Finding Success Before "Fame": Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar Trace Their Uptown Roots
Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar, who actually lived "Uptown Funk", retrace their uptown roots, their breakthrough at the Apollo Theater, and how they brought funk to Sesame Street.
Let's go back a little bit more, Carlos. When did the guitar enter your life?
Alomar: I was ten years-old. There were five of us in my house: three boys, two girls. Me and my younger brother shared a room but my older brother Luis had a room of his own. He had his own record player too. Let me tell you, he was all "L.L. Bean". He was a preppie. He was on the gymnastics team and the swimming team. I used to sneak into his room and, regrettably, scratch up his records. I saw the guitar up on this gigantic tall bureau that he had. I could only see the silver tuning pegs but I knew it was up there. My father said, "If you'll stay out of his room, I'll give you the guitar" because my brother didn't play the guitar.
Of course I didn't stay out of his room but I got the guitar. I went to sleep with my fingers bleeding at night and every morning I'd pick it back up. I did my homework at school so that I would come home and only have chores to do and I could immediately start playing guitar. The guitar was all I needed.
Because my father was starting his own church, I had to accompany all the brothers and sisters when they sang. Now understand that I didn't know what the chords were! They would start singing and I would immediately have to attune my ears to find out what key they're singing in. Then by finding out what key they're singing in, I would immediately have to embellish what they're doing with chords that I thought fit their melody.
Playing by ear allowed you, as you later develop it, not only chordal integrity but scale-wise progressions that allowed you to know intuitively what suits a certain melody. It's not that I know what to play it's that I know what not to play. By default, you learn certain things organically or empirically by just doing it from having to do it. It really fine-tuned me to "play by ear".
Robin, who nurtured your vocal talent?
Clark: I would say, it was when I met Luther and saw that I could really focus this talent I had. Before that, it was always about singing around the house or singing in the talent show. I was always the kid that the teacher would say, "If you're good today, class, Robin will sing a song for us." One day Luther came to me and said, "I'm going to an audition at the Apollo Theater. Come with me for moral support." I should've been going home right after school but I went to the audition.
Peter Long was the man who ran the audition. He was the publicity agent for the Apollo. He was short and menacing! He came over to me and said, "What do you do?" I said, "I go to school with Luther." He said, "Well do you sing?" I said, "Yeah I sing." He said, "Well get up and sing a song." I didn't have a song prepared! At the time, "Respect" (1967) had just come out. It was my favorite song. I loved Aretha Franklin and I used to kill that song in the house! I got up and sang "Respect".
Just before I was done, he stopped me and asked, "Do you know any gospel songs?" I grew up Catholic so I knew Gregorian chants and Catholic hymns. We'd listen to Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, the Five Blind Boys, or Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers but I didn't really go to a baptist church, so I sang "Didn't It Rain" by Mahalia Jackson. He said, "You're in the group." He told us that we'd have to come back for rehearsal tomorrow. He looked at me and said, "Never sing a song that's not in your key. Find who you are and sing where you sing." I was singing "Respect" in Aretha's key but it was all too high. His advice was find your place. Find what it is that you do well and kill that.
Alomar: In my case, Peter did the same thing. It got to the point where Shades of Jade would always win the talent shows at Fordham. The director said one time, "You can't do the talent show as Shades of Jade. Luther, you sing your own songs on the piano and Carlos you do something with the band." I took that as a challenge. I got together with the band and we rehearsed "Soul Finger" (1967) by the Bar-Kays. Luther of course did one of his own songs.
On the night of the performance, the band chickened out. Of course, I cursed them out and said, "Screw you guys. I'll go out there by myself." I came in second place. The next thing I know Luther says, "Come down to the Apollo to support me. I'm going to try out for this band." I go down there and I'm standing there supporting Luther. Then I go a second time. Peter said, "What do you do?" I said, "I play guitar." "I don't want to see your face down here again unless you bring that guitar and show me what you can do."
My father had recently died. Once I paid my dues at church, he bought me a real guitar and a little amplifier. I brought my little Sears and Roebuck guitar and amplifier to the next rehearsal. I could hear these people snickering. I played "Soul Finger" for them. I nailed it. I got in the band. Nat Adderley, Jr. was the piano player. We remain friends to this day.
Clark: Luther also brought Fonzi Thornton down to the Apollo. I think Fonzi and Luther's sister Ann lived in the same projects. There was another singer named Diane Sumler who would sing background with us on Young Americans and later went on to become a member of Luther's first group, "Luther". She was the youngest of all of us and went to high school with Luther and I. We brought her down to the Apollo as well.
Joe Cobb and Van McCoy wrote the A-side for the only single we ever released, "Only Love Can Make a Better World" (1969). Joe and Van went on to write the Top 10 R&B hit "Right on the Tip of My Tongue" (1971) for Brenda & the Tabulations, as well as songs for Gladys Knight & the Pips, Melba Moore, the Whispers, David Ruffin, Faith, Hope & Charity, and many more. Of course, Van exploded with "The Hustle" (1975), which went to number one.
So the group that Peter Long assembled at the Apollo turned into Listen My Brother?
Clark: Yes, Listen My Brother was Peter's brainchild. He culled these kids from all over New York — the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. He amassed a group of about 16 kids. He was the mentor and the visionary. He took you from singing into a hairbrush in the bathroom to singing on the Apollo stage at 17-years-old.
We got a rich musical background for free in the entertainment industry. It was every day after school. George Stubbs was the pianist for the Reuben Phillips Orchestra. He would come down and play with us. We had another member named Edgar Kendricks. His background was in gospel. He was from the South and wrote most of our songs. At one point, we had drama lessons with Ernie McClintock of the Afro-American Studio. We were also given voice lessons. We had a choreographer named Tommy Johnson as well as the legendary Honi Coles (from Coles and Atkins). He would often come downstairs and talk to us about choreography.
One day Pete came to me and said, "Nancy Wilson is on the show and I want you to go upstairs and watch her microphone technique and her posture. Watch how she utilizes the stage." We learned how to carry ourselves. We learned how to use a stage. We were taught transitions, how to handle the mic, how to speak to an audience, and even how to dress. It wasn't just about singing.
Listen My Brother, Apollo Theater, 1967 (courtesy of Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar)
Alomar: At one point, Hair (1968) opened on Broadway so the music from Hair became part of our repertoire. Starting like this sets you on a level of expectation of what you should demand of yourself, to be able to match and meet the challenges. Peter Long was all about facing these challenges head on. Nobody could hide in the background in Listen My Brother. If you came in with low school grades, you were out of the group.
Clark: I got snatched out once. Peter said, "Your mother called and you're not doing well in school because you're here so you're out of the group until your grades improve." I quickly snapped it together. Then the most wonderful thing happened when Peter said, "You're not going to have to be called 'the Rehearsals' anymore. You're going to perform on the stage." We started with shows and festivals. We performed for the first Earth Day concert in New York City.
We also sang at Jackie Robinson's home, as well as doing a show with Isaac Hayes at City Center. I got to perform with Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer whose song I had used to audition for Listen My Brother. We opened for Sly & the Family Stone at the Apollo.
Alomar: When those Apollo curtains opened, grey grill amplifiers were stacked from the floor to the ceiling … we're talking 20 feet. Imagine from top to bottom! It's like a wall. The first song they did was "M'Lady". With the pulsation of that song people went crazy. I actually went upstairs and tried to call someone to tell them what was going on. You could not hear anything in the telephone booth.
One of the exciting things for Robin and I was that we were invited back to their hotel. While we were experiencing the "Black Consciousness" movement, Sly & the Family Stone were more like hippies with gigantic Afro wigs, bellbottoms, fringed vests, and bright colors. Me and Robin were just taking it all in. It was the most surreal thing for us.
Clark: The other thing was that we were clean cut. Nobody did drugs. Nobody drank. It was totally forbidden and never a thought for us. If Pete caught anyone doing that, you were out of the group. It was different for Sly and the Family Stone. They had a whole different thing going on but it was one of the most exciting moments of our lives to be seventeen and eighteen years-old and taking all this in. It was just amazing.
Luther essentially brought the two of you together through Listen My Brother. How did you start dating?
Carlos: Luther, Bruce Wallace, Fonzi Thornton, and Robin were all in Listen My Brother. I really liked Robin a lot. Then I found out that our assistant choreographer Bruce was going out with Robin!
Clark: My sister was in the group. She used to say, "That guy Carlos really likes you. He wants to go out with you. He's so intelligent. He's such a good conversationalist". I remember saying to her one day, "Since you like him so much, why don't you date him?"
Alomar: I waited and waited and waited. Then one day, I notice Robin and Bruce having an argument across the street from the Apollo.
Clark: We'd come from doing a concert at Jackie Robinson's house. He'd passed away by then but his wife ran his foundation. Bruce and I had an argument. Carlos stood on the other side of the street watching the argument. I took Bruce's briefcase and I hurled it into the street. Papers flying! Carlos came over to me and he asked, "Are you okay?" He then put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Everything is going to be alright." On that day, we became best friends.
Carlos: At the same time, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles were exploding. They were really everywhere during this time. Their development was getting to the point where they had a record out every six months. They toured locally on the east coast. They were the Sweethearts of the Apollo. Luther, Fonzi, and Bruce started a fan club and we got into the whole thing. They all had plans on going to this place called the Cheetah Club but Robin didn't have any money.
I was a go-getter kid. I was doing whatever jobs I could to make extra money, so I said, "Do you want to go to the Cheetah? I can give you the money." She said, "Really? Sure!" When we were getting ready to go to the Cheetah, Robin was walking up the stairs of the Apollo. When she turned to me and said, "Where are you going?", I said, "I'm going to the Cheetah." She said, "No you're not." I said, "Yes I am." Then she hit me over the head with this bag full of coins that I gave her. When she hit me over the head I was like, That's it! I'm done with you, which made her realize the error of her ways … (laughs)
Clark: We go to the Cheetah and Patti invites someone from the audience to come up and sing.
Alomar: Robin didn't know it but we were behind her, pointing …
Clark: I was still in my rehearsal clothes. I had a do-rag on my head and was ill-prepared to sing to a packed house. They pushed me up on the stage with Patti, Nona, and Sarah. I had to sing with them. It was a dirty trick to get back at me. I was mortified but I was taught to be a trouper, so I made it through.