Thursday, May 08, 2008

Spoke label hailed from U. P.

One of the records released on Manistique's Spoke label, "Nicotine Fit," was by a Chicago group called The Society.


During the 1960s, hundreds of independent record labels popped up to accommodate the explosion of musical activity brought on by the arrival of Beatlemania in America.

Even remote areas like the Upper Peninsula joined the fray. Marquette served as headquarters for the Princeton label, the Peninsula imprint was based in Escanaba, and the small community of Manistique boasted little-known Spoke Records.

Although none of the labels survived for long, Spoke issued at least three 45 rpm records.

Owned by the late Irene L. Davis, a local businesswoman who also wrote songs to fulfill her musical aspirations, Spoke Records received mail at P. O. Box 186.

The label adopted the motto, "Spoke speaks for itself," according to L David Vaughan, a member of the 1960s group Vandells and now morning personality on Manistique's WTIQ radio.

Despite the name, however, the label did not issue spoken word records.

Spoke's debut single, number 1000, paired "Suddenly Just Like That" with "Walk the Waves." Performed by a enigmatic group called The Innocence, both songs were written by Davis, who was born in 1919.

While it's convenient to assume The Innocence also came from Manistique, folks involved in the town's music scene four decades ago, including Vaughan and Tom Mercier, have no memory of the group. Since a local band issuing a record would be big news in a town of less than 5,000 people, it's likely The Innocence did not come from the immediate area.

Both men, however, remember Spoke's second release, by a band from Chicago called The Society. The seven-inch vinyl record, number 1001, matched the A side's "Just as Much" with "Nicotine Fit," clocking in at a meager one minute and 46 seconds.

BMI, an American organization representing songwriters, composers and music publishers, credits Davis with composing "Just as Much," although the record label attributes the song to Bunker Hill. "Nicotine Fit," meanwhile, is listed on the label as being written by Davis, Margaret L. Shampine and the Renegades.

Mercier, then lead singer of the Renegades rock group, told me Davis wrote the lyrics to "Nicotine Fit" and asked him to add the music. The Renegades then made a demo tape of the song, Mercier said. Today, BMI lists members of the Renegades among the song's composers: David A. Brooks, Davis, Monte Owen LaMartz, Robert Joseph Mercier, Thomas D. Mercier and Shampine.

A third 45 appeared on Spoke, performed by Frank Perry with the Swinging Strings, but listed a catalog number of 3099, which doesn't fit into the numbering sequence of the first two singles. The record's A side,"You Can't Hardly Tell," with a confusing double negative, was composed by Davis and Ronnie Layne, while the opposite side, "So Little Time," was written by Davis alone.

When I asked a few Manistique residents if they knew of Perry, none had. But I discovered Perry had recorded for Film City Records of Hollywood, Cal., owned by Sandy Stanton.

Stanton was a pioneer in the song-poem business and operated under the slogan, "Take your ditty to Film City." For a fee, Stanton would have a client's song-poem recorded and also manufacture a number of 45 records for distribution to the public and selected radio stations.

With such an arrangement, customers would be able to leave the difficulties of the recording studio and pressing plant to Stanton's company.

According to the American Song-Poem Music Archives, "Stanton would occasionally press up customer's records under their own imprint, with a label name and address selected by the customer. Song-poets could thus operate on the cheap."

Stanton issued records on dozens of labels, but used just a single lengthy numbering sequence. This may explain why the Frank Perry 45 was numbered 3099, compared to 1000 and 1001 for Spoke's first two 7-inch releases, by The Innocence and The Society.

While Vaughan remembers The Society playing a dance in Manistique, none of the acts appearing on the Spoke label came from the U. P.

Bands which did call the Schoolcraft County area home, like the Vandells and Renegades, did not record any 45s for the label. "I don't know of any Manistique bands which had a 45," Tom Mercier told me.

Davis apparently distributed some of her records in the area. I obtained two of them from Manistique resident Tony Martin who answered a classified ad I had placed looking for Spoke Records titles. Martin reported he had lived near the Davis residence when he was growing up.

Owner of local radio station WTIQ 1490 AM and choir director at her church, Davis wrote at least three songs in addition to the six which were recorded for her label.

She composed "Go Go Girl" with Ronnie Layne, the same writer she partnered with on "You Can't Hardly Tell." Then, together with Charles Wright, she wrote "Just Strangers Not Even Friend" and "Not Even Friends," which, judging from the titles, might even be the same song. It's not clear if these songs were ever committed to wax, but more information may yet surface.

When she died in 1995, Spoke Records and the songs Irene Davis wrote had slipped into obscurity, although a publishing company, Chris Music, and a cache of mystery, remain.

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