See what I did there? Yes, this is Soul Serenade #208. If my math is correct, and I admit that’s a sometimes thing, it means that this is the column’s fourth birthday. I’ve featured well over 200 classic soul songs over the years (some weeks there was more than one). During all that time I’ve remained inspired by the music that has inspired me since I was a kid in the ’60s. My love for the music has led me to learn more about it, and to share what I learned with you.
If you’ve been following along for awhile, you know that the last few years have been pretty tumultuous for me. When I began writing Soul Serenade, I was living in New Jersey, where I had lived for my entire life. A little over three years ago I packed up and moved to Rhode Island. While most of these columns have been written in the Ocean State, my musical education began on the streets of Atlantic City, where kids down from Philly instilled a lifelong love of soul music in me. I’ll always be grateful to those kids.
What better way to celebrate a fourth birthday than with the Fantastic Four? Like so many great groups that have been featured in the column, they got together in Detroit. It was in 1965 that “Sweet James” Epps, brothers Ralph and Joseph Pruitt, and Wallace “Toby” Childs formed the group. They couldn’t have known then how long the Fantastic Four would be around. Eventually they signed with Ric-Tic Records, and their first single for the label was the biggest of their career. “The Whole World is a Stage” was released in 1967 and rose to #6 on the Billboard R&B chart. Their next record, “You Gave Me Something (And Everything’s Alright),” did well too, making it to #12.
By 1968, Ric-Tic had been subsumed by the Motown behemoth. Before the takeover, the Fantastic Four had been Ric-Tic’s best selling act. They got tons of airplay on Detroit’s CKLW (the Big 8) with its 50,000 watts of majestic power, and even outsold label mate Edwin Starr. The group had one last Top 20 hit for Ric-Tic with “I Love You Madly” in 1968, although the single was also released on Motown’s Soul imprint.
The Fantastic Four continued recording, but without much success, until the disco era revived their career, just as it did for numerous other ’60s acts. By that time there were signed with Westbound Records and had some chart success with records like “Alvin Stone (the Birth & Death of a Gangster),” and “I Got To Have Your Love.” “B.Y.O.F. (Bring Your Own Funk)” was produced by Motown guitar player Dennis Coffey and released in 1979. It failed to get much attention in the U.S., although it did hit the U.K. charts.
There were lineup changes over the years. Ralph Pruitt and Toby Childs left, and they were replaced by Cleveland Horne and Ernest Newsome. The Fantastic Four rolled on, recording for the U.K. label Motorcity, which released the 1990 single “Working on a Building of Love.” The group never stopped working, but Cleveland Horne had a heart attack and died in 2000. Six months later co-founder “Sweet James” Epps died suddenly, and that was the end of the Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four was a group that never hit it really big, but they never stopped working. They had been together for 35 years by the time Epps died, and although they may not have achieved mass adulation, they made some great records, and gained a lot of fans along the way.
Wither goest Soul Serenade, now entering its fifth year? There’s probably an end point, but I haven’t yet figured out where it is. I will certainly never run out of music to learn about, and write about. I’m still trying to figure out whether readers of the column prefer to read about the big hits, or the more obscure soul sides. Feel free to share your thoughts on that in the comments section.
Do me one more favor. Consider it something of a birthday present. Let people know about the column. Share it on your social media sites. I’m certainly not seeking personal glory. My mission all along with this column has been to spread the awareness of this great music. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your help.