In an effort to celebrate the greatness of the legendary Tulsa, Oklahoma, group The Gap Band, we take a look back at the making of their 1980 breakthrough album Gap Band III.
This year was the 100th anniversary of the of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The centennial commemoration of the massacre was national news, with Joe Biden becoming the first sitting president to visit Tulsa and mark the anniversary. The moment made the citizens of this country realize the incalculable destruction and terrorism that took place against the Black residents along Greenwood Avenue over the course of two days.
Forty years after that American tragedy, a trio of brothers were honing their prodigious musical chops inside their father Reverend Oscar Wilson’s Pentecostal church, the Church of God in Christ, in the same area now known to the world as Black Wall Street in North Tulsa, Oklahoma. While growing up in their household, the Wilson brothers, Ronnie, Charlie, and Robert, took music lessons from their mother, Irma Wilson, to develop their skill sets on various instruments. As they continued to cultivate their mastery of the piano, trumpet, organ and guitar, the eldest brother, Ronnie, formed his first band at 14-years-old. Shortly thereafter, the middle brother, Charlie, joined a rival band and began competing at different venues in the Tulsa area. After witnessing Charlie improvising on the organ at a neighboring club, Ronnie desired to have his younger brother leave his band and join him.
Once Charlie decided to join forces with Ronnie, their bassist left the band, resulting in their baby brother, Robert, coming onboard to fulfill the vacancy. Through their high school years, they would rehearse and jam inside neighbors’ garages much to their parents’ chagrin. During this juncture, they settled on a name for their group — the Greenwood, Archer and Pine Street Band. Due to difficulties in promoting the group’s name on flyers and posters, they renamed themselves the G.A.P. Band. Because of a spelling error, the G.A.P. Band eventually became the Gap Band. Within the next couple years, the group performed at a plethora of local establishments. At one of the hot spots, called the International Club, their hard work began to bear some fruit. One of Leon Russell’s associates saw the group in action and invited them to meet the musician at his studio, The Church Studio. Upon jamming with Russell, a native Oklahoman, for a couple hours, he hired the collective to play on his album, Stop All that Jazz and signed them to a recording contract on his imprint Shelter Records.
In 1974, the Gap Band released their debut album, Magician’s Holiday. The album didn’t yield any hit records, meaning it was their last recording for Shelter Records. Undeterred, Charlie Wilson refocused his energies on becoming a household name in the music industry. A year later, he left his hometown to try his luck in Los Angeles. Within a few months, his brothers rejoined him in Los Angeles and began performing around town. In 1977, they signed a recording contract with Tattoo Records and released their second album, The Gap Band. For the second straight album, they failed to produce any major hits and left the label. While working to make a name for themselves, fellow musician D.J. Rogers introduced them to entrepreneur Lonnie Simmons at his Total Experience club. After a year passed, Simmons signed them to a new recording deal. At the time, Simmons label had a distribution deal with Mercury Records, which provided the group an opportunity to make their mark. In 1979, the Gap Band released their third and fourth albums, another self-titled album and The Gap Band II. Between the two albums, they had four songs make a splash on the top 10 of the Billboard Black Singles Charts: “Shake,” “Open Up Your Mind (Wide),” “Steppin’ (Out),” and “Oops Upside Your Head.” During the making of The Gap Band II, they began working with veteran engineer, Jack Rouben, who previously recorded with Earth, Wind & Fire, Gloria Gaynor, Peaches & Herb, among other artists. His expertise became a valuable asset while assisting the Gap Band by setting up the equipment that captured their incomparable vocals and instrumentation.
On December 8, 1980, Gap Band III was released. It peaked at number one on the Billboard charts. After toiling for years on the music scene, it became their breakthrough album. The album spawned one chart-topping single, “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” and two other singles, the top five: “Yearning for Your Love” and “Humpin’.” In an effort to celebrate the greatness of Tulsa, Oklahoma, we spoke with engineer Jack Rouben, who provided a lucent account of how this classic album came to fruition.
From your vantage point, because they experienced some success with their Gap Band II album, what was the collective mindset of the group going into the making of Gap Band III?
Jack Rouben: I don’t think they had any conceptual idea for Gap Band III. Just certain songs were presented and agreed upon that they would get on the album. I don’t think there was any definite vision of a certain type of album, other than making more music and producing more records. Gap Band III had another big hit, “Yearning for Your Love.” It was a big ballad for them. They were going for that smooth Earth, Wind & Fire vibe. With that one, they really captured it. I think it’s one of my favorite records of all the ones I’ve worked on. It’s got a great feel to it. It was one of the bigger songs on that album.
You mentioned that the group was influenced by Earth, Wind & Fire. Could you elaborate more on that specific influence?
In my opinion, The Gap Band’s success came from a result of the unintended consequences because they wanted to be Earth, Wind & Fire. If you listen to a lot of their tracks, they were just copying, mimicking, and imitating Earth, Wind & Fire, even to the point where they were using the same arranger, Tom Tom 84. They were using the same horn section, the Phenix horns. But none of those songs were successful because there was only one Earth, Wind & Fire, and they were killing it. They were making great records.
What happened with The Gap Band — and you will notice this on all of their hits — you will see a common name and that common name is Rudy Taylor. Rudy Taylor was not part of The Gap Band. Rudy Taylor was an employee at Total Experience. He was a jack-of-all-trades. He would do everything. He was Lonnie’s assistant. He was a studio manager. He kept the studio equipped. He ran the operation. He was like a manager. Rudy came up with these incredibly catchy phrases, “Oops Upside Your Head” and “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me).” Those songs became hits for The Gap Band. “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” was another one of Rudy’s little phrases. Those were really never intended to be singles. Those were like a B side or album filler songs, but because they were so quirky and so original they took off. That’s what catapulted The Gap Band into platinum success.
I have become very respectful and admire Rudy [Taylor] a lot for what he contributed to that band. I went online yesterday to see what was going on with him, and I didn’t realize he had passed away almost 15 years ago. Rudy is no longer with us, but I believe, personally, that he was very much responsible for the success of that band. Typically, the music would be first and then they worked on lyrics or somebody would come in with a finished song. They had a four-year run and did amazingly well.
What was your impression of the Wilson brothers once you started working with them in the studio?
It was a party atmosphere there because there were a lot of people that would hang around. You can hear that in some of their songs like “Oops Upside Your Head” or “Gash Gash Gash.” It would be like a big party feel to it. The thing that impressed me the most was Charlie’s voice and Charlie’s keyboard playing. I thought his bass synth playing was very unique. Also, Robert was a phenomenal bass guitar player. He was very original. He had a lot of respect amongst his peers. He was an odd guy, but he played some incredible bass guitar. Ronnie was the organizer. He kept the ship in order. He was a keyboard player and songwriter. He wrote a lot of their music. I mostly dealt with Ronnie in the control room.
Robert was not usually around unless he was performing. Charlie would come in and out, but Ronnie was there pretty much full-time. They had a great group of supporting musicians. The band had interchangeable musicians and drummers. There were a few drummers that came in and out. Depending on the track, they would use some serious well-known session drummers. It depended on what kind of sound they were looking for. We were in a really good studio. It was well-equipped, great mics, great equipment, and that’s why it translated in the sound. We got some great vocal sound from Charlie and the mixes.What was the typical studio routine that the band followed during the making of this album?
When I would show up every day to the studio, we usually cut tracks, do some overdubbing, and things like that during the day. In the evening, we usually would cut vocals, and I remember Charlie felt more comfortable working at night. Another interesting side story is that Charlie liked having Rudy [Taylor] in the studio with him when he sang, so I would always set up two chairs. Rudy would be like his little security blanket. Charlie just loved having him there.
Where would everyone be positioned in the studio during the recording process?
The studio was basically one room. I don’t recall there being an isolation booth. We’d have everybody in the studio in one room spread out. The drums were at the far end of the room. It was a big rectangular room that was designed by a very well-known audio engineer named Armin Steiner, and he did a wonderful job designing the room. Lonnie Simmons bought it from him. It was a really good sounding room. When cutting basic tracks, we’d have everybody there: the guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, and drummer. Most of the electric stuff was done direct. The guitar, bass, keyboards, and the Fender Rhodes were recorded direct, so everybody could be in the same room and just vibe off each other. That’s why the grooves were so strong. One thing that I remember about working with Earth, Wind & Fire was that Maurice [White] was never in the control room. He was always out in the studio with the other musicians. He was conducting, and he would know when the groove was there. That was a great lesson I learned from watching Maurice just kind of massage the groove by being with the guys in the room, as opposed to on the other side of the glass.
It was kind of like how we were recording The Gap Band. The vocals would be recorded in the same room. All the other instruments were, regardless whether it was horns or strings or percussion, were all done in there. It could accommodate a very large group of musicians. Everything was done in-house. We never had to go to another studio because of space limitations where we needed more space. Lonnie would pop his head in every so often just to see how things were going, but he didn’t really give much musical direction. He was overseeing and making sure that we were actually doing work and not playing around. They were a good a group of musicians. Oliver Scott was a great keyboard player. We had some really good guitar players.
Everybody else was on either side facing each other, so they could see each other. I had a little bit of isolation, even though they didn’t really need it because everything was pretty much direct. They would be in like a little semicircle with the keyboards and the bass. There wasn’t an overcrowded feel to it. It was comfortable, but everybody would be in the studio when we were recording. There would be nobody in the control room doing any recording.
Did they ever rehearse or write up any charts prior to cutting the music?
I know some were just grooves that they made up on the spot without any kind of sheet music or any kind of charts associated with it. Others may have come in with the songs already done. It was mostly like a feel thing where they worked on it a little bit and then we’d start recording. But I don’t recall standing up music stands or anything like that.
Who was responsible for coming up with the melodies, harmonies, and the arrangements of the songs?
It would either be Ronnie or Charlie. Charlie as far as harmonizing with himself, or if there was going to be background parts, Ronnie was mostly involved, as well as arranging vocals other than Charlie’s tracks. The lead vocals were done first, so they could arrange the background parts around the lead.
How would you describe the collaboration process between the Wilson brothers when they were working on the music for this album?
Well, some songs seemed like they came already completed and other songs we just went in to record them. I keep thinking their bigger hits were the songs that were developed in the studio. They usually started off with an idea and a musical idea turned into a groove. The idea usually came from Charlie’s bass synth. For example, on “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)”, it was just that bassline that Charlie came up with, and the song was built around that. Once they realized that, it took a minute for them to understand that Rudy [Taylor] had some really good ideas. Once we had a hit record from “Oops Upside Your Head,” which Rudy came up with, then they started to welcome him and looked forward to other things that he could come up with. He became more and more involved in the songwriting process, whereas in Gap Band II, he wasn’t involved that much.
Are there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories during the making of this album?
The other thing I will mention is that they always gave one song to Robert, just like the Beatles would give Ringo one song. They gave Robert one song on the album. It was Robert that would keep these little party environments going. On this album, “Gash Gash Gash” was Robert’s song. We didn’t know what that was, and I was like, “OK, whatever. New Robert song. Let’s do it.” He was singing on it and there was a whole room full of people in the studio, and they were all just singing along and making party noises.
Here’s another story. There was another group signed to Total Experience called Yarbrough and Peoples. They had that big hit “Don’t Stop the Music.” Lonnie brought in an outside producer named Jonah Ellis to work on that song. Jonah came in, and he produced the record. It was a big record, and Jonah never got paid. One day Jonah walked into the front room, and he had got a gun. I wasn’t there, but I did see the results. He shot up the place. He just put bullets on the wall. I came in the next day and saw all the bullet holes in the wall. Jonah was the most mild-mannered, easygoing, sweet guy. He just lost it. I don’t know if they resolved their dispute, but you never knew what could come down at that particular studio. There were some thugs walking around, but I was cool. I was cool and protected.
What type of role did Lonnie Simmons play during the making of this album?
Even though Lonnie [Simmons] is credited as being a producer, he was more of an executive producer. He was running a record label and doing the business side of it. Lonnie wasn’t particularly musical. He credited himself on many of the songs as being a co-writer, but that’s just not true. Lonnie put his name on the credits for financial benefit, but he wasn’t involved musically. The only thing I heard Lonnie play one time was some cowbell on “Outstanding.”
Let’s go in-depth about the making of the some of the songs from this album.
“Yearning for Your Love” was a song that was pretty much already completed before we came in the studio. Oliver Scott, I think, wrote the music, and Ronnie wrote the lyrics. That was pretty much a song that was already finished and ready to be recorded. There wasn’t a lot of experimenting with that one.
“Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” was a musical idea that Charlie came up with on the Minimoog that turned into a groove, then a completed arrangement, and then they put the lyrics at the very end. Those two songs were quite different in how they evolved. This song was built upon that one repeating bass track, and that was the jam that blossomed into a whole complete song.
Who came up with sound effect of the tires burning rubber before the song came on?
That was done as an afterthought. [That song] was mixed by somebody else. I had never heard that tire screeching. It was never part of the song until it came out the next day. When they finished it, they added that. I didn’t know that was going to be part of it. I heard it on the following day. Sometimes songs would go through different lyrical ideas. The groove would be there, and they would try one lyric.
“Are You Living” was one of those songs where they were trying to copy Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s got the horns and that groove. It was never the featured song on the album. It’s got a nice, solid groove, but I don’t think it was ever released as a single.
“Sweet Caroline” was just something to fill the album with. They needed another ballad.
“Humpin’” was just another one of those party tracks. They were also trying to do the P-Funk thing and do that George Clinton, wild, crazy party music. This was their attempt at doing that. It was funny that they were trying to copy so many different artists, but the secret to their success was in their own backyard. They didn’t have to go out and mimic anybody else. The songs that they didn’t expect to do well did the best.
“When I Look in Your Eyes” was a more detailed, produced track. There were horns in there. It’s got a nice arrangement. I think that’s what they were looking at as their first single. It was the first song on side one. I would assume that they were planning on that being the first single of the album.
Do you remember working with any of the other musicians like Raymond Calhoun or John Black?
Yes. I remember Raymond very well. The Gap Band had these interchangeable drummers. Ronnie Kaufman and they had Raymond. Sometimes, they’d bring in either James Gadson, who was a studio drummer, or Melvin Webb. They were going for a certain kind of feel that they thought a different drummer could give them.
How about Fred Jenkins, Glenn Nightingale, and Marlo Henderson?
Yes. All great guitar players as well as Jimi Macon. Jimi Macon was from the south — I think Louisiana or someplace. And they’d fly him in to do some of the guitar work. It was either him on “Yearning for Your Love” or Glenn Nightingale. Glenn Nightingale was a great guitar player who would play solos on occasion. They were good musicians. Oliver Scott was a great keyboard player. Also, John Black was another good keyboard player. Pretty much all the bass was done by Robert.
What was it like working with a supremely talented artist and musician such as Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band during their prime?
They were a very talented group. Charlie had that voice and it was clear as a bell. It cut through and had a very young sound to it. You could tell with all the little giggling that he did in between phrases and things like that, that he was having a good time making these records. The thing that surprises me that people don’t give him enough credit for is his synth playing because they only remember him for his vocals. It’s just like Prince. People never stopped to listen to his guitar playing, which, in my opinion, was second only to Jimi Hendrix. Prince was a phenomenal guitar player, but the community just knows him as Prince, the singer. Charlie should have done more of those kinds of records where he was playing Minimoog because that’s what the kids are sampling now.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.