The funkiest man in Asheville, it seems safe to say, is Otis Ware. But for the founder of legendary local bands The Innersouls and Bite, Chew & Spit, you might think that what drove him in the days of tour busses, sold-out shows and fending off groupies is a thing of the past. After all, he’s 58 now, and committed to what appears to be a totally different line of work.
Gone are his mutton-chop sideburns, chain-link vests and towering Afro. In their place are dapper, understated suits and closely cropped hair, and he’s swapped in his baritone sax for a Bible. Nowadays, you see, he’s the Rev. Ware of Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Kenilworth.
So has Ware forsaken the funk? Hardly. “For me to play a traditional song—it wouldn’t even sound right,” he says in a recent interview conducted on one of his church pews. “I got to make it funky, man.”
How funky? To find out, you’d have to pay a visit to one of Ware’s Sunday services—until now, that is. The release of a new compilation, Carolina Funk: Funk 45s from the Atlantic Coast, has put the Innersouls’ lone recording back in play some 35 years after the band laid it down.
Better late than never, Ware says. After all, “We were ahead of our time. We were way ahead of our time.”
Everybody here is a funky soul brother
Getting totally funked up, Carolina-style, just got a whole lot cheaper. All it costs is a dollar.
Need proof? Then plug a buck into the jukebox at The Admiral, one among the wave of new bars/restaurants recently opened in West Asheville. A dollar will get you three songs. Make the first one album No. 62 (Carolina Funk), song 13 (“Funky Soul Brother”).
Then brace yourself.
Recorded by Harleyville, S.C.‘s The Soul Drifters in 1974, the track is as proud a paean to Carolina funk as can be found. A limited-issue 7-inch that was the band’s sole studio recording, it had largely disappeared until rising again on Carolina Funk, which was issued last fall by British-based Jazzman Records, one of the handful of labels that is bringing forgotten funk back to the fore. (This month, Now-Again records will release a U.S. version of the album, which has reached the Carolinas as an import thus far.)
The horn-driven intro screams out of the speakers, and the song goes on to careen in and out of a set of simple but searing riffs. It’s all there—the brass, the bass, the drums, the guitar, the vocals and the swagger—and every element seems perfectly aligned with the underground sounds that shook the Carolinas’ collective booty in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Along the way, the lyrics ring out loud and clear: “Everybody here, is a funky soul brother,” the band sings over and over. On the break, they issue a fair warning: “Fee, fi, fo, fum; Look out sistas, ‘cause here we come.”
Every one of the 22 tracks on the compilation is distinguished in some way, but the Soul Drifters’ contribution is something of an unlikely masterpiece. Listening to the exuberance, professionalism and sheer soul power exhibited on the relentless, six-minute song, listeners might well assume they were hearing the work of long-time veterans of funk’s golden era.
Not the case. In fact, when the band members drove to West Columbia to record the track in a single afternoon, they had to skip a day of high school to do it: All of them were seniors—friends from the school band—at the time. And they recorded it live, playing together over the objection of the producer, who preferred they overdub the parts.
The result was what Carolina Funk‘s liner notes rightly pegs as “an all-time deep-funk monster”—an “impossibly rare record” that will remain obscure no longer, thanks, curiously enough, to a skinny white record geek born well after such songs were put to wax.
Doin’ it real, real good
Jason Perlmutter is a 26-year-old Raleigh native who lives in nearby Carrboro now. While in school at UNC-Chapel Hill, he DJ’d for the student radio station, WXYC, one of the region’s pioneering free-form stations.
“I’ve always been into music,” he says, “but at the station we were always looking for new and different sounds.” Mining WXYC’s archives, Perlmutter got the bug, and turned into something of a song-catcher. He’s spent the past five years excavating the lost history of the Carolinas’ once-thriving funk scene, collecting and selecting the tracks that appear on Carolina Funk. (This Saturday, Feb. 9, Perlmutter and Columbia, S.C.‘s DJ SinDoolah, a fellow funk and soul collector, will spin records from the compilation at the Admiral.)
Unearthing two states’ funk relics posed numerous challenges. Most of the records were, like the Soul Drifters could-have-been classic, produced in such small runs that few copies survived. The rarities that remain have been zealously sought after for years. “A whole network of people have been hunting for this stuff since long before me,” Perlmutter notes, and many in that were network willing to help him in his quest.
He found one of his greatest allies in the Greater Columbia Society for the Preservation of Soul, an organization in South Carolina’s capital headed by Matt Bradley, aka DJ SinDoolah, that’s dedicated to rediscovering the region’s lost R&B classics. With help from the community of like-minded searchers, Perlmutter began to locate and connect with the funk artists, many of them accomplished yet little-known. “A lot of this is detective work, in terms of tracking people down,” he says. “A lot of these musicians were in their teens and 20s when they made their records, and most of them have moved on to other places and pursuits.”
Once Perlmutter found former funk-band members, he probed their memories about recorded works. Then he began compiling a discography of Carolina-based funk and soul songs (see it online at www.carolinasoul.org). With that list in hand, he scoured flea markets, used-record stores, dusty old recording studios and, sometimes most useful of all, eBay.
A 1973 single by the Innersouls—once Asheville’s reigning kings of funk—proved to be one of his most prized finds. Only a handful of the 7-inch discs—the band’s only release—appear to remain in existence. The B-side, “Just Take Your Time,” is track three on Carolina Funk. (Click here, to download the mp3 of “Just Take Your Time”)
Otis Ware, the Innersouls founder and leader, says that until receiving the new compilation last week, he hadn’t heard the record himself for decades. “You know what, when I got out of [playing funk music], 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.” (See sidebar, “‘Just Take Your Time’ with the Innersouls.”)
The members were musical hometown heroes well before they formed the band circa 1970. “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.”
The funk never stopped
In 1975, 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, Bite, Chew & Spit. For several years, the band toured extensively, playing with bigger and bigger acts, and eventually becoming a regular opener for 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.”
While some members would stay involved with musical pursuits from there on out, 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.”
Ware isn’t kidding. A typical Sunday worship service at Solid Rock rocks. Two Sundays ago, he was backed, as usual, by a small squad of ace musicians and an ecstatic choir numbering a dozen members. The main players rollicked and rolled, jumped, shouted and sang. And on many numbers, the entire congregation joined in, moving, clapping and belting out multipart, smoldering harmonies that turned even the most staid gospel numbers into celebrations that were, in a word, funky.
Ware ran the service—almost two hours of seamless, soaring revelry—from sermon to song and back again without losing an ounce of soul power. He performed first in a gray suit and purple shirt with a white clerical collar, appearing later in a floor-length green robe.
“I believe in keeping that enthusiasm and that energy with the people,” he explained in the interview. “Because I feel like, if you can go to the nightclub and have fun, why can’t you have fun in church?”
Unlikely as it may seem, Ware sees his musical ministry as a continuation of the funk that once took him to more than a few seedy spots. “I do the same thing, right to this very day,” he insists. “When I play in church, I play a lot of funk. It’s the same energy, and the church folk know it.”
who: Jason Perlmutter and DJ SinDoolah
what: Spinning Carolina funk classics
where: The Admiral (400 Haywood Road, West Asheville)
when: Saturday, Feb. 9. 10 p.m. ($3. For sales of the very limited number of tickets and more information: 252-2541.)