The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
One of the most enduring vocal groups in soul music, the Dramatics rose to fame in the 1970s, scoring dozens of hits with their delectable mix of tightly knit harmonies, smooth grooves, and heartfelt balladry. Now, 50 years and 20 albums later, the prolific quintet remains an active force in the music industry.
Inspired by vocal acts like the Temptations, the Miracles, and the Four Tops, singer Ron Banks was just 13 years old when he first assembled the Dramatics in the early ’60s. Within a few years, the Detroit group (also featuring Larry Demps, Elbert Wilkins, Roderick Davis, and Larry Reed) had released a handful of singles—including a Top 50 R&B hit—and were building a steady regional following.
Yet the group faced tragedy in their earliest days together, amid the 1967 Detroit riot—one of the deadliest moments of the Civil Rights Movement. On the evening of July 25, following a performance at the city’s Fox Theatre, several members of the Dramatics (18-year-old Reed, 21-year-old Davis, and the band’s 18-year-old valet, Fred Temple) sought refuge from the riots at Detroit’s Algiers Motel. That night, police officers stormed the motel, attacking—and killing—many of the Black occupants, including Temple. Reed and Davis both survived the horrific assault but chose to leave the group soon after.
The remaining members of the Dramatics prevailed, however, eventually replacing Reed and Davis with William Howard and Willie Ford. Not long after, they connected with local producer Don Davis, who was working with Stax Records. Little did they know, Davis would be a vital part of their team, helping them score hit after hit throughout the ’70s.
While the group had released one single with Stax in 1968, they were dropped just as quickly when the song failed to chart. But in 1971, Davis brought the Dramatics back into the Memphis label’s fold with a soulful new recording, “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.” This time, the Tony Hester-penned song was an instant hit, landing in the Billboard Hot 100’s Top Ten and earning the act their first gold record.
The singers continued their momentum, reaching the Billboard 200 Top 20 and the R&B Top 5 with their debut album, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get. In 1972, meanwhile, they released the biggest hit of their career, “In the Rain.” Selling over a million copies, the song topped the R&B chart and hit the Hot 100’s Top 5.
Despite their professional success, the five-piece was about to undergo another personnel change, with Howard and Wilkins leaving the group and Larry “L.J.” Reynolds (formerly of Chocolate Syrup) and Lenny Mayes stepping in. With their new lineup in place, the Dramatics recorded their sophomore album, 1973’s A Dramatic Experience, which featured hits like “Hey You! Get Off My Mountain” and “Fell for You.” 1974’s Dramatically Yours marked the group’s final release with Stax before the label closed its doors.
But the Dramatics were just getting started. Under labels like MCA and ABC, they would go on to record nearly an album a year, including such best-selling titles as The Dramatic Jackpot (1975), Joy Ride (1976), and the gold-certified Do What You Wanna Do (1978). The group also released a string of Top Ten R&B hits, including a cover of “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “You’re Fooling You” (both 1975), “Be My Girl” (1976), and “Shake It Well,” (1977), among others.
In the early ’80s, following additional lineup and label changes, the group disbanded, and Reynolds and Banks pursued solo careers. They couldn’t stay apart for long, however. A 1985 reunion record—Somewhere in Time (A Dramatic Reunion)—was intended to be a one-off project, but it was so well-received that the Dramatics got back together. They would release six more albums through 2002 and collaborate with a host of younger artists, including Snoop Dogg, Keith Sweat, Coolio, Ice Cube, and Ghostface Killah.
Sadly, in 2010, nearly half a century after founding the group, Banks passed away suddenly at the age of 58. But his legacy lives on. In 2013, the group was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, while today, with L.J. Reynolds at the helm, the Dramatics continue to stay active on the road and in the studio.
- The Dramatics collaborated with Snoop Dogg several times over the years, including on 1994’s “Doggy Dogg World,” off the rap star’s debut album In addition to singing on the hit single, the band also made a cameo in the video. Eight years later, they appeared on Snoop’s song “Ballin’” (off 2002’sPaid tha Cost to Be da Boss).
- The Dramatics were first introduced to fans as “the Dynamics,” due to a printing mistake on their debut 45s. Their earliest singles, 1965’s “Bingo”/“Somewhere,” and “Inky Dinky Wang Dang Doo”/“Baby I Need You” (Wingate Records) were both originally pressed with the incorrect band name. For better or worse, both singles failed to chart, and the group was able to forge ahead as the Dramatics. Later pressings of the singles, meanwhile, featured the correct name.
Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get
In The Rain
“A Dramatic Experience: The Dramatics’ Deeply Thrilling Stax Classic” | uDiscovermusic, 2021
“Why I Wrote Detroit” | Screenwriter Marc Boal discusses his film Detroit, and how it was inspired in part by the Dramatics’ experience during the Algiers Motel Incident | Vulture, 2017
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