These are the Home Schooled kids. The groups who didn’t have access to publicists, stylists, dance instructors, or crack songwriting teams. The formula was simple: marry bubblegum and soul to the absolute sincerity of an enthusiastic child, cross your fingers and pray for airplay. But while the youthful sums of that formula may have grown up and walked away from their illusions of stardom, their permanent records remain.
The Jackson Five are never going back to Indiana, but we took it back to Indianapolis with Little Murray & the Mantics. We found sibling groups, like Step By Step, Jr. & His Soulettes, and Jack & the Mods. We found over- bearing fathers, like Arrow Brown, and manufactured groups, like the 3 Stars. Ultimately, we discovered a culture so deep and wide that it might be impossible to exhaust it. Collect them all? We’ll keep trying. But for now, here are 17 tracks to tuck into your lunchbox.
The Jacksons were scarcely the first of their kind. Pick any musical genre and we’ll show you a group of kids who were up to something similar. Rockabilly had the Collins Kids, blues had Lucky Peterson, doo-wop had the Pre-teens, Jimmy Castor & the Juniors, and Little Joey & the Flips, even jazz got into the mix with the Craig Hundley Trio. And just as soul was coming of age, so too was an influx of soul’s children. Groups like the Lil’ Soul Brothers, the Hutchinson Sunbeams, Mad Dog & the Pups, and Henry Ford & the Gifts were sprouting up all of over the country, and in some cases actually competing against the Jacksons in regional talent shows. Jr. & His Soulettes, Cindy & the Playmates, Eight Minutes, and the Man Child Singers all operated contemporaneously with the Gary-era Jackson Five, albeit to varying degrees of success and interest. You didn’t have to stray far from the grey landscape of the Indiana coastline to find kids at play in a grown-up business.
Twenty-five miles northwest of Gary, Indiana, the children of two Chicago families were busy dragging their equipment between their respective houses on 115th and 116th streets in wagons so as not to drive their parents completely crazy. Ricky, Hank, and Ronald Goggins along with Hedda, David, and Wendell Sudduth formed the Soul Impacts in 1967 before being discovered by neighbor Doris Jones one year later. Jones released a hastily recorded version of “Here’s Some Dances” on her short-lived S.I.M. label before turning the group over to veteran engineer, producer and manager Jim Porter. After a bit of tinkering that included adding neighbor Juwanna Glover and conga player Carl Monroe, Porter did the math and rechristened the group Eight Minutes. Between 1968 and 1969, he issued a crop of singles on his Jay Pee label, including a funky reworking of “Here’s Some Dances,” awash in kid-breaks and eerie vocal lifts. As the group grew locally, New York’s Perception label took note and eventually purchased their contract from Porter. The move spelled the end of their playing days as Perception brought in a team of session men for their only album. This same fate would bestow the Jacksons upon arrival at Motown. The LP and ensuing singles charted decently, but the Sudduth and Gogins family stopped short of pulling their kids out of school to take them to the next level. Years later Wendell would comment, “It was for the best, I think. I got to play baseball and be a normal kid. Michael didn’t.”
At the same time that Jim Porter was reconfiguring the Soul Impacts, he was also dabbling in a pre-teen girl group across town. Cindy & the Playmates, led by Cindy Redd (later of the Voices) and backed by Wanda Cunningham and Manesbia Pierce issued two singles on Jay Pee while in their early teens. “Now That School Is Through” is a classic kid concept song, yet still strong enough to have post-adolescent appeal. The uncredited male during the fade out captures the sentiment perfectly with “I think I’m just… just gonna lay around… take it easy.”
The lone 45 by the Man Child Singers is a musical snapshot of an anti-nuclear family, worthy of a frame and posi- tion on the staircase wall. Sue, Merl Jr., and Tony Saunders experienced the Summer Of Love firsthand through their pre-Grateful Dead father Merl. While most would be left home with the babysitter, these kids were stuffing LPs and packing at orders Fantasy while their father was recording in the next room over. Their big “break” came when the San Francisco Giants commissioned Merl Sr. to write and record a commercial jingle. Team Saunders was enlisted to do the vocal work. The drafting continued with Big Time Buck White, a political musical written by Oscar Brown Jr., Merl Sr. and family friend Ed Lewis, which featured both the Saunders and Lewis kids. After the musical’s limited run, Merl Sr., Jimmy Daniels, and Bill Elliot cut two of the most politically charged numbers from the show, using the children’s voices to bring a sense of levity to an otherwise heavy subject matter. The resulting Suemertone 45, “Mighty Whitey” b/w “Right On,” is a completely sincere sign-of-the-times from kids that were too hip to be believed.
While we’re on the subject of stage fathers, let’s get Joe Jackson out of our system and move along. A washout as a performer with a late 1950s vocal group the Falcons, Jackson turned to his kids to live out his star fantasies. If you haven’t heard every grisly allegation surrounding the King Of Pop’s pop, a 1992 movie of the week should get you up to speed. We have even more fertile paternal ground to plow.
Gangster-poser Arrow Brown took the senior Jackson’s philosophy on child rearing to the next level. Deno grew up in a house that operated in a foggy area between harem and commune, with anywhere from eight to ten unrelated women sharing a bed and paycheck with Arrow. The money was funneled into his Bandit record label, and by the time that Deno was four he was already being groomed as meal ticket successor. Acting as manager and agent for his son, Brown hit the pavement in search of ways to exploit the burgeoning talent sleeping in the room down the hall. Nights were spent singing the songs of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke to patrons of Chicago’s south side club circuit. Instead of going to school, Deno’s days were spent auditioning and rehearsing. Publicity photos at the time show him playing with a group of other kids, but later he would reveal that he didn’t know any of them. His 1973 single “Sweet Pea” b/w “If You Love Me” didn’t light up the phones at any local stations, but his hard work would eventually pay off with co-starring roles in Yaphet Kotto’s Monkey Hustle and the off-Broadway production of Raisin, the latter of which would earn him a Tony. By the mid-1970s it seemed that Deno’s star was on the rise, with constant mentions in local black press as “Chicago’s answer to Michael Jackson,” and one absurd headline that read, “Watch out Dylan, Here comes Deno!” But as Altyrone Deno Brown got older, the cereal ads and movie roles dried up. His final works would be a cameo as a dancer in the Blues Brothers film, and a second single, “The Eclipse Of Love,” a synthy soul ballad that was completely ignored. Even Deno himself doesn’t remember recording it. In classic child star fashion, Arrow Brown had squandered every cent his son had ever earned.
Legendary Chicago bluesman Mack Simmons was just one year removed from a 36-month prison sentence when he invested the proceeds of his drug smuggling operation into the Simmons Recording Studio. From a street level view this doesn’t initially seem like a positive environment for children, but Simmons was something of a Robin Hood, well respected in his community and a devout family man. In between recording and releasing bluesy-soul records by Arelean Brown and himself on his PM and Simmons labels, he found time to pump out a record by his children Lionel, Denise, and Danny. “You Are My Dream (School Time)” never charted, but its intentions were probably a bit less ambitious to begin with. One look at the record’s label confirms that this was a purely amateur affair, and given Mack’s curricular activities, it may be safe to assume that this record was more tax shelter than hit maker.
Harold Moore Sr. was slightly more determined with his children Harold Jr. (five), Vinita (four), Denise (three) and Jacqueline (two). Jr. Moore & the Soul Sisters (later Jr. Moore & His Soulettes) were formed in the late 1960s in Oklahoma City, OK, cutting their first 45 in 1969 when Harold Jr. was just eight years old. They were billed as the “World’s Youngest Recording Group,” which certainly seems like a reasonable claim given that the youngest member was practically a toddler. Their earliest material is arguably the crudest funk music ever recorded, but for our purposes it’s the purest essence of kid soul: written and performed entirely by the kids, who even had a hand in the recording and mixing. “2009 Cherry Soul Sound” is the only instrumental song we’ve chosen, showing a competence not often found with eleven-year-old guitar players. Post-dating their much-bootlegged Psycodelic Sounds LP, this mini-Hammond funk workout is available here for the first time since its original issue in 1973. Surprisingly prolific, the Moore family released five 45s and the aforementioned LP before hitting puberty and disbanding in the late 1970s.
By 1973, Michael, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Jackie were as hip as kids could get – literally household names, with lunchboxes, coloring books, a Saturday morning cartoon, and an Alpha-Bits cereal commercial pushing the J5 brand onto any kid with television reception. Their impressive run of four consecutive #1 singles playing on both pop and R&B stations cemented their appeal to both whites and blacks, prompting MGM to launch the Os-monds as the safer (read: white) alternative. And parents? Well Michael had that wrapped up with his impossible- not-to-love mini-James Brown thing. Even their song selection straddled both sides, with “Zip A Dee Do Dah” and “ABC” for kids, and contemporary standards “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” and “My Cherie Amour” for the older crowd. This extreme marketing and merchandising juggernaut created the kid soul explosion.
Riding the wave was New Jersey’s George Kerr, who produced scads of kid groups for Sylvia Robinson’s All-Platinum family of labels. The chart success of Ponderosa Twins Plus One with Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” coupled with another minor hit by Spoonbread was all the prompting Robinson needed to dive head first into pop’s newest wrinkle. Through a series of newspaper ads placed in various cities in the mid-Atlantic, two Jersey brothers (Joey and Jeffrey) were paired with a total stranger from Delaware (Leland), to form the 3 Stars. Kerr remembers so many kids coming in and out of the studio that last names just started to blend together. The “Jersey Slide” ultimately failed to catch on, as a song or a dance. The 3 Stars shared a similar fate.
The Eastern seaboard seemed to be teaming with kid talent, from Tampa to the Beltway, on established local enterprises Cap City, Gimp and DB Sound’s New Direction imprint, to shoestring outfits Hamtown and CP Ltd. Outside of Baltimore, the inexperienced Harry DePondichello tried his hand with the Atons (formerly the Little Dudes according to the label – as if this mattered?), producing a barbarian twist on one of America’s most misunderstood non-anthems. The unknown teen group’s savage funk reworking of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree” is a candidate for the Annoying Music Show, sure, but that “Whaaat??” is irresistible. It’s hard to imagine the group lasted much longer given the evidence of the lead vocalists changing-at-time-of-recording voice.
Right down I-95, Silver Springs, Maryland’s Promise delivered quite possibly this set’s perfect song with “I’m Not Ready For Love,” a lyrical tightrope walk between post-adolescent petting and pre-teen puppy love. DB Sounds proprietor Robert Hosea Williams, however, was more interested in marketing the young foursome to adults than raising the temperature of kid fever. Discovered by Williams’ DC International artist Skip Mahoney while performing at a seedy Holiday Inn, the Gerladets were a mess of a group who could barely sing their arranged parts. Williams immediately set out to make the group over with a rigorous rehearsal schedule and a brand new name. His original name for the group was Kiss, but scrapped it when a Neil Bogart represented artist of the same name emerged in early 1974. Neither of Promise’s two 45s made much noise on the airwaves, but the group managed to open for a slew of known talent (James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes) before calling it quits a later in the decade.
Due south on Georgia Avenue from the DB Sounds office was the Part 3 Club on the corner of Park and Georgia in Washington DC. Owned by Foster Johnson, partner in the Cap City label with Joe Tate, the Part 3 hosted a talent show every Monday night that was usually loaded with sub par kid groups. Michael Washington was the son of a Part 3 waitress who emerged from the pack one night to take home the prize. Tate and Johnson seized on him quickly and cranked out two singles, but a lack of airplay coupled with Johnson’s murder put Washington’s career on permanent hiatus. Tate recalls a promo photograph where Washington is pictured walking up the stairs of the Capitol building, right foot first, his eyes on the dome. “We really thought he was going somewhere,” Tate said.
On the outskirts of Suffolk, Virginia, Navy chief Alvin Blount was having a similar sense of discovery. While broken down on the side of a road near Chuckatuck, Blount heard singing coming from a run down shack at the end of a dusty driveway. Practicing inside on cardboard boxes and cheap guitars were the Townsend brothers, Jake, Ricky, and Jack, and two cousins. Eventually, all six brothers would join the group, though none of their five sisters would take the Janet or Latoya path. Led by bassist Jack, and named so for his eldest status, Jack & the Mods real talent lay with nine-year-old brother Jake. Nowhere on this collection will you find the level of control exhibited on “One Is Enough For One,” and outside of Michael, there are very few in the entire genre that rival Jake Townsend’s vocal prowess. Alvin Blount unhesitatingly took the group under his wing, supplying them with a real drum kit, apparel, and the financial means to record and release a single. He set up performances all over the region, and even had the Mods booked at the Apollo, but the group got lost on the way to New York. The break they needed always seemed to be just out of reach. When Blount was transferred to a military base outside of Virginia, the group was left in the charge of a friend, who passed it on to another friend, who died. He returned three years later to find their once new equipment piled in the corner of the shack collecting dust. Perhaps the Townsend’s ambition for stardom went out with their youth, but Alvin Blount had placed that hunger in them. He packed up more than a drum kit that day; he packed up an entire pipe dream.
All the way down in Tampa, Blair Mooney was chasing kid soul aspirations of his own. Though only one was released on his Gimp label, Mooney produced a handful of juvenile acts between 1970-1975. Backed by a hard funk ensemble, the Triads “If You’re Looking For Love” put the Jackson’s pop soul on notice, but not outside of Hillsborough County. The single’s lack of national distribution crippled their ability to grow, but regardless, the Triads were still a few lucky breaks away from challenging even the second tier. Mooney remembers nothing about the group, making this single the only public evidence of their existence.
Across the country, Laff Records’ ALA imprint struck an interesting compromise between Schoolhouse Rock and Millie Jackson’s Caught Up when it issued “Trust Your Child Parts 1 & 2.” Longtime Los Angeles artist and producer Jimmy Robins cut the kid positive message record in 1974 with a friend of a friend’s daughter. Under Patrizia’s confident vocal, Robins puts on a Hammond funk clinic, adding his hoarse yelp where necessary, yet still manages to give the pre-teen the kind of space demanded in the song. With rap still half a decade off, the track failed to resonate with kids, or the parents it hoped to sway.
Meanwhile, back in Indiana, the monomania was not confined to Gary’s city limits. Discovered while singing a Jackson Five tune (what else?) at a talent show in Indianapolis, Little Murray (last name unknown) is another addition to the “where could they possibly be” field of child performers. Paired with a group of older boys known as the Mantics by songwriter and producer Romeo Glenn, the group cut their only record at New Palestine, Indiana’s 700 West Studio. Released on the studio’s in house custom label of the same name, “Don’t Leave Me Mama” is a bizarre riff on a common childhood fear, replete with sobbing and unintelligible lyrics. Somehow, this oddball 45 drew major label attention, which promptly vanished when Murray’s parents uprooted the family and moved to Detroit.
Chicago seemed to have an endless arsenal of kid groups. The Five Stairsteps massive resurgence after adding three-year-old Cubie to the group lit a fire underneath the city, setting off a whole new wave of also-rans. Blues all-star Willie Dixon was three years removed from his success with Lucky Peterson’s “1-2-3-4” when he released the Quantrells “Can’t Let You Break My Heart” on his Yambo label. Produced by Billy “Mr. Shy” McGregor, the single is the only proof of the Reynolds sisters’ brief career. Not to be left out, Ole records leftover Otis Brown took a run at Cubie’s crown. After a string of misses with his own recordings and one-offs by Presidents Council and Brand New Faces on his trio of labels Lujuna, Ex Spect More, and Gossip Tree, Otis set his sights a little lower, or younger rather. “Time” is a hypnotic journey through the seasons, a bubblegum-psych operetta straight out of “It’s A Small World After All,” and unfortunately one of only two known recordings by the 3rd Brown.
Even Milwaukee tossed its hat into the ring when the Gee brothers Johnnie, Jerome, and Dewitt got together with a few kids from their neighborhood to form Step By Step. Their first and only single, “Time After Time,” was recorded and released by Jim Kirchstein’s Cuca label. It’s a moody, labyrinthine song that showcases the immense talent of thirteen-year-old front man Johnnie Gee. The 45 failed to breakthrough on the national level, but it did catch the ear of Brunswick’s Chicago office. Four years later, the label finally released their follow up album, We Always Wanted To Be In The Band, a bootless effort by a group that had unfortunately missed its window by sitting on the shelf too long. The movement would face a similar fate with the graying and disco-come-lately Jackson family.
The public’s love affair with the Jackson Five lasted less than five years, with each of their successive albums and singles showing con- siderably less traction. Over saturation can probably be considered a prime suspect, and the onslaught of the fairly adult disco craze can’t be ignored, but the main culprit was age. As child performers grew up, so did their fans. Puppy love and Saturday morning cartoons were thrown out to make room for car keys and Donna Summer LPs. A new generation waited in the wings for New Edition, the Boys, and Kid N’ Play to surface, proving that while the kids change, the marketing remains the same.
No Home Schooled performer or any of their overly ambitious adult promoters found the path to kid soul stardom anywhere near as “simple as do-re-mi,” despite all that the Jackson Five and Motown did to make it look effortless. Instead, The ABCs Of Kid Soul unfolds like a map of American dreams derailed early. More energetic than funky, more passionate than soulful, whether fastidiously trained or shockingly green, these kid performers laid down nothing less than absolute honesty. No chart could ever tabulate what made each of them so valuable. We’re proud of them all, even if what you now hold may be judged more a mix tape than a carefully rendered historical document. In the end, we’d like to think it’ll grow up to be both.