The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
Ollie & The Nightingales
Originally formed as a spiritual music outfit called the Gospel Writer Junior Boys, the group now known as Ollie & The Nightingales consisted of Ollie Hoskins, Nelson Lesure, Bill Davis, and Willie and Rochester Neal. Building a reputation in the 1950s as a popular act at churches and radio broadcasts in and around Memphis, the Junior Boys, as it were, began to outshine the elder vocal group for which they earned their name. Polling the public for a new moniker, the young men gravitated toward the notion that their sound culminated the best parts of their favorite, more tenured gospel acts, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Sensational Nightingales. Combining the names, the group re-emerged as the Dixie Nightingales.
In 1959, the group debuted under this new name with their first studio release, a 7-inch on Memphis’ Pepper label, “I’ve Got a New Home” backed with “I’ve Been Lifted.” The ensemble began the 1960s recording for the Nashville-based Nashboro Records, releasing a handful of sides, including “My Destiny,” “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” “I Would Not Be a Sinner,” and “I’ll Go With You.” Highlighting Ollie Hoskins’ songwriting talent, the last single by the act on the label features their lead singer as a composer. He penned both sides of the 7-inch: “Pleading for Me” and “Death Is Riding,” released in 1964.
However, Hoskins’ newfound knack for songwriting proved the factor that forced the group off the Nashboro label. Met with opposition by the company brass over the song “Assassination,” a song he wrote in response to the death of President John F. Kennedy, Nightingale thought to take the single to a label that could handle a gospel group with a non-traditional edge. Stax Records’ Al Bell happened to be searching for such a group, swiftly signing the Dixie Nightingales to his newly formed Chalice imprint. The chilling “Assassination” released on Chalice in 1965, backed with another Hoskins-written song, “Hush Hush.” In 1966, they’d continue their run with the label, offering two upbeat originals, “I Don’t Know” and “Keep on Trying,” and later “Forgive These Fools.” Unfortunately, Stax Records’ brief foray into gospel with the Chalice imprint ended abruptly, and the label would only revisit the genre after launching The Gospel Truth in the following decade. The label had new plans for the Nightingales, though.
Repackaging the group as a secular act, Stax debuted Ollie & The Nightingales on their main label in 1968. In steering away from gospel, the group also lost a devoted member, Willie Neal, who joined legendary Memphis gospel group (and fellow Chalice alums) the Pattersonaires. Neal did stick around long enough to contribute vocals to the group’s 1968 single, “I Got a Sure Thing.” Hoskins, William Bell, and Booker T. Jones, co-wrote the track. As a duo, Bell and Jones also wrote the flip-side to the single, “Girl, You Have My Heart Singing.” The single resulted in commercial success, rising to No.16 on the R&B chart.
Almost immediately as the group began to find its footing on the Stax label, the tenuous distribution agreement between Stax and Atlantic Records prompted Al Bell’s “Soul Explosion,” an unprecedented marketing push to release nearly 30 new LPs into the market, in the hopes of reinvigorating the Stax brand name and catalog. With their first hit single belonging to Atlantic Records, Ollie & The Nightingales retooled their routine from scratch, quickly culling together a self-titled debut album, released in 1969. The trio of Isaac Hayes, David Porter, and Booker T. Jones share credit for producing and arranging the affair.
On the album, Ollie & The Nightingales make promise on their prowess as a vocal group with down-home churchy roots while implementing themes of romance throughout. Led by Hoskins’ distinct, gruff tenor, “You’re Leaving Me,” met moderate R&B chart success, peaking at No.47. Its follow-up, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” bested its impact by only two positions, making its way up to No.45.
Stax issued an additional single on Ollie & The Nightingales, “I’ll Be Your Anything” and “Bracing Myself for the Fall,” both written by the hitmaking trio of Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks, and Raymond Jackson, as the group transitioned into 1970. The turn of another decade would, once again, signal significant change for the group. This time, Ollie Hoskins, the group’s marquee member and lead singer, stepped away from the group. Coincidentally, this departure spurred a name change for both his solo act and former group. Moving forward, he performed under the stage name Ollie Nightingale, retaining the brand recognition of his musical past while his former group would continue as simply the Nightingales in his absence.
Recording for Memphis Records, operated by husband-wife duo Seymour and Natalie Rosenberg, Ollie Nightingale released two singles, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You,” backed with a cover of “I’ll Take Care of You,” and “It’s a Sad Thing,” backed with “Stand on Your Promise,” for the label in 1971.
With a new lead singer, Tommy Tate, the Nightingales managed to limp along for three more Stax singles before Tate would follow Hoskins’ path. Tate, a veteran soloist and songwriter prior to being invited to join the group, felt his fortunes on Stax Records would be more lucrative if he stood alone. Tate came into his own as a solo act for Stax-affiliated imprint KoKo Records. He remained with the small outfit after KoKo was spun off into an independent operation, in the wake of Stax’s closure in 1975. Tate performed and contributed as a songwriter well into the 1980s.
Meanwhile, his predecessor in the Nightingales, Ollie Hoskins, released a string of singles for MGM-distributed Pride Records in 1972 and 1973. In the years after, he became a journeyman as a soloist, melding styles such as blues, Southern soul, and even disco for various labels to minor success, until he released his signature novelty record, I’ll Drink Your Bath Water, Baby in 1995.
By Jared Boyd
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