Local Current Blog

Norman Beavers of Lakeside, now a Minnesotan, on his ‘Fantastic Voyage’

Norman Beavers (left) and Sean McPherson at The Current.

Norman Beavers is the keyboard player for funk institution Lakeside. He’s been in that band since the late 1960s. Lakeside are still going strong, playing shows throughout the year. When Beavers isn’t on the road with Lakeside, he’s right here in the Twin Cities, living in St. Paul.

Purple Current host Sean McPherson recently got the chance to sit down with Beavers, who has been at the juncture of many great moments in funk, soul, and R&B music history. Their chat touched on everything from Lakeside’s origins and the funk scene’s evolution to Beavers’s first impressions of Prince and the Minneapolis sound.

Sean McPherson: What was it like to handle keyboards in the mid-1970s when so much of the technology was changing?

Norman Beavers: Well I’ve always been, I call myself, a multi-keyboard player. And I like to stay on top of the new tones, and I create a lot of my tones, from the years back. It’s been a long road, like 50 years, and I’ve created a lot of tones that other people have used and a lot of, what do you call them, samples. So that’s about it, just trying to stay on top of everything. And I got to give props to Steve, our guitar player Steve Shockley, and Marvin. They come up with a lot of ideas for the bass sounds and synthesizer sounds. We’re a team, we’re team players and we’ve been a team ever since we started back in ’69.

Yeah, you guys have had quite a long journey, and you were with the group pretty much from day one, right?

Yes, as a matter of fact I was in a group called The Realistics, I think that was the name of it. Steve saw me and he came and said, “Hey you want to put another group together? Like me and you?” And then we went and got my brother and then we had a drummer named Terry Williams and we hung for a long time, up ‘til about ’71, ’72. We kept that name up until ’71. We started in ’69. A couple years later Curtis Mayfield and Eddie Thomas had heard about us and they wanted to sign us with Curtom Records, so we went on and got a deal with them. And we were performing in Chicago at the Guys and the Dolls, I think that was the name of the club. In the interim of doing that for about a week or so, Eddie, the other guy, Curtis Mayfield and Eddie Thomas, saw there was already another group called The Nomads. So, we had to change the name of the group. So that night, he presented that information to us so the first name we came up with was Equation 4 + 4 because we were a contained band and singing group. And that didn’t work and then we came out with another name on the second set. So, we had three names on that show! And then we came, finally we decided on Lakeside Express. And we were looking out the window at the studio and we saw the flashing light, Lakeside Express. It was a paper company in Chicago. So, then we, “Hey that’s a good name, let’s go with that.” And there was an amusement park in Dayton called Lakeside. So that kind of worked with us too because we were from Dayton and we really liked that, so we kept Lakeside Express.

We were with a producer called Frank Wilson and he had produced The Four Tops, Eddie Kendricks, back in the early days. Midterm days of Motown. We were always contained, and this is one of the albums where just a couple of guys played on the album because Frank, he was so used to using his own people. So, we kind of,  the band had to sit back on that. And the singers and the band didn’t really like that because we were used to having our own sound and he was trying to give us that Motown sound so, and it didn’t work. The name of the single off that Motown album was “If I Didn’t Have You.”

[After Lakeside signed to Motown and things didn’t land so properly, they ended up deciding to go with Dick Griffey.]

He was the president and CEO of SOLAR Records. So, before SOLAR Records it was Soul Train and Soul Train Records. Don Cornelius and Dick Griffey were partners. Okay, Soul Train was the video side and Soul Train Records was Dick Griffey’s baby, so they were partners. So, we would hang out, be a part of that. Premature to that, before we got with Dick Griffey, we used to play in a club on Crenshaw, Los Angeles, California, and the name of it was Maverick’s Flat. Ok, we hooked up with John Daniels, who owned the club, and this is before our record shot off. He would send us all over. He shot us off over to Europe and Germany and up to Canada and we just did our thing as a regular group. You know, band, lounge band, and club band. So, we were getting a name for ourselves in the area, and around and one day Dick and Norman Whitfield, he was a very prominent producer in Motown. He came up with “Car Wash,” a lot of Temptations hits. We had an opportunity to get with Norman Whitfield or Dick Griffey. As a matter of fact, one day we had a rehearsal studio in LA, and we set up a meeting. So 10 o’clock at night, Norman Whitfield came through. And then at 12 o’clock at night Dick Griffey came through. Because they were both by, you know, trying to get us.

So Norman Whitfield, he was really popular then, he had so many hits on the radio. And he came in there, he said “You know you guys are great. If you come with me, I’ll guarantee you a hit, but the only thing is I have total creativity. You will be famous, but I’m writing all the stuff.” And then Dick came in and he said “You know what, I’m just gonna bet you on you guys. I’m gonna give you guys total creativity. So, if you do it it’s on you and if you don’t it’s on you.” So we went with Dick Griffey, and the rest was history.

And it really was history because that was the start of you guys having a #1 R&B hit. Within, what is it, two years of that you have ‘Fantastic Voyage’ out on the record?

Nope, nope, nope. Our first record, we got a hit. And it’s called “All the Way Live.” So that was off of, I can’t remember the album, but we were dressed up like Robin Hood. And that was our first hit. And every album we came up with something that was in the top 10.

You wake up every day as a legend. You have sat along players like Curtis Mayfield. You yourself have made legendary music. You’ve worked with Dick Griffey, Norman Whitfield, or I guess got close to working with Norman Whitfield. What changes when you are actually at the center of a couple huge records? You know, you’re talking about playing lounges and going around and playing in Germany. What happens when suddenly your album, your songs are on the radio?

Okay so, so many years you’re just waiting. “Oh, are we ever gonna make it, are we ever gonna make it?” And I can tell you, and I know a lot of musicians and entertainers know this feeling. The first time when you’re driving down the street, can’t pay the rent – I’m getting emotional now. And you hear your record on the radio? That’s the best feeling in the world, man. [tears up] Excuse me.

I want you to be a 100% comfortable here on Purple Current being who you are and also, what’s bringing you to tears right now I hope has brought you to joy for the last 30 years.

Oh yeah, these are tears of joy, man.

And you guys worked for a long time because I mean that’s 1960s, right?

Yeah, well we’ve been out on the road since 1969. We have never stopped. And, I can say this for a lot of groups, just because you don’t hear the group doesn’t mean they’re not working. They’re just not in your city. Cause I have a friend, Robert DeBlanc, who used to hang out with us at Maverick’s Flat. He’s singing with Little Anthony and the Imperials. They haven’t missed a beat and that’s like 60 years, you know, always performing. You might not hear a new record but we’re always performing. And that’s the joy, doing what you love to do? You know it’s not even like work. I tell you, being on stage and performing is more like “Ah, finally back on stage.” You know that’s, dealing with life experiences, the stress of this and that, and you know I don’t want to get into details, people, you know. When you get on stage it’s like, “Oh I’m at home now.”

Well let’s flash ahead and talk about what it is to be in Lakeside now. So, you guys work a lot, still get out on the road, and play often alongside a lot of artists we play on Purple Current. So, we do play a little Little Anthony and the Imperials but we also play the Time. You mentioned the Time, that you were often out with Morris Day and Jellybean, seeing each other out on this circuit. What can people expect at a Lakeside show nowadays, what are you guys doing?

Okay these days what they have is funk festivals. And a typical show would be like Lakeside, SOS Band, Confunction, all of the groups that were in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we come together. There might be two or three groups together, and we’re all like family. The Bar-Kays. I don’t want to leave anybody out. Mary Jane Girls. So many people we jam with, you know. And I just heard that we’re gonna be on the Soul Train tour in January, next year. I don’t know, I don’t want to start advertising, but there’s a lot of things going on, and it’s just a joy to meet up with our buddies, our friends, our family, our musical family. Every week or so. It’s just great, man.

[Here’s Norman Beavers on his first impressions of Prince.]

Well, we had a gig in, where was it, at Butte? And that’s the first time I heard a Prince song. “Soft and Wet,” I think. He was 17, and you know that’s when I and most of the cast were introduced to the Minneapolis sound. And up until I came to St. Paul and Minneapolis, I always thought Prince established that sound. But, what I come to find out, in my opinion, and people will argue, that sound was here. And Prince just made it famous, alright?

And that’s like Dayton. The Dayton sound was always there, but the Ohio Players kind of made it famous. There were so many, just like Minneapolis, they’re like twin cities, Dayton and Minneapolis, because they both have strong musical influence in the neighborhoods. I can remember days when I was a little kid, eight, nine years old. We’d be walking, everybody’d be walking to a rehearsal. Somebody might have a trumpet, somebody might have a bass drum, and that was just normal to see somebody walking down the street with a guitar. “Where you going?” “Oh we’re going to Charlie’s house, we got a rehearsal.” And it was so many bands. It was like 15, 20 bands that were really professional good and we’re only like kids nine and ten. My influence, from Dayton and the funk sound was the Ohio Players. They were like our uncles and our big brothers. And so, a lot of people went towards them. It was kind of a jazzy R&B funky thing. We all kind of went towards that way, and everyone started writing their little tunes, wanting to be like the Ohio Players. And a few of us got out. There was Slave, Lakeside, there was a group called Dayton.

I didn’t know Slave was from Ohio, period!

Yeah we’re all from Dayton, man. They’re like our little brothers. We influenced them like the Ohio Players influenced us. And just like in Minneapolis, I’m sure people were influencing Prince, in the time, and now Prince in the time, having influenced other people, it just goes through the generations.

[Here is Norman Beavers talking more about his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.]

Okay, in Dayton, there was a little, a river that ran through the city. I think it was called Little Miami River or something. And on the east side was mostly the white people, and on the west side was mostly the blacks. Now there was some people that crossed over, you know, there was always guys that liked to hang out with the white guys and white guys liked to hang out with the black guys but it was predominantly black on the west side and predominantly white on the east side. So, now on the west side, like in most cities, it was little more challenged. So, you had a choice of working at General Motors, Delco Marine. Or going to the army, or going to jail, you know. Or, you know, playing music. So, you know, a lot of us went towards the music, and I think the influence of us working hard, trying to get out and be something, that’s what created the Dayton sound.

I read an article in Cincinnati Magazine and they said what Seattle was to grunge music, Dayton is to funk music. It’s that central to the story. So, it’s interesting to get a little context to it but you know, it’s an hour away from Cincinnati but it probably made a bigger buzz in the funk world than Cincinnati which is a much bigger city.

Well it’s kind of like Dayton is famous, but there was like Dayton, Hamilton, and Cincinnati. Ok, and there’s Yellow Springs. A lot of comedians are from Dayton too. What’s his name, Chappelle? And some other cats and then, you know, Winters, the white guy, what’s his name? Johnny Winters! You know he passed away a few years ago. A lot of great people coming from Dayton. Um, Roger and Zapp, I think they’re from Hamilton. That’s between Dayton and Cincinnati. And the Midnight Star, they’re from Cincinnati. So, it kind of worked together and right up the street from Indianapolis was the Jackson 5. But that was more Motown.

A big part of the Minneapolis was described as players finding creative ways to maybe not have a ten-piece band. So, players going “Okay, maybe the synth player can handle some of these horn lines and maybe the guitars can do a little bit of what the horn lines used to do and we can work some of this out with some less players.” When I listen to Lakeside, you guys obviously have a lot of players, but I still hear some of that, you and the keyboards carrying so much of that stuff. How do you hear the connections between the Minneapolis sound and the Dayton? Where do you see connections and where do you see differences?

Well, one of the connections is the horn section is usually synth sounds. Not to dismiss, there are a lot of good horn players. And I love a horns section. But like you said, you know, you got six, seven, eight people in the band, it’s less money. So, you try to cut it down. Now, our technique in Dayton and a lot of places now is to have a guitar player, a bass player, two keyboard players, maybe another guitar and a drummer and a percussionist and then a good singer, and a lot of times the band is background. And that’s usually, you know, the way it goes, and as you get more money you try to get other people in because it’s about the sound. It’s not about the money, but you know you still got to pay your bills and feed the babies and buy your little girl some new shoes, you know you’ve got to take care of her too. So, trying to keep it contained, but have a fat sound. So, I think that’s the connection between Minneapolis and Dayton.

Yeah, figuring out what you need on stage to actually make it happen. Now here’s a little bit of a – I was trying to think, I feel like I kind of understand what the phrase “Your love is on the one means.” If you had to explain it to somebody who had no idea what that sentence means, what does it mean that your love is on the one?

Your love is pretty much perfect. It’s one with a bullet, like on the Billboard [chart], it’s on the one. And then, boom, kak, de de boom boom, kak, one. You know it’s right there.

And “Fantastic Voyage” in particular has lived on, often because of that Coolio sample. Did Coolio sampling your work change your guys’ trajectory? Did that get more folks re-looking back at you?

I think so, that came out in ’94 and it was really good for us and Coolio really kept us going. And to this are now, because a lot of the time I tell people about “Fantastic Voyage” and they think Coolio, and some people don’t even know about the original. But I think it kept our love and our life going strong.

You’ve been doing this thing for a long, long time now, and you’re still out on the road traveling with Lakeside. Are there new artists that are exciting you? Like what are you listening to that you’re enjoying?

I really love the hip hop. I’m trying to stay alive and stay current, and a lot of people our age, you know I’m in like the ’60s now, and a lot of people, they kind of dismiss rap, because a lot of people are stuck in their own time and line. But I really appreciate the rapper. And if I could just say, there was a time in the inner city where, I don’t know if it was Nixon or whoever, stopped music in the cities and in the schools, and a lot of these young cats really didn’t know the fundamentals of music. And so, it didn’t stop us. You know, we kept it going, and it got to a point where we created our own genre, our own style of creating music. Okay, we didn’t know how to read or write music or play instruments. So, we would take bits of recorded music and put them together and then sing on top of them or rap on top of them. That’s a new musical genre that we created, and I can appreciate the rappers for that, and the hip hop. Now, there’s always singers that came in and sung. But a lot of these singers, they don’t even know about diatonic scales or music theory. They just hear and they perform, and I just appreciate the way that we kept it going. And when I say “we,” I mean the black people. And I’m sure everybody and every other race of people have their own genres that they had to create, but I can appreciate, I don’t really condone a lot of the messages that are there, but I’m thinking about the music artistry. And you can appreciate somebody creating. It’s like a caveman discovering fire or discovering how to make a language. That’s what we did. You’ve got to appreciate that, man.

And I think, certainly, speaking as a white man, there are certainly some things I can be proud of that my people have made, but the idea of being like “Okay, we’re taking all the trombones, we’re taking the drum kits, we’re taking that all out of the schools,” and then to say, “And then the music is maybe to some point going to get more influential?” That of course is something to be proud of. And that’s not every genre’s story, that’s not every people’s story. That is something that, it’s incredible. And it’s not every funk legend that pays homage to people, that say, “they don’t anything about a diatonic scale but they put something together that is compelling that is beautiful.” And you know, I read about people going “oh this Zapp guy, he’s all technology.” No man, to do what he did, he had to have a musical mind behind that no matter how many vocoders, voice boxes he could use. Technology still requires musicianship. It always will.

I’d like to iterate on that. Roger, Zapp. Ok, I first met Roger back in ’69. We were on a television show called The Betty Rogan Show, back in Dayton. And Roger, you would never know, but he is an exceptional guitar player. Jazz, R&B, funk. He can play anything on the guitar. But as time went on, as a producer, he kind of put that in the back and went with his own, that voice box thing. Nobody knows how bad he was on the guitar.

Oh man, what a trip, I had no idea! There’s a sad local connection, I don’t know if you’re aware, but his granddaughter Lexii Alijai is this talented artist from St. Paul who just passed away at age 21.

Oh, I didn’t know that.

Yeah, she, Roger Troutman’s son Roger Troutman Jr. made some of his life here in the Twin Cities. And he had a child and she just passed away at age 21.

That’s a shame.

Yeah, and she was a very very talented artist. So, I don’t mean to sour the moment, but I want to respect this woman who just passed away.

Norman, I’ve covered the majority of the questions that I have. Now, you’ve been in the Cities for about a year and you were talking before we got the microphones on about this, you soak up things from the city. You head to Memphis for even a long weekend, you start, “Why do my tunes sound like Stax stuff” or you head to New Orleans and you go, “Yeah I’m feeling a lot of Allen Toussaint.” As you’ve been here for a year, when you’ve been off the road with Lakeside, what are you soaking up about the Twin Cities? What do you feel when you’re here?

Well, as I said before, I didn’t know that there was a sound. I thought Prince, everybody was kind of jumping on Prince’s groove, but really Prince was just part of a bigger thing in Minneapolis. And I talked to Scott, Scott McNeil, I think that’s his name. He was very in touch with Prince, they were friends. And he would tell me about how they would get together, and all these people would come around, and Prince would get with the people and gather ideas and take those ideas and make them soar and that’s kind of how the Minneapolis sound started. It’s from all the musicians here. I could name a lot of them, but I don’t want to leave anybody out, so I won’t do that. And then me being here and listening to the cats and going to the clubs, MCC, what’s the club in Minneapolis? Bunker’s?

Bunker’s, yeah, they got the combo, the legendary combo.

It’s a lot of clubs I like to visit, and here, the musicians just jam. And I’ve even had the opportunity to jam with some of the people here, and just soaking up their sound and I’m loving it. I’m starting to put it into my music and I just love it. I’ve worked in Tokyo, I’ve worked in California, Seattle. I haven’t done much stuff in Memphis, but the group Lakeside has played in the south and we sucked up some of the blues in the south and Dayton and now me in Minneapolis. It’s just adding to my repertoire of genres that I can just suck up and just put it on the tape. And I look forward to working with all the musicians here, just call me: 651-vah vah vah vah vah vah vah ok! Looking forward to working with all you cats, man.

Well Norman, you are such a legend and I’m so thankful that you came by. If Lakeside does get any shows in the city I will make sure to let everyone know because we’d love to see you guys.