Sure, Mike Lenaburg could have followed in the footsteps of locals like Marty Robbins or Alice Cooper, ditching Phoenix when the palm-and-concrete 115-degree city turned an ice-cold shoulder on his exploits. But Mighty Mike stayed true to his town, believing his beloved Phoenix could sustain a soul scene to rival that of Detroit or Chicago or Memphis. From 1962 to 1980, Lenaburg documented Arizona’s truest funk ever to brave the desert: Sheila Jack, Michael Liggins, Small Paul, Ronnie Whitehead, Lon Rogers, We The People, the Newlyweds, and the soul trifecta of Super Souls, Soulsations, and Soul Blenders. Mike released singles on half a dozen of his own labels, including Homogenized Sound, Out Of Sight, Mighty, and Darlene; managed twice as many groups; owned a pair of record stores and ran two radio shows...all before he turned 30. Eccentric Soul: Mighty Mike Lenaburg excavates the photo albums and tape libraries of Phoenix’s second family of soul, that wrong side of the desert sound, a melange of Tejano psychedelia, flutey funk, horny hard soul, and fistfight doo-wop all done up with feral, unhinged production too off-the-wall for comparison. 2011’s double-LP issue features revamped liner notes, exclusive color photos and label scans, and a whopping 10 bonus tracks.
They say a man can cook eggs on its paved streets, but Phoenix, Arizona, in the 1960s was an icy wasteland for any musician stuck south and west of Interstate 10. Many had escaped the blistering clutches of the seat of Maricopa County—from Marty Robbins and Waylon Jennings to Alice Cooper and Linda Ronstadt—but most of those pearls washed up on the shores of Los Angeles, not at the confluence of the Salt and Gila rivers.
When the O’Jays broke down on their way through the Valley of the Sun in 1964—shedding their backing band of future Blazers in the process—Phoenix boasted a plethora of opportunities in the agriculture and construction fields, which drew migrant black and Latino populations into its native workforce. As these marginalized groups settled the area’s south and west sides, a glut of clubs and bars cropped up along Broadway and Buckeye roads, establishing what should have become a vibrant regional hotbed of artists and labels. Sand circuit chart climbers had plenty of places to lay their hearts and souls to tape, including Floyd Ramsey’s Audio Recorders of Arizona on North Seventh Street, Loy Clingman’s Viv Records Studio, Ray Boley’s Canyon Records, Bill Miller’s Magnatronics, the Von Studio, and Frank Porter’s studio; the labels had a top-of-the-line pressing plant in Sidney J. Wakefield Manufacturing which stamped high-quality Keysor-Century vinyl. As for radio, KCAC (1010 AM) captivated the teener fascination with R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, while KRIZ (1230 AM) catered to the Top 40 crowd.
The majority Phoenix demographic produced its fair share of breakout white rock and country acts, but its black population managed just one—and even he was a Buffalo, New York, transplant. When Arlester “Dyke” Christian and his Blazers rode their dance craze vehicle all the way up “Funky Broadway,” he did it via Art Laboe’s Los Angeles-based Original Sound concern, not Art Barret’s local Artco label where, in 1966, the record had originally been pressed. By the end of that year, anyone interested in breaking outside of Phoenix was either making regular late night runs across the Mojave or had simply relocated to Los Angeles altogether. Why Mike Lenaburg wasn’t doing more of the former or all of the latter is anyone’s guess, but deep down Mighty Mike had always hoped that his town might one day nurture a real soul scene on par with those burgeoning in Detroit, Chicago, and Memphis.
Despite the writing on the Arizona Falls Dam, Mike Lenaburg stayed true to his school, his family, his friends, and his town. From 1962 to 1981, Lenaburg documented a stationary set of area acts—the stuck, the fearful, and the sick, yes, but also the true believers like himself. He issued singles on half a dozen labels, managed twice as many groups, booked the best ballrooms, owned two record stores, managed another, and hosted two radio shows—all before his 30th birthday.
Born in Liverpool, England, in 1946, a relocated Michael Leonard Lenaburg spent his formative years in an integrated section of Pasadena, California. Even as a pre-teen, Mike was mesmerized by neighbors Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry—then members of the Squires and later known to the world as Don & Dewey—as they set fire to Lenaburg’s early obsession with R&B. Tagging along with the Squires introduced him to the vibrant black and Latino cultures of Los Angeles, though Mike rarely noticed when he was one of the only whites in the room. In 1960, Mike’s Southern California tutelage was cut short when his brother was diagnosed with emphysema, forcing the Lenaburg family to seek dryer climes.
Mike Lenaburg behind the board
By the time the Lenaburgs arrived in Phoenix, the city, once little more than a bump in the desert between Houston and Los Angeles, had become a respectable place to break down and stay forever. Its teen dance scene, driven by hip KCAC radio personality Hadley Murrell and the powerful Ray Ford at KRIZ, was already swirling when young Mighty Mike and family blew in off I-10. After hearing Don & Dewey’s 1957 rock-wop gem “I’m Leaving It All Up to You” at a dance, Mike approached Ford, looking to impress with his extraordinary aptitude for all things Don & Dewey. Ford hired Mike on the spot, charging him with Coke sales and the coat check at dances. Soon, Lenaburg was spinning all the records, while Ford simply emceed the events. Ray Ford, however, had aspirations to do more than just raffle off 45s to the sweating Phoenix bobby sox set.
Rather than just spinning and promoting them, Ford wanted to make records of his own. Luckily, his enthusiast protégé Mike Lenaburg had the perfect artist in mind: KRIZ janitor Albert “Little Junior” Battle. The time they booked with Floyd Ramsey’s outfit resulted in “The Mash,” credited to Bud Spudd & the Sprouts, produced by Ray Ford, and featuring Battle on vocals. Lenaburg, who had observed the 1961 production from behind Audio Recorder’s controls, saw, for the first time, his calling at his fingertips. The day after his sixteenth birthday, he brought the Newlyweds—a co-ed teenage doo-wop group featuring John Lewis, Sid and Bruce Grant, and B. B. and Everly Nickleson—into Von Studios in Glendale. Released two years later on Lenaburg’s own Homogenized Soul imprint, their “Love Walked Out” was composed as an answer song to the Flamingos’ “Love Walked In,” but “The Quarrel,” its flip, really got people’s attention. Partially improvised and captured in one take, “The Quarrel” was the Newlyweds’ violent, 3-minute mini-drama and something of a local novelty smash. For a time, it was the single most requested song at KCAC, upping the Newlyweds’ local profile considerably.
In 1964, Mike Lenaburg’s star was on the rise after his graduation from West Phoenix High School. In addition to managing the careers of the Newlyweds and the Soul Patrol, he ran a profitable promotion company, booked the Calderon Ballroom, and jockeyed discs at the new KOOL FM. He even found time to open Out Of Sight, a record store at 17th and Broadway named after its own scant visual presence at street level. Mike’s gutsy move to South Phoenix paid dividends when it netted him the services of the multi-cultural teenage R&B trio the Soulsations, who had recently spun-off from local phenoms Those Fabulous Jokers.
Anchored by the Flores brothers—Sandy on guitar and Tony on bass—the Soulsations took pride in their main draw, the nearly 300 pound vocalist “Small Paul” Hamilton. From the age of eight, Hamilton had been chirping with the Phoenix Boys Choir, but by 13 he’d taken to street corner crooning, saddling up with the Flores brothers just in time for their first ride with Mike Lenaburg at Audio Recorders. The marathon 1967 session would track work by the Soulsations, Small Paul, and ex-Newlywed John “Oklahoma Zeke” Lewis, but only two of the affair’s five cuts would find wax. Lewis’ “A Woman 73” and the Soulsations’ “Soul Skate” would split the first and only 45 on Lenaburg’s Out Of Sight label, while Small Paul’s tear-stained “There’s Gonna Be Some Crying,” the squawky Farfisa dance number “Do The Everything,” and “When The Sun Has Begun To Shine,” an instrumental, would sit rough-mixed on a shelf. Although his solo work remained unreleased for nearly 40 years, the not-so-small Paul didn’t do so poorly for himself, touring with Dyke & the Blazers to perform alongside a who’s who of 60s soul stars. While Out Of Sight 671 never found its way outside the city limits, it did catch the ear of Floyd Ramsey, who promptly offered Mike Lenaburg a one-year contract to work as an in-house producer at Audio Recorders.
A regular fixture in Out Of Sight’s basement dwelling, 14-year-old Ronnie Whitehead had never sung outside the walls of his living room. But he’d grown up the son of two accomplished gospel singers—which was all the convincing Mike Lenaburg needed. On the day of Whitehead’s inaugural Audio Recorders session, Mike handed Whitehead the lyrics to “Begging You,” along with a whole lot of blind faith, as none of the session players or Whitehead had rehearsed bar one of the song. The result was raw, spontaneous soul. Through Ramsey’s connections, Bob Shad’s Brent label released “Begging You” nationally, where—despite shortening Ronnie’s zit-related surname to White—it failed to pop. “Out Of Breath,” a screechy James Brown photocopy, made for a suitable b-side but stood no chance of matching the impassioned performance on the flip. The record-buying public failed to beg for a follow-up, so both “Cold Feet” and “Got To Give You Up” were relegated to the Audio Recorders vault for safe keeping.
Jealous of their brother’s mild success, Gary and Rochelle “Junior” Whitehead formed a vocal group and dubbed themselves the Soul Blenders. Ronnie, at a standstill as a solo artist, threw in with the Blenders after a few of the original members lost interest. With the youngest Whitehead onboard, Lenaburg paired the group with the Soulsations for a major session at Audio Recorders. “Funky Nightclub” and “Blending Soul” caught the Soul Blenders at their best, channeling hard R&B through the sore-throat gospel sound they grew up on. The Soulsations’ “Broadway Shing-A-Ling” was intended to capitalize on the success of Dyke & the Blazers “Funky Broadway”…and it might have, had it ever been released. Lending his horn and lead vocal to “Standing On The Corner” was a sensational young saxophonist named Michael Liggins.
Michael Liggins & the Super Souls
Liggins had been shuttling from group to group since the break-up of the Soul Patrol in 1966, but by 1968 he was gigging steadily with an all-Chicano band featuring Bobby Otero, Reggie Otero, and Manuel Morales. Lenaburg christened them the Super Souls. Their 1968 sessions at Tempe’s East Wind studio yielded the off-key “Get To Steppin’” and the jittering psychedelic flute-funk and guitar showcase “Loaded Back.” Morales provided agitated solos for “Loaded Back,” which, though bracing to our ears 35 years later, flopped early in 1969 upon its release by Lenaburg’s Mighty imprint. Michael Liggins & the Super Souls spent a year gigging five nights a week on military bases and at the Riverside Ballroom and Swing City before returning to East Wind to cut their follow-up. Sprawled out across two 7” sides, “Loaded To The Gills” emerged as an interlacing cacophony of flute, wood blocks, and inebriated sax. More Sly than Hendrix, with a foot firmly in Miles’ post-Hancock playground, it’s an irresistible slice of drugged-out funkadelia that jams past the second run-out, leaving listeners to wonder what outer regions might’ve been explored in the ten other minutes of tape bliss. Mike Lenaburg, in 2004, placed Liggins & his Super Souls in starkly honest context: “Locally, there wasn’t as much of a market for that type of music as we had initially thought. [“Loaded To The Gills”] was out there, so it didn’t really hit. Of course, I was young and really didn’t know what I was doing either. I recorded the band and released their records because I believed in the group. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening, but I liked the sound. We had more of a psychedelic sound than a funk sound. We looked up to Sly and The Family Stone and Funkadelic. I was very open-minded.”
Earlier in 1968, Lenaburg had a brief affiliation with Roger Jones, a Joe Tex-style chuckler who was known around town as Lon Rogers. A few original members of Dyke’s Blazers re-appropriated the Soul Blenders name to back him on the JB-inspired “My Girl Is A Soul Girl” and the passionate “Too Good To Be True.” Sure that he finally had a hold of something real, Lenaburg made the eight-hour trek to Los Angeles and began pounding pavement. Uni, Imperial, and Original Sound roundly rejected the tapes, so it fell to Floyd Ramsey to pick up the tracks for his Ramco label. The resultant single promptly disappeared, melting into the annals of Phoenix soul casualties.
At least two other recording dates were scheduled before decade’s end, the first featuring Blazers affiliate Clarence Townes, backed by the Soulsations. Townes had been a go-to saxman on the Phoenix scene since Dyke & Co. broke down, showing up on stage with the Blazers and lending his horn to a handful of Blazers-related tracks, including the Showmen Inc.’s “The Tramp (From Funky Broadway)” and the Odd Squad’s “Just To See Your Face” b/w “Runaway People.” For his Soulsations-backed “Soul Fever,” Townes sounds almost superfluous, adding a smattering of vocals to the mid-tempo organ workout’s three and half minutes, all of which have remained unreleased until now.
The second, a 1969 affair, was much looser than previous Audio Recorders dates, as made plain by the Super Souls’ relaxed version of the jazz traditional “Song For My Father,” as well as two instrumental jams—“Loading Zone” and “Tune Up”—never intended for issue. Michael Liggins laid down his continued dabblings with the flute following “Loaded To The Gills”—though these would be his last. Also cut that October day was a brilliant version of the Fantastic Four’s “I’ve Got To Have You” by Sheila Jack, sister of Super Soul percussionist Dupa Jack. Sheila’s side never surfaced on wax either.
After Out Of Sight vanished in 1968, Mike Lenaburg moved on to managing Melody Records, an established Phoenix institution. At the urging of an employee, he brought unknown songwriter Melvin Jennel into Audio Recorders and cut the soulful political ballad “People, Open Your Eyes And See.” Then, lacking material for the flip side, Lenaburg assembled a one-shot team of crack local musicians including Liggins, Clarence Townes, and Sam James, who’d take second sax. We The People, as the short-lived unit called itself, gave birth to “Function Underground,” a mind melting fusion of hard rock and psychedelic funk…but that was all. Their only single was released in 1971 on Darlene, still another one-and-done Lenaburg imprint, this iteration named for the record store employee who had turned him on to Jennel.
The remainder of the 1970s proved a far less productive and innovative time for Mike Lenaburg. Michael Liggins delivered the uninspired “Mama’s Baby Daddy’s Maybe Parts 1 & 2” in 1972 for the Mighty label, but if there was anyone outside the Lenaburg cadre listening, they certainly weren’t buying. On the side, Lenaburg was managing the off-brand ensemble the Exotics. When their lead singer was shot and killed by her husband the night before an Exotics tour was to commence, it iced Mike’s interest in producing, almost permanently.
Mike Lenaburg, through the ‘70s, would continue to manage artists on a limited scale; of greater interest were his nights at the Jaguar, a local south side club at which Mike parlayed his previous sock-hop experience into a professional DJ gig. Between spins, he found time to open the aptly named Poor Man's Records with partner Varo Duffins, peddling nationally issued dross to a market that had never been particularly transfixed by Phoenix’s rich local talent pool. It wasn’t until Michael Liggins approached Lenaburg in 1981, keen to record an old Super Soul’s live staple, that Mike even considered a return to the studio. Using his own children as a backing band, Liggins transformed Little Willie G’s Chicano classic “Brown Baby” into a stirring black message record: “Black And Beautiful.”
Co-produced by ex-Newlywed Sid Grant, a Lenaburg friend and collaborator of nearly 20 years, the spoils of Liggins’ session failed to materialize on 45. But by then the prevailing sound had long-since changed. Mike, in an attempt to keep pace with the times, wore the producer’s cap one last time, tracking Manutua’s meandering modern soul two-sider “True Love” b/w “Morning Heartbreak.” The songs appeared in 1981 as the final Mighty single. It seemed the Phoenix sun had burned through the thin veneer of a soul scene that, even in its heyday, could muster barely a whimper.
“I continued to manage Michael [Liggins] until 1985,” Lenaburg recalls. “He was very talented, often working for five or six different bands. He then moved to Vegas, where he continued to play for a couple of years, but couldn’t make a living at it. Since he was a union plumber, he had a plumber’s license. So he started working maintenance in hotels in Vegas and finally just lost interest in music.”
Mike Lenaburg’s passion had gradually succumbed to erosion as well. After two solid decades spent throwing himself off Camelback Mountain to little acclaim, the harsh reality of his hometown’s pitiful track record had finally sunk in. Phoenix and her surrounding suburbs had attracted droves of snowbird retirees, a host of Major League Baseball training camps, and throngs of their devotees, leaving Mike’s beloved desert Broadway to feel increasingly far from funky. Phoenician soul had proved a hopeless chase across shifting sands; the last of those still in the race were on I-10 headed west, hoping to make it to L.A.’s outskirts before daybreak.
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