The Appreciations will be a very familiar name to rare soul collectors, with records such as “I Can’t Hide It” and “It's Better to Cry” known and loved on the northern soul scene for many years. Despite this, their history until now was virtually unknown, other than that they were a vocal group from North Carolina and had some kind of connection with Detroit. A year’s worth of searching to identify group members, their manager, events and photographs has finally sorted this.
Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, NC is a small independent university, originally founded by the Presbyterian Church to serve the local black community. In February 1965 students Charles “Fever” Harris (lead vocal, first and second tenor), Oscar Melton (lead vocal, baritone), James “Toon” Debeuneure (vocal, second tenor), Melvin Robinson (lead vocal / first tenor) and later Lewis Dowdy got together to form a vocal group to play on campus and in venues throughout the Charlotte area. Horace “Nick” Nichols (lead vocal) and James Ardrey (baritone) covered for Melvin and Oscar whilst they were in military service. Two other members, Lee Webber and Artie Brown, had brief spells with The Appreciations although they do not feature on any of the recordings. Four releases in all are associated with the group, with at least three of interest to the northern soul scene. Charles starts the story:
“While I was out of school one semester, my former room mate came home for a weekend. He was raving about a freshman from New York City who had taken the freshman talent show by storm. He said that he stole the talent show by singing “I Stand Accused” recorded by Jerry Butler and that he actually sounded better than Jerry. Of course I found this hard to believe and could hardly wait to get back to school the next semester to hear this guy. When I returned to JCSU the entire campus was buzzing about Melvin Robinson. I introduced myself to Melvin Robinson and Oscar Melton and asked if they would be interested in forming a group with me and my room mate Toon, to give competition to the popular on-campus group called The Hopes.
Prior to this, each of us had performed as a single vocalist. We got together a few days Melvin had the best lead voice and was chosen as the primary singer for the group. We decided to name the group The Inspirations. After practicing for about a week we were able to determine the vocal parts. The Inspirations appeared on a talent show at JCSU and stole the show from The Hopes. The next day everyone on campus was talking about the lead singing and the harmony that we had. Our first song performed as a group was “I Only Have Eyes” as recorded by The Flamingos. Within a couple of months our popularity began to spread beyond the campus into the city of Charlotte. We sang at a couple of clubs. All of our performances at that time were acapella.”
Charles remembers Toon contacting a number of local radio stations in the area. Popular DJ Hattie Leeper was impressed after hearing them audition and became their manager. Hattie had started radio work back in the 1940s at the WGIV station in Charlotte. She was initially taken on as a hired help when she was about 14 years old, but over a seven year period rose up through the ranks to DJ whilst pursuing higher academic education at the same time. She became widely known and respected as the first black female DJ in the Carolinas. By the late 1950s “Chatty Hattie” Leeper was a household name. In the following decade she extended her skills to song writing and promoting national R&B acts including a pre-Smash version of The Tempests (called The Tempest Band), and Mike Williams of “Lonely Soldier” fame. She even ran her own "Stack-O-Records" music store in North Charlotte on Pegram Street for a while before going back to school for her Masters degree.
From Hatty’s autobiography Chatty Hatty: the Legend it is clear she had strong relationships with a range of local and national artists but also DJs, studios, producers and label owners from the west coast, New York, Chicago and Detroit. Associates included Berry Gordy, Jerry Wexler, Florence Greenberg of Scepter and many others. This was partly through her role as secretary of the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers which allowed her to travel extensively throughout the US, and was useful in developing connections to get The Appreciations noticed by some major players in the business.Within a couple of weeks Hattie had arranged an audition for talent scout with Atlantic Records.
“We were advised to come up with some original songs to record” says Charles. “None of us had any experience in songwriting. A classmate called Rosemary Gaines approached us with a song she had written entitled “Afraid of Love”. She played and sang it for us. We liked the song. Hattie advised us that we would need another song for the “B” side. Within a few days Toon penned the song “Far From Your Love”. Chatty informed us that the talent scout would come back to hear the songs. During the audition, the scout suggested to hire someone who could sing a bass part, to give the background some bottom. We approached one of our friends, Lewis Dowdy, who sang bass in the JCSU choir about accompanying us on a recording session to sing bass. Two weeks later we were in the Atlantic Records studio in New York City recording both songs. The music arranger liked the job that Lewis did and advised us to consider adding him as a member of the group. We became a five-man group. Before the record was released we discovered that a gospel group had a patent on the name The Inspirations, so we changed our name to The Appreciations.”