Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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The Chi-lites - Robert âSquirrelâ Lester: Classic interview June 1990

The Chi-lights
The Chi-lights The Chi-lights The Chi-lights The Chi-lights

Following the recent, sad death of Robert âSquirrelâ 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-Litesâ most recent line-upâ¦.

â¦Meeting musical heroes from oneâs 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 âSquirrelâ Lester, along with former Amherst Records indie soulster Anthony Watson - were in London to perform as part of the âSupergroups USAâ 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 trioâs debut LP for Ichiban Records - the under-rated âJust Say You Love Meâ - and soon got talking about Chicago in the early-Sixties, the groupâs âinternational super-groupâ 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 (âB&Sâ founding editor) John Abbeyâs aforementioned Atlanta-based independent label Ichiban.

PETE: Letâs talk about your new Ichiban album âJust Say You Love Meââ¦

MARSHALL: âMy favourite track on there is the single âThereâs A Changeâ, and also âInner City Bluesâ, 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 albumâs 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 donât 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 itâs run by the record company, you donât have to watch your WATCH!â

PETE: So whatâs the story behind Eugene Record leaving the group again? I notice you have none of his songs on the new albumâ¦

MARSHALL: âBasically Eugene decided to stay home and write, and to produce things outta his own studio at home. Heâll be joining us maybe the first of the year for a reunion tour. You know, weâre all still very good friends - but right now weâre concentrating on our OWN new musical direction. The Chi-Litesâ harmonies are still there, and weâre moving on in the direction of new and better things.â

SQUIRREL: âYeah, I think we still have The Chi-Litesâ sound, we just have a different lead vocalist. The basic harmony and structure of the sound is still there, thatâll never change. I mean, if Eugene had come up with some good songs for us, weâd have taken them - but basically they didnât fit what we were looking for. Instead we used songs that Anthony came up with - plus Richard Pope came up with the new single. Heâs a guy in Chicago whoâs a songwriter, and heâs trying to branch out to maybe a solo career in the future. You know, we were just looking for good songs, we didnât care where they come from.â

PETE: Anthony, I know youâre 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: âI 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 â85, the second in December â88. 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, itâs 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 wonât get rid of that. But at the same time you have your own, different ideas. So you have to be versatile with writing, you canât just write R&B. So, while right now for me itâs mainly about the Chi-Lites, if something happens in the future for me as a solo artist then⦠You know, I guess weâll wait till that develops.â

SQUIRREL: âI 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, weâre very excited about the new look that heâs brought into the group since heâs 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.â

MARSHALL: âYeah, and when Eugene comes back into the line-up weâll be FOUR! Eugene will do the old songs, and Anthony will do the new.â

PETE: Marshall, I believe you first formed The Chi-Lites as âThe Hi-Litesâ back in 1960â¦

MARSHALL: âThe 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 - âcause 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.â

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 Recordsâ¦

MARSHALL: âI first met Carl through (cult Chicago soul vocalist) Mr. Otis Leavill- who is more into his police work right now, though heâs 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 Majorâs drummer when he had âMonkey Timeâ and âUm Um Um Um Um Umâ on the chartsâ¦â

SQUIRREL: âAnd then Brunswick Records itself was like a family thing - you had The Chi-Lites, The Artistics, Barbara Acklin, Young-Holt Trio, Jackie Wilson â¦I mean, we actually sang background with Jackie on âHigher And Higherâ, and also did a duet with him called âDonât Burn Your Bridgesâ. 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 âHey, could you put background on this for me?â ⦠Basically weâd all just collaborate together.â

PETE: How did the massive international hits like âHave You Seen Herâ and âOh Girlâ change things for you in 1971/1972?

MARSHALL: âWell, 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 ANYBODYâs lifestyle! And then of course, when you get to that level, you do have to be careful when youâre 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 didnât really see us ANYWAY - because we were kinda isolated.â

PETE: So what happened in the late-Seventies, when the groupâs sales declined and both Craedel Jones and Eugene Record left?

MARSHALL: âAt the time Brunswick Records had their problems. And, at the end of the day, youâre 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 didnât stop The Chi-Lites from making a living, working in Japan, Germany⦠I mean, the re-release of âHave You Seen Herâ (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 wheelinâ and dealinâ!â

PETE: So how do you feel about people saying that the departure of Eugene Record - who was, after all, The Chi-Litesâ lead singer and songwriter - was a major factor in the groupâs decline at that time?
MARSHALL: âLooking back now, my feeling is Eugeneâs leaving didnât really affect us. I mean, it would have affected me if everybody in the world had taken all the records theyâd bought on the Chi-Lites - which is millions and millions - and went back to the store and said âWell, Eugene left - Iâm gonna give you your records backâ. But my feeling today is that the man was with us a long time, he helped us get to where we are today... And weâre still WORKING! Because the hits didnât 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 didnât get a hit! So it wasnât due to him being there that we had hits! I just think the group was starting to tail off ANYWAY. You know, I donât care WHO you are, youâre 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.â

PETE: What about The Chi-Litesâ short-lived resurgence in 1983, with Eugene Record back in the group and âBottoms Upâ on (US independent) Larc Records hitting the US R&B Top 10?

SQUIRREL: âAgain, it was down to musical trends. You know, trends change - and âBottoms Upâ was very much in the trend at that time - everybody was doing that dance. I mean, it wasnât a âHave You Seen Herâ or âOh Girlâ - it was a GROOVE song. But, if you can write good material and the timing is right, itâll 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, youâre only as good as your record company!â

PETE: So how did it all lead to your signing with John Abbeyâs Ichiban Records in early 1990?

MARSHALL: âI first met John Abbey through (hit-making early-Sixties Chicago soul star) Major Lance years ago. And I think what John is doing - and heâs very smart to do it - is, heâs reaching out for ânameâ acts. He doesnât 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, heâs not gonna lose too much money. You know, if you get a ânameâ artist, you canât lose OUT too much. So I think thatâs a very good move on Johnâs part. Also, I think an artist should go where theyâre WANTED! You know, taking The Chi-Lites to Capitol Records when Capitol doesnât do nothing for the Chi-Lites, thatâs a WASTE! Itâs 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 thatâs why The Chi-Lites were on Brunswick! You know, our biggest success has always been with independent labels.â

⦠Robert âSquirrelâ Lester sadly died aged 67 at Roseland Hospital in Chicago, Illinois on January 21, 2010 after a long battle with liver cancer.
âBlues & Soulâ sends its sincerest condolences to all his family and friends.

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