“Giving the drummer some” is as old as music itself, but the vocalist giving the band and the listener a heads up that the drummer was about to let loose is a phenomenon that started in popular music around 1967. Released a mere few months apart, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and Archie Bell & the Drells’ “Tighten Up” birthed the catchphrase and song structure that not only defined funk for the next four years, but cued the following generation to fire up their samplers and start listening for the DNA that would define hip-hop 20 years later. Essentially, “Cold Sweat” and “Tighten Up” helped give birth to the modern breakbeat.
Clyde Stubblefield’s licks on “Cold Sweat” and countless other James Brown hits eventually made him a household name, but the story of “Tighten Up” is a bit more complex. At the start of the tune, Houston’s own Archie Bell & The Drells let the world know “we don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we want.” However, The Drells weren’t the writers nor the musicians behind the catchy tune that would eventually hit #1 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1968. The actual band was the T.S.U. Toronadoes, a group of highly gifted musicians that formed at Texas Southern University a year prior to the recording of “Tighten Up.”
Over the course of the song, Toronadoes drummer Dwight Burns flexes a syncopated, danceable and super funky solo three times, cementing himself in funk and drumming lore by performance, but not necessarily by name. At a time when studio musicians weren’t listed on album jackets – often to obscure their identities from rival record companies – the identity of the studio personnel remained shrouded in mystery. The lack of credits on “Tighten Up” and the band’s management issues both played roles in the Toronadoes landing on a list of ferociously talented bands of the late ’60s that didn’t begin to receive their due recognition until the reissue and digital archive boom.
Many of the Toronadoes’ own 7" sides released between 1967-71 fetch collector prices that put them in “mortgage buster” territory, though. And driving the band’s distinct gumbo of funk, jazz, rhythm and blues and rock was Burns, a sticksman with a wide array of influences who deserves recognition alongside the Clyde Stubblefields, Bernard Purdies, Funky George Browns and Zigaboo Modelistes. Burns, now 69, is fortunately still tightening up the drums, and speaks here about his long musical journey.
What first inspired you to pick up drumming and how old were you?
Five. I had an uncle that had a master’s degree in music and my brother [was into music], so we all had to take music. I played in the school bands in Dickinson, Texas. I went to an all black high school, Dunbar High School. Mr. Henry Hayes, my music teacher, used to play with Cannonball Adderley.
What was your focus musically early on as a drummer, considering you grew up in Texas and prior to funk existing? Which drummers and types of music in particular first impacted you?
To be truthful, I loved classical music and wanted to be a timpanist. My dad bought me my first trap set at the age of seven, and I was taking lessons and playing talent shows. By the time I got to high school, things just fell in place. There was Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson, and we were listening to bebop and Miles Davis. I was also surrounded by quite a few older musicians at the time. I was too young to really hang out with them, but I’d still be picking up different things.
Did you play with any other bands early on?
My first experience on stage was in the ninth grade, playing behind Big Mama Thornton in downtown Houston. I didn’t know who she was, [my music teacher] was just showing me off. [laughs] Then in 1965 I enrolled in Texas Southern University. I didn’t major in music; I wish I did. I started with chemistry and ended up in psychology and history.
Was the T.S.U. [Texas Southern University] Toronadoes the first official band you were in?
Yes. The rest of [T.S.U. Toronadoes], we all stayed in the same dormitory. Every year Texas Southern was noted for having the T.S.U. Talent Show. That was a big deal. Bands from the surrounding area would put on performances and battle it out. By [New Year’s Day] 1966, we decided to put a group together. We had four music majors in the band, which included Leroy Lewis, Clarence Harper, Cal Thomas, James Doss and Peter and Michael Newman. We were fortunate to have Robert “Kush” Sanders on keyboards, from Prairie View University, and our singer at the time was Ted Taylor.
You never know you’re revolutionizing anything because history comes back and revisits and tells you what you did.
How did you guys get off campus and break out of the local scene?
That summer, James Doss’s father had passed and he owned a lot of funeral homes. One was in Las Vegas, so we decided, “Let’s go to Vegas!” [laughs] With some help from our parents’ credit cards, we went out there. We got a gig at the Elks Lodge playing behind Etta James for three performances. There was a battle of the bands one Wednesday night and there was a group called the Blue Notes. We battled them and word got around like, “Goddamn, some kids from Texas are kickin’ behind, they can read and everything. Even the drummer reading charts.” [laughs] As time passed, I found out it was Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes with Harold Melvin on drums, but at the time they were just the Blue Notes, and we won the competition.
One night one of the [local] DJs came out to hear us and said his wife wanted to perform at the Sands [Hotel], and asked us to practice with her. Her name was Marva Whitney. We perfected that show down to the wire, but we had to get permission from our parents [back home] because we were underage and had to sign up with the union. So we got all the signatures and Marva announced on the day we were supposed to sign the paperwork that she was divorcing her husband for delivering so late on his promise of making her great. We were distraught. The next time we saw Marva Whitney she was on Johnny Carson’s show singing with James Brown. [laughs] We had to go back home with our tails between our legs. That was the summer of ’66.
So The Toronadoes are gigging locally around 1966-67 and eventually become the house band for [Houston disc jockey and manager] Skipper Lee Frazier’s independent Ovide Records?
No. Skipper Lee came in on a golden opportunity. Ed Gerlack and Bill McKay managed us and we’d play two or three shows a week [around Houston]. Even before Skipper Lee, we were recording. People would hire us to play. We were just happy to be on record. As we matured, we understood writer’s rights, but there’s always room for someone to take advantage of you. That eventually happened.
Was the first thing the Toronadoes did for Ovide the “A Thousand Wonders” b/w “The Toronado” 45 or did the Archie Bell sessions come first?
We did so many recordings back then, I can’t remember if that was our first. But I’ll tell you what happened with “Tighten Up.” That was our show riff. We would play it [at gigs] and people would go crazy. Archie and them needed something on the b-side of a record that Sunny and the Sunliners had written for them because [the original b-side] ended up being plagiarized. So [Ovide Records] wanted to use “Tighten Up.” But I was against giving that up for their record because it was ours and I knew we had something.
So you didn’t want “Tighten Up” to be an Archie Bell and The Drells record?
Oh no, heck no! I fought against it and was outvoted by one vote. I remember it was the night of the Muhammad Ali-Ernie Terrell fight and we had a [band] meeting. There had to be a decision about who would be the manager. I wanted to stay with Ed Gerlack, but most of the guys wanted to go with Skipper Lee. I was outvoted again.
Was “Tighten Up” the record that got the T.S.U. Toronadoes the deal with Atlantic Records?
Right. [Atlantic] needed a record so they pressed Archie for an album and they eventually found out it wasn’t Archie and them [behind the music], because Archie was in Germany [in the Army]. So we just started cranking things out for the album. We recorded things right on the spot.
What can you recall about the recording session for “Tighten Up”?
We probably played it twice. We were playing it all the time at shows and rehearsed it, so when we went in the studio it was to try to do it in one or two takes. It cost a lot more to record then and time was money, so we wanted to get it right the first time for expediency.
So around that time, early funk was honoring the jam session over traditional chord structure. “Tighten Up” and [James Brown’s] “Cold Sweat,” at least in my opinion, popularized the whole “give the drummer some” thing that would eventually dominate funk for the next few years. And they were both released around the same time. Two decades after that, those moments were responsible for revolutionizing hip-hop production via sampling. It was easier to sample parts from songs where it eventually stripped down to the drums and built back up. These moments are extremely important pieces of music history.
You never know you’re revolutionizing anything because history comes back and revisits and tells you what you did. You can’t visualize it at the time. You know you’re doing something if the building is crowded. [laughs] We just wanted them to dance. [The similarity] with “Cold Sweat” was just a freak of nature.
So in addition to revolutionizing two different genres, “Tighten Up” finds commercial success and becomes a #1 pop and R&B hit and a million seller. Not only are the T.S.U. Toronadoes not credited on the single, but also the writer credits went to Billy Butler and Archie Bell.
Even on the back credits of the LP, the T.S.U. Toronadoes are mentioned by name, along with Sunny and the Sunliners, but not the individual members. How did that impact things between management and the band?
We were very upset. When you’re not getting paid and you see your buddies... Billy’s driving a new car paid for by your hard work and you’re not getting paid... It’s gonna be some crap! [laughs]
Were you guys paid at all?
[pauses] No. We were screwed. That caused a rift right down the seam of the group because I was the one who said, “I told you so.” And then it was, “Oh, it was a misunderstanding.” But you just don’t accidentally forget to credit us on the master tapes and with the paperwork. That wasn’t by accident.
Was it on Ovide Records and management to submit the right paperwork to Atlantic Records?
Skipper Lee owned Ovide, but there were so many other people that benefited, but we didn’t. It’s not just [not being paid for “Tighten Up” initially]. If you buy the song or the CD, we don’t get a dime for that.
What about the Flight Too Many compilation on iTunes with all the T.S.U. Toronadoes 45s and unreleased material?
Not a dime. Not a dime.
So who owns the material?
Skipper Lee sold the masters but he just died. Now third and fourth parties own that. People ask me, “Why aren’t you angry?” and I say, “For what?” If you drive through a parking lot looking through your rearview mirror, you’re gonna run over something. It hurts, but it was a learning thing.
The “A Thousand Wonders” b/w “The Toronado” 45 goes for a lot of cash at this point. “A Thousand Wonders” was eventually re-recorded for the Archie Bell and the Drells album, but I always felt “The Toronado” was a very early glimpse of what would eventually happen with jazz, rhythm and blues and rock intersecting. It was really heady compared to what most funk sounded like in 1967.
That’s what happens when you have four music majors in a group. We’d always say “Let’s freak ’em outm,” and we’d do stuff that sounded like Bach or “Blue Rondo á La Turk” or “Take Five” or something and people would just be freaked out. [laughs] Some of the guys were in marching band, so if we had a nine or ten o’clock gig, we’d have to wait for them to get there afterwards, and you can almost hear some of the marching band influence in stuff like “The Toronado.” Some of the local high school marching bands actually used to play that.
T.S.U. Toronadoes continued to release their own singles for the next few years. Although none of them had the success of “Tighten Up,” they were all extremely ambitious musically. Were there charts for the band’s stuff or was it all built from jams?
Yes. Sometimes we’d [jam], but the [basic charts] were always written down.
Were The Toronadoes the backing band on lesser-known Ovide singles like “Do The Football” by Acres of Grass?
That’s correct. We did most of the things on Ovide. We even did the first recordings by Bobo Mr. Soul [Beau Williams]. He finally went to Columbia Records.
I want to focus a bit on your playing style, which I always thought was very unique for the time. It’s not easy to really stay in the groove while moving so freely around the kit when it comes to funk records. It’s usually encouraged to lay off the toms, but you almost played like a jazz drummer playing dance music. The break on “Tighten Up” is all jazz independence. If you listen to “The Toronado,” “Please Heart Don’t Break” or [the previously unreleased] “Nee-Nee,” almost no two bars of drumming are exactly the same, but it doesn’t sound like you’re overplaying.
At that time they’d say you want to stay in the pocket, accentuate and push. I played based on what Peter Newman was doing on bass and Kush on the organ. I also used to listen to Philly Joe Jones and I was really impressed with Duke Ellington. There was also Stix Hooper of the Jazz Crusaders, who was older, but around [Houston]. When you hear these people you can’t help but be influenced.
Even when you got a drum break, you were using your toms and doing something entirely different than what the main groove was. On “My Thing Is a Moving Thing” you’re playing a basic Motown groove, which was very common for the era. Then you take your two bar solo and start doing jazz fills! But it’s still in the groove.
At that particular time we had to make some money by playing everybody’s music. We would try to give respect to the tune, but we would put our own feeling in it. And sometimes [a groove] would get boring and I’d say, “Let me show these people and do some technical rudiments.” [laughs]
The drumming on “Back After the News” also stands out because you’re playing with the snare wires off. It almost sounds like a Latin groove.
That’s right. I was playing that with my mallets and brushes. It was like something coming out of the jungle. [laughs]
You had a unique way of tuning. The tom-tom is cranked so high on “Tighten Up”! And on all the T.S.U. Toronadoes songs the toms are tuned to actual notes, which was becoming increasingly rare in funk by the end of the ’60s. Most drummers would tune the toms pretty dead and muffle with tea towels and blankets by then.
I would tune with the organist. That was important, because [remember], I wanted to be a timpanist. So tuning was very important to me.
What kind of drum set were you playing at the time?
Ludwig. My first set was a black oyster set, and then my second set was a champagne sparkle set. I played the regular snare.
The metal Ludwig Supraphonic?
There you go. I kept that snare for years.
Both Atlantic and Volt Records picked up a few of the later singles for national distribution. Did you share bills with a lot of established acts?
Yeah. It became “We don’t wanna go up after those guys, they’re just kicking butt and taking names.” After we did “Hey Jude” and took pyrotechnics and blew up everything... [laughs] I remember we did a thing with Vanilla Fudge in San Antonio and they were telling us “Y’all can’t break up, we’re breaking up tonight.” [laughs] But that was when we were having problems with Skipper Lee. We opened up for the Who and they wanted us to go to Europe with them. Skipper with the small thinking again… stopped the tour. We ended up doing a thing in Atlanta [instead] and it was a flop. That’s when I got angry and there were some decisions to make.
If you drive through a parking lot looking through your rearview mirror, you’re gonna run over something.
So Atlantic was trying to make the band more of a worldwide entity and Skipper Lee was more focused on local gigs?
There you go. [He wanted to] keep total control. I would get perturbed because after we signed with Atlantic, Associate Artists would want us to go to LA to do things and Skipper Lee wanted to send us to do the chitlin circuit. We were down in Natchez, Mississippi doing the demonstrations and damn near went to jail and smelling tear gas. Someone rode up to us and asked [in deep Southern accent], “Y’all some of them freedom riders?” We had a gig at the Civic Center, hoping the Klan wouldn’t show up. [laughs] That was quite an experience.
So you’re doing that and could be on tour with the Who overseas?
Right! It became a war between Skipper Lee and Atlantic Records. Because [Skipper] couldn’t get his hands on that money [from larger gigs]. He didn’t understand that it’s better to have a little piece of a big pie than a big piece of nothing.
The T.S.U. Toronadoes 45s are highly sought after and costly today. Do you feel any type of way about some of the Ovide singles going for hundreds of dollars?
[laughs] I get mad every time somebody says “Can you give me an autographed copy?” and I say “I’ll tell you what – I gotta buy ’em too!” I have to buy my own records. We don’t get it free! And we’re not making a dime.
And unfortunately at the time they were released they didn’t receive the fanfare they do today. Shortly after the group disbanded. When and why did things come to an end?
We split up because I told them, “Either Skip goes or I go.” The group didn’t last long after that, but then [the band] had signed a contract with the military and we had to fulfill it playing on all these military bases until the Vietnam War was over. All that was intermingled with the contracts. After that, I told them I had a house mortgage and responsibilities, so that was it for me. It ended in 1972-73.
Did you continue to gig locally and record through the rest of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s?
I was always playing locally, but I worked with Shell Oil Company.
Now that you’ve retired from the day gig, I see you’re getting the Toronadoes back together.
We all stopped playing for a long time, and then in 1994 I got the guys together and talked everybody into putting the Toronadoes back together. My [grandson] saw me performing at the Omni hotel in Houston and it inspired him to dedicate his life to music. Now he’s in his second year on trumpet in the Allen, TX marching band. Your proof of success, as far as financial – sometimes it skips over you as far as being a millionaire for “Tighten Up” and all this other stuff. But I look at [the kids] and realize that’s where the real success is. It’s not about me; it’s about the legacy. Just have a better lawyer! [laughs]