When disc jockeys dropped the needle on L.J. Reynolds' first solo single, "Key to the World," back in 1981, they found that the former lead singer of the Dramatics — and previously, Chocolate Syrup — needed no introduction. It wasn't that people recognized his name; the problem was that, frequently, they didn't. Reynolds however, had engineered the audio with a bullet-proof solution that hinged only on whether the song became a hit. "Let's get together and give a big hand to the one and only ... L.J. Reynolds!" boomed a voice intoned with star-time gravity. The music track had barely started; Reynolds had not yet sung a note. But there could be no question in the listener's mind. L.J. Reynolds had finally arrived.
"'Key To the World,' turned out to be my biggest single," the energetic Reynolds says, leaning forward in what he refers to as his "Archie Bunker" chair in the living room of his well-kept northwest Detroit home. "That's how my name was established."
It may seem strange that the lead singer of one of the most popular R&B groups of the '70s — indeed, of all time — would need any introduction at all. But the faceless aspect of the group aesthetic, so in vogue during the Dramatics' heyday, shrouded many of R&B's most legendary, influential and enduring voices in shadow. Think about it: Nobody but the most musically obsessed listeners link individual singers to the hits of the Chi-Lites, the Stylistics, the Dells or the Manhattans. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes are a rare exception, but it's Teddy Pendergrass — not Harold Melvin — who became most synonymous with that group's hits, and he had to leave the Blue Notes to do it.
"I was supposed to start my solo career in 1973 but I just got sidetracked by a great group," explains Reynolds of his time with the Dramatics. "At the time, the group was known sometimes as Ron Banks and the Dramatics, and that was because [William] Wee Gee [Howard], the original lead singer who sang on 'Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get' and 'In the Rain,' went out and started another Dramatics. They came and got me, and nobody knew who I was. But they were familiar with Ron Banks so we became Ron Banks and the Dramatics."
Reynolds hadn't planned on being in any more groups when he joined the Dramatics in 1973. In fact, he was strictly against it. Only 21 years of age, he was already a show business veteran, with years of recording securely under his belt. Born in Saginaw in 1952, Reynolds waxed his first trio of singles in his early teens for the local Tri-City label. His songs "Take Away the Big Hurt," "Sweet Tooth" and "Please Don't Leave Me" — cut under the varying monikers of Larry Reynolds and Chubby Reynolds — displayed a blistering, first-class vocal attack that easily betrayed his tender years, setting the stage for "Call on Me" and "Intruder," released on Mainstream Records in 1969. With no hits forthcoming, he waxed "We're in the Middle" and "Stop, Look Over Your Past" under the name L.J. Reynolds and the Relations in 1970. The Relations, he once memorably explained, were just that: "two brother-in-laws, my cousin and my brother."
Reynolds' longtime manager, Janie Mack, insisted that he break away from the family group — any group. He was talented enough, she insisted, to stand on his own. At 17, he went to New York and scored his first hit. "I had gotten away from my brother and them," Reynolds says of the Relations, "but it seemed like everybody wanted to put me with a group. When I got to New York, I signed a solo deal with [musical impresarios] Bobby Martin and Clarence Lawton. Next thing I know I'm singing on top of a record and then they bring in some people to background and tell me that they're gonna be on the record."
Those "people" were Chocolate Syrup, a group also under contract to Martin and Lawton. The song was "Let One Hurt Do." And unbeknownst to anyone involved, Reynolds included, he was their new lead singer.
"Chocolate Syrup had done a record called 'Baby Stop Cryin,' where they were singing up high. When I came in with 'Let One Hurt Do,' that was the biggest record that Chocolate Syrup ever had; we sold 350,000 singles — only in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.! Nobody else in the whole world ever heard the record!"
Nevertheless, when the Law-Ton label credited the disc to L.J. Reynolds and Chocolate Syrup, the other group members were less than pleased. "Chocolate Syrup really got mad at me in a sense, 'cause those guys were older than me. When they saw L.J. Reynolds [on the label] everything went sour." After one more hit with Chocolate Syrup — a brilliant version of Timi Yuro's "What's a Matter Baby (Is It Hurting You)" — Reynolds decided, once again, to make the transition into a solo act.
"After I fell out with Chocolate Syrup, I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do," Reynolds recalls. "I spent a lot of time at the Apollo Theater, because I had friends that worked backstage there. So I went over there and the Dramatics were there. And I liked the Dramatics: I liked the way their music sounded, I liked Ron Banks, I liked Wee Gee — and so I wanted to meet 'em. I went backstage, and when I saw their show, Wee Gee wasn't there; they had four people. So I met Ron, and Willie Ford, the bass singer, and Ron said, 'So what do you do?' 'I sing and write.' He said, 'Well, sing something.'" With that, Reynolds broke into a raucous rendition of the Dramatics' recent hit "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get." Impressed, Banks filed the impromptu performance away for future reference.
Reynolds soon signed a solo contract with Detroit guitarist-turned-producer Don Davis, who also happened to have the Dramatics under contract. With Wee Gee still missing in action, Davis and Banks began discussing options.
"Don said to Ron, 'Who do you think we can get to replace Wee Gee?' And he says, 'This guy E.J. ... O.J. ... R.J. ...' and Don says, 'L.J.?' Ron says, 'L.J. ... L.J., hell, yeah, L.J. Reynolds in New York.' Don says, 'I got him signed here.' So they asked me to come in and sing — temporarily — with the Dramatics. They had a lot of bookings but they was feudin' so they couldn't sing together. [They wanted me] to go on the road until Wee Gee and them got the stuff back together. I said, 'OK, I'll do that, but I'm getting ready to do my own record.' Well, they kept feudin'. Next thing I know: 'Do this TV show and try to look away from the camera if you can.' How you gonna look away from the camera? That camera is on you! So I said, 'OK, alright, we're makin' this money.' Next thing I know: 'Cut this record, "The Devil is Dope." And try to sound like Wee Gee 'cause I think we're gonna get back together 'cause I know you're doing your solo album.' Then it was, 'Do this other TV show.' Pretty soon, 'Do the next album, do the next album. ...' And I'm thinkin', 'What done happened here?'"
Seven years, eleven albums and many, many legendary Soul Train appearances later, what happened was that Reynolds became the voice of the Dramatics. It hadn't been easy, for a variety of reasons. "When you listen to some of those early records — 'Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hand),' 'You Could Become the Very Heart of Me' — I'm trying to sound like Wee Gee," Reynolds says. "But gradually, the public began to know me as the Dramatics. My first record with the Dramatics was 'Fell For You' which became one of the top 10 singles for us. So that record took me all through the years with songs like 'And I Panicked,' 'Be My Girl,' 'I Can't Get Over You,' '(I'm Going By) The Stars in Your Eyes,' 'Stop Your Weeping,' 'That's My Favorite Song,' 'I Cried All the Way Home.' We did a lot of records. We did so many records. We did endless records."
The temporary name change to Ron Banks and the Dramatics (for '74's Dramatically Yours and '75's The Dramatic Jackpot) was another stumbling block. "When it changed to Ron and the Boys, I said, 'Uh-uh, this isn't gonna work.' I had to agree to it because the other group [was calling themselves the Dramatics]. They said, 'Do you mind doing this?' Inside of me I said, 'This is not gonna work but at least I could help 'em do what they need to do. And maybe I can help myself.' And I did. I sang over 30 songs — the lead all the way through — with the Dramatics."
Reynolds may have been the lead singer, but his abilities as songwriter and producer — which contributed mightily to the Dramatics' success — went relatively uncredited. "People would say, 'Hey, Ron!' Then when I'd say, 'My name isn't Ron,' they'd say, 'Well, where's Ron at?' They wanted to talk business with him. Me being a business person and a producer, I knew then that I had to go and make a name for myself. So I decided to step away and do my thing. Capitol Records had known about my ability to write good songs and make good records — 'cause I had produced records for the Dramatics like 'Me and Mrs. Jones.' So they told me to go ahead with my first solo album."
Called L.J. Reynolds, that album — and its aforementioned hit single "Key to the World" — did a lot to clear up any confusion about Reynolds and his multiple talents. Between 1981 and the present, Reynolds has waxed nine solo albums, as well as regrouping with the Dramatics in 1986 for A Dramatic Reunion. He's been with them ever since, but the beauty of having established a successful solo career is that he can finally enjoy the best of two of his favorite worlds.
He's recently added a third to that list, underscored by his latest album, The Message. Like an earlier solo effort, Through the Storm, The Message is a gospel album. The best kind of gospel album, says Reynolds, because it was one that he was called to do. The Dramatics were filming a DVD, The Biggest Hits Live, and simultaneously working on their upcoming album Bad Girl, when Reynolds got the call from above.
"We had completed about half of the album — and spent about 30-some thousand dollars," he says, "but I got a message from God. I did. And I was told to work on a song called '(I Believe) You Can Make It.'"
Reynolds called his longtime business manager, Brian A. Spears. "I said, 'Brian, we need to do a gospel record.' We'd never done a gospel record together, although he's got a gospel record label, Crystal Rose. And this is my business manager of 30 years! We released '(I Believe) You Can Make It' and it took off. This was my first gospel single and it's on Clear Channel, Satellite Radio; this record is happening. Now, in the gospel world it's kind of difficult to be accepted, but I've been doing gospel music for years. See, God will change the messenger but he will never change the message. And God chose me to advance the kingdom for this season. And so I wrote songs for this album, some of them not out of a biblical sense but out of the way I worship and the way I feel — the changes in my life. I've got some testimonials on this album."
In late November, Reynolds will perform his first major gospel show in Cleveland. "People know me as this R&B artist that sings on all of these R&B hit records but I won't be singing 'Key to the World' or 'Be My Girl' or none of that, I'll be giving praises to God."
Still, it's hard to imagine those who know and love Reynolds for his unbridled approach to R&B being disappointed. The Message reverberates with all the horn-heavy funk and soulful intimacy that one might expect from, well, a modern L.J. Reynolds album. Then, in classic Reynolds style, it makes a gorgeous right turn with the country-inflected "We Need a Word From the Lord" and the quietly sanctified "Jesus Cares."
And while Reynolds hopes that The Message gives him the opportunity to do more full-on gospel shows, he's also looking forward to the L.J. Sings It All Tour, which commences this weekend with a two-night stand at Bert's Warehouse. The two nights are out of necessity — the last time he played there, many more fans showed up than could comfortably fit into the room. Not surprisingly, Reynolds notes, the crowd was 80 percent female, "Because of the kind of songs I sing."
Those songs, whether they're Dramatics numbers, L.J. solo tracks, gospel songs or the occasional tribute to heroes like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and James Brown, are particularly effective in one show, he adds.
"That's why I decided to do the L.J. Sings It All Tour. My gospel is hitting for me now, I'm gonna sing a lot of hit records that I did with the Dramatics — 'I Can't Get Over You,' 'Be My Girl,' '(I'm Going By) The Stars In Your Eyes,' 'Stop Your Weeping,' 'Door to Your Heart.' And then I'm gonna turn around and sing some of the L.J. songs that people really want to hear: 'Key to the World,' 'Call Me,' 'Touchdown,' 'Tell Me You Will.' It's the best of both worlds."
Reynolds admits that there are those fans who occasionally wonder how he can dwell in several worlds simultaneously, and whether one will eventually give way.
"People say, 'L.J., are you leavin' the Dramatics?' No! I've got a lot invested in the Dramatics. I would never leave the Dramatics. But right now I'm kind of going in this direction because a lot of people want to see this show. I'm 57. I've got another 20 years of history to make, and I'm fixin' to make some of it with L.J. Reynolds. This dream that I've been trying to live and I've been dreaming for 20 years — it's time for me to live my dream. And that's what I'm doing right now."
Michael Hurtt is a freelance writer, historian and musician who lives in Detroit. Special thanks to Adam Stanfel for invaluable assistance with this article. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The L.J. Sings It All Tour commences on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21, at Bert's Warehouse Theatre, 2739 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2030; doors at 8 p.m.; tickets are $35 and $50, available at Bert's Marketplace, the Mini Mart and Street Corner Music. For more info, go to bertsentertainment.com.