The Ebonys may not have the name recognition of The Temptations or The Stylistics but once you hear their 70s mega hits, You’re the Reason Why and It’s Forever, you will say, “Oh, yesss!” Both songs were written, produced, and arranged by the iconic musical geniuses–Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell.
In 1971, the Camden, New Jersey natives were the first artists to sign to Gamble and Huff’s legendary Philadelphia International Records. They scored their first monster hit with the classic slow jam, You’re the Reason Why, and two years later, scored again with It’s Forever. The talented foursome included David Beasley, who is the creator and founder of the group, Jennifer Holmes Rossi, Clarence “Jingles” Vaughn, Sr., and the late James “Bootie” Tuten, who passed away in 1994.
Listening to You’re the Reason Why and It’s Forever brings back memories of those basement blue light specials and grinding to feelin’ good-all-over classic R&B love songs. Without a doubt, The Ebonys’ star could have radiated considerably brighter; however, like many up-and-coming musical groups, their management company were novices, so they succumbed to the many music industry shenanigans.
Today, The Ebonys reminisce about the 70s when they were on their hustle. They share a story about being an opening act for the legendary James Brown and how he pulled the plug on their show because he didn’t want to be upstaged.
Additionally, the comparisons between The Ebonys and the rise and fall of the fictional R&B group in the 1991 classic film, The Five Heartbeats is alarming. Especially when The Ebonys experienced similar racially charged encounters in the deep south with police officers.
The Ebonys have performed with such greats as Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind & Fire, Bill Withers, and The Dramatics, just to name a few. Presently, the original Ebonys are now mentoring a younger version of themselves, the Fabulous Ebonys, who are performing their original hits.
Three members of The Ebonys chatted with 50BOLD to reminisce and spill some real talk about their enviable careers.
50BOLD: How did The Ebonys form as a group?
Beasley: We started in ‘67. Jingles and I used to sing on street corners in North Camden. We were 15 and 16 years old. When I met Jenny, she could play the saxophone. I don’t know why, I thought she could sing, but she could sing!
Bootie and I used to do a showdown at the Fort Dix-McGuire Air Force Base before the four of us got together. We hooked up–Jenny, Jingles, Bootie, and me, began rehearsing and found out we could all sing really well together.
50BOLD: When I hear your name, I think of Ebony magazine. How did the naming of the group come about?
Beasley: We were at Jenny’s house.
Jenny: We rehearsed at my mom’s house and were trying to pick a name for the group. The Ebony magazine was sitting on the table. I said, ‘Oh, why don’t we call ourselves The Ebonys?’
Jingles: We were the Four Stars before we chose The Ebonys.
50BOLD: Jenny, I can’t believe you played the sax because not too many females play the instrument.
Jenny: I’m going to tell you, I played many instruments. I played the flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, and soprano sax. I was in the All-City All-State Band.
50BOLD: What group or groups did you consider to be your competition back in the day?
Beasley: It’s kind of hard to say because we were so good when we performed live that a lot of groups, once we worked with them, didn’t want to perform with us again.
50BOLD: Oh, really!
Jenny: We did a show with James Brown, and he pulled the plug on us!
50BOLD: Oh, come on now, James Brown? Did you guys open for him? Please elaborate.
Beasley: We were the opening act for him. Somebody had warned us that James Brown would pull the plug on an act if their performance was too good. We just ignored the hearsay. But it turned out to be true in our case. We were on stage kicking butt, and all of a sudden, our mikes lost power.
Beasley: Yeah, James Brown!
50BOLD: What other artists did The Ebonys perform with?
Jenny: Yeah, we performed a lot. We worked with Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin, and The Stylistics. Come on, guys, help me! We worked with big names a lot.
Beasley: Bill Withers, The Dramatics.
Jenny: Black Ivory, the Chi-Lites.
Jenny: As far as the Temptations, they tried to take Beasley from us when Eddie Kendricks died. When Eddie passed away, the Temptations came to see one of our shows in Camden. They were impressed with Beas. They spoke to our management about Beas joining the group to replace Eddie.
Beasley: Our album had just been released. I was not worried about how far I could go with the Temps. I felt I was part of The Ebonys. I’d be a fool to leave when our album was just getting ready to be released. I didn’t know what was going to happen. So, I just decided to stay with The Ebonys.
What happened as far as the offer to join the Temps was that they were performing at the Latin Casino. Paul Williams called me to join them. I went to meet them and was told I had the job if I wanted it.
50BOLD: Oh, wow!
Beasley: But I didn’t want to join the Temps; I wanted my own group.
50BOLD: What solo artists or groups influenced you?
Jenny: The Temptations and Gladys Knight were musical influences for me. I love Gladys Knight. Usually, when I did a cover song, I would always choose something that Gladys recorded. I patterned myself after Gladys, which is why there is strength in my voice. I went into my own thing after listening to her.
Jingles: As far as the Temptations. I liked Paul Williams. I liked the way he sang and how he moved. I liked everything Paul did.
50BOLD: Speaking about dance moves, did you guys have a choreographer, or did you create your own moves?
Beasley: We did our own choreography. Jenny was the vocal arranger on all the songs we did with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. We did our own background. We just had it going on. God was good to us. He gave us a lot of gifts.
50BOLD: Can you relay a funny or favorite story that happened during any of your performances while touring on the road?
Beasley: Yes, but I can’t tell you about it.
Jenny: Yes, I’ve got one. It’s a little scary. We were traveling, I forgot where we were going. Have you ever seen the movie, The Five Heartbeats?
50BOLD: Oh yes, yes!
Jenny: Do you remember the scene when the cops pulled the group over when they were on their way to a gig? Well, do you all remember when the cops pulled us over? We were down south somewhere. The police stopped us and asked two of our group members to go with them. We were like sitting on this dirt road in the south. It was scary!
Beasley: They drove us on a dirt road up a mountain to this house where there was a guy sweeping in front of it. Well, the guy turned out to be a judge. He went into the house to put on his robe. We hadn’t done anything!
Jingles: Just like you saw in the movie.
Beasley: It happened to us. We wound up paying a couple of hundred dollars.
50BOLD: For doing nothing?
Jingles: We were riding down south in our van. On the side of the van was a sign that read The Ebonys. We’re riding along, and all of a sudden, we see this big sign that reads, “This is Klu Klux Klan Country.”
Jenny: Mhm, mhm…
Jingles: Everybody got quiet. Before we got out of there, you could hear a pin drop in the van.
50BOLD: Wait, the sign read, “This is Klu Klux Klan Country!”
Jingles: Yes, “This is Klu Klux Klan Country!”
Beasley: We’d also see signs that read “White Only” and “Black Only” too!
50BOLD: This all took place in the 60s or 70s?
Jingles: 70s, yeah!
50BOLD: This was the 70s, and there were racist signs like that even then?
Jingles: Oh yeah!
50BOLD: So, what are some of the places you’ve toured?
Jingles: We went to the Virgin Islands.
Jenny: All up and down the east coast.
Beasley: Believe it or not, in our entire career, we never sang in New York City.
50BOLD: Oh, stop! Are you serious? Camden is just about 70 minutes from New York City!
Beasley: We had number one records in New York City.
50BOLD: How did that happen?
Beasley: It boils down to management and booking agents. We didn’t have strong management. We had managers – one guy was a car salesman, and he picked up management. He knew nothing about the music industry. We had another guy who managed us, and he owned a wig shop. He also knew nothing about the music industry.
Jingles: It was time for us to move on as far as management, but it never happened.
50BOLD: Are you the first group to sign with Gamble and Huff?
50BOLD: That’s amazing. Wait, so Gamble and Huff were writing for other companies?
Beasley: They had labels before Philly International. They wrote for performers like the Intruders and Archie Bell and the Drells.
Jingles: When they started the Philly International label, we were the first on that label.
50BOLD: I know Philly International had the Intruders, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, and The O’Jays – were these artists considered your competition?
Jenny: The O’Jays had their own thing, and we had our own thing. Nobody was like anyone else. The dancing and singing styles were all different. There wasn’t any real competition. Whenever we did shows at The Uptown in Philly, I loved it because there were all these different groups like The Dramatics, and we would all come together to perform. It was just a wonderful thing.
50BOLD: What happened with Philly International? Were you dropped, or did you leave? You went to Buddha Records, right?
Beasley: Yeah, management.
Jenny: Mishandled! Management took us in the wrong direction to the point where we felt we were blackballed. We didn’t get our props.
50BOLD: Did you feel any regrets because of the mishandling of your career?
Jingles: Back then, yeah!
50BOLD: There were so many groups back then who got involved with drugs, did you guys overcome or sidestep this problem?
Jingles: Really, Bootie was the only one who had a drug problem. He didn’t pass it on to us. He was a good person. Drugs just got the best of him.
Beasley: He was a hustler.
Jingles: He could play pool too. And he could play Tic-Tac-Toe. You couldn’t beat him at Tic-Tac-Toe. We were at a club once. We pulled up to the club, and we were sitting down talking to the owner, and Bootie asked him, “Do you know how to play Tic-Tac-Toe?”
The man said, “Yeah, I know how to play Tic-Tac-Toe.”
Bootie said, “Well, I’ll play you for my salary.” He pointed to me and said, “Jingles, you put up your salary too.”
I said, ‘Man, I ain’t putting up my salary!’
Jingles: So, I put my money up, he put his salary up, and he beat the man at Tic-Tac-Toe. He was something…
50BOLD: Wow, I’ve never heard of a Tic-Tac-Toe master.
Jingles: Yeah, he was good, it was a hustle.
50BOLD: Are you guys still performing? Because I know there is a younger version of your group performing.
Jingles: We’re proud of them, the management and all. I wish they were our management back then. And then technology is different too.
Jenny: I still sing in the church. Jingles sings in the church. We are trying to drag Beasley into the church.
50BOLD: Now, here’s a question for you. I love R&B! Is R&B dead, and if so, what killed it? Was it all this digital technology?
Jenny: I think there is a resurgence. We were just talking about this very subject. Young people are grabbing onto our stuff. The music out there now, I feel, is crap.
50BOLD: Yes, I agree!
Jenny: Today’s music is clueless. It’s very sexual. People from our time wanted love music and dance tunes. We wanted to have a good time. You don’t have that today.
Jingles: I went to a birthday party last night. All you hear is boom da boom, boom da boom, the whole night, and they didn’t play one slow song. ‘Where are the oldies?’
50BOLD: Your songs moved folks; today’s songs are empty. They don’t do anything. Today’s music does not get into your soul. Who do you guys listen to today?
Jingles: John P. Kee, he’s gospel.
Jenny: Bruno Mars! Do you know what I like about him? He’s old school.
Jingles: He’s like another James Brown to me.
Beasley: I like Bruno Mars. He’s cool. That’s about it.
50BOLD: Were there any scandals involving The Ebonys?
Jenny: They kept me under an umbrella. I was the only female among all these men. I felt very secure with the group because they were like my big brothers. Everybody always watched out for me. Our road managers always made me feel secure.
Jingles: And Bootie and I made a pact to make sure Jenny would be alright.
50BOLD: Oh, she didn’t even know about the pact! It must be hard on the road, especially for a female.
Jenny: It wasn’t that bad. They kept me laughing. And everybody was very respectful.
50BOLD: Jenny, did you run across any other female singers on the road?
Jenny: Have you ever heard of Betty Wright?
50BOLD: Oh yes!
Jenny: We did shows at The Uptown in Philly, which was a smaller version of the Apollo. If you were anybody, going anywhere, you went to The Uptown.
50BOLD: What’s something about the group that most people don’t know?
Jingles: A lot of people think that we didn’t get along back then. We were friends. We were close.
50BOLD: You must have had a few arguments here and there.
Jenny: Sure, a few.
Beasley: We can’t remember them, they were so few.
Jenny: We didn’t have situations like with Eddie King?
50BOLD: Who’s that?
Jenny: One of The Five Heartbeats. I can see us in that movie.
50BOLD: Really! So, you’re saying Robert Townsend did a good job capturing the essence of an R&B group during the 60s and 70s. What is The Ebonys’ legacy? How would you like The Ebonys to be remembered?
Beasley: Well, I would like us to be remembered as four young kids from North Camden who had nothing. We had no real management. Our families were behind us, but we put all of this together ourselves. As young as we were, we did our own dance routines, bookings, we did all kinds of stuff. We were 20, 22, 23, and 24, and we were out there booking jobs. I was going to clubs booking jobs with the owners of the clubs, and getting paid by the door depending on how many people would come. It wasn’t a contract where we got the money right up front, but if nobody came, we didn’t get paid. We had a band; we had to support. So, first, we had to pay the band and the rest we would get.
Jingles: Sometimes, I had to do the road manager’s job, managing us on the road. I had to make sure we got our money.
50BOLD: You did a wonderful job! You were doing your own thing.
Jenny: Our parents supported us. I think they saw something in us that allowed them to let us go. Now, I look back and say, ‘Doggone it, my mother actually let me go on the road! I was so young!’ But she believed in the whole package.
50BOLD: You mentioned that you traveled in a van. Is that how you normally traveled?
Jenny: I have a picture on my wall. It was a bright green van with signs that read Fabulous Ebonys on both sides.
Beasley: I remember when we first got together and started working, we wanted to go to Motown to get on the label. I had a ’57 Plymouth.
Jenny: With a hole in the floor.
Beasley: Yep. I took the back seat out and put amps in there. The van held around 8 people. We drove all the way to Motown in Detroit. When we arrived, we were disappointed because Motown looked like a candy store. We were so disappointed.
Jenny: We were like, that’s Motown?
Beasley: So, we wound up not even going to Motown.
50BOLD: Y’all didn’t even go in?
Jenny: No! We had to work in some clubs to get money to go back home. We ate tuna fish sandwiches the whole time we were up there.
50BOLD: When you get to the gates of Heaven, what is God going to say to you?
Jingles: Well done!
Jenny: I’ve already said my prayer, I said, ‘Lord, when I get to Heaven, put me in a garden.’ I love plants and flowers, oh my goodness!
Beasley: I always say, ‘Dear Lord, when I get to heaven, I’m going to be a good soldier.’ Really, I don’t have any other skills except singing. I worked for the Voorhees township in Camden County for 23 years. I also sang in Atlantic City for 10 years at Harrah’s Casino; I did a solo act there.
50BOLD: Do you have any final words for our 50BOLD audience? We really love and appreciate your music; our readers are Black folks age 50 and older.
Jingles: I just want to say thank you for loving our music and for keeping it going. I never thought this would happen like this.
Beasley: You’re talking 50 years later, and our music is still being played on the radio.