The other day I was trying to figure out how long I’ve been writing this column. I used to keep track of it religiously, but I kind of lost count along the way. I know for sure that it’s been more than six years at this point. Since I write the column every week that means that there have been well over 300 entries in this series. I have to admit that I’m pretty proud of it, and I would like to think that I’ve done justice to the music that I love over the years.
Today we’re going to take a look at a group that was formed in a city that is not generally known as a hotbed of soul music. Then again, some of the greatest soul artists began their careers in unexpected places. It was the mid-’60s when the five Armstrong brothers — Sam, Charles, Moses, Harry, and Gene — put together the group that was then called the Soul Brothers Five. It wasn’t long before lead singer John Ellison joined, and upped the group’s name by one.
Soul Brothers Six released their first two singles in 1965, but neither “Stop Hurting Me,” or “I Don’t Want to Cry” was a hit, which prompted two of the Armstrong brothers, Harry and Gene, to leave the group. They were replaced by Vonn Elle Benjamin and Lester Peleman. The new lineup released “Don’t Neglect Your Baby,” but when that wasn’t a hit, yet another Armstrong, Sam, left the group. He was replaced by Joe Johnson.
In 1967 Soul Brothers Six made a momentous decision to move to the closest soul music capital and embarked on a road trip to Philadelphia. It was on that trip that Ellison wrote the song (on a paper bag in 20 minutes) that would change everything for his group. The song was originally titled “(She’s) Some Kind of Wonderful,” and it got Soul Brothers Six a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and a publishing deal with a powerful local music man, Harold Lipsius.
“Some Kind of Wonderful” was a hit in Philadelphia, and managed to scrape into the Top 100 nationally, but in Ellison’s view the record was held back as a result of racial prejudice.
“We were getting played on WDAS and WHAT, we got exposure at Jimmy Bishop, George Woods, Ernie Fields and Butterball record hops, on Jerry Blavat’s TV show,” Ellison told Philly.com. “But the song couldn’t cross over to rock radio because of discrimination. Radio was still largely split along racial lines.”
Several follow-up singles, including “You Better Check Yourself,” “Your Love Is Such a Wonderful Love,” “Thank You Baby for Loving Me,” and “Drive” were unsuccessful, causing Atlantic to drop the group, and Charles Armstrong, Harry Armstrong, Vonn Elle Benjamin, and Lester Peleman to leave. They were replaced by James Swails Jr, Charles Pevy, and Eddie Reno. The new lineup was dubbed John Ellison and the Soul Brothers Six. If you’ve been counting along you’ve probably figured out that there were only five of them, but it was what it was.
The new lineup signed with Lipsius’ Phil-L.A. of Soul label and released three singles between 1972-1974. “Funky, Funky Way of Making Love,” “You’re My World,” and “1974: “Funky, Funky Way of Making Love,” “You’re My World,” and “Let Me Do What We Ain’t Doin'” weren’t national hits, but the band managed to make a living on the road for awhile before finally disbanding.
As if to prove Ellison’s point, eight years after “Some Kind of Wonderful” failed to become a major hit for Soul Brothers Six, Grand Funk Railroad managed to take the song all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song has been covered many more times over the years including versions by Aaron Neville, the Commitments, Huey Lewis and the News, Buddy Guy, Joss Stone, and Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band.
“Soul Brothers Six was ahead of our time.” Ellison told Philly.com in 2015. “We were of the era of Motown singing groups that worked with backing bands. But we were a self-contained group. And, as music historians would put it ‘key players in the transition from soul to funk.'”
John Ellison is still playing shows, and releasing records on the Jamie/Guyden label. The CEO of Jamie/Guyden is none other than Frank Lipsius, son of Harold.
“We’re one of the rare Philly Soul labels from back in the day that’s still active, keeping this important music alive,” Frank Lipsius told Jonathan Tarkiff of Philly.com. “And John Ellison is a special pride and joy.”