I only spoke to Dominque Trenier once. I called him in an attempt to land a spot for a drummer friend of mine in D’angelo’s band. It was a good chat and I was left with the strong possibility that it might happen. I’d speak to D’angelo directly a couple of times before the near-certainty faded in to a not-gonna-happen. It was a little consolation that I wasn’t the only one this happened to. At the time, the business side of the singer’s act was a little chaotic, but the likely wasn’t Trenier’s doing. If he hadn’t been around, D’angelo’s early career certainly wouldn’t have been as iconic and memorable as it was.
It was Trenier’s idea for the singer to strip down for the “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” video, which saved his second album, “VooDoo,” which Trenier executive produced. Audiences were left with an enduring image of the singer, naked from the waist up, which wouldn’t be replaced for years. Trenier didn’t abandon his artist during his struggles with substance abuse, but he was eventually separated from in 2005 when he stopped communicating with much of his friends and family as his decent continued, according to Spin magazine.
Treneir’s contribution to D’angelo’s career was invisible to casual fans, but that’s how good manager operates. When D’angelo finally released his third album (“Black Messiah”) in 2015, it was bereft that invisible touch that guided his previous efforts. The cover lacked his picture. There would be no official videos. (No, this doesn’t count.) The album isn’t even credited to “D’angelo.” Good managers take care of the details and make things happen. If they do their job right, you might notice notice they’re around, until they aren’t.
Like any good saxophonist, J. Plunky Branch is long-winded. So some of lengthy conversation for my recent Style Weekly interview about his voluminous memoir didn’t make the paper.
I didn’t set out to be involved in African music. It sort of just happened for me. I started my first band [The Soul Syndicate] in college at Columbia University. I didn’t realize I was so Afrocentric, although I was very politically active, very left wing active at Columbia [University]. One of the guys in my first band had a picture of us playing at the Cheetah Club, one of the first discos in the 1960s in New York, all of the other pictures of the band, we dressed in all black or white ties, we looked like some kind of mafioso take-off, but in this picture, I’m standing there, leader of the band, I’m at the Cheetah Club and everybody else is dressed in that garb and I have on an African Dashiki. I was stunned to see that, I didn’t even remember that.
I went to San Francisco, really for political reasons, while I was in San Francisco, I got involved with an African musician [Ndikho Xaba], who was from South Africa, basically played with him for a couple of years. He was a South African expatriate, basically a political protester against the apartheid system there. And he taught me about African music. He had originally come here as an theater person, so he played music, but he was also very theatrical, very much an activist, so I got involved with that and learned about African music. My basic take-away from that was, in terms of African music and philosophy, was that music was more than just a play thing, more than just entertainment, it could be a political resource, a source of information … a motivator of people, in other words. But that was kind of a happenstance, I didn’t got to school for that, I didn’t plan for that, but I had a rich experience. Again, this is much more minutiae, much more detail than you want to hear about, and you see why my book is so lengthy.
After I left his group, I was part of music group doing the music for a play, by African nationalist by the name of Marvin X, a play called “The Resurrection of the Dead.” Basically, It was a ritual. I went from African music to an African ritual. Then after that I formed my own group called “JuJu,” and we studied African music. Again we lived the kind of life in San Francisco, where, for three, four five hours a day we are doing this ritualistic high energy African music, I recorded an album of it [Mesage from Mozambique], went to NY for a music festival, people were really taken by this because it was it was avant garde and it also had African Rhythm. It was kind of unique and kind of different for that time.
So later years, I forned my own group, came back to Richmond, again brought some of this philosophy back to Richmohnd. Richmond kind of trained me to go back to my R&B roots. Primarily beause Richmond was not New York or San Francisco, It wasn’t so open to the very progressive avant gard jazz. Later I ended up doing albums and tours with Bobby Byrd, toured in Europe … My life was very very interesting, but it was almost by step by step happenstance.
Many of your early records have become valuable. Why do you think that is?
One of the reasons is, not just the what of the music, not just the quality of the music or what the music says. A lot of it, in terms of determining value, is the rarity of the music and the rarity of the recording. If you have a Michael Jackson’s Thriller, even fifty years from now, it won’t be worth anything. There were 18 millon sold and probably 30 million printed. So it’s not going to have much value. But if you’ve got an early Plunky and Onenss album, the first pressing were usually 1,000 copies, and we’re talking worldwide. So when I got to London and I see “Message from Mozambique,” it might be literally 75 to 175 pounds for one of those album. It’s because it’s rare. I think, more than anything, it’s the rarity of it and the fact that I’m still at it.
Is there anything else?
One of the things I say in the preface of the book, is that they’re all kinds of people in this world, and everybody has a story. One of the thing I want to highlight is that I give thanks and respect and props to the people that allow me to operate like I’m some sort of beacon or I’m some sort of inspiring light. But for me, and I don’t want to sound cliche or overly humble, it really is the local people who sort of strive every day, the local musicians who sort of allow me to be up front person and claim all the credit, in all of the situations that I’ve had while, I’ve been the leader in just about every band I was in, clearly I couldn’t have done it without people allowed me to be the leader.
(Full disclosure. While sorting through old studio tapes in producer Stu Gardner’s archive, I found a tape with “Irene Cathaway,” written on the spine, a name I remembered from reading album liner notes on one of my favorite records. There were four tracks on the tape, none of which I had heard. They were more than demos, with horns, background vocals and some inspired organ playing, along with the powerful voice of Ms. Cathaway. One of the songs was allegedly appropriated by a opportunistic music industry executive and became this. Stu and I agreed that these songs and some of the others in his stash deserved to be heard. A few weeks later, we started a company called Gardner and Belcher Entertainment (GABE), to share some of Stu’s unheard and forgotten music with the world. This is our first release, a 12 inch record of “Disco Madness” and “He Can Ring My Bell,” two of the tracks from that tape. Right now, it’s only available in the UK, thanks to our partnership with Super Disco Edits and at a few select stateside record shops. There’s more to come in 2015.)
In the 1970s, Irene Cathaway was a seasoned back up singer, lending her talents to projects with Connie Stevens, Helen Reddy, Mike Love, the Charlie Daniels Band and television variety shows. But while she was busy supporting other people’s music, she also did a little of her own, but most of it would go unheard. Now, with her second release and her first since 1977, Irene’s second act has begun, with some soulful disco tracks that have aged gracefully.
“Disco Madness” isn’t your first record. Tell me about the other song people may know you from, “Now We’re Doing It,” recorded in 1977.
I was approached by the producer, Steve Angelica. I guess he heard me singing somewhere and he had a song that he thought my voice fit, so we went to the studio and cut it. That’s basically how it went. I never heard anything else about it. I think I did one appearance, he took me to this gay club that liked the record, so … that was it. Really exciting!
You did a lot of background singing in the 1970s, for some top acts. But you stopped recording in the 80s. What happened?
I was mainly taking care of my kids, I have two girls. I settled in with day work because my children were becoming teenagers. I didn’t really think going on the road was probably the best thing. Now, they’re all grown up with kids of their own.
What do remember about the session for “Disco Madness” and how did it come about?
I was introduced to Stu [Gardner] and I did a tv show theme for Stu called “Wacko.” Stu, he says, “I’m going to make you a star. I’ve got these songs that I want you to do, there’s four of them.” So he got me and my girlfriend, Linda Moller and we went in to the studio in Orange County. We worked like 12 or 14 hours on these tracks. It was a labor of love, I tell you, it was great.
One of those songs that came out of that session was “He Can (Ring My Bell).” What did you think when you heard Anita Ward’s song, which came out later?
I was on tour, I think I was in Philadelphia, I forget who I was working with, and I heard “Ring My Bell,” and I thought “Oh my God, somebody just stole this song!” That’s the first thing that came to my mind! I said “Oh well, I guess I’m not going to be a star.” (laughs) Because you can’t put out “He Can (Ring My Bell)” [after] “Ring My Bell.” You can try, but that’s not ever going to work. I just thought “Wow, Anita Ward got herself a hit.”
Now, your song is finally coming out, years later.
I think it’s going to be great. I’m excited, I can’t wait.
Another song that came out of that session was a cover of The Moonglows’ “Ten Commandments of Love.”
Its a moving song. It’s very poignant. It’s a beautiful song. I was going to try to start putting it my act, my husband and I have a duo. This is a song that speaks to everybody.
Who were some of your vocal influences?
Of course Aretha, of course Gladys Knight. I like all kinds of music. My mother was into music, she really got me into the singing business, but she never went professional. I’m Mexican, so we played ethnic music … I like everything.
Where can people hear you sing now?
Right now we’re working at a place called the Epic Bar and Lounge in Sherman Oaks. We do a variety. We do a jazz version of “I Love the Way You Move.” We do some of the ’60s tunes, “Natural Woman,” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” We have a good time. We really play what we like, because you’ve got to entertain yourself.
You can buy Irene Cathaway’s music here and book her band here.
I’ve worked for newspapers, tv stations, web sites, but I’ve never spent meaningful time in front of a microphone at radio station before. A few weeks back, I finally got my chance. Michael Murphy, the host of WRIR’s Mellow Madness, let me guest host his long running music program. After a few week of practicing, I realized that playing music and talking at the same time wasn’t something I was going to get good at quickly. Fortunately, I was able to secure a professional (DJ Marc) with years of experience to make me sound like someone who had done this before.
Here’s my playlist.
Completeness / Minnie Riperton
Mountains / Prince & The Revolution
Semi-First Class Seat / Mutiny
Spinning Wheel / Sammy Davis, Jr
80’s Joint / Kelis
The Oak Tree / Morris Day
Hot Line To Jesus / Rance Allen Group
Sunday Morning People / Honey Cone
Take Me Lord / The Henley Family Gospel Singers
Love Won’t Let Me Wait / Major Harris
Sea Of Tranquility / Kool & The Gang
Please the Pleaser / First Cosins Jazz Ensemble
Twice (?uestlove’s Twice Baked Remix featuring Solange Knowles & The Roots) / Robert Glasper Experiment
Baby I Won’t / Skillz
Girl, I Think The World About You / Commodores
Holding Back The Years / Simply Red
Funkin’ For Fun / Parliament
Do You Love What You Feel/ Rufus
Ghetto life / Rick James
A Night To Remember / Shalamar
I’ll Keep My Light in My Window (with The Combo Barbaro) / Quantic Feat. Alice Russell
Ain’t No Sunshine / The Dells
Sweet Talk / Jessie Ware
Dare Me / The Pointer Sisters
Shifting Gears / Johnny Hammond
Westchester Lady / Bob James
Seven Minutes Of Funk / Tyrone Thomas & The Whole Darn Family
Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone / Scatman Crothers
Joe Quarterman’s coming to town, and there’s going to be trouble. I spoke with the veteran soul man, known for his classic single, ” (I Got) So Much Trouble in My Mind,” recently for Style Weekly and here’s some of our conversation that didn’t make the cut.
Have you been to Richmond Before?
Many, many years ago. As a matter of fact, when I was going to school at Virginia State College, there was a band I played with called the Magnificent 7, and we backed up The Temptations in Richmond, in the late 60’s.
Your first album turned out to be your only album. How did you feel about it when it was finished and how do you feel about it now?
Well, I tell you, back then I thought it was good enough to be looked at for a grammy, ’cause we gave it our best. It was one of kind, you know? It was a different album. We really put some time in on that album.
How did you feel about it now?
I still feel good about it. I think it was my best effort. I’ve done a few others singles and things like that, but I haven’t done anything as good as the “so much trouble” album.
Your story is different. You didn’t suffer after your departure from the music business with bad situations or bad habits. You just kind of walked away.
I had to. I had to get another life. Anytime the president of the record company, this guy, Larry Newton, he was the former vice-president of ABC Paramount, and GSF records was a spin-off from that, he stood in a board meeting, my attorney there, my manager, Lloyd Price, a whole bunch of other folks, and he said that he didn’t give a damn how many hit records I sang or wrote, they weren’t going to pay me one penny.
Yeah! That cut like a knife, you know? My attorney said, well, you know, these guys are just rip-offs, just try to live up to your end of the contract and once you get out of it and we’ll try to get you another contract. But see that broke my heart. My heart wasn’t in it after that. ‘Cause me and my guys had works so hard to make some of the best funk music that anyone could hear back then, and then to be rewarded with a slap in the face? I was supposed to be bringing the bacon home … they were supposed to tally up. I was hoping I could’ve paid the band members a bonus, take care of my family catch up on my bills, you know what I mean?
But none of that happened. No matter how hard I worked, I was not going to be financially rewarded for it.
Who has the rights to the material?
I have been fighting that battle for 30 years or more. I’ve spent money with attorneys and so forth. They had sold some of the publishing rights to Gandy Music, that’s Sylvia Robinson and Joe Robinson’s legacy.
Yeah, the Sugar Hill Group. They sold it to this company, Music Licensing, out of the Netherlands. I went after them, and they had sold it to Soul Brothers in London. And I haven’t gotten one penny since 1974. But the truth is none of them own the music, I own the copyrights ans so forth. So it’s a matter of piracy. They know I can’t do a whole lot about it unless I cough up a whole lot of money and wait a long time. They’ve got lawyers who do this all the time, workin’ on their team, that know how to deal with cats like me.
What role has DJ Pari played in your recent career?
DJ Pari has awakened my soul. He put me in Europe, and my reception has been wonderful. My thanks to him for that. He’s kind of shaken me up to generate my interest in recording and doing shows and so forth. I really appreciate all he has done for me so far. I wish we could do more, but I’m sure he’s doing his best.
Joe Quarterman plays Saturday May 19 at Balliceaux, 203 N. Lombardy St. Tickets are $10-$12. balliceauxrva.com.