If you are a fan of classic soul and you watch America’s Got Talent you might have been surprised to see a singing trio that appeared on the show a few years back. They’re a little older now, but you probably did a double-take when you realized that these three guys were, in fact, the Masqueraders, a group that hadn’t been heard from since 1980 but had sent several hits up the charts in the glory days of Memphis soul.
They weren’t from Memphis originally. Their origins go back to Dallas in 1958. If you take their America’s Got Talent appearance into the mix, they are one of the longest-lived groups in soul music history. But they weren’t called the Masqueraders at the beginning. When Charlie Moore and Robert Tex Wrightsil formed the group with brothers Johnny and Lawrence Davis and Charlie Gibson they called themselves the Stairs. They got a record deal with the South Town label and recorded three singles — “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Caveman Love,” and “Flossie Mae.” When the Davis brothers left the group and Gibson joined the Army, Moore and Wrightsil looked around for replacements.
The new members were Lee Wesley Jones, Harold Thomas, and David Sanders. With the new lineup in place, they hit the road in 1961. The Stairs name had been abandoned and they billed themselves as the New Drifters. As the story is told, and the new name indicated, the group made a living by imitating other groups. Apparently, the audiences in the small Texas towns they were playing didn’t know the difference. Their skill at mimicry eventually led to a name that fit them to a tee — the Masqueraders. Their first single under their new name, “A Man’s Temptation,” was released in 1963.
In 1965, the Masqueraders headed to Detroit where they hoped that they could get signed to Motown. They managed to get an audition but they were told that their style was too close to that of the Temptations. Maybe that mimicry they were so good at wasn’t good for them after all. There they were, stuck in Detroit, with no money to get home. It seemed as if their only hope was to get a gig at Detroit’s famed Twenty Grand Club to raise money. The walk, and they had to walk, from Motown to the Twenty Grand took them across Detroit. On the way, they passed a building with a sign on it that said “La Beat.” It turned out that the building housed a studio and a record label by that name. The Masqueraders ended up recording five singles for the label in 1966 and 1967. These titles included “The Family,” “I’m Gonna Make It,” “Together That’s the Only Way,” “Be Happy for Me” and “I Got the Power.” None of them found any chart success, however, and soon it was time for the Masqueraders to hit the road again.
This time the group headed to Memphis where they would audition for producer Chips Moman. The Masqueraders recorded eight singles with Moman at his famed American Studios. The first of these, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Lead Me On,” was released on Wand Records in 1967 and was a minor hit. The following year a second single, “This Heart Is Haunted,” was licensed to Amy Records. The problem was, the Masqueraders were still contracted to Wand. Moman simply changed their name to Lee Jones & the Sounds of Soul for the release. Back at Wand, “Do You Love Me Baby” didn’t do much business for the group and Wand dropped them. Moman turned once again Bell Records, the parent company of Amy. There were three singles for Bell and they included the minor hit “I Ain’t Got Nobody Else,” as well as “How Big Is Big,” and “Steamroller.” These releases are considered the artistic peak for the Masqueraders due to the group’s gospel-influenced vocals as well as the scintillating backing tracks provided by the legendary American Studios house band.
During their time at American, the Masqueraders not only recorded their own singles, but they also sang backup for other artists who were recording at the studio including the Box Tops.
The Masqueraders had still not had a national hit when “I’m Just an Average Guy” solved that problem in 1968. The AGP single rose to the #24 spot on the R&B chart and was followed-up by “The Grass is Green” later that same year. Their final AGP single was “Love, Peace, and Understanding” and when it failed to generate any success the Masqueraders decided it was time to go home. They returned to Dallas and founded their own label but neither of their two Stairway Records releases, “Let Me Show the World I Love You” and “The Truth is Free” had any national distribution and both withered on the vine.
In 1973, the Masqueraders returned to Memphis to work for another legend — Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records. They recorded two singles with producer Darryl Carter for Hi but success again proved elusive. When neither “Let the Love Bells Ring” or “Wake Up, Fool” found any traction, the label terminated their contract. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for group founder Charlie Moore. He left and was replaced by Lee Evans who had been with the Masqueraders in their heyday. Eventually, the group found their way to another Memphis legend, Isaac Hayes, and he signed them to his HBS label. The Masqueraders recorded the first album of their career for the label, Everybody Wanna Live On, in 1975. There was one more HBS album, Love Anonymous, before the label declared bankruptcy and left the Masqueraders at loose ends again.
The group remained without a label until 1980 when they signed with the Atlanta-based Bang Records (not the famous Bert Berns label). The one self-titled album they made for the label is, to date, their last recorded work. Moore eventually came back to the fold and the Masqueraders continue to perform live after more than 60 years as a group.