Stevie Wonder got it just about right when he entitled one of his 1970s albums Songs In The Key Of Life, for that’s how many of us mark, and then recall, significant moments in our passing years. Of course, there’s the photo album or the cam-recorder but amateur pictures are so often inert and clumsy capturing the wrong smile, haircut or emotion, and evoking not much more than a giggle of embarrassment. The blogs, diaries, journals of today have become too self-regarding to be accurate memoirs.
But the songs that we associate with our lives remain vibrant, mystical and often random. How many times does a favourite piece of music ambush you, wafting out of a stranger’s window, or flitting past you from a passing car? Equally, we mostly have these songs in our own possession, formalised on a Spotify playlist or, in the latest ‘I knew I was right to stick with them comeback’, the audio-cassette. My music library roughly comprises 30% CDs; 25% vinyl singles; 40% vinyl albums; and 5% cassettes. Messy, but that’s partly the point of this storage system, because life is messy too. It should also be said that 85% of all this recorded media was performed by African-American artists.
I’ve elected to write about a single by one of the lesser-known singers of 1960s America, Darrell Banks. Partly because it came at a time when I had fallen in love with soul music, and partly because it always recalls a time of youthful transition, from O/A-level swotter to stylish Mod and Lurv God. I managed the former much better than the latter but remember nothing about exams. It might seem an odd connection – spotty adolescent Scouser and rising soul star – but the precise justification for it comes later.
First, for readers under the age of 40, there’s a recollection of those years when popular music was well nigh inaccessible. The first song I remember – because it was played, and sung to, every time my maternal Irish grandparents held one of their Sunday night shindigs – was This Ole House, a raucous, semi-comic 78. But when there was an interlude, I scoured granddad’s radiogram, one of those wooden boxes which, after being switched on, revealed a back-lit strip of exotic radio stations – Hilversum, Lyon, Vienna – the most important of which were Radio Luxembourg and AFN, the American Forces Network, based in Germany.
The former played the UK pop chart, still dominated in those late 1950s years by crooners such as Frankie Vaughan, Michael Holliday, Craig Douglas and the American Vic Damone (or ‘Victor Moan’ as we called him). Over on AFN, however, there were tantalising snippets of blues singers and harmony groups such as The Drifters and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers; influential rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard; and among the first that could be branded ‘soul singers’, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
My interest in the music was sustained by the technology that powered the huge appeal and success of popular music from the early to mid 60s – the transistor radio. A 10th birthday present (probably designed to shut me up), it suddenly meant that you could search for your own music. My little Sony, cased in a lattice of brown leather, took up near permanent residence next to my left ear, with the single plug reserved for the right (life was indeed ‘mono’ back then). I can recall hearing Soldier Boy by The Shirelles and Love Letters by Ketty Lester on a Sunday bus tour of Birkenhead and a walk along the New Brighton promenade – it was like being in two worlds.
Shortly afterwards Please, Please Me came fizzing down my transistor earpiece. It was the most electrifying music I’d heard so far, made more thrilling by its black American tone. On the first two albums, cover versions of Please Mr Postman, Money, Twist and Shout, You Really Gotta Hold On Me and Anna – originally sung by The Marvelettes, Barrett Strong, The Isley Brothers, The Miracles and Arthur Alexander respectively – convinced me that the lads were going to be a white soul group. The illusion didn’t last too long, though I loved their music and appearance for several years, mainly because of their songwriting expertise, their harmonies and their Scouse identity, but after Beatles For Sale I eased away.
At this time in his life, Darrell Banks was working in the construction industry, mainly house building in Buffalo, New York State, after the family had moved from Mansfield, Ohio. Banks was hearing the same music as me, although soul and R&B were still excluded by a majority of radio stations. The small irony is that it took a band from my home town, singing black American songs, to gain recognition and airplay for the original performers. Four months after Beatles For Sale, the polarities of my musical tastes finally shifted for good. I’d foraged for lots of soul songs heard on various radio stations but which never made the English charts.
Then in April 1965, ITV’s youth programme Ready, Steady Go unleashed a Tamla Motown Special. A host of the label’s stars had completed a rather underwhelming tour – little pre-publicity and not much airplay, but the programme, hosted by Dusty Springfield, felt like an earthquake.
You can catch some of the flavour on a YouTube clip of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles performing one of their early hits, Mickey’s Monkey, a simple, catchy dance song. Smokey sounds slightly out of tune but on one side of the set he’s being backed by The Temptations and on the other by The Supremes. On a pedestal at the back stands ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder with his harmonica. The energy, the dancing, the smart outfits, the hand gestures, the glamour (even in monochrome) coalesce into a huge ball of fun.
Within weeks our small, soul-loving circle of six spotty, white grammar school boys had plunged all our savings, made from doing paper rounds and Saturday jobs, into collecting as much Motown as we could. Compilation albums, released by Motown’s British companion EMI (who still had The Beatles) to promote the new ‘sound’, proved the easiest to get – my first, Hitsville USA, had 16 wonderful tracks from artists who’d been in the shadows both here and back in the US. The most treasured catch was The Temptations’ Greatest Hits album. Like most Motown acts, they’d been recording for three years and here was a staggeringly beautiful album showcasing the voices of David Ruffin (rasping) and Eddie Kendricks (tender).
We played the album until the grooves were almost worn out – but also used the time to copy The Temps’ architectural dance routines, the sudden ‘kick-turns’ and the dramatic hand movements. Had anyone spotted us through the living room windows of our stage they would have had us down as a right load of ‘divvies’.
By now, the 27-year-old Darrell Banks was plying the nightclub circuit in and around Buffalo in upstate New York. Tamla Motown, now styled as The Sound of Young America, had made major breakthroughs, sparking a Merseybeat-style fervour with hundreds of acts hoping that they could get in the slipstream of Motown’s commercial surge.
Banks was not so far from Detroit in distance but didn’t get a ticket to soul central until he was spotted by a dentist called Doc Murphy who had a share in a Buffalo club called Revilot. Murphy introduced Banks to a Detroit friend, the DJ Harold ‘Lebaron’ Taylor and Banks’ talent was sufficient to get him an album deal with Solid Hitbound Productions, to be recorded at Golden World Studios, overshadowed by Motown’s Hitsville studio, with its army of great backing musicians. But Banks was in good hands – George White and Don Davis compiled songs for him and a young George Clinton (later the Funkadelic/Parliament maestro) was on the studio floor to help.
Back in Liverpool, our small band of soul brothers had taken two further steps. Worshipping soul music went hand in hand with Mod fashion and while the parka and the Vespa may have ruled down south, it was slick fashion that occupied our thoughts. One of our number had a Saturday job in Burton’s, on Church Street, and by some sleight of hand a roll of ‘rainbow’ mohair cloth came his way. A friendly tailor knocked us up a suit each, the silky dark green cloth being streaked with shades of scarlet. Ben Sherman button-downs, Italian ‘Como’ shoes – round-toed with raised-stitch edging and striped ties completed the look. But aged 14 or 15, we were dressed up with nowhere to go, or get into, to be precise.
The solution to this, when it came, was quite bizarre. Somebody got wind of a dancing school in the posh part of Huyton that opened as a discotheque for well-behaved teenagers on Saturday nights. A swift recce revealed a large, wedding cake house in a cul de sac off Tarbock Road called Brooklands and it was indeed a dancing school, ballroom dancing that is, complete with a sprung floor for ease of movement. The lady in charge confirmed that Saturday nights was open for smartly dressed boys and girls and that membership was available.
It sounded great but there was a snag, a huge one – to become members of Brooklands we had to fulfil four sessions of ballroom-dancing tuition, taking partners from the Friday afternoon batch of ladies in their 40s and 50s. It didn’t seem worth the humiliation, the sacrifice of cool, the embarrassment of undergoing a similar experience to what one of Liverpool’s famous dancehalls, The Grafton, put on every Thursday for older women – commonly known as grab-a-granny night.
After a week or so, all but one of our group submitted ourselves to the ordeal – straight to Brooklands after school, still in uniform, then dancing clumsily around the room with polite ladies three or four times our age. It was grim stuff, being barked at by the instructor, trying to move to terrible waltz and foxtrot music. The ultimate humiliation befell one colleague who ran out of one session with alarm on his face – it turned out that his dance partner had, in modern parlance, ‘made inappropriate contact’. But after a harrowing month, we were in – the suits and shirts came out; a bit of parental Old Spice went on; time to dance, properly.
Darrell Banks was presented with a ready-made song for his first single at Golden World Studios – Clinton and two associates had written an up-tempo dance tune entitled Our Love (Is In The Pocket). He duly recorded it but asked if he could put up a song he’d been favouring on the Buffalo circuit. It was, of course, Open The Door To Your Heart, co-written by Banks and a fellow soul tourer Donnie Elbert, though somewhere around here Elbert’s credit went missing. Harold Taylor and Don Davis loved the track and changed their strategy – saving Our Love for Darrell’s album.
The single was issued on the new Revilot label, as a tribute to the club where Banks was found. Released in late June 1966, Open The Door To Your Heart was soon rising on the Billboard R&B chart. In September it reached No2, topped only by The Temptations’ Beauty’s Only Skin Deep. The single then appeared in the Top 100 chart which covered all music, peaking at No27.
Life at Brooklands had proved to be highlight of the week (along with the football). The girls looked great with their Mary Quant peek-a-boo bob hairstyles and spotted/striped mini-skirts. They danced well and loved the music. But they danced in circles, excluding the boys, for most of the night. If you tried to muscle in, the sweet 60s façade would drop and they’d hiss ‘get lost, creep’. So the boys danced among themselves – we’d take over the floor when Dobie Gray’s The In Crowd was played, ‘peacocking’ in front of a wall of scornful female faces. The finale, a slow number, often Save The Last Dance For Me by The Drifters, was an opportunity to get close, and it sometimes worked as the girls took pity on us. ‘Getting a grip’, as close physical contact was called, was rarely an option – outside a bunch of burly Scouse dads were waiting for their little girls.
And then one Saturday, the DJ played Open The Door To Your Heart and it clicked immediately. Opening with a rumble of drums, bursts of brass, a chopping guitar chord and a thumping piano, it was Motown in all but name. But Banks had a different voice to the standard Motown falsetto – warm, mid-range and plaintive. You could certainly dance to it but what made it such a hit at Brooklands were the tortured lyrics. A man is begging the woman he loves to love him back, to open her heart; the song burns with longing enhanced by some wonderful gospel-inspired images. Most importantly at the time, it gave us boys a chance to communicate with our reluctant female dancers.
We learned the lyrics, adapted our dance routines, created new hand gestures and mimed to the song, hoping that Darrell would swing things our way. He wasn’t holding back either. The first verse reads:
Walk right on in Stretch out your arms Let the love light shine on my soul, baby, And let love come running in
The chorus repeats ‘Open the door to your heart’ three times, with rising anguish. Then there’s the killer verse, straight from a pulpit somewhere in Darrell’s childhood, I’d guess:
Let it flow like the river Let it shine like the light Take all my blind soul, baby, And give it sight
What girl could resist such emotional outflow? I bought the song as a single on the London label and it became a staple play for the disco that a mate and I ran at university. Banks’ first album, Darrell Banks is Here!, included both his major songs – Our Love (Is in the Pocket) became a big hit with the arcane world of Northern Soul in the 1970s, its hard beat being perfect for the talcuum-powdered floor of Wigan Casino. But Open The Door To Your Heart stayed on well and became a collector’s item. I’m Gonna Hang My Head And Cry, a mournful ballad, was probably next best.
Banks was signed up by Volt records, the junior companion to Stax, who had tragically lost their star Otis Redding in a plane crash in December 1967. They’d also had their catalogue annexed by Atlantic Records. Banks was intended as part of the fightback because his voice sat somewhere between Otis and Eddie Floyd and was easily adaptable to the grittier sound of Memphis soul. Here To Stay, the Volt album, was issued in 1969, containing the promotional single Just Because Your Love Is Gone, with a classic horns and electric guitar backing. It wasn’t a hit; nor was the album, despite a fistful of really sweet songs: Forgive Me, Beautiful Feeling, I Could Never Hate Her, My Love Is Reserved.
Despite the album’s relative failure, Banks’ lovely voice was worth a long run and Volt were keen on another album. And here comes the bad, tearful bit. On a visit to a girlfriend back in Detroit, Banks stumbled across her other lover, an off-duty policeman. The ensuing argument ended with Banks being shot dead. The policeman was never charged. Black lives mattered even less in those days.
Stan Hey is a scriptwriter for television (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet; Coast To Coast; The Lenny Henry Show; The Manageress; Dalziel & Pascoe) but has also been a sportswriter at Time Out, The Sunday Correspondent and both Independent newspapers; in the late 70s he also wrote for Melody Maker, getting to interview another hero, Curtis Mayfield, but also reviewing some of the worst disco music ever produced. He is currently developing a drama about The Chants, Liverpool’s only black group of the Merseybeat era.