From Military to Singing Quartet … the Story of the Versatiles from Phoenix

By Steven Kahn

Phoenix, Arizona was host to an exciting musical climate in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which included a mix of rock n’ roll, R&B, and country music, along with a small number of recording studios and record labels.  Floyd Ramsey owned Ramsey’s Recording Studio at 3703 N. 7th Street, which he renamed Audio Recorders in late 1957.  He also owned several record labels including Liberty Bell and Ramco, and was a co-owner of Rev.  Local Arizona-area artists who recorded at Ramsey’s studio included Sanford Clark, Duane Eddy, Skip and Flip, Roosevelt Nettles, Wayne Newton, Donnie Owens, the Tads, the La Chords, the Vice-Roys, Brother Zee and the Decades, Donna Fargo, Don Cole, Eddie and Ernie, Waylon Jennings, and Dyke and the Blazers.  Out-of-town artists who recorded there included Ray Sharpe (Fort Worth TX), Betty Hall Jones (Los Angeles CA), and the Mandells (Albuquerque NM).  All previously mentioned 1950’s and early 1960’s vocal groups, besides recording at Ramsey’s studio, contained members who served in the U.S. military, and here is the story of another such group … the Versatiles.

The Versatiles in 1963, shortly after purchasing their new suits at a store in Downtown Phoenix.  (These were the same suits worn on the show they did with Marvin Gaye.) Left to Right – Billy Walker, Homer Gray, Wilfred Johnson, and Warren Tolliver. (Photo courtesy of Tony Bacak)

Wilfred Lemuel Johnson was born on July 3rd, 1937 and grew up on the “East Side” of Phoenix on S. 15th Street.  This residential neighborhood was composed primarily of those of African American and Hispanic descent.  Like others from his generation, Wilfred was exposed to the sounds of Rhythm & Blues on the radio, and coupled with the fact that he came from a musical family, it had a profound effect.  His mother was the piano player at the First Institutional Baptist Church, his older brother McKinley was a trumpet player who played with the touring bands of Lowell Fulson, Lloyd Price, Ray Charles, James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner as well as being the trumpet player on the Philip Upchurch Combo’s recording of “You Can’t Sit Down,” and his younger sister Maxine was a talented singer who went on to appear on local performances headlined by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Diana Ross.  Wilfred developed a sharp musical ear by listening to his mother play piano at home and at age thirteen won the Lew King Rangers talent contest singing Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” in his then soprano voice.

In the latter part of 1956, the Tads – the first African American R&B vocal group from Phoenix to gain local success, had a release of “Your Reason” b/w “The Pink Panther,” produced by Lee Hazlewood, on Ramsey’s Liberty Bell Records.  This release was then picked up by Dot Records which gained them a broader national exposure.  At this time Wilfred, after completing Phoenix Technical High School, joined the Army and after basic training in Texas he served in the State of Washington as well as at Nuremberg, Germany.  It was at the latter two locations that Wilfred sang for the first time in vocal groups, consisting of Army enrollees.

In 1959, upon being discharged from the Army, Wilfred returned to Phoenix and spent a lot of time hanging out in East Lake Park on E. Jefferson Street and S. 16th Street, around the corner from his home.  This park was a popular location for the local community to partake in sporting activities, arts and crafts, weekend dances and it had a blaring jukebox.  Wilfred often watched young vocal groups practice onstage (alongside the indoor basketball court) and one evening he saw a group that he felt he could give some pointers to.  This group then asked Wilfred to join as a tenor.  Members came and went, but when the smoke cleared (circa 1960-1961) the group consisted of: Warren Tolliver – first tenor/falsetto, Wilfred Johnson – second tenor, Homer Gray – third tenor, William ‘Billy’ Walker – baritone.  All were former servicemen – with Warren serving in the Air Force, Homer the Marines and Billy the Army.  They all lived on the “East Side” of Phoenix except Billy, who was from the “West Side.”  Wilfred became the group’s unofficial leader and to increase their versatility he felt all members should be able to sing lead – hence, the “Versatiles.”  Once they gained confidence in their vocals, from practicing in the park, they then decided to hold all future rehearsals privately in each other’s homes.  Over time, the Versatiles became acquainted with various members of the local music scene including blues singer/musician Duke Draper, an original member of the Tads who had sung lead on “The Pink Panther.”  The group was soon booked for local shows, performing at the Elks and Zanzibar nightclubs and the VFW in South Phoenix (where they also backed Duke Draper on a blues song or two) and North of “the Color Line” at the Pink Pony in nearby Scottsdale.

The year was 1962.  Jim Musil, a 22-year-old budding Phoenix music producer and promoter, was acquainted with many in the music business including singers Loy Clingman, Denny Reed, Tony Castle, songwriters/producers Lee Hazlewood, Phil Spector, Lester Sill, and record studio/label owner Floyd Ramsey.  Musil had recently produced his first record, “Shimmyin’ John” b/w “Night Train” at Viv Studios by “the Roustabouts,” a studio band featuring his friends Mike Metko on sax and Don Cole on lead guitar which he released on Loy Clingman’s Elko Records (#14).  Musil, along with Metko and their promoter friend Carl Kennedy, opened an after-hours club on N. 7th Street (“The Big 7”) which was open from 1AM to 4AM and was commonly known as “After Hours.”  Various local singers hung out there, including Duke Draper as well as Metko’s friends the Vice-Roys – a racially integrated group formed at nearby Luke Air Force Base.  Acts that performed at this club included Jan and Dean, Ray Peterson, the Vice-Roys, Mel Carter, Sam the Sham (before the Pharaohs), and the Righteous Brothers.  Another popular nightclub was Rotiers on N. 16 Street, and it was here that Musil believes he first met the Versatiles as well as singer Tyrone Bean, a visitor to Phoenix who was looking for a group to back him up for a recording.  Meanwhile, Musil liked the Versatiles enough to sign them to a one year contract as their producer.

Versatiles; 1963 – Left to Right – Homer Grey, Warren Tolliver, Wilfred Johnson, and Billy Walker. (Photo courtesy of Tony Bacak)

On August 8th, 1962, Musil produced the Vice-Roys at Audio Recorders on the Vice-Roys’ original compositions “My Heart” b/w “I Need Your Love So Bad” which were released on Ramco Records (#3715).  Musil was looking for original material for the Versatiles, and soon enough 25-year-old local area songwriter Tony Bacak, thanks to a tip from a friend, got in touch with him.  Musil believed that two ballads written by the recently-divorced Bacak, “Blue Feelin” and “Just Pretending,” would be perfect for the Versatiles.  A recording session was scheduled at Floyd Ramsey’s Audio Recorders for December 10th, 1962.  According to Jim Musil, as they waited for Ramsey to open the studio that day, the Versatiles practiced “Blue Feelin” and a decision was made to rework it from a ballad into an up-tempo tune (Wilfred and Tony disagree and believe the Versatiles rehearsed it “up-tempo” least a few days before the recording).  Either way, Musil himself produced the session, although Duane Eddy’s younger brother Glen was given co-producer credits on the release (as a favor to Duane).  Wilfred sang an uncharacteristic bass lead on “Blue Feelin” and Homer sang lead on “Just Pretending,” with Warren handling the high tenor bridge on the latter.  Bacak recalls that only a few takes were needed for the two songs, and mentions that the Versatiles themselves did the hand clapping heard on “Blue Feelin.”  The backup band was the Mike Metko Combo, consisting of Metko on sax, Don Cole on lead guitar, Jerry Goodman on bass and Gilbert Bernal on drums.  These songs were then released on Floyd Ramsey’s Ramco Records (#3717).

Tony Bacak recalls hearing the Versatiles’ songs played on three Phoenix radio stations – KRUX and KRIZ (which both played a mix of pop, country and R&B) and R&B station KCAC.  “Blue Feelin” was designated a “Wax to Watch” at KRUX, but Tony Evans at KRIZ preferred playing “Just Pretending.”  DJ Hadley “Who Loves You Madley” Murrell at KCAC gave both sides extensive play.  The Versatiles, now with dance routines which were incorporated into their act by Wilfred, made appearances at the local area clubs.  At these performances, besides their recordings, they also sang “Ten Commandments of Love” (led by Wilfred), “Shake A Tail Feather,” and “Do You Love Me” (both led by Billy).  Although both sides of the Ramco release received local airplay, the record did not take off.  A brief snippet of the saxophone on “Blue Feelin’” was played on KRIZ in a commercial for the nightclub Magoo’s which was owned by Jim Musil’s father.  Twenty four years later in 1976 George Greco, of George’s Golden Oldies in New Jersey, pressed up 300 copies of the Versatiles’ Ramco release on Marie Records (#101) – ten copies of which were given to Floyd Ramsey.

In early 1963, Tyrone Bean, armed with an original tune “Heel And Toe” as well as “My Autumn Love,” a cover of the Danderliers on States from 1955, hooked up with the Versatiles on Duke Draper’s suggestion.  Rehearsals were soon held at Draper’s house.  Jim Musil had booked a recording session for Duke Draper at Audio Recorders, but because of the singer’s work obligations he was unable to make it and Tyrone Bean and the Versatiles were quickly substituted in Draper’s place.  The two sides were recorded, with backup by members of Draper’s band and these sides remained unreleased until 1976 when they were released on Val Shively’s Philadelphia label, Monogram Records (#114 A/B).

In February 1963, Eddie O’Jay, a popular Disc Jockey from WUFO in Buffalo, New York, relocated to Phoenix, Arizona and became the program director at radio station KCAC as well as becoming acquainted with the local music scene.  O’Jay is well known for launching the career of the O’Jays (previously the Mascots on King) and he soon arranged for the O’Jays, the Versatiles and one or two other local groups to perform on a show at “Madison Square Garden,” located in Phoenix’s “Downtown” business district which was home to many of the largest nightclubs and music venues.  Another show, co-hosted by Eddie O’Jay and Jim Titus from KCAC which drew more than 1,600 fans, was at the Phoenix Convention Center.  The opening act for this show was the Walters Sisters (from the “West Side”), followed by headliner Marvin Gaye (backed by the Walters Sisters) and finally, the Versatiles, who performed “Shake A Tail Feather,” “Do You Love Me” and one of their original tunes.  Marvin Gaye was paid $500 for his performance and the Versatiles were not paid at all, but they were thrilled to get the exposure of performing on a show of this magnitude.

In 1964, the Versatiles performed at the Grass Hut, a “West Side” venue, along with Carl Larue and the Crew, a band from Buffalo, NY also recently brought to Phoenix by Eddie O’Jay. (A year later their lead singer got together with members of a band from Phoenix and formed Dyke and the Blazers.)  At some point after this show the Versatiles decided to take a break from the local music scene.

In 1965, heeding Jim Musil’s advice, Tony Bacak along with his cousin Ray Bacak and their friend David Collins started their own music production company, “Bacak Productions,” located on N. 16th Street and E. McDowell Road, under the moniker “Interstate Music Enterprises.”  In 1966, Tony reached out to the Versatiles with the idea of recording them and the group then changed their name to the “the Four Dimensions.”  Ernie Johnson, from the popular local duo Eddie and Ernie, gave the Four Dimensions his own composition “What Are They Doing Now,” which the group then altered the words and melody to (Wilfred himself did much of the musical arranging).  After the Four Dimensions rehearsed this song along with an original tune “You Gotta Have Soul,” Tony and Ray booked a recording session at Audio Recorders (now at 3830 N. 7th Street) for April 2nd, 1966.  At the session, produced by Tony and Ray, Warren led the group on “What Are They Doing Now” and Billy led on “You Gotta Have Soul.”  After attempting to lease the masters to a few record labels in Hollywood, California including Original Sound, Hanna-Barbera, and Dot, Tony and Ray leased them to Floyd Ramsey, who released them on Ramco Records.  (Martin Barab, A&R man at Dot Records, had expressed particular interest in the masters.  On Barab’s suggestion, Tony and Ray brought the songs back to Audio Recorders, and Billy Williams arranged a session in which horns, strings and piano were added.  Unfortunately, by this time, Barab was no longer working for Dot Records and the company never went forward with the deal.)

December 2012 Christmas Party – Left to Right – Sam Hill (record collector), Tony Bacak, and Wilfred Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Tony Bacak)

The Four Dimensions’ Ramco release received local as well as out-of-town airplay in the Southeast of the United States.  To promote the record, Tony and Ray bought outfits for the group and booked them at nightclub “Jamaica East” on East Thomas Road.  At the Jamaica East show, the Four Dimensions sang their new songs as well as “Ten Commandments Of Love” (led by Wilfred) and some Temptations covers including “My Girl” (led by Homer).  The Four Dimensions went on to play a few more local gigs and also rehearsed a song called “Excuses Galore,” which Wilfred had begun writing during the group’s hiatus, but disappointed in the lack of record sales, along with Billy dropping out of the group after his job moved to California, the Four Dimensions soon broke up.  
Where They Are Now:

Wilfred Johnson – Worked with Homer and Warren at Aluminum Processors in Phoenix, cleaned auto transmission parts for United Transmission Exchange, was a hydrologic technician for the U.S. (and then Phoenix) Geological Survey and finally, worked for Worldwide Securities at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Currently retired, he still resides in Phoenix.

Homer Grey – Following his job at Aluminum Processors, he worked for many years as a yellow cab driver in Phoenix and unfortunately passed away in 2004.
Warren Tolliver – After Aluminum Processors, worked for Holsum Bakery in Phoenix and later worked as a janitorial supervisor at St. Luke’s Hospital. Sadly, Warren passed away in 1997.

Billy Walker – Moved to California in 1966, where he worked for many years for The Boeing (aircraft) Company, and unfortunately passed away in the early 1990’s.

Jim Musil – Remained busy throughout the 1960’s working with artists including Mike Metko and the Nocturnals, Brother Zee and the Decades (an offshoot of the Viceroys), Duke Draper, Waylon Jennings, Ray Corbin, Phil and the Frantics, Mile Ends (who became the psychedelic band Superfine Dandelion) and Come (became the heavy metal band Josefus).  He also served as manager of his father’s popular JD’s nightclub, whose acts included Waylon Jennings and Johnny Rivers.  Jim was a great guy and it was a pleasure to get to know him.  We unfortunately lost him on March 3rd, 2013 in Los Angeles.

Tony Bacak – Tony and Ray’s music production company became more successful during the 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s, and owned labels including Artist Alliance, Storm and Amstar and produced artists such as Kay Allen, Brent Burns, the Grapes of Wrath and Ken Wayne.  Tony has a website which lists his full music production credits and contains a nice photo section; please check it out at www.bacakmusic.com.

I give my sincere thanks to the following people – Wilfred Johnson, Tony Bacak, Jim Musil, and John Dixon.  This article is dedicated to the memory of Jim Musil.

Discography

Versatiles
Blue Feelin b/w Just Pretending Ramco 3717 1962
Four Dimensions
What Are They Doing Now b/w You Gotta Have Soul Ramco 1980 1966

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article was featured in “Echoes of the Past” issue #105 (Summer 2013)

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