Frank Howard And The Commanders

Frank Howard & The Commanders - Shotgun (Live)

Load More
I’m So Glad –  BARRY Records, USA

On The Beat in 66′ Frank Howard and The Commanders were filmed doing this track.
And guess what, “WHAT?”

Well Jimmy Hendrix played with these guys and is on this recording as a backing musician.

From The Tennessean.Com

Soul man – By TIM GHIANNI | Senior Writer

Frank Howard, a major player in Nashville’s old R&B scene, continues to stir folks with his music, only now they’re swaying in the pews

The soul of Frank Howard pours out, like his bright smile and perspiration, in the tidy confines of Patterson Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville’s Flat Rock section.

”I just want to thank you, Lord,” he sings and sways in the choir loft, as he and the Men United Male Chorus clap their hands. The 120 or so in the pews mirror those motions.

It’s a soul-stirring moment in Howard’s ongoing celebration, redemption and revival.

The most current chapter has this great rhythm and blues tenor aiding in the revival of interest in the old Jefferson Street music scene, the other color of Music City’s magic.

And while the revival that is most important to Howard is spiritual — a reason perhaps that he did not really talk much about his R&B past with his fellow churchgoers until recently — he now expresses pride in his past as a dashing, young R&B performer and in playing a key role in finally getting recognition for an all-but-ignored measure of Nashville’s musical history.

This gentleman has helped guide Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum researchers through that era’s history, providing videotapes and eyewitness accounts of nights spent with a scraggly former GI then known as ”Jimmy” Hendrix or perhaps with bass legend Billy Cox. There are flickering glimpses of his old rivals and best friends, the Hytones, and of pal/pioneering disc jockey ”Hoss” Allen, whom he calls ”Horse.”

His recollections and his personal archives have helped populate a new Hall of Fame exhibit — Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970 — which opens Saturday. His voice is heard on an accompanying compilation double album that demonstrates the crucial role Nashville played in the R&B scene.

Howard has lived the trauma and joy of one-night stands, both in segregated barrooms and bedrooms. Thirty years since his Seagram’s-guzzling nights, you’ll instead find him sipping from a communion cup while kneeling near the altar. Perhaps he ran with the devil. Now he’s chasing old Beelzebub away.

If the R&B music of his early years is that devil’s music, as his father used to proclaim, then the swooning and soaring gospel music he sings now is the music of his sweet Lord.

All of his music is filled with passion, whether he’s describing teenage love and broken hearts or confession and redemption.

”The R&B music is bar music,” says the Baptist by birth who strayed during the hip-swiveling and pelvis-thrusting days of synchronized dancing and harmonizing with his old band, The Commanders. ”What I’m singing now is about salvation.”

The star tenor lifts his voice to the church rafters and to the Lord as he and the Men United sing: ”I’m just waitin’ on Jesus. I’m just waitin’ on Jesus.”

”Yes!” ”Say that!” and ”Amen!” respond members of the congregation. Clearly, whether in a smoke-filled club or a spirit-filled church house, Frank Howard’s music, to borrow a song lyric, makes you wanna shout.

Early on a Sunday in the tidy, blond brick building on Whitsett Road, Pastor Tamara Lewis reminds her congregation of the important role ”Brother Frank” played in R&B’s history.

”Soul music,” she calls it. Of course that description could be used for all of the music Howard ever has sung.

• • •

”I never throw anything out,” Howard admits while conducting a tour through his basement ”museum” of the places and faces of the R&B scene that was gutted when Interstate 40 knifed through north Nashville. The Del Morocco was the hottest spot, a watering hole for Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis when they were in town. It was the place to catch guitar magician Hendrix before he changed ”Jimmy” to ”Jimi” and used an acid-washed voice and flaming guitar to ask Are You Experienced?

All that remains is a vacant lot near the Jefferson Street interstate overpass. A state Historical Commission marker, paying homage to the Jefferson Street Music District, stands lonely sentinel.

The Stealaway also is long vanished. The Baron has been turned into an Elks Lodge. And those are just some of the Jefferson Street losses.

The New Era, which occupied different locations on Charlotte, is gone, too.

The Bijou Theater was Nashville’s equivalent of Harlem’s Apollo. Bessie Smith sang there. Trumpet virtuoso Doc Cheatham played in the pit. It vanished when Municipal Auditorium was built.

”Urban renewal,” Howard says.

The basement tour includes a stop in front of his wide-screen TV, where flickering videotapes offer the old Nashville-based Night Train TV show and its Dallas equivalent The!!!! Beat. Most local R&B musicians of note performed on Night Train, as did stars who passed through town, playing for black audiences on Jefferson Street and enchanting crowds at white supper and dance clubs.

When Hendrix stoops and swings the guitar erotically during one segment of Night Train, Howard laughs. ”I asked that they not let him do that behind us,” he says of his long-dead friend. ”People would be watching him and not us. Distracting.”

The ”us” was Frank Howard & The Commanders, who had audiences bumping and shouting during Nashville’s great rhythm-and-blues explosion.

The Commanders, Hendrix (before he became Jimi), the Hytones, Etta James, Bobby Hebb, Clifford Curry, Joe Henderson and Esquerita (picture a more-flamboyant Little Richard) are a few of the artists whose stories are being told by, almost ironically, the shrine to what is arguably America’s whitest musical form.

Howard loaned video footage, photos, 45-rpm recordings, memories and even his face to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He and The Commanders appear on the cover of the recording, issued nationally by CMF Records/Lost Highway. They’ve also used an artist’s rendering of a young, microphone-clutching Howard on the logo advertising the show.

The Hall of Fame’s Michael Gray and Daniel Cooper, co-curators of the exhibit as well as co-producers of the double-disc compilation, fell upon treasure when they contacted Howard.

Gray, associate editor of museum services, is a longtime devotee of R&B music in Nashville. And he says Howard’s contributions, to the music itself and to the Hall of Fame exhibit, cannot be overstated.

”Frank was a key figure on the R&B scene here,” Gray says. ”His band, Frank Howard & The Commanders, were regulars in the nightclubs, and they were also featured on the pioneering television shows Night Train and The!!!! Beat.”

Gray says that when he and Cooper began soliciting information and material for the exhibit, Howard’s rich R&B history made it only natural that ”he was one of the first people we contacted.” Because the singer had squirreled away so many items chronicling not only his career, but also those of his friends and colleagues, his impact on the exhibit is almost immeasurable.

”Museums count on people like Frank,” Gray says. ”We couldn’t tell the story without someone like him stepping forward and loaning us photos and artifacts.”

While there are marquee names — Etta James, Joe Tex, Jimi Hendrix, etc. — this is not an exhibit about stars. ”This is sort of a lost history, with people who didn’t get their due,” Gray says.

Using Howard & The Commanders on the album cover was an easy decision to make, as soon as Gray and Cooper saw the photo.

”We already knew that what we wanted was a photo that captured what the scene was all about. That photo has so much energy to it.”

That energy also captured the attention of the museum’s logo designers, and in recent days, the face of a young Frank Howard has begun appearing on signs, banners and T-shirts.

• • •

As he sits among basement mementoes, Howard admits ”it feels good” to be rediscovered. ”But you know what feels even better is that folks like Larry Birdsong and Gene Allison and the guys who came before us, who paved the way for the Nashville (R&B) sound are getting recognized,” he says, adding that the country music ”archaeologists” who painstakingly exposed this large slab of history ”did a tremendous job.”

The 61-year-old — who left music to pursue careers as a banker (eventually rising to senior vice president), repo man and used-car salesman and executive — leads the way to a framed portrait of Hendrix.

”That was my boy, there. He played behind us for years at the Del Morocco. If Johnny Jones was missing for any reason, Jimi would sit in. . . . When he started playing here, he just was playing a few chords.”

Another figure in Howard’s history is Hendrix’s Army buddy, Billy Cox, who used his bass skills to lay down the foot-moving ”bottom” on countless recordings escaping from Nashville.

”Billy wrote a couple of songs for me in the ’60s: I’m So Glad and I Feel Sorry,” Howard says.

Cox began playing with Hendrix in Clarksville, Tenn., when the two were Fort Campbell soldiers. Their friendship and musical partnership continued in clubs here. And at the tail end of the guitarist’s shooting-star career, Cox joined Buddy Miles and Hendrix in the historic Band of Gypsies.

Cox, when not participating in Hendrix tribute events, still calls Nashville home. He also will be on a panel discussion focusing on Hendrix that will take place during the exhibit. Among items Cox loaned the museum: one of his pal’s flamboyant stage vests, his own Night Train-era bass and an amplifier he and Hendrix shared while composing Dolly Dagger and more in a stark apartment above the Del Morocco.

Cox shrugs off his own importance, saying the main thing is that overdue recognition is finally coming to ”all the guys.”

Guys such as Howard, who began singing street-corner harmony at Meigs High School. He ”graduated” to sock hops with the Marquees, co-founded by his oldest brother, Bruce, and other porters at Cain Sloan and other downtown department stores. ”We would get together down in the basement and sing,” says Bruce Howard, who preceded his brother in the Marquees. ”Our biggest song was the old Marcels song, Blue Moon. We did a pretty good version.”

Bruce Howard, who numbers Cox among his best friends and motorcycle-riding chums, left the music business to raise a family and begin a career as a long-haul trucker.

Bruce, 62, and Jerry Howard, 57, now sing bass and baritone to Frank’s tenor in the Howard Brothers gospel group as well as in the Men United Male Chorus.

Frank Howard has clearly found a new home for his R&B skills. And his fears about letting his brethren know of his past have proven baseless. To the contrary, Pastor Lewis says ”people have found it very exciting” to learn that a ”milestone-maker in the R&B scene” is in their choir loft.

”The history and the style of old-school R&B music is very similar to gospel music, except in gospel, the words are religious.”

Church has been the lifelong focus of most Howard siblings, including sister Bobbie, 64, and brothers Dennis, 59, and Tommy, 54. After all, uncle E. Scott Howard was the Satan-bashing, hope-affirming pastor at New Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Other than Frank, the kids stayed on the path cleared by parents Virginia and Bruce Howard Sr. Both were devout, and dad was a janitor who prided himself on the daily grind.

”He used to say, ‘If I have to go down the street eating horse (poop) with a splinter, I will not let my family go to the poor house,’ ” Frank Howard recollects.

”My daddy always said: ‘You be playin’ that devil music!’ But you should’ve seen him when it came time to turn on Night Train. And then he came and saw me for the first time down in Columbia. You shoulda seen his smile.”

As Frank Howard rifles through memorabilia, a white face keeps reappearing. It is that of legendary R&B-championing DJ and promoter ”Hoss” Allen.

”Horse was like my brother,” Howard says of the fellow who dispatched Nashville R&B to the world on WLAC radio and then on TV’s The!!!! Beat.

Frank Howard bristles when recalling that Allen changed the trio’s name from The Commanders to Frank Howard & The Commanders.

After all, his school chums, Charlie Fite and Herschel Carter, were equally important to the mix.

”I was very upset with my name out front. . . . But Horse said ‘I want you to be out there by yourself.’ Horse wanted me to be a Johnny Mathis-type singer. . . . I guess it all worked out.”

On the 40-year-old TV tapes, the three matchstick-slim men slip, slide and perform flying splits while singing (you make me wanna) Shout.

”Man, I was about 300 pounds lighter back then,” Howard exaggerates. ”Look at that guy!”

The talk about splits triggers memories of Joe Tex at the Legion Club, next to the current NES headquarters. ”We would always go hear Joe when he was in town because he was a top-notch entertainer. . . . We were there when he did his first split. His pants split. We had to lend him a pair of pants so he could get back on the stage.”

• • •

While Frank Howard hardly lives in the past, he relishes sharing memories.

Some of his old buddies still play R&B and try to entice him back to that path. (”I could go to Europe to play. We still sell records there, but I don’t want to fly.”) Others are dead. Some, like Frank, have swapped rump-shaking for Bible-thumping.

In the corner of his basement is a studio, where he masters CDs of his uncle’s sermons to take with him to the nursing home. He also writes songs, sometimes while puttering with a keyboard, more often while coaxing chords from a digital machine.

The latter is just what he’s doing when he cocks back his head and sends that rich tenor toward the basement ceiling and beyond. ”Let him in your life. Today. Today. So you had times and troubles and you tried to make it on your own . . .”

Tears stream down his face at song’s end. ”When you been out there as long as I been out there, I know that God has blessed me so much. I didn’t get on drugs. I used to make Seagram’s work overtime in my day.

”But now I know I’m blessed.”

Related information:

Getting there

Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970, presented by SunTrust Bank, opens Saturday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The first weekend of official activities will include performances and panel discussions. Guided tours begin at 11 a.m.

The museum is at 222 Fifth Ave. S. in downtown Nashville and is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays. It will be open seven days a week beginning April 1.

Admission is $15.95 ($24.95 for a two-day pass), $7.95 for children ages 6-17 ($12.95 for a two-day pass) and free for children under 6. The museum offers discounted admission ($13.95) to seniors 50 and older, the military and students with valid IDs. Group rates are available for tours of 15 or more.