For six decades, Eddie Daye has kept old-school doo-wop and R&B alive in Washington.
"How's everyone doing out there?" Denise Daye calls out in standard concert fashion to the crowd of 100 or so packed into a small room in the Prince George's Community College student union this warm late-September afternoon. Sporting Pocahontas braids and wearing a bright, flowered halter top and matching short skirt and headband, the energetic 49-year-old singer begins belting out the 1976 Rose Royce hit "Car Wash" to a more diverse audience than she usually sings to during her late-night gigs in neighborhood bars.
This Bluebird Blues Festival crowd, though it features some of her regular supporters, for whom Superfly-era fashion never went out of style, also includes tastefully dressed middle-aged African-American professionals, jeans-wearing white blues-rockers, and even a few baggy-pantsed PG College students. Strutting between the rows of folding chairs placed between the space's garish orange-vinyl-covered booths, Daye shimmies and spins, mixing Vegas-, Soul Train-, and MTV-style moves.
Backing her up is the five-piece Good Time Band, along with her husband, Eddie Daye. His look is pure showbiz: He wears a cream-colored suit with a blue handkerchief in the pocket and a matching blue Hawaiian shirt underneath; his slightly receding black hair is slicked straight back from his impassive face. He stands quietly until it's his time to sing, like a veteran basketball player waiting to hit a nothing-but-net 3-pointer at the final buzzer.
When he finally steps up to the mike on "Car Wash," he provides deep, burnished backing vocals so powerful that they upstage both his wife's gyrations and his own classy doo-wop moves. On other cuts, he takes the lead, alternating between an elegant balladeering style influenced by the sleek styles of Jerry Butler and Brook Benton and a rougher, bluesier delivery that recalls Latimore and Bobby "Blue" Bland.
As Eddie sings, the crowd becomes boisterous, its members rhythmically moving in their seats and answering him call-and-response style, as if listening to a Sunday-morning preacher. Denise beams, never stopping her banter or her over-the-top dance moves, but Eddie wows the crowd more casually. He does the job with just a few carefully chosen steps, his attentive eyes, and that striking timbre, which transcends not only the cheesy setting and the occasionally cliched song choices but also Eddie's 71 years.
One of D.C.'s last surviving links to the era of classic doo-wop, blues, and soul, Eddie knows how to work an audience. Tonight, as on countless other nights, he ends his set with a guaranteed crowd-pleaser: "Sexy Senior Citizen." Proclaiming that he's "not a dirty old man," he slowly strolls out into the audience, stopping in front of a 20-something guy standing in the back. After a pause, he reveals to the youngster the secret of an "old man's success": "You've got to learn to use your head," he proclaims in his deep, rolling baritone. The crowd roars.
But "Sexy Senior Citizen" is more than just a bawdy boast from a wizened Lothario; it's also a statement of relevancy uttered by a veteran artist in search of recognition in a world that he fears may have forgotten him.
A native of Durham, N.C., Edward Jasper Daye moved to the District in 1944, when he was 14. Like many R&B performers, he grew up singing in his family's Baptist church. Until he was 17, he sang in public only in gospel groups. But Daye says that he was "listening to everything," singing "Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Blind Boy Fuller, and the Mills Brothers" to himself whenever he got the chance. In high school, he first began performing in secular music groups and quickly formed the doo-wop outfit the 4 Bars. "We met singing in Southwest D.C. on Half Street," he recalls. "The four of us got together with just an acoustic guitar, singing underneath a streetlight."
Soon, the ensemble was appearing at such heralded pre-integration establishments as the Crystal Caverns at 10th and U Streets NW; Turner's Arena at 14th and W Streets NW; and the Evans Grill, a club in Forestville, Md., that was long a part of the regional Chitlin Circuit. The Korean War intervened just when the Bars were set to cut a record in New York City under the auspices of songwriter and Orioles manager Deborah Chessler. But before two of its members headed overseas, in 1951, the group won the talent show at Harlem's fabled Apollo Theatre.
"We were wearing our Army coats," Daye remembers. "One of the fellows who formed the 4 Bars, Melvin Butler, was inducted shortly after me, and we met in Germany.... After the service, we re-formed the group."
In 1954, the 4 Bars signed with a Jubilee Records subsidiary called Josie, for which they released three singles in two years. Although the group sold 150,000 copies of its second single, "If I Give My Heart to You," its third effort didn't do as well. After that, says Daye, "Everything fizzled down to regional sales."
But sales were the least of the 4 Bars' problems with Josie, according to Daye. "Although I was listed as the owner of the tunes, I found out the tunes were listed with BMI under Josie, which gave them the publishing rights," he says. "So when I would go to receive a royalty-dividend check, they would only give me the writer's rights and the performer's rights, which is a smaller amount [than the publisher's rights]....When you wise up, that's when they ship you out. We never released another record with them."
Between 1959 and 1962, the group released a string of 45s on long-gone imprints such as Len, Time, and Flying Hawk. All the while, Daye was becoming increasingly disgusted with the music business. "After all of these one-off tries," he remembers, "I decided that if [the label wasn't] putting much into it and just using you as a tax write-off, I could do this myself, and I activated Dayco Records and opened my own publishing company." Daye enlisted a young Donny Hathaway to produce, hired musicians from D.C. and Baltimore, and decided to release the records himself.
Daye is especially proud of his involvement with R&B legend Hathaway. "Donny had a studio on 14th Street and was teaching piano," he recalls. "I enrolled in the class and took about four lessons. He'd give me homework, but instead of coming back with the homework learned, I'd come back with a tune I'd written that I tried to pick out for him on the piano. 'You'll never learn if you're just trying to write songs,' he'd say. Then he'd do arrangements [of my work]." Despite Hathaway's admonition, Daye remained more interested in writing songs than in becoming proficient on the piano. By the mid-'60s, it seemed that he had made the right choice.
Daye had been schlepping his self-released 4 Bars records around to stores up and down the mid-Atlantic coast, concentrating on the Eastern Shore. "I'd leave two to three hundred records on consignment" in small shops in Maryland and Delaware, he says. Much of the discs' popularity derived from the airplay they received from renowned DJ Hoppy Adams on Annapolis, Md.'s, WANN, a 50,000-watt AM station whose
signal reached most of Maryland, the District, and Virginia, and parts of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Adams, now the owner of Annapolis' WFBR-FM, says that the 4 Bars' 1962 single "Try Me One More Time" "was No. 1 on my program for weeks. [Daye] knocked out James Brown, Lloyd Price, and Ray Charles." Adams also recalls packed 4 Bars gigs at nearby Carr's Beach, the main bayside resort and entertainment complex for area African-Americans.
"Most of the places we played were across the Bay Bridge," says Butler, who notes that Daye made sure his band put on a real show whenever it took the stage. "He spent his money dressing the group," the former bandmate recalls. "Red jackets made of snakeskin, suede suits, and polka dots and metallic things." Like the Coasters, the 4 Bars performed skits onstage as part of their act. "We did even more dramatizing than them," Daye says proudly.
Butler remembers one routine in particular, in which Daye "did 'Pierre the Lover.' He'd come out with a red tam on and a shawl that was like a cape and a big cigar. [He'd recite,] 'I'm the cool monsieur from France,' because he had been in France in the Army."
Dayco released seven 4 Bars singles between 1967 and 1985, with gradually decreasing sales. Although many of these sides now fetch hundreds of dollars in Europe, where the band has a longtime cult following, Daye has never worried about getting rich from his music. Indeed, unlike many of his fellow musicians, he never gave up his day job.
In 1949, he began working in the upholstery business, and in 1982 started his own upholstery-supplies company, which he also called Dayco. In 1968, he bought the Showboat Lounge in Adams Morgan from jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd. Until 1975, when the club burned down, Daye booked the Showboat's entertainment, which occasionally included the 4 Bars.
One day in 1968, Daye booked a brother-and-sister team that included dancer Denise Locks, who told Daye that she had once performed with Tito Puente. "I was always singing [backstage]," says Denise, "and Eddie said I had a nice voice. So I went down there at a talent show, and, I'll never forget, my first song was Candi Staton's 'Young Heart Running Free,' and I did that, and ever since, I've been singing." Within a year, 18-year-old Denise and 39-year-old Eddie had begun dating; they were married in 1977.
The two started performing R&B originals and covers together a year after meeting, backed by the Showboat's house band. Over the years, they also established Friday- and Saturday-night residencies at now-defunct venues such as Gee's 4400 Club in Brentwood, Md., and the Gold Room in Northeast, as well as at the now all-hiphop Chuck & Billy's Lounge on Georgia Avenue NW. Weekend after weekend between 1969 and 2001, these and other down-home joints served as the base of operations for the rollicking Eddie and Denise show. But as the locales where Daye once joyfully testified for hours at a stretch have closed up one by one, he and Denise have performed less and less often. For now, their only upcoming gigs are a private retirement party and tentative dates at Lamont's Entertainment Complex in Pomonkey, Md., and Oliver's Saloon in Laurel, Md.
But Daye still keeps busy with a day job: He now works as a security officer and delivery driver for D.C.'s Sibley Memorial Hospital. And he spends his evenings rehearsing in his Northwest home with his wife and band and continues, he says, to seek musical success--albeit in his own slow and deliberate style. Although his methods appear to have left him far from that goal, he claims he enjoys singing too much to give it up.
Even more, though, he and Denise enjoy interacting with their audience. "The audience becomes part of our act," Daye notes. For years, evenings out with Eddie and Denise have been part talent show, part sideshow. One night, a female James Brown impersonator squared off against a male Otis Redding impersonator. A year-and-a-half ago at Chuck & Billy's, a woman got so inspired by the music that she took off her artificial legs and danced on her stumps; Daye describes her performance as inspired by a "Holy Ghost rhythm."
Although the 4 Bars opened for the likes of Sam Cooke, the Penguins, and the Platters, and Eddie knew Marvin Gaye, Billy Stewart, and the Clovers when they were just up-and-coming D.C. warblers, Daye asserts that he isn't bitter about having missed the big time. "I never became a national success, because I wouldn't trade anything, like giving up my day job," he says. "Other groups were able to get the break, seeing the right person to discover them. We weren't hanging out at places like that. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it no differently. Because although at the time these groups like the Clovers were having hit records and I was feeling a bit envious, I look at the end results and I see that many of them died with nothing, no money. They gave up so much to have so little."
If Daye and his wife have any concerns that their own best musical days are behind them, they never let on. They have been working on and off for two years on a new CD with local musician and producer Lincoln Ross, who has played with the O'Jays and the Dells. Daye says that the album will include "some originals, but [those cuts will be duets] similar to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell." For months now, Daye has been fine-tuning the material before he and Denise go into the studio to record it.
Daye also says that he has a connection at leading soul and blues label Malaco Records, based in Jackson, Miss. He's hoping to do a vocal for a track originally prepared for Johnnie Taylor, the label's recently deceased star. Even though six-plus months have gone by and Malaco has yet to bite at his demo, Daye isn't throwing in the towel.
In that distinctive voice of his, as deep and strong as ever, he expresses the quiet self-confidence that has kept him going for all these years: "There's still a communication line there," he says. "I'm still looking forward." CP