Tie up Little Feat, Van Morrison and The Meters in a big ol’ sack. Add a sunsplash of reggae. Sprinkle in a gaggle of soul men and some funkateers as well. Shake well. Can you feel it? For over two decades, fans of the Greensboro band Tornado answered that question Sam Frazier asked on his composition “Soul Bop” with a resounding yes. “Soul Bop,” which became the band’s signature tune, was not just a song title. It was a term for the undercarriage of the vehicle as well as a state of mind induced by long-term exposure to the band’s funky, syncopated strut.
It was a powerful vehicle, but the creators never put a lot of thought as to what the design should look like.
“I never had a game plan and never had any expectations. We were just playing,” says singer, songwriter and guitarist Sam Frazier. “I was playing bass in a jazz band when Bobby Kelly heard me sing ‘Georgia’ and play bass at the same time, and that’s when he asked me to play with Jumbo Jet.”
In Greensboro’s incestuous Tate Street musical family in the ’70s and ’80s, bands popped up and swirled around like drifting weather patterns. Guitar- and tonsil-slinging denizens dropped in and out of each others’ orbits on an irregular basis. Jumbo Jet was a relatively short-lived aggregation that cropped up around 1979. Drummer Cliff Greeson, Tornado’s unofficial unfuzzy historian (“He was the only guy in the band who never drank anything, so his memory’s still solid,” says Becky Raker, his wife and Tornado singer.) has two Jumbo Jet gigs recorded in September 1979.
“That was Bobby Kelly and Keith Roscoe and me and Cliff Greeson and Rebekah Raker,” Frazier says. “Then I split and went to California, and they got Dennis Worley and that became Tornado.”
But Frazier came back shortly afterwards and was an integral part of the band from then on.
The band managed two recordings during their tenure, 1983’s vinyl offering, “First Alert,” and a ’96 CD, “When a Breeze Breaks Your Bones.”
The music still stands up today. The Frazier-penned “Soul Bop” is a funky, slithery, hip-shaking wigglefest. Frazier’s gravelly, soulful vocal cracklin’ over the relentless beat, smoothed out with Jack Wilkins’ velvety sax.
Bassist Kelly shows off his songwriting skills on “Love’s Cruel Getaway,” a slinky, snaky, syncopated strut with Raker burning up the joint with blast furnace soul and Frazier’s guitar wriggling like a stepped-on centipede.
“California,” another Frazier original, stutter-steps along lustily behind Frazier’s crusty soul vocal. His “Greatest Show on Earth,” which Kelly labels as a crowd pleaser, is a hurdy-gurdy-enhanced circus parade strutting along like a herd of hipsters headed to the Big Top with Greeson firing heavy artillery into the crowd.
There’s some rehashing on the ’96 CD with originals “Greatest Show” and “California,” but also some great covers including Allen Toussaint’s “Shoorah Shoorah,” heavily influenced by Scottish soul man Frankie Miller’s version, with Raker funkin’ it up like a high-steppin’ soul queen; and Frazier’s funky, cut-throat delivery on Eddie Hinton’s gritty soul classic, “You Got Me Singing.”
Although the initial core was Kelly, Roscoe, Frazier, Greeson, Worley and Raker, add-ons started almost immediately with the addition of Frank Worrell on drums and Jack Wilkins on sax. Although uncredited, Worrell is playing on the “First Alert” LP in ’83, left off by an oversight that Frazier and Kelly say they regret to this day. A dazzling array of keyboardists would grace the lineup over the years, including Wild Magnolia owner Mike Rowe, David McCracken and Jay Shirley of the Glenn Phillips Band. Drummer Harvey Mitchell also put in years of service behind the drum kit.
It was a hellacious aggregation with two drummers, three lead guitarists, three vocalists and three songwriters. There was only one sax, but Wilkins sounded like a whole horn section by himself.
The music was a hodgepodge of influences. “Reggae hit the scene as we were playing, so we started doing that stuff. I was always a big fan,” Raker says. Her musical adoration list contains what she considers the usual suspects: “Aretha, Tina, Nina, Bonnie, so it was great to get in a band where I could actually sing those tunes. I usually did the cover stuff, backed up with Sam’s tunes and on the original ones with Worley’s tunes. I miss his great voice. God! What a singer he was.”
Greeson may have been one of the most unusual suspects, a pharmacist from Sanford who became beguiled by this Tate Street bunch. Greeson blames former Tate Street Guitar Shop owner Keith Roscoe for his introduction. “Keith’s from Sanford. We went to the same high school. He called me to come on up a few times to come up and play.” Living on Cedar Street around the corner from the Jot ’Em Down store, Kelly had a rehearsal space set up. “Bobby had this room all fixed up. We’d just go up there and make a lot of noise,” Greeson remembers. “That’s how I got started coming up here, got hooked up with Billy Hobbs and Dakota Joe.”
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Though he was never in the band, Dakota Joe Dunn would play an important role in the band’s history, giving the band the name for its signature sound. “That was Dakota Joe. Soul bop, that was his phrase,” says Frazier. “He was just out there listening.”
Frazier’s listening habits were centered around drums at first. He had taken piano lessons as a child but says that didn’t take. Drums got in the picture next, with Frazier flailing along to Derek and the Dominoes.
“I remember playing along with Three Dog Night’s “Try A Little Tenderness” cause you could go a little crazy at the end on the ‘Ga-ga-ga-got-to’ part,” he says. But later, in his teens, he found his calling. “My mom saw me playing air guitar and didn’t realize everybody did it, so she bought me a guitar for my 15th birthday.”
But it would be five more years or so before he got deep into the soulful stuff, courtesy of Worrell.
“I used to sit up with him in his place listening to “Otis Live at Monterey” in particular, and Van Morrison live stuff he had, too. That was insane,” Frazier says. And although he freely admits to Van being his muse before joining the band, he credits signer-guitarist Worley for his Morrison immersion.
“Dennis Worley turned me on to “Veedon Fleece” and some of the more heady Van stuff that wasn’t such poppy stuff I’d heard. ... It really kinda stretched me out,”.Frazier said.
But Frazier still insists that his band vision was blurry. “I don’t want to put any retrospective spin on anything, but I don’t recall any plan,” he says. “We played what we liked. When I started hanging out with those guys, Scott Manring and those Tate Street guys, that’s the first time I ever hung out with people who were world-class songwriter-players that weren’t like music school people. Dennis could sing like nobody else. I still hear old recordings, and it’s just mind-boggling how good he was. He’d get up there and just be pouring everything into the mike. Those cats, they played music like they meant it. That was a big deal to me at that age. It made a big impression on me.”
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In addition to his musical talents, Worley made a big impression on hecklers with his impromptu put-downs. As the band’s acerbic emcee, Worley popped off one-liners that skewered wanna-be participants.
“We were playing the first time at this place, and they were used to having mostly country stuff,” Greeson says of a gig the band played in Southern Pines at a club called The Ranch, which normally featured country bands. “We showed up, doing mostly our original stuff, and stuff like the Neville Brothers, and just about every time we finished a tune, somebody in the back would say, ‘Play some country music!’ There were not that many people there. We’d do another tune and same guy: ”Hey! How ’bout y’all playin’ some country music! Went on all night like that. Finally, we finished a tune, guy said that, and Dennis said, ‘All right, we’re gonna play some country music now. And the country is ... Africa!’ And then we started “Fiyo on the Bayou.”
Worley was equally merciless on band members, once eviscerating Keith Roscoe over his onstage array. “Back in those days when he had the guitar shop on Tate Street, Keith always had the latest equipment,” Greeson says. “All his stuff was new and usually expensive, and he always had several guitars up there when nobody else had all that stuff.”
Worley would introduce the band one at a time, after each one played a brief solo. “When Keith did his, Worley said, ‘It’s Keith Roscoe on guitar. If you had ten thousand dollars, you could sound like that too.’”
But after decades onstage and on the road from D.C. to Key West, the band cruised to a stop around 2001. “I’m not sure I recall a specific sit down. I just think everybody was ready to try some different things out. We’d played together for 25 years,” Kelly says. Frazier had serious health issues to deal with. He overcame them to come back stronger than ever as a solo act and with Greeson and Chris Micca as Sam Frazier and the Side Effects.
Kelly’s memories of touring are bittersweet. “We had a black Ford van, fondly known as the Black Mariah,” he recalls. “Each one of us at one time or another said, ‘I can’t get back in that van again.’” Greeson came up with his own solution to combat the accumulation of band funk in the van. “Cliff always had an 8-inch tin of cedar wood, which was real aromatic.”
Kelly retired from playing but still oversees the ongoing Sentinel Boys project. Worley is retired as well, playing for his own enjoyment these days. Raker and Greeson pop up at Christmas-time, along with fellow Tornado denizens Wilkins and Frazier for Piedmont Songbag, the long-running Don Morgan-fronted unhinged and uninhibited, off-kilter Christmas throw-down that explores Santa’s other side in the off season, among other timely seasonal topics.
But the band lives on in memories and a couple of finite pieces of product that still resonate in today’s market.
“It was a great band, and I think we realize it now more than ever,” Kelly says. “You’re just going steppin’ through, doing what you do at the time. I’ve had several people say, ‘You don’t know when you’re living the dream while it’s happening. You realize it later on.’ I’m proud of every note.”