A FEW MINUTES WITH… Frankie Beverly of Maze
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival Saturday headliner Frankie Beverly wears a white baseball cap, but he doesn’t turn it sideways, backwards, or wear it over his ears. “I don’t like that,” says the leader of the veteran R&B band Maze. “I wear my cap because that’s what I wore in Philadelphia as a kid, and I thought, ‘What’s wrong with my hat? There’s nothing wrong.’ So, I just kept that, but I don’t like all this hat backwards and pants down to their thighs. I don’t like all that stuff.”
Fifty years into his career, Beverly is old school. Like the good guys in the old westerns, he wears a white hat along with white shirt and white pants and delivers a positive message of racial equality to a predominantly black audience that idolizes him and his band enough for one Chicago Tribune writer to pontificate that he is Elvis, Springsteen and Sinatra all rolled into one.
His career began when he was 17 years old and needed his parents’ signature to sing in clubs with the Silhouettes. It was seven years after that doo-wop group’s one big 1956 hit, “Get A Job,” and Beverly was living the song about the frustrations of trying to find work. An only child of a demanding father, he was told to get out of the house and find work.
“People seemed to like (my singing), and that just made my mind up. I never went back there, and that’s when I started running into issues with my father because he wanted me to work. I had to leave the house at 17,” says Beverly. “He was a hard guy, but as soon as I did something and showed him that I was serious about it, he was the first to say, ‘Hey, son. I’m proud of you.’ He’s a big part of who I am today, definitely.”
The definition of rhythm and blues has changed so many times over the half century of Beverly’s career, but his music has remained upbeat, positive concerning race relations, and smooth in its style reflecting the influence of the many iconic artists who helped and influenced him throughout his career.
His given first name is Howard, but he became Frankie after Frankie Lyman, the boy soprano in the early rock and roll band the Teenagers, who first hit with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” in 1956. But it was the Prince of Soul Marvin Gaye, who gave Maze its first big break.
“He let us open shows for him, and we hadn’t even had no album. Nobody knew us. They never told me he was gonna come, and one night we’re playing and I see him sitting in the audience and, wow, we were called Raw Soul at that time, and after I got off stage, ‘Hey, you guys are great, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ Then he started to say, ‘You know that name Raw Soul? That’s the ugliest-assed name I’ve ever heard. You need to change that ugly-assed name.’ So for about three or four months we tossed names and stuff around, and finally one of the guys came up with Maze, and I loved that name. It just so happened there was a group out of New Jersey that had that name copywritten (sic) too. So I had to give those people, I think it was $50,000.
“By that time we had already recorded. We had our first deal with Capitol Records. The album was ready to come out. We couldn’t change our name, so they wound up advancing me the 50g’s to pay them, yeah. Before we got the deal, though, we opened up shows for Marvin Gaye for about a year or so. He really did a lot for us. He bought us equipment.
“He was really going to do the producing on us. That’s what he really planned and had in his mind. As it went on, though, he sat me down one night and said, ‘Hey, Frank, I love you, and I thought I would be able to produce you, but I’m an artist, and if I get a great song, I’m not gonna give it to you.’ So, he was very honest with me, very honest with me, but he helped me out, the whole thing. He said, ‘Whatever you need, you can use my name in trying to get the deal,’ and it all worked out. He was a very, very wonderful person, a very, very kind person.”
Marvin Gaye was a giant among giants at Motown at the time with hits like “How Sweet It Is” and “I Heard It through the Grapevine’ and had a falling out with label head Berry Gordy over publishing rights. He refused to release “What’s Going On” for two years.
“They wound up working it out, but Berry Gordy took most of the publishing on the artists he had, and all that stuff, and Marvin didn’t like that. He didn’t like that at all. I had a guy out of Philly before we went to California. He told me, ‘Don’t give up your publishing for nobody for nothing, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And to this day I own all my publishing.”
Marvin Gaye underlined the message Beverly’s dad had drilled into him as a kid to do it his own way. Beverly was living in the City of Brotherly Love, hotbed of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia Soul label, which was Motown’s chief rival in 1971.
Beverly was determined not to come under the thumb of the Gamble/Huff production machine that produced more than 3000 songs written by those two men. The move to California was also precipitated by Beverly’s fascination with Sly & the Family Stone, a San Francisco bi-racial band that had scored five hits their first year out in 1967 with a sound infused with funk and psychedelic overtones on “Everyday People” and “Stand.”
“We did some singles in Philly, and I knew Gamble and Huff and all those people. I grew up with Teddy Pendergrass and all these people, and I just didn’t want to be a part of all that. It was something I thought we had, a different thing. We needed to do something, be ourselves, and I was very much influenced by Sly & the Family Stone. I really liked where that guy was coming from with his group, and that’s what enticed me to go to the Bay Area of California, to the San Francisco area. We went up there in ’72, and I mean we almost starved there for three or four years. It was tough. There were times when I thought about going back, but I didn’t want to go back to my father.”
Marvin Gaye helped Beverly finally score a contract with Capital Records, but even then there were struggles over his controlling his own sound. Capitol wanted disco, and Beverly wanted to a-Maze. And he did it with hits like “Happy Feelin’s,” “Lady Magic,” “While I Am Alone,” and “Workin’ Together.”
“Boy, you know it was a hard road,” he says looking back. “When I’m on stage, I talk about that. I tell people you gotta pay dues to get stuff. Life is not easy. When I was a kid I could sing and whatever. I thought maybe it would be easier, but no. You have to pay dues and, going through that, I never expected to be all this. I never did. I thought I would be fairly successful, and I would be able to make a living doing my music, but I never expected all this, and all the stuff I had to go through prepares you for more than you probably expect.
“People my age grew up at a time when the music was maybe the best time in the history of this world. I think that had a profound effect on me. I think growing up under Sam Cooke and James Brown and all the great jazz artists influenced us. That really had an impact, and I just never allowed myself to go there.”
By “there” he means today’s hip-hop scene. “I did some shopping a little earlier down here in Atlanta, and I came out, and we just seen one of these guys. His pants was down by the thighs. You could see his drawers. I mean it’s just terrible, man. My goodness. I mean, please! Let’s get out of here.”
WHO: MAZE FEATURING FRANKIE BEVERLY
WHAT: Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival
WHEN: 9:20pm Saturday (June 27)
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs
GO HERE for more info and a complete schedule of bands for the two-day festival