The Soul Children
The Soul Children are a vocal trio formed ten years ago by the indomitable writing/producing team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes. Stax Records brought them together, and except for a brief period when the label was out of business, the Soul Children have never recorded for anyone else.
The Soul Children are Anita Louis, John “Blackfoot” Colbert, and Norman West. Together, they have done six albums (three of them with Porter), and had a solid string of soul hits, worked with almost all the other Stax artists, and came through it all with smiles on their faces and good will in their hearts: the essence of soul.
In late ’67, while Stax was exploding as a powerful international force in contemporary black pop music, David Porter and Isaac Hayes decided to form a group. They’d worked with the different Soul Children on an individual basis, and had written some material specifically for a particular blend of voices.
“Each of us was asked to join the group [which originally also included Shelbra Bennett], and Mr. Porter and Mr. Hayes were very careful to give us a couple of days to think it over. Well, it didn’t take a couple of days to decide!”
Group spokesman Norman West continues: “We all knew from the very beginning that we wanted to be on Stax. So we went into the studio, and David and Isaac just said, ‘Here, take this song, everybody find their voice on it.’ It clicked together instantly, like an automatic thing. It wasn’t until much later that I realized they’d approached it in a very scientific manner—getting the right voices together.” One voice of primary importance—at that time and at all times since—is the lead vocal of John “Blackfoot” Colbert. “Wilson Pickett was number one and James Brown was doing his Apollo thing, so naturally the roughness and the fullness of Blackfoot’s voice was essential. Nobody has to wonder who the lead singer is because Blackfoot just stands right on out!”
Their first album, The Soul Children, was released in 1968, containing their hits “I’ll Understand,” “The Sweeter He Is,” and “Tighten Up My Thang,” songs which are still requested by fans and, of course, performed by the group today. As Anita put it: “If you listen to that first album, you’ll find it was a pacesetter for where we are now. You’ll hear the same heartfelt performance, and the same style of production. We’ve got to give it all to David. He is miraculous.” The Soul Children worked steadily throughout the East and South for two and a half years without another hit, certainly a definitive measurement of the staying power of this group.
Other Stax albums included Best of Two Worlds, Genesis, and Friction. “By that time Stax was beginning to have trouble, and then it became a matter of our survival. Unfortunately, there aren’t any books out there that you can check out of the library to figure out what to do. So you just know—keep singing, keep writing, and hope for the best.”
In early ’75, the Soul Children received a call from Epic. “I thought it was some kind of a bad joke,” laughs Norman. But after a half hour’s conversation, he began apologizing. The Soul Children signed with Epic and did two LPs. The first was Finders Keepers, produced by Detroit’s Don Davis. The second, Where Is Your Woman Tonite, was released in 1976 and was, again and most familiarly, produced by David Porter.
“Then, to take it full circle,” comments Blackfoot, “when David went with the new resurrected Stax, we were right there knocking on his door. After all, David heard our sound in his head before we even heard it ourselves!”
John “Blackfoot” Colbert is the lead vocalist with the Soul Children, and once you‘ve heard his distinctive gritty and gravelly voice you’re not likely to forget it. “Nobody knows who John Colbert is, and that’s fine with me. Now if you want to start asking about ‘Blackfoot,’ well, more folks might know about him.” Blackfoot, born in Greenville, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, got his nickname by walking barefoot on freshly tarred streets, and says the first part of his life was very hard. He has a tremendously uplifting spirit, and although he’s seen more trouble than most, he somehow emerged with a jubilant faith in the goodness of human nature.
“We’ve had a lot of good times in the past ten years,” Blackfoot muses. When asked if he ever tires of singing the older Soul Children hits, he quickly says, “Sure. After ten years of singing a song you’ve got to get tired of it. But all it takes is an audience, and their reaction is what gets you back into the song, right where you belong.” Blackfoot originally recorded as a soloist, and later traveled with the Bar-Kays for about six months, until Porter asked him to become one of the Soul Children. “The group has worked with a wide variety of instrumentalists, including Con-Funk-Shun. “We found them in California, brought them to Memphis, and they played with us for a year and a half. Then they wanted to try it on their own, and we just said ‘Go ahead and good luck!’”
Anita Louis began her singing career as one of the WDIA Teen Town Singers in Memphis. A.C. Williams, a WDIA jock and coordinator of the contests, introduced Anita to Porter and Hayes, and she began singing background vocals for the roster of Stax artists. “When I met Carla Thomas, Rufus, Johnnie Taylor, and all the rest of the Stax people, I was so impressed and so honored. It was the thrill of a lifetime, and I was just getting started!” Anita was the original solo singer with the Bar--Kays and worked with them for some time.
Anita has aspirations beyond the music business. “You see, I fully intended to go to college. In fact, I registered and paid my fees. Then I got that call from David, and I was just snatched out of college.” She began attending college classes two years ago and is determined to earn her degree. “I may never use it, but at least I’ll have it. I’ll know I earned it.”
Anita, like the other Soul Children, thinks of David Porter as a father/mentor figure, and musically, says he’s “one hell of a producer. He’s got a technique, a way of pulling out the best you’ve got to offer, that I’ve never seen before. For example, David might come in with a song and say, ‘Now Anita, I know you can’t sing this. It’s too hard.’ That just gets me going, and the result is that I sing it and sing it better just because David said I couldn’t do it!”
Norman West hails from Monroe, Louisiana, and grew up singing and playing organ in his father’s church. As a young teenager, Norman’s father landed him a spot as a DJ on a local religious program, introducing his father’s services. While in high school, Norman won all the talent contests; he attended college for two years as a voice major.
Then, fearing his r&b activities were damaging his father’s Christian reputation, Norman went to Memphis and joined the Del Rios, replacing William Bell. He met and worked with the whole Memphis crew—Carla and Rufus Thomas, Willie Mitchell, Porter and Hayes, etc. “They were like family. Before I got to Memphis I had a paper route, and Ivory Joe Hunter was my customer. We got to talking about music, and he finally suggested to me that I cut a record.” Norman soon signed with Hi Records—the first black male singer signed to the label—and spent the next five years working with Willie Mitchell. Later, several singles were released on Mercury’s Smash label.
Open Door Policy announces the return of the Soul Children to Stax, and effectively summarizes the group’s attitude towards music in general and their career. “If you don’t keep that ‘open door policy,’ then you’ll be blind to different opportunities that will naturally come your way. You won’t hear the good things other people are doing.”
Open Door Policy was produced by David Porter and his longtime musical associate (and current Stax executive), Lester Snell, who not so incidentally plays a mean piano and composes as well. The first single from the LP, “Can’t Give Up a Good Thing,” is galloping up the soul charts as Open Door Policy is being released. Other highlights of the LP are O.B. McClinton’s “Butt La Rose”; “Strangers,” written by Porter and Snell; and a real cooker, “Stir Up the Boogie.”