Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Atlantic Starr was one of the most successful outfits in R&B and among the standard bearers for urban balladry. Little is known, however, of the group’s heady jazz and groove roots.
Imagine the brassy ensemble funk of early Kool & The Gang or Earth, Wind & Fire on spirit-centric labels like Black Jazz or Strata-East, with vocals reflecting the freedom of mind and spirit in both lyric and timbre. This is the land from which platinum-selling Atlantic Starr came.
This is Newban.
Founders Albert “Duke” Jones Jr. and Porter Carroll Jr. were students at Woodlands High School in Greenburgh, New York, when they recruited a horde of classmates in forming Newban–named such because they were, after all, a “new band.” Original members, according to trumpeter Jones, were Clifford Archer, Sharon Bryant, Keith Johnson, Jonathan Lewis, Mark Malsky, Mark Slifstein and Sheldon Tucker.
Songwriting was a “group thing” Jones says, as everyone contributed in crafting Newban’s all-original material. The band matured and gigged hard throughout the New York-Connecticut-New Jersey tri-state area at venues like the Fillmore East, Electric Circus and Westchester County clubs Fields bar and the Orchid Lounge. Its funk and R&B core was influenced by genre-melding stars and lesser-knowns such as Sly and the Family Stone, the Chambers Brothers, Ballin’ Jack, Santana and the Flock.
“It wasn’t like we were nobody,” Jones says. “We had it going on.”
John Shearer, a friend of Jones and photographer for Life magazine, was a neighbor of legendary audio engineer Malcolm Addey and arranged for Newban to record with Addey at the famed Bell Sound Recording Studios. The group spent two months under Addey’s masterful eye and ear at Bell Sound in creating Newban and Newban 2.
With music in hand, Newban was invited to California to perform at an Atlantic Records 20th Anniversary party for the Spinners at the Beverly Hills Hotel, after which the group remained in Los Angeles and worked the club circuit. Co-founder and drummer Carroll and the majority of the members landed a deal with A&M Records and became Atlantic Starr. Management concerns brought Jones back to NYC.
“It was really, like, politics,” he recalls. “It was bullshit.”
Addey shopped the music himself and Newban and Newban 2 were released on Guinness Records in 1977. Guinness, however, was one of many labels during the late ‘70s that juked numbers and intentionally undersold and under-promoted albums for tax write-offs to keep parent imprints in the black. Both Newban releases were making noise in the clubs and among those in the know, but never got the push, according to Jones.
The masters, however, remained safe and secure in the closet of Addey’s home on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. “I just called him up and said, ‘Listen, we got some things we can do after all these years,’” Jones says. Addey was with it, and returned the tapes for a nominal charge – in pristine, digitally re-mastered condition.
“The quality is immaculate,” Jones says. “At Bell Sound, microphones are, like, $100,000 a piece!”
After parting ways upon the signing of Atlantic Starr, Jones continued to record with the group and became a valued session and touring trumpeter for Norman Connors, Pharoah Saunders, Kid Creole & The Coconuts and others. Neither he nor Addey stopped believing in Newban, which is why he feels this BBE release could be the re-emergence of something lost some 35 years ago. He also remains close to his Atlantic Starr family.
“It might really make some noise with someone behind it,” Jones says about the “new” Newban compilation. “We could get together tomorrow.”
—Ronnie Reese, Summer 2012