In April of 1979, the lone long-playing release by Father’s Children hit retail and radio with a dull thud. It had been a down spring for Mercury Records, with the Osmonds on their way out, the Gap Band on their way up, and Roadwarrior, Alfie Davidson, Hamilton Bohannon, and Father’s Children caught in the trough between two crests. Produced by the Crusaders Wayne Henderson, Father's Children—a self-titled, ten-song affair—culled together the work of a band already a solid decade into their Washington, D.C., escape plan. They had even gone so far as to call their album’s first and only single “Hollywood Dreaming.” But with the release of their eponymous debut, the dreams of Father's Children—Hollywood or otherwise—were over.
Self-titled albums are generally reserved for a group’s first circular foray into the marketplace. Often, they serve as a sort of shorthand for fresh, optimistic young artists taking the world on their own terms, and delivering their cumulative innovations at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. But Father's Children, though eponymous, was hardly the beginning; if anything, it was the beginning of the end. The group had already weathered innumerable personnel changes, transitioned from doo-wop trio to large ensemble, discovered Islam, suffered multiple management upheavals, and narrowly dodged death. Perhaps most importantly, they had already tracked an album’s worth of material, the would-be creative supernova that should have been their eponymous debut seven years prior. Born prematurely, Who’s Gonna Save The World incubated for decades in producer Robert Hosea Williams’ garage, waiting for the world to save it.
Hailing from northwestern D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, Nick Smith, Billy Sumler, and Ted “Skeet” Carpenter matriculated in a unique enclave of the capitol, an overlap of urban poor and international elite. Their friends and schoolmates at Western High School were the children of drug addicts and diplomats alike, giving the young group a dual perspective that infected the heart of their future recordings. No need for the short walk through Lanier Heights to the National Zoo—Adams Morgan was their own local zoo of humankind.
The evolution of Father’s Children is a blindingly familiar story: Nick, Billy, and Skeet doo-wopped in the park, on the corner, and on the way home from school. The addition of Jackie Peoples transformed the backpack soul trio into a tight, rehearsed, and assured quartet, graduating the group from the lamppost to parties, dances, and talent shows. The ensemble, unnamed during the bulk of their senior high years, was pronounced the Dreams after briefly backing local heavy Frankie Karl. Though Karl would use the Dreams name with a different line up throughout the remainder of the ’60s, the previously undubbed Western High vocal group used the moniker simultaneously. As their final spring at Western was winding down, the Dreams weren’t busy filling out college applications. Instead of dodging the by-then scaled-back Vietnam War, they intended to protest it with their turned-on brand of harmony soul. Five years into a career, the Dreams caught a break at the Adams Morgan People’s Center in 1972.
Managed by Norman Hylton, the People’s Center was a community center housed in a converted warehouse with a loose creative vibe, a couple of pool tables and a cluster of rehearsal rooms. Hylton got his start singing with local ensemble the Trojans before making the trek to Vietnam and back. He returned to D.C. in 1971 intent on doing something constructive for the streets that raised him. Buoyed by a grant from the Economic Development Administration, Hylton opened the Center in 1972 with the underlying optimism, spirituality, and collective idealism of the late 1960s, giving neighborhood youths a place to rehearse, write, and relax. On staff to mentor these up-and-comers was Larry Bell, formerly of the Carltons, who’d had a handful of singles on Chess’s Argo imprint in the mid-’60s. Both Bell and Hylton were partners in Pure Street Productions, a management firm that happened to be run out of the center, just in case any of the kids coming through decided to show some promise.
Located near Meridian Hill Park at 17th & Kalorama, the People’s Center was a short hike from the Dreams’ stomping grounds. Having caught word of the center’s open-door policy, the quartet strolled by in 1972. A year out of school had given them time to develop a proper set, with originals by Nick Smith snuggled neatly beside hits of the day. Hylton took an immediate interest in the group, becoming both manager and big brother within a few rehearsals. Sensing a coming wave, Hylton apprised them of a new trend in soul: the self-contained band, then being popularized by Earth, Wind, & Fire and New Birth. With the Dreams unable to hold down a steady backing band for performing, much less recording, Hylton tasked them with finding musicians in the neighborhood that could be incorporated into a larger ensemble. Bassist Michael Rogers and drummer Donald Radcliff were drafted out of a couple haphazard People’s Center groups, while wayfaring guitarist Stevie “Tai” Woods was folded in after stumbling into the chaotic atmosphere, in search of direction. Nick Smith began spending more time behind his family’s front room organ; feeling naked without instruments, Billy and Skeet picked up the percussive end. The final piece of the puzzle was placed when Zachary Long, a boyhood acquaintance of the Dreams’, returned from Germany with drumsticks in his back pocket. Donald Radcliff was out.
The social upheavals of the late 1960s were reflected in a wave of spiritual awakening, and People’s Center—a hub where creatives congregated—was like a bazaar for fresh revelations and conversion experiences. The Dreams met Buddhists, B’hai, pan-spiritual cosmologists, African Hebrews, and—via Norman Hylton—Islam. Though he changed his name to Saleem, Hylton’s iteration of Islam was neither traditional nor the Nation of Islam’s “Black Muslim” variety extolled by Elijah Muhammad. He focused instead on a hodge-podge of prayer, personal growth, and truth-seeking. The group dabbled in all manner of spirituality, as well as the entheogenic substances that would catalyze such far-reaching thought. The Dreams, untethered by a single philosophy, let a chance incident set their course for them: Returning from a show in Petersburg, Virginia, late at night, the driver of their tour van fell asleep at the wheel, only to awake as the Volkswagen drifted off Interstate 95 onto the soft shoulder. Her attempts to right the van overreached, and the sudden motion caused the vehicle to flip. Despite a violent impact that totaled the van and destroyed all of their equipment, the group members walked away unscathed. Saleem observed that this destiny must’ve been reserved for children who the Father had chosen, referring to a bible verse Larry Bell had read to him: “Blessed are they who strive in the way of peace, for they shall be called children of the father.” The Dreams were over, Father’s Children were born, and nearly every member became an adherent of Islam. Each convert took a new name for himself: Ted “Skeet” Carpenter became “Hakim”; Billy Sumler would be “Qaadir”; Nick Smith chose “Nizam”; Michael Rogers became "Malik"; Stevie Woods was called “Wali”, and Zachary Long went with “Sadik.”
The Father’s Children brand outdid “Dreams” as far as currently fashionable band name conventions, and it certainly didn’t slow the septet’s rising popularity and marketability. They embarked on a seemingly endless Beltway tour that included stops at Ed Murphy’s Supper Club, The Other Barn, The Oasis, Motherlode Wild Cherry, Howard University, American University, and the University of the District of Columbia. Pure Street, through its community center connections, also put them on the summer festival circuit and political event sphere. Father’s Children were repeatedly hired to perform at events for Pride Incorporated, a community outreach program helmed by Marion Barry, the notorious future mayor of Washington.
In fall 1972, Saleem was introduced to local studio magnate Robert Hosea Williams, who owned and managed a small network of Beltway studios. Jules Damian at D.B. Sound Studios had recently brought Williams in as a partner to right the debt-heavy ship. He wouldn’t disappoint. Williams had built his rep behind the boards Edgewood Studios at 1539 K Street and by freelancing at Track Studios in Silver Springs, Maryland. His engineering experience included work for Gil Scott Heron, Hugh Masekela, the Soul Searchers, and Van McCoy, but he always managed to find time on his schedule for locals.
Father’s Children and Williams set up at Silver Springs’ D.B. Sound Studios in September 1972. Early magnetic impressions included the Nick Smith-led and -written “Everybody’s Got A Problem,” multiple sketches of “Linda” (referred to on the tape boxes as “Linda Movement”), the Stevie Woods-composed invitation to ride along on a “Universal Train,” and their theme, “Father’s Children.” That percussion-rich track delivers a bit of the band’s overall thesis but doesn’t dwell too long on heavy-handed spirituality, spending most of its eight-plus minutes on a mid-tempo workout, in which each child gets his showcase. Stevie Woods lends his wah-drenched solo before the whole song tightens for a minute-long funk clinic. “Linda,” written “in a dream” by Smith, is the lone love song in the bunch. Tracked multiple times, several versions of “Linda” were tinkered with before Williams brought in a string section to maximize radio potential. Even so, four years would pass before radio got the chance to ignore it.
With Christmas approaching, the band returned to D.B. Sound and added “Dirt And Grime” and “In Shallah” to their growing pile of original songs. “Dirt And Grime” pulls no punches, putting the Adams Morgan neighborhood in its crosshairs (“My dirty filthy habitat, is where I got my habit at…”). Woods’ guitar adds a palpable coating of filth, matched perfectly by Nick’s multi-layered moans on the rampant alcoholism, addiction, crime, and poverty encircling them. On the other end of the spectrum, “In Shallah”—Arabic for “God Willing”—explores the group’s spirituality with sunny harmonies, Caribbean guitar runs, and shimmering keys. An album was coming together, if someone was willing to pay for it.
1972 was a break-even affair for Father’s Children—they had money enough to keep the gas tank full, but not enough to move out of their parents’ houses. Saleem found outside financial assistance in Fly Enterprises, and the group rewarded him with a pink slip. Fly immediately took over management and booking, extending the Father’s Children brand as far west as Texas and planning the group’s first dates outside the country. After a series of well-paying tourist gigs scheduled in Bermuda over the 1972 holidays, Stevie Woods disappeared without notice, forcing Father’s Children to poach guitarist Dana Crews from the Pure Street-managed act Mugo Kenyatta. Rehearsals began on the plane, continued in the car from the airport, and concluded in the dressing room.
After the stresses of Bermuda, Father’s Children returned to the relatively predictable world of D.B. Sound Studios for what would prove to be their last session under the tutelage of Williams. Another member had also joined by then and would stick around until the end: Yah Yah, who was born Johnny Williams, and whose feature on a few of the more percussive songs. Dana Crews had bit wholly into the apple, going so far as to change his name to Khaliq. In the studio, his presence was felt on a shorter “Everybody’s Got A Problem” and two new originals. With the “comet of the century” due to pass Earth in 1973, musicians from Kraftwerk to Argent to Sun Ra would anticipate Kohoutek’s first visit in 150,000 years. Father’s Children’s “Kohoutek” included horns, a loose framework of spiritually meandering lyrics, and a killer echo-laden guitar solo by Khaliq. The final song cut at D.B. would be the album’s title track. “Who’s Gonna Save The World” doesn’t offer much in the way of answers…. And the band itself had bigger problems to worry about: Who was going to save Father’s Children?
Father’s Children, two solid years of work on the road behind them, believed the time had come for a major recording company to start picking up the tab, for the studio and beyond. Their free rehearsal space jig was up when the People’s Center shuttered in 1974, the dreams of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the funding it provided, coming to a simultaneous end. Fly Enterprises shifted the operation to a warehouse acquired as part of an urban renewal program, attaching the group to another promise of rehabilitation that would never materialize. The band lived amongst their gear, at girlfriends’ apartments, with their parents, and on friends’ couches. True to their communal principles, members who were offered better-paying gigs, and even solo recording deals, scoffed and stuck with the unit. When Fly Enterprises dissolved—leaving the bill for the Father's Children tapes unpaid—Robert Hosea Williams moved on, adding the masters to his holdings.
In 1976, Father’s Children was finally given another chance to record, this time with local label Arrest, run by Charles Fuller, Sonny Smith, and Valentine brothers D.C. and Ray. Arrest had its own studio, but the re-recording of “Linda” retains much of the same sound achieved at D.B. A fan favorite from the live set for half a decade, “Linda” was a natural choice for their first real single. On the flip was “Intellect,” another Nizam original and a harbinger of what was to come. Despite Arrest’s handcuffs-and-pistol logo, neither side of the single apprehended many listeners via radio or retail, and plans for a follow-up album were discontinued.
Weathering false starts, changes in management, and a monotonous circuit of the same live venues over and over, Father’s Children hung together until 1977, when key songwriter Nick “Nizam” Smith left to pursue the freedom and creative autonomy of a solo career at Henry Stone’s T.K. Productions in Miami, Florida. Nothing he committed to tape ever saw the light of day, thanks to a 1979 fire at T.K. Father’s Children, spirits doused, soldiered on, adding links to the endless chain of live dates that had begun in 1972. Nizam was not replaceable, but his role as keyboard player was taken on by Tony Vaughn, a childhood friend of Sadik.
It took strange luck to land Father’s Children at Mercury Records. Over the preceding years, a smooth-talking music business mope—by the name of Raheem—had befriended the band through various Pittsburgh gigs. He sang a little, didn’t have much going on, and yet somehow talked his way through producer Forest Hamilton’s glass-plated doors. Through his At Home Productions, Hamilton inked forgettables like the Klique, Bobby Lyle, and L.A. Boppers and stuck them on a variety of major labels. He had lifetime ties to the music and movie businesses through his father Chico Hamilton and uncle Bernie Hamilton (Captain Dobey of Starsky & Hutch fame). Having little to sell At Home, Raheem offered up Father’s Children, claiming to be a part-time member. With Hamilton hooked, Raheem made a beeline back to D.C. to sell the band on the scheme. Sadik, understandably dubious of the situation, met with Hamilton in Los Angeles and ultimately put the deal in motion. Following a series of bungled showcases for a handful of other labels, Father’s Children quietly signed with Mercury.
After six years going no further west than Texas, Father’s Children trekked to Los Angeles at the end of 1978 to record what history knows as their debut album. At Home tasked in-house producer Wayne Henderson with corralling the group—now eight members strong—and the dozen other players that were brought in to fill out the budget. Henderson-producee Bobby Lyle on keys stoppered part of the gaping hole left by Nick Smith, while Side Effect’s Augie Johnson arranged and sang background alongside a young Miki Howard. The final product was a mix of Crusaders-inflected jazziness, L.A. production sheen, and a few dashes of the current disco sound. The results were just as mixed as the sound. “Hollywood Dreaming” b/w “Shine On” was issued as the first single in July 1979; it failed to chart, and Mercury pulled the promotional plug on a group already on life support.
Father’s Children began dissolving shortly after their return to D.C. If a decade of floors-as-beds and cheap motel shampoo were the symptom, the crushing defeat of their self-titled album offered no cure. Lifelong friends and neighbors, the core of Bill “Qaadir” Sumler and Ted “Hakeem” Carpenter stayed close, and in time Nick “Nizam” Smith fell back in with his old Western High crew. The group would reform in 2005 and issue another album, Sky’s The Limit, in 2007 on their own FC Music label. Even with the group reinvigorated, the eventual release of Who’s Gonna Save The World, was never an inevitability. Memories fading and master tapes deteriorating, hope had long ago dwindled that those recordings would ever be heard, even by the group members themselves.
Father's Children had formed in the dirt and grime of Washington, D.C., but Robert Hosea Williams' less-than-immaculate suburban garage kept the true sound of Father's Children—a lost document of gritty soul, concerned with its own time and place, and stripped the L.A. gloss that dates its creators’ Mercury debut. Williams had played the role of stepfather once before by recording the music of Father’s Children, and he’d reprise that role long after the band’s dissolution. For years, he preserved the tapes, not quite saving the world, perhaps, but sheltering at least one small part of it.
-Rob Sevier & Ken Shipley, March 2011
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