Album cover

24 Carat Black — Misfortune Misunderstood

An era was finding its end. Union Planters National Bank had finally pulled up the roots of Stax Records, leaving hundreds of musicians locked out of 926 East McLemore and the Chicago chapter of 24-Carat Black on the hook for months spent in the studio. Their debut album, a commercial and financial disaster, was par for the course during Al Bell’s reign as the Memphis label’s head. Embraced in the early 90s by Britain’s rare groove scene, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth has since been known as 24-Carat Black’s first and final chapter, barely a footnote in the well documented history of Stax. Dale Warren’s dark urban concept album, released in the fall of 1973 on the Enterprise imprint, challenged even its target audience to embrace it. A downer message to the emerging black middle class and too heady for a populace basking in the afterglow of the Wattstax festival held a year prior, the record didn’t approach radio’s pop standards and wasn’t near white enough for the mainstream press. Warren’s brainchild band simply pushed past their concept’s conclusion, piling up dozens of reels for an intimate follow-up album that no one in the world wanted to hear. Yet. With their ambitious debut LP downgraded to cutout status when Stax finally shuttered in 1975, 24-Carat Black found themselves watching their moment recede in the rearview.

For 35 years, the sketches for 24-Carat Black’s sophomore release hibernated in keyboardist and session engineer Bruce Thompson’s basement below the south side of Chicago. Abandoned by Warren when the studio bill darkened his mailbox, the tapes, over decades, had fallen into soggy disrepair, useless save for six tracks. We discovered them only by complete fluke, while on the hunt for a Thompson-produced Chocolate Sunday 45, and for a while the shape this package might take remained an open question. Because Gone: The Promises Of Yesterday is by no means a sequel to Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Missing are the poignant and bleak sermons on the pain of inner-city existence, replaced by dusky, sensuous re-workings of tainted love songs Warren had written as far back as 1965. And personnel had endured a crisis: When half of the original line-up mutinied in the parking lot of a Memphis Holiday Inn, Warren simply replaced them for his Gone sessions. Wildly divergent in tone, scope, and mission, the second 24-Carat Black album is tethered to the first by a single, crucial element: its creator. 

Our set opens with the Princess Hearn-sung “The Best Of Good Love Gone,” a moody and meandering burner with a heavy Afro-jazz undercurrent. Tyrone Steels provides lean, steady rhythm before unleashing a barrage of treble crashes at the climax. An eerie wood block knocks through the close, segueing into a chorus of haunted voices that opens “I Want To Make Up.” Crisp cabasa tags along with John Walls’ steady bass, giving way to the stalking moans of Naombi Still before Robert Dunson stops her in her tracks with the declaration, “Stop begging me, mama. I’m gone! I’m gone!”

Robert Dunson and Dale Warren’s relationship stretched all the way back to Detroit, when the two wrote for Carl Cisco and Tom Shannon’s Marquee label. A version of “I Don’t Love You” was issued in 1968 under the name Bobbie Dee, one of Dunson’s many pseudonyms. The smoldering guitar workout got retooled by Warren for the Gone adaptation. Hearn delivers an operatic vocal, letting the horn section brighten rests that the earlier version had filled with crunchy guitar. Warren dredged the lake once again with “I’ll Never Let You Go,” stripping away the pizzicato plinks that dot the Tiares’ rendition for the Leona label, subbing in a spacious xylophone-and-bass backbone and a lascivious vocal for the virginal girl group’s original reading. On the title track, Warren revamps his schmaltzy Mad Lads production, enlisting former kid-soul hopeful Hedda Sudduth for variety and bringing the instruments to the front of the fold in the final mix. Ending our reconstruction is “I Begin To Weep,” a serpentine funk jam of nearly 12 minutes led by Dunson’s disturbed spoken and sung vocal.

In his post-Ghetto work, Dale Warren had clearly aimed for a complete reinvention, of both his band and his songwriting past. Of more than 20 songs he considered for the 24-Carat Black follow-up, we’ve refurbished the six that hadn’t flaked off their reels. “A World That Is Not Real,” “Any Day Now,” and a cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” were unfortunately damaged beyond salvaging, though their still-audible surviving bits hint at recordings as strong as anything we did manage to rescue.

Chicago’s bitter South side brew did infuse Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth with its own tortured vitality, but what seeped into one particular basement did a number on the album’s lovelorn, rough-mixed aftermath. Gone: The Promises of Yesterday, this late-arriving chapter in the 24-Carat Black story, may be its last. But the rich Dale Warren back-story winds out of Detroit to Memphis, through California’s Wattstax, and past bargain Wurlitzers at a suburban Illinois mall, telling tributary tales of the Ditalians and the demise of Stax Records along the way.

The Promises Of Yesterday

Born in Detroit on September 27th, 1943 to Ines and Albert Warren, Dale Ossman Warren was raised as a strict Jehovah’s Witness. His father was an established concert pianist before badly burning his hands, but his love for classical music was hereditary. By his early teens, Warren—a confirmed violin, cello, and piano prodigy—had moved beyond student programs at Cass Technical High to performing with symphonies in the greater Detroit area. His path toward symphony director was all but mapped, diverted due to the influence of his aunt, Raynoma Ossman Gordy.

In 1961, Dale Warren was hired as a staff arranger at Motown. His uncle, Stanley “Mike” Ossman, was already riding Berry Gordy’s payroll as a songwriter, giving Dale an immediate entry. Though none of Warren’s early arrangements ever made it to disc, the gig provided him with a valuable opportunity to learn about the studio’s inter-workings. When the Gordy’s marriage ended in 1963, Dale’s ascent up the Motown ladder slowed. He moonlighted with scores of shoestring operations, including Scope, Leona, and Ed Wingate’s Golden World, before receiving a call from his aunt inquiring about his interest in arranging for the Shrine label. In late 1964, Warren relocated to Frederick, Maryland to work full time for Eddie and Raynoma Singleton’s stumbling imprint.

Meanwhile, just a state away in Cincinnati, Ohio, a group of teens from Sawyer Junior High and Winthrow High School were in the process of getting a group together. Fronted by vocalists Billy Best (Cottrell), Forrest Hutcherson, George Bailey, and Bruce Torbert, the Ditalians were backed by a rhythm section made up of Larry Cottrell, Tyrone Steels and James Talbert. After a set of resounding victories in local talent shows, the Ditalians caught the attention of Cincinnati Royals basketball star Oscar Robertson. Parlaying his local celebrity status, Robertson bankrolled the band, affording them better gigs, and ultimately a record deal with Paul Trefzger, owner of the Saxony and Trip labels. In 1966, Trefzger and Robertson sent the four vocalists to Nashville where they cut three original songs: “I Gotta Go,” “Egypt Land,” and “Philly Dog New Breed,” the last of which achieved hit status back home in Cincinnati. A crack team of Nashville session men played the parts, but what really impressed the Ditalians was the 23-year-old arranger from Detroit who brought their recorded songs to life in ways they hadn’t begun to imagine.

Little came of the brief collaboration between the young prodigy and the talented group of vocalists. Shrine shut down a couple years later, and Warren returned to Michigan, settling in quiet Ypsilanti. He picked up work at Ric Tic and Marquee before connecting with local producer Don Davis at United Sounds Studios. Davis and Warren had tread the same ground, working for Motown and Golden World. At the behest of Al Bell, Davis began building a sound bridge between Detroit and Memphis. In 1968, Warren made the crossing. That same year, the Ditalians had expanded into a fully functioning show band. Their meteoric rise to Cincinnati celebrity status was managed by Virginia Talbert, mother of James and keyboardist Billy Talbert. Seeking national attention, she financed the recording of a few more original songs. With reels in hand, they hit Chicago’s Record Row, shopping the demo first at Chess. Leaving without a nibble, they headed one block north to Mercury who promptly put pen to paper. Issued under the name Billy Best & the Ditalians, “Baby That Takes The Cake” b/w “Times Getting Hard (Josephine)” delivered meager returns for Mercury and the band was promptly dropped.

Back in Cincinnati, the Ditalians were hardly licking their wounds, but felt they lacked something in their stage show. They’d taken a gig backing a girl group at the Winthrow High School talent show and walked away with more than a trophy. Two sisters, sixteen-year-old Patricia and thirteen-year-old Princess Hearn, were folded into the Ditalians stage show and quickly became the centerpiece of their new sound. Clarence Campbell, older brother to the Hearn girls, was brought in to cast lines into waters Virginia Talbert couldn’t reach. As a native of Detroit with loose ties to the business, it was only a matter of time before he hooked Dale Warren.

While popular music trends twisted in the turbulent cultural wind of the 1960s, Dale Warren stood fast: classical music remained his core interest. He practiced the violin and cello with the diligence expected of an elite professional. For extra scratch Warren would guest conduct the local symphony or write an entire orchestra’s charts for a fraction of the going rate. This same skill set and desire for more than chart success often isolated him from untrained peers. But despite his tendency to coast along on his immense talent, Warren dreamt of a classical and R&B synthesis he alone could achieve.

In 1969, Dale Warren’s masterful string arrangements for Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul—particularly the twelve-minute epic “Walk On By”—set the world on fire and opened doors never afforded to him prior. He got carte blanche in the studio and a budget to back him. Warren’s vision of a soul music suite that conceptually fused American film musicals and European classical was starting to solidify, but it would take a talented and malleable band to pull it off. Clarence Campbell—a friend of Dale’s from Detroit’s United Sound Studios—couldn’t keep quiet about a certain Cincinnati band, a 12-piece operation of unbeatable performers in the R&B idiom.... When Dale Warren witnessed the Ditalians on stage at an Ann Arbor frat party, he saw the fruition of his soul-suite vision on display before him.

Warren proposed that he, Virginia Talbert, and Clarence Campbell unite to redefine the group from the ground up. Warren would retrain the band, usher in an entirely fresh repertoire (which he was already composing), and change their name to 24-Carat Black, to bolster the theme of his creation: Black culture as a misunderstood treasure. The group was impressed by his credentials and, of course, promised money and fame. While his confidence caught on, his abilities weren’t so easily transmitted. The Cottrell brothers departed during the prolonged reinvention of the band they helped create. Further friction arose when Warren left his third wife Bonnie, taking up with Princess Hearn, by then just 16 years old. With much of the band underage, parents became understandably concerned by such frequent visits to Michigan. Rough patches were smoothed only by monthly checks from Stax.

The freshly minted 24-Carat Black began touring their new music as early as mid-1972. Warren took time out to handle projects for Stax, not the least of which was his appearance in August with the Orchestra at Wattstax. The band gigged on their own when Warren wasn’t around, reverting to their energetic performances of hard funk and soul. But a growing disconnect felt by several members held that the band was being sold a bill of goods: many found the 24-Carat Black material pretentious and uncommercial. It still remained the best offer on the table, and in early 1973 sessions for their debut LP, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, commenced. This was a studio stuffed with bodies, thirteen all in. Naturally, a full orchestra was employed, with the entire 60-minute album tracked in three marathon weeks for the sake of economy. Micromanaging at every turn, Warren mixed the album for months after tape stopped rolling.

Dale Warren’s brooding soul-concept LP finally hit shelves in late summer of ’73, while the band took a promotional tour of the southern U.S. They returned to Memphis to discuss their future with Stax executives and rehearse for their next tour. Animosity was brewing in both the ranks and in management, who felt misled by Stax and Warren. With the latter stubbornly refusing to edit anything down to radio-friendly length, Stax couldn’t properly promote the album. Dale Warren had hitched their hopes to a more sophisticated audience, one that didn’t yet exist. The talks went awry, causing Virginia Talbert and Clarence Campbell to dissolve their partnership with Warren. The band fractured, most of the line-up returned to Cincinnati with the Talberts. Only a faithful few remained: Tyrone Steels, Jerome Derrickson, and Princess Hearn, pregnant by then with Warren’s child.

With an album still to support, Warren dispatched two minions—right-hand man Robert Dunson and Oscar Troupe, an advance man doing tour support for Stax—to recruit members for a reassembled 24-Carat Black. Replacing Billy Talbert, the keyboard player and backbone of the group’s sound, would be first priority. In Harvey, Illinois, they found Bruce Thompson giving demonstrations at the Wurlitzer outlet inside Dixie Square Mall for commission. Formerly of notable Chicago band Raw Umber, Thompson brought along John Walls and Rayford Smith to cover bass and guitar respectively. They joined Tyrone Steels for rehearsals at Harvey’s Club Tataco before joining Dale Warren and the horn section in Atlanta. Working with Warren was a crash course in music theory, and he pushed the band through grueling rehearsals. Swigs from the fifth of Beefeater he constantly had on hand did little to shorten their 16-hour days. Gigs, aimed at promoting the sagging LP, loomed on the schedule. The stage show had evolved into a revue. The rhythm section, dubbed Con Brio, opened with instrumentals and improvisations. Then the horn sections appeared, carrying the band into the suite from Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Le Fleur et Bonet, the female vocal unit, arrived next to perform a choreographed dance before breaking into song. The first set played out as a grim street musical, just as Warren had envisioned it. The more accessible second set incorporated hits of the day, classic Dale Warren compositions, and other Stax product done in 24-Carat Black style.

Back on the road, the band collected bodies from across the Midwest: Hedda Sudduth of the Eight Minutes and Shakir Suleiman boarded in Chicago, with Naombi Still and the mysterious “Mr. Namo” added in Indianapolis. Ricky Foster, an original member, rejoined. Back at full strength, they booked a major tour through the South and Midwest. Anniston, Alabama brought a major setback when Oscar Troupe stole the trailer and a wad of promotional cash. They survived the rest of the tour in a pair of wasted vans. Meanwhile, Warren took an extended gig scoring the film The Klansman, best remembered for casting O. J. Simpson as a black militant. Stax money kept the band on the road and in practice spaces for rehearsal of new material. The steady Bruce Thompson became Dale’s protégé and the de facto bandleader, largely responsible for mounting the follow-up LP’s recording in Warren’s absence.

Late in 1974, the group returned to Chicago—hometown to much of the new 24-Carat Black’s core—to lay down sketches for a follow up album at Universal Studios. They were tight and well rehearsed, bringing more than 20 tunes to the rough-mix stage in a few short weeks. Funding from Stax had slowed to a trickle, leaving Warren to finance the sessions himself. But just weeks later, during a stint in Henderson, Kentucky, the band ripped through their club earnings, assuming that Stax dollars would cover the hotel bill. The check never came. Stax was flailing amid changes that would lead to its collapse in just over a year. The band, jailed for skipping out on room charges, couldn’t muster much sympathy for the label.

Dropped unceremoniously by Stax and ditched by Dale Warren again, the band hung together briefly, fulfilling commitments and winding up in dreary Benton Harbor, Michigan, for a grueling month-long residency. The Chicago tapes never made it to Memphis at all, remaining with Thompson to corrode below ground while their sibling LP gathered relevance at a geologic pace. Princess Hearn clung to Dale Warren, whose worsening alcoholism strained their relationship until it broke in the mid-1980s. Tyrone Steels rejoined Billy Talbert and Larry Austin to form Shotgun, a moderately successful funk act under the ABC Records banner. Bruce Thompson opened Dynamic Studios, a downtown Chicago vanity operation, later founding Chocolate Sunday with Rayford Smith and John Walls. Though he continued to work in R&B, Dale Warren pursued his passion for classical performance, earning a PhD in music and conducting symphonies in Los Angeles and Atlanta before his untimely death in February of 1994 at the age of 50.

And just like that, gone were the promises of 24-Carat Black. The pairing of a brilliant, ambitious composer and arranger with eager young talent was no match for the wealth of misfortune surrounding the collapse of Stax Records. Unearthing this tragic project saw Dale Warren’s original disappointments only amplified by their unsalvageable remains. Still, his unfinished self-reinvention, even heard through the prism of these skeletal remnants, delivers on a remarkable purity of vision: one man’s corner of black culture, 24 carats pure and mishandled perhaps until now, finally a bit less misunderstood.