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Hip-Hop/R&B

Fabulously funky

Hip-hoppers sample them, Europe loves them, but Detroit's Fabulous Counts never got their due

The Funky Six: The Counts' original "Jan Jan" lineup.
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Published 4/1/2009

The Counts (aka the Fabulous Counts) are back! And some of you may be wondering just why that's so important. The Detroit group racked up a pair of 1969-'70 R&B hits with the wig-poppin' funk instrumental "Jan Jan" (later covered by jazz guitarist Grant Green) and the almost-indescribably groovalicious single "Get Down People" with the appropriately titled "Lunar Funk" on the flip side. They also recorded four albums for Cotillion, Westbound and Aware before splitting up in 1976, but they have just released a limited-edition vinyl album, Coming from the Real Side.

This new disc — originally recorded in 1975 by founding members organist Mose Davis, guitarist Leroy Emanuel, and alto saxophonist-vocalist Demo (pronounced Dee-mo) Cates with then-drummer Jimmy "Junebug" Johnson — was supposed to be the band's "latest" album. And it is — just 34 years later.

Furthermore, these four original members — augmented by tenor saxophonist Jimmy Brown — will be taking their patented brand of jazz-inflected funk to the stage when they kick-off a much-anticipated, two-month European tour in June.

But the story of the Counts — first manager Fred McClure added the "Fabulous," which the band thought sounded "too much like bragging" and dropped after their debut album — starts in 1964.

Davis (whose original ambition was "to be Al Kaline" before his mother pushed him in a musical direction; besides, "girls love musicians") had been studying piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and attending Cass Technical High School when he heard the great Jimmy Smith playing "screaming organ and walkin' that bass" — and promptly switched instruments. (One thing that gives the Counts their signature sound is they're a funk band that never had a bass player — Mose covers all the bass lines with his foot pedals.)

Jam sessions with Davis and his neighbors Raoul Keith Mangrum on congas and Jim White on tenor sax attracted drummer Andrew Gibson (from Central High), the aforementioned Cates (from Pershing High), and now-late tenor saxist Shelton Hill (who left before the band started recording).

By 1965, these teenage jazzheads — whose influences ranged from Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderly (for Cates) to Mongo Santamaria (Mangrum), Gene Ammons (White) and Art Blakey (Gibson) — were playing cabarets, proms and BYOB affairs at local union halls, 876 on West Grand Boulevard and 212 on the east side, in particular.

They first met Leroy Emanuel — a Highland Park High grad who'd already played guitar on Timmy Shaw's 1964 smash, "Gonna Send You Back to Georgia" — at the Wurlitzer Music Store in downtown Detroit in 1967. Davis' dad and Cates' mom were co-signing for their sons' respective instruments; Emanuel and his mom (who, like his father, was a violinist) were buying a guitar to replace one that'd been stolen. That's when they heard the Fabulous Counts playing in a back room. Noticing they were all about the same age, Emanuel's mom suggested he sit in with them. And with Emanuel — whose playing reflected everyone from Wes Montgomery to the Ventures to B.B. King, Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy — on board, the lineup was complete.

Being a mostly instrumental outfit, the Fabulous Counts often backed up various local singers, most notably Spyder Turner. And it was the Counts — with the addition of Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt — who recorded the demo that wound up becoming Turner's jaw-dropping 1968 hit version of "Stand by Me." (For those unfamiliar, Turner impersonates Jackie Wilson, David Ruffin, Billy Stewart, Smokey Robinson and Chuck Jackson in less than three minutes.)

The band then hooked up with singer-songwriter-producer Richard "Popcorn" Wylie, who was working for then-WHRV (now WAAM) Ann Arbor DJ Ollie McLaughlin, whose family of labels (all named after his daughters) spawned such hits as the Capitols' "Cool Jerk," Deon Jackson's "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" and Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger."

With Wylie producing, the Fabulous Counts cut "Jan Jan" live to four-track — no overdubs — in one take. While the tune's title refers to Davis's longtime, now ex-wife, Janice, the quirky, industrial-strength hook came from straight outta the Motor City itself.

"I was working at Chrysler in Highland Park," Davis remembers, "eating a sandwich on my lunch break, when I heard the squeak of this sheet metal press behind me. It went err-rrk, err-rrk, err-rrk ... BAM! That was the inspiration for the opening riff of 'Jan Jan.'"

Issued on the Moira label, the song struck a chord with locals, selling thousands of copies in Detroit alone, and prompted McLaughlin's distributor, Atlantic Records, to rush-release an album on its Cotillion imprint.

Recorded in a week, the Jan Jan LP contains both sides of the hit single (although the kickin' Afrolistic lyrics of "Girl From Kenya" — co-written by Wylie and Tony Hester — were wiped in favor of a purely instrumental version), its follow-up single (the Emanuel-penned "Dirty Red" backed with the Davis composition "Scrambled Eggs"), two more Davis originals, and instrumental takes on such then-contemporary chartbusters as James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World," Sly & the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song," the Young-Holt Unlimited's "Soulful Strut," Johnnie Taylor's "Who's Making Love," and the Beatles' "Hey Jude."

This all sounds better than it might read — because, as Davis explains, "We were jazz players who got into funk like James Brown, Sly, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, so the voicing of the horns, the organ playing bass, and the hand percussion made it different." The album was reissued for the second time just last year.

"The Grant Green cover was such an honor," Davis continues, "but — unlike the 45 — BMI credits the songwriting to McLaughlin & Wylie, so I've never received a penny."

After their second hit single — "Get Down People," sung by Cates, who co-wrote it with Davis and Emanuel — the band reverted to its original Counts moniker and self-produced a still-smokin' 1972 album, It's What's Up Front That Counts, for Detroit-based Westbound. (While Jim White is pictured on the cover, he actually left the Counts before the LP was recorded to become a teacher.)

Davis wrote five of the six songs — Emanuel wrote the other — and the album hit the R&B and Pop charts, propelled by the band's seven minutes-plus workout on the title track, which since has been sampled by Queen Latifah and Eric B & Rakim. ("Oh, I am getting paid for those," Davis says.)

The Counts also played outside of Michigan for the first time when they embarked on a West Coast tour with labelmates Funkadelic.

"We were so tight — we blew them off the stage — they called a rehearsal the next day," Emanuel laughs, noting that Kool & the Gang and the Ohio Players met similar onstage fates.

Talent is one thing, of course, but getting paid is another. So the Counts recorded three singles under a pair of pseudonyms for producer Martin McNichols. Calling themselves Lunar Funk (a sly reference to the Counts tune of that title), Davis, Emanuel and Gibson cut the dance-themed "Mr. Penguin" (which got a lot of airplay on CKLW at the time and even led one kid growing up in Bad Axe to think it was Dr. John the first time he heard it) and the deep space-funk of "Slip the Drummer One" for the Bell label. Then, working under the name Bad Smoke, they burned another dance-sploitation number ("Crawl Y'all") for Chess. (Incidentally, the songwriting credits for all these tunes are cloaked in a combination of the three Counts' relatives or wives' maiden names.)

Meanwhile, the Counts cut two albums (1973's Love Signs and 1975's Funk Pump) for Aware, which — like sister labels GRC (home of Sammy John's "Chevy Van") and Hotlanta — was one of Atlanta porn-kingpin Mike Thevis' legitimate business ventures.

Although both discs made the Billboard R&B charts — and several of their tracks would later be sampled by rappers, most famously "What's My Name" by Snoop Dogg — the band weathered several personnel changes: Mangrum became a marine biologist, Gibson embarked on a 20-year Army career, and Cates — drawn by love — relocated to Toronto (which he claims is more "jazz-snobbish" than D-town ever was, citing the Grande Ballroom as a white club in the middle of the ghetto as a classic example of Detroit's melting-pot style of the era).

When aforementioned porn guy Thevis was convicted of arson in 1976, his record labels imploded — and so did the Counts. (Thevis, by the way, would later escape from prison, shotgun the folks who fingered him, and is currently doing time for a murder conviction.)

"Aware didn't understand us," Davis says of the label. "We could've been the new Jazz Crusaders. [Legendary songwriters-producers-Philadelphia International label owners] Gamble & Huff wanted to sign us. But we never had good management."

After the Counts called it quits, Davis and, especially, Emanuel did sessions for and toured behind everyone — including Detroit's own Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Gladys Knight, Freda Payne, Anita Baker, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Originals, Jimmy and David Ruffin and Ray Parker, as well as Larry Graham, Marlena Shaw and Candi Staton.

Davis cut a 1979 solo album (The Coming of Moses) for the indie Pure Silk label, before reuniting with Emanuel for several years' worth of successful records and tours with (ex-Stevie Wonder drummer) Hamilton Bohannon's band, notably "Let's Start the Dance."

These days, Davis lives in Atlanta, where his piano trio performs weekly gigs at either the downtown Westin or International hotels. He also plays organ at his local church and his second solo album (Sunshine) was issued on Mo Fo Music last year.

Emanuel — who's been living in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for the past 25 years — fronts the LMT Connection, a funk-rock power trio that's recorded four albums and tours Europe on a regular basis. He also played Marvin Gaye in a 2007 episode of The Final 24, a Canadian-produced TV series that airs on the Biography Channel.

"I answered an ad in the Toronto Star," says Emanuel, "and told the producers I'd met Marvin when I was 13, I played on his records and there's no one in Canada that knows him better than I do. So they gave me the job, and I helped 'em with some of the dialogue — a 'Marvin wouldn't say it like that, he'd say it like this' kinda thing."

Cates has been a resident of Toronto — where the Counts recorded their Westbound label LP — for 30 years, playing clubs, concerts and festivals in addition top making several solo albums of what he calls "sultry soul — smooth jazz with an R&B flavor." He also recorded several instrumental albums of covers (such as the Chariots of Fire theme) for the Caribbean market.

Drawing upon his experience as the Counts' primary (but rare) vocalist, Cates landed a gig as the singing voice in a Canadian commercial for Lowenbrau beer, which enabled him to become a member of ACTRA. He got a theatrical agent, did more commercials, and performed in the Broadway production of The Lion King and a New York City production of The Buddy Holly Story.

When a co-starring role in an Andy Garcia film fell through — the movie was never made — Cates resumed his musical career. "You really can't do both," Cates says. "And acting pays so much better — if you have work — but my wife and I had two pre-school children and I've always been able to earn a living playing music."

According to Emanuel, the Counts' decision to reunite, release a new record and tour Europe was inspired by the following scenario, which played out nightly.

"The LMT Connection was performing at a festival in the Netherlands," recalls Emanuel. "And this girl who played guitar in this young soul-funk band on the bill with us came up to me and said, 'You know, you sound a lot like Grant Green.'

"So I told her, 'Well, Grant Green covered one of my songs.'

"And she said, 'Oh my God! You're Leroy Emanuel from the Fabulous Counts!' And she called all the guys in her band over and they had me sign all these autographs. Same thing happened to Mose, when he was over there playing behind Candi Staton. Everywhere we went, people were coming up with our old albums — on vinyl — asking us to sign them. We couldn't believe we had this incredible cult following."

And why not? The (Fabulous) Counts are the best funk band you've probably never heard of — or even heard. And if you have, you've probably already burning a candle in hope of future stateside dates.

More about the Fabulous Counts:

thefabulouscounts.com, myspace.com/thefabulouscounts, miracledreadproductions.com, mosedavis.net, lmtconnection.com, leroyemmanuel.com, democates.com.

Don Waller is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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