Music History Spotlight: The Amazers, the hottest local R&B/gospel group of the 1960s

The Amazers’ Napoleon Crayton, John Price, Billy Barnes, Bill Lordan, Charles Singleton, and Joe Moore (Photo courtesy Bill Lordan)

You ever hear a song so good that it actually makes you kind of mad? That’s what happened to me the first time I heard the Amazers and their song “It’s You For Me,” released nationally in 1967 on Curtis Mayfield’s Thomas Records.

For starters, I couldn’t believe that a 45 steeped in such incredible history had been all but forgotten by modern music fans, even those with a specific interest in Minnesota’s past. Not only were the Amazers so obviously talented that they had landed on the radar of one of the biggest names in soul music, but they had a huge following here in the Twin Cities, both in their own Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul and across the river in Minneapolis, where they would be one of the first black R&B bands to perform in a downtown club.

And then there’s the music: the nimble guitar playing of Donald Breedlove, who would go on to play in several influential groups, interlaced with the complex songwriting abilities of Napoleon Crayton, another star of his generation. As the song builds the singer’s harmonies reach for the rafters, and it captures the sound of a group melding their gospel background with the insistent pulse of mid-’60s R&B and the lovelorn harmonies of soul music.

“The Amazers’ gospel roots would influence my entire career. Gospel music is the root of soul music, for sure,” says drummer Bill Lordan, who got his start playing in R&B groups in the Twin Cities like the Big M’s and the Amazers and would go on to tour the world in Sly and the Family Stone and the Robin Trower Band.

“I remember feeling goosebumps when I heard the singers do a high-pitched squall,” he adds.

When the core members of the group first moved to the Rondo neighborhood from Texas, they were still performing as the gospel group the Mighty Golden Voices and had made a name for themselves on the national gospel circuit. Shortly after arriving in Minnesota they met a young manager named James Martin who was curious about the potential of a gospel group crossing over into the secular music world, and he was soon booking them to play local dance halls as “The Fabulous Amazers.”

Inspired by other vocal groups of the era, the Amazers would dress in matching suits and slicked-up pompadours, storming the stage as a unified front. They would often share bills with a like-minded Rondo R&B band called the Exciters, led by Wee Willie Walker, and Martin managed both groups.

Herman Jones, who drummed in the Exciters, remembers those early gigs with the Amazers vividly — and one show in particular stands out. It was at the Marigold Ballroom at 1336 Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis (now a Hyatt Regency hotel) in 1965 or ’66, and both the Exciters and Amazers were slotted to warm up the stage for the popular soul group the Impressions.

“The place was packed. All these ladies were just going crazy,” Jones recalls. “We went on before the Amazers; we opened. We got to play maybe about half an hour, forty minutes. Then these guys [the Amazers] came on and they were really the show; they were the headline. The Impressions had no idea and had never seen or heard a group like that, ever. Those guys got done, and it was like the Impressions weren’t even there. They had to come on after. They weren’t prepared at all.

“We were watching them, and we looked over and the Impressions were standing there, with everyone screaming and the lights on. I remember the bass player, Jimmy, saying, ‘Man, I feel sorry for the other guys. I feel real sorry for them.’”

The Impressions were clearly impressed. Soon, the Amazers were tapped to open for the Impressions on a nationwide tour, and Curtis Mayfield invited the band to re-record their single, “It’s You for Me,” for his Thomas Records imprint. The song was already a hit locally; it was in heavy rotation on the North Minneapolis-based KUXL, and provided a showstopping moment in their live concerts. The song had originally been recorded at Kay Bank Studios in Minneapolis and released on the local Bangar label. The new version was slowed down and reimagined beautifully for their Thomas Records release, and both sides of the 45 were produced by Mayfield himself.

By the late 1960s the Amazers were playing not just teen centers and dance halls but the hippest nightclubs; they were the de facto house band for several months at King Solomon’s Mines in the Foshay Tower in 1968, making them one of the first black R&B bands to play in downtown Minneapolis — a nightlife scene that had previously been off limits for minority musicians. I’ll share more of that backstory in the next Music History Spotlight; for now, enjoy this offering from the Amazers. It’s a 45 I think every Minnesotan interested in music should hear.

Hear the Amazers’ “It’s You for Me” performed live at the Fitzgerald Theater on Saturday, October 28, by our fabulous house band Nooky Jones as part of The Current Presents: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound, and find more stories like this one in my new book, Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound.

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