The Esquires, to be added to WAMI Hall of fame, put Milwaukee soul on the map
Freddie Cash, of the successful Chicago vocal group The Impressions said, "That's a hit!"
He was looking at a pencil-written draft of the song "Get On Up" with Gilbert Moorer Jr. at Devine's Million Dollar Club, later The Rave, in the Eagles Club in Milwaukee. It was 1966 and they were standing backstage for a performance of a touring act. The club brought national names with hit records.
Shows at Devine's were technically integrated, but typically would host black bands for a black audience. Two miles from the venue, in a district previously known as Bronzeville, but now more commonly known as the Inner Core, or Inner City, Gilbert Jr. (sometimes with his wife Nancy) had penned dozens of songs in his living room.
The Esquires had formed in 1957 with Betty Moorer (pictured below) and brothers Gilbert Moorer Jr. and Alvis Moorer. The original guitarist, Rudy Jacobs, recalls their local popularity at shows and also recording original tunes at Cuca Records in Sun Prairie. In these early years, members interchanged quite often. Harvey Scales was a member of the band for a short period of time and in 1961 Sam Pace joined the singers.
Songwriting as a profession brings with it a good sense of honesty. This includes both the quality and originality of the song penned, or often exposes the lack thereof. Gilbert had written many songs and knew he was sitting on one that possessed all the redeeming qualities. After the concert at Devine's, Freddie continued "You need to come down to Chicago and have Curtis (Mayfield) listen to this."
The Esquires band, then consisting of Gilbert Moorer Jr., Alvis Moorer, and Sam Pace booked David Kennedy's Milwaukee recording studio at 3rd and Hadley to produce a demo. With that recording in tow they made a common trek to Chicago, but this time to pitch to The Impressions' Curtis Mayfield.
They did not have an appointment and with great disappointment, due to his schedule, they would not be seen. Fortunately, down the street was the office of Bill Sheppard. Sheppard was well-known in the Midwest for his recording sessions, labels, arranging and the popularity of his own band, The Sheppards. His label, Constellation Records had recently closed.
The Esquires members had a working relationship with Sheppard. It is claimed he had hired them as backing singers on Mill Evans "Things Won't Be The Same" and other records, without noting them on the printed labels.
Sheppard listened to the song and must have thought very highly of it. Millard Edwards, who was also in The Sheppards, was called in to listen to the song and also thought it was great. But it was missing one thing: There wasn't proper counter-balance on the low vocal end to the high vocal end. Thus, the idea for the important low swinging "Get On Up" vocal line was created.
They left the listening session confident and full of enthusiasm, entered the trusty station wagon and headed home to Milwaukee.
The crowds were always steady at Watts' Bar on 10th and Locust, long gone today due to the construction of I-43.
Johnny Watts was a basketball legend at LaCrosse college in the 1930s, the first black player for the school. He had turned down UW-Madison, a school which would not have a black player until 1958, due to the pressure the publicity would cause.
Gilbert Moorer Sr., born in Birmingham, Alabama, and a singer in the gospel group The Friendly Five, migrated to Wisconsin for job opportunities. It was in Wisconsin that Watts' daughter, Nancy, would meet Gilbert's son, Gilbert Jr., and a new family and community legacy would be created.
The Esquires group was always a family affair. Siblings and cousins were the foundation of the act. The band began with Alvis, Gilbert and Betty Moorer, and would soon to Sam Pace (who seven years later married another Moorer sibling, Pat). Later, in the 1970s, the band would include children of the founders in their shows.
Tammie Moorer recalls dancing on stage for the audience along with the opening instrumental tunes at 10 years old and singing background at 16. Cousin Toni Pace would also be featured in songs with the band. Years later, Johnny Moorer would fill in for his father, Gilbert Jr.
Clubs, festivals, specials events – these were not-to-be-missed who's who gatherings. And, they still are.
Singer Willie Morrison remembers the local clique singing on street corners of 11th and Burleigh outside Sam's Club, at the Bamboo Lounge on 12th and North, at Robert's Lounge and Cameo's Restaurant, where all the hip musicians would hang – specifically his good friend Ollie Woodson of The Drifters and The Temptations. The neighborhood was a national hotspot and stars from all walks of life could be found in the hang.
At the time the Esquires were pitching "Get On Up" in Chicago, they were already a 10-year-old established success in Milwaukee. A few weeks earlier the demo recording was played at a local dance. When the song came on the crowd gave it a terrific response. If there were any concerns over the tune they'd pitched to Sheppard, they were quickly squashed.
When the band's station wagon pulled into their Milwaukee neighborhood from Chicago, the extended family was waiting excitedly on the porch for them. Someone said, "Chicago has called and they said turn the car right around immediately and head back. It's been agreed that you have a hit song and support is lining up."
And so they did.
The official recording of the song was made with Chicago's great studio musicians, including Louis Satterfield on bass and Phil Upchurch was on guitar. The B-side was "Listen to Me."
The now-legendary Tom (Tom Tom) Washington was the producer/arranger and "Get On Up" became his first smash hit. The original record label named Gilbert Moorer as the writer, but subsequent labels added Johnny Taylor and Bill Sheppard as co-writers.
It's hard to imagine the excitement in the car on the ride home from Chicago after that recording session. Conversations and dreams regarding whether this is really the moment they would have a hit. Wondering If the radio stations would provide them the attention the song deserved. What was it going to do to their ability to sing and write for a living. What it was going to do was put Milwaukee on the National music map.
New York's Scepter Records distributed "Get On Up" nationally. In between tours after subsequent releases – which arrived every 2-3 months – Gilbert would load the station wagon full of records from the Chicago warehouse and re-stock the local shops. Son Johnny recalls being 8 and 9 years old and selling records to Radio Doctors.
"I would have cases of the records, refilling the latest singles in front, by date. Maybe three to six copies for traditional releases, but for 'Get On Up' or 'Girls in the City,' it might be 50 copies at a time. Dad was at the front door, chatting up the store's management."
The band would tour in three-month cycles, mostly on the East Coast, then record a single. North Carolina gave tremendous radio play, and Philadelphia and New York were, of course, hotspots for hit bands.
There is an often-shared story of playing the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, opening for Wilson Pickett. As the Esquires stood on stage, the floor opened up and the mic stands rose from below. This startled the band, which was unaware this was going to happen and the audience thought their reaction was a gag.
The Apollo stage lights were hot and the Esquires were wearing suits from the Johnnie Walker store in Downtown Milwaukee. The heat made the suits uncomfortable and they stuck to their bodies. As they exited the stage on their first night, Howard "Sandman" Sims, the theater executioner, told them "Ya'll can't come out here dressed like that. You're the Esquires!"
Millard Edwards, who had now joined the group, called Chicago and had new suits sent overnight. Milwaukee guitarist Van Earl Patterson was playing with Harvey Scales at this show. Backstage, charismatic openers were often told to not show up the headliner, in this case Pickett.
Harvey's band was playing its introduction song and Patterson was called onto stage to join the show. He ran across the stage, leaping off and spilling onto the audience floor, getting up doing James Brown dance moves. This threw the audience, and reportedly, Pickett, into a rage.
It wasn't easy to have some recent celebrity status at school or home either. Teachers had made a classroom display – "Johnny's father is a big star now. Stand up for the class, Johnny." This kind of unsolicited attention led to fights and bullying on the walks home. Strangers would show up at the door at midnight, saying, "Sorry to bother you, but do you think you could get my demo song to Mr. Gilbert Moorer Jr.?"
But there were upsides, too. Nancy and son Johnny were often waved to the front of the line at stores. An aunt, sharing a home with Gilbert's family, arrived home to what seemed like the whole block standing in her driveway singing Esquires songs.
This gives many of the younger family members the perception that the family kept to themselves a lot. After all, one didn't always know what people's intentions were; what they might be trying to get from you.
However, one place that folks could gather publicly was Watts' Bar. A month after releasing "Get On Up," in classic fashion, Grandmother Grace once shouted to the bar, "They called from Chicago! That songs a hit!"
Prior to the Esquires' national acclaim, the bar was always steady on weekends, but now it was full every day. And on weekends, you couldn't move. The Esquires and "Get On Up" put Milwaukee, and their community, on the national music map.
The Esquires will be inducted into the (WAMI) Hall of Fame in April.
See them at Linneman's Riverwest Inn on Saturday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. with Johnny Moorer, Tammie Moorer, Rudy Jacobs, Shorty Mack and Willie Morrison.
Tickets are $15 or two for $25 at the door.
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