B&S rapps to Maze leader Frankie Beverly who reveals the formula behind their 'rapid' rise to stardom.
WHEN it comes to having a distinctive sound, few groups can equal the feat of Maze, who, after just two albums, have created a highly personal and easily recognisable sound. With the release of their third album, "Inspiration", the group looks set to climb to even greater heights and John Abbey took this opportunity to talk with the group's leader, Frankie Beverly, about the growth of Maze and about their new album.
JA: Firstly, Frankie, tell me a little bit about yourself prior to Maze.
FB: I was born in Philadelphia. I'm 32 years old, born '46, a Sagittarius. I grew up as a ghetto child like most Black kids. My first influence naturally was the church — again most Black kids start that way. Other than that, my first influence was Frankie Lymon. I kinda liked the way I sounded singing his stuff, too. That was a major step, a crucial step and my first awareness. That was my very early teen years and from that point, countless numbers of groups influenced me.
JA: Did the early Philadelphia group sound have any effect on you?
FB: Not at all. Philly has always been a town with a multitude of talent and I'm just one little part of what has come from there.
JA: Did you make it in Philly?
FB: I think so. I don't say that in a boastful way, believe me. You know how some people are leaders and others are followers. Not to say that I am a great leader of men but my attitude has always been to lead. I was always that way in Philly — always had my own show, spawned my own groups. Way back then, even. The first group came right after Frankie Lymon and there were many after that. And I recorded countless numbers of records, too. With people like Tommy Bell, Gamble and Huff. Groups like the Butlers, Raw Soul. The Butlers were together quite a long time and we recorded quite a few records on Jamie-Guyden. Do you know Johnny Madara, Dave White — the guys in Danny and the Juniors? Well, they produced the first record. We went on "Bandstand" but we never had a record that made it outside of Philly, though.
JA: Were you the leader of the Butlers and were you just a singer then?
FB: Yes, I was the leader and yes I was just singing. In fact, I was only a singer until eight years ago. Just another Philadelphia singer, like countless others.
JA: Is that what made you leave, the competition?
FB: No, what made me leave was that I was born and raised in Philadelphia and none of my records sold outside of Philly and I wanted to know why. I never really found out.
JA: So you packed up your trailer and left.
FB: That's right and that's just seven years ago.
JA: Had you become Raw Soul by then?
FB: Yeah. But we still remember those experiences in Philly. But the turning point was coming to California — it seems more than seven years, man!
JA: Do you look upon it as two different lives?
FB: Yes, that's exactly how I look at it. Seems like when we came to California, a whole 'nother trip happened. As a matter of fact, I had never seen life so hard as when we first got out here and I thought I had seen it pretty tough. But that was when the group established solidarity to our relationship. We were out there with no bread. Four of the guys didn't survive and split and 99% of other groups would have broken up under those circumstances.
JA: Would you credit yourself with holding it all together?
FB: No. It was a question of 'we're not going back to Philadelphia so we have to survive!' It wasn't the way we expected it to be but we all felt we should stick it out.
JA: Did you cosider splitting up or joining other groups?
FB: No, no! Always believed in us! We never got a great deal of help in getting this far but we stuck together.
JA: The early Raw Soul records you did for Gregar Records were before their time — would you agree?
FB: That was only a year or so after the Butlers, really. The Butlers were a straight singing group and they broke up when Sly Stone started happening. Now Sly just blew me out and he was another major, major imfluence on my life. I was really impressed with this self-contained band thing and that was what made me split the Butlers and put together Raw Soul as a self-contained band.
JA: Was that when you started playing guitar?
FB: Not really. I was still only singing but another singer was doing lead at the time. You see, I had been singing only doo-wop — things like "I Only Have Eyes For You", the Dubs, and all that kind of thing — you remember "Lovers Never Say Goodbye" by the Flamingos…I used to sing that. Anyway, I didn't feel that my voice suited the new things we were getting into.
JA: Do you wish that you could have got your success doing that kind of material or was it a necessary transition for you to get where you are today?
FB: I'm glad we had to go through it because it allowed us to get experience but, yes, it was necessary.
JA: Could you go back to doo-wop now if you wanted?
FB: Oh, sure! But we have grown into something else but I still love doo-wop and there will always be a place in my heart for it. And I still get off if somebody tells me they have certain Frankie Lymon records in their collection I think you can even hear some of it in our style today — especially now that you know it. I think that on 'Lady Of Magic', you can definitely hear it.
JA: Do you feel that Maze could have evolved if you had stayed in Philly?
FB: Probably if we had stayed but it hadn't really worked for me in twenty-five odd years there. I had always let other people produce me and it just hadn't worked. And they were good producers, as you know from the names I mentioned. They were qualified but it just hadn't worked for me. I just made up my mind that there would be no more records until I could have a say what went on. And George Greiff (President of Gregar) gave me that little amount of control — but no promotion! But he gave me the chance to produce Raw Soul as I heard it and at least I got some experience from it. We cut 'Colour Blind' and 'While I'm Alone' for the first time then and I knew they were good pieces of music if they got out there.
JA: And when you re-cut them for Capitol, they really weren't that much different, were they?
FB: Just a little more mature, that's all. I didn't want to change them.
JA: Are there any other songs that you did early on that you'd like to cut over again?
FB: There was a song we did called "Mother Nature" and I'd like to do that again. I think it falls right in line now — after "Golden Time Of Day" and "Happy Feeling". To get an original of that song today, you have to go to the Record Museum in Philly and pay $25 for it.
JA: Do people still associate you with Raw Soul or is it part of yesterday now?
FB: I think Raw Soul is part of yesterday, truthfully. The people that knew us then, they remember us but I don't get too much response to Raw Soul now.
JA: You have this thing with Maze about being self-contained and using no outside musical help. For example, you have never used strings or horns. Does that make you musically introverted whereby you want to do everything for yourself as a group?
FB: No, no, no! I wouldn't let anything affect the music. Let's just say that I attribute a great deal of our success to the fact that people come to see us and they hear what's on our records. Maybe better! I have heard on countless times how appreciative people are of this.
JA: Is that the main root reason?
FB: Yes, it is. But in time, who knows — we might add some horns. I wouldn't mind that at all.
JA: Is that a progression for the group in itself?
FB: Right. On the new album, "Inspiration", we utilise more equipment — keyboards and synthesisers. But it has to be something that we can reproduce on stage. There are so many acts who can produce good records with great musicians, great producers — then they go on the road with a six-piece band and they wonder why they can't reproduce their records 'live'. It's an insult to music and to the public.
JA: How far do you feel you can go with Maze? Is it something you feel you can go on with forever?
FB: In some capacity, definitely.
JA: Have you given any thought to outside productions?
FB: Maybe — but not yet. Maze is too important to me to spread my time.
JA: Frankie, I want to ask you a negative question to get a positive response. You really are not doing all of this just for the money, are you?
FB: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I don't know how much bread I've got! I don't really care, either.
JA: As long as all the bills are paid!
FB: Exactly. You hit it right because I didn't want to give the impression that I don't take care of my money but I don't do what I am doing for the money. If I am happy and the band is happy, that's enough and we're cool.
JA: Do you feel that you needed that down period when you first came to LA to be able to start right at the bottom and work up?
FB: I think it helped us. I think everybody has to pay dues and I'm glad we paid in front because I am enjoying the success now.
JA: Has it surprised you that you have been so successful, so soon?
FB: Definitely, yes. Truthfully, I didn't think the first album had that much.
JA: Do you still feel that way now, looking back? FB: I never thought it would have taken us this far. I realised that it was different and that we were a different kind of a band. And I figured that there is always room for that. And I always feel that if one person can buy an album, then so can three million. But I was never satisfied with the recording of that first album. I never thought that so many people would have heard what we were trying to do at the time.
JA: Did you feel any happier with the second album, "Golden Time Of Day"?
FB: No, not really — I didn't feel any happier because I didn't feel that we have really captured ourselves. The closest we have come is on the new album because were so relaxed when we cut it. We went down to the Studio In The Country, in Bogolusa, Lousiana. It's exactly what it sounds like — way out in the country but near enough to New Orleans if you want the city. The whole thing took about seven weeks — though we took a break halfway through. We heard about the studio last year when we were on the road and we heard that Stevie Wonder was doing some things there. So, if it's good enough for Stevie, it's fine for us! Yes, I can see us cutting the next album there.
JA: The comment has been made that this album is a shade more commercial than the previous two…
FB: I'm glad that people hear it that way — but it really isn't any different to me than the previous two as far as that is concerned. I guess that time alone has helped us grow and made me a better writer. And then we did use synthesisers and clavinets this time so that we have a slightly heavier sound. And maybe we recorded a little differently, too. But we still haven't quite captured what we can do on stage.
JA: How do you go about capturing something so intangible?
FB: I think that the addition of Nguna, the drummer, has helped. He only came back halfway through the "Golden Time Of Day" album and so we didn't feel the benefit until the new album. And, as you know, I depend heavily on the drummer. Secondly, as we get more experience, we'll get closer. And thirdly, the studio itself. I think that we'll capture our sound with the next album because we are so relaxed at this studio. I hate to make that as an excuse for the previous albums because I hate excuses. And we have still been successful. It's just that I wasn't happy myself.
JA: Do you lay a lot of credit on the record company?
FB: I think that Capitol is a classy company. I like them and yet I don't like their lack of aggressiveness. I feel that the first album could have sold over a million. But yet I like the way they believed in us when it looked as though it wasn't going to sell at all. Like I say, I like their classy approach and I would far rather have them the way they are than to be aggressive and lacking class.
JA: Do you feel that being with a company that is so stable has a lot to do with your success?
FB: Yeah, yeah! As a label, they have been conservatively good for us and if you take individuals, Larkin Arnold was a gem. I would like to have seen them stretch out a little more, according to our sales but I don't think they were ready for us. Nobody expected it — even us!
JA: You have never gotten involved in the disco rush, have you?
FB: No, we are not into disco as such. To me, disco is just a word — they can't call it go-go any more, can they! Disco is just music to dance to an we're into that so that makes us disco, I guess.
JA: Do you feel that what held the second album back a little was the lack of dance music?
FB: I think that "Golden Time" was more mellow but we were not conscious of the fact that there was less dance music on it. I feel that the new album has more uptempo music on it, though.
JA: Could you ever make a blatantly commercial single for the disco market?
FB: No. We're into music too heavily and music is the bottom line.
JA: Looking at your album covers, you seem to be creating a slightly anonymous image — do you feel you are exposed enough visually?
FB: Hmmm — that's a good point. But I don't care that much, really. I don't want us to be over-exposed because I feel it will give us more longevity.
JA: When people see a Maze concert, they tend to want to come back time and time again. Obviously, that makes you happy…
FB: For sure! That's why we can't go for just quick hit records. The whole Maze thing is a concept. I want to continue to give the people what they expect of us, come what may. If a hit single comes, great — but it's going to have to come out of an album. That's the way that "Feel That You're Feelin'" came about and it looks as though it may do the trick. Maybe we would have had more hit singles if we had recorded a little differently in the past.
JA: You're not really a mainstream R&B band because it is normal to get a hit single and then follow through with an album. You're doing it backwards!
FB: That's what I've noticed and I'm glad that you mentioned it. Until now, I hadn't really noticed but it has become a pattern, hasn't it?
JA: At what stage do you feel that Maze will have 'made it', Frankie?
FB: When we can crossover to everybody. I know we have it in us and that is what we are aiming for. We try to project an image of being good, decent people and it's not hard — because that's how we are. My first concern is our stage show — selling records is more Capitol's problem. Naturally, I want to sell millions of records but there are a lot of respected stars who don't sell records. I don't think I need any more money — so selling records satisfies my pride and my ego more than anything else. I don't think I will ever change — no matter how big we get. I am old enough and I have seen enough to know who I am.
JA: What are the plans for the future — is there a European tour being planned?
FB: Well, we're going back on the road during May and we are thinking about adding maybe one further guy for the road to play the keyboards. I want the show to be better than ever and if that's what it takes, that's what I'll do.
As far as Europe is concerned, we are ready. It seems to me that we are building a reputation in England so that's the first place I can see us going to. The money doesn't really matter but we can't afford to lose bread.
The only other thing that I am considering is to do some outside production but nothing is definite right now. Like I said, the important thing is to be out there with the people again — that is what really makes us happiest.