Hosts Joe Watson and Toby Brazwell take a hard look at legendary tracks of the past and present, connecting the dots on the music they sample and the songs that inspired them. Join us for Season 3, where Riffs takes a deep dive into the tragic world of 24-Carat Black, the band everyone has heard, but nobody has heard of.
This season, we're doing things a little differently - We're bringing you the story of a dark, musical savant with a dream, a van full of teenage musicians with otherworldly talent, and an epic record that has been sampled by hip-hop royalty, even though the group lives in obscurity to this day. We're telling the tale of 24-Carat Black, and on this episode, you'll hear the first of our four part series about the band that everyone's heard, but nobody has heard of.
Riffs on Riffs is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Hosted by Joe Watson and Toby Brazwell. Our Audio Engineer is Eric Koltnow and our Producer and Sound Designer is Noah Foutz. Executive Producers Gerardo Orlando and David Allen Moss.
J: Hello and welcome to Riffs on Riffs. I’m Joe Watson, and I’m here with my co-host, Toby Brazwell. What’s up, Toby?
T: Man, you can’t just jump in like that.
J: Like what?
T: Like nothing has happened. This isn’t double dutch. There is no way we can use the same intro as if the last 18 months have been business as usual. This is like Denise Huxtable just left for college… We are in A Different World now. And with that being said, I feel like we should change things up a bit.
J: You are so right my friend. What about taking a fresh look at Riffs. This whole pandemic nonsense has given us a lot of time to reflect, and it’s also given us an opportunity to dive deeper into the fascinating stories that connect the dots between music past and present.
T: A fresh look. Moving forward. Onward and upward. Happily ever after. We’re moving on up. Happy little trees!
J: I was with you till the last one. RIP Bob Ross.
T: It’s never a bad time for happy little trees. Let’s paint a new Riffs picture for the listeners: We’ll start with a musical savant with a vision and a dark side. A brilliant concept album ahead of its time. Add in teenage musicians with otherworldly talent honing their chops on the road, meeting Elvis, splitting their time between posh hotels and the backs of uhauls, and throw in a trip to jail through no fault of their own. I tell you what.. After saying that description it really sounds like a mashup up every Disney movie made — outside of the Elvis part.
J: Now, what if this resulted in an epic record that has been sampled by hip hop royalty, including Digable Planets, Nas, Eric B. and Rakim, Busta Rhymes, Kanye, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar, just to name a few.
T: Now lets throw in a sad plot twist — what if these amazing talents never made a dime off of their own music, and what if the general public has never even heard of them?
J: I’d say you are talking about 24 Carat Black my friend!
T: Yessir! And in this 4-episode series of Riffs on Riffs, we will be digging deep into the history of this band and their incredible 1973 album, Ghetto Misfortune’s Wealth.
J: The tales behind this group and that record are proof that life is sometimes stranger than fiction, and we are going to go right to the source to uncover all the amazing stories.
T: That’s right. We will interview Zach Schonfeld, author of the 33 ⅓ book “Ghetto: Misfortunes Wealth” about 24 Carat Black and their landmark album that everyone has heard, but not heard of. But wait, wait.. There’s more...
J: We also had the distinct pleasure of interviewing 24 Carat Black band members Princess Hearn, Niambi Steele, and Jerome Derrickson, and the late great Larry Austin’s wife, Ladonna. The stories they shared with us… well, we’ll let you hear them yourself, (switching to newscaster voice) including the stories that have never been told before -- until now.
T:Nice - We need to get you on CNN or something! Somebody tell Jake Tapper to watch his back!
J: You heard the man, call my agent!
T: You’re also going to hear from Jeff Kollath, the Executive Director of the Stax Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
J: Riff on Riffs is a podcast that goes in-depth into the art of sampling, revealing the surprising connections between present and past songs and the untold stories about the bands that have shaped the music industry. 24-Carat Black is no exception. Having been sampled over a hundred times you’d think that this band would have gained more popularity during its time, unfortunately, just like many others, that was not the case for this band.
T: Whether it was because of the collapse of Stax Records - the band’s record company - or its music was just ahead of its time, this band never gained enough traction during its lifetime to achieve true stardom. Still, its legacy lives on in the 100+ songs that sampled it, including “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” by Digable Planets (1992), “Can I Live II” by Jay-Z feat. Memphis Bleek (1996), and “The Heart Part 4” and “FEAR” by Kendrick Lamar (2017). But before we get into all of that, let’s start at the beginning.
J: The beginning, in this case, would start with a young band out of Cincinnati called The Ditalians — a 12-piece outfit that was playing the high school prom circuit, and even made their way up to That Place Up North to play a frat party.
T: I appreciate you calling it by the correct name, but for those who are not fans of The Ohio State University, we should probably clarify that you are referring to the University of Michigan.
J: Toby, what time is it?
T: Man, we’re in the middle of a show. Why does that matter?
J: I have an important public service announcement to make based on the time.
T: Ok, uh, well, it’s currently <current time>
J: Thank you. As an important reminder to our listeners, it is currently <current time> and MIchigan still sucks. O - H!
T: I - O!
J: Alright, back to The Ditalians. One of their singers was a teenager named Princess Hearn. After talking with her on several occasions, I can say confidently that her name fits. Her life was filled with challenges, and where others might have become bitter, she managed to press on in the face of adversity . She was a talented teenager when she was discovered in Cincinnati and would become a stalwart member of 24CB. She also had a very personal relationship with the band’s founder and visionary, Dale Warren. Let’s hear what she had to say about how she came to join the group that would become 24 CB.
PI 08:29: Princess
At that time before we became 24 Carat Black and I joined the group, the Ditalians was a popular group in the community. And my sister and three other girls. I was in the high school there. I was in junior high, they were in high school and they was going to do this talent show. Okay. So we got together and got this group together. We was like the Supremes. Okay. And I was singing Aretha Franklin “Respect”. And so, and so The Ditalians was the group that was going to play for us in this talent show. So mainly we, we really bombed, the talent show went over great. And then the group, their manager was interested in the girls, you know, they wanted us to join The Ditalians cause they wanted the girls group, but they just wanted me. And then one of my sisters and then my sister <name>, she was in 24 Carat Black at one point…
Toby: She put her foot down, didn’t she,
Princess: yeah, yeah. You can't have her unless you take us
All or nothing. All or nothing.
Joe: Like a Cinderella situation.
It was exactly what it was. And so we joined The Ditalians and we were playing and singing at proms and we were singing Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross <sings> “Stop, in the name of love”… we were really, really good.
J: Just in that little snippet right there… you can hear how amazing Princess’s voice is. Her work on Ghetto Misfortune’s Wealth is epic.
T: No doubt, Princess is a generational talent. Another vocalist for 24 CB was Niambi Steele. Niambi is an artist through and through. She didn’t have the voice that Princess has, but she definitely had the hunger to make it in the music industry. That hunger was the reason she made some tough decisions when she was younger. When we talked to her, I could still hear that hunger in her voice. I still hear the drive to be successful in the music business after all these years Niambi joined 24 Carat Black for their second iteration and had this to say about that experience:
No, their first album came out and, you know, I wasn't with the group. I didn't meet them until much later in 73, I was doing theater in Indianapolis, Indiana, and I was working with two theater groups there and one was called black art. And there was a lady by the name of Wilma green. And so, you know, I was also a dancer, a modern dancer. And so I had two little children. And so I was just doing, you know, Saturday workshops, things like that. And later on that year, there was going to be a big convention in Indianapolis and they were going to have Nikki Giovanni, Shirley Chisholm. And this band from Stax records called 24 karat black. So I was part of the committee to welcome the speakers that I had to write a speech to welcome Nikki Giovanni to Indianapolis. So I wrote that speech and that got me, you know, into the event, which was a big dinner and, and 24 black was like the dance band. And so I met them, you know, after all the speaking and all that, and they would play in the music. And so on a break, I just went backstage and started talking to people and stuff,
Joe: You mentioned that Niambi didn’t have the voice that Princess does, and we want to be clear: Niambi is a phenomenal talent in her own right, but she would be the first to admit that fact:
“Listen, nobody could touch Princess, touch her today. Her voice is amazing and she scared me. I was like, oh my God … It's like, I would never sing like this. … So there was never any, I was never, you know, I was never trying to get her spot.”
T: It’s pretty apparent why The Ditalians wanted Princess to join the band. Shortly after joining, her older brother, Clarence Campbell, introduced The Ditalians to a man named Dale Warren who would later become an instrumental part of the band — and all of their lives.
J: I’m just really glad they changed their name.
T: You don’t like The Ditalians?
J: I don’t have an issue with it, but apparently the ghosts in the machines of artificial intelligence do.
T: How so?
J: So, we interviewed the band members and author Zach Schonfeld and others for this series, right? Well, we had those interviews transcribed so we could access them in print form as we put together the show . “The Ditalians” was apparently a bit difficult to decipher. I’m going to share some of the interesting names that were transcribed instead, and you tell me if you’d be ok with them as the band name.
T: Ok, hit me.
J: The first one is obvious, it would just be The Italians…
<improv, go through the rest: The Titans, The Times, Dye Tie-Ins, The Title, Data Science, Dietary Onions>
J: The Ditalians formed in 1965, and were heavily influenced by the Motown sound. They had some early success, even getting The Big O, basketball legend Oscar Robertson, to bankroll them for a time.
T: Oscar Robertson’s support totally makes sense geographically since he attended college at the University of Cincinnati. Go Bearcats! In Schonfield’s book he details how an owner of a Tuxedo store that supplied the band with their outfits introduced them to Robertson. That resulted in a record deal with a small label called Saxony Records, and the group went to Nashville for a recording session. Ready for some foreshadowing?
J: Of course!
T: Guess who produced those sessions, at the ripe old age of 23?
J: Hmmm. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
T: What?! No, why would you guess that?
J: Well, we seemed to be on the NBA legend train, I thought maybe there was another connection. You did mention foreshadowing. At 7’2”, Kareem casts a large shadow both fore and aft!
T: No sir. First of all Kareem was only 18, not 23 at the time — the man who was then called Lew Alcindor was still on the freshman team at UCLA. I am talking instead about Dale Warren, the musical genius that will figure prominently in this series. But for now, we’ll just mention Dale had an eerie early connection to the members of The Ditalians.
J: The band scored a local hit from those Saxony sessions with the song “Philly Dog New Breed” in 1966, but national success proved elusive. Still the band kept growing bigger, adding a horn section that included Jerome Derrickson on sax, and of course, Princess Hearn and her sisters on vocals.
T: They got a short deal with Mercury records, but it was Princess’s older brother, Clarence Campbell, that would reintroduce The Ditalians to Dale Warren several years after his initial session with the group.
J: This seems as good a time as any to dive into the complicated figure that was Dale Warren. A man who everyone seems to praise effusively while simultaneously acknowledging the demons that lurked within. WE WILL DISCUSS DALE WARREN AND HIS GENIUS RIGHT AFTER THIS BREAK.
NOTE- I THINK THIS IS A GOOD OF PLACE FOR COMMERCIAL BREAK IF WE NEED IT.
J: So before the break we were getting ready to dig deeper into the creative genius behind 24 Carat Black. Toby, can you tell our listeners a little more about Mr Dale Warren?
T: Warren was a complicated figure for sure. Part Disney villain, part mad genius with an uncompromising vision. Dale was born in 1943. His dad was a concert pianist, and his aunt was Raynoma Gordy Singleton, who was married from 1960 to 1964 to a guy you may have heard of, Berry Gordy.
J: Berry Gordy was the founder of Motown Records, and that certainly didn’t hurt Dale Warren’s opportunities in the music industry. But opportunity is wasted without talent, and Dale had that in spades.
T: Speaking of talent, there’s no way that we can mention Berry Gordy’s name without discussing what this man has accomplished.
J: Do you mean song writer of hits like ABC and I Want you Back for the Jackson 5 or Shop Around by the Miracles?
T: No, actually I was talking about something else…
J: Oh you must mean the fact that he’s responsible for signing the uber successful acts like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips and your favorite artist of all time, Stevie Wonder.
T: I’m happy you mentioned all of those accomplishments. But on top of all that, Mr. Gordy inspired Motown: The Musical which is one of my favorite musicals of all time. It was a different type of show in that the audience was all dressed up and ready to sing, dance, and participate. It was amazing and inspiring.
J: You know what else must be amazing and inspiring? Having Berry Gordy as your uncle. That has to present equal parts opportunity and pressure.
T: Dale Warren did two things with it. He created beautiful music, and he drank. And according to a lot of reports, he did both very well.
J: Let’s focus on the first of those two things and discuss the projects that he worked on. Warren was a conservatory trained violinist. His violin skills were put to good use as a strings arranger for Motown Records.
T: He worked with the Supremes, other groups, and several labels before landing at Stax Records. At Stax he composed music for Billy Eckstine, The Bar-Kays, The Staple Singers, and Isaac Heayes.
J: Warren is well known for his orchestration of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By” from his 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul. That song has been sampled over 100 times and is definitely a classic in hip hop circles.
T: Here’s Stax Museum Director Jeff Kollath on Dale and Isaac Hayes:
[00:37:04.440] - Jeff Kollath
…. I think Stacks caught lightning in a bottle. And this is the genius available, tossing Isaac Hayes the keys and saying, go make the record you want to make. And he comes out with Hot Buttered Soul, which is the work of a musical genius. And it is the best record that to me is the pinnacle of Stacks Records homegrown creativity,production ability, and so on. Who's involved with that record? Dale Warren is involved with that record…
T: As a general rule, any song that has been sampled that many times is a certifiable classic … unless it’s Kraftwerk. But in all seriousness, Everytime I hear Isaac Haye’s version of Walk on By, my mind automatically goes to the Notorious BIG track Warning off of his debut album Ready to Die. That song is a masterpiece. Here’s Jeff again on Dale Warren:
[00:39:45.140] - Jeff Kollath
He thought that they could do it all. And so I think 24 Karat black comes in as part of that. It comes in as a project of Dale Warren, who was well respected and who had brought the company some success and had done a lot of great work with The Emotions, and John Cassandra, who was another artist that just kind of comes in in that post 68 era. And then obviously the stuff that he had done on those three Isaac records to help us solve the movement and to be continued.
J: It’s speculated that Dale Warren might have done more work with Isaac Hayes, specifically some ghostwriting on the Shaft soundtrack. Regardless, his success with Isaac Hayes and other Stax artists gave Dale some credibility, and with that came the opportunity to take some chances and pursue his artistic vision. Let’s hear what Zach Schonfeld had to say about that vision:
… Dale Warren harbored this dream of fusing classical music with soul and kind of creating this new hybrid of music as a vehicle to express his own, his own views about poverty and about the ghetto and, and, and about the ways in which black people were oppressed and in the inner cities. And in the time in which the ghetto album was recorded and 24 karat black kind of became the vehicle for this musical expression that, that he had been looking for. He met these musicians when they were in high school. They were a high school band known as the Ditalians from Ohio. And he kind of, he took them under his wing. He trained them. He completely transformed their repertoire. He taught them to, to perform his own material and he was kind of the mastermind behind this entire album, but he was also, he was also a very troubled person.
J: Ohhhh we got in trouble…
T: Right here in river city …
J: With a capital "T"
That rhymes with "B"
And that stands for Booze
T: Which is the 2nd thing we mentioned that Warren did well. Drinking.
J: Unfortunately there appeared to have been a price for the musical genius that Warren possessed and that was his alcoholism.
T: In Schonfield’s book he quoted Warren’s daughter, Tori Gray, as saying that he never went anywhere without his bottle of Beefeater Gin, but stated that although he was an alcoholic he was a high functioning alcoholic. This is what Niambi Steele had to say about that:
He always had a little mama gin in his pocket. Beefeater.
And he always had a little pipe in his pocket, always. And, but he was so good at what he did. Nobody thought anything about it because he could do all of our jobs. He could sing my part, her part, Hey, in fact, he's on the album, but you would know it because he doesn't take credit except for when he wrote, but he's on the album. He's singing, he's singing about God saving the world.
T: Regardless of how high functioning one can appear, there’s no debating that alcoholism takes its toll on one’s physical and mental health. Not to mention all of the added stress on your loved ones and those around you.
J: Sometimes people use alcohol as a way of dealing with pressure and anxiety in social situations. It appears that Warren was an introvert and this was true for him. What started off as a coping mechanism became a crutch — and a dangerous one.
T: Despite his demons, Dale Warren was talented and driven. And with his industry success, he was ready to bring his vision of music and life in the ghetto to fruition. One problem though, he needed a band.
J: Which brings us back to the Dietary Onions. The band was touring the music circuit in Cincinnati and surrounding areas, and eventually made an appearance at a frat party in Ann Arbor. This is where Dale began to see his vision in the flesh. He took the band under his wing and began to mold them into what would become 24 Carat Black.
T: And let’s keep in mind, most of these talented musicians were still teenagers. Can you imagine managing a group of teenage musicians?
J: Two words. Justin Bieber.
T: What does that mean?
J: I have no idea. He was a teenage musician. And isn’t mentioning the Biebs good for ratings?
T: We will not stoop to such levels, our listeners know and deserve better. So we will not mention BTS or old school acts like N Sync or even New Kids on the Block just for the sake of getting ratings.
J: Ok good. I also won’t bring up what happens to teenage musicians eventually. Like how sometimes they go from Boyz II Men.
T: But in all seriousness, can you imagine managing and creating with a dozen or so teenage musicians? Making sure they got to gigs on time, dealing with the parents? Oh my god it’s just like the musical version of an AAU coach. I don’t know if I have the patience.
J: You know what else takes patience? Marriage. And being married for over 4 decades must mean you have the patience of a saint. Let’s hear now from Ladonna Austin, the wife of 24CB bassist Larry Austin. She’s about to drop some wisdom.
[00:00:57.100] - Joe
Yeah, mostly. What I'm curious about is telling you your origin story. How did you meet and how did that all happen? How old were you when I met Larry? Yeah, okay.
[00:01:13.550] - Ladonna
When I met Larry, I was 16. Okay. And we became real good friends, and hung out together. He was doing this music thing then, not with the group at that time, but he was playing music. Originally. Larry started out playing guitar, and then he transitioned to being a bass player. But, yeah, we managed in 10th grade. We kind of separated for a couple of years. We didn't see each other. We met back up in 1970, and then we started hanging out. We got married in 1971 and were together for 45 years until he passed away in 2016. So we had a. Wow, that's amazing. A good, long life. Marriage and four children. Yeah, we have eight grand.
[00:02:21.210] - Joe
Do you have any words of wisdom?
[00:02:25.290] - Ladonna
Yeah, words of wisdom. I just let him be.
[00:02:29.230] - Joe
45 years is a long time.
[00:02:31.130] - Ladonna
Yeah, I just let him be him and it worked for us. And he let you be you and he let me be me, but it worked. Like I said, he was a musician. My field was medicine, but Larry wanted to have balance, and so he said our opposite made it work. And so, yes. So, like I said, we're blessed to have four children, eight grandchildren, and eight great grand. So we have a big family.
[00:03:13.170] - Joe
That is very cool.
J: You think the Mrs should just ‘let you be’ like Ladonna did?
T: For everyone’s sake, I’m just not gonna answer that *hurried, like you’re trying to change the subject* Ladonna was present for a lot of the band’s early developments…
[00:06:46.190] - Joe
Which brings it to the next question. So I'm assuming you knew Dale Warren. How would you describe him?
[00:06:53.660] - Ladonna
I do not know Dale really well, but as far as I know, he did wonderful at what he did, especially when he put this album together and everything, and he seemed to have been a great person. Like I said, I didn't hang out with him as far as just hanging out together and everything like that, but he just seemed like he was a great guy. And from what a couple of times that I did and have encountered them at the rehearsal or something like that. But from what I understand from everybody else and from Larry, Larry really liked them and respected them.
J: Coaching and directing a musical enterprise to the scale of 24CB takes patience and skill. The band was good when Larry found them but nothing less than perfect would bring his vision to life. And just like your analogy of coaching AAU, that means practice, practice, practice.
T: So now we’re talking about practice? Practice. We’re talking about practice.
J: Yes Mr. Iverson, we’re talking about practice. Also, they are who we thought they were. Let’s hear from 24 Carat Black Vocalist, Niambe Steel about just how rigorous those band practices were with Dale in charge:
He was a perfectionist and plan. He had Isaac Hayes to prove who he was, you know, he didn't need us. I mean, he did not need us. He needed the dream. So he had, and I, he had the feeling that we could do it. And we were given the mantle of that responsibility and don't fuck it up. Basically, you know, he's coming from a lot of success. He was a classically trained violinist pianist, all that piano that you hear, that's all him, that piano is beautiful.
T: Princess Hearne would describe it this way:
… It was intense. I mean all day, all night, you know, because he had to lay everything down. Every single track, you know, it was exhausting, but it was intense. It was military military. And then, you know, 1400 hours, you've gotta be a challenge and then you've better try to get you to sleep. And when we were on the road, it was like a bootcamp, you know, downtown. It was to get some sleep and we were up all night and then we slept all day, you know, because we were in the club. Right. You know, so that kind of life, you really didn't have a life.
J: And slowly but surely, 24 Carat Black started to take shape. For as rigorous as it was, the musicians appreciated the tutelage and the experience. The discipline and focus allowed all of them to get better at their craft. Here’s more from our interview with Ladonna:
(timeskip) [00:04:32.520] - Joe
Yeah. Interesting question. I love to get your insights. So you sat in some rehearsals and we've heard some interesting stories about what those rehearsals were like from your experience, how would you describe it?
[00:04:52.050] - Ladonna
I would say it was a great bunch of guys coming together with a lot of different opinions, a lot of different ideas, but in the end, they kind of all kind of mesh, that everything kind of came together. Of course, Princess Hearn was an awesome lead singer, but they had their background. The background group was awesome as well. And then you had this group of awesome musicians, and so you just don't seem to see a lot of I'd say to me, they were before their time. They were a group of musicians that should have been destined for greatness, in my opinion. I just think that they can hear me?
[00:05:56.270] - Joe
We share that opinion, by the way.
[00:05:58.390] - Toby
Yes, we sure can.
[00:06:00.670] - Ladonna
I'm sorry. My earpiece fell out. I just think they were destined to be destined for greatness for whatever reason. Just the card didn't pan out the way I would hope, in the way I'm sure all of them did. But it was just some of the rehearsals, like I said, the ones that I wasn't in a lot, but they came together and they put things together. So I just wish they could have been.
(timeskip) [00:17:46.410] - Ladonna
Well, I don't know about anybody else's thoughts, but I think Larry had felt that the past was in the past, and he was a new day. What didn't happen in 24 Karat. He felt Shotgun was the ticket and that some things didn't happen in the past. But you have to move on. You couldn't do the should or could have. I wish for things. And so I think that he felt that the Shotgun group was the group that was going to take them to the top and his aspirations and his dreams were going to be fulfilled with that group. And he put all the rest of his time, his talent, his passion into that and making his craft better, because I do well, I know for a fact that he became a better bass player as time went on. I think he was a great bass player in 24 Karat, but he put in so much time and effort. He would sit in our living room and just play and just got better and better and better because that was just his passion. And when I would go see him on stage, it was just like a sense of pride.
(timeskip)[00:19:33.480] - Ladonna
I could just see how much that he'd improved and how much he loved playing his music and how they all came together. That group gel together so well. They work. I don't know if you've seen it, but they have a Facebook page. It's called The Real Shotgun. If you ever get a chance to go look at it and you look at the comments from all over the world, I mean, Japan, Germany for the following that they still have today, 40 years after. And that says something when you can have a group that still has the following 40 years after they put their first album out and still people are still wanting to know. They also did put out Shotgun Three again. It's on CD. They put that out. It was about last year that it came out again on CD because so many people were asking for it. And they do have some of their music on. I think it's icloud or something like that. One of those streaming.
T: In our next episode, we’re going to explore that evolution of 24 Carat Black and the album that would become Ghetto: MIsfortune’s Wealth. We’ll hear some crazy stories about life on the road, find out what happened to the band when Stax records went under, and get a glimpse into what a live performance by the band must have been like.
J: Maybe we’ll have an Elvis sighting and talk about that time Dale Warren did a movie with OJ Simpson.
T: You can’t make this stuff up.
J: And you can’t make up for lost time. Unfortunately, we are out of time for this episode, so we will have to continue the story in the next episode. So until then,as always, thank you for listening. I’m Joe Watson.