The Chi-lites - Robert ‘Squirrel’ Lester: Classic interview June 1990
Following the recent, sad death of Robert ‘Squirrel’ Lester - original member of Chicago-based classic male soul vocal group The Chi-Lites - Pete Lewis recalls meeting Squirrel (alongside group leader/original member Marshall Thompson plus then-lead singer Anthony Watson) for a Chi-Lites interview in London in June 1990.
Born in Mc Comb, Mississippi and an inductee into The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame, Squirrel sang second-tenor in the group and was still included in The Chi-Lites’ most recent line-up….
…Meeting musical heroes from one’s schooldays is a high for anyone, and indeed it was certainly a peak in my writing career to sit down for an evening to talk with The Chi-Lites in the bar of their Bayswater hotel.
The group - who now comprise original members Marshall Thompson and Robert ‘Squirrel’ Lester, along with former Amherst Records indie soulster Anthony Watson - were in London to perform as part of the ‘Supergroups USA’ June British tour. Watson has replaced former lead-singer and songwriter Eugene Record who has, for a second time, left the group.
We started by discussing the trio’s debut LP for Ichiban Records - the under-rated ‘Just Say You Love Me’ - and soon got talking about Chicago in the early-Sixties, the group’s “international super-group” period of the early-Seventies, their fall from favour in the late-Seventies, resurgence in the early-Eighties - right up to their recent signing with (‘B&S’ founding editor) John Abbey’s aforementioned Atlanta-based independent label Ichiban.
PETE: Let’s talk about your new Ichiban album ‘Just Say You Love Me’…
MARSHALL: “My favourite track on there is the single ‘There’s A Change’, and also ‘Inner City Blues’, the Marvin Gaye remake that Squirrel did - with him singing the verse part and my nephews, Man To Man, rapping on there too. I mean, I actually picked that song because my nephews loved it - plus they wanted to have a chance to do their rap. And, in terms of the album’s overall production, we found that using the synthesizer - as opposed to real instruments - cuts down a lot on musicians. You know, by using the synth you can get the sound of strings here, horns there... And, if you wanna do a lot of changing of the music, you don’t have to worry about changing different parts for each instrument. With the synthesizer all you have to do is change one part, and it just adds the rest in there. And I also think recording the album at the Kala Studio in Atlanta - which the record company owns - was a good move. Because, if you own your own studio, you can always get an identifiable sound out of there - just like Motown always had THEIR own flavour. Plus, if it’s run by the record company, you don’t have to watch your WATCH!”
PETE: So what’s the story behind Eugene Record leaving the group again? I notice you have none of his songs on the new album…
MARSHALL: “Basically Eugene decided to stay home and write, and to produce things outta his own studio at home. He’ll be joining us maybe the first of the year for a reunion tour. You know, we’re all still very good friends - but right now we’re concentrating on our OWN new musical direction. The Chi-Lites’ harmonies are still there, and we’re moving on in the direction of new and better things.”
SQUIRREL: “Yeah, I think we still have The Chi-Lites’ sound, we just have a different lead vocalist. The basic harmony and structure of the sound is still there, that’ll never change. I mean, if Eugene had come up with some good songs for us, we’d have taken them - but basically they didn’t fit what we were looking for. Instead we used songs that Anthony came up with - plus Richard Pope came up with the new single. He’s a guy in Chicago who’s a songwriter, and he’s trying to branch out to maybe a solo career in the future. You know, we were just looking for good songs, we didn’t care where they come from.”
PETE: Anthony, I know you’re from Mobile, Alabama and that you recorded for Amherst Records as a solo artist. Can you fill me in on more of your background?
ANTHONY: “I started singing when I was seven in the church choir. I recorded my first album in Germany for a gospel-rock group called Eternity. I was stationed there for three years. After that I recorded two solo albums with Amherst Records out of Buffalo, New York - the first in ’85, the second in December ’88. Then one day I was performing in Chicago and a friend of mine introduced me to the Chi-Lites - and from there on we stayed as friends. I mean, it’s obviously been much easier for me to come here to the UK with The Chi-Lites than as a solo act. Then, as far as my songwriting goes, I wanna keep the Chi-Lites feel - that basic formula, we won’t get rid of that. But at the same time you have your own, different ideas. So you have to be versatile with writing, you can’t just write R&B. So, while right now for me it’s mainly about the Chi-Lites, if something happens in the future for me as a solo artist then… You know, I guess we’ll wait till that develops.”
SQUIRREL: “I actually think Anthony - with him being new blood in The Chi-Lites Organisation - is gonna be a key tool in the new direction of the group. I mean, we’re very excited about the new look that he’s brought into the group since he’s joined the line-up. You know, as a writer we got a lotta respect for him, and as an artist we ALSO have a lotta respect for him.”
MARSHALL: “Yeah, and when Eugene comes back into the line-up we’ll be FOUR! Eugene will do the old songs, and Anthony will do the new.”
PETE: Marshall, I believe you first formed The Chi-Lites as ‘The Hi-Lites’ back in 1960…
MARSHALL: “The Hi-Lites were formed from two different groups - me and Craedel Jones were in The Desideros, and Eugene and Squirrel were with The Chantours. They had some problems in THEIR group, we had some problems in OUR group - and we just joined TOGETHER! But before that, we used to battle against each other all the time! We were the great dancers, and they were the great singers. So we used to be on talent shows together, and naturally we used to win - ‘cause we were the DANCERS! But then of course, once we got together with the better singers - Eugene and Squirrel - we switched to make them the lead vocalists for the betterment of the group.”
PETE: Marshall, I understand in the early days you and Eugene learnt a lot from working in the studio in Chicago with legendary soul producer Carl Davis at Brunswick Records…
MARSHALL: “I first met Carl through (cult Chicago soul vocalist) Mr. Otis Leavill- who is more into his police work right now, though he’s still doing some producing too on the side. And back then me and Eugene never missed a SESSION! I mean, this was actually BEFORE we were signed to Brunswick Records - back in the days of the Okeh label, when they had Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, Walter Jackson, Gene Chandler, Major Lance - I mean, I was actually Major’s drummer when he had ‘Monkey Time’ and ‘Um Um Um Um Um Um’ on the charts…”
SQUIRREL: “And then Brunswick Records itself was like a family thing - you had The Chi-Lites, The Artistics, Barbara Acklin, Young-Holt Trio, Jackie Wilson …I mean, we actually sang background with Jackie on ‘Higher And Higher’, and also did a duet with him called ‘Don’t Burn Your Bridges’. And that basically all came from us just going to the studio every day. You know, because we were actually there, one of the other acts would always say ‘Hey, could you put background on this for me?’ … Basically we’d all just collaborate together.”
PETE: How did the massive international hits like ‘Have You Seen Her’ and ‘Oh Girl’ change things for you in 1971/1972?
MARSHALL: “Well, first and foremost we sang at The White House - The President (Richard Nixon) invited us along, and it was definitely an honour to be onstage for The President Of The United States! And overall of course having that success with those songs did actually change our lifestyle COMPLETELY! You know, coming from $1 dollar to… quite a bit would change ANYBODY’s lifestyle! And then of course, when you get to that level, you do have to be careful when you’re a mark in the street. Because, while you do have a lot of people who want to honour you, you also have a lotta people who want to hurt you TOO! But then most of our time back then we were pretty much on the road doing concert tours and things. And, when we were at home in Chicago, people didn’t really see us ANYWAY - because we were kinda isolated.”
PETE: So what happened in the late-Seventies, when the group’s sales declined and both Craedel Jones and Eugene Record left?
MARSHALL: “At the time Brunswick Records had their problems. And, at the end of the day, you’re only as good as your record company! I mean, it basically affected ALL the artists on the label - Brunswick kinda put us all on hold. But then, at the same time, it didn’t stop The Chi-Lites from making a living, working in Japan, Germany… I mean, the re-release of ‘Have You Seen Her’ (in 1975) was even bigger here in the UK than it was the FIRST time round (in 1972)! And that all came from the Brunswick family wheelin’ and dealin’!”
PETE: So how do you feel about people saying that the departure of Eugene Record - who was, after all, The Chi-Lites’ lead singer and songwriter - was a major factor in the group’s decline at that time?
MARSHALL: “Looking back now, my feeling is Eugene’s leaving didn’t really affect us. I mean, it would have affected me if everybody in the world had taken all the records they’d bought on the Chi-Lites - which is millions and millions - and went back to the store and said ‘Well, Eugene left - I’m gonna give you your records back’. But my feeling today is that the man was with us a long time, he helped us get to where we are today... And we’re still WORKING! Because the hits didn’t stop when Eugene LEFT! The truth is, the hits were already levelling off while he was WITH us! You know, for four of the years Eugene was still WITH us we didn’t get a hit! So it wasn’t due to him being there that we had hits! I just think the group was starting to tail off ANYWAY. You know, I don’t care WHO you are, you’re only gonna have SO MANY HITS! So - in addition to record company problems - I think it was more the change in musical trends that had a lot to do with that.”
PETE: What about The Chi-Lites’ short-lived resurgence in 1983, with Eugene Record back in the group and ‘Bottoms Up’ on (US independent) Larc Records hitting the US R&B Top 10?
SQUIRREL: “Again, it was down to musical trends. You know, trends change - and ‘Bottoms Up’ was very much in the trend at that time - everybody was doing that dance. I mean, it wasn’t a ‘Have You Seen Her’ or ‘Oh Girl’ - it was a GROOVE song. But, if you can write good material and the timing is right, it’ll DO it! But then, in terms of our resurgence at that time being short-lived, once again we got caught up in a lotta record company problems, And, as Marshall, just said, you’re only as good as your record company!”
PETE: So how did it all lead to your signing with John Abbey’s Ichiban Records in early 1990?
MARSHALL: “I first met John Abbey through (hit-making early-Sixties Chicago soul star) Major Lance years ago. And I think what John is doing - and he’s very smart to do it - is, he’s reaching out for ‘name’ acts. He doesn’t want to sign acts basically without the NAME. I mean, he may have signed - for example - someone relatively unknown like L.V. Johnson. But then L.V. Johnson got on the label through Major Lance, because that was his very good friend - you know, sometimes you can DO that. But what John knows is, if he releases a Chi-Lites album, certain people are gonna buy a Chi-Lites album ANYWAY. So whatever happens, he’s not gonna lose too much money. You know, if you get a ‘name’ artist, you can’t lose OUT too much. So I think that’s a very good move on John’s part. Also, I think an artist should go where they’re WANTED! You know, taking The Chi-Lites to Capitol Records when Capitol doesn’t do nothing for the Chi-Lites, that’s a WASTE! It’s all about being with a company that wants YOU. Because, if they believe in you, then you GOT it! I mean, back during our most successful period, Brunswick Records believed in The Chi-Lites! So that’s why The Chi-Lites were on Brunswick! You know, our biggest success has always been with independent labels.”
… Robert ‘Squirrel’ Lester sadly died aged 67 at Roseland Hospital in Chicago, Illinois on January 21, 2010 after a long battle with liver cancer.
‘Blues & Soul’ sends its sincerest condolences to all his family and friends.
Words PETE LEWIS