An example of how small twists of fate often influenced the trajectories of R&B acts back in the day, Asheville, North Carolina‘s Innersouls might never have made a record or risen to regional prominence had it not been for wealthy white ex-race-car driver Dick 'Dickie' Plemmons. In the early ‘70s, Plemmons hired the experienced working band to play at a birthday party for one of his sons, and, impressed with the performance, soon agreed to become their manager and financier, producing their lone 45 in 1973 "Thoughts" b/w "Just Take Your Time" at his friend Harry Deal’s studio in rural Taylorsville. The resulting Plemmons label release would never enter proper distribution channels, with copies instead given away as gifts and thrown from the stage at live shows. Little wonder that it is now ultra-rare, maybe the most sought-after rare funk 45 from North Carolina.
Founder and leader Otis Ware was delighted to learn of the record’s rediscovery and recently recalled the group’s natural abilities: “The guys were so good you could just feel one another. We had a professional group. No one could touch what we were doing!” Ware himself hadn’t heard the record himself for decades. “You know what, when I got out of, at that particular time, you didn’t think that you would ever think about it again. So I don’t even have a copy of that record.”
No matter, Ware remembers the song as though it were recorded yesterday. “We put that record together, believe it or not, in the studio,” he says. “Just boom, just did it, just put it together.” The improvisation on “Just Take Your Time” sounds polished nonetheless, and while there are plenty of spontaneous vibes in the song, the chorus offers the words of a band that could justly claim to be “Just taking our time, doin’ it real, real good.”
“We had that big Chicago sound,” Ware explains. “The Innersouls was a funk band, we took the funk band and added the big horn section with it. So, them two-minute bands back then didn’t have five-piece horn sections. We did. At one time, we were playing with two drummers. We just had that blast.”
The members were musical hometown heroes well before they formed the band circa 1970: Otis Ware (lead vocals, baritone saxophone), Leroy Posey (lead vocals, trumpet), Stanley Baird (intro vocals, tenor saxophone), John Wyatt (intro vocals, drums), Norris ‘Country’ Duckett (lead guitar), Sammy Bowens (rhythm guitar) and Jerome ‘JC’ Martin (bass). “I played my entire young and teenage life,” Ware says. Along with fellow band students at Stephens-Lee High School, he got funky long before he could grow what would become his trademark sideburns. “We started playing professionally at the age of 13 and 14. We were playing in local establishments at that age. When we formed the Innersouls, that was a group of us that were all friends. We grew up together, was in school together, and from there it just took off.”
From their base in Asheville, the Innersouls toured relentlessly, mostly around the eastern seaboard. “And the group was so popular, we played so well, but we just never had that break we needed to go national,” Ware says. “But we had the sound. We backed up all of the top artists that was around at that time.” The Innersouls attained at least regional fame, both for their music and their showmanship. “We didn’t do no sampling, we played,” the former band leader recalls. “We had a lot of excitement on the stage. We did dance routines. We used smoke and a lot of lights, and all the kind of stuff that you wouldn’t think a local group did. You would have thought we were out of Chicago.” The shows, he remembers, often stretched to four hours in length and included multiple costume changes.
“We were very seldom in Asheville. So when we came home to play for our own people, it was a big thing, man. I mean, they treated us like royalty.” The band’s local base was the Orange Peel, then Asheville’s pre-eminent black music venue. “When we came home and the word got around that we were going to be in town, the Orange Peel was packed to capacity - it was overflowing,” he remembers. “The energy was there! It made us feel special, because we had to literally have police escorts from the dressing room to the stage. Folks would mob us.”
By 1975, and still under the direction of Plemmons, Ware and some members of the band expanded their musical vision, recruiting top-notch talent from elsewhere in North Carolina to form a new super group. Changing their name to Bite, Chew & Spit, or BCS, after the manager’s penchant for having a dip of tobacco, they were often booked for high-paying gigs throughout the South by Ted Hall’s Capital Hit Attractions and Bernard Bailey’s Entertainers Unlimited agency in Charlotte. Remembered by concert-goers just as much for their dramatic light shows and multicolored Afro wigs as their actual musicianship, BCS had status enough to share the stage with the likes of Maceo & All the Kings Men and The Commodores. But near the end of the 1970s, Ware and Co. turned off their amps, tucked away their garish outfits and wigs and called it quits. Disco was the reigning sound in the clubs, and the members of BCS figured they’d done all that they could do on the funk front. “It just got a point where, after so many years of doing it, there wasn’t anything left that was exciting,” Ware recalls. “We’d seen it all, done it all.”
Of the original Innersouls, saxophonist Stanley Baird has been the most active in music as a band teacher and jazz artist. Talented drummer John Wyatt passed away some years back, and Leroy Posey moved to the Washington, DC, area, with the others still living in the Asheville area to this day. Ware took a small detour, running a photography studio in downtown Asheville for a couple of years. But then he got back to the music, first by forming a gospel group - staffed in part by former Innersouls - and then by entering the ministry. Ware has been a preacher for the past 20 years, the last nine as head of Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Kenilworth. But the former hard-touring nightclub denizen has hardly lost his musical edge.
“We had a natural funk that the average person can’t be taught. You either got it, or you ain’t got it,” he says. And once you’ve got it, you can’t lose it: The Rev. insists that his ministry can be both godly and groovy, without sacrificing either quality. “So occasionally here at church, I’ll do things that a lot of preachers probably wouldn’t do. I’ll ask for song requests, and somebody might holler out, ‘Rev., give me some James Brown.’ And I’ll do it. Right in church.”
Otis Ware died Monday, August 6, 2012.