By Jeff Moses
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By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
In the mid-Sixties, Roosevelt Nettles had a future in music. A doo-wop/R&B singer in Phoenix, he was a regular on the local club scene. His first record, "Matilda," was a regional hit. He was touring with national acts like Sam Cooke. To top it off, he inked a deal with Capitol Records, the premier label of the day.
And then he walked away.
"I did a crazy thing-I quit," Nettles says today. "Nobody knew why. I didn't know why. I just didn't need the hassle anymore."
The part of the story Nettles is tactfully omitting is that he came face to face with the musician's dilemma-the choice between staying on the road or having a normal family life.
While Nettles toured, his wife and daughter were left alone in the Valley. His wife began to crack. She wanted him to give up the road and stay home. So one day in 1966, Nettles stopped calling his band members. No one knew where he was.
After a week or so, he came up for air and informed his band and Capitol that he was done. Falling back on skills he learned in the Air Force, he became a chef. For the past ten years, he's been chef and kitchen manager at Max's, the dinner theatre-sports bar-Valley landmark in Glendale.
"When I got out, I was between my wife going crazy and staying with the music," he says. "Man, I had trouble everywhere. I really didn't have time to think about whether it was right or not. Whether I'd regret it."
The refreshing thing about Nettles is that if he's bitter, he doesn't let it show. Unlike most musicians who make a career change, he's not blaming anyone and he's not crippled by regret.
Nettles is sitting in the Rhythm Room, the place where he will take the stage for the first time since a one-night show in 1970 at Soul City, now Bourbon Street East. The club's employees scrub the place down as he talks, and the smell of disinfectant mixes with the saloon's morning-after aroma. It's the kind of environment Nettles left a long time ago. Now, though, he's visibly excited to be getting back. But he says he's keeping his expectations low.
"I'm not thinking too far ahead," he says, waving off the suggestion of a comeback. "Right now, I think it would be fun just to bullshit around with it. You know, just jam with a band."
Nettles is clearly enjoying his newfound identity as an "undiscovered treasure." He's amused by how soon people forget.
Twenty-five years ago, Valley music fans knew his name and his music. He was a player in what's now considered the golden age in the Valley's musical history-a time when Duane Eddy, Dyke and the Blazers and, later, Alice Cooper all launched national careers from clubs here.
Arlester "Dyke" Christian and the Blazers hold a cherished place in musical history as the band that wrote and first recorded "Funky Broadway," a tune that later became a smash for Wilson Pickett. Nettles, whose memory is sometimes more creative than accurate, says he heard "Broadway" before it was released.
"Dyke called and asked me to listen to this new tune he had. Well, I went down to this apartment complex he was managing at the time, down on 19th Street and Broadway," he says. "The problem was he didn't have a label. There it was sitting on his stereo but he had nowhere to go with it. The record business is the same today. If you don't know who to see, you may as well forget it."
Christian succeeded in finding a label for "Funky Broadway." As soon as the song hit, he promptly left the Valley. Before he left, though, Nettles says, Christian promised to sing on a Christmas album Nettles wanted to record. True or not, it was a promise Christian never kept.
Unlike some other Valley music personalities of the time, Nettles came from a musical background. Born on Hercules Street in New Orleans, Nettles began singing professionally in Mobile, Alabama, as a teen. Today he lists his major influences in those years as Fats Domino, Johnny Ace and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
Nettles says his first group was a doo-wop foursome called the Flames. According to Nettles, one member of that band, a singer called Cue-Ball, went on to become a member of James Brown's more famous Flames.
After he joined the Air Force in 1958, Nettles formed the Enchanters, another doo-wop group. At that time, the Armed Forces allowed, even encouraged, popular-music acts to form within its ranks. Instead of being trained as mechanics or gunnery sergeants, musicians were put into a class with the ominous title "Special Services." Along with playing music, musicians were expected to learn food service and every kind of entertainment activity from operating bowling alleys to refereeing basketball games.
Musicians got involved because it afforded them an extraordinary degree of freedom, including booking paying gigs off-base. The Armed Forces in turn got lots of cheap, high-quality entertainment which they put on tour to bases around the world.