*I read the email that singer Ron Banks of the Dramatics had suffered a fatal heart attack at his Detroit home — he was 58 — and immediately my mind flashed back to February 1972 and the vocal quintet’s debut Stax/Volt single, “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.”
To me, that record was just a shameless attempt to exploit the catch phrase of comedian Flip Wilson’s brash, miniskirted pre-Madea character,”Geraldine,” who routinely boasted of herself, “What you see is what you get.” Too busy digging Sly Stone, James Brown, the burgeoning Philly Sound and whatever was left of the Jackson 5, I didn’t have time for corny records.
However, the Dramatics’ second single, “Get Up Get Down,” with its cliche space-age intro, aggressive rhythm arrangement and exuberant shared vocal leads, not to mention an undemanding plea I absolutely relished (“I ain’t askin’ for a cartwheel, a somersault or no flip/I just want you to get up, get down, get up outta your seat”), turned my head around.
From that record, on through the early ’80s, the Dramatics were part of my life soundtrack.
Their stuff–big, melodic, harmony-laden and heavy on vocal histrionics–was perfect for me. The Dramatics’ biggest hit, “In The Rain,” one of the greatest “rain” records of all time, served as my tranquilizer through all fashion of contrived melancholy. Back then, while listening to “Toast to the Fool,” “Hey You! Get Off My Mountain,” “And I Panicked” and “Just Shopping Not Buying Anything,” I had no idea I was snuggling up with what would take rank as some the greatest soul music of all time.
At the creamy center of the group he co-founded–one of the great Motor City acts that DIDN’T sign with Motown–was the sweet, chirping tenor of Detroit-born Ron Banks. Influenced by legendary falsettos Smokey Robinson, the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks and the Dells tenor Johnny Carter, Banks developed a distinctive style that sliced through the impassioned gruff of the Dramatics.
His tangy tone was/is immediately recognizable in the background on his buddy Michael Henderson’s renditions of “You Are My Starship” and “Valentine Love,” two songs Henderson originally recorded with Norman Connors. Indeed, hearing Banks on those tracks and on Henderson’s elegant, soulful opus, “Dramatic Theme/Treat Me Like A Man,” from the Dramatics’ 1975 DRAMA V album, you wonder why Banks and Henderson didn’t collaborate more.
Dramatics vocalist L. J. Reynolds spoke to Banks on the phone the day of his heart attack. The group was scheduled to perform that week in New York. Grieving the loss of their partner, at the time, Reynolds said the group would make the gig nevertheless. “The show must go on.” In Banks’ honor, they planned to place his microphone where he usually stands on the stage.
Many of you reading this don’t know Ron Banks. Impaired either by youth or taste, to you, the name doesn’t ring a bell. That’s okay. However, to me, the passing of Banks and artists like him somehow feels like the gradual, ultimate departure of something bigger than mere music-making mortals.
Case in point: I don’t have cable, but on the Saturday after Banks’ death, I happened to catch on Vh-1 an apparently popular block of evening programming dubbed, “Vh-1 Soul.”
The entertainers in the music videos were black, and most of the music to which they danced, lip-synched, drank champagne and simulated sex, was rhythmic. But it wasn’t soul. They said it was soul–screamed that surreal concept in colorful graphics and slick, arty montages–but it wasn’t. That was somebody else’s life soundtrack, but not mine.