Smoky Places

Three brothers and a cousin from La Grange, North Carolina, about 70 miles east of state capital Raleigh and an equal distance west to the Atlantic Ocean, formed a memorable but relatively short-lived family act, in the process becoming the 2000-person city's most famous celebrities. The Corsairs were hardly swashbuckling as their name might suggest, but there was, at least, a devil-may-care aspect in their use of nicknames. The oldest brother, Moses Uzzell, with his early-developed baritone voice and senior status (if only by a year or so over the others), appointed himself "King Moe." The second sibling-in-line, James Uzzell, was called "Little Skeet" as a kid and used his nickname more sparingly. The youngest, Jay Dee Uzzell, ended up with the obvious "Jay Bird" and worked that into his professional moniker. Cousin George Wooten, chronologically the second oldest, avoided taking on an alternate handle.

Growing up in the same neighborhood and with an age span of less than three years, all four attended their 12 years of schooling one right behind the other. An interest in music developed early and by high school, together for two of the four years, they began singing in glee club. Adding two letters, they became known as The Gleems and made a name for themselves singing at school shows and local parties. King Moe had graduated by the time they made their first record as The Kool Toppers (with three other members, James Lewis, Irving Perry and fourth brother Lindberg Uzzell). "Is That Exactly What You Wanta' Do" and 'Cause I Love You So," raw but effective midtempo doo wop efforts, were issued on the Beverly label of nearby Kinston, North Carolina. In 1960, once the initial quartet had put their education behind them, they made a 500-mile journey to Newark, New Jersey in order to live in close proximity to the many New York record labels. Performing in some of the area's small clubs as the Gleems, it wasn't long before they got noticed.

Abner Spector, a native of Philadelphia who moved to Chicago as a child, had already spent more than a decade in the music business as a songwriter; with several collaborators, his songs had been recorded by Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, Billy Eckstine and others. He married singer Lona Stevens and she, too, became a songwriting partner. He'd begun working in A&R at Chicago's Chess Records in the late '50s and was starting his own label, Tuff Records, in early '61 when he caught one of the group's shows and liked how the three brothers all functioned as leads. Spector offered to record them while suggesting a name change to The Corsairs (despite the short-lived existence of a six-member New York-based Corsairs group that had a single on the Hy-Tone label in 1957).

In stark contrast to their Kool Toppers experience, the Corsairs found themselves in a highly professional atmosphere. Spector was a stickler for turning out top-quality product and booked all his sessions for Tuff at the Broadway Studio in Midtown Manhattan's Theater District, where he also had an office. Recording mostly in stereo with N.Y.'s best musicians (including string sections, a sometimes-maligned development in the evolution of rhythm and blues), the Corsairs' output sounded great. "It Won't Be a Sin" (penned by Abner) put Moses in the lead, credited to The Corsairs featuring the voice of "King" Moe Uzzell; B side "Time Waits" (penned by James Uzzell and Abner's wife Lona) used high tenor Jay and gave credit to The Corsairs featuring the voice of Jay "Bird" Uzzell. First released on Tuff, it was licensed to Mercury Records and appeared on its Smash label. Afterwards, Spector made a deal with his former company, Chess, for the distribution of all subsequent Tuff releases.

George Wooten, 'King Moe' Uzzell, Jay 'Bird' Uzzell, James 'Little Skeet' Uzzell

The next single used the same billing as the first, reversing the A and B side preference. "Smoky Places," another Spector-penned tune with an arrangement by Sammy Lowe, featured a Jay "Bird" lead and an uncommon, attention-grabbing drum beat using mallets. The midtempo song told a tale of forbidden love: 'Meeting in smoky places, hiding in shadowy corners, dancing where no one knows our faces...sharing love stolen in the smoky places,' suggesting a married woman had been reunited with a former lover in the hope that her husband would one day set her free. Working its way gradually up the national survey in the early months of 1962, the single reached the R&B top ten and went nearly as high on the pop charts in March.

Its follow-up, "I'll Take You Home" (composed by Manhattan-based songwriters Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss), a ballad with a lead by Jay and a reprise of the prominent mallet sound, came across as a sequel, taking place after the eventual marriage of the previously-clandestine couple: 'After the dancing and the singing, after the wedding feast is through, after the bells have finished ringing...after, that's when I'll say to is the time, now we're alone, give me your hand...I'll take you home.' A top 30 R&B hit later that spring, it also had a two-month run on the pop charts.

"Bird" had become the designated lead singer, but further attempts never reached the level of the two hits. Lew Douglas took over as arranger at this time...could that have been part of the problem? Lyrics of Stevens' "Dancing Shadows" described a despondent "Silhouettes" situation; the flip side, "While," featured the group's only lead vocal credited to "Little Skeet" Uzzell. Fifth single "At the Stroke of Midnight" veered into novelty territory with a bizarre, undecipherable bass-versus-Chipmunks-style vocal. Next came "Stormy," a well-executed remake of a ballad recorded in 1956 by both The Prophets (of Harrisburg, Georgia) and Billy Williams. The quartet went off the rails in 1964 with a Stevens-Weiss tune, "Save a Little Monkey," a novelty dance track that, for lack of a better comparison, came off as a timely-but-inferior attempt to jump on the Rivingtons bandwagon. But don't get me wrong. The majority of the group's output is interesting and entertaining, though perhaps the absence of a signature sound, which tied the two hits together, worked against them.

In 1965, Spector put them together with promising singer Landy McNeal, who'd recorded a single ("Move It (Move On)") for Kapp Records several months earlier; "On the Spanish Side" came off more Landy than Corsairs and turned out to be the group's final release. McNeal recorded several more singles for Tuff, Moon Shot and Columbia Records, but The Corsairs and its talented trio of Uzzell brothers called it quits and never made another record. And that's a shame. Abner Spector enjoyed the benefits of another major hit, 1963's "Sally, Go 'Round the Roses" by The Jaynetts, and managed to keep his Tuff operation going until 1968.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Smoky Places