“Timeless” serves as an appropriate way to describe the legendary R&B group, The Whispers.
As teens, they began singing on the street corners of their Watts community in Los Angeles, forming a group in 1963, then going on to sign their first record deal a year later.
With dreams of stardom and following the encouragement and backing of the legendary Sly Stone, they began hitting nightclubs throughout the San Francisco Bay Area for the remainder of the 60s. During those years, they began to perfect their style and delivered smooth vocals on mostly up-tempo dance tunes.
The first big hit for the quintet, composed of identical twin brothers Walter and Wallace “Scotty” Scott, Nicholas Caldwell, Marcus Hutson and Gordy Harmon, came in 1970 with their first Top Ten R&B hit, “Seems Like I Gotta Do Wrong.” But not before a few setbacks which according to Scotty, only made them dig deeper within in search of their dream.
When Walter, who had been carrying the load as the lead singer, was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War in 1967, Wallace reluctantly took over. But it would serve as a pivotal moment in his development and in the group’s flexibility, giving him the confidence he needed.
In 1969, 18 months after being drafted, Walter was discharged and returned to the group.
Tragedy would strike in 1973 when Harmon was involved in a serious car accident in which he injured his larynx. Unable to continue singing, he was replaced by former Friends of Distinction member Leaveil Degree.
“Sure, we’ve had some tough times – anyone who’s serious about being an entertainer knows it’s going to be that way sometimes, but we hung tough,” Scotty said. “We knew we wanted to sing, but there are so many aspects of the business that we didn’t know. Sometimes, we were forced to learn the hard way.”
During those formative years, The Whispers struggled to find their groove – signing with several different record labels. But none of them provided the caliber of music, the quality of recorded albums that captured their sound, or the onstage choreography, promotional efforts and other intangibles needed to propel them to the top.
The Breakthrough Comes with the ‘Beat’
Then, in 1976, their diligence paid off when they became the first group invited to sign with Soul Train Records, co-owned by Don Cornelius, the creator of the popular TV dance show, and entrepreneur Dick Griffey.
Under the label, which eventually evolved into Solar Records, The Whispers delivered a string of dance-oriented R&B hits for more than 20 years, including “It’s a Love Thing,” “Keep on Lovin’ Me,” and two songs – still fan favorites today – that both soared to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and earned the group their highest charting entries on the pop chart: “And the Beat Goes On” and “Rock Steady.”
“’And the Beat Goes On’ was our breakthrough hit – it just felt different – special,” Scotty said. “We watched Leon Sylvers (who co-wrote and produced the song) create the song while playing a drum machine on his lap. Back then they didn’t have the special effects that they do today. He just kept building layer on top of layer. It was amazing.”
“When we all gathered for the playback, which is what you did back in the day, we knew we had our first big hit. The song had a message. It was about the importance of the beat going on, no matter what you were facing and it also told us that we were going to make it. From that point on, our lives changed forever,” Scotty said, adding that it would mark the first of six hits under the Solar label.
Back Down Memory Lane
Meanwhile, fans who prefer to slow the beat down to the sounds of sensual ballads, still flock to Whispers concerts to hear songs like “A Song for Donny,” “Lady,” “Say Yes,” and “Just Gets Better with Time.”
“Folks call us ‘old school legends,’” Walter said while preparing to go on stage for a sold out performance last October at The Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia. Along with his brother, Scotty, this reporter enjoyed a lively conversation backstage with the twins as they took a stroll down memory lane.
“We owe a great deal of our success to the Black community because they have supported us, bought our records and attended our concerts ever since we began this journey,” said Scotty, who, along with his brother, will be 80 years old in September. “They are the reason that we have made it and survived when so many others haven’t. And we have always remembered that.”
The two brothers also agreed that, from the very beginning and up to the present, family has always been among their greatest priorities. They said they still feel the spirits of their “brothers:” Hutson, who died in 2000 from prostate cancer; Caldwell, the group’s longtime choreographer, who died of congestive heart failure in 2016; and Harmon, who died earlier this year, on January 5.
“We felt that no one could replace those guys after Leaveil took over for Gordy back in the early 70s,” Scotty said. “So, we decided to keep the group as a trio. That was the best way we felt that we could honor Nick, Marcus, and Gordy – the gone but not forgotten, original members of The Whispers.”
And while they’ve been singing together for over 60 years, they aren’t resting on their laurels. The group has begun re-recording some of their biggest hits such as “And the Beat Goes On” because they don’t feel they are fairly compensated by the original label owners of those songs.
They are also dusting off more recent recordings too. GRAMMY® Award winning Chicago Club DJ, Maurice Joshua (who has remixed tracks by the likes of Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey), has remixed “Praise His Holy Name” – a track from the group’s 2009 urban inspirational album, Thankful (Kingdom Records), with brilliant results.
“We believe that our former record label had not paid us the royalties that we deserved and we’ve even gone to court with our allegations,” Scotty said. “But with our own label we decided to go back into the studio, remixing the songs and letting our fans decide which product they like best. We’re really pleased with the results.”
“But more than that, we’re grateful for our older fans and our new ones, too. They’re the reason that The Whispers are still making sure the beat goes on,” he said.
For more about The Whispers or to see their touring schedule, visit www.thelegendarywhispers.com.
Here are links to two new versions of their hits which they have shared for their fans and our readers:
The new steppers groove, “Praise His Holy Name” https://youtu.be/2-90SjqGyoE
and the new version of “And the Beat Goes On”: https://youtu.be/4EQh2VTRNyg