The Spindles gave Baltimore a groove

A legacy of music

February 28, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Frankie and the Spindles burst out of the Lexington Terrace projects 40 years ago and found a niche in rhythm and blues history.

"We started when I was 15," says Charles Hawkins, bass guitar player. "I'm 54 now."

He taught himself to play on a homemade guitar. He joined the Spindles with a bass he bought in a pawn shop. They still had to ask their folks if they could go on the road when their record "Count to Ten" went to No. 1 on the R&B charts in Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Baltimore.

"We traveled up and down the East Coast with the O'Jays," Hawkins says. "During our time, the Spindles were equivalent to the new group you have out of Baltimore called Dru Hill. From '70 to '76, the Spindles were everywhere on posters we were in such demand. We played in all the halls up and down the East Coast, the Apollo, the Royal ... "

Hawkins and Joe and Raymond Shields, two of the original singers, will reminisce about the Spindles in their heyday as part of a program presented by the Center for Cultural Education today at the Cajun Blu restaurant in Cherry Hill. The program will ask "What makes Baltimore's black history unique?" - with a strong emphasis on music.

"Baltimore has a rich history of musicians," says Alvin K. Brunson, director of the center. "One of our goals is to preserve the musical heritage of African-American artists."

Elizabeth Schaaf, archivist at the Peabody Institute, will talk about jazz musicians she has interviewed. Millie Battle, historian for the Left Bank Jazz Society, will recall the people the society has presented since its first concert in 1965.

Minnie Carter, author and poet, will read her poems. Kevin Barnes, an original member of Jimmy Briscoe and the Little Beavers, will talk about R&B from Cherry Hill, where Briscoe and the Beavers started out.

"Cherry Hill is a historic African-American community," Brunson says.

The Cajun Blu itself is an artifact of Cherry Hill. The new restaurant occupies the spot where for more than a half century, the Blue Water carryout purveyed fish, crabs and clams.

"The Blue Water carryout was a Cherry Hill landmark," says Ken Whitfield, who owns the Cajun Blu with Scott Nero, a contractor. Whitfield's mother, Laurena, and stepfather, Levi Shields, ran the carryout and sold fresh fish, clams and crabs off the back of a pickup truck throughout the neighborhood.

"Until the late '70s it was famous all over the world," Whitfield says. "Before integration, when blacks came to town off the ships, a sailor knew this was one of the places to go. ... On a Friday and Saturday night all the way up and down this road, there'd be cars, on both sides. At that time, we were open 24 hours a day."

They came for the fish. The Blue Water sold a 3/4 -pound fish sandwich.

"That 3/4 -pounder was three or four lake trout and that was quite a bit of fish," Whitfield says. " ... My earliest recollection was in '58, and they were 35 cents a sandwich."

Whitfield started working at the Blue Water when he was about 11.

"We used to get clams in 250-pound bags," Whitfield says. "You remember Haystack Calhoun, the wrestler? That scar there on my hand - he said I was opening the clams too slow, and I was trying to speed up, and I ran the blade all the way through. He was on his way down to the Eastern Shore to wrestle that night. But he stood here and ate two dozen clams before he left."

The late Haystack, who reportedly weighed as much as 600 pounds, defeated opponents by sitting on them.

"All I know, he was huge, and I wasn't opening them fast enough. We had a guy here named Gaylord. He looked at the clam, the clam opened up. He opened the rest of them for Haystack."

Whitfield's stepfather bought the hall on the hill across the street in the 1970s and Frankie and the Spindles played there often.

"We owned that spot," Hawkins says. "This was Cherry Hill's main entertainment center. This is where Jimmy Briscoe came out of."

The Spindles came out of the talent shows at Lexington Terrace Elementary School 19. "In the school auditorium," he says, "25 cents."

His wife, Elizabeth, met him at one of the talent shows.

"We used to fight to get in," she says. They danced the Madison. "Like a line dance now, and, I guess the Boogaloo, and all of that."

The Spindles had five singers and a nine-piece band and the biggest sound in Baltimore.

"We won so many talent shows that we were the best in town," Hawkins says. "So there was a famous DJ that discovered us, his name was Rockin' Robin. He's deceased now. He said, `You guys are good. Would you like to take this a little further?' Being kids, teen-agers, we said, `Sure. Why not?' "

Rockin' Robin introduced them to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the Philadelphia songwriters and producers who were instrumental in creating "The Philly Sound."

"They wrote for Little Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O'Jays, and a lot of Philly groups," he says. They worked with the Spindles to produce "Count to Ten."

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