GINO WASHINGTON (By Dominic Turner)
Born George Washington, Detroit, Michigan, 1946?
That's Gino with an "i". not to be confused with Geno Washington, who wowed British mod audiences in the sixties with his repertoire of danceable soul classics. This GW hails from Detroit, and preceded his quasi-namesake's rise to fame by a good five or six years. Not that he ever really found true fame, of course. In fact, the irony of this story is that the British-based ex-serviceman Geno made his name with an up-tempo brand of funky soul at the very time when our Detroit-based Gino was serving Uncle Sam.
There really must be something in the Detroit water system. Mitch Ryder, the MC5, Hank Ballard, Johnny Powers, Iggy Pop, Jackie Wilson, Danny Zella. regardless of musical genre, if an artist comes from the Motor City there's a pretty fair chance he's going to be a wild man! And Gino Washington was wilder than most. Born George Washington in post-war Detroit, he was the sixth of a family of thirteen children. The boy's father was an amateur blues singer, and young Gino soon began following in his footsteps. After seeing Jackie Wilson perform live at a local R&B show, he had no doubt as to what he wanted to do in life.
1962 was THE year for Detroit R&B. Berry Gordy's Motown label was grinding out the hits at a staggering rate, proving that black America was well capable of handling the business side of things too. But a handful of small local labels also had their thumbs in the pie. The Falcons' "I Found A Love" (with Wilson Pickett on lead vocals) was released on Lu-Pine; Fortune scored with "Mind Over Matter" by Nolan String & the Diablos; and Chex cut "I Love You" by the Volumes. Gino Washington was still enrolled at Pershing High School, but had already proved his worth by winning a series of local talent contests. More to the point, he had penned the excellent "Out Of This World" at the tender age of thirteen!
Opportunity knocked, and Gino entered the studio to record his debut single for the newly-established Correc-Tone label: "I'm A Coward", a lively horn-driven R&B tune with a witty lyric. The B-side, "Puppet On A Chain" was even more stunning: a dramatic minor-key soul ballad on which Gino gave an impassioned performance, reminiscent of Arthur Alexander at his best. An interesting aside: female backing vocals on "Puppet On A Chain" were supplied by the Primettes. soon to become none other than Diana Ross & the Supremes!
Despite the relative lack of success of the release, label owner Wilbert Golden was impressed: Gino, who cited Johnny Mathis, Jackie Wilson and Elvis Presley as his favourite artists, was not blessed with a great soul voice in the strictest sense of the word but he did have feeling in spades, and his writing/arranging skills were quite astounding for one so young. But if anything, it was Gino's live shows that were setting him apart from the rest. Those lucky enough to see him on stage marvelled at his incredible energy and ability to work a crowd. The Detroit club scene was second to none, boasting historic venues like the Village and the Twenty Grand. Washington soon got to know a host of Motown stars, as well as white R&B artists such as Billy Lee's Rivieras (later to become Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels). In fact, Gino initially had no regular backing group of his own at this stage, so it was quite normal for him to be backed by bands such as the Rivieras or the Royaltones.
During a 1963 appearance at the State Fair Coliseum, Gino made the acquaintance of a young white guitarist by the name of Jeff Williams. The two hit it off immediately, exchanged phone numbers, and were soon heading for Detroit's Specialty Sound studio for a recording date. Williams brought along some musician pals from a previous frat rock band and they hastily formed a backing group for Washington called the Atlantics, comprising Williams on lead guitar, Jim Watkins (rhythm guitar), Rick White (sax), Cliff Rosin (drums), and a bass player named Chuck Berry (I kid you not!). This outfit was augmented by a group of girl backing singers called the Rochelles. The result was another killer single, this time for the Amon label: the afore-mentioned "Out Of This World" (a sort of high octane "Stand By Me"!) backed with "Come Monkey With Me". A celebrated deejay once commented ".you can't go far wrong with a song that has the word 'monkey' in the title!". and this is no exception. Possibly Gino's finest hour, it sees him at his most frantic, wringing incredible mileage out of what is really little more than your classic fifties I-VI-IV-V chord progression. The Atlantics are with him all the way. We're not talking great musicianship here; in fact, the band are often all over the place (Williams' guitar solos are primitive in the extreme), and Gino's vocals are barely passable. But for sheer raw emotion, it all takes some beating. Try to imagine equal measures of Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Gary "U.S." Bonds, Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon and Andre Williams rolled into one! And the novelty of the white backing group meant that the music was tough to pigeonhole: was it rock & roll or R&B? Probably both.
Thankfully, the single got plenty of airplay on the local CKLW and WKNR stations and was distributed nationally by Wand. It flew to #4 in the national chart in February 1964, just behind "Dawn" by the Four Seasons and the Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand"! Gino Washington and the Atlantics were an R&B sensation. The next move was to record a new faster version of "I'm A Coward", jokingly redubbed "Gino Is A Coward" - superb uptempo soul, with handclaps and a typically wild falsetto vocal from Gino. The single was released on Sonbert (a subsidiary of Correc-Tone), once more with "Puppet On A String" on the flipside, and again hit big at national level. Many years later, a certain Bruce Springsteen, no stranger himself to all-energy performances, would occasionally sing "Gino Is A Coward" as an encore.
Nevertheless, Washington's live show remained his forte. With their leader now nicknamed "Jumpin' Gino", the Atlantics really were the most dynamic act in town, and Gino's business instincts helped keep them one step ahead of the competition. Jeff Williams recalls regularly playing two or three gigs a night; while the band performed at one club, their roadies would be setting up a second set of equipment at another venue across town, thus minimising the time between performances! Having well and truly conquered Detroit, they were soon topping bills throughout Michigan, Ohio and even nearby Canada, where they toured with the Drifters, Del Shannon and the Temptations. Television appearances followed on the back of the success of "Out Of This World" (including one where Gino endeavoured to split his gold-laced suit in front of a live audience in true P.J. Proby fashion), and these in turn led to further high profile concert dates, opening for none other than the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys and even the Rolling Stones. Gino proudly tells of how they arrived late for the Stones gig, and Jagger and co. were forced to take the stage first. amid yells of "We want Gino!" from the audience! Indeed, the band would have been given the opportunity to support the Beatles at some of their U.S. shows were it not for their increasingly poor reputation for punctuality! Gino and the Atlantics were even invited to join some of Berry Gordy's revues as the only non-Motown outfit.
There was some delay in Wand releasing the next single, "Baby Be Mine"/"I'm Comin' Home" (1964), but when it arrived the record was every bit as thrilling as its predecessors. However, fate then struck in the shape of a callup for national service later in June of the same year. Gino served in Japan, and then in Vietnam. Although he was able to continue his involvement with music even while in the armed forces, organising shows for Ann-Margret and Johnny Rivers, he discovered on being discharged that his bird had flown.
Or more to the point, he discovered that a different Geno Washington was packing in the punters at UK soul/mod clubs, where his Ram Jam Band specialised in faithful interpretations of big soul hits such as "Raise Your Hand", "In The Midnight Hour" and "Land Of A Thousand Dances". Gino made every attempt to rebuild his career, creating his own label (ATAC) and releasing some fine singles such as "Doing The Popcorn" b/w "What Can A Man Do?", an organ-based ballad recorded in 1969 with the Tomangoes. But times had changed, and Gino's explosive, emotion-charged R&B was no longer in vogue. Not even the founding of five more independent labels (used by Gino to release old stockpiled material) could stop the rot. Special mention must nevertheless be made of the sublime "Around The Town", featuring the Atlantics and a wonderful Jeff Williams guitar riff.
And that pretty much ends the story. especially as we're edging further and further from the SAO years! Gino went on to host his own variety show on a local Detroit TV station in the seventies, and continues to perform regularly today, even headlining at this year's third annual Ponderosa Stomp in April. Reports say he still sounds as wild and raunchy as ever.
- "Out Of This World" [Norton, 1999] A superb collection of Gino Washington's early singles (and a few previously unreleased masters), recorded for various minor Detroit labels during the period 1962-68. I could use another copy because mine's worn out!
- Love Bandit" [Norton, 2002] Fifteen tracks recorded between 1962-71, featuring Gino Washington either as singer or producer for the likes of Nathaniel Mayer and Pearl Jones. I haven't got this one (yet!), but the two or three cuts that I've heard are very much on a par with the material on "Out Of This World".
- If you prefer to take the hard road and seek out Gino's original vinyl 45s, be prepared to part with your well-earned cash: a mint copy of "I'm A Coward" on eBay will set you back something in the region of $60!
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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