Soul Serenade - Brenda & the Tabulations

We’re headed back to Philadelphia for this week’s Soul Serenade, and why not. If forced to choose, I’d have to say that Philly Soul is my favorite of all the various soul incarnations. It might have something to do with my love for that great city, or the fact that it was kids from Philadelphia who first instilled the love of soul music in me, but in the end it’s all about the music and to hear it is to love it.

Brenda Payton always knew that she could sing. She also knew that coming from a city that was home to American Bandstand and Cameo Parkway Records she might just have a chance to make something out of her talent. In 1965, right out of high school, Payton joined a vocal group called the Joyettes, but it didn’t last long. She got married to James Rucker, a singer himself, around this time. By the following year she was working as a playground supervisor.

As it happened, Maurice Coates was working at the playground that summer too, and he loved to sing while he worked. Eventually he and Payton started to harmonize, and the kids loved it. In those days, Georgie Woods ruled the airwaves in Philadelphia, doing the night shift on both WDAS and WHAT. His wife Gilda was always on the lookout for new talent, and one day she just happened to be driving by the playground and heard Payton and Coates doing their harmony thing. Woods stopped to talk to them.

The problem was that Payton and Coates had no original material, and they were going to need some to get to the next level. With a meeting scheduled with Woods a few days later, the duo was going to have to come up with something quick. And they did, penning “Dry Your Eyes” in short order, which impressed Woods so much that she agreed to manage the pair. Through her husband, Woods had made some record industry contacts. One of them was Harry Lipsius, who owned the Jamie-Guyden label, and like Woods was always up for something new. Woods brought her new group to Lipsius. He gave her the go-ahead for a recording session, and created the Dionn label for his new charges. Before the session, Rucker was added to the group along with guitarist Eddie Jackson.

It was Woods who came up with the name for the new group, and she did it in the most random fashion possible … by opening a dictionary. The first word that Woods saw when she opened the dictionary was ‘tabulate.’ The more Woods thought about it, the more she liked the way the word brought to mind thoughts of counting up the money that everyone was going to make. Thus, Brenda & the Tabulations were born, with Payton as the lead vocalist.

Bob Finiz was hired to produce “Dry Your Eyes,” and he got a highly emotional performance out of Payton who did a masterful job of putting over lyrics that could be interpreted in several ways, all of them heartbreaking. The public usually recognizes the real deal when they hear it, and they rewarded Brenda & the Tabulations with a Top 10 R&B hit, and a Top 20 pop hit in the spring of 1967. In just over six months, Payton and Coates had moved from that playground in Philadelphia to the stage of the Apollo Theater. Coates was still in high school and had to continue his studies on the road as the group spent most of 1967 on tour as an opening act for some the biggest acts of the day.

Brenda & the Tabulations

A second Dionn single was released, and it had an amazing pedigree. On one side was “Stay Together Young Lovers,” written by the soon-to-be legendary producer Thom Bell, and the equally legendary singer Lorraine Ellison. The other side was “Who’s Loving You,” written by the already legendary Smokey Robinson. The record, as you might imagine, became a two-sided hit, distinguished by its powerful vocals and spare arrangements, especially when compared with the elaborate soul productions of the day.

Between 1967 and 1969 Dionn released eight Brenda & the Tabulations singles, and they met with varying success. The uptempo “Baby You’re So Right For Me” was an attempt to do something different than the ballads that the group was known for, and it found a place on the pop chart. The R&B audience still liked the ballads however, and turned the record over to make “To the One I Love” a hit.

When Woods dissolved the Dionn label it was just the beginning of the changes that were afoot. Lipsius created a new label called Top and Bottom to replace Dionn. Meanwhile, Rucker was getting hard to deal with, probably because he was jealous of the attention that his wife was getting. Coates and the other members decided to throw him out of the group, replacing him with Bernard Murphy, and drummer Jerry Jones.

The first Tabulations single for Top and Bottom was “The Touch of You,” which was released in 1970, and was the group’s biggest hit since “Dry Your Eyes.” Van McCoy soon came aboard as producer and songwriter based on enormous success he’d had with female and female-led acts like the Shirelles, the Exciters, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Ruby & the Romantics. Although the Tabulations made some successful records with McCoy, the male members of the group faded from sight during this era. Eventually Deborah Martin and Pat Mercer were added, and Brenda & the Tabulations were re-imagined as a female trio with a backup band. By far the biggest hit for the group during this time was “Right on the Tip of My Tongue” from 1971. It was the second biggest Brenda & the Tabulations single, returning the group to the Top 10 on the R&B chart, and the Top 40 on the pop chart.

Brenda Payton hung around for a few more years, eventually morphing into a disco diva with Woods still guiding her career. By 1976 Payton was recording for the Casablanca imprint Chocolate City Records. The records still came out under the name Brenda & the Tabulations, but in reality it was Payton backed by groups of session players and singers. She had an R&B hit with “(I’m A) Superstar” in 1977, and continued performing through the ’80s.

Brenda Payton died suddenly, and far too soon, in 1992. She was 46 years-old.

About the Author

Ken Shane

Ken Shane lives in Narragansett, R.I. He is a freelance writer and far and away the oldest Popdose writer. In fact, he may be the oldest writer, period. He wants you to know that he generally does not share his colleagues' love for the music of the '80s, and he does not forgive them for loving it. (Ken passed away in November 2022. R.I.P. —Ed.)

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