There must have been something in the air in Kansas City, Missouri. Of the four recording groups that I know came from there (the 5 Scamps, the Champions, the Chandeliers, and the Carpets), two of them had oddball names.
In 1954, Henry Jacobs started a quartet at the housing project at 20th and Prospect. Henry was the lead singer and pianist, James Gadson was the tenor, Elmer Powell (who lived in a house nearby) was second tenor, and John King was the bass. In time, James' brother, Thomas Gadson, joined as baritone. They started out by calling themselves the Velvetones, but it turned out that there was another local group with that name and they had to abandon it. Instead, they switched to "The Carpets" ("It was the only thing we could think of," says James).
The projects were small, not the huge impersonal buildings of New York or Chicago, and the Carpets rarely sang in the halls: street corners needed to be Carpeted. Too, there were no end of record hops; the Carpets would meet at these and sing in the back, drawing off as much of the crowd as possible. There were also parks to practice in, and parties at which to show off.
In time, Henry Jacobs decided that he didn't want to pursue singing any more and the guys got Herbert Anthony to replace him. Herbert, from Lake Providence, Louisiana, was Elmer's cousin and, at the time of our story, was living in Elmer's house. Then John King wandered off and was replaced by Lonnie Triplett, who lived across the street from James.
The guys were young: at the time that they formed, Thomas was around 12, Lonnie and Herbert were 13, James was 14, and Elmer was 15. Their biggest influences came from the music of the Drifters, Dominoes, Dells, Moonglows, Robins, Clovers and Orioles. Later, the Teenagers would also be thrown into the mix. "We heard everything. We sang everything. We knew all the songs. The radio station [KPRS] played jazz, R&B, and gospel."
In fact, local KPRS DJ Jimmy Jones took an interest in the Carpets, whom he had met at various hops, and subsequently became their manager.
Along the way there were a couple of personnel changes. Bass Lonnie Triplett up and quit one day; the guys convinced John King (16) to return. Then Herbert Anthony returned to Louisiana and was replaced by Thomas' friend, Charley Tillman, an old man at 19.
In early 1956, Ralph Bass, Federal Records a&r man, came through town looking for new talent. Manager Jimmy Jones found out about it and had the Carpets audition for Bass in his room at the Streets Hotel. Bass liked James' high voice and the enthusiasm of the group.
There were contracts to be signed, but the guys were all underage and, of course, their parents had to do the signing. Bass decided to record the group locally, and set up a session at Damon's Studio for January 29, 1956. It was unusual for King/Federal/Deluxe sessions to be held in other than certain cities, and, even though Bass personally produced the session, the results aren't up to the company's technical quality. At the session, they were backed by a small band consisting of "Jumpin' Joe" Thomas (sax), Sonny Kenner (guitar), Willie Rice (piano) and an unremembered drummer.
They recorded four songs, all of which James Gadson wrote and led: "Why Do I," "Let Her Go," "Lonely Me," and "Chicken Backs." In mid to late February, Federal released the first Carpets record: "Why Do I," backed with "Let Her Go." The former is a nice ballad, which shows off James' youthful, yet powerful voice. The flip is uptempo, and features a very poor use of echo.
While most record companies had little to say about their artists, King/Federal routinely placed short biographies on the labels of the DJ copies. Many of them were wildly inaccurate, and they were usually filled with hype; the one about the Carpets actually wasn't too bad. They got the names right and the ages wrong:
Currently on a talent hunting trip throughout the Midwest, Federal A&R man Ralph Bass discovered the Carpets through a disc jockey contact in Kansas City. The group, all minors ranging in age from sixteen to nineteen, proceeded to give Bass one of the most exciting vocal auditions he can remember. He immediately signed them to a contract and recorded them the following week.
James Gadson is the lead voice with the Carpets. He is sixteen years old, and sings with fire and spirit that would surprise vocalists with much more experience. The rest of the group includes Elmer Powell, Charley Tillman, John King, and James Gadson's brother, Tom. These guys, although their professional experience is very small, blend their voices together in an amazingly professional style.
The record was reviewed the week of March 17, 1956, with both sides getting good ratings. Other songs reviewed that week were: Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," Otis Williams & the Charms' "Ivory Tower," the Turks' "I've Been Accused," the Midnighters' "Open Up The Back Door," the Pipes' "Be Fair," the 5 Notes' "Park Your Love," and the Barons' "Cryin' For You Baby."
The record was played locally, probably making the local charts (it did, of course, help to have a DJ for a manager). The disc also made it to the juke box in the school gym, which must have impressed the girls (was there any other reason to record?). They found out that it also did well in Texas. Unfortunately, Federal released James Brown's "Please, Please, Please" at about the same time, and it did so well that the Carpets weren't heavily promoted.
The Carpets made very few appearances, and no big professional ones. They were all young and their parents wouldn't let them go out of town, so the guys never appeared anywhere but Kansas City. Thus, they only played hops, amateur shows, and parties during their career. Their biggest triumph was when the Midnighters appeared locally at the Municipal Auditorium and the Carpets were allowed to come up on the stage and sing.
The second record, "Lonely Me" and "Chicken Backs," full of bad echo effects, was issued in early May. Both sides received good reviews the week of May 12, 1956, along with the Turbans' "I'm Nobody's," the Flamingos' "A Kiss From Your Lips," the Sophomores' "Every Night About This Time," the Penguins' "Dealer Of Dreams," the Inspirations' "Raindrops," and Joe Turner's "Corrine, Corrina." Whoever wrote the bio on the DJ copy couldn't think of anything new to say (other than that they all went to the same high school, which wasn't even true), and it thus became somewhat boring.
This is the second release by the Carpets on Federal and as predicted the boys have already caught the fancy of the public. The group was discovered in Kansas City. The one thing that impresses everyone about this fine group is their youthfulness. The group ranges in age from 16 to 19 years of age although they sing with the spirit and finesse of performers many years older.
James Gadson is the leader of the Carpets and he is only sixteen years old, but his imagination and fresh ideas are the driving force behind this group of young boys. The rest of the group includes Elmer Powell, Charley Tillman, John King, and James Gadson's brother Tom. All of the boys attend the same high school in Kansas City. Truly, one of the music world's newest up and coming acts.
When nothing happened with this record either, Federal made the decision to drop them. It was probably just a one-year contract that Federal allowed to expire (since his parents signed the contract, James never saw it). They were together throughout 1956, and then started to fall apart.
Elmer Powell went off to the Marines, and John King just quit. James Gadson did solo work for a while at the Orchid Room (singing a lot of Ruth Brown songs), then he too joined the service, enlisting in the Air Force.
In school, James had played the trumpet somewhat, but (according to his own account) having been something of a juvenile delinquent, he didn't pay much attention to music theory. Thus, when he tried out for an Air Force band, he flunked the test. He ended up joining a vocal group which competed in the Tops In Blue contest. However, some internal dissention developed in the group, and they ended up being bested by the Del Vikings.
When James got out of the Air Force, in 1961, he found that brother Tom had learned to play the guitar and had formed an R&B band called [what else?] the Carpets. The members were: Walter Chisolm (sax), Harold Rice (bassist), Harry Wilkins (drums), and Tom Gadson (guitar). James joined as lead vocalist (the others sang background vocals). When Harold Rice left to join Jay McShann's orchestra, drummer Harry Wilkins switched over to bass. James then took over the open drum spot. (This may not have been as difficult as it sounds, James' father was a drummer.) A late addition to the group was trumpeter Percy Cooper, brother of organist Earl Grant; he was the only non-singing member).
At some point, the Carpets changed their name to the Derbys, and made a single record for the KC label (owned by Nat King Cole), released in December 1962. "Any Old Way" is led by James; its flip, "The Huckster Man," is an instrumental. (They were not the Derbys on Mercury or Savoy). Since they had abandoned the name "Carpets," another local Kansas City group approached Tom Gadson for permission to use it. That group went to Chicago and had releases on ViJ ("What Can You Do For Me"/"I Just Can't Win") and Show Me ("Keep Pushing On"/"You Don't Have To Buy Me").
In 1963, the Derbys made one more record, this time for Kansas City's Central label: "Teach Me To Monkey"/"I Ain't Gonna Love You."
After this, the Derbys were booked on a tour of the South (on which they had to pretend to be a different famous group in each town). At the point when they were ready to leave Florida, James decided to stay behind. While he was working around locally, he got a gig as the drummer with the Midnighters (remember, the Carpets had met the Midnighters years before), playing Nassau in the Bahamas. This led to him staying with them for about a year. At the time, the Midnighters consisted of Hank Ballard, Henry Booth, Lawson Smith, and Norman Thrasher, with a road band that had Cal Green (guitar), Willie Gresham (sax), Pat Patterson (trumpet), Semuel [sic] Evans (bassist), and James Gadson (drums). James not only played drums, but got to sing as the opening act for the Midnighters.
In 1972, James took a stab at a solo career. Recording for the Cream label, he released "I Got To Find My Baby," which rose to #36 on the R&B charts.
Over the years, James has remained a drummer. He's been with Charles Wright's Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and has backed up the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Anita Baker, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Charles Brown, Peabo Bryson, Jerry Butler, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, the Drifters, the 4 Tops, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, B.B. King, Patti LaBelle, Little Richard, the Spinners, the Osmonds, Wilson Pickett, Della Reese, the Pointer Sisters, Lou Rawls, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers, Boz Scaggs, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder (just to drop a few names). He also went into record production, co-producing (and playing on) Bill Withers' "Lean On Me," as well as tunes by Bobby Womack, Thelma Houston, and James Ingram.
The Carpets, in spite of the hype in the Federal bio, did show power and drive in their singing. It's a shame that Federal wasn't willing to invest in either a decent recording session or in promoting their records.
Special thanks to Jesse Watson, Victor Pearlin, Billy Vera, Jeff Beckman, and Dan Romanello.
12257 Why Do I/Let Her Go - 2/56
12269 Lonely Me/Chicken Backs - 5/56
111 Any Old Way (led by James Gadson)/The Huckster Man (instrumental) - 12/62
101 Teach Me To Monkey (led by Tom Gadson)/I Ain't Gonna Love You (led by James Gadson) - 63
1014 I Got To Find My Baby/Let The Feeling Belong - early 1972
1019 Good Vibrations/Just To Love you Girl - 72