Music Reviews
4:24 pm
Wed April 25, 2012

The Sound Man Behind The Soul Of The Nation's Capital

Originally published on Wed April 25, 2012 10:07 pm

Most people wouldn't think of Washington, D.C., as one of R&B's great cities. Despite the fact that soul music greats Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack grew up in D.C. neighborhoods, the city never had the equivalent of Detroit's Berry Gordy and Motown, or Memphis' Willie Mitchell and Hi Records. But in the early 1970s, D.C. did have producer Robert Williams and his Red, Black and Green Productions. A new compilation album called Eccentric Soul: A Red Black Green Production revisits Williams' influence on the sound of R&B in D.C.

Williams was born in Indiana but moved to Silver Spring, Md., in 1947, when he was 11. By his early 30s, he had become a gifted and sought-after engineer; he was once the on-call technician for the presidential press corps of Westinghouse Broadcasting. Recording musicians was his main trade, and by 1972, he'd also begun producing bands, beginning with a seven-man outfit that called itself Father's Children, from the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

The group was heavily influenced by Afrocentrism and the Black Power movement, and this rubbed off on Williams, who dubbed his new production company Red, Black and Green — after the colors of the Pan-African flag. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, RBG Productions would connect a web of different R&B and funk artists based around the capital city. That included the four members of The Summits, a vocal group that took its name from the Silver Spring neighborhood of Summit Hills.

Williams had a special knack for producing ballads. He often centered bassists prominently in the mix and, around that grinding groove, he'd drape on ribbons of reverb and spools of strings. You can hear how he pulls all this together in one of his best productions, recorded for Clifton Dyson and his cast of background singers, Dyson's Faces, called "Don't Worry About the Joneses."

RBG Productions didn't just turn out slow jams, however. One of its better-known records was a driving funk tune created for the girl group Promise, led by a pair of teenagers from University Heights, Md.

Williams may have been the go-to producer in the district's R&B scene, but as successful as his career was, the same couldn't be said for most of the acts he worked with. Even the ones with local hits never ascended to national prominence, and by the early 1980s, even Williams opted to leave the studio behind for a lucrative desk job in the radio industry. However, through Red, Black and Green Productions, Williams can still lay claim to helping craft the soul sound of the nation's capital — even if too few outside the district ever had a chance to hear it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When it comes to the nation's great R&B cities, a few names come to mind, Detroit's Berry Gordy and Motown, Willie Mitchell and Hi Records in Memphis. Ad you can add to that list Washington, D.C. Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack both grew up in the area. And in the early 1970s, producer Robert Williams founded his Red, Black and Green Productions, just north of the district line.

Oliver Wang reviews a new compilation that revisits Williams' influence on the sound of R&B.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: Robert Hosea Williams was born in Indiana but moved to Silver Spring, Maryland in 1947 when he was 11. By his early 30's, he had become a gifted and sought-after engineer; he was once the on-call technician for the presidential press corps of Westinghouse Broadcasting. But recording musicians was his main trade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: By 1972, he began producing bands, as well, beginning with a seven-man outfit out of Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. that called itself Father's Children.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

WANG: Father's Children was heavily influenced by Afrocentrism and the Black Power movement. This rubbed off on Williams, who dubbed his new production company Red, Black and Green after the colors of the Pan-African flag. Throughout the rest of the '70s, RBG Productions would connect a web of different R&B and funk artists based around the capital. That included the four members of The Summits, a vocal group who took their name from the Silver Spring neighborhood of Summit Hills.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

THE SUMMITS: (Singing) Don't you know how I feel about you? If you go, it's because you want to. Don't blame me. Don't blame me because I loved you well. Don't blame me. Don't blame me because it did not go well. It takes two of us to make it through the night.

WANG: Williams had a special knack for producing ballads. He often centered bassists prominently in the mix and around that grinding groove, he draped ribbons of reverb and spools of strings. You can hear how he pulls all this together on one of his best productions, done for Clifton Dyson and his cast of background singers, Dyson's Faces.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DYSON'S FACES: (Singing) We can live our lives like the (unintelligible), so let's be for real. Let's be for real. Let's be for real.

WANG: RBG Productions didn't just turn out slow jams, however. One of its better known records was a driving funk tune created for the girl group, Promise, led by a pair of teenagers from University Heights, Maryland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT READY FOR LOVE")

PROMISE: (Singing) I'm not ready for love. I'm not ready for love. I'm not ready for love. I'm not ready for love. I'm not ready to kiss and hug. I'm not ready for love. I'm not ready to sit at home and wait for you by the phone. I'm not ready. I'm not ready for love. No, no, baby.

WANG: Williams may have been the go-to producer in the D.C. R&B scene, but as successful as his career was, the same couldn't really be said for most of his acts. Even the ones with local hits never ascended to national prominence and, by the early 1980s, even Williams opted to leave the studio behind for a lucrative desk job in the radio industry.

However, through Red, Black and Green Productions, Williams can still lay claim to helping craft the soul sound of the nation's capital, even if too few outside the district ever had a chance to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The album is called "A Red, Black and Green Production." Our reviewer, Oliver Wang, is an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach and he writes the audio blog "Soul Sides." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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