The Untouchable Soul of Robert Ward

Ohio Untouchables

The Ohio Untouchables with Robert Ward (far right): Toledo, 1964

In previous posts, we covered a lot of fertile ground in southwest Ohio – King Records, Fraternity Records, Lonnie Mack, Roger Troutman… But the picture wouldn’t be complete without the man who introduced Lonnie to his first Magnatone amp – Robert Ward.

I first discovered Ward through his recordings for the New Orleans-based Black Top label, starting with the much-acclaimed “Fear No Evil” in 1991. Then I tracked down an outstanding collection of singles that Ward recorded in the Sixties. The compilation was released in ’95 on the tiny Relic label, an offshoot of a vintage record store in Hackensack, NJ. And the title, “Hot Stuff,” actually falls short of describing the raging inferno within. This is hard-grinding, hair-raising soul music of the highest order.

Let’s start with an incendiary workout recorded in 1962 at Cincinnati’s King Records studio. It features Ward and the Ohio Untouchables backing up one of the greatest vocal groups ever assembled – The Falcons, with eventual soul stars Wilson Pickett (lead), Eddie “Knock on Wood” Floyd and Sir Mack Rice: I Found a Love/The Falcons

Robert Ward

I suppose a little background is in order here… It’s not hard to find a decent bio of Ward (and “Hot Stuff” includes excellent liner notes by Bill Dahl), so I’ll try to stick with the high points:

  • Born in Luthersville, Georgia, in 1938 and grew up in poverty with four brothers
  • Inspired by gospel-singing dad and guitar-pickin’ mom, who gave him his first axe when he was 10 years old (a gift from a white family whose house she was cleaning)
  • Also exposed to blues and gospel through his parents’ 78 RPM records – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Dixie Hummingbirds, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, among other favorites
  • Played on a local radio station with a country and western band, using his slide guitar to mimic a pedal steel
  • Served in the Army from ‘57 to ‘59
  • Returned home to form his first serious band, the Brassettes, which shared a gig with James Brown before touring steadily with the legendary bluesman Piano Red

Which brings us to Dayton, Ohio, where Ward moved in 1960 to find “a better way of living.”

Down the road in Cincinnati, Lonnie Mack was perfecting his lightning-fast runs on guitar with stunning instrumentals like Wham and Memphis. Meanwhile, in Dayton, Ward had formed the Ohio Untouchables with bassist Levoy Fredrick (replaced by Marshall Jones in ’61) and drummer Cornelius Johnson – and later rounded out by Pee Wee Middlebrook and Clarence Satchell on horns. “I was thinking about Robert Stack and ‘The Untouchables’ on TV,” he told Dahl. “I said ‘Well, they’re the untouchables in stopping crime. I want to accumulate a band where we’ll be up there with the best and be unstoppable.’”

Here’s more evidence that Ward had achieved his stated goal: Forgive Me Darling/The Ohio Untouchables

Ward’s signature sound involved the thick, organ-like vibrato of the Magnatone amp. And Mack didn’t hesitate to get his own Magnatone after catching Ward’s act in Indiana. On this tune, recorded in Cincinnati in 1963, you can hear Ward’s obvious influence on his protégé Mack: The Bounce/Lonnie Mack

Hot StuffAfter listening to Black Top-era Ward, it was a revelation for me to hear earlier versions (both with and without the Ohio Untouchables) of his originals like Fear No Evil, Your Love is Amazing and My Love is Strictly Reserved for You. These and other standouts first appeared in the early to mid ‘60s on Detroit-based labels LuPine (whose producer, Robert West, first signed the Ohio Untouchables in 1962), Thelma and Groove City. Here’s the original version of My Love, with powerful singing by Ward. Should’ve been a massive soul hit… My Love is Strictly Reserved for You/Robert Ward

Ward and the Ohio Untouchables parted ways in 1965, with his former band destined for fame and fortune as the superfunky Ohio Players (Love Rollercoaster) and Ward eventually moving on to Detroit to do session work at Motown. If you think you’re new to Ward, think again – you probably heard him on Papa was a Rolling Stone by the Temptations and this unavoidable hit from 1971 by the Undisputed Truth: Smiling Faces Sometimes/the Undisputed Truth

Ward’s life took some tragic and unfortunate turns in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the death of his first wife in ’77 (cerebral hemorrhage) and a year in a Georgia prison, where he played in a band with former hitmaker Major Lance. But much like our recent subject Snooks Eaglin, Ward was rescued from near-obscurity by Black Top co-owner Hammond Scott.

Black BottomThose who take their blues straight up tend to have pretty strong opinions about the Black Top sound. I’ll share the musings of our friend The Hound about Robert Ward’s recordings for the label:

“I find Black Top one of the most offensive labels of the 90′s blues revival in that they could make lame records with some of the finest artists of all time (Snooks Eaglin being another who comes to mind) by attempting to make their discs 90′s radio friendly, as if Robert Ward’s record was going to get airplay next to Madonna.”

A little harsh? Maybe… and I’ll cop to being a fan of Ward’s ‘95 release, “Black Bottom,” which includes a rock-solid remake of Johnnie Taylor’s soul classic Toehold: Toehold/Robert Ward

But my favorites on that album are a couple of heartfelt ballads with spiritually inclined lyrics and soulful singing by Ward. Here’s one that always knocks me out: Silver and Gold/Robert Ward

Robert Ward - New Role SoulOn Ward’s final album – the 2000 Delmark release “New Role Soul” – he dispenses of heavy horns and other Black Top flourishes in favor of a more stripped-down sound. With a little less production gloss, this number wouldn’t sound out of place on a Groove City single: Never Found a Girl/Robert Ward

In his last years, Ward lived in rural Dry Branch, Georgia (not far from my mom’s hometown Milledgeville), with his second wife, Roberta, who contributed to “New Role Soul” as both a singer and songwriter. He suffered a stroke in 2001 and never really recovered. Ward passed away in 2008 – leaving behind an amazing musical legacy that seems to grow more vital as each season of American Idol drifts by.

Here’s the only live footage of Ward on youtube – from the Chicago Blues Fest, probably not long after he signed with Black Top. Many youtube videos of tattooed nimrods aping Stevie Ray Vaughan, and only one of Ward. Guess that’s why I do what I do. It’s not even a particularly great video of Ward. Just good enough to remind you how special this guy was. What a wonderfully soulful voice. Crank it up…

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17 thoughts on “The Untouchable Soul of Robert Ward

  • Wendy, 28 May 8:59 am

    Fabulous write-up, Tim, and thanks for putting up some of your treasures that I had no access to. When I wrote a bit about him last year in my research on the backstory of I Found A Love, I discovered an item to the effect that Ward’s late-in-life resurgence came about due to an independent record producer making it known that he wanted to find him at all costs after those years of personal trouble and obscurity. When Ward happened to walk into Fretware Guitars outside of Dayton (still there, it appears), phone calls were made and so ultimately were the last few albums. Keep shining a light on those who deserved far better than they got!

  • admin, 28 May 9:28 am

    Thanks, Wendy. Shouldn’t surprise you that the Relic CD is long out of print. I believe it is in the nation’s best interests to remaster and re-release Ward’s LuPine, Thelma and Groove City recordings. Should I start a PAC?

  • Wendy, 28 May 9:41 am

    It’s our right as Americans to do so! ;) That’s no more a “special interest” than any other, in my book.

  • Kevin, 30 May 6:17 pm

    I too was put off by some of Black Top’s CDs. They set my Eddie Hinton devotion back by a couple of decades. But I always liked Snooks’ releases and the first Robert Ward disc. I never knew about the Delmark album, and I’ll have to check it out.
    Didn’t the Black Top guy say Ward was the reason he started the label, to specifically record him?
    Still, Ward’s original Fear No Evil is a man possessed.

  • admin, 30 May 6:32 pm

    No question, a lot of crap came out on Black Top. And the Hound points out that the original Fear No Evil sessions were a lot more raw than what was later released. Not sure the Scotts built the label around Ward. He was definitely an incredible find for them, but they may have been more jazzed about signing Snooks, given the New Orleans angle.

  • Ole Sorensen, 31 May 3:00 pm

    Robert Ward. Yes, it´s soul blues and gospel all in one great performer. His voice and guitarplaying makes a deep and lasting impact. He is like no other bluesman. I´ve got 4 of his cds. And thanks to this article I now must have his old recordings. Those original versions of his songs are as good today as they were then.
    Greetings from Denmark!

  • admin, 02 June 4:11 pm

    Thanks Ole… His early stuff is as good as it gets.

  • John Berg, 03 September 4:23 pm

    I was the fan who first tracked Robert down, spending 5-6 years on his trail (via lots of phone calls and letters to other fans of this kind of music) before getting a lucky break via a tip in 1989 from a Dayton-based musician who gave me a phone number in Dry Branch. I rang the number and found myself talking with Roberta, who told me that Robert would “be back soon”. So I called back in a half hour or so and found myself speaking with the man hisself. We spent around 15 minutes on the phone, and he agreed to do a longer call a week later that I aimed to tape and turn into an article for a journal such as Living Blues or Juke Blues, with the ultimate hope that this would lead to a label taking notice and signing Robert to some new recordings. Alas, on the appointed day for our followup phone call, the number just rang and rang without anyone answering. I tried daily for a week, then tried a few more times over the ensuing month, then finally gave up trying in rather perplexed mode. “What happened?” Well, it turned out that Robert and Roberta had a fire in their kitchen in the days right after my first chat with RW, requiring them to move out for some months while the house was repaired. They didn’t have a temporary phone and thus had no way to get back to me. Time passed — but Robert was inspired by my phone connection with him that afternoon to think “maybe people want to hear me again”, leading him to journey back north to Dayton. There he reconnected with some of his old music buddies — including a few who had been among his “Ohio Untouchables” and later found fame via the “Ohio Players”. He also connected with Dave Hussong in the music store mentioned in your article, resulting in Dave going to hear Robert and his friends play a gig at a local tavern. Upon hearing Robert live, Dave was moved to contact his friend Hammond Scott in New Orleans. (By the way, I still have the cassette that Dave sent me of one of those early gigs — the band was for sure ‘rough and ready’ but Robert clearly could still sing and play.) Hammond flew up to Dayton to hear Robert and band, with the result that Hammond signed Robert to Black Top. A few months later Dave traveled down to New Orleans to join Robert and Hammond at the sessions for the first Black Top “come back” album — again, Dave sent me a cassette of the sessions “in progress” along with some notes about how things were proceeding. Dave told me that Robert was having some trouble hitting some of the vocal high notes, so they first had him take a couple days off from singing and then used the studio trick of slowing the instrumental track down a bit and having RW sing his vocals, then restoring the track to normal speed/pitch. I have numerous tapes of later live gigs by Robert and it is clear that he still struggled to hit some of those old high notes, but the guitar playing was always stellar and his overall great feel overcame any minor glitches. I talked to a couple band leaders who back Robert on festival gigs — e.g. Portland’s Lloyd Jones, later New England-based Dave Keller — and they mentioned that Robert was a bit tricky to work with since he went with his own feel for things rather than sticking to “charts” and such, so they really had to stay on their toes to follow him. I have a video from a gig he did at a record store in Mill Valley, CA, backed by Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, Steve Douglas and Jim Kneltner, and it was obvious they had not rehearsed as they don’t quite follow his lead in the various changes — but it is still a nice remembrance of how great Robert was. The ultimate experience for me was a day spent visiting the Wards at their Dry Branch home in 1991, a year or so after the first Black Top album came out. They definately lived out in the “back of beyond” but Roberta was a great hostess, a fine cook, and loved her man deeply. During that same time frame, I set about persuading Donn Filetti of the Relics label to compile a CD of the Ohio Untouchables tracks they held in their vaults; it took over a year to convince them but in the end they agreed not only to do the disc but also to pay the licensing fees needed to get the tracks cut for Detroit’s Don Davis. I made the initial phone connection to Davis, who for sure was a hard-bargainer, but in the end agreed to do a deal with Relics for the needed tracks — including a previously unreleased track. In fact Davis sent me a cassette with a number of songs he thought might also be by Robert — the label’s archival notes were apparently not too good! I played these tracks over the phone to Robert and he told me “nope, that’s not me on that one” — and then the actual tape that Davis supplied to Relics did not include the actual released version of the Groove City single but rather a stripped-down tape without the horns and backing vocals.
    Concerning “The Hound”, I strongly disagree with his negative views about Black Top. The Kaz Kazanoff horns they used on many of their recordings — with Robert, with Bobby Parker and others — were exactly the kind of sounds those artists wanted on their new recording, certainly not something forced on them by Hammond. And they are the kind of sound I want to hear! IMHO soul-blues usually sounds best with that kind of horn accompaniment.

    Well, enough comment for one day!
    John Berg

  • admin, 03 September 5:27 pm

    Wow… Great stuff John! Thanks so much for sharing. I’d love to see a video of that Mill Valley gig with Cooder etc. — warts and all. Also, many thanks for making that Relics release possible. It’s one of my most prized possessions!

  • Sameeh Muhammad, 24 September 9:51 pm

    A friend and I started learning the guitar hoping to get a band together back in Cleveland during the 60′s. We came across a record by the Ohio Untouchables called “Forgive Me Darling”. Man! We couldn’t figure out how the guitarist got that sound. Fast forward a few months later and I’m in the audience at the Old Liberty Theater watching none other than the great “Bobby” Ward and The Ohio Untouchables playing “Forgive Me Darling” and “Your Love Is Amazing”. Robert Ward used to play very loud and he raised the microphone so high he appeared to be singing up into it and his guitar was slung low at about mid thigh. You almost didn’t notice the rest of the band. Never forgot that record, that show or Robert Ward. A few years ago I’m browsing the Library music section and I come across a cd called “Black Bottom” by none other than Robert Ward. Could it be “Bobby” Ward? I got home and popped it into the player. Sho Nuff!! You owe it to yourself to get “Hot Stuff” the Original Greatest Hits to appreciate Robert Ward’s playing and style. RIP Robert Ward.

  • admin, 25 September 3:38 pm

    Thanks Sameeh. Very jealous… Never had the pleasure of seeing Ward live.

  • Jim Lessnau, 12 January 10:36 pm

    i had a bar in Dearborn Mi called Sully’s. Unknown to Lonnie Mack I had Robert Ward open for him right before the comeback record on Black Top. Lonnie and Robert played together that night. What good memory.

  • admin, 13 January 8:30 am

    That’s great Jim. Sounds like a memorable night. I think the comments on this one are better than the post!

  • Greg Orr, 08 June 9:14 am

    I had the priviledge of playing a few dates with Robert and Roberta around southwest Michigan and northern Indiana a number of years ago. We also played a couple of dates in Chicago – Legends in ’98, BLUES on Halstead in 2000. Among my favorite memories was sitting with Robert in a bar in South Bend, Indiana after finishing a date. He was reminiscing and strumming his guitar…he shared a few riffs that he said had been taught to him when he was “ten or eleven years old” by a very old man who used to sit on the porch of the local market. I often think about how deep into the history of this music I was allowed to go, sitting their with Robert while he played licks passed down to him as a young child. He was a kind and generous soul.

  • admin, 08 June 10:46 am

    Thanks Greg. You’re a lucky man.

  • Marty Spaulding, 27 July 4:01 am

    Love this page.

    I was fortunate to have been knee deep in the blues scene in the middle 1990′s and run across Robert and Roberta Ward in St Paul/Minneapolis at a “street festival” where they were polaying with Curtis Obeta and “The Butanes”.

    I was doing a radio show and internet “netcast” from Kalamazoo MI at the time called the “Sunday Blues”.

    I had been playing/listening to Roberts “Black Top” label material … and that of Bobby Parker, Snooks Eaglin and many others … (I have to VENOMOUSLY disagree with some of the comments about that label in here).

    We became friends that night, and I soon brought Robert and Roberta to Michigan/Indiana and Illinois for two different tours with a great local outfit that we put together for regional touring … as Robert really didn’t have a “band” outside of some local buddies in Dry Branch GA.

    There is a little Robert Ward “musician family” contingent in the midwest that lives to this day.

    During that time, Robert pulled me aside and told me that I was now, officially his “manager”. That caught me off guard, but I immediately went to work and engineered his Delmark Records contract for “New Role Soul”.

    It was not a hard sell.

    The folks at Delmark had been enamored with Robert for some time, knowing of both his Detroit/Toledo work as well as his Black Top sides.

    While hardly a windfall (this is the blues genre, right?) We got Robert a pretty respectible contract payment from Delmark and I think the album stands the test of time with his other recordings (“Whatever I receive” is a STELLAR slow blues IMHO)

    Roberts stroke and slow down was hard on an already impoverished household. I think Robert always still believed that some amount of “fame” (whatever that is) was just around the corner.

    When Roberta called me that Christmas Day to tell me that Robert had passed on, my soul stopped.

    Robert Wards funeral was quite an event for someone of my background. The Ward family .. sons and daughters … steps … grands .. great-grands .. nieces & nephews … and all the rest … totalled over 100 people in the church in Macon GA that day.

    The other 200 of us also witnessed a fabulous music tribute to this man.

    I, for one, was seriously impacted by this man (and Roberta too !) for a period of short duration, but long emotional stature.

  • admin, 27 July 8:26 am

    Thanks Marty. What a wonderful tribute. I think the best comments on my site are all on this page. Ward was such a huge influence on so many musicians and blues fans. It’s a real shame so many people are unaware of his legacy (I’m sure you noticed the Ward video is no longer available on YouTube). The Black Top debate seems kind of pointless when you think about Ward and Snooks Eaglin. Anyone willing to run tape on these singular artists — or, like you, to help them get a record deal — should get high praise. And, to my ears, both artists always delivered. I’ll give you special credit for arranging the deal that resulted in New Role Soul, one of my favorite Ward albums. You must feel blessed having known him and his family and contributed to his legacy. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts about Ward and family on my site. If I ever start up that time machine, I’ll have it take me back to Dayton in the early Sixties, and then to Ward’s funeral in Macon.

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