Album cover

Eccentric Soul

The Saadia Label

Saadia Records, from its christening, was more than a family business. It was born in the northern Miami home of Frank and Martha Williams, named after one of their twin daughters, while the other, Giwada, lent her name to their publishing company. This sibling interplay, in name alone, brought an almost mythic edge to the Williams’ operation —a microcosm of the many-limbed dreams that would pulse behind what was less an entrepreneurial endeavour than a surrogate child of the family imagination. From the living room of 2231 NW 92nd Street, in the Little West River neighborhood, to the clubs of Overtown and Coconut Grove, a brief, buoyant stream of musical vigor ran through the Magic City, its crest and break preserved in just ten singles between 1965 and 1971. The Saadia label would follow a classic arc, locked in a struggle against the boundaries of a hometown that it filtered through a singular lens, lost if not for the resources and endless devotion of its family head.

Frank Williams earned his space, as well as his living, with a reputation for performance, and this live discipline was as much an economic base as a philosophical foundation for the productions he would later helm at Saadia. He led the preeminent R&B group of ’60s Miami, the Rocketeers, with a string of residencies at the most popular local venues and a broad portfolio of session work behind area talent. These were not lean years for him, but prosperity hung in a delicate balance for any Black family in the highly segregated Southern Florida metropolis, and the endurance that Williams proved demanded a prodigious work ethic, a critical ear, and an invulnerability to the unknown.

The Rocketeers, like Frank himself, were children of the River City, but in 1962 wound their way south from Jacksonville toward the gig-rich entertainment districts of Miami. The city’s musical economy was flooded each year with extrastate cash hungry for escape, as holidaymakers headed beachside. It was known as far as Missouri that there was plenty of work for an enterprising bandleader in these whites-only venues, but to the west of the train tracks was the explosive, segregated bustle of Overtown’s Northwest Second Avenue with restaurants and clubs brimming nightly with local and national talent.

Frank and his band quickly earned regular billing at clubs like the Sir John Hotel’s Knight Beat and the Continental, two prime nodes in the Black cultural nexus of the Second Avenue strip, alternately headlining and offering support as the house band. Occasionally they played the same beachside lounges that refused them service—The Eden Roc, The Fontainebleau—opening for artists like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, whose post-gig destination was Overtown, free of White surveillance and harassment.

Augmenting these dates were some of the group’s first studio recordings, two singles—one of which, “Good Thing,” features Frank’s only recorded vocals—on the Lloyd imprint of Johnny Pearsall and Willie Clarke’s Deep City label. Williams also provided some backing and arrangement for tracks by Helene Smith and Betty Wright, and so with regular stints between 1965-67 at Mack Emerman’s Criteria Recording Studios in North Miami, Williams’ group was ready to test their clean, signature sound.

The Rocketeers would become the Saadia house band, and the chief architect of their sound was Frank, handling most arrangement, composition, and production duties, as well as a tight, guttural saxophone. Louis Howard (keyboards), Robert Ferguson (drums), and Joey Gilmore (guitar, bass) formed the core of the family, before Gilmore took a two-year hiatus in 1962. Upon returning in 1964 he found that Willie “Little Beaver” Hale had filled the lead guitar position, as well as a fair share of vocal and composing duties. The recording lineup was complete with the addition of Edmund Collins on bass, and as Hale remembers, they inaugurated the label with a cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s track “Blind Man,” with rich, distinct layers of piano, organ, and horns by Jordan and Williams, fronted by Beaver himself. This first 45 was numbered 2231, the address of the Williams family home, an act nonsensical for a marketplace index but significant beyond words for a man breaking ground on a musical space of his own.

The Saadia logs soon curved a labyrinthine path, where catalogue numbers and printed dates departed from a reliable system. The infrastructure of the Miami recording industry policed its own isolation, as the primary means of quasi-distribution northward was via re-pressings by Philadelphia-based Phil-L.A. of Soul. A local distaste for consecutive numbering only intensified the constraints, and Saadia was no exception.

The up-tempo, samba-hinted soul of the flip-side to “Blind Man,” entitled “Do It To Me One More Time,” along with Beaver’s known affinity for James Brown, seems to place the first Saadia single around 1966, yet his second Saadia cut, “Do Right Man”—a steady burner with dark vamps and bone-dry breaks -- is dated as a 1965 release, as is Sam Baker’s lighter rendition. once again some singles released by Beaver and Williams on Phil-L.A. Of Soul and Deep City in 1967 maintain the shroud over a clear birthdate for the label.

Regardless of historiographic convenience, by 1968 Saadia was picking up steam, with local WMBM DJ Butterball—frequent M.C. of the vaunted Knight Beat talent shows—broadcasting Williams’ crisp translations of his live act. Williams ran an airtight operation on stage, and relative to the ample, echoing work of his peers Pearsall and Clarke at Deep City, the Saadia sound was dominated by Frank’s show-tested sense of economy and fidelity. Horns always added texture to taste, the Collins-Ferguson rhythm machine reverberated with clean power, and Williams and Hale’s compositions maintained enough space to allow guitar and vocals room to flirt.

The Rocketeers remained a staple into the ’70s, and their records became a rallying cry for the tenacity of the Overtown scene in the face of its gradual decline. The band’s chops are on full display in two singles : Little Beaver’s “Everybody Has Dues To Pay” and Brother Williams’ “Right On Brother.” The latter was another Williams’ frontman persona, and a landmark of both 45s is some exceptional dexterity in Beaver’s fretwork. The lucidity and pacing with which Williams realizes James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” itself belies the gravity of the Saadia mission, less a cover than a challenge for all outsiders to tighten up.

A transfusion of vitality came from another Jacksonville transplant, Robert Moore. “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, b/w “ Just Can’t Help Myself,” was his first cut, two breakneck grooves driven by the Ferguson-Collins machine’s signature rim-shots and clean, poised bass.

The powerful female counterpoint to Moore came in Pearl Dowell (mislabeled as “Dowdell”), his former backup singer and the helmswoman of some equally tough cuts: “It’s All Over” b/w “Good Things.” The former encapsulates the Saadia sound, as Dowell traces the tense, giddy contours of Williams’ composition, each instrument voicing in perfect proportion. The B-side glides atop slick wah-vamps and snare work from Beaver and Ferguson, a tempo-wrestler demanding serious floor time.

The final vocal effort from Saadia would be from Frank’s long-time understudy, Joey Gilmore, in 1971: “Somebody Done Took My Woman And Gone.” Gilmore waded into singing as the leader of the Rocketeers No. 2, with the same push Williams dealt Beaver in 1964, and he weaved the mid-tempo groove and his signature blues into a regional hit.

An outlier was Beaver’s club band, Thunder, Lightning and Rain. It was essentially a pared-down reconfiguration of the Rocketeers, with bassist Ron Bogdon and drummer Robert Ferguson holding down the rhythm section. They cut one single for Saadia, “Super Funky,” its generic name concealing a mean rhythm with some especially rude wah-inflected licks from Beaver.

Frank Williams’ musical fortune remained tied to Overtown throughout, in the livelihood provided by his live dates as well as the publicity feedback loop they comprised with his hyper-local record distribution. The foundation of Saadia, and its musical family, therefore disintegrated with that of Overtown itself. The end of the 1960s witnessed the gutting of the fourteen-by-seven block community’s cultural and physical infrastructure, as the construction of the I-95 and 395 freeways dispossessed most of the area’s black residents. The last of Second Avenue’s cultural lifeblood drained eastward with the integration of Miami Beach’s lavish clubs, and the miniscule pay remaining dried up, as Williams’ debts to a local impresario—the Sir John’s Clyde Killens—alienated his musicians. Each left, with the former lieutenant, Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, last of all.

Williams passed away in the 1980s, his final enterprise a short-lived restaurant, but within this album lay a testament to the brilliance of his creation. A course is charted here, across fifteen tracks and a cultural renaissance of black Miami, of healing and joy, a search for the musical pillar of a community and an answer for its absence. This is the Saadia label, and these are the records of the Frank Williams family.

Track List

  1. Pearl Dowell It’s All Over
  2. Little Beaver Everybody Has Some Dues To Pay
  3. Robert Moore Can’t Help Myself
  4. Little Beaver Do Right Man
  5. Brother Williams Right On Brother
  6. Pearl Dowell Good Things
  7. Joey Gilmore Somebody Done Took My Baby And Gone
  8. Little Beaver Do Right Man
  9. Joey Gilmore Girl Your Best Friend Done Took Your Place
  10. Robert Moore Everything’s Gonna Be Alright
  11. Little Beaver Do It To Me One More Time
  12. Thunder Lightning & Rain Super Funky
  13. Brother Williams Cold Sweat
  14. Joey Gilmore Blind Man
  15. Sam Baker Do Right Man