This release comprises an hour-plus of female doo wop ballads, R&B rockers and soul from the Bronx, as recorded by BABY WASHINGTON and THE HEARTS between 1957 and 1970. Lezli Valentine, Betty Harris, Hartsy Maye and others also supply lead vocals.
Zelma “Zell” Sanders – who ran the fabled J & S, Scatt, Dice and Zell’s logos – was, by all accounts, quite a woman: a hardworking entrepreneur and formidable matriarch who controlled the artists she managed with the tough love of a strict parent, sometimes fining or sacking them on the spot if they broke her rules. Prior to entering the record business, she toiled by day as a security guard in Harlem, while by night she wrote songs and dreamed of becoming a rhythm & blues mogul.
The group with which Mrs Sanders got her start in the music biz comprised four girls collectively known as the Hearts. While Justine “Baby” Washington is their most celebrated one-time member, she is just one of over twenty vocalists who passed through their ranks. At one time or another, the group also included, in approximate chronology, Hazel Crutchfield, Forestine Barnes, Joyce West, Louise Harris, Thaddus McLean, Anna Barnhill, Theresa Chatman, Joyce Peterson, Ann King, Betty Crews, Mandy Hopper, Lezli Green, Mary Green, Ruth Artis, Marie Hood, Cynthia Cox, Yvonne Bushnell, Johnnie Louise Richardson, Mary Jefferson, Lavergne Ray and sundry others.
Many of these young women also waxed for Zell Sanders as members of other groups and as soloists, but this particular collection focuses exclusively on recordings bearing the names the Hearts or Baby Washington, as released on J & S, Tuff and Zell’s. (CDs by other girl groups from the J & S stable are in the Ace pipeline; Jaynetts and Clickettes fans take note.)
While many of Mrs Sanders’ recording sessions were non-union affairs, inspired playing was often captured – witness the wild sax and guitar solos on tracks like You Needn’t Tell Me, I Know and I Want Your Love Tonight, thought to be the handiwork of Sam “The Man” Taylor and Mickey Baker, respectively. Elsewhere, the Hearts’ long-serving pianist and arranger, Rex Garvin, is featured prominently on many of their recordings.
The many years spanned by the recordings contained in this collection result in a diverse blend of styles, ranging from 1950s R&B through to soul, via the early 1960s girl group sound. Moreover, the number of different lead singers featured makes for a listening experience more akin to that of a multi-act compilation than a single artist one. Examples of wondrous vocalising abound, not least from Cynthia Cox on the churchy You Weren’t Home, Ruth Artis on the ultra-slow I Feel So Good, Lezli Valentine on the lovely doo wop ballad There Is No Love At All and Baby Washington, who improvises on a syllable beautifully throughout Ah-Ha, one of nine tracks here on which she sings lead.
The saga of the Hearts’ long recording career in told in detail in the 16-page booklet. It’s a complex tale illuminated via exclusive interviews with group members Baby Washington, Betty Harris and Louise Murray, plus archive quotes from Zell Sanders’ daughter, Johnnie Louise Richardson, of the hit-making duo Johnnie & Joe. Mrs Sanders died in 1976, aged just 54, with Johnnie Louise surviving her by only 12 years. This set marks the first legitimate CD release of all bar one of its 25 tracks.
By Mick Patrick