When asked to name the Soul Music supergroups of the '70s and early '80s, folks tend to gravitate to familiar names such as Earth, Wind and Fire, the Spinners, the Commodores and the Isley Brothers. However, five brothers from New Bedford, Massachusetts – Ralph, Tiny, Chubby, Butch and Pooch Tavares – arguably created the most consistently high quality soul music of that period.
Originally called "Chubby and the Turnpikes," the Tavares brothers spent the late '60s and early '70s in their native New England covering tunes of R&B greats at various clubs, while trying to land a record deal. They finally scored a deal with Capitol Records’ then-new black music division and released their first single, "Check It Out," in 1973. It soared to the top 10 on the R&B charts and became the group’s first top 40 pop hit. It also became the centerpiece for the group’s Johnny Bristol-produced debut album, an excellent example of early '70s soul that also featured the hit "The Sound That Lonely Makes." The "Check It Out" LP gave the first glimpse of tight brotherly harmonies and alternating lead vocals that would become the Tavares trademark sound.
Capitol teamed the group next with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, hot producers/writers who were coming off the hugely successful "Keeper of the Castle" album for the Four Tops. They led Tavares through two successful LPs, "Hard Core Poetry" and "In The City," and the group’s first #1 R&B hit (a cover of Hall & Oates’ "She’s Gone") and first top 10 pop hit ("It Only Takes A Minute"). While a number of other groups were covering similar stylistic territory at the time, the wonderfully tight group harmonies and consistently solid song selection set Tavares apart.
If their first three albums set the Tavares brothers up for success, the fourth, "Skyhigh," (produced by Motown veteran writer/producer Freddie Perren) and its international hits, "Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel" and "Don’t Take Away the Music," led the group to the "A" list of popular black artists. Perren moved the group to a hotter beat-heavy sound not hinted at in Tavares’ earlier releases and the timing couldn’t have been better, as the disco boom was about to explode. The group teamed with Perren again for their "Love Storm" and "Future Bound" LPs in 1977 and 1978. It was at this point that Tavares hit an unexpected pivotal moment: it’s cover of the Bee Gees’ "More Than A Woman" was included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, giving the group its greatest exposure ever (as well as its only Grammy award) but bringing with it a label that Tavares would spend years trying to shake – that of "Disco Group."
Interestingly, it was at disco’s peak in 1979 that the brothers took a counter-industry turn, releasing the ballad-drenched "Madam Butterfly" LP. Produced by Philly veteran Bobby Martin, this LP highlighted the group’s soul foundation, especially on the hit "Never Had A Love Like This Before" and three Sam Dees’ ballads (including the incredible "Let Me Heal The Bruises"). Tavares then teamed with pop producers Bobby Colomby and David Foster for "Supercharged," a solid but underappreciated disc that spawned a minor hit with "Bad Times."
Unfortunately, as 1980 arrived, the music industry focused its efforts on self-contained funk bands, and traditional "producer’s" soul groups such as the Spinners, the Stylistics and the Temptations were having trouble getting promotion and airplay. This industry tide change led Capitol Records to lessen its promotional focus on Tavares. The timing of this decision was ironic, as the Tavares brothers arguably found their sound as writers and arrangers in 1980 with "Love Uprising," a wonderful, airy album that was perhaps their most pleasing and personal disc, but which fell flat on the charts. Their next LP, "Loveline" (featuring the songs of a promising young writer named Kashif), met a similar fate.
Faced with Capitol’s neglect, the brothers went in search of a new label, and in 1982 found a temporary home in RCA’s young black music division. They released two albums for RCA, "New Directions" and "Words and Music," which featured the Grammy-nominated "Penny For Your Thoughts" and their final R&B hit, "Deeper In Love," but the albums were overall an artistic step down from the group’s highest moments.
It was in 1979 that I first met the Tavares brothers. They were appearing in Detroit with Lou Rawls and I was covering the concert for a university newspaper. They were still at their peak of popularity, but were incredibly humble, polite and really helpful to a young music writer. Most of all, they made it clear in conversations that, as much as they loved making music, their families and their brotherly relationship came first. Ralph Tavares and I kept in touch over the next few years, during the groups frustrating final years with Capitol and their time with RCA, right through to the time of a difficult decision that Ralph made in 1983. "One day I came off the road and saw my little girl in a snowsuit. That look on her face told me, ‘You can’t do your best unless you’re home.’" So Ralph resigned from the group in 1983 to spend more time with his wife and their two children. He become a court officer in New Bedford, a position he still holds today.
The remaining four brothers continued to tour internationally and in 1994 released "Check It Out," a CD of newly recorded versions of their past hits, on a small Canadian label. The CD found the brothers in fine voice, but the instrumentation and production quality was low- budget. Brother Tiny left the group in the mid-'90s and the remaining three toured sporadically. The five brothers came together in 1998 to cut tracks for a possible reunion CD, but those recordings have not been released.
There are a few Tavares compilations currently available, the best of which are "Capitol Gold: The Best of Tavares" (compiled and with liner notes by David Nathan) and an import, "Tavares Original Hits." Also, Japanese imports of the original "Check It Out," "Hard Core Poetry" and "Skyhigh" are available.
In a decade that highlighted so many groups, from the last Detroit days of Motown to the arrival of hot sounds in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the Tavares brothers proved themselves to be incredibly versatile, effectively covering all of those sounds as well as a unique sound that they introduced in "Love Uprising." Their wonderful harmonies and their consistently strong selection of material made every one of their albums a keeper. Here’s hoping that there’s still more Tavares music to come.
You can write to Chris at: firstname.lastname@example.org