By Bob ‘The Record Guy’ Paxon
What do Grover Washington, Jr. and Lonnie Smith have in common with local soul legend Barbara St. Clair? All hail from the Buffalo area… all are Buffalo Music Hall Of Fame inductees… and all sang together in an R&B vocal group in the late 1950s!
This is how a record mystery unfolded in the pre-internet days: rumors went around record collector circles. The first I heard about this was a conversation with an old-timer 20 years ago:
“You know, the Supremes were from Buffalo!”
“Really? How can that be? I thought Diana Ross was from Detroit and..”
“No, they were from Buffalo!”
It didn’t take long to verify that the famous Supremes were a pure Detroit product whose history was well-known (they were first called the Primettes). Nothing was revealed for a few years until someone told me there was a DIFFERENT group, from Buffalo, that recorded for Mark Records. Well, I know Mark Records (located in Clarence NY), I have lots of their releases … but they didn’t come into existence until the mid-1960s. And for years all that is revealed is the most minor of clues, one a year…
And then along comes the internet, knowledge moves forward at lightning speed, and eventually all is revealed.
There was a Buffalo R&B/doo-wop group called the Supremes, and they did record for an Upstate New York label called Mark Records, but the label was out of Utica – and otherwise specialized in country and rockabilly releases. How they ended up on that label is still a mystery. But the most surprising revelation was the members – Barbara St. Clair, Grover Washington Jr. and Lonnie Smith!
Not much is known about the group except that they were all teenagers at the time, they did perform locally, and they were probably under the wing of local DJ Lucky Pierre. Most surprising revelation (to me) was that future jazz superstars Grover and Lonnie were merely singers at this time. Grover started playing the sax, left Buffalo to play with the Four Clefs and recorded with the R&B jazz Mark III Trio, and ended up in New York City from where his real career began. “Dr.” Lonnie Smith convinced big-hearted local music store owner Art Kubera to let him take a Hammond B-3 organ out of the store with no obvious means of repayment (a story Lonnie tells often) and started practicing, getting his big break by hooking up with rising star George Benson. Lonnie’s recording career since has been extremely successful and his live performances continue to be a joy to behold – check out any of his YouTube videos, especially if you’re ever in need of a lift to your spirit.
Barbara St. Clair (aka Sinclair) had a lengthy and highly-respected local career, helming the Sessions, the Pin-Kooshins, the Houserockers, Blue Monday, and the Shadows. She never broke through to national success in the USA, but a couple of her 45s are coveted by overseas Soul collectors.
Both sides of the Supremes 45 are very good. As is typical for the genre, one side is a ballad and the flip an uptempo “jump” tune. It seems to have not been distributed in the Buffalo area; many local collectors have never even seen it. Some years ago I was able to send MP3 files of the sides to Lonnie and he apparently hadn’t heard them in 40 years; he may have never even had a copy of the record. So, the mystery is solved, yet mysteries still remain.