Phone interview recorded July 28, 2011
In conjunction with the August 2011 SoulMusic.com Records reissues of the classic '70s albums "In The City" and "Sky-High!", special guest DJ Soulswede of Soulinterviews.com caught up with Chubby Tavares to discuss the group's past, present and future...
DJ Soulswede: This is DJ Soulswede for Soul Music.com, and I’m here to talk to the founding member of the family group the Tavares, Chubby Tavares. Chubby and the Turnpikes was an early incarnation of the group and was founded originally in the late fifties. In 1973, the group changed itse name to the current name, Tavares, and scored their first R&B Top Ten hit with “Check It Out”. The band has often been called a disco group, but they were actually not any more ‘disco’ than the rest of the groups who had a lot of success during the seventies. The sound was often uptempo, but the music was much more Philly than ‘disco’ and their vocal performances have always been very strong.
SoulMusic.com Records is happy to announce the release of two brand-new reissues set for release August 15th. We’re talking about two of the group’s best albums, In the City from 1975 and Sky High! from 1976. I will talk to Chubby about those albums but I will also talk about the life and career of the Tavares...
Chubby Tavares: Chubby and the Turnpikes, that was a group that I had started. My brother Ralph at the time was in the service. I decided to put a four-piece band together, and I was working with them as just Chubby and the Realities at the time. But then when I grew up my brother Pooch started getting more recognizable for the people around this area as [part of] Chubby and the Realities. But then my brother Ralph got out of the service, I brought him back in the group; I brought my brother Butch in the group and we actually went to Italy. I was going to name it Chubby and the Turnpikes—there was a guy from New York who wanted to change the name from The Realities to Chubby and the Turnpikes. But what is a turnpike? When we went to Italy, they didn’t have any idea what a turnpike was.
DJS: Neither have I.
CT: Right. And we’re all brothers, so that’s when we decided that we should go with the family name, which was Tavares. And that’s how we started. 1971 we were in Italy doing a tour with Butch’s then-wife, Lola Falana, who was a big movie star and dancer in Las Vegas in those days. They didn’t know what a turnpike was, so we changed the name to Tavares, our family name, and we toured all around Italy under Tavares.
DJS: And I guess you can say you came from a musical family, because Tavares consists, or did consist, of you and four other brothers.
CT: Actually there’s seven brothers and three sisters, and at one time all the brothers sang together. But we ended up going on a thing with just five brothers; that was [what became] our first single that we had gone to Chicago and did a demo on, the song called “Check It Out”.
As young men we were just hanging around the Providence area, because some of us were brought up in Rhode Island, and we ended up tracking down this guy. Well, the guy called us—he was at the A&R division of Capitol Records, his name was Brian Panella and he used to go around delivering records to certain stores in Providence, Rhode Island. He called us and wanted to know if we were still singing, we told him yes, so he said, “Well, I think I can get you guys a deal. Would you guys like a deal?” so we said fine. He said, “Are you guys still doing that song ‘Check It Out’?” and we said yeah, so we sent them “Check It Out” and that’s when our career started, in 1973. Brian Panella became our manager and we did our first album.
DJS: And the song became a Top Ten hit on the R&B charts and it also climbed high up on the pop charts.
CT: Exactly. That’s how we started. Our dad was an entertainer for sixty-five years, and that’s where God gave us the good gift from, from our dad.
DJS: Right, and your mother sang with you guys in the beginning as well.
CT: Sang a little, yep.
DJS: And I can hear in your accent that you come from the east coast. You actually grew up in Massachusetts in New Bedford.
CT: Massachusetts and Rhode Island area, that’s right.
DJS: Did you sing in the local church back then?
CT: We never sang in church—only once in a while, like once a year when we joined the choir for Christmas. But otherwise we never sang in a church, that just wasn’t our thing—our thing was to sing rock and roll, rhythm and blues.
DJS: Right. Many soul and R&B acts, they have a gospel background. What did this do for you guys, because you came from another kind of background? What made this different for you, you think, Chubby?
CT: Well, I used to actually go by those churches and sit down and listen to them, because to me that was a real inspirational…to hear people singing all the time. I wasn’t allowed to go in because I was Roman Catholic, so we weren’t allowed to go in there, but we could sit outside and listen. And maybe some of that gave us the lip to say, “We know we can do it as brothers.” My oldest brother, John, was the one who taught us the basic harmonies. He was in a doo-wop group in the late fifties, early sixties, so he taught us how to sing and put our harmonies together. So that worked out well for us.
DJS: What makes you unique, I think, is that you come from the east coast but your sound contains a lot of the vocal group kind of sound—the Motown vocal group sound—but you also have a lot of Philly soul sound in the music, so it was actually Philadelphia meets Detroit. Do you agree?
CT: I agree, I agree. We actually went to Motown at one time, trying to get a solo deal, but we decided that wasn’t best for us… They still ended up becoming a great, great recording studio, Motown Records, but it just wasn’t for us. And when Brian got us the deal with Capitol Records, that’s where we wanted to be.
DJS: Yeah, because many of the groups in the seventies… of course it was the disco era, and people sometimes called you a disco group, even though I don’t agree.
CT: Exactly. They just label you. We were an R&B group but we got labeled as a disco group because of “It Only Takes a Minute” and “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel”, and people in the seventies were just going hog-wild over the songs and dancing. We had long-playing records of those songs, and people would dance forever about those songs, so they labeled us as a disco group. But we don’t consider ourselves disco; we consider ourselves a good rhythm and blues group.
DJS: And you can actually take any band in the seventies—anyway, mid/late-seventies—where the sound was very uptempo. But your sound was more the Philly sound to me.
DJS: How influenced were you by the Philly sound, Chubby?
CT: Where did we adopt that from the Philly sound?
DJS: Yeah, how influential was the sound for you?
CT: They were influential, but you have to remember, we actually had that Philly sound before Philly had it. We just never got exposed to it. We sang all our lives since we were little boys at the boys’ club, and that true talent came from our dad. My dad, he passed away two years ago, but my father had the best voice out of all of us.
DJS: Because I think that another thing that separated you from a disco group was that the vocal performances were always very high—the quality was always very high on the vocals.
CT: Exactly. And I did seventy-five percent of the leads on them; that’s why when people hear the albums they hear that distinctive voice, and that is my voice. When you can put yourself through doing that many albums—we have fourteen albums—and seventy-five percent of the leads out of those fourteen albums was myself.
DJS: And the real success came in ’75, probably, with the album In the City.
DJS: What do you remember from that recording?
CT: It was a great recording. I believe the song was “In the City”, that was the title song of the album. And it was “Born in the city and raised in the street/took two cops to walk on the beat”. The lyrics to that song were just great. That was a really, really good album.
DJS: And one of my favourite songs actually came from that album, I think: that’s “We Fit to a Tee”.
CT: “We Fit to a Tee”, that was a great song.
DJS: Yeah, one of my favourite songs “Bein’ With You”….
CT: Is that right?
DJS: And you also did a little rock/pop kind of sound, if you take a song like “Free Ride”.
CT: “Free Ride” was a song they just decided at the time was very popular. People loved to dance to that song, so they wanted to take a shot and do that song, so we just redid it. And it was a great song, but to me it still wasn’t Tavares, per se. But it was a great song; it was a good album cut.
DJS: It sounds a bit different from the other tracks on the album.
DJS: The follow-up was also very successful: I’m talking about Sky High! from 1976. A bit of a different album.
CT: Yeah, it was a different album. To me, that was probably my favourite album—the Sky High! abum…
DJS: Tell me a little bit about that—that’s another reissue coming here in August.
CT: Yes, it’s the Sky High! album. I’m very happy about that, because Sky High! was one of our biggest-selling albums. So when the new generation hears it, they’re going to be more attentive and say, “God, these guys are good.” We’re still doing the same thing. We’re hoping that one of these days we can get to Switzerland.
DJS: I’m located in Sweden, but you’re also welcome in Switzerland.
CT: Okay, Sweden—I want to go to Sweden too [laughs].
DJS: I have a couch here, Chubby, in my apartment. It’s always available for you.
CT: Well, I thank you. That’s really nice of you.
DJS: And you also, shall I say finally, won a Grammy.
CT: We won a Grammy in 1978 for the best Album of the Year. Yeah, a soundtrack off the Saturday Night Fever movie—John Travolta.
And the Bee Gees wrote this song for us called “More Than a Woman”. That album went Number One across the country; it was the bestselling album in 1978, and we all received a Grammy Award.
DJS: How did you feel back then when you won the Grammy? Did you really feel a part of the Grammys?
CT: We did, but we didn’t make the show because we were touring in England at the time. So we didn’t make the show. Our manager picked up our award for us. And that same year, I believe, our producer, Freddie Perren, got Producer of the Year.
DJS: I listened to a local radio station here a couple of days ago and they played the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love”. Of course the group were huge—they really crossed over to the big market—but I also think that people underrated them a bit, because they did some really nice songs back then.
CT: Listen, that whole album—just about every song they had on that album—they released as a single, and they had a hit with every one of those songs they brought out. So it speaks for itself. The Bee Gees were a great talent, and they still are. Barry’s a great, great writer, and they had such a great form together, the brothers Bee Gees. Let’s face it, they were great.
DJS: They had a lot of soul.
CT: They certainly did, and Barry still has that soul.
DJS: Do you talk to him or know him in person?
CT: Yes, he’s a great writer.
DJS: What happened for you after the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack? That put you into a box as a disco group even more, maybe.
CT: Yeah, that did—it labeled us again as a good disco group. But we always felt, “Why do they keep calling us a disco group when we’re a good R&B group?” But that’s what they wanted—they wanted to label us as a good disco group. So we don’t refuse things. If people want to call us one of the greatest groups that came out of the disco era, fine.
DJS: Right. It doesn’t really matter, actually.
CT: No, it doesn’t. I believe that any song that I sing from my heart is a good song.
DJS: What’s soul music to you, Chubby? What makes a good soul song for you?
CT: Soul music is something that has a great dancing beat. It’s very black, original, and that’s why they call it soul. James Brown was one of the greatest soul singers in the world, and he was also a great friend. I think about him a lot, him and Michael Jackson. Michael was a great, great guy, no matter what anybody said about him. He was a great guy.
DJS: You knew him well?
CT: We toured with them for a little bit, and they just were a nice family. It’s so sad what happened to him, but my mom used to always say, “The day that we come into this world, it’s already assigned in the book when we’re leaving.” His name will live forever.
DJS: Didn’t the media compare Chubby and the Turnpikes with the Jackson 5 back then a bit?
CT: Well, the problem with that was if you hear Chubby and the Turnpikes, you still hear Tavares. We still have the distinctive sound and even those songs we did as Chubby and the Turnpikes, I was the lead singer.
DJS: It was a family group and you were young brothers singing together—maybe you were a bit older, of course, in the early seventies when the Jackson 5 crossed over, but I think that—
CT: Exactly, but the thing with that… even there, someone recognized them guys from Indiana—I believe that’s where they were from?
DJS: Yeah, Gary, Indiana.
CT: Right. And they got the break before us, but we were out there a long time before them. It’s just that we weren’t recognized.
DJS: Was that due to Motown and how they worked, do you think?
CT: That was due to Motown, right. They made the Jacksons what they really are today, and they were a fantastic group and Michael was the man.
DJS: Right. Many of your recordings during the seventies were on Capitol Records, right?
CT: Exactly. The last two or three years of our careers we were with RCA, which didn’t do so well.
DJS: I’ve heard from a couple of other African-American artists that they weren’t really pleased with the way the labels supported African-American music. Is that correct?
CT: They never supported us from the time we did the first album. It wasn’t just us: Evelyn "Champagne" King… we could go on and on, people that signed with RCA and they never did anything. We did two albums with them and that was it. They ended up closing down the R&B portion of RCA, and that killed us. It killed our career.
DJS: So the reason why you left Capitol for RCA at the beginning of the eighties was that you were disappointed with the label and it didn’t get better on RCA?
CT: You know why we were disappointed with Capitol? And it wasn’t because they weren’t a great label. It was because we went number one with “She’s Gone”, across the board R&B, and for some reason whoever was the head of the pop charts there would not bring it pop. They didn’t want to play it on the pop stations. And I think that kind of discouraged Hall & Oates, and they got a little angry. I guess it was like, “Let’s bring it out again.” They ended bringing it out, they got a hit—R&B and pop. So that kind of left a bad taste in our mouth about Capitol. Then my brother Ralph ended up deciding that it was best for us to go with RCA, which a lot of us didn’t want to do, but he made that decision—he was like the business agent of the group. And he made that move, and it was probably one of the worst moves that we ever made.
DJS: In what way?
CT: Because I believe that we belonged with Capitol and I think we had a long, long life with Capitol if we had stayed there.
DJS: Because I think that Capitol, they were bigger and bigger when it comes to soul and funk music during the eighties. So they maybe got back a bit.
CT: Not only that, they were together with EMI. EMI is Capitol. I guess they got a little upset that we left, and they took all of our product off the shelves. So that killed us. They were very disappointed in the group not signing back with them, and I was disappointed myself. I preferred being with Capitol, and even today if Capitol came to me and said, “Would you like to come back to me?” I’d be the first to say yes.
DJS: If you look at the early seventies, it was very much heavy funk music. Then it came into the mid-seventies, which had a lot of Philly soul. And then the late seventies was a lot of disco, and then suddenly in the eighties nothing really happened.
CT: No, but you know something? That’s when people started doing stuff from the seventies, but they were sampling. And for me, sampling… people are still hearing the seventies music, only it’s been sampled into hip-hop and rap. It seems like there’s some good rap groups; there’s some good hip-hop groups. My favourite right now is R. Kelly. I think he’s a phenomenal guy, man. I listened to some of his albums and his stuff is really, really nice.
DJS: So you are open to new music, Chubby?
CT: We’re open to new music, but I’ve always been a softie for the seventies and eighties and even the sixties. To me, that was music. We could do that music but it’s changing times now. To me, Tavares, we’re up in age now, so I don’t believe that hip-hop or rap fits our bill. We have surpassed that.
DJS: You have to stay young in spirit, Chubby.
CT: We are young in spirit, but still people recognize Tavares from the great hits they had in the seventies. When we go out and do a show that’s what people want to hear.
DJS: But you didn’t always do uptempo things, because in the early eighties you had a hit with a ballad, “A Penny for Your Thoughts”.
CT: That’s right, which was nominated for a Grammy. We didn’t get the Grammy but the nomination was very nice. I believe the song that beat us out was “Whip It”—“Whip it good”.
DJS: And your last studio recording was in ’83, Words and Music. Is that correct?
CT: That was our last. We had New Directions with RCA, and then Words and Music. Words and Music, we had a great ballad on there—that was the name of the song, “Words and Music”.
DJS: What did you and your brothers do during the mid-eighties and nineties?
CT: We continued on working—we’ve never stopped working. The name Tavares will live on and on. We go to Amsterdam seven to eight times a year; we go to England around the same amount of times, so we’re still very big in those markets.
DJS: Right, so you tour a lot—you toured a lot during the nineties. So you have never left music for a regular job, if I may call it a regular job?
CT: No, we’ve always dedicated our lives to what we do, and we sing. We’ve never stopped. People think we retired, but we have never stopped singing as a group. My brother Ralph left the group in ’82. He became a court officer, and he’s a chief court officer in Massachusetts right now. But it still consists of four brothers who are all originals.
DJS: Has it been difficult for you to earn your living through music the past decade or two?
CT: Oh yeah, it gets rougher, but we have ourselves decided that we wanted to pick and choose our jobs now. We don’t go out there eleven months out of the year, and I’m quite sure we could do that, but we prefer picking and choosing our jobs now. If we get thirty-five to forty dates a year, we’re fine with it. Unless we come out with a new recording and things start happening again for us, then we’d be out there more often.
DJS: The new reissues here, Sky High! and In the City, are released by SoulMusic.com Records. Did you know David Nathan before?
[Editor’s note: David interviewed Tavares a number of times in the ‘70s for Britain’s “Blues & Soul” magazine]
CT: I never knew him before, but he became a great friend through my wife Ann—her name is Ann Bishundayal. Her and David Nathan were great friends and she’s the one that made sure that she kept in correspondence with David. And David called me and said, “We’re going to release two more of your CDs” and I said, “That’s great.” But him and my wife are very, very good friends and I think the world of him. He’s a great guy. He’s the one that also came up with our anthology album.
DJS: Right. Are your brothers and sisters doing fine, Chubby?
CT: They’re all fine. Everyone’s in great health; we’re all doing fine.
DJS: That’s fantastic. And do you plan to work for another ten years?
CT: Hopefully. As long as God gives us the health we’ll continue on. My dad did it for sixty-five years, and I don’t see why we can’t do it for sixty-five years.
DJS: You’re maybe almost there now, Chubby [laughs].
CT: Yeah, it’s good. People tell us we get better as we age: it says you’re like a bottle of wine.
DJS: Right, it just gets better with time.
CT: So that’s great.
DJS: I talked to Bill Curtis, the founder of Fatback Band, he’s eighty this year. He’s very healthy and vital and still got one of the sharpest brains in the industry, and he goes to the gym.
CT: Yeah and God bless him. Certain people… but it’s not nice when you sit back and see how many groups that Tavares have surpassed, but it’s because of upbringing. We were brought up with a great mom and dad, we didn’t get into the drug situation, so when you don’t deal with stuff like that there you have a longevity. And we thank God that we are still healthy and can still take care of our own selves.
DJS: Has there always been a very strong spirit within your family? You’ve always kept together and helped each other.
CT: Every family group have their problems. We have ours, and usually when we dispute it’s about the shows—if we have an argument, it’s usually about the show. But we continue on. It’s a marriage of thirty-eight years for me right now. I’ve been with my brothers forever, and it’s just like anything else: if you’re strong in what you do you’ll continue on doing it.
DJS: Are you all very strong individuals?
CT: Yes, we are.
DJS: That must be a challenge, to work together for such a long time.
CT: It is, it’s a challenge, but like I said, now it’s a little more easier on us because we’re not out there, say, three-quarters of the year doing just shows. I myself, when I come back home, I have a job at a halfway house. I try to help some of these kids who are in bad shape with drugs, and hopefully if I can get to one or two of them I feel like I’m succeeding in something.
DJS: Right. So you work a lot with charity?
CT: Well, it’s charitable, but it’s not a high-paying job, which doesn’t bother me. I do it because I like to give back, and if I can help some of these young kids who are coming up who are in trouble, I like trying helping them.
DJS: Can we expect a brand-new recording from you and the brothers, or you have no such ideas?
CT: Yes, hopefully. My brother Butch is doing a lot of writing. I don’t know what he’s got in his mind, if he wants to go do a solo, but everyone is allowed to do whatever they like to do. We’re getting very close to the time where who’s to say we’re going to continue on as our age keeps popping up, if God doesn’t give us the health anymore. Right now we’re all in great health and we’re all together and this is what we’re doing. We’re getting ready to do a charitable show for my dad, which is for a scholarship—a scholarship fund in the name of my dad. We’re doing that August 20th, and we’re doing it close to home and the tickets are just doing great. And then we’ve got our children who are going to be on the show with us who sing also. We’re going to go under the name of Tavares 3G—third generation.
DJS: Almost like a gospel choir with all the brothers and sisters and children.
CT: Yeah, well, there’s seven of them. They’re all doing well, they love singing and that’s what it’s all about. Some of them, they do their own work, but they love what their dads do.
DJS: So they are taking the legacy of Tavares to the future?
CT: Yeah, hopefully, and if not them then our grandchildren. Tiny has a granddaughter that sings marvelously… God, can she sing. And my brother Butch has a daughter named Brooke that can sing excellently, but she won’t go out on the road, I guess. But she has a great voice.
DJS: That’s great. Finally, Chubby, do you have any shout-outs to all the visitors of SoulMusic.com and your fans worldwide?
CT: Yes, I would like to say that people might think that Tavares are done—we are never done. We keep continuing on and that’s to our fans, our friends. And we would love to go to your country and perform there because then you’ll see what Tavares is all about. We have never been there so it would be nice for us to go there.