By Timothy Cox
Special to New Pittsburgh Courier
In the early 1970s, young aspiring Black musicians were scattered throughout the entire greater Pittsburgh region.
During an era when young Black men targeted their passions and concentrated on becoming the area’s premier musicians – unlike their counterparts of today – yesterday’s young people were not fixed on becoming top video-game rompers.
In Beaver County, Pa., the probability of becoming a professional musician was a devout reality, whereas so was becoming a professional athlete – considering the acclaim of Hopewell’s Anthony “Hawk” Dorsett, Aliquippa’s Mike Ditka and Beaver Falls’ Joe Willie Namath. In music, Beaver Valley Musician Union Hall of Famers Henry Mancini and the Steals brothers Melvin and Mervin, also of Aliquippa – also come to mind.
Older Black bands laid the foundation for Rare Experience’s rise to prominence
When it comes to strictly RnB musicianship in Beaver County, the groundwork was laid by several soul bands from Pittsburgh, Aliquippa, the Ohio Valley and throughout Beaver County. Groups like The Notations, Sweet No, TNT Flashers, Black Love, Hi-fidelics, laid the groundwork for Rare Experience – an Aliquippa-based band who enjoyed enormous success in Beaver County and throughout the Pittsburgh region compared with many of the bands originating in cities and small enclaves throughout the county. But it’s generally agreed upon by musicians from that by-gone era, that it’s the pride of Aliquippa – Rare Experience (RE) – who are the one band that garnered the most acclaim of all the many bands that formed in the 1950s and existed throughout the new millennium.
Sometime around 1973, the origins of what would eventually become Rare Experience, started in a couple of Plan 11 neighborhoods. This would be the start of what became the young phenomenal self-contained group that morphed into Beaver County’s most prolific RnB band. Original member and guitarist, George “Isley” Tyson, humbly reflects on the group’s early success. “We were a bunch of young kids, really – who were very interested in being musicians. At first, we had about 15 people in the band, but eventually we pared it down to a more dedicated and talented smaller crew,” he said.
Rare Experience origins comprised several Plan 11 Aliquippa musicians
Along with himself, Tyson recalls the following original members: Rodney “Duck” Abercrombie (drums), Fred Campbell (guitar); Andre Redd (trumpet); Billy “Whit” Whitaker (bass); vocalist brothers Sheridan “Sherdy” Southerland and Thomas Southerland; Vastine “Winky” Pettis (also sax/vocals), Aaron White (trumpet), Edgar ‘Buck” Jackson (tenor sax/vocals) and cousins Reggie “Wizard” Jones (keys, multi-instruments) and Allan “Grip” Smith (keys); Napoleon “Nap” Thompson (trombone) and vocalist Sylvester “Boutique” Price.
Later, Robert “Bobby” White (percussion), brothers Michael Otey (bass) and Maurice Otey (drums) joined the fold, while Aliquippa vocalists Stephanie Townsend, Paula Capperis (keys) and Clairton resident Thea Austin, also became valued members, along with sound/road crew members Sam Jackson and Ted B. “Rook” Lewis.
After the band achieved significant success in Beaver County, Tyson, now 61, remembers when the band made plans first to relocate to Greenville, S.C. and ultimately to Atlanta – seeking greater fortunes on the recording scene. As a young father and husband, Tyson said he chose not to take the risks associated with leaving Aliquippa.
“I was working for Westinghouse in Vanport at the time, and had a young son,” said Tyson, who recently celebrated 40 years with his same day-job firm, now called the Eaton corporation. A second-shift position kept him from making many band practices, so he felt an increased need to leave the group. Tyson now works as a Sr. lead engineer for Eaton.
After achieving regional success, natural move was to seek recording renown in ATL
By 1982, RE’s popularity reached its apex and the group decided it was time for a change. “We were quite popular playing clubs, cabarets and events throughout the county, in Pittsburgh and other outlying areas like New Kensington, Clairton, “Little” Washington, Uniontown and area colleges,” recalls Edgar “Buck” Jackson. “At this time, I was very eager to go South looking for the ‘big time,’” he recalls.
Jackson, like Wizard Jones, Grip Smith and Michael Otey, are still Atlanta residents. Jackson now uses his talents in church choir stands. He’s a vocalist at an Atlanta area church.
While their overall relocation to the South did not pan-out as the major break-through the band envisioned, on many levels – the move was worthwhile.
In the 1990s, Wizard Jones and Grip Smith became first-call producers and music directors for some of the hottest RnB acts in the nation, many of whom resided in Atlanta after Clive Davis, Antonio “LA” Reid and Kenneth “BabyFace” Edmonds co-founded LaFace Records in February 1990. In recent years, Jones was contracted as music director for pop star Justin Bieber. He’s also worked with Usher, New Edition, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant, while Smith has done regular MD roles with SWV, TLC, Jagged Edge, Jermaine Dupree, Sleepy Brown, Keith Sweat, Goodie Mob, 112 and Escape.
Grip Smith developed much of his musical expertise while attending Hopewell High School, under the direction of Vikings band director Victor Pasquarelli. Smith was the head drummer in marching band, but played keyboards in jazz and swing bands. “Mr. Pasquarelli was cool. He gave me freedom to learn and kept me in-check,” said Smith. Older brother keyboardist Percy Smith, was also influential, he said. Though recruited to prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, family economic constraints forced Smith to instead accept a national touring gig at age 19. He’s married with two sons, the oldest currently the touring drummer for the SOS Band.
Before moving to Orlando, guitarist Fred Campbell also lived in Atlanta and saw first-hand the excellent rapport between Jones, Smith and artists like Larry Blackmon of Cameo, Ray Ransom of Brick and Abdul Ra’oof of the SOS Band. “Our Quiptown guys represented well in the ATL,” added Campbell, himself an award-winning session player in the city of Walt Disney enterprises. Campbell is married with two adult sons.
Jones and Smith both credit native-son Atlanta bands like Brick and SOS Band for including them in the scene, even though they were newcomers to Atlanta. “Our connections to both of those groups are still vital to our success, even now,” says Jones. “They showed us mad love, when we first moved to Decatur, Georgia,” said Jones.
Jackson also thanks both of his RE bandmates for staying the course. “Those two were hot commodities in Atlanta. They were being courted by heavyweights, including Earth, Wind & Fire. But they never left us. They remained committed to Rare Experience,” he said.
Rodney “Duck” Abercrombie concurs with Jackson, adding that “the commitment reigns mutual throughout all the players, to this day. No matter where our travels have taken us, when we reunite – it’s like a family get-together. It’s a genuine bond between all of us,” said Abercrombie.
Sonny Childs: last of a generation who helped create Quiptown’s live-band reputation
Even before the early ‘70s, Aliquippa’s live-band tradition was already developing a strong reputation. Musicians like Charles “Sonny” Childs, George Jones, Grover McBride, Frank Abercrombie, Del Palmer, Mack Cox Sr. and Johnny Josey Sr. were blending with other Beaver County musicians like Beaver Valley Musicians Union Hall of Fame bassist Mike Taylor, Gill Clark, Edward “Guitar Shorty” Ferguson, Larry Smith, Lonzie Cox Jr., Gene Barr, Jim McClendon, James Moon, Skeets Mabin, Ezra Lowe and Donnie Taylor to help create a vibrant live-music vibe in Beaver County.
Aliquippa saxophonist Sonny Childs, who turned 90 on Jan. 3, said clubs like Midland’s Love’s Motel aka “Hole In the Wall,” the New Pro Club on Junction Stretch (New Brighton) managed by James Mathews and Beaver Falls’ Rainbow Room, were important live-music venues in Beaver Valley.
A younger generation of fellas like Rodney “Bogey” Burrows, Gary “Bosh” Washington, Rusty Carter, Lawrence Stringfield, Eugene Crosby, Rex Rideout, James Tignar, Kiki Brooks, Percy Smith, Quinton Newsome, Clarence Grant, TCBsoMello., Richard “Dicky” Morris, Rosco “Fox” Peak, Derek Redd, Dwight “Mouse” Sims, Rick Gilbert, George “Chico Vaughn” Owens, Bobby Short, Keith Haskins, and Beaver Valley Musicians Union Hall of Fame inductees keyboardist Ronnie Cox and vocalist Janine Gilbert-Carter, also connect the proverbial dots for the next generation, to include Rare Experience.
A talented trio of lady singers, Renee “Ree” Harvey, Gloria “Glo” Savage and Debbie Hines, are also regarded as legendary “Quiptown” vocal talents.
Childs added that Beaver County has always been a vibrant live-music hotbed.
“I’ve always had gigs, up until the virus struck last March. Hopefully, it’ll all get revved-up once again by next year,” said Childs, an Americus, Georgia native, who recently gigged with Coffee’s Love Train band, led by keyboardist Dwight “Coffee” Thomas of Midland.
Johnny Josey Sr., 82, said he fondly recalls working his alto saxophone as a member of the 1957-58 Aliquippa High School Marching Band under the direction of Fred J. Sporny.
“Even then, music was very important to us,” said Mr. Josey, who recalls patronizing the CIO Hall on Franklin Avenue when James Brown and Ray Charles performed there. Another memorable gig, was the live show by ‘50s vocal giant, Lloyd Price, at the Polish Hall near the Quippian Club, he said. “Lots of segregation in our town then, but music helped us get through some tough times,” said Mr. Josey, an Army veteran and martial artist also noted for becoming Aliquippa’s first Black firefighter in the late 1960s. The Logstown native also worked at J&L while playing sax with the Fabulous Embers of Beaver Falls. “Being married and raising a family kept me from being a full-time musician,” said Mr. Josey. “Naturally, I had my priorities.”
Tyson supports new generation who gravitate toward sports vs. music
Tyson says he doesn’t criticize today’s local youth for not gravitating to bands as his generation once did. “It’s a different era. Today’s young people have technology and sports to pull from. When we were in school, we didn’t have the sports success, or technology. Today, there’s a chance they can at least get a good education through sports. They can aspire to be Ty Law, Tony Dorsett or Darrelle Revis – they see it, and they believe it can happen,” said Tyson, a Center Twp. resident, where he and his wife of 33 years, Lori Griffin Tyson, are parents of three adult children and one grandson. Tyson also serves on the audio-visual ministries staff at Macedonia Baptist Church in Pittsburgh.