Madder Than Ever,the Mad Lads’ 1990 Volt release, shows that the quartet has only gotten better with time. With the velvet tenor pipes of original lead singer John Gary Williams back at the helm, the Mad Lads offer a thoroughly contemporary take on their classic sound-a distinctive mix of street corner doowop and Southern gospel quartet stylings.
John Gary Williams had sung lead on all of the group’s hit singles-currently available on two albums, The Mad Lads’ Greatest Hits (Collectables 5030) and The Best of the Mad Lads (Stax MPS-8525)-but left in 1972 to pursue a career as a solo artist, songwriter, and producer, turning over leadership of the group to his older brother Richard Williams. At Richard’s urging, John Gary returned to the Mad Lads four years ago. His voice retains the breathy innocence that helped to propel the group to stardom back in the Sixties, yet it has taken on new range and maturity.
“I think there’s more feeling now,” John Gary explains. “I wanted to get higher then, but I couldn’t. My voice wouldn’t allow for it. Now my voice is a little stronger and a little deeper. I can express my feelings stronger and project better now.”
Produced by Fred Pittman, whose recent work with the Dramatics and the Spinners for the Volt label more than qualified him to take on yet another classic soul vocal group, Madder Than Ever features John Gary singing lead on seven cuts and trading with his brother on the eighth, “Nothing.” All selections were recorded with the present personnel-John Gary and Richard Williams, second tenor William Rogan, and baritone Freddie Durham-at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, excepting a remake of “Don’t Have to Shop Around,” which was recorded with only John Gary and fellow founding member William Brown in Memphis in 1971. It nevertheless fits handily with the rest of the album, offering further evidence of the timeless nature of the Mad Lads’ sound.
John Gary Williams, William Brown, Julius Green, and Robert Phillips were students at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis during the early Sixties when they formed a vocal group called the Emeralds. They soon came to the attention of Stax/Volt Records, whose publicity director, Deanie Parker came up with a new name for the group.
“We were practical jokers,” John Gary recalls. “We played a lot of jokes around the company. If a telephone would ring, one of us might come out of a briefcase with a receiver-stuff like that. And Deanie said, ‘You guys are mad. Y’all should be the Mad Lads instead of the Emeralds.’”
The Mad Lads made their recording debut on the Stax label in 1964 with a number titled “The Sidewalk Surf.” It flopped at the time but is now one of the most sought-after collector’s items of all Stax releases. The following year, however, the group was transferred to the Volt label and scored immediately with “Don’t Have to Shop Around.” Stylistically atypical for the company, this combination of the group’s soft soul harmonies and the Stax/ Volt house band’s crisp accompaniment proved a winner and paved the way for such subsequent hits as “I Want Someone,” “I Want a Girl,” “Patch My Heart,” “Whatever Hurts You,” “So Nice,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
The quartet’s first major concert appearance, a Florida date with the Temptations, left a lasting impression on the Mad Lads’ choreography. “The Temps set us down in some chairs and we watched them,” John Gary remembers. “They taught us a lot of moves. They and Gladys Knight and the Pips gave us a lot of encouragement. We would try to see the ideology behind their steps. It came down to every emotion and every feeling having a move.”
The Vietnam-era draft took John Gary Williams and William Brown, but the Mad Lads continued, using temporary replacements for live appearances and recording only when Williams and Brown were on leave. Julius Green left the fold in 1969 and was replaced by current member Freddie Rogan.
John Gary Williams, who’d returned to the Mad Lads after his army stint, left again in 1972 and recorded one solo album and two singles for Stax and one single for the Truth subsidiary; he also wrote and produced sides for such artists on the Stax/Volt roster as Rance Allen, Albert King, and the Soul Children. Meanwhile, Richard Williams and his own singing group, Everyday People, along with Julius Green, formed a new act of Mad Lads with John Gary’s blessing. Although this edition recorded one album for Volt in 1974, it was never released. The company was by then deep in bankruptcy court.
The demise of Stax/Volt dealt a heavy blow to both John Gary and the new Mad Lads. While still honing his songwriting skills, John Gary left Memphis, working in a Waterloo, Iowa packing plant for a period, then as a cab driver in Los Angeles. Richard’s group broke up around 1976.
“It was a dry spell,” John Gary states. “We always hoped that Stax would come back. That was my contention-I’m gonna stay in shape, write some songs, and when the company opens back up, we can get down again. That was the lowest point in my life.”
Because of an ongoing demand for performances by the Mad Lads, Richard Williams reactivated the group in 1984. The following year, they recorded a new single, “You Blew It,” for the Memphis-based Express label-one of only two Mad Lads records not to have originally appeared on the Volt label. John Gary rejoined them soon thereafter and the group has been performing frequently, often on package shows with such other soul music veterans as James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, the Impressions, the Intruders, and the Stylistics.
Fantasy Records, which had acquired the Stax/Volt catalog, issued The Best of the Mad Lads, compiled by vocal group connoisseur and Fantasy national sales manager Kirk Roberts, in 1984. Roberts was then contacted by Lindsey Donaldson, the Mad Lads’ former road manager, who put him in touch with the reorganized group. Roberts sent the group a box of albums and the Mad Lads sent him a tape. Finally, after Fantasy reactivated the Volt label and recorded the Dramatics, then the Spinners, the Mad Lads seemed like the next logical choice. Madder Than Ever, the group’s first Volt release in over 15 years, is the result.
John Gary Williams’s patience finally paid off. “I feel blessed,” he says, “to be back on Volt again-the original label.”