The Soul Set recorded one of my favourite dance records of all time, 'Will You Ever Learn'. It is a hard-driving Carolina Beach sound with a hard-blowing sax break and an ever present Hammond breathing life into the track...it has also packed dance-floors for me whenever I've DJ'ed with it all over Europe and Japan!
I was first contacted by a band member back in 2003, since which time a few more have been in touch and emails exchanged. The group founder, leader, sax man and song writer, Charlie Greenway, finally got in touch during August 2011, with some incredible recollections on the background of the group, their sets, life on the road and the writing of the songs. Let's start with the first email I received from a guy in Atlanta, who had found AnoraksCorner when typing in "Soul Set" into a search engine:
"I was doing a search on Google and was extremely pleased to find that you feature my old group, the Soul Set. I was the drummer in that band. It was wonderful to hear ‘Will You Ever Learn’ again! We were all students at Western Carolina University (in the mountains of North Carolina) in the late 60's and on weekends we toured the south in our 'Soul Van' (actually a new Dodge van, pulling a trailer full of equipment). We were booked by the Hit Attractions agency, and played clubs and college parties until we broke up in 1969. We never made much money, but we toured a lot and met some great people. I have lost track of the other band members and hope they are ok. They were a talented group of guys."
Atlanta, Georgia. USA
We started to exchange mails and I would fire various questions at him about the group and their recordings. However, not long after I added a few of Bill's memories onto this site, I then received another email from a guy, Dick Hilliard, saying that it was actually he who was the drummer for the Soul Set! This is what Dick had to say initially:
"My Name is Dick Hilliard and, for the ‘record’, I was the drummer for the Soul Set when, ‘Will You Ever Learn’ was cut at the Arthur Smith Studio in Charlotte, NC. I was the original drummer for the band but after I received a letter from Uncle Sam requesting my presence for Military Service, my tenure as the Soul Set drummer ended. I am sure that's when Bill took over as drummer."
A few more emails were exchanged between the three of us, which prompted Bill to dig out some of his old notebooks and pin-point precisely his Soul Set experience:
"I started college at Western Carolina University in August 1967," he said, "and joined the Soul Set in September. They had been around before I got there and I know I was not their first drummer, but was not sure of the exact chronology ‘til I did a little research."
Bill also sent in the group line-up which he played in from September 1967 until the breakup, which he recalled as being mid 1969,
"I know it was not later than that, because I got married in December 1969 and I know the band was not playing together that fall."
The members of the group were as follows:
Charlie Greenway - saxophone
Bill Humphrey - Hammond organ
Bob Laidlaw - lead guitar
Tony Gibson - bass guitar
Mike Trull - trumpet
Frank Kelly - trumpet
...and of course both Dick Hilliard and Bill Pratt on drums!
All the guys performed backing vocals, with the leads taken by - Johnny Burnside, Freddie Freeman and Brenda Summers
Promotional photo of the band circa 1966 taken just before a student dance at Dotson Cafeteria on the Campus of WCU
(Back row left to right) Bill Humphrey - organ, Frank Kelly - trumpet, Tony Gibson - bass, Bob Laidlaw - guitar, Dick Hilliard - drums, Charlie Greenway - saxophone
(Front row left to right) Freddie Freeman - vocals ("Our James Brown man"), Brenda Summers - vocals, Johnny Burnside - vocals (lead on 'Will You Ever Learn')
Promotional photo circa 1966 (Left to Right):
Bob Laidlaw - guitar, Frank Kelly - trumpet, Charlie Greenway - sax, Dick Hilliard - drums, Mike Trull - trumpet, Bill Humphrey - organ, Tony Gibson - bass
Footnote - and the UK connections!
Bill: "My ancestors came to America from Kent in the 1600's, so I always wanted to see Great Britain first-hand which I eventually did during 2000. I am hoping to return one day to spend more time there, drink more beer, and hear more music!"
Dick: "I have strong connections with the British Isles, via Ireland on my father's side and Scotland on my mothers'...and I fancy a pint or two on those shores once I've retires from teaching!
Charlie: "I actually lived in the UK for a year in Luton - my daughter was born in South Ruislip! I was also invited on stage at the old California Ballroom in October of '71 to play once again with the Tams on their UK tour!"
Let’s hop forward to August 2011 when group founder, leader, saxophone player and song writer, Charlie Greenway from Hickory, NC, got in touch:
"My name is Charlie Greenway and I was very privileged to meet a wonderful drummer and great friend in Dick Hilliard in the early fall of 1966. When I approached Dick’s dorm room (edit - at WCU) for our introductory meeting, Billy Stewart was blaring from his stereo, so I knew right away I was going to like this guy. I wanted to put together a rhythm and Blues/ Soul band and I quickly convinced Dick to help me find and recruit The Soul Set. Dick introduced me to David Fisher, who became our manager. A couple of guitar and bass players later we met Bob Laidlaw, who led us to Mike Trull, who matched up wonderfully with Frank Kelly, who happened to live across the hall from me. By chance, on a walk past the basement of the cafeteria, I heard the voices of Freddie Freeman and Brenda Summers - Brenda knew Johnny Burnside and we were close to having our group. Freddie knew of a young bass player named Tony Gibson, who lived an hour away in Canton, NC. We were then lucky enough to meet Bill Humphries…the stars had aligned to let me meet the amazing musicians that became The Soul Set - formed just in time to appear on stage to open for the Tams in early December of 1966! This version of the group played together until just after Dick's wedding to his fiancé, Becky, the following December. Shortly after that I left for the USAF and Dick also went into service."
Charlie also confirmed that via their manager, David Fisher at WCU, they were booked through Ted Hall Enterprises and Hit Attractions agencies, both based in Charlotte, NC (David later went on to work at Hit Attractions). They played at Frat Parties at UGA, UNC, USC, UT, and many other smaller colleges and Universities in the southeast. Dick recalled performing at many clubs with the most memorable for him being "The Cellar" in Charlotte, NC, "The Jokers Three" in Greensboro, NC and of course, "The Beach Club" on Myrtle Beach, SC. Bill recalled that the band also played support for both Carla Thomas (in Knoxville) and the Esquires and that they had gigged in Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. Charlie added the "Scene" in Newton, NC, the "Pourhouse" in Charlotte, NC, and Donnie's in Ocean Drive, SC to the impressive list.
"We would leave the university around noon on Friday", says Bill, "and play both Friday and Saturday nights, returning home on Sunday afternoons. Practice would be every Wednesday night, and it was a miracle that any of us graduated!"
They all did you will be pleased to know! Dick also added:
"Back in December 1967 I married a lovely girl, Becky, whom I met as a result of my involvement with the Soul Set, and Bill played the organ at our wedding, whilst the other guys were ushers!"
Bill recalls that they were told that they were the agencies second biggest band on their roster, although he couldn't recall who was first. From a business perspective, they seemed to make decent money as a band, but the individual members would only take home a small amount ($20-$30) due to expenses, and inevitably the band disbanded during 1969.
Following the initial upload of this page, Dick got in touch with Bob Laidlaw (lead guitar) and he reminded him of missing facts from the original notes, including the missing surname of one of the vocalists - Freddie Freeman...Brenda's last name is still a mystery though! Dick wrote:
"Bob also reminded me of some gigs when we backed the Dixie Cups, the Drifters and Clifford Curry. Bill Humphrey, also sat in for an absent keyboardist when Little Anthony & the Imperials came to do a concert at Western Carolina University (WCU). Another recollection, we all went to Reid Gymnasium at WCU to watch a concert by Ben E. King, the music was great going in and when I looked at the stage, there were my drums with the Soul Set name on the bass drum (as pictured above) as Ben E's drummers set was lost, forgotten, whatever, and David Fisher (our manager) graciously offered my set...of course I didn't mind! I got to meet and talk to Ben E King after the concert. As I was leaving he said, "Wait a minute, take one of the copies of our new 45", he pulled out a pen and wrote a nice, personal note and signed the record. Over time that became lost, too. I would give anything to have it back."
So, there's a mission for someone...have you got that disc with a greeting to Dick from Ben E. King on it?!
Here's an original flyer for the Pi Kappa Alpha Christmas show from Tuesday 13th December 1966, that headlined the Tams, the Shadows and our heroes, the Soul Set!
Charlie recounts how the songs came into being:
“Just after our opening for the Tams as our first job, we traveled on a Saturday afternoon to Charlotte NC to audition to be one of the acts booked by Hit Attractions, Inc. On the way home, I asked the group to drop me off at my parent’s home, three and a half hours away from campus. My parents drove me the next morning to Cullowhee, because we had a rehearsal scheduled for Sunday afternoon in order to prepare for a concert on campus with the Drifters on Monday night. About half way back to Cullowhee, I asked Mom and Dad to shut off the radio. I picked up a pen and on the back of a cardboard box wrote the lyrics to, "Please Don't Make Me Cry". I had written the lyrics for "Will You Ever Learn" when I was 15, but had no music in my head for either song until that ride back to Cullowhee. The instant we got back home, I kissed and hugged my family, grabbed my horn and started working on the melody line for these two tunes. You see, I could barely read music, absolutely couldn't write it and I was a limited "one-handed" piano player…but I could hear the whole thing in my head!
I just had to relate it to the rest of the band and hope that they liked it. Luckily that day, Bill arrived early and he listened to me play the melody on my horn first and then started playing a sampling or a menu of possible chords on the organ that matched up for me - when he played what my head was hearing we wrote it down. Little by little the songs were happening. I then sang for Tony what I was hearing for the bass, while the organ and guitar were working out their parts. I gave the lyrics to Johnny, so he could work it out with the rhythm section, whilst I was working with Mike and Frank on the horn parts. As if by magic, a couple of hours later we were playing, "Will You Ever Learn" and "Please Don't Make Me Cry" exactly how I had heard them in my mind a few hours previous whilst in the back of our automobile! Believe it or not, we then gave the tunes their debut during our concert with The Drifters the next night.
Over the following months we played them on stage many times in clubs and frat houses, and then recorded them at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, NC. Our manager, David Fisher, gave us a couple boxes of records to pass on to anyone we knew in radio, who would play it for us, and to autograph and sell on to pick up a few extra expense dollars!”
The only label they recorded for was Bi-Me records, and indeed this was to be their only recording onto vinyl, which slipped out during 1967. Please note that the band should not to be confused with any other acts of the same name -i.e. the group on Johnson Records, out of New Jersey, which featured Norman Seldin. Unfortunately, the record did not sell well, and Bill remembers that they had a huge cardboard box full of unsold records which they didn't know what to do with, so they gave these 'leftovers' away free to family, friends and whoever expressed the slightest interest. Bill recalls:
"I still have a copy of the 45, signed by the lead singer, Johnny Burnside, of whom I vaguely remember me kidding him about being a star, and he said, alright then, I'll give you my autograph...funny because we'd known each other for years!"
Charlie on finally obtaining his current copy of the group’s record:
“Oddly enough, my personal copy of our record was lost and I still had no copy in 1990 when my wife and I attended her 25Th high school reunion. Across the room, we noticed a couple staring at our table throughout the evening. Then, the gentleman arose from his chair, walked the length of the room towards me and said, "My wife thinks she knows you". Thank goodness the next thing he said was, "and I think I do too". After some quizzing back and forth he called for his wife and said "I know you...you were in The Soul Set....we have your record”. I jokingly said that I was glad they had a copy, because I didn't have one and my wife had never even heard it! They said they could solve that problem as they had two copies! They wrote down our address and a few weeks later they graciously mailed us one - and that is the strange story of how I came to finally have a copy of my own record!"
Charlie provides an insight into the roots of the group and tunes they featured within their sets:
"1966 was a great time for a "soul" band. Stax-Volt and Atlantic records had a stable full of musicians that had for several years turned out hit after hit of tunes with real balls for us to play....songs that had great bass lines, kicking’ drums, driving guitar rhythms and rifts, wonderful Hammond organ fills and solos, soulful voices, and almighty powerful horns to reinforce it all and The Soul Set was all of that. Motown had the Tempts, Tops and a host of other great artists filling the airwaves with everything Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland and many other great songwriters could serve up for the Funk Brothers to make into delicious music...and with Johnny Burnside upfront and the power of the rest of the band behind him we feasted on the tunes that fit us the best. Throw into the pot the fact that mostly regional acts like the Tams, Showmen, Willie Tee, Clifford Curry and others were REQUIRED songs at the Southeast U.S. university frat houses and clubs and again we were built perfectly for the job.
We were a powerful and exciting act with a powerful and exciting song list - with the talent to make you remember us after the show was long over - during 1970 I was stationed just outside of Istanbul, Turkey in the US Air Force. Some friends and I were at a midnight Elvis Presley movie (they were very popular because they were full of girls) when a fellow approached us and said to me: "I know you from somewhere". After a few moments conversation he blurted out that he had seen me on stage with The Soul Set (he called us by name) at his fraternity house at The University of Georgia (we played there often) "Man, the James Brown guy is great and the other guy....where did you find him? He's a real star! You guys were really great!"
The Soul Set had that kind of effect on people. We were an old style band...we wore uniforms on stage, started our night with a set of instrumentals, brought on our singers like stars, played certain songs at what we called, “show speed” (up-tempo), and arranged our sets so that the crowds could react to a building of momentum and enjoy the crescendo of very powerful set-enders. The band did dance steps on stage and Johnny, Brenda, and Freddie were a commanding presence at the front. Another time, another place....had we been gathered together solely to perform for years to come and not as a sideline to do while at college....Wow! Now that would have been something people would have enjoyed for a long, long time. To give you more flavor, here is a list of sounds you would have heard at a Soul Set performance - as I said, we began our night with instrumentals: Jr. Walker tunes – “Cleo's Mood”, “Cleo's Back”, “Hot Cha” (the B side to Shotgun), a Mike Sharpe version of Spooky, then the entire horn section with James Brown's version of, “Every Beat of My Heart”. Then the big guns came out with, “Watermelon Man”, “Philly Dog”, “Grab This Thing”, “Boot-Leg”, “20-75”, and Cannonball Adderley’s, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. We opened our night with a group of these tunes and opened a few sets with Bill Humphries doing a great job of Booker T & the MGs’, “Hip Hug Her”, and the horns on The Mar-Keys’, “Honey Pot” or The Barkays’, “Soul Finger”. The audience was jolted back into action with these set starters and then the singers did their thing."
Charlie then reveals the sorry truth about the prejudice the group had to endure:
"As exciting as we were to experience, there were some that loathed our existence. We were a mixed-race group. We were a symbol to some of southern integration of the races and therefore, an object to hate! Many times we were refused food service and to avoid this we adopted the habit of sending one white boy into a restaurant for bags of burgers and fries. We sent one guy to motel offices to get two rooms on the backside of the motel and the guys piled into the one room and Brenda and her female travel companion would use the other. The same people that paid to see us at a club, refused to serve us later at a cafe.
Once, we were divided into two vehicles so that Johnny could visit his aunt and introduce his band mates, including Frank Kelly (one of the white trumpet players) and they were chased and cursed and even shot at by the KKK. On another occasion, we had two jobs near my hometown, so, we stayed at my parents’ home and feasted on a great home-cooked meal....but we had to arrive and leave in the dead of night because we didn't want to risk being discovered by the Grand Dragon of the KKK, who lived close by.
Race even dominated the band's conversation on the road. The back and forth between Mike Trull (white trumpet player) and Johnny Burnside (lead vocalist on our record) was inevitable and irritating to most of us. If I could speak to Johnny now, perhaps I could make him understand that he was, "preaching to the choir". We were a group of white boys in a mixed-race band by choice, not by accident. We chose to play predominately black soul music...no one was twisting our arms and at least to some degree, we knew were at risk because of it and WE DIDN'T CARE! We loved what were doing and could have quit at any time if we wanted. Once, our lesser educated, hard working singer Freddie Freeman got fed up with the conversation and told Johnny, our more educated singer to: "Shut the hell up! You go on and on and on, but, if they invented a pill that would turn you white....you'd be the first N***** in line." You could have heard a pin drop for the next hour on road!
Before our first trip to Georgia with Tony Gibson (our very young black bass player) I was summoned to his home by his father. Mr. Gibson asked me if I had lost my mind taking his boy and a band with other black members in the same vehicles with whites down south. I said no sir, I believe I know what I am doing and his reply was....You WILL take care of my baby boy won't you......and You DO know what will happen to you if you don't! I understood his concern and I believe he understood that I cared also. Mr. Gibson was a good and caring father to a truly great, talented son, who as a joy and pleasure to be around.”
Charlie digs deep and tells of rehearsals and how they got their stage uniforms:
"We rehearsed in the basement of a cafe located just off the WCU campus - I'm sure the owner loved the fact that we were accumulating a growing following, which translated to more burger and fries sales on rehearsal nights! Before we ever worked our first job, Mr. Gibson (Tony the bass player's Dad) invited us to load up our equipment and come rehearse in a small building down the street from their home. When I say small, I mean so small that the entire band wouldn't fit inside.....we had to put the singers, horns and their mics on the front porch and open all the windows and doors! Very soon a crowd would form on the street outside, and everyone started to dance and a street party would break out! They didn't seem to mind that we were rehearsing and that sometimes we would repeat a song or part of a song over and over - the people were just having a good time! Mr. Gibson obviously wanted to get our group off to a good start, so he sent a few big bruisers that worked for him to periodically pass the hat through the crowd and he paid attention to who did and didn't contribute to our "uniform fund". Like I said before, Mr. Gibson was a nice man! "
I asked Bill about other groups that were around at that point:
"I heard The Embers many times. When I heard them, they had terrific harmonies, an awesome horn section that twirled their horns in unison, professional choreography, and matching suits. They regularly played Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Greensboro, Myrtle Beach, and Ocean Drive. We called their style of music "Beach music", because it was believed to have originated in the coastal towns of Myrtle Beach and Ocean Drive, South Carolina. Many people in the South still love beach music. Other popular groups that regularly played the Carolinas included The Tams (huge here...great harmonies, etc. in the beach music genre), The Kingsmen, Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts (raunchy, funny...all high school guys thought they were great), The Fabulous Five (awesome horn section...horns were mic’ed by three mikes coming off a single mike stand)."
Dick reflects on his influences and fellow bands:
"I'm originally from Elon College, NC (near Burlington) where I was brought up on a steady diet of Carolina "Beach Music", smooth R&B and Soul. I idolized local bands like "The Fabulous Five", Chester Mayfield & the Casuals, the Catalinas, the Embers, and so on. The drummer for the Fabulous Five was my inspiration, at dances I would find a location where I had a good view, and watch, and learn.
When growing up, my best friend and I both shared an intense love for R&B and Soul beats, especially of the Stax-Volt stable of artists - our favorite was Otis Redding. We both became drum geeks and consummate "air drummers". We both shared the same tastes, and therefore the same favorite drummers - notably The Fabulous Five and Chester Mayfield and the Casuals. I went on to get a set of Ludwigs when I graduated High School - my friend never did, but we stayed pretty close and when I started playing for the Soul Set he and some other of my friends came to a club we were playing in Asheboro, NC (don't recall the name). The best compliment of my ability as a drummer came soon after when he confided to me that he had a new "favorite drummer"! I still take that as the highest compliment that I ever received. Tragically, he was killed in a freak one car accident not long after that. My friend’s impression of that performance was not of my skill as a drummer, but of the result of the impact of the band as a whole. We were a show band and the songs of each set were as seamlessly choreographed as the dance steps of our singers! Too bad we didn't have the easy video technology that's available today, as I would’ve loved to have seen one of those old sets!
It's interesting to me to still see some of the old bands making the music - The Embers are still as active as ever, as are the Catalinas and the Fantastic Shakers, to name but a few. Granted, there are many new faces in those groups...have to be as much of the founding generation of those groups are on social security now! Bobby Tomlinson of the Embers is pretty amazing though, he and Jackie Gore started the band in the late 1950's and he's still pounding out those distinctive beach rhythms as their drummer today. I got to live the dream for only a year or so...pity it couldn't have lasted a lot longer.”
Bill has many cherished the memories of the road trips he made and would like very much to make contact with other band members,
"The last I heard Bill Humphrey owned his own Insurance Agency in Greensboro, NC, Mike Trull was owner or co-owner of a concern that manufactured marching band uniforms and accessories and Bob Laidlaw is now a minister for a United Methodist Church near Tallahassee, Florida. A reunion would be great!"
And here he is...taken in September 2011, Mr.Charlie Greenway - founder, leader, song writer and sax-man extraordinaire, holding his original copy of the classic, 'Will You Ever Learn'...no it is not for sale!
It would be great if any other band members could get in touch and share their memories and pictures...and indeed were you ever in the audience and a Soul Set fan...please get in touch!
The original publisher's contract, envelope from Fisher Productions and Charlie Greenways business card, all courtesy of Charlie.
Update: October 21st 2011
I received some bitter-sweet news from Charlie and Dick today - the guys finally got to meet up recently and spent some long-overdue quality time together, along with their wives Gail and Becky. The happy memories they shared about their Soul Set years prompted Dick to try and track down more members of the band - sadly he discovered that their bass man, Tony Gibson, had passed away. There is a brief obituary on www.tributes.com which reflected that he was a family man and enjoyed the company of his sons and grandchildren:
Anthony Junior "Big Tony" Gibson, age 58, died on Thursday 30th September 2010, at Charles George VA Medical Center.
A native and lifelong resident of Haywood County, he was the son of the late June and Carrie Sue Smith Gibson and was survived by his wife of 32 years, Andrea Owen Gibson.
He was an employee of Evergreen Packaging with 34 years of service working in the store room. Tony was an accomplished musician. When he was 16, he played for the Soul Set.
He was a United States Marine veteran serving during the Vietnam War era - Military rites were conducted by the National Guard and VFW at Wells Funeral Home of Canton.
Charlie and Dick take solace in the fact that the Soul Set was mentioned, as they believe Tony must have told his family of his involvement and good times with the group...enough so that they considered it important enough to mention the group name within the obituary.
RIP Tony Gibson