The Van Dykes – (l-r) Rondalis Tandy,
Wenzon Mosely, James Mays
I hope everyone had a most excellent weekend. Here in NJ it was brutally hot (by NJ standards that it, I harbor no illusions that we are somehow less comfortable than our brothers and sisters closer to the equator…), but we managed to have a good time anyway. Of course, it’s supposed to get even hotter today, and I fully expect to leave work this afternoon to find that the tires on my car have melted. I will of course drive home on the rims, because that’s the kind of guy I am…
That said, I can’t really complain. Life is hectic – but good, and as anyone within earshot of a TV or radio can tell you, it appears that World War Three is a-brewing in the Middle East, and no sane person can compare the discomfort of the summer’s heat to that of a missile blowing up your house and family.
I suppose that if the ship of state was being guided by someone that inspired even an iota of confidence, the situation might not seem quite so dire. Sadly this is not the case, and all one can do is keep their fingers (and toes, if possible) crossed and hope – maybe even pray – that cooler heads prevail and things can be rolled back at least to the ugly, but somewhat stable status quo (what the professionals refer to as a “fragile détente”) of a few weeks ago.
In the spirit of peace – inner and outer – I decided that it was finally time to post a couple of outstanding ballads that I recorded a while ago but have been holding in abeyance, waiting for just the right occasion (and apparently, this is it). Though I’d certain heard of the Van Dykes, and seen their records in the field, I had no idea what they sounded like. I came upon today’s selection ‘No Man Is an Island’ completely by chance.
Some years ago I was researching the legendary Pennsylvania group the Emperors (‘My Baby Likes To Boogaloo’) and found out that – during the lifetime of the group – had appeared only once on an LP. That LP ‘More For Your Money’, was a 1967 Bell Records comp that featured a number of artists that had appeared on Amy/Mala/Bell or distributed labels, including the Emperors, James Carr (who we’ll be rapping about later this week), Gladys Knight & the Pips, Lee Dorsey and of course, the Van Dykes.
I probably had that LP for a couple of years before I pulled it off the shelf and actually listened to the non-Emperors tracks. When the stylus tracked its way into the Van Dykes’ ‘No Man Is an Island’, I was struck by another attack of that old disease “I Can’t Believe This Was Sitting On My Shelf All This Time”-itis, which I have mentioned here many times before.
It’s like sitting on a diamond mine so vast that the limited free time that comes with having a family and a fulltime job is hardly adequate to plumb its labyrinthine depths. As a result, with increasing frequency, in the midst of the records I see every day, I stumble upon hidden gems. The glass-half-full part of my psyche looks upon this as a good thing, i.e. ‘My record collection seems to be spawning great stuff for me all the time’. The realistic side of things makes me reflect on the analogy that my Mother used to employ when she was “concerned” about the prevalence of clutter in my room.
“This place looks like the Collier Mansion.”, said mansion being the haunt of a couple of early 20th century brothers who were so reclusive, miserly and pack-rat-ish, that they ended up being consumed by the garbage filling their house (one of them being crushed to death under a mountain of newspapers that they were “saving”.)
A cautionary tale for collectors of every stripe, to be sure.
Anyway, the bottom line is that the Van Dykes masterpiece was sitting at arms length for God knows how long, and I had no idea. The Van Dykes were formed in 1964 in Fort Worth, Texas by Rondalis Tandy, Wenzon Mosely, James Mays and Eddie Nixon (Nixon would exit the group before they recorded). Tandy was a huge fan of Curtis Mayfield, a name that ought to come to mind the first time you listen to ‘No Man Is an Island’. The song was first recorded for the Hue label, before the Van Dykes were signed to Mala Records, who would reissue ‘No Man Is an Island’ and release all their subsequent 45s, with Bell releasing the groups LP ‘Tellin’ It Like It Is’ in 1967.
Opening with the subtle hum of an organ, and a bluesy, and ever-so-slightly raw guitar line, the group, led by Tandy’s falsetto lead, come in strong. The music, provided by the Van Dykes backing band the Rays, is a marvel of subtlety, laying down an unobtrusive – yet solid – base for the singers to build on.
I’ve gone on in this space before about the importance of gospel music to the development of soul, and that influence is certainly evident on ‘No Man Is an Island’, but that really doesn’t go far enough. Though the intent of the lyric seems to be a cautionary tale of romance, you can’t borrow the words/concepts that John Donne first committed to paper in the early 1600’s without allowing for the fact that they have a universal message about the human condition, and that message is implicitly religious. When said message is delivered in the manner of a mid-60’s harmony vocal group, backed by organ, guitar and drums, the listener can be forgiven for thinking that they are hearing the sounds of the church (and in a way they are).
Though I mentioned the influence of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions – which is undeniable – the Van Dykes’ take on that sound is a step or two removed from the highly polished Mayfield sound, which lends ‘No Man Is An Island’ a grittiness that draws equally on the vocal traditions of street corner and the choir loft. It’s the kind of record that should serve to stop even the most cynical listener in their tracks, compelling them to stop for a moment and savor the beauty therein.
Sadly, the Van Dykes only kept it together for a few years, breaking up in 1968. Fortunately, Sundazed has reissued the Van Dykes LP, along with a number of bonus tracks (45 only sides and such). I recommend it highly…..