ON THE COMEBACK TRAILTHIRTY YEARS AGO, ROOSEVELT NETTLES COULD HAVE BEEN A MUSICAL CONTENDER
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.
Nearly all these groups were black and most of their members became professional musicians once they returned to civilian life. An entire generation of military-installation groups sprang up, led by the Marcels, the Crests, the Del-Vikings and the Enchanters.
Nettles came to Arizona when he was assigned to Williams Air Force Base in Chandler. Later he was transferred to Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix. Nettles liked the Valley and decided to stay when his hitch was up. Discharged in 1962, he began singing with local groups at a club called Stage Seven.
The club was owned by Jack Curtis, a newspaper reporter and music entrepreneur who would become instrumental in Nettles' career. Curtis became Nettles' manager and even wrote his first recorded song, "Yes, Your Honor."
"After that first record, I introduced Roosevelt to Lucky Lawrence, a deejay at KRUX," Curtis remembers. "He liked Roosevelt and said he had a tune he thought he should record called `Matilda.'"
The song had been written and recorded by swamp-pop pioneers Cookie and the Cupcakes, and became a jukebox hit in southern Louisiana. Nettles' version was recorded on Curtis' Mascot Records, then bought and rereleased by Chess Records in Chicago. The Chess version of "Matilda" became a regional hit for Nettles, and the label pushed for a follow-up.
Unfortunately, Chess didn't like the tune that Nettles settled ona Ben E. King/Drifters-influenced song Nettles had written himself, called "Driftin' Heart." When neither side would budge, Nettles left Chess and recorded one single, "Gotcha on My Mind," for the tiny Feldsted label.
During these years, Nettles says he opened for big-name acts like the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner. The biggest tour he opened for, and the one that influenced him most, was with Sam Cooke.
"You don't know how to explain Sam Cooke," Nettles says. "Sam Cooke was good, bad or an asshole-mostly an asshole. He was a good man, but he had an attitude. His closest friends, even his brother, couldn't get along with him."
In 1964 Nettles signed a contract with Capitol Records, then at its height. With a reputation as a label that cared about its artists and with a roster that included Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat "King" Cole and, eventually, the Beatles, Capitol was the place to be.
Nettles' only record for Capitol was "You've Lost a Fortune" backed with "Sorry for Me." Nettles' memories, however, include a closer brush with the big time. He says he recorded another tune for Capitol called "In My Room." The Beach Boys recorded a tune by the same name and Nettles says theirs killed his.
Nettles' former manager Jack Curtis, who wrote "In My Room," says the tune was just a demo, and that he still owns a copy of it.
"Roosevelt has always been in a little bit of a dream world," Curtis says. "It seems like I've spent a lot of time refuting what he says. He has a habit of remembering things as he would have liked them to be rather than how they really were."
After leaving music, Nettles began his new career as a chef at the Highway House at 32nd Street and Van Buren. Later he worked at the Bull Pen and Tommy's Copa West. Once, he even booked bands into the Purple Turtle, now the Rhythm Room, the place where he'll stage this week's comeback.
Looking younger than his 50 years, Nettles, who divorced his first wife in 1980, is now remarried and living in Phoenix. Looking back, he says the best thing that came out of quitting was that he avoided the sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll ravages that affected most of his contemporaries.
"When I look at my musician friends, I surprise myself. I look at Vince and, damn, Vince is getting old," Nettles says, referring to Vince Furnier, better known as Alice Cooper. "I remember Vince back when he and the Spiders backed me up. He was so quiet. He was a track runner, really good at it, too. But you could not get Vince to talk-I swear it, he wouldn't say a word. Things sure have changed.
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