cherry. Dana was the original lead vocalist on it but I ended up singing it once we did it as Casablanca. Floyd actually left after a year and went back to Dayton. Dana went on to be a songwriter with Solar Records and wrote for The Whispers and Shalamar. He left the group too, which broke it down to five.

During this time, were you still intending to sign with Motown?

Rutledge: Yes, that was the intention but for a lot of different reasons, that never did work out for the group. Some of us were able to be involved with big hit records. I was involved with “Love Hangover” with Diana Ross. I did some background vocals and played some percussion on that one. We did a TV theme album with Motown.

Stokes: We did a lot of background vocal work with Hal Davis, playing around L.A. and what have you. He would call me in to do things. I am an Aquarius like he was. I grew up being called “Sonny”. That’s a family nickname that came from my aunt but the interesting thing about it is Hal Davis’ name growing up was also Sonny. Whenever he would need the extra vocals, I would bring in Kerry or Dana. If he only needed the one voice, he would call me.

Rutledge: Hal Davis actually asked me to come and to help him with a song that we had put together. He asked me to come to the studio by myself. I got to the studio and he says to me, “Look man, remember this song? You remember all the harmonies don’t you Kerry?”  I said yeah, because that was my thing—I could sing all the harmonies. I was gifted. I never took a day of music or any of that. He explained to me, “Listen, this is what I want you to do, Kerry. I want you to go in here and take control of this session. What you’re going to do is teach these guys all the harmonies to this song. Don’t let them intimidate you. Make sure they do it exactly how you want them to do it. They’re some friends of mine and you should know who they are so come and let me introduce you”. That group was The 5th Dimension.

Wow! It’s interesting that though you were not signed to the label, you were still active with Motown. Even without an album, the band was doing a lot of gigs.

Rutledge: Yes. We did the Whiskey A Go-Go and all the hot spots back then. That was in ‘74. We toured Vancouver. Actually, we went up for one weekend at this one place called Oil Can Harry’s. The guy loved us so he said, “We want you guys to stay an extra week to open up the show for this group that just got a hot record up here on Mushroom Records”. That next weekend, we opened the show for Heart.

Topics: platypus
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