Tony Black is the sort of wonderfully unconventional artistic eccentric that every hardcore music fan dreams of encountering. Professing to have written as many as 400 songs, the entirety of Black’s musical reputation rests solely on the shoulders of one release.
In the early 1970s, Black collaborated with the powerhouse Indianapolis funk group Revolution Compared To What on a 45 RPM single that would go on to become an internationally desired collector’s item and lead the iconoclastic hip-hop legend Madlib on a pilgrimage to Black’s Indianapolis home.
That record remains the one and only release in Black’s short career as a recording artist. I recently sought Black out to get the full, untold story behind this highly sought-after slice of Indianapolis music.
I was pleased to learn so much more than I had anticipated as Black shared the inside baseball on his work with famed Indy soul label Lamp Records, his deep friendship with Revolution Compared To What bandleader Miles “Butch” Loyd, his surprise collaboration with Hoosier R&B greats The Vanguards, and for the first time ever, Black documented how he came to record what is likely the earliest-known recording of Indianapolis music superstar Kenny “Babyface” Edmunds.
Tune into 90.1 WFYI’s radio edition of Cultural Manifesto on Wednesday, August 17 at 9 p.m. to hear a special sneak preview of the never-before-heard Babyface demos that Tony Black recorded over 40 years ago.
NUVO: Did you grow up in Indianapolis?
Tony Black: Yes, I grew up in Lockefield Gardens. It was considered public housing way back when. That was the place of my birth, but by the time I graduated high school we moved to the North end of Indianapolis and I attended Shortridge High School.
NUVO: What year did you graduate?
Black: In 1962.
NUVO: So you grew up in Lockefield Gardens, which was right in the heart of the Indiana Avenue music scene. Was the Avenue music culture an influence on you as a young person?
Black: I remember some of it. But it wasn’t something that a kid my age at the time was really interested in. I wasn’t old enough to go into the blues and jazz joints.
What I did do was sell Jet and Ebony magazines up and down Indiana Avenue. The only thing I would do with my money was buy records. I would sell my little Jet and Ebony magazines and go to the record shop.
NUVO: What were you listening to at that time?
Black: R&B and soul music, basically. The things that really interested me were the high-tenor R&B singers. My idol was Smokey Robinson.
NUVO: When did you develop an interest in trying to create your own music?
Black: When I was in the Air Force me and a couple fellows entered a talent contest. We sang a song I’d written. It was all a cappella. We didn’t win, but later I heard fellows going up and down the barracks hall humming my song! [laughs] That encouraged me to keep working on my songs after I got out of the Air Force.
Also, I had an uncle who lived in Chicago. There was a big group from Chicago called Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Two of the Impressions lived on either side of my uncle. Since they lived that close, my aunt and uncle used to talk over the fence to the Impressions. They mentioned that their nephew, meaning me, wrote songs and asked would they be willing to listen if I submitted some songs. They said yes.
The next time we had a family gathering my aunt and uncle related that back to me. But I didn’t play any instruments, I just had ideas. So that was an inspiration and motivation to get more serious about writing songs and I became determined to learn how to play a keyboard. To be quite honest, I don’t really play that well now even. But I got skilled enough to where I could record a song I had heard in my head. We used reel to reel tapes back then. If I didn’t get to a recorder quick enough, I’d lose the inspiration. By the time I threaded the reel to reel tape, I’d probably lost the inspiration of the song. [laughs]
That opportunity to have the Impressions listen to my songs led me to try to find some musicians to help me record my ideas, and I met a fellow named Matthew Watson.
NUVO: Matthew Watson was the drummer for the Ebony Rhythm Band who were the house band for the Lamp Records label.
Black: Right, I asked Matthew if his band could play behind me so I could submit a quality performance demo to the Impressions in Chicago. Matthew said to me “why do you want to take your songs all the way up to Chicago? There’s a record label getting started here in Indianapolis called Lamp and they’re looking for songs.” He gave me the location and I did end up going through the doors of Lamp Records. They were located around 21st and Illinois Street.
Herb Miller was the head of the label, he also did the publishing and he was an agent. He did a little bit of everything. He wore a lot of hats and some people complained he was spread a little too thin. But he had a lot of talent. There were several groups that he managed.
I expressed to Herb that I’d never performed before, but I had an opportunity to write songs for the Impressions. He said “I’ve got talent here that need songs. Let me hear what you’ve got.” He told me his group The Vanguards were playing at a club down on Indiana Avenue. I went down to meet the group at the club. I was scared as all get-out because I’d never performed anywhere for anybody. I’d only played at home when I was recording my songs to tape.
But I went into the club to audition my song for the group. The club had an organ and I sat down there. James Davis, the lead singer of The Vanguards, gave me the cue to go ahead and I played “It’s Too Late For Love”. The next thing I heard after I finished… I don’t know if I can put some profanity in here, but I heard The Vanguards’ bass vocalist say, “That sounds like shit.” [laughs]
That was disappointing to me. It was a let down and I went home in a funk. I thought maybe I don’t have any kind of songwriting skills.
After that I decided to go into debt and buy an organ, because I wanted to try to learn to do better than I had when I submitted that song to The Vanguards. I had to make payments on the organ, it was a Wurlitzer organ by the way. I remember the bank that held the note was down on the circle, and one day I went to make a payment and the lady gave me back twice as much money as the payment should’ve been. I was counting the money when I was walking out I thought “I don’t think I can keep this.” So I went back and told her, and she thanked me. I left, and got in my car. I turned on the radio and my song “It’s Too Late For Love” was playing!
I’d had no communication with The Vanguards or Herb Miller after I auditioned the song. I drove straight to Lamp Records after I heard that.
NUVO: So the The Vanguards recorded “It’s Too Late For Love” for Lamp Records without your knowledge or approval, and you didn’t find out until you randomly heard it getting radio airplay?
Black: That’s correct. I think that was my reward for returning that money at the bank that day.
NUVO: Did The Vanguards model their arrangement of the song off your audition performance at the club, or had you also submitted a demo tape?
Black: I think I gave Lamp a reel to reel demo. The final product was very polished. I can’t take any credit for the arrangement, but it was my song.
NUVO: That must have been a very surreal experience to turn on the radio and hear a song you’d composed — but without any prior knowledge that it had been recorded. Do you remember what you were thinking in that moment?
Black: I had mixed emotions. I think I was backing up traffic because I just sat there in my car listening. Like I said, I drove to straight to Lamp Records when the song ended. Herb Miller said “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you,” and I believed him.
That record did well here in the city and that gave me confidence to write more songs. After that I submitted some more demos to James Davis of The Vanguards, and he said to me, “Why don’t you make your own record?” I said “I don’t do any performing.” You know, music has always been more of a hobby for me.
NUVO: Right, you had a very good day job working for Eli Lilly.
Black: That’s right. You know more about me than I do. [laughs] But James Davis told me rather than keep submitting songs for The Vanguards I should try to make my own record and it might do okay.
NUVO: That suggestion led to the creation of your lone release as an artist, a Lamp Records 45 single you recorded with the Indianapolis funk band Revolution Compared To What. How did you get connected with Revolution Compared To What?
Black: I wanted to find a band that would take time to listen to what I was trying to portray through lyrics and melody. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Miles “Butch” Loyd, the leader of Revolution Compared To What lived near me. I remember walking by his door and I heard this band really hitting it and kicking. I knocked on the door, and they let me in. I went inside and there were all these youngsters. They weren’t babies or nothing, but they were younger than me. Some of them were still in high school and they practiced in the front room of Butch’s parents’ house.
After they finished I introduced myself and let them know I was interested in having a band help me with my songs. I told Butch I didn’t have any money to pay the band, but if they’d help me make a record I’d do the A-side and let them make the B-side. He was doing me a favor and the only compensation was to be on the flip-side of my record, which turned out to be the song “Huh," which is spelled H - U - H.
NUVO: Right, the title was misspelled as “Hua” on the label of the original Lamp release.
Black: That’s right, it was kind of a frustrating ordeal. They misspelled the song’s title and they put the label on the wrong side of the record. I said “my goodness, you really got to be on top of this thing.”
But Butch was eager to do it. He was aware of “It’s Too Late For Love” and the success of that song was kind of the catalyst for our collaboration. He said “maybe we can write some hits together.” He said it in a joking and joyful way, but I thought “yes, let’s hope.” He was more than willing to get something going.
So we recorded my song “Huh” as the A-side, and Revolution Compared To What’s “Go To Work” was the B-side. Other than coming up with the lyric, I had a limited role in “Go To Work”. I think the bass player deserves most of the credit.
There wasn’t a squabble or anything, but I think the band wanted to make “Go To Work” the A-side of the record. In retrospect “Go To Work” became the hit side, and my song “Huh” kind of faded away I think.
NUVO: You mentioned that when you first heard Revolution Compared To What they were a very young group of musicians. Were you impressed by their sound right away?
Black: Oh yes, they were no slouches. They were kicking! Butch had a talent where he could hear a song one time and then tell the band how to play it. At that time they weren’t playing any original songs.
NUVO: I want to read a blurb to you from the June 26, 1971 edition of the Indianapolis Recorder. “Revolution Compared to What is a nine piece jazz-rock group which has literally devastated audiences wherever they have performed.” Does that sound like an accurate description of the band to you?
Black: Wow, that’s how I felt about them! I didn’t know that was in print though. I was just amazed by Butch. He ruled that band with an iron hand. (laughs)
Butch became like my right hand man. He had some problems with his lifestyle, but it wasn’t chronic yet at that time. He lived the life of some of the lyrics of the songs - the sadness.
This pamphlet here sums up his life. [Note: picks up a program for Miles “Butch” Loyd’s funeral] I wish I could’ve done something to… [pauses] He was depressed sometimes. He was skilled as all get-out and really just a talented individual that probably didn’t realize how talented he was. He could lead a nine-piece band and know what each part was doing. He was a phenomenon. He died young, and after he was gone I didn’t have the skills to interpret and audition my music to anyone that would’ve come along.
click to enlarge
Tony Black and his wife
NUVO: As you mentioned earlier, Butch’s “Go To Work” became the more successful side off your 45 RPM single. In 2001 “Go To Work” was included on Stones Throw Records’ Funky 16 Corners, a highly influential compilation of rare funk music.
You stated that you had a limited role in the creation of “Go To Work”. I’m curious if you were in the studio with the band when they recorded that track?
Black: [laughs] I’m laughing because “Go To Work” never a saw a studio. It was done in my living room and my basement. Well, I say “my” but I was living in my mom and dad’s house at that late age. That track kind of floated back and forth from Butch’s house to mine. I had a nice full-size basement that could accommodate the band. As a matter of fact they would just leave their instruments in my basement many times.
NUVO: Did you record both sides of the release at your house?
Black: Yes, my mom and dad weren’t really living in the house at the time. So I would go to work at Eli Lilly, and when I came home I could work on the music and not have any interference.
NUVO: Did the record get any airplay?
Black: Some of the local disc jockeys were playing it, but mostly late at night.
NUVO: Lamp Records was such an important Indianapolis label. Do you have any thoughts on the label’s founder Herb Miller that you’d like to share?
Black: The only thing negative I could say is that I thought he wore too many hats and that kind of bogged down the potential for the product he was putting out. I think he was a fireman too, I don’t know how he squeezed all that work into one day.
NUVO: Was Lamp Records basically a one-man operation?
Black: As far as I knew it was. He had a partner, but from what I knew the partner was more into doing things that pertained to promoting the boxing side of their business. Herb did more of the music side.
NUVO: I’m curious if you ever performed any live gigs with Revolution Compared To What during this period?
Black: I did three live performances during my span of time as a songwriter. One performance that gave me a real good feeling was when someone booked Revolution Compared To What and billed them as the band behind “Huh." That’s when the song was getting a little bit of radio attention and I worked up enough nerve to sing at that performance.
I also performed with the group at the 500 Ballroom in the Convention Center. That was around the time the Convention Center had just been completed. I was honored that our performance was the first function the 500 Ballroom was ever used for. Of course I sang “Huh," and I sang a couple of Smokey Robinson’s songs, and a song by The Montclairs.
But I had stage fright. That session at the Convention Center didn’t bother me as much as my third try at performing. The third time I performed I had what seemed like a nervous breakdown. After that third time I didn’t ever want to get in front of a mic again, especially in front of a crowd.
I decided around that time that I’d probably just stick with my day job.
NUVO: That 45 RPM single featuring “Huh” and “Go To Work” stands as your first, last and only solo release. But as I mentioned before, your work with Revolution Compared To What was given a second life when “Go To Work” appeared on Funky 16 Corners. How did the opportunity to be featured on that comp come about?
Black: If there ever was a time that something just came around out of the blue - that was it. A young man who had a great sense of soul music just called me out of the blue, his name is Egon and he’s with Stones Throw Records. He found me because my name was on the record label and he probably realized I was someone he should talk to about licensing. That’s how I found out the song had some shelf life.
After Egon got in touch with me, they all came out to Indianapolis and visited me. Him and Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib all came out to to talk about “Go To Work” and I signed a licensing agreement along with Miles “Butch” Loyd and Herb Miller. It wasn’t no exorbitant amount, but I was just humbled by it all. It brings a smile to my face every now and then.
Egon called me not too long ago and said that the record is still doing real well overseas, and one other noteworthy thing he said was that “Go To Work” had been used as fill-in music on some TV show, I think it was Sex and the City. Anyway they were able to achieve some kind of royalties off that. Egon has been really good about explaining these things to me.
NUVO: Your appearance on the Funky 16 Corners compilation created a great demand for original Lamp pressings of the “Huh”/“Go To Work” 45 release. Would you have ever imagined that this modestly successful local record you released forty-years ago would one day be selling for upwards of six-hundred dollars?
Black: No, I never would’ve believed it. It surprises me that people are still listening to that record. I’m somewhat spiritual and I think the lord brought all this back for a reason. But I haven’t figured out what that reason is yet.
I want to emphasize that “Go To Work” is not my creation, my involvement just came out this arrangement Butch and I made so I could get my song “Huh” recorded. My contribution to “Go To Work” is a tambourine and the banter of the dissatisfied employee, there was a hole little skit on that song. I wish I could remember the name of the bass player, because that’s what really drove the record and made it funky. I wish I’d had more involvement in it, as far as the creation of the song. But I’m not a skilled musician.
NUVO: In addition to recording “Go To Work” in your basement, I understand that you also recorded what is likely the earliest existing audio of a teenaged Kenny “Babyface” Edmunds. How did you happen to record Babyface in your basement?
Black: Kenny’s brother Melvin Edmunds was a vocalist for Revolution Compared To What. Melvin was a fantastic vocalist. Later on he was in After 7 and they had some big hits.
They didn’t call Kenny Babyface then. He was still in high school at that time, and his group practiced over in my basement. I think it may have been the beginnings of his group Tarnished Silver. I remember listening to this young kid with these beautiful melodies and sorrowful lyrics and thinking he and his group were like seasoned vets. I recorded six of their songs and they were all superior to anything I could’ve done. That slowed me down, because I said “my stuff ain’t nowhere near this good.” [laughs] Unknowingly Babyface discouraged me as a songwriter. He shut my stuff down.
You could tell right away that he was going to blow up. I didn’t contribute anything to the music, other than just getting it on tape. They were aware I was recording it, but I don’t know if they’d remember it now.
NUVO: Lamp Records folded in the early to mid ‘70s. It seems like Lamp was your only forum for getting your songs released. Did you continue writing songs after your time working with Lamp ended?
Black: I’ve got probably three or four-hundred half-finished songs. I still get ideas for songs. Sometimes something I see on TV, or hear on the radio that will inspire me. When I was at Eli Lilly the syncopated rhythms of the machines I was working with would inspire me to write music.
I have a stack of ideas, but very few finished songs. I didn’t complete many songs other than the ones that were recorded.
I always think about Smokey Robinson when I write. I don’t know Smokey, but I did meet him one time. I was working for Eli Lilly in Lafayette and he did a show at Purdue. I was still trying to promote my music then. I had “It’s Too Late For Love” on 45 and I was hoping that if I could run into Smokey I could get a critique. This is shameful, but I thought if I could butter him up he might help a young songwriter out. [laughs]
I went to the venue he was performing at with The Miracles in Lafayette. I had my 45 with me and I knocked on one of the doors around the performance area. The person who answered the door told me they were probably staying at this particular hotel where all the artists stay at when they come to town. Reluctantly, I decided to go to the hotel she’d directed me to and when I got there I knocked on the door - and there was Smokey Robinson! He said “yes?” But I got so tongue-tied that I probably said something unintelligible. I remember just sticking out my hand and pointing to the 45. [laughs] It was really awkward. I probably didn’t make a good impression. I was starstruck and I was just mesmerized. It wasn’t a long conversation because he told me Motown had a rule that artists couldn’t receive unsolicited material while they were touring.
NUVO: You’ve written 300 to 400 unreleased songs? That’s astonishing to me! Ideally, what would you like to see happen with these songs? Would you like to see this music released to the public at some point, or were these things you created more out of a personal need to express yourself artistically?
Black: That’s basically what it was. You know I think I could get over stage fright, but the business of music has become too complicated for me and It’s not a high priority for me to figure it out.
NUVO: I’m so curious about this. Something drove you to write and record over 300 songs. Do you ever have a desire to see some of these songs released on a CD or record?
Black: [unexpectedly laughs loudly] Excuse me, I’m just sitting here thinking about the guy in The Vanguards who told me my song sounds like shit. I don’t know if I’m ready to deal with that type of thing again.
[Note: At this point Tony Black’s son Evan interjects, exclaiming, “Well, obviously he was wrong!” Evan’s comment elicits a large round of laughter from all three of us]
NUVO: I totally understand how you feel. When I put out my columns and radio shows I have to deal with all kinds of trolls and critics. One hundred people can tell you they think your work is great, but you never forget that one person who says you’re shit.
Mr. Black, earlier you told me that music has essentially been a hobby for you. It seems like you were happy working your day job, raising your family, and approaching music strictly as a hobby. Do you ever look back and wish you’d pursued songwriting more aggressively?
Black: I don’t have a lot of regrets. I opted for early retirement at Eli Lilly because I wanted to pursue my hobby of songwriting, but I don’t believe I have the confidence for it. I’m somewhat shy about playing my songs. Butchie had a way of bringing me in and building my confidence. When Butch passed away it was like my arm was chopped off. I didn’t have anything to fall back on in terms of getting my songs heard. I relied so heavily on Butch, I don’t think I could ever rely on my own ability at all. I know I would never be able to reach Butch’s skill level.
It surprises me whenever I hear that someone likes my music, and that inspires me to keep going on with it. But there’s no one running to my door trying to get to my music, and I don’t really have a lot of hope for that.
Sometimes music can bring you joy. Sometimes music can bring you melancholy, too, and you’re there wanting for someone to help take you out of the melancholy that comes from a love that was lost. Those are the themes in music I really enjoy.
I have some songs that are upbeat, but mostly my songs are sad. I’m going through some things now, some of it is medical and some of it is from losing my wife to breast cancer. I don’t always run to the piano and pick out a melody because of something that happened in real life. But one day maybe I can write a song that reaches to the depths of a person who is feeling that, or going through something similar to that.
I guess I haven’t really answered your question about my unreleased songs. Yes, I do hope one day to get back in the music business.
NUVO: Any final thought you want to leave for our readers?
Black: Keep listening, maybe one day it will be one of my songs you hear. You know, there are days when I write out a melody and I get so overjoyed with the groove that I jump right up and shout! [laughs]
NUVO: Well, I hope one day you’ll share one of those songs with the world. Mr. Black, I sincerely appreciate you taking time to share your story with us. It was an honor to speak with you.
Black: I thank you for having me.
I’d like to send out a huge thank you to Evan Black for making this interview possible.