Lamont Dixon’s sketch on the back cover of this album says just as much about Norman Whiteside as the songs contained herein. An eyes-skyward dreamer whose ambition and talent were constricted only by what could be found in his wallet, Whiteside’s journey from the runways of Columbus, Ohio to the baggage hull at Ross Correctional Institute in nearby Chillicothe are all presciently conveyed in the hastily drawn felt tip sketch. At the time of its issue in 1977, You Can Fly On My Aeroplane was a near-peerless production; too smooth for coach but lacking the network to get it bumped to first class. Near on thirty-five years later, the Spruce Goose of private soul LPs flies not in spite of its excess, but because of it.
Born on March 31st 1953, Norman Virgil Whiteside came out of the womb with his hand in the till. He started small, a pack of gum here, a comic book there, but at sixteen, while still singing in the church choir, Whiteside forged his first check to finance sessions at Musicol and Coronet Studios. His mother had hardly noticed the debit to her checking account when Whiteside busted through the door, acetate in hand, beaming with guilty pride. As his desire to record increased, so did his misdemeanors.
In 1970, there was an announcement on the radio that local DJ and promoter Bill Moss was hosting a talent show at the Palace Theater. Too young and indigent, Whiteside crept in through a back alley entrance to watch the Four Mints and winner Marion Black perform, but was unable to steal a moment with Moss. Undaunted, he consulted with WVKO’s head of programming Les Brown, who revealed the location of the Capsoul clubhouse: a little room above Van’s Music Shop in the Clintonville neighborhood. Whiteside grabbed a sleeping bag, stole his mother’s car and camped out on the second floor landing, planning to stay for days if necessary. A beleaguered Bill Moss, trying to get through the door to his office, awakened him that evening. Impressed with his commitment, Moss agreed to listen to Whiteside’s songs and was immediately taken with his songwriting prowess, but stopped there. He didn’t care for Norman’s performance style, alternately stolen from Sly or Stevie. Moss preferred a more anachronistic approach. He did, however, tender an invitation to his growing stable of writers that included Dean Francis, Erwin Cochran, and Jeff Smith.
Capsoul quickly became a full time job for the barely legal Whiteside. He would run errands all day for Moss and sit in on brainstorming and recording sessions at night. It was a masters in the music business, and he was a diligent pupil. Tuition was high, and the need for a flexible schedule kept him out of steady employment, forcing Whiteside to rely on the gray economy for income. He fenced stolen car parts, drove a gypsy cab, dealt drugs, and occasionally dabbled in home invasion to eek by. After the fiery departure of Virgil Johnson from Capsoul’s hit making vocal group Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum, & Durr, Whiteside demonstrated a convincing mimic of Johnson’s inscrutable falsetto. Not wanting to mislead fans, Moss was unconvinced until he realized that Norman’s middle name was Virgil and introducing him as such wouldn’t be an outright falsehood. For fifteen gigs Whiteside played Johnson and then donned a disguise to play keyboards for the Kool Blues to avoid audience detection.
Whiteside’s personal life was becoming more complicated as his fifteen-year-old girlfriend gave birth to his first daughter. His casual pursuit of fame and fortune was replaced by a drive and at times desperation. Whiteside hadn’t, and never would, make any money from Capsoul, but he remained involved as much as he could, managing to pen “I’m Gonna Keep On Loving You” for Kool Blues. In 1972 he stole a car to drive the Blues down to their home state of Tennessee where they were certain they could make real money in the bars and clubs. It didn’t pan out, and the trio soon found themselves cutting tobacco on a farm for room, board, and carfare home. Upon returning home, Whiteside’s criminal activities became more vigorous, causing his friends and family to worry for his safety. Despondent, he stormed into the offices of Ohio Bell and demanded a job, telling the wide-eyed receptionist that he needed to get off these streets or he didn’t know what was going to happen. She sympathized, and was somewhat taken in by his magnetism. From October of 1973 until January of 1976 he would hold down his only square job and live the straight life.
The dissolution of the Capsoul label in 1974 was a major setback for the Columbus music scene as a whole. Though its success was limited, it was real, and unprecedented in the region. Norman Whiteside felt rootless, mostly since he stayed until the bitterest of bitter ends, even helping Moss break into their bank-foreclosed studio space and absconding with the Capsoul masters. Whiteside attempted to join the Suspicious Can Openers, led by local legend Timmy Willis, Central Ohio’s answer to James Brown. The line-up included Joe King who was widely considered to be the greatest guitar player in the region. After a few rehearsals, it was clear that Whiteside wouldn’t work out for the Can Openers, but he had bonded with King and began attending gigs of his much less serious side project, Wee, at the bowling alley where they maintained a residency. The group included drummer Benji Harris and bassist J.J Thomas and, besides covers and standards, their gigs would evolve into masterful jazz-funk improvisation that often explored uncharted territory for an oblivious audience of bowlers and boozers. Whiteside thought this might be the right group of musicians to support a series of compositions he was working on, and it wasn’t hard to improve on a bowling alley engagement.
Joe King, however, never made it into the new version of Wee. It was widely known that he suffered shellshock from a tour in Vietnam, and he was prone to truancy and even lengthy disappearances. Whiteside soon replaced him with childhood friend Victor Martin. Rehearsals began and the band quickly learned the new material that Whiteside had cultivated over the past few years. By 1975, Norman felt the pull to get back into the studio. He consulted Timeless Legend leader Jackie Hogg who was in the middle of sessions for their Synchonized LP. Hoping to prevent Whiteside from competing for studio time at Kingsmill, Hogg misled him, claiming that they were using the rock-oriented Owl Studios and were very pleased. Located at 2551 Sunbury Road, Owl had grown out of Tom Murphy, Sterling Smith, Robin Jenney, and Alex Vertikoff’s involvement in various local rock bands. Though founded by Murphy, Owl was managed collectively and most of those involved lived in the building. Owl was a studio-for-hire like any other, but Murphy was becoming increasingly interested in producing and developing an artist with the potential to break out of Columbus. Norman Whiteside, he thought, was that artist.
Now a father of two, Whiteside’s relationship with their mother Sarah had soured. A singer by the name of Colleen Bush was recommended to him by local DJ Reggie Cook, prompting Whiteside to check out one of her performances at Gordy’s Lounge. They connected musically and physically, and soon by address after Sarah threw a coffee table at him. Besides working at Bell during the day, he picked up DJ gigs at various clubs and relapsed into some of his old habits, sticking to misdemeanors when possible. Music was becoming less and less of a reality as the pressure to support two houses mounted. His complicated situation changed even more when he met Jackie and Caroline, two high-end prostitutes who regularly attended his gigs. One night, Jackie invited Norman to hang out after closing and was gently rebuffed. Street hardened and unused to rejection, the mini-skirted duo waited for Whiteside outside and, in a surreal twist, held him hostage at gunpoint for a night on the town. They returned him home at dawn untouched but baffled. This only strained his home situation further. Colleen Bush stretched as far as she was willing to go when Jackie returned a few weeks later, laying on her car horn at three in the morning and demanding to see Norman. Forced out of necessity to stay with these seemingly insane prostitutes until he could reconcile with Bush, an agreement was soon reached wherein Jackie and Caroline would finance his album in exchange for his ongoing companionship.
Wee had already recorded their first single “Stay” b/w “I’m All Changed,” but it was their second, “Try Me” b/w “Teach Me How” where they caught their stride. Recorded with engineer Sterling Smith playing synths and bass for the recently resigned J.J. Thomas, “Try Me” was a unique sounding record that straddled the line between classic and modern soul music. The song’s potent sexuality was impossible to ignore, and tended to dominate the group’s stage presence as well. Wee was fast becoming a band that only women wanted to see, and sensing this, Whiteside recruited the statuesque Lenchow Hargrove to play percussion with the stage act. Thomas was replaced with Glen “Spanky” Jones on bass. The band’s following grew and their regular gig at Joe’s Hole on Main & Loeffler was always filled to capacity. Between the gigs and regular cash infusions from Jackie and Caroline, Whiteside was able to quit Bell and focus on writing and recording. Tom Murphy set aside a room at Owl that was always at Norman’s disposal to commit inspiration to tape while it was still fresh. At a snail’s pace, You Can Fly On My Aeroplane was developing brilliantly. Owl covered the studio time, but there were numerous other expenses: additional musicians to fill out the elaborate arrangements, newer, better equipment to give it a more cutting edge sound, and eventually the printing of jackets and the pressing of LPs.
Named for his choice of antacid, Bromo was one of Jackie’s wealthier clients. She introduced Norman as her brother to allay any jealousy Bromo might have, and between the slipping off and on of his loafers he agreed to finance the album. Credited on the jacket as William Muller for Bromo Productions, Bromo’s real name was never known to any of the people involved in the album. At its core, You Can Fly On My Aeroplane is truly a Norman Whiteside solo project, and many people close to him urged that he release it as such. Loyal to a fault, Norman stuck with the name Wee. By the time the album was complete at the end of 1976, there was actually almost two LPs in the can. Mixed at Appalachia Sound in Chillicothe, Ohio, Whiteside had no idea how much time he’d spend in the seat of Ross County.
Released in 1977, the album was a shiny beacon of sophistication in the working class Columbus scene. Ironically, it sounds far superior to the Jackie Hogg’s Timeless Legend LP that was responsible for Wee’s redirection to Owl. Pictured on the cover is Juniata Wade a background singer for a group Whiteside was moonlighting with, the Inner Rhythm Society. The pressing was a modest 1000 copies, as it was primarily intended as a demo to generate major label interest. Several sniffed around, but no contracts were tendered. Discouraged, Whiteside pushed on, and entered into two of the most treacherous years of his life.
Beginning with a car accident that killed two female passengers and propelled him through a windshield, these years were mired by one tragedy after the next. Whiteside’s snarled personal life only made matters worse. His unusual arrangement with Jackie and Caroline, both of whom he had fathered children for, while still living with and raising a family with Colleen Bush, opened the flood gates to all out polygamy. In addition to his five children and three mistresses, Whiteside had numerous girlfriends in and out of town. Some bought him clothes and gifts, while others were frequently sending plane fare or hiring him for private performances at their homes. When money got tight he turned to burglary and forgery. He began to dabble in Preludin and cocaine, a habit picked up from his bandmates. Right as Wee’s engines were failing and the group was spinning out of control, a break finally came when they were asked to join Wild Cherry on tour as their opening act. Shortly before they were slated to leave, all the band’s equipment was stolen when they chose not to load out of a club during a blizzard. Inconsolable, Whiteside left for Los Angeles to start from scratch. He spent the fall of 1978 singing ballads at the Hyatt Regency before finally packing it in and heading home. Ten days before Christmas, the S.W.A.T. team kicked in Norman Whiteside’s door.
In 1979 Norman Whiteside went away for an eleven-month bit on felony forgery and possession of criminal tools charges. Shortly after his release, he was thrown back in jail on an unrelated prior. In one final twist of unfortunate fate, he was wrongly connected to a conspiracy to cover up a murder, a charge he continues to appeal. Caged for now, he continues to write, hoping again to get back in the air. For now, this album will have to do.
Rob Sevier & Ken Shipley, May 2008