Album cover

The Ballad of Love Apple

“Well, you know a ‘love apple’ is a tomato,” explains vocalist Annette Warren. “And we didn’t want to be called ‘Tomato.’” So the Love Apple name—in colorful reference to the aphrodisiac powers of the ever-popular vine-ripened salad vegetable—was actually rather practical. Just as practical was a 1978 rehearsal tape by the freshly plucked ensemble, laid down as little more than a first draft—a means of determining how its compositions might change or how they might not. This tape was certainly never intended for the public. As it does from the wooden enclosure on Steve Jobs’ original Apple-1 computer, beauty flows from these recordings as the byproduct of their functionality. And Love Apple’s unreleased six-song “debut” offers a rare glimpse at a moment that—absent the meticulous recordkeeping and extensive tape archive housed inside Cleveland’s Boddie Recording Company by engineer and studio owner Thomas Boddie—might have gone forever unnoticed. 

The women who laid down the Love Apple tape came to music relatively late in their lives. Annette Warren was already 27, and Avetta Henry and Lillie Pearson—known around Cleveland as the Butt Sisters, thanks to their full and decidedly flattering figures—were 33 and 37, respectively. All three had stood on the sidelines for Lillie’s husband Joe’s Family Band during several engagements, singing back-up when the situation demanded. Despite the skill and feminine touch provided by Warren, Henry, and Pearson, the ladies were never embraced as band members, nor paid for their participation. When Joe Pearson began discouraging his tambourine-shaking wife from attending gigs, the female vocal trio went in search of a more welcoming platform upon which to hone their talents. 

Having just dissolved his Hot Chocolate/Seven Miles High franchise, Lou Ragland, Cleveland’s ubiquitous and multitalented soul man, was without musical company for the first time in eight years. Nearing 40 at the end of the 70s, Ragland hoped to shift his attention to producing acts for his SMH imprint; he knew a female vocal group would be a crucial acquisition. "I wanted to go in between R&B and pop, and I didn't want them to be like the Supremes," Ragland remembered. By giving Annette, Avetta, and Lillie equal stake in the group, Ragland hoped to ensure the group’s longevity, having seen a decade ago how Diana Ross’ nominal promotion had cracked the foundation of Motown's superlative female trio. In terms of songwriting, the Love Apple girls each pulled their weight, especially Annette, who provided her own books of poetry, from which Lou grafted phrases into his musical structures. 

Six songs later, a date at Boddie Recording Company’s modest custom studio was set. Tony Roberson, Ragland’s most dependable timekeeper, handled drums. When asked about the rehearsal tape’s stray passes at piano, Lou Ragland admitted “It must have been me, because it’s terrible!” In the session’s final take, Ragland can be heard giving instructions to his singers over the beat, revealing that his Love Apple songs were just beginning to evolve toward the masterpieces they might’ve one day become. 

A full performance band, assembled from spare parts of Ragland’s short-lived Chosen Few outfit, was founded to support the growing Love Apple songbook. Its unwieldy moniker: Love Apple and the Chosen Few Featuring George Hendricks. Hendricks, a childhood friend of Lou Ragland, signed on as singer and emcee; Ragland would wield guitar and Boots Ellis would take keys, with Robert Goodson on bass, Joe Jenkins on congas, and a young drummer known only as Ricky Speed. “That’s all we ever called him,” said Lou when pressed for Ricky’s government name. Annette thought the alias well deserved: “Why you so excited?” she recalls asking Speed, “This is a ballad!”

Although accounts vary, Love Apple’s succinct Cleveland tenure most likely ended at the hands of a publicity stunt gone wrong. Ragland, then in a brief and shallow Islamic immersion, was forbidden from taking the stage for a Love Apple show, by elders who deemed his music unholy. A decade or so removed from notable conversions and name-changes by sports legends Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor, Lou Ragland's flirtation with the Muslim faith lost him a band, instead of gaining him even the shadow of a household name. Lou and Love Apple never reconciled after Lou’s bandstand abandonment, and Ragland split for the West Coast shortly after the incident. The group would never perform again. 

Cleveland remains home to Annette Warren, the youngest Love Apple. Avetta Henry passed away in February of 2011, and Lilly Pearson died the following September. Their scant Love Apple legacy is six songs of a coinage rarely exchanged in the soul music marketplace: the mature testimonials of real women—mothers and wives rather than homecoming queens and prom dates. These are no mere flirtations scrawled in the back of yearbooks, but eloquent confessionals on love and infidelity, conflict and understanding. Love Apple may’ve fallen not far from the tree of Lou Ragland’s greater catalog, but it survives to reveal a new orchard in the Cleveland soul hero’s songwriting genius.