Even after 40 years, Maze and Frankie Beverly play on
A loving history of the band that always spreads happy feelings before they let go
In 1976, a demo tape came across the desk of Capitol Records vice president Larkin Arnold. The clunky reel-to-reel featured songs written and performed by Raw Soul, an unsigned San Francisco combo that had created a buzz opening shows for Marvin Gaye. Arnold cued up the tape and was immediately struck by the band’s deft reconciliation of groove-intensive rhythm and blues and California-style singer/songwriter balladry. “It reminded me,” Arnold recalled, “of a black, Eagles-type sound.”
His curiosity piqued, Arnold arranged to attend a Raw Soul concert at San Francisco’s now-defunct Fillmore West. Just minutes into the band’s performance, it was clear that Raw Soul’s feel-good vibes translated well to the stage, fueled by the soulful voice and teddy bear charm of frontman Frankie Beverly. “It wasn’t a hard-driving, rhythm and blues band,” said the now-retired Arnold from his Los Angeles home. “They were more melodic … a seductive sound. Before you realized it, they had you moving.”
Arnold was sold. As a means of getting Raw Soul to join the Capitol family of artists, he said he made singer-songwriter Beverly an offer he couldn’t refuse — sign on the dotted line, and you get to retain the publishing rights to all your songs. So Raw Soul signed with Capitol, home to some of pop’s most influential acts, from Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole to the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. When the septet finally issued its 1977 debut, it was released under its new moniker: Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly.
This year, Maze and Frankie Beverly celebrate the 40th anniversary of that now-iconic debut. Showcasing the R&B hits “While I’m Alone,” “Happy Feelin’s” and “Lady of Magic,” the self-titled album has long been certified gold. Maze generated 10 recordings for Capitol, including six studio albums, two live albums and two greatest hits collections. Seven of those recordings are gold, including 1978’s Golden Time of Day, 1979’s Inspiration, 1980’s Joy and Pain and Live in New Orleans, 1983’s We Are One, and 1985’s Can’t Stop The Love. The band racked up impressive sales when it defected to Warner Bros. Records in the late ’80s, scoring two more gold certifications for 1989’s Silky Soul and 1993’s Back to Basics.
But though Maze never enjoyed gargantuan crossover success or earned a Grammy, the band is still something like a phenomenon. Classic Maze tracks such as “Happy Feelin’s,” “Joy and Pain” and “Back In Stride” are essential listening for black baby boomers and many of their kids. Attend a wedding, picnic, backyard barbecue or any similar black American family outing and you’re bound to hear Maze tracks on the playlist, the band’s full-bodied funk blending seamlessly with edgier fare by the rap and R&B idols of the current day.
Indeed, over the course of its four-decade career, Maze has endeared itself to the black community in a special way. Some fans cite moments when the band’s upbeat lyrics helped get them through personal struggles, prompting them to prescribe Maze tracks like a doctor might prescribe antidepressants (“Listen to ‘Inspiration’ and get some rest, girl!”). Other fans report being so spellbound at first hearing Beverly’s billowy voice that they remember the experience as vividly as their first encounter with their spouses. For a band whose success has gone wholly undetected by mainstream media, Maze’s influence and positive regard within the black community is nothing short of incredible.
And as with just about everything in America, race plays a role in the saga of Maze and Frankie Beverly. The band evolved into a decidedly black R&B phenomenon, but Arnold believes Maze’s rootsy sound could easily have played across a range of traditionally “white” radio formats, including Top 40, adult contemporary and even the rock stations where white, soul-influenced acts such as Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers held court. In Arnold’s mind, Maze had crossover potential on par with Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, yet Maze never breached the multiplatinum stratosphere. The question is, why?
We’ve been judging people by colors/ maybe we should all be color blind …”
— “Color Blind,” by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, 1977
Philadelphia. 1970. Philly Soul was making inroads, with manicured, Motown-influenced acts such as The Delfonics and The Stylistics and writers and producers such as future Hall of Famers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff climbing Billboard’s R&B charts. Unfortunately, for a young singer named Howard “Frankie” Beverly, the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t showing much affection to his band, the very raw Raw Soul. Having recorded some independently produced singles that went nowhere, Beverly boldly decided to pack up the band and head to the then-freewheeling San Francisco. Raw Soul thrived in the multicultural Bay Area.
Music lover Michael Burton first encountered the band in the East Bay, at a 1973 Contra Costa College performance. At the time, the band’s lineup was Beverly, drummer Joe Provost, bassist Robin Duhe, guitarist Wuane Thomas, and percussionists McKinley “Bug” Williams and Roame Lowry. “It was a mixed crowd: black, white, and some Spanish,” Burton recalled of the audience. “Frankie played all his own music. He could either sing Top 40 or stay Raw Soul, and he chose to sing Frankie Beverly. He didn’t veer from his commitment.”
That Contra Costa performance blew Burton’s mind — it gave the 20something a purpose in life. Like a commoner abandoning his old ways to become an apostle, Burton threw his lot in with Raw Soul, becoming the band’s self-styled stage manager. He purchased a van to haul equipment, then booked Raw Soul into venues along the California coast, from Stockton and San Pablo to Santa Rosa and Tomales Bay. “At the time, a lot of Grateful Dead-kind of music was going on, and people would all support a particular bar or club,” said Burton. “You had these venues that already had a built-in following, and they loved the kind of music Frankie played.”
Rumor spread about the no-nonsense Bay Area funk band with the dynamic singer, and before long Raw Soul had gained an influential fan in the form of Jan Gaye, wife of Marvin Gaye. “Come to find out, one day Marvin was in the audience,” Burton said. “Blew us away! That was when Marvin opened the door for Frankie.”
Marvin Gaye was so enamored of Raw Soul that he took the band on the road with him as an opening act in 1976. Gaye even afforded Beverly the opportunity, at the infamous Marvin’s Room recording studio, to perform on one of his recordings. That distinctive clinking sound heard on Gaye’s chart-topping 1977 “Got to Give It Up” is Beverly playing an improvised cowbell. “That’s Frankie on the milk bottle! Marvin was [recording], and Frankie goes down there, but he didn’t bring his ax,” said Burton. “So Marvin’s like, ‘Here’s a milk bottle. Get in the groove!’ ”
But while Gaye loved Beverly’s group, he took a dim view of the name Raw Soul. He felt it did a disservice to the band’s honey-drip R&B sound. “For the next [few] months, we kicked names in the butt,” Burton said. “We go back to Marvin and say, ‘How about Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly’? We did a name check and found out there was a band already called Maze. Marvin said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of that.’ From my understanding, we bought the name. It’s been Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly ever since.”
As Capitol Records geared up to release the band’s debut album, Arnold instructed the label’s art department to create an album cover incorporating a maze. They came up with a seven-digit hand in the form of a maze, each finger representing a band member. The puzzlelike design instantly became Maze’s official logo, as identifiable as the Rolling Stones’ splayed tongue or Led Zeppelin’s cryptic runes.
Maze’s debut album was released in 1977, the same year as historic albums by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Peabo Bryson, Bootsy Collins and more. It was also the year of classic singles such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire,” the Commodores’ “Brick House,” Parliament’s “Flashlight,” and the Isley Brothers’ often-sampled “Footsteps in the Dark.” Amid this funk explosion, artists such as Chic and Donna Summer were starting to get traction with their opulent disco sounds. The year concluded with the release of Saturday Night Fever, the album that would ultimately lift disco from the underground gay clubs of New York into the annals of record sales history.
Caught in the crossfire of all this was Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly, an album recorded in Tacoma, Washington, by a band from Philadelphia, that migrated to San Francisco, yet sounded like they came from Long Beach, California. British music writer David Nathan described it as “California Soul,” citing the album’s laid-back grooves. “Obviously, the sound is rooted in traditional R&B,” said Nathan. “It’s got a smoothness to it, and of course, sometimes they’re very funky … Frankie’s voice has got a kind of yearning to it … smooth yet soulful.”
Across the country, many were having the same reaction to Maze’s music, and Arnold saw an opportunity to shore up his reputation as the man who put Capitol Records on the R&B map. A Howard University law grad, he’d been given the task of starting Capitol’s black music department from scratch. At the time, the label’s black catalog featured iconic but out-of-vogue jazz artists such as Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderly. But with the signing of talented up-and-comers such as Natalie Cole, Bryson and Tavares, Arnold gave Capitol much-needed R&B clout. But they were still struggling. “We went from being not any way in contention,” he said, “to like the seventh or eighth [in] black music … in the business.”
Armed with the premiere single “While I’m Alone,” Arnold stormed radio stations. “I knew I could bust the [song] out of Los Angeles, D.C. and Houston; those were my three biggest markets,” Arnold said. “I went over to Howard University and WHUR, which is the No. 1 station in D.C. Back then, if you broke a song in D.C., you could go from Philly down to Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia. New York was one of my hardest markets to break Frankie. It was a disco city … and Frankie really didn’t fit into that category.”
Even without the Big Apple’s support, Arnold’s cross-country hustle made Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly a steady seller. The band took to the road in a couple of station wagons and a U-Haul, stretching the little cash support they received from Capitol. That first national tour saw Maze opening for some of the biggest acts of the day, including Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers and the Brothers Johnson.
In concert, the band applied all the lessons learned from roughly a decade of performing. “I’ll tell you this for a fact: Some of the headliners didn’t want to come on after Frankie Beverly,” Burton said. “A lot of them said, ‘Oh, hell naw! I’m not going on after this guy no more!’ Sometimes, they wouldn’t let Frankie close the show. … We used to call it, ‘Let’s go out and Put The Hand on these m—-af—as!’ ”
Betty Shaw experienced Maze’s engrossing stagecraft firsthand. She was 25 when she first saw the band in 1978. At the time, Shaw was a recently separated mother of three with dim employment prospects and a deeply troubled mind. One day, she took her sister up on an invitation to attend the Kool Jazz Festival in Milwaukee. There, during Maze’s performance of “Happy Feelin’s,” Shaw had an epiphany. “It was such an experience,” she recalled. “I had never even heard ‘Happy Feelin’s’ … but the way Frankie presented the song, it was giving you the feeling like everything is going to be all right. The song says, ‘I’ve got myself to remind me of love,’ and since I have this love in me, I’m not going to give up on life. It was like a turning point in my mind.”
With Maze winning converts on the road and Arnold converting the nation’s programming directors, the stage was set for Maze to become a crossover breakthrough. Yet, despite all the hard work, debut album sales stalled at around 600,000 copies. It was an impressive showing by ’70s industry standards but far from the million-plus units that Arnold had envisioned. He believes Capitol didn’t try hard enough to help the album realize its tremendous sales potential.
“I had a lot of fights with my pop promotion department because they would never expose the album to white FM,” Arnold said. “That first time I saw Maze at the Fillmore West, the whole audience was white. I know if white people were exposed to Maze, they’d like it, but the belief at the time was, ‘Well, white people really don’t want to listen to black music.’ And I’m saying, ‘Look — it’s not just ‘black’ music!’ ”
Beverly may not have been on what was then the all-powerful FM rock radio, but he must have been making serious bank. He had initially signed with Capitol on the condition that he retain his own music publishing, and in the record biz, that’s where the big bucks are. Publishing is intellectual property, and most record companies negotiate to split copyrights with composers. The annals of pop music teem with horrifying stories of naïve artists who signed away their publishing rights to calculating record moguls. That wasn’t Frankie Beverly. Every time a radio station played Maze jams such as “When I’m Alone” or “Happy Feelin’s,” the royalties went straight to Beverly’s publishing company. Not even rock luminaries such as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger enjoyed such a perk.
Hoping to capitalize on their momentum, Maze repaired to a Colorado recording studio to create the band’s 1978 sophomore album, Golden Time of Day. Recording was an easygoing affair, with Maze refining the organic sound that made its debut a gold-certified smash. “The way Frankie made records, he didn’t use a lot of frills, so it sounded more for-real,” said former Maze drummer Ahaguna Sun. “There’s a lot of toys in the studio, and if you don’t really know how to produce a good record, you can get swallowed up … you might go out on tour and not be able to play that way. That’s one of the things I admired about Frankie. He kept [the arrangements] close to the way we played them in the studio, so on a good night, we sounded better than the record.”
Maze returned to the road, this time doing popular shows like Soul Train. Still, the band just couldn’t clear the half-million sales hurdle. That was it. Exhausted from his experiences, a frustrated Arnold departed Capitol in 1979. He would eventually become senior vice president at CBS Records, where he found a kindred spirit in the form of CEO Walter Yetnikoff. Together, they transformed Michael Jackson’s Thriller into a crossover sales juggernaut. In a raspberry rebuke to the old radio dictum that whites won’t listen to black music, Thriller today ranks as the biggest-selling LP of all time.
Burton left the Maze crew on friendly terms in 1979. He still resides in California, working in music management. He believes the recording industry never gave Beverly a fair shake because the singer refused to sign over his prized publishing rights. “He still hasn’t won an award,” an indignant Burton said. “That’s all motivated because he didn’t open up to these [recording industry] people. You got George Clinton still fighting for royalties. You got Sly Stone just now winning a multimillion-dollar claim against the industry. And then you’ve got Frankie Beverly, who kept all his s—. He didn’t go to the crossroads and sign his soul over to the devil. And because he did that, the industry turned their backs.”
But while Maze never enjoyed gargantuan crossover success or even earned a Grammy, the band is still something like a phenomenon. The seven-piece group tours annually, having earned an ironclad reputation for delivering hypnotic performances that all but transform 10,000-seat auditoriums into intimate clubs. This year is no different, with the band embarking on a nationwide jaunt called The People’s Tour. Fans are flocking to shows, grateful for the opportunity to party again with Beverly, now 70, who still dresses in low-key white outfits that give him the appearance of a sporting R&B archangel.
The singer is notoriously media-shy, having consented to precious few interviews in recent years. True to form, Beverly did not respond to The Undefeated’s repeated requests for an interview, but the people who know the singer insist his diffidence toward the media isn’t peevishness. “He’s very intelligent, very easy to talk to … not a harsh personality,” said Nathan, co-founder of SoulMusic.com and a longtime acquaintance of Beverly’s. “I’ve always thought of him as someone who wasn’t affected by being a fixture in the music world. Frankie didn’t go to Hollywood.”
Maze’s touring success bucks convention. The band hasn’t had a studio album to promote since 1993, a lengthy abstention that today seems symbolic. Around the time that Maze stopped recording, pop culture took a sharp turn into fashionable edginess — the funereal gloom of grunge rock, the Lolita coyness of teen pop, the boastful criminality of gangsta rap. Maze and Frankie Beverly made their bones back in the ’70s and ’80s crooning about happy feelings, sweet Southern girls, and how joy and pain are two sides of the same coin. It’s conceivable that Beverly mulled the possibility of competing in an increasingly coarse pop world and decided ain’t nobody got time for that.
The Maze lineup has changed consistently over the years, with Beverly and percussionist Lowry being the only remaining founding members. The band was dealt a devastating blow in 2011 when original member Williams died suddenly of a heart attack. By all accounts, that death in the family is by far the saddest wrinkle in what has otherwise been a funk fairy tale. Maze could easily borrow the often-quoted refrain from a popular Grateful Dead song: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Or, as Beverly himself sang back in the day, Ain’t it strange / How things do change.
The similarities between those two lyrics underscore what some fans have noted for years — that Maze and the Grateful Dead are kindred spirits. The theory is summed up by ELWarren Weatherspoon, drummer for We Are One, a Maryland-based Maze tribute band. “Maze is like the urban version of the Grateful Dead,” said Weatherspoon. “Anytime you can have an artist who hasn’t had a new record for 30-something years, and the fans still will come out, that’s like [the Dead].”
The notion of Maze being the Grateful Dead’s sepia-toned twin isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Both bands came up through San Francisco’s Bay Area, home to liberal University of California-Berkeley and West Coast hippie culture. The region incubated the psychedelic rock movement, spawning pioneering counterculture pop acts such as Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. Maze arrived in San Francisco from its native Philadelphia in the early ’70s, and its simmering R&B sound fit the northern California music scene hand-in-glove.
Yet, while both bands were raised in the shadow of San Francisco’s anti-war movement, neither Maze nor the Dead has ever been stridently political, at least not overtly. As evidenced by Maze favorites such as “Love is the Key” in 1983 and “Working Together” in 1978, the band’s politics have always taken the form of nonconfrontational pleas for peace: We are one, no matter what we do/We are one, love will see us through. Moreover, although Maze and the Dead were both signed to major record labels, neither band succumbed to industry pressure to dilute their respective sounds for broader appeal. If either band was ever going to score a multiplatinum hit, it would have to be on their own terms. In the case of Maze, that meant radio listeners would have to accept the band’s mellow musicianship and just-folks image.
As a result of their stand-pat stubbornness, both Maze and the Dead loom today as symbols of integrity in a sellout world. Most fans insist Maze is incapable of delivering a subpar performance. To the band’s devotees, a Maze show is more than just a concert. Rather, it’s a gathering of America’s urban tribes, a come-as-you-are block party with seven of your best friends providing the butt-bumping soundtrack. Until recently, Maze routinely closed the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, an annual residency that implicitly tagged Maze as the official house band for black America.
But the Maze concert experience has changed in recent years. After 50 years of constant performing, Beverly’s velvety baritone is today a crackling shadow of its former self. The singer often has difficulty getting through shows without his voice sputtering or giving out entirely at times. Yet this isn’t a problem for his devoted followers. Beverly enjoys such a strong bond with fans that his compromised voice has become a curiously integral part of Maze performances. When his voice founders, the fans gleefully step in, completing Beverly’s verses en masse. It’s a beautiful thing to experience, a heart-melting demonstration of love between performer and audience, like witnessing lovers affectionately finishing each other’s sentences.
Those who believe in God might even view Beverly’s faltering voice as divine intervention, a heavenly plan designed to strengthen the ties that bind the singer to his followers. Many Maze aficionados describe the band’s performances as spiritual experiences, during which time Beverly presides over his personal congregation with self-styled hallelujah fervor. One such fan is author and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley. Raised in a strict Indiana home where secular music was prohibited, the multimedia star spent much of his formative years attending Pentecostal church services. If anyone can attest to the ministerial qualities of a Maze show, it’s Smiley.
Smiley recalls the first time he witnessed Maze at an Essence Festival performance in New Orleans back in the ’90s. “The Superdome is filled to capacity with black people,” Smiley remembered. “Everyone is there for a Maze and Frankie Beverly concert, and everyone is joyful. People are on their feet, swaying and singing. It was the kind of spiritual experience I’d never had outside of a church. You could feel the spirit. I’ve never done drugs in my life, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to be high. But on that night, I felt one of the highest highs I have ever felt.”
Like many fans, Smiley is amazed by Beverly’s ability to break down people’s defenses and turn 10,000 perfect strangers into a community. “We live in a world where everybody wants to be cute, where everyone wants to make a fashion statement and be seen,” Smiley said. “When you go to a Maze concert, nobody is holding a mirror up to themselves to see how they look. Nobody cares if they’re sweating, or standing up for the entire show. It’s a spiritual connectivity that you feel with the person to your left and to your right, to the person in front of you and behind you.”
Beverly’s messianic magnetism has made him a role model to some, with his peace-loving songs motivating certain fans to do more than just purchase concert tickets and replace their worn-out CDs. Inspired by Beverly, a retired Savannah, Georgia, teacher named Cynthia Harris Casteel formed a social group called Frankie’s Angels in 2000. Initially intended as an online prayer group for their hero, over time the group has articulated a mission to make the world a little bit better on behalf of their hero. To date, Frankie’s Angels has sent Mazecentric care packages including food, mood-lifting knickknacks and, of course, Maze souvenirs to victims of Hurricane Katrina, U.S. soldiers and even crime victims. “That is our mission, to spread happy feelings, just like Frankie spreads them,” said Harris Casteel.
In 2009, Casteel self-published a fictional book aptly titled Frankie’s Angels, about five female Maze fans who tap Beverly’s lyrics for comfort and guidance. “I always say there is a Maze song for every occasion that you’re going through,” said Harris Casteel. “If I’m feeling down, I can pull up a Maze song and it lifts me. If I’m already happy, I can go to a higher level and be happier. That’s the spiritual part of Frankie’s music. I don’t say ‘religious’ … but it touches your soul … makes you want to do better.”
And Burton and Arnold are disappointed by Beverly’s lack of peer recognition; friends say the singer is philosophical about his career. OK, so he never scaled the high-wire heights of pop icons like Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston or Tupac Shakur, but neither has Beverly been assessed the catastrophic tax those idols ultimately paid for flying close to the sun. Moreover, Beverly is still filling coliseums and amphitheaters. No Grammy. No American Music Award. No Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. No worries.
“I think Frankie stopped caring long ago about accolades and honors,” said Smiley. “I think the most important thing [to him] is that it comes from the people. Being honored by an institution is wonderful … but being loved by individuals is a far greater thing. And that’s what Frankie Beverly has.”