Friday, May 31, 2013

QUO ~ Breaking Down Music Barriers

Rock group QUO was organized in mid-1970's by noted musician & songwriter Roland Robinson. (L-R) Jerry Norris-drums, Harold Otis-guitar, Roland Robinson-vocals and bass guitar.

After one glance and you'll probably be aware this isn't one of your average run-of-the-mill rock bands. If the truth be known, QUO's cutting edge music helped lay the foundation of a trendsetting movement that took place in, of all places, the home of rock n' roll itself. These seasoned Memphis musicians, who were all Black, came together to form something that many rock purist and musical naysayers said couldn't be done. Let me explain. If you turn back the clock to those formative years and combine this band's racial component into the descriptive pool that categorizes music, groups of this nature were typically filed within the category of R&B Music. But not so fast there my dear music analyst. Not if this band has anything to say about it. You see, these guys were far from anything resembling a R&B band. By all accounts, all you'll have to do is go down to the Antenna Club in mid-town Memphis to catch this band live and you'll see what all the fuss is about. You see, QUO was a veteran group of Black musicians who aspired to crossover into the grey and murky boundaries of Rock Music. At this particular time music of this nature was in the development stages and still critically undefined yet often grouped together with the new British musical movement and often referred to as New Wave.

As the splintering of this genre was unfolding, band leader Roland Robinson was an early trailblazer in this endeavor. Call it New Wave, Alternative Music or call it Punk-Rock, as those were all ambiguous terms. One thing was for certain however, this electronic music was something to be beckoned with and not going away anytime soon. Plus, it attracted a new generation of music lovers who were very expressive and passionate about associating with new groups from their own age bracket. Soon other bands would also surface like The Clash, Talking Heads and The Ramones while registering their sound and gaining notice in this same category. But one might take particular notice here, those groups were all white musicians and nothing appeared to be unusual there. Yet QUO did not fit in that distinctive mold. But as you read on, record companies were beginning to take notice to this movement and searching under every rock for up and coming bands in this category. As a early proponent and testament to Roland Robinson's passion for this style of music, his group plowed ahead and continued to drop jaws while leaving audiences in awe. But on January 6th, 1978 when QUO opened for the notorious Sex Pistols on their first U.S. tour at The Taliesyn Ballroom in Memphis, they had finally popped-up on the national radar screen. That association alone was enough to piggy-back this band into the national spotlight. For Robinson, the roller coaster ride had just begun.

Also, duly noted here, this was 6 years before the superstar Prince arrived on the music scene with his monster debut, Purple Rain. 

Looking back on Robinson's background, as a youngster he was always around great music as his cousin was legendary guitarist & songwriter Teenie Hodges from Hi Records Rhythm Section. At an early age Robinson was nicknamed by a family member as QUO Jr. and the name stuck with him through childhood. Years later it became Roland Robinson's alias while later he dropped the Jr. portion of the nickname and it became the official name of his band. Robinson been around the block a time or two and prior to starting his own band, he had played bass with many known artists such as Eddie Floyd, Buddy Miles, the Cactus Band while also doing sessions work with The Hi Records Rhythm Section. Robinson was a well respected musician and even jammed and recorded with the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix. That jam was captured and released on the recent album Nine to the Universe. By 1984 Robinson had blossomed into a successful songwriter when he teamed together with Dewayne Hitchings to co-wrote Rod Stewart's classic hit song "Infatuation."

Back to that ground breaking performance with the Sex Pistols, QUO had been making quite a buzz around town when they were approached by music executive Phillip Rauls and noted producer-engineer J.R. Williams. Both were industry veterans and had recently formed a production company while making a convincing pitch to Robinson to represent his band. Upon signing a music publishing and production contract with Rauls-Williams Productions, Roland Robinson and his band were ready to take the next logical step.

Upon hearing the rumors and street noise being circulated about QUO, Capitol Records A&R executive Bruce Garfield (above) contacted Rauls-Williams Productions and inquired about their status. "Unsigned" was the official response given by the Memphis production company while a very interested Bruce Garfield inquired further. With curiosity running high Garfield wanted to hear more music from the band. Arraignments were made with the production company to have additional songs recorded at a leading studio, Ardent Recording in Memphis. After a budget had been established, the recording began at a rapid pace. By this time almost an entire album would be completed while QUO appeared to be on the threshold of something big. Considering Capitol Records keen interest in the band, word leaked-out about the sessions when Atlantic Records in New York threw their name into the ring of potential suitors. "We'd like to come down to Memphis to see the band preform live in their own environment and get a closer look" said Atlantic's A&R executive, Jim Delehant (below).
That was incredible news and a welcomed inquiry. So, upon Delehant's request, a live showcase was assembled at QUO's favorite haunt, The Antenna Club. On the evening of the showcase there was wall-to-wall people stuffed into a packed house at the renown club known for it's pulse for new music. Next, QUO came out on stage looking great and the band's sound intensity was pounding-off people's chest like an invisible sound wave. The light show was spectacular and the sound mix superb thus adding to a great evening's performance. Plus, the band's professional demeanor was complimented by a set of Robinson's all-original songs. Sitting across the table from local production reps was a well pleased Jim Delehant when the A&R executive looked over and said, "Okay, let's talk."

After the show Robinson and Delehant met for the first time while both production company officers were present to liaison the meeting. Backstage at The Antenna Club (below) compliments were exchanged back and forth while Delehant shared his ideas about a possible opening for a Foreigner Tour that was in the works. Atlantic was red hot at the time and it was not unusual for the company to wave it's magic wand by putting newly signed
bands on tour with their label mates. Delehant stated, "I might be interested in the band and would like to talk to Foreigner's manager, Mr. Bud Prager about representing QUO as their exclusive personal manager and get them on a national tour opening for the hottest act in the business." Wow! That sounded like a red carpet being rolled out. And a definite enticement to sign with Atlantic. Except for one big problem. Robinson didn't look happy. He seem confused and looked down and shook his head. That's when Robinson pledged his loyalty to their local manager who, by the way, wasn't even present at the band's showcase. Even more bazaar was the fact that QUO's manager wasn't even in the music business either. As a matter of fact, their manager was in a completely different profession and treated the band's interest like a personal hobby. Needless to say and without these components and critical industry connections being recommended by this Atlantic executive who had flown all the way from New York to attend this show, all the band's future success with Atlantic, and later with Capitol Records also, was doomed for defeat.

Here lie months and months of preparation and huge investment of people's time and interest. Sad. I admire Robinson's commitment to his local ties but this was a classic case of a blown deal. Things were so very close too. But looking back, there was definitely something happening here. In any event, after the shock had worn off and everyone had moved on with their lives, there was still a great album there sitting in the can. And it definitely needed to be heard. Sadly, Roland Robinson passed away in 2004 and didn't get a chance to grab that brass ring that we all worked so hard to achieve. So, as the co-producer of this fine album, I'm sticking to my guns and making another serious effort to get his music heard. Now I can proudly say, "This is truthfully for you Mr. Roland Robinson. You inspired me greatly." RIP

Featured here is a YouTube posting of a rare recording from QUO's only album titled, "Introducing QUO". Here is the band's outstanding version of the Otis Redding classic, "Hard To Handle."