The Untouchable Soul of Robert Ward

Here’s a re-post of a piece that has generated a fair amount of traffic over the past few years. This version benefits from two videos that popped up on YouTube since I first posted this in 2011. Both feature Robert Ward and Ry Cooder at The Sweetwater in Mill Valley, CA. They’re the only videos I can find of Ward live, and he’s in great form on both tunes. Enjoy!

Robert Ward

The Ohio Untouchables with Robert Ward (far right)

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 ’90s 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 ’90s 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 every year.

Robert Ward live with Ry Cooder at The Sweetwater, Mill Valley CA… and yes, that’s Nick Lowe on bass (during Ry’s Little Village phase – early ’90s). You’d be hard-pressed to find two more soulful and original guitarists. The band seems to struggle with the changes on Forgive Me Darling, but who gives a shit. These are rare video documents of Ward ripping it up on stage, which makes me very proud and happy to share them with you.

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10 thoughts on “The Untouchable Soul of Robert Ward

  • Alan Balfour, 27 September 1:56 am

    Excellent appraisal of a much overlooked artist. http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/robertward.htm

  • admin, 27 September 7:56 am

    Thanks Alan. He barely has a presence on Wikipedia, much less a meaningful career overview on CD or vinyl (Black Top did an 11-track comp of tunes he recorded for the label, but he deserves far more).

  • Alan Balfour, 27 September 10:20 am

    Here’s his entry from in the Blues Bibliography (Routledge 2007) compiled by Robert Ford. The best is the Living Blues interview (issue 106, Nov/Dec 1992). The most comprehensive is that by Jas Obrecht’s in Guitar Player. Check out Jas’s website it might be one of the many he’s made available there.

    ROBERT WARD

    BW448. Batey, Rick. “Soul Food and Tasty Blues Bites: Robert Ward.” The Guitar
    Magazine 7, no. 4 (Feb 1997): 26.

    BW449. Bonner, Brett J.; McConnell, George. “Robert Ward: Trying My Best Not
    to Never Do Wrong.” Living Blues no. 106 (Nov/Dec 1992): 8-15.

    BW450. Dahl, Bill. “Finally Emerging from the Shadows.” Goldmine no. 294 (1
    Nov 1991).

    BW451. Dahl, Bill. Hot Stuff: The Original Recordings of Robert Ward with the
    Ohio Untouchables and Solo, 1961-1967. USA: Relic 7094, 1995.

    BW452. Larkin, Colin (ed). “Ward, Robert.”, in The Guinness Who’s Who of Blues.
    2nd ed., pp. 366-367 (E166). Reprinted in The Virgin Encyclopedia of the
    Blues, pp. 361-362 (E169).

    BW453. Mack, Lonnie. Robert Ward: Fear No Evil. USA: Black Top BT 1063,
    1991.

    BW454. Obrecht, Jas. “Robert Ward: Stinging Blues, Tender R&B.” Guitar Player
    25, no. 12 (Dec 1991): 23-24, 131.

    BW455. Peabody, Dave. “Ward Play.” Folk Roots no. 141 (Mar 1995): 24-25.

    BW456. Santelli, Robert. “Ward, Robert.”, in The Big Book of Blues, pp. 429-430
    (Item E202).
    BW457. Scott, Hammond. Robert Ward: Black Bottom. USA: Black Top CD BT-
    1123, 1995.

    BW458. Scott, Hammond. Robert Ward: Rhythm of the People. USA: Black Top
    CD BT 1088, 1993.

    BW459. Trageser, Jim. “Ward, Robert.”, in Encyclopedia of the Blues. Vol. 2: K-Z,
    ed. E. Komara, pp. 1048-1049 (Item E162).

    BW460. Trynka, Paul; Wilmer, Valerie. “Robert Ward.”, in Portrait of the Blues,
    pp. 135-136, 160. London: Hamlyn, 1996.

    BW461. Trynka, Paul. “Whaddya Mean You’ve Never Heard of … Robert Ward.”
    Mojo no. 58 (Sep 1998): 18.

    BW462. Wilkins, Terry. “Robert Ward: The Philosophy of Hangin’ In.” Toronto
    Blues Society Newsletter 9, no. 7 (Jul 1993): 1.

    BW463. Zijlstra, Don. “Hoe Legendarisch is Robert Ward?” Block no. 83 (Jul/Sep
    1992): 13-18. (NOTE: Includes discography).

    See also: Blues Access no. 9 (Spring 1992): 22+. Puls no. 11 (1993): 27.

  • admin, 27 September 10:29 am

    Thanks much Alan. As always, a wealth of roots music wisdom!

  • Steve626, 27 September 6:39 pm

    Very nice tribute to Robert Ward. I’ve been a fan since I first heard Fear No Evil in the early ’90’s. I think I heard it playing in a record store and it stopped me in my tracks. I’ve introduced a lot of people to his work and to a one they have loved his music. You are also right on the money that Hot Stuff is a real gem. Another great article.

  • admin, 27 September 7:37 pm

    Thanks Steve. Despite The Hound’s dim view of the Black Top records, I was floored by them, especially Black Bottom. Even more blown away when I found the Sixties stuff.

  • Alan Balfour, 28 September 10:40 am

    I’ve just had a look at the original May 28, 2011 Robert Ward. There are many excellent comments and observations as a result of that and well worth a visit. Check it out.

  • admin, 28 September 12:28 pm

    Yeah the comments to the original post are amazing. You can link to it here.

  • Mayor of Melonville, 29 September 8:24 pm

    Tim, I just stumbled across this Lonnie Mack tune. A real soul burner.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJgoZV0qiLE

  • admin, 30 September 7:03 am

    Yeah, lots of hurt and anguish in that song. Background vocals by Gigi & the Charmaines, a rockin’ little R&B trio from Cincinnati. Great stuff (especially when you consider the woeful state of rock at the time).

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