Although Funk, Inc. was probably the most famous band of Indianapolis' thriving late 1960s-early 1970s funk scene, there were many lesser-known outfits who were also musically compelling but recorded only a single or two before fading away into obscurity. The Ebony Rhythm Band was one such group. Its members comprised the personnel of what was essentially the house band for LAMP (Layden And Miller Productions), a small label set up by entrepreneur Herb Miller. This businessman got his start as a record store owner and music distributor and, after becoming partners with boxing promoter Howard Layden, began signing local artists to recording contracts. Due to their instrumental chops, the Ebony Rhythm Band backed many of these performers during studio sessions.
The aggregation's origins can be traced to the time when drummer Matthew Watson, originally in blues guitarist Harvey Cook's band, joined forces with guitarist Robert "Master Boobie" Townsend and organist John "Ricky" Jackson in soul singer Baby Leon's backing group sometime around 1967. Bassist Lester Johnson came into the fold the following year, and it was through his contacts that they became associated with LAMP Records. Initially, the rhythm section played as part of the rehearsal band for a group already signed to the label, the Vanguards. Johnson and Watson's contributions were so well received that all four musicians earned an audition with Miller, who was sufficiently impressed to make them his label's "Wrecking Crew," so to speak. After settling upon the name Ebony Rhythm Band, they not only provided accompaniment for the Vanguards, but also for other LAMP acts such as the Montiques and the Pearls. "It's Too Late for Love," "Fool Am I," and "Can I Call You Baby" are all presumably hitherto unissued backing tracks for songs by these aforementioned vocal groups.
Although The Ebony Rhythm Band lacked a real vocalist, this did not prevent them from recording a significant amount of material (mostly instrumentals) in 1969 and 1970 under their own direction. The songs that the Band chose to record differed markedly from the solid, though traditional, R&B that they recorded for LAMP's vocal groups. "We were into R&B, but we were into it in a different sense," Lester offers. "We thought it was too confined. We listened to R&B stuff, but we were equally as into rock. We were fascinated by (wah-)wahs, distortion, that sort of thing."
"We was scorned. In that era, everybody else in the black community was wearing three-piece suits, processes and Afro wigs, and that shit. We was the first guys to wear bell-bottoms. The first guys to wear big hats. We were off into a whole other thing.We wanted more of a rock thing, and that's what we did. When we played these R&B gigs behind these stand-up vocal groups that wore costumes and danced routines, we used to laugh at them. We thought they were corny."
The Ebony Rhythm Band's lone 45 "Drugs Ain't Cool" b/w "Soul Heart Transplant" offers a tantalizing taste of what a full-length album by the group might have sounded like as both numbers put their collective influences on display. Believe it or not, the A-side was the winner in a contest held by the mayor of Indianapolis for the best anti-drug song, which netted the musicians $800 as well as the opportunity to perform in front of a municipal building in the city's downtown area. In what would have been a major disappointment to Nancy Reagan and the whole "Just Say No" crowd, the band apparently displayed a bit of hypocrisy by performing the song (influenced by the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man") while stoned on marijuana.
The members of the Ebony Rhythm Band continued performing live as the backing group for the Vanguards and the Pearls prior to heading to the West Coast in 1970 as part of the King James Version and then metamorphosing into the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign later in the decade.
*Article with help of Stones Throw (www.stonesthrow.com) and Lester Johnson