By Bob ‘The Record Guy’ Paxon
Here’s a mysterious local Soul record. The group is unknown, it’s true name debatable. But there’s nothing too mysterious about the writer/ arranger/ conductor credit – Benny Clark.
Benny was born in Buffalo in the mid-1940s. His biggest early gig was as writer/ arranger/ conductor for Lloyd Price’s band. He later did similar tasks for The Temptations, Eddie Floyd and Tommy Hunt and has worked with Wilson Pickett, Erma Franklin, The Coasters, Little Milton, The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Grover Washington Jr., among others.
His longest association was with Brunswick Records as a general go-to guy, including A&R director and producer for Jackie Wilson, The Chi-Lites and Tyrone Davis, even up to producing and playing keyboards for late-70s funk band Strutt. He stayed active in later years, even working with rapper Dr. Dre!
On his own, he’s led groups large and small – the Benny Clark Trio and the Benny Clark Soul Band – and has played Las Vegas, the Apollo Theatre and Carnegie Hall. Think about that for awhile.
Benny often moonlighted with some independent shots at the charts on the side. Benny was the founder and producer at De-Vel Records, which was “the only record company federally funded by the Government.” And no, I don’t know exactly what that means … but the labels do indicate that. De-Vel was a 1970s label distributed by CBS Records and some Buffalo artists recorded for it, one being Jackie Milton. Madeline & The Monticellos and Keni (aka Kenni) Lewis are De-Vel artists who I THINK may be from Buffalo, though I’m not sure. If anyone knows, please let me know.
He was also active in the Detroit scene in the 1960s, starting some indie labels and producing records in the Northern Soul genre, attempting to compete with Motown on their home turf. Which brings us to this similar Buffalo record.
The Harmon label seems to be a one-shot. Other releases bearing a Harmon imprint are apparently not related. The Debonairs’ name is questionable too. Billy Nunn remembers this release, but as by “The Feeling Within,” and names Tyrone Williams as the vocalist and guitarist. The only name on the label is Benny Clark’s. The odd thing is that in the space for group name, “Debonairs” seems to have been rubber-stamped in, on all copies.
There is a Debonaires (note the extra E) that’s not related — from Texas. But interestingly, there’s a Debonairs from Detroit on Solid Hit Records, which seems to be a Benny Clark-connected label. It’s also connected to Revilot, which has obvious Buffalo connections (Darrell Banks recorded for it).
Anyway…. THIS Debonairs is an interesting little record. The horns are a little too busy in my opinion – almost slightly chaotic – unless they were going for a loose Sly & The Family Stone feel. There’s a few other parts which suggest this wasn’t a completely finished product. Still, it has a breezy, crossover pop-soul appeal that could have hit in that time of the Friends Of Distinction/ Fifth Dimension.
It’s a nice fun record that- although mostly unknown even here on its home turf – is a document of a time and place, and a belief that the world of pop success was accessible to anyone if you found the right combination of sounds.