We celebrate 50 years of The Dramatics: Our SoulTracks Tribute

(August 11, 2017) In a recent episode of TV One's "Unsung," perhaps one of the most unsung soul groups of the last half century was featured: The Dramatics.  And that broadcast comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the group's formation, as a bunch of high schoolers in Detroit. While the names and faces changed over the years, there has been an essence that hasn't changed. And now, nine years after we honored them with our Lifetime Achievement Award, we pay tribute to the Golden Anniversary for this legendary group. 

(August 11, 2017) In a recent episode of TV One's "Unsung," perhaps one of the most unsung soul groups of the last half century was featured: The Dramatics.  And that broadcast comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the group's formation, as a bunch of high schoolers in Detroit. While the names and faces changed over the years, there has been an essence that hasn't changed. And now, nine years after we honored them with our Lifetime Achievement Award, we pay tribute to the Golden Anniversary for this legendary group. 

While never reaching "supergroup" status in the public's eyes, the Dramatics have been one of the most prolific, consistently entertaining groups of the last half century. Another of the great non-Motown Detroit groups formed in the late 60s, the Dramatics went through significant personnel changes over their early years as the group struggled to find a hit. After rejection by Motown, they ultimately found a home at Stax/Volt Records and scored right out of the box with "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get," a latin-tinged cut lyrically based on a comic phrase popularized by Flip Wilson.

"Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" was an instant hit on both the pop and soul charts, the first of several great cuts penned by "the sixth Dramatic," Tony Hester, a brilliant composer with a knack for insightful and engaging lyrics. The follow-up, "In The Rain," was even bigger, moving to the top of the R&B and Pop charts.

Early internal struggles in the group led lead singer William "Wee Gee" Howard to quit in 1973, and he was immediately replaced by a big fan of the group with a bigger voice, L.J. Reynolds. With that change, the core of the group was set for a decade, featuring Reynolds' gruff baritone and Ron Banks' soaring falsetto, Willie Ford's bass sound, the smooth Lenny Mayes and singer and group choreographer Larry Demps. The result was a unique group harmony and stage show was created and that kept The Dramatics at the top of the charts through the decade.

They had several more hits over the next few years, including "Fell For You" (later remade by Snoop Doggy Dogg), "Toast To the Fool," and "Hey You, Get off My Mountain," but trouble was looming at the Stax label, which was imploding and heading toward bankruptcy.

Group producer and mentor Don Davis helped with a move to ABC Records, and the hits kept coming, though by then coverage of The Dramatics was limited to the Soul radio. Despite the tragic murder of songwriter Hester, the Dramatics continued to hit with cuts like "Be My Girl" and "Shake It Well" into the early 80s, when their popularity began to wane. The lack of hits rekindled internal struggles and the group split up in 1982, with Reynolds and Banks both embarking on solo careers (Reynolds achieving some limited success with the hit "Key to the World"), and Demps going back to school to become a teacher.

Time healed wounds and The Dramatics reunited in 1986 with Somewhere In Time and its great crossover hit, "One Love Ago." 

While other popular 70s groups had trouble sustaining recording careers, the Dramatics continued to cut a new LP every few years, right up through 2002's Look Inside, a surprisingly strong record that received limited distribution in the U.S. (if you find it, check out the fantastic "Looks Like Rain"). They received national attention for their professionalism in 2001 when they performed a save for "Fly Jock" Tom Joyner, singing two sets during his show's appearance in Detroit on less than 12 hours notice after a cancellation by DeBarge.

In 2003, the group, then consisting of Reynolds, Banks, Winzell Kelly, Willie Ford and Lenny Mayes, released Greatest Hits Live, a terrific peek at a 2001 Dramatics performance that showed the group still in fine form and a testament to the longevity of this great soul act. Sadly, group member Lenny Mayes died on November 7, 2004, after a long illness.

In 2006, local Detroit developer Herb Strather honored the Dramatics (along with Freda Payne, the Four Tops and others), with a street named after the group in one of the newest neighborhoods being built in the city. 

The Dramatics were honored for their careers when they received the "Lifetime Achievement Award" at the 2008 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards (see the picture above). All of the then-active members came to the awards as well as the mother of deceased member Lenny Mayes.

Sadly, on March 4, 2010, group falsetto lead Ron Banks died of an apparent heart attack at his Detroit home. Following Banks' death, a battle over the group's name emerged, resulting in two traveling groups now holding the Dramatics name: a more familiar one led by L. J. Reynolds (and featuring Kelly, Donald Albert and Leon Franklin) and another new group led by Willie Ford. Both groups continue to perform regularly.

As we look back, the depth of great music that The Dramatics provided to us over the past 50 years is breathtaking. And though some of the members are no longer with us, we celebrate a half century of greatness and an incredible legacy of music.

By Chris Rizik

 
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