John Myers is a friendly guy who lives modestly in a cozy old house on Woodbine in East Knoxville. A thin fellow with a graying mustache and a quick, modest smile, he's of an age when many men are retired, but he works lining parking lots. He's also handy, with an unusual imaginative flair. He makes driftwood lamps, and whimsical pieces of furniture, like the "half-man"—a table with a pair of pants and shoes—that stands at attention beside his front door.
He has a big paperback copy of an illustrated history called Motown: The Golden Years. His name's in there, associated with a singing group that was on fire in the early '70s, the Hearts of Stone. There was a time when he made records at the Detroit landmark Hitsville USA, sang in big shows, sometimes on the same bill with James Brown, B.B. King, and Curtis Mayfield, at legendary New York venues like the Apollo Theater and the Psychedelic Shack. Even before that, when he was just a kid, his group sang backup on hit songs for Savoy in the '50s, when R&B was changing American popular music.
These days he sings mostly in modest venues—a while back, he was a weekend regular at the Magnolia Avenue Hardee's—but this Saturday, he's doing a special show at the Time Warp Tea Room on Central. He loves the old music, and backed by a band that would have seemed unusual back in the day, is going to share some of it; but he has a new emphasis, and prefers songs with a purpose.
For Myers, a career in show business started with one talent show at Green Elementary, more than half a century ago. Myers' father had been a musician, a pianist who entertained soldiers in Europe during World War II, but died young, leaving his widow to raise seven kids on her own. Three brothers loved to sing together, and when Myers attended Green Elementary, they put together a singing group, and did their version of the Clovers' "Don't You Know I Love You," the big hit of summer, 1951.
"They gave us a standing ovation," Myers says, with wonder in his voice, as if he still hasn't quite gotten over it. "That started our career."
They sang in a modified doo-wop style, not far removed from that of a new group they admired, the Platters. They first called themselves the Echoes.
"We were sort of doo-wop plus, we were so versatile," he says. "We did 'Moonlight Becomes You,' 'C'est la Vie,' polkas, calypso, gospel, country, songs like 'The Tennessee Waltz.' We did country, jazz, sometimes with other instruments. My twin brother played stand-up bass."
In that regard, they were something like a much-earlier group, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a popular local string band of the '20s and early '30s, famous for its turn-on-a-dime versatility. Myers had heard of them as a sort of legend; he'd later make an unexpected connection with the Chocolate Drops.
Fred Logan happened to be in the audience and offered to be their manager. Known variously as a music promoter and bootlegger, Logan ran music clubs that catered to the black community. ("He had his hands in a lot of things back then," Myers says.) He lived in a big house on Dandridge Avenue, which doubled as a hotel for acts that would perform at the legendary Gem Theatre on Vine.
Myers remembers pre-urban-renewal Knoxville vividly. "Vine Street was booming, businesses all along there." Vine Avenue, mostly erased by Summit Hill Drive, was humming with barber shops, cigar shops, billiard halls, beer joints, drugstores, groceries, taxicab companies, and restaurants. It sounds like Myers' favorite stop was Brown's Barbecue.
"Best barbecue there was," he says. "He wore this old white hat on the side of his head, and an apron. He could cook some barbecue. I liked the pickled pigs' feet. On a Saturday night, he really fixed us up. He knew we were poor."
He sometimes found work in that neighborhood, shining shoes. "I had the rag talking, almost like talking," he says. â“Gave it a spit shine, spit on the shoe with the polish. I sometimes made $20 in a day. Iâ’d head straight home, give it to our mother, because we were always helping out one another. Maybe thatâ’s why we were always so close.
The Echoes played at clubs downtown and on Alcoa Highway. â“At what we called the Bottom, along Florida Street, weâ’d sing in the little houses to people we knew. Crowds came in; weâ’d go and knock on the door, see people, ask if we could sing, get a pocketful of change.â”
John Myers sang baritone, content to hang back and let the tenors, including his two brothers, take center stage.
The original dozen werenâ’t all as talented, or as committed, as the Myers family, and contracted from 12 to five, which included Myers and his two brothers James and Herbert and eventually his cousins Charles Holloway and Benny Washington. They developed a regional reputation in the early â’50s. At Austin High, they met another singer named Clifford Curry. A talented songwriter, Curry became for a time the groupâ’s best-known member.
â“We played hooky from school and practiced, because we loved it so much,â” Myers says. â“We used to practice from morning till night. [Logan] always made sure weâ’d be down there practicing, and there at curtain time.â” Once, representatives from Atlantic came down to hear them sing, but the deal didnâ’t work out.
Through Logan, and an acquaintance made at an Atlanta show, the Echoes got connected to Savoy, the Newark, N.J.-based label best known for bebop. Renamed the Five Penniesâ"though with Curry, there were six of themâ"they moved to New Jersey and became the house backup group. As R&B was spawning rock â‘nâ’ roll, the Pennies were singing for recordings by some of the major paradigm-shifting acts of the day: Wynonie Harris, Big Maybelle, Little Willie John.
The Pennies recorded some on their own, covers like the Plattersâ’ â“Only You,â” but also some originals. They had moderate success with a Curry composition called â“Mr. Moon,â” which made some local radio charts, and which got them an audition on the Ed Sullivan Show around 1956. â“We were all set to go, but they wanted us to do â‘Mr. Moon,â’ and Clifford had just left the group.â” Curry went on to greater fame as a solo act, with some hits in the â’60s, including â“She Shot a Hole in My Soul.â”
To make matters worse, as the group reached adulthood, three of the remaining five were drafted into the service: Myersâ’ twin brother James, Benny Washington, Charles Holloway. It looked like the end of the party. But Myers and his younger brother, Herbert, moved to Tampa, where they assembled a new version of the Five Pennies.
After a few more versions of the group in the â’60s, and Herbertâ’s retirement from the road life to get married, the Five Pennies re-emerged as the Four Pennies, including John Myers, Floyd Lawson, Lindsey Griffin, and Carl Cutler.
In the days when singing alone wouldnâ’t necessarily keep an audienceâ’s attention, the Pennies became a sort of variety show, with singing, comedy, and athletic performance. Griffin, who could sing scat and mimic the sound of a jazz horn, was a talented mime, and perfected a robot character who would interact with audience members. Floyd Lawson was an athlete, talented at the on-stage long jump. At places like the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, or the Psychedelic Shack in New York, theyâ’d line up chairs, and each of the Pennies would get a running start as the band played and leap over them, long-ways, and land in a split. Myers and Lawson were the rival champs, and once, in Montreal, got up at one time to 11 chairs. Myers remembers one time when he cleared eight chairs, but kept hitting the ninth. â“I was just uncoordinated that night,â” he laughs, shaking his head.
Myers, who was never quite as wild as some of the other fellows, worked as the groupâ’s de facto road manager. â“I had to be sure we got to the next job,â” he says.
They put out some singles, but he never had any idea how well they did. â“We never did keep up with it. We were too busy.â” Their work was better known in the larger urban markets than it was nationwide. He heard that one of his songs, â“You Have No One to Love,â” was on the charts in New York City for a while. He remembers getting up in the morning in Philadelphia to hear his compositions, â“You Gotta Sacrificeâ” and â“Tis the Season to Be Loved,â” on the radio, sung by his little brother Herbert, as a high point.
Their greatest national exposure may have been the moment they appeared on a mid-â’60s Merv Griffin Show, the same episode, he says, as the debut of a young black comic named Flip Wilson.
They impressed a Canadian promoter named Stephanie DeParis, who got them connected to Motown toward the end of Berry Gordyâ’s Golden Age.
Hank Cosby, a major figure known for his work with Stevie Wonder, worked as their producer. â“Great musician, great producer, spent a lot of time with us,â” Myers says. â“He had patience, showing us thingsâ"but it didnâ’t have to take too much.â” The Pennies apparently sounded too doo-wop for the soul era, and they emerged once again with a new name to match the harder new sound: The Hearts of Stone.
They put out an album, Stop the Worldâ"We Wanna Get On. It included several covers of other performersâ’ popular hits, like â“He Ainâ’t Heavy,â” â“Rainy Night in Georgia,â” and â“Thank You,â” in styles sometimes similar to the originals, but with more emphasis on strong vocal harmonies. The album also includes several originals, like â“You Gotta Sacrifice, â“Itâ’s a Lonesome Road,â” and â“If I Could Give You the World.â” The album didnâ’t burn up the charts, but paid the bills.
Meanwhile, Motown was tightening its grip. â“Motown wanted us lock, stock, and barrel,â” Myers said. Deparis didnâ’t think it was a good deal. Motown stopped promoting the band, though they were still getting dates and staying busy. They shared bills with Jackie Wilson, the Stylistics, Kool and the Gang, Joe Tex, Eddie Kendrick, Al Green.
Myers knew several of them. About the Temptations, several of whom died young, he says, â“Itâ’s so sad. Some of them got off on the wrong shoe.â”
He met several non-musical stars, like Richard Roundtree at the height of his fame, and has a picture of Shaft with the Hearts of Stone to prove it. He sometimes played in Joe Frazierâ’s Philadelphia nightclub. Of Frazier, he says, â“I didnâ’t realize he was so big. He really is a nice guy. I guess he was just mean in the ring.â”
But Myers, now in his early 30s, was losing heart. â“I just got tired of the road, traveling, all that stuff,â” Myers says. â“I got tired. My body was running down, trying to stay up at night, paying motel bills some of the guys didnâ’t pay. The group was like a family, but I shouldnâ’t have taken all that on my shoulders. I guess I just got in the habit.
â“And I realized the dreams I wanted to accomplish wasnâ’t in that.â”
He moved to Tampa, where he kept a trio going for a while with little brother Herbert and Lindsey Griffin.
â“When I was singing in Tampa, I was still smoking, I had problems breathing. My health, I was just drained. The only thing I could see was Knoxville, Tenn.â” In the early â’80s, he moved back home and, he says, â“I gave my life to the Lord. The Lord just healed my body, and got me back into good health. I started to sing gospel, inspirational songs with meaning.
â“I like inspirational songs, songs with meaning to lift people up. We have enough of those garbage songs, we have enough of that. I like inspirational songs that say, â‘Hey, youâ’re worth it. Believe in yourself,â’â” he half-sings, â“take a giant step....â”
Not long after arriving back in his home town, at a church in Christenberry Heights, he met Pamela, who it turned out was the niece of a local music legend, Carl Martin, of Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, a.k.a. the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. â“Iâ’d heard of the Chocolate Drops,â” Myers says, â“but I never thought Iâ’d meet his niece.â” They married and settled down, and amid aquariums and unusual lights, like an antique banjo that glows red from within, they work on songs together. Heâ’s going to sing a Carl Martin song, â“Little Eliza Jones,â” this Saturday.
â“I sing in a lot of different churches. I go to a truck stop at Watt Road, sing there sometimes to help be a part of the ministry down there, Sunday morning. Truck drivers come in from all parts of the country. They come in, go to the service, go back out and be refreshed.â” He also likes to help out with feeding the homeless at the missions on Broadway.
He seems happy to be playing the Time Warp, a different sort of club where thereâ’s no alcohol served. Itâ’ll be a different sort of a show, too, no horns or synthesizer; his backup band will be the LoneTones, a string band better known for folk-style tunes. Heâ’s looking forward to it. â“Theyâ’re so versatile,â” he says. â“Iâ’ve learned to adapt, over the years. If youâ’ve got a good band, you can play.â”
Heâ’s made some surprising acquaintances along the way. He plays an instrumental track to a song his wife wrote, and which he means to add vocals to. â“This is Lee Greenwood playing sax,â” he says. â“He knows how to play it, too. You know Lee Greenwood? I saw his show in Pigeon Forge. He did a beautiful show, man. Beautiful show.â”
Most of his old colleagues are still alive, with the exception of his beloved little brother Herbert, who died in Florida a year or two ago. Myers stays in touch with most of them, including Curry. One of the old Hearts, Floyd Lawson, is coming out with a new CD, and Myers, who still makes recordings in local studios now and then, is talking to a Detroit producer about doing something similar. â“Heâ’s got the sound I like, violin, drums, bass. Itâ’s a Motown sound. I like for people to hear what Iâ’m doing now.â”
He has a record of a disarmingly unusual, slow, rolling choral R&B version of â“Somewhere Over the Rainbow.â” â“If I could get the right people, Iâ’d like to do this again.â”
Several years ago, after he got a computer, Myers began to learn that his old career wasnâ’t quite over. â“I got on the Internet, and saw all the different places our songs are playing.â” His records still sell on eBay, and in 2003, a Japanese company re-released their 1970 opus Stop the World on CD. â“The people in Japan, across the water in the other world, they know us,â” he says. There also seems to be a good deal of interest in Britain.
An EMI compilation called Motown Connoisseurs, Vol. 2 includes, among well-known songs by famous artists like Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, and the Temptations, the rousing soul number â“If I Could Give You the Worldâ” by a group called Hearts of Stone. Myers began contacting people; when he proved to the songwritersâ’ organization BMI that he was still alive, he got a couple of royalty checks. Heâ’s still contending with the British-based record company EMI. â“I need to get the right lawyer,â” he says. â“Maybe some of the young lawyers at the University of Tennessee can help.â”
Heâ’ll keep pursuing what he sees as justice for a not-quite-forgotten songwriter, but for now, heâ’s looking forward to the Time Warp show. Heâ’s an upbeat guy, by nature, and wants to share that with the world.