Friday, July 22, 2011

Who Knows Beau Dollar

By Randy McNutt

When a friend mentioned Beau Dollar the other day, I started thinking of Cincinnati's blue-eyed soul days. Beau, whose real name was William Hargis Bowman Jr., hailed from my hometown, Hamilton, Ohio, but I didn't know him. By the time I had turned eighteen and could enter area nightclubs to see him perform, the vocalist and drummer was already a veteran of the then-active local music and recording scene.

These days, however, Beau is but another nearly forgotten performer whose name is kept alive by some dedicated music enthusiasts across the world. He was a product of America's old regional music machine in the days when many cities like Cincinnati had their own music business infrastructures that could launch regional and national hits. The towns also had their own session players.

Beau, who once kept the beat for soul and later early funk, died in Florida at age 69 on February 21, 2011. His wake, held at a Hamilton funeral home, was attended mostly by local musicians of a certain age--the ones who had played with Beau or knew him. I saw Wayne Bullock, the bass player for Lonnie Mack in the early 1960s and later the B-3 organist for the popular white soul group the Young Breed. Also attending were guitarist Carl Edmondson, producer of Lonnie Mack's "Memphis"; Bob Armstrong, organist for the Casinos; Bill Jones, bassist and founder of the Young Breed; and Chuck Sullivan, who played guitar with Beau in the Coins. "Beau," said Jones, "was one of the top drummers around Cincinnati in those days. His groups were always tight and talented."

To me, Beau Dollar meant Hamilton's musical melting pot. The city of 60,000 people in Butler County represented a blending of various musical genres and styles, including country, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll. Growing up, Beau absorbed the various musical styles and molded them into his own brand of R&B. He was of the same generation as other area bluesy musicians, including Troy Seals, the guitarist who later went to Nashville and became an important hit songwriter, and Denzil "Dumpy" Rice, the pianist who once played with Mack and with Seals wrote Elvis's "There's A Honky Tonk Angel (Who'll Take Me Back In)." These boys of Appalachian decent knew their country, but  they could also turn on some lean, mean R&B.

Beau was the really funky one. I remember hearing Beau Dollar and the Coins at a forgotten club in Middletown, about twelve miles north of Hamilton. Back then he had curly brown hair--sort of a white man's afro--and sang some terrific blue-eyed soul. He came up with his name as a play on Bo for Bowman; he paired it with dollar because of the natural connection: a beau dollar, an old Southern term for silver dollar. By the mid-1960s, Beau Dollar and the Coins had become one of the area's more popular white soul bands, with a devoted following that enjoyed dancing. Beau sometimes wore a fancy vest befitting his name--a beau, or a dandy. He seemed poised for the local radio charts.

In 1966, Beau Dollar and the Coins recorded for Fraternity Records, a Cincinnati-based independent  that had made hits for 1950s acts such as Bobby Bare, Cathy Carr, and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1963, Fraternity released Mack's two big instrumental blue-eyed soul hits, "Memphis" and "Wham!" Company president Harry Carlson released Beau and the Coins' version of "Soul Serenade" for at least a couple of reasons--Mack had produced it and it was another catchy R&B instrumental from a city known for making them. The song, which had first hit with King Curtis in 1964, was cut in the King Recording Studio in Cincinnati, where so many other R&B hits emerged from the late 1940s through the 1960s. (This was Bill Doggett and Freddy King territory.) The intended B-side, "Any Day Now," was an often-cut Burt Bacharach pop song once done by Chuck Jackson.

"Soul Serenade" received some airplay locally and regionally, and soon Carlson had an offer to lease the master to a label named Prime. (Today's record collectors will most often find the record on Prime.) Although it wasn't a national hit, Beau's "Soul Serenade" became a minor cult record and sort of a spinning musical monument to the blue-eyed soul that was so popular in Cincinnati from the early 1960s until disco took hold about 1975.

In those days, you could find white soul bands, many of them with good horn sections, in clubs throughout southwest Ohio--places called the Half-Way Inn (halfway between Hamilton and Middletown), the Tiki Club in Hamilton County, and the Hawaiian Gardens in Cincinnati. Musicians used to laugh and recall how the people would chant, "Play 'Soul Serenade'! Play 'Soul Serenade'!"

At Beau's wake, Sullivan stood around talking to his musician friends about the "Serenade" days, when he played guitar for the Coins. He said he played lead on that session, but he seldom receives credit for it. "People think Lonnie Mack did it because Lonnie produced the session. But I played lead on that record. I did use Lonnie's amp, though." Based on his work on that record, he said he received an invitation to go to New York to play guitar for King Curtis. But he decided against making the move.

When the Coins' broke up, Beau recorded for King Records as a solo act. He also performed at times with the legendary Dapps (that's a story for later). He sang and played drums. He also helped influence a growing funk movement by playing on other performers' recording sessions at King, and by playing in the local clubs. James Brown hired him regularly, and soon Beau was being produced by Brown's production company, which was based out of the King Records factory in the old Evanston neighborhood. Perhaps his most-remembered King single is "Who Knows," written by Brown; his chief assistant, Bud Hobgood; and Beau. It's B-side was "(I Wanna Go) Where the Soul Trees Grow."

Unfortunately, the talented drummer's recording career didn't develop, and soon King was sold and the company's Cincinnati factory and studio were closed. Brown's contract was sold to Polydor Records in New York. With the local recording scene being dismantled, Beau went to Nashville, where he tried some session work. He took a job in song publishing, working with his old Hamilton musician friend Seals, but in time all that faded and Beau ended up in Florida. There he was known to everyone as Bill. As time passed, only a few old friends remembered him as Beau. "I used to invite him to our musician reunions every year," Wayne Bullock told me at the wake, "but he didn't come. He just didn't want to talk about the old days."

Sadly, that leaves only the 45th anniversary of his Fraternity record and some fast-fading memories of Beau Dollar.

So play some of that "Soul Serenade"!