Filed under: Dynamic, The Commands | Tags: Back Beat, Don Robey, Eccentric Soul, O'Jays, San Antonio, The Commands, Tops In Blue
Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label‘s release date draws closer and closer (March 12th for the uninitiated). Over the next few weeks we’ll be introducing the groups and their music in a series of posts.
The most artistically rich act to emerge from Abe Epstein’s army of San Antonio labels was the Commands. The group’s earliest stages can be traced back to Billings, Montana, with Sam Peoples. A dedicated choir leader at the First Baptist Church in his Herlong, California, hometown, Peoples recalls the circumstances of his turn to secular music with little regret. “I would say necessity was the determining factor,” he said. “While attending Rocky Mountain College in Billings, the need arose for immediate finances to assist in the necessary college expenses. And since I had sang with four local vocal groups in Herlong, I figured that singing was my best bet. I starting singing for private clubs and parties and finally graduated to the Bella Vista, the number one club in Billings.” Upon graduation in 1962, Peoples enlisted in the Air Force and was assigned the role of Air Traffic Control Tower Operator in the 2015th Communications Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio.
Randolph AFB would serve up two more Commands. Co-founder Emanuel Grace came from a church background himself, singing in the choir through his years at South Philadelphia High before he felt R&B’s tug at the hem of his robe. Following high school, he too joined the Air Force and was uprooted to Amarillo, Texas. There, his singing career began in earnest, as talent show victories piled up under the banner of the Dream Chords. Grace’s reassignment to Randolph in October 1962 put him on his collision course with Sam Peoples.
Hailing from another Eastern American metropolis, Spanish Harlem-born Puerto Rican Isaac “Jack” Martinez, according to his 1966 biography, brought a “strong New York influence” to the Commands. But, as he’d high schooled in the Long Island suburb of Brentwood, New York, his Big Apple pedigree seems a tad overstated. Further complicating this background was KTSA DJ Rod Wagener, who spoke of Martinez’s short-lived tenure in the Brentwood-based Tymes but had confused them with the actual hit-making Tymes of Philadelphia. In any case, duty called Martinez as it had the others. While serving as an aeromedical technician at Randolph AFB, Martinez happened upon an early rehearsal of the Originals, which featured Peoples, Grace, Robert Ben, and Autry Raybon—the latter of them badly off-key and in need of a tap-out.
Compelled by the amenities afforded members of Tops In Blue—the Air Force’s performance ensemble featuring active duty officers who toured military bases rather than Southeast Asian jungles—Peoples and Grace aimed to assemble a top-notch vocal group of their own, one that might spare them the horrors of battle and, in Grace’s case, the horrors of reshelving books as the AFB’s library custodian. With Jack Martinez subbed in for Raybon, the quartet got serious, implementing a moniker fit for the military Star Search they’d play to. Pandering a bit to their captive audience, they went with the Commands, borrowing G.I. jargon for a group of air force bases.
The newly minted Commands won regional competitions for inclusion in the Tops In Blue touring company, putting them on a circuit of airbase performances. Joining them on that circuit was an oddball Christian-themed folk duo called the Newton Singers—one Singer exhibiting a mesmerizing alto. It belonged to Dan Henderson, born in Chicago and raised in Pittsburgh and Dayton. Henderson was weaned in the world of gospel, as both a trumpeter and a choir member. In high school, he sang with both the Customs and a pre-“I Really Love You” iteration of the Stereos, before enrolling in Chicago’s Roosevelt University in 1961. Three years later, he joined the Air Force as a weather observer at Chanute AFB in Rantoul, Illinois. There, he and Pat Coffey formed the Newton Singers, a moment Henderson thought of at the time as “the single most important event in my life.” After the Newtons’ and Commands’ mutual Tops In Blue tour ended, Henderson was granted transfer to Randolph. After sitting in on a few Commands rehearsals, he was officially asked to join at the end of 1964, replacing Robert Ben. They’d spend the next six months making touchdowns at various Texas bases—but with no presence in the civilian world, it seemed unlikely that the Commands might bottle their magic before the next deployment. How Abe Epstein ended up at a performance at Randolph’s Hunt & Saddle club remains a mystery, but his bond with the Commands formed that night, and a pact to record was voiced.
The first sessions the Commands executed for Epstein Enterprises, in the early part of 1966, were uncannily flawless. Backing was provided by the Dell-Tones, a group of younger Latino kids, who cut a slew of Spanish- and English-language rock and ranchero records for the Cobra label that same year. The plug side, “No Time For You,” was swiped from another local export: The Justifiers. Helmed by Archie Satterfield, with Melvin Porter, Roger Blackwell, and songwriter Bennie Cherry pulling up the rear, the Justifiers formed in 1962 in the hallways of St. Phillips College. Four uneventful year later, they were performing “No Time For You” at a city-wide talent show held at Central Library Auditorium. On that same bill were the Commands. Cherry’s original “No Time For You” didn’t place, but Epstein fell head over heels for the mid-tempo ballad and insisted the Commands record it. For the flip, the Henderson-penned “Hey It’s Love” was selected, and when time came to put credits on the label, both Peoples and Henderson got the nod for “No Time For You.” Days later, Epstein was making the white-label rounds to his usual cadre of on-air suspects—and response was overwhelming. The Commands’ first single blanketed San Antonio airwaves, going #1 at KTSA, KUKA, KBAT, and KONO and radiating swiftly across the rest of the Lone Star State. “No Time For You” then broke out, getting picked up in numerous other markets by distributorships as far west as San Francisco’s C&C, in the north by Chicago’s Allstate, further south by Miami’s Tone, and in the east by Newark’s Essex. Tens of thousands of records were shipped in the first 30 days of the single’s February 1966 release.
Hoping to upstream the regional—and growing national—interest in the Commands, Epstein sent singles out to major record companies. Months of rejection letters followed, and after Cleveland’s O’Jays released their take on “No Time For You” on Imperial that spring, Epstein ushered the group back into the studio and cut Henderson originals “Don’t Be Afraid To Love Me” and “Must Be Alright” and scheduled them for two sides of a June release. At the eleventh hour, Peacock’s Don Robey made an offer to reissue “No Time For You” on his Back Beat imprint, and Espstein put plans for DY-109 on hold. Issued the last week of June 1966, Back Beat 570 featured an alternate mix of both Dynamic 104 sides; according to period correspondence with Peacock A&R man Robert Sye, the Back Beat disc has a “distinct difference in resonance.” Within a week, both WAME in Miami and XEWV in Los Angeles had playlisted it and Peacock had shipped 5,000 singles. But sometime that summer, relations with Robey’s Houston concern soured. A letter dated August 25 records Don Robey’s animated chastisement of Epstein over a missed Commands opportunity, an Atlanta opening slot for Buddy Ace. Subsequent letters unfold in a series of exchanges between Epstein and Robey attorneys, in squabbles concerning an unsigned contract and unpaid royalties. By September, the Commands and Back Beat had broken rank, and Epstein was back to square one.
Listen to a mix of Commands songs below:
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