Last weeks UnSung episode featuring the mighty Whispers was one of my favorite yet, and I must admit, it’s mostly a Bay thang. There have been several Bay Area based episodes on UnSung, including the Sly Stone episode, Shiela E, and the great Con Funk Shun episode. The Whispers show both shed some light on the SuperFly atmosphere of Oakland in the 1970s and also impressed me with the story of a musical group that was hardworking, talented, loyal to one another and truly worthy of all the props we could give them for hanging in the music business for fifty years.
Finally, the Whispers origins were clarified to the satisfaction of this Oakland based blogger. I’d heard some things about the Whispers being from LA. and other reports about them being from the Bay. Several friends of mine recall seeing them perform during their high school years at various now defunct Bay Area nightclubs. Turns out Walter and Scotty were born in Houston and raised in Los Angeles, which is where the group came together. However, they were adopted so well by audiences in the Bay Area that they decided to make that their home base. I’ve heard many things about how the Bay Area of that time had a very strong performance circuit, that was able to sustain several groups, such as the Ballads, Eugene Blacknell, and the Natural Four. It was also revealed in this episode that the Pimps and Players of Oakland were one of the Whispers primary fan bases. That revelation was very interesting to me because of Oakland’s history as a city where the pimping game was very strong, an example of that being 1973’s The Mack. The thing that made that film notable is it was in part financed by the Ward Brothers and feature
many real life participants in that life.
The Whispers performed throughout the ’70s, being a very well respected group for both their vocals and their stage show, but never quite getting that big break. I found out more about the group in the last decade when I began purchasing episodes of Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. I’d buy episodes for groups who I’d never seen footage of at the time, like the Crusaders, or Mandrill, or Marvin Gaye, and lo and behold, the Whispers would always be on the same episode. I was impressed by their moves, their songs, and the rapport they had with Don Cornelius. If you watch episodes of Soul Train hosted by Don Cornelius, you’ll see there were certain artists he had a special rapport with, such as Rick James, or the O’Jays. The Whispers were one of those groups, and the Soul Train program gave them exposure even before they had that huge hit record.
It was on one of those episodes I encountered the early song “Seems like I gotta do wrong for someone to notice me”, which was a very poignant song for me. It could be applied many ways, but it makes me think especially of our current news culture and the amount of attention given to people who act outrageously.
Another song that was featured in the episode was “(Olivia) Lost and Turned Out.” This is a song I only became familiar with a few years ago, when our local “Quiet Storm” station, KBLX, put it back into rotation. I was shocked by the story, and the lyrics, “he wants to buy a new Seville.” The group memebers talked about this song and mentioned the songwriters niece had been turned out by some pimps and the song was his effort to speak to her and get her to leave “the life.” It didn’t please their fan base, but the song did become a hit on the charts.
The show glided right into their ’80s success with “And the Beat Goes On”, and of course “Rock Steady” and “It Just Gets Better With Time.” “Rock Steady” is probably the song I first got familiar with the group with in the late ’80s, while “It Just Gets Better With Time” is one of the ultimate California cruising songs.
The most impressive aspect of the show to me however, was the loyalty exhibited by the group. Several group members had serious problems, from incarceration, to inability to perform due to drugs. But the group made sure they continued to recieve a salary all the time they dealt with those issues and received them back into the group when they got over them. This was very impressive in light of some of the implosions witnessed among other groups. It reminded me of the Ohio Players equal sharing of credit for all the songs they wrote.
At the end of the day the episode made a fine case for why the Whispers seem to hold the special place in the hearts of their fans. It was funny to me that the Whispers and Frankie Beverley and Maze, though not outselling groups like the Temptations, Earth, Wind & Fire, and many other groups, were able to consistently tour and draw seriously passionate fan bases, years after their hey day. In fact, they seemed even more vital than the groups who outsold them years ago. I’m not sure we can truly ever answer that, but for me, it has something to do with the loyalty the Whispers showed to their talents, their band mates, and their fans. When you do that, you just get better with time.