Zach Schonfeld in conversation with Jerome Derrickson
While researching and reporting my 33 1/3 book about 24-Carat Black’s progressive funk masterpiece Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, I tracked down and interviewed ten surviving members of 24-Carat Black. (Some from the group’s original lineup, others from the group’s Chicago-based second lineup.) These interviews were long and fascinating, full of vivid recollections of 24-Carat Black’s unusual rise and fall, but—for obvious reasons of space and narrative flow—I could only quote small portions of them in the book.
So I figured I could use this blog as a space to share one of these interviews in Q&A form. Here’s an interview I did with Jerome Derrickson, 24-Carat Black’s saxophonist, who also served as the band’s road manager during some of its post-Ghetto tours. Derrickson first joined the band in the late 1960s, when it was still a local teenage group known as The Ditalians, and he stayed more or less until 24-Carat Black’s bitter end, after numerous members were jailed in Kentucky for skimping on hotel bills. Later, Derrickson played in the influential Ohio electro-funk band Zapp.
This interview, which I conducted as research for my book in July 2019, has been lightly edited and condensed.
ZACH: Can you tell me how you first became involved in 24-Carat Black?
JEROME: We were a local band out of Cincinnati, Ohio. The group was called The Ditalians. We met Dale Warren, who was a producer with Stax Records at that time. He came in and wanted to manage the group and take us to the next level. Dale came in and started rehearsing with the group. We put together some songs that he produced. Dale gave us a record deal, and the rest is history.
What was your first impression of Dale Warren in the ’60s?
We were kids and to meet somebody of that caliber—we were very impressed. As kids growing up in the music business, of course we wanted to be stars. So here we meet somebody that was already on that level. We were very impressionable—we were like, wow, this guy has interest in us? And he writes for Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays? We were just blown out of the water.
Dale took us to Memphis, Tennessee. We met Elvis Presley and quite a few of the other artists that were Stax recording artists.
Did you shake Elvis’s hand?
Yes, I did. All of us did. We were speechless [laughs]. Elvis was in the main studio recording. And we were down the hall in the studio rehearsing. Dale came in and said, “Hey, Elvis is down the hall recording, would you guys like to meet him?” We were like, “Yeah!” We were all in the studio and there Elvis was, big as life. He was sat up in the studio working on a song. He had his whole entourage there—the girls, the band, everybody. We all came in and they introduced us to Elvis and each one of us went up and shook his hand. We all said, ‘Hi Mr. Presley.” He shook our hand and basically said, “Hey, how y’all doing!”
They said, “Elvis’s car is outside. Would you guys like to see that?” He had a little Ford, like a Studebaker at that time. But the interior was mink. When you opened the door, the car lit up and it flashed “Elvis” on the dashboard.
You played saxophone in the group, right?
Yes, I was a sax player. I went on from 24-Carat Black—I started a group called The Look, and toured the country. And then from that I went on to a group called Zapp & Roger, which was a big R&B group. We did world tours. We toured with the Commodores, the Isley Brothers, and so on. [After Zapp split up] I moved here to Atlanta, Georgia, and I have a talent agency now.
What did you think of the new material Dale brought to you in 24-Carat Black?
It was very enlightening and very different. Again, we were kids—we were not at that level yet. Dale was a very accomplished musician himself, with degrees in music. He introduced us to things that we had no idea we could play. We had not experienced anything on that level.
What do you remember from the recording of Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth?
We were in the studio all night and all day. I think we recorded this over a period of at least a week. I would have to say, it was about a week. We did it in sections. With the whole band, we recorded. Then the girls, they recorded. And Princess [Hearn, the lead singer] recorded. It took several days to do it.
A lot of it was recorded live, right?
Oh, every bit of it was recorded live. After we recorded, Dale took the tracks—I think he went to Michigan or Memphis. He added all that [strings] later after we laid down the rhythm tracks and the horn tracks.
The group was originally called The Ditalians. Was changing the group’s name to 24-Carat Black his idea?
Yeah, that was his idea. He just came in one day and said he wanted to change the name to 24-Carat Black. And we were OK with it.
What did you think of the theme of the album at the time?
Being local musicians at that time, that was not on our radar, to talk about the ghetto or talk about poverty or food stamps. We were a local band playing at college parties and sororities and wedding receptions and nightclubs. It was a reality check overall that he brought to the table. It’s not that we didn’t like it. It was a reality check and it really woke us up in a lot of areas, to actually sing about these different things. We were kids. We all lived with our parents. Some of the older members had wives, but we lived at home with our parents. We didn’t care or know about rent or food stamps, because we weren’t exposed to that.
How old were you when the album was recorded?
I think I had to be maybe 17 or 18. Again, we were all staying with our parents and had little part-time jobs. Of course we had cars then. The theme of the album, like I said, it was a reality check for us. The message that was in the music that Dale brought to us—that wasn’t a conversation we were having every day, “I gotta pay the rent, I gotta get food stamps to eat because my baby is crying.” We didn’t have kids. All that stuff was brand new to us. When you were 16, were you worried about paying the rent?
We knew all this was going on around us. We were Black kids, grew up in urban areas. We were familiar with the projects and the ghetto and all that, but it wasn’t something we talked about. We were a local party band. We were playing dance music—Motown songs, like the Supremes, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” We weren’t really focused on singing like on Ghetto, where you hear us talking about food stamps or you hear the baby crying. All of that was new to us.
We had no idea we were making history [laughs].
Do you think the album was ahead of its time?
Yes. Very much so. Motown was big at that time. Those songs were feel-good party songs, if you remember. The message in our music—it was a little before its time. It kind of touched on the blues. Our music, we weren’t playing the blues, but the message was kind of bluesy, because it talked about the things that blues artists talked about.
What we did with 24-Carat Black, those artists were already doing in the blues area. But a group like us—we were an R&B high-energy dance band that Dale took over into an area that was brand new to us. That’s why it was so impressive, because it was something that we had never done. We weren’t singing about food stamps, or gotta pay the rent. We were singing songs [like] get up, let’s dance, shake your butt, bla bla bla. We were playing R&B top 40 hits. Whatever was a hit back then, that’s what we were playing.
When the album finally came out, was it a flop?
It was a little before its time. I don’t think—well, I’m not gonna say it was a flop. I’m gonna say that I don’t think we got the push back then that we should’ve got. Because again, we were like a side project for Dale. Dale put the main 24-Carat Black together, composed the music, and this was a side project away from his Stax obligations with Isaac Hayes and the other artists he was working with. He basically developed the group and then took the group to Stax. I don’t think he got the budget that he thought he was gonna get, or the major push he thought he was gonna get from Stax.
Do you believe that Stax didn’t promote the album?
When Dale came to us, he was really excited about the project. Like the old adage, you take a producer like Dale, and he has this project, and he brings the project to the table, and then the label goes a different way. I’m not going to say Stax didn’t do A, B, C, because I wasn’t in those negotiations. But the reality of it is, it didn’t get bigger than what it did. So the project died. It got out. But it didn’t get the push that it should’ve got.
When did the album come out? Was it the summer of 1973?
Early summer? I believe so. It got some radio play across the country. In several cities. It just didn’t get enough. “Brown-Baggin’”—I remember hearing that song. “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” got played a little. But from what I remember, that mostly got played late at night. It wasn’t like primetime drive.
After the album came out, you embarked on a 24-Carat Black tour.
We went on the road. We were on the road probably six months to a year. Off and on. But mostly, we ran through the South pretty good.
Can you tell me what you remember from the tour?
It was very basic. We didn’t play coliseums and arenas. We mostly played clubs on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
Do you have any memories of this tour that stand out?
Just that we were on the Chitlin’ Circuit. We traveled in the back of a U-haul. We didn’t have a budget. So a lot of what we did came out of Dale’s pocket. We didn’t make very much money. Back then, a thousand dollars was great money back then, you know, for a band. Back then, we played small clubs through the South. Lots of time, the money we made was off the door. There was very little guaranteed dates. Pretty much every place we played, our deal was, we would have to take the door.
Meaning however much was made from ticket sales?
Whatever came from the door was ours. They would advertise the group, and we would get whatever came in through the door. There was a club in Mobile, Alabama called The Mardi Gras. And everybody that was anybody played at that club. The Commodores, the Bar-Kays. Everybody played this club. The club owner’s name was Doug. And he would give us a guarantee. The guarantee might have been a thousand dollars, $1,500 dollars. But that would be for three or four nights, and he would give us hotel accommodations.
But everything else, Dale would pay out of his pocket, or we’d take door deals. Back then, that’s what groups used to do—they’d take the door. So if you drew a big crowd, and the club held 500 people, you would make that money. Which might be a thousand, $3,000, $5,000. Or you would do a door split with the club owner sometimes. It was an education, you know? We got educated.
What were the shows like?
Dale basically changed our whole situation. He turned our show into more or less a theatrical show. Like, you go see a Broadway play. That’s what Dale turned our performance into. Back then, the whole band, everybody stands up and dances to play their instrument. Dale turned the band into like an orchestra. Everybody sat down, except the singers. The singers would come out, and they were very theatrical with their moves and different things. More ballet-ish. It wasn’t like, if you saw James Brown and James Brown was out front and his band was dancing out in the back like the Temptations. We used to do all that. And Dale changed that. He mad ethe band sit down. We all sat down like it was an orchestra.
I’ve heard that there were different individual performances within the show?
Yeah, we did that. Again, he turned it into a theatrical performance. Where 24-Carat Black—we would come on, and we would play a song or two. Then we would bring Miss Patrice. After Patrice, we’d bring the three girls out and they’d do their thing: Princess Hearn, Valerie [Malone], and Kathleen Dent. Then, after Kathleen left the group, we added Niambi Steele. Then you had Robert Manchurian. He would come out and do a few songs.
What was Manchurian’s stage performance like?
Pretty much like Isaac Hayes. Only he didn’t play keyboards or anything. He had that Isaac Hayes image, with the bald head and the beard. And the big fur coat.
Did he sing like Isaac Hayes?
He didn’t have the low baritone voice like Isaac Hayes. He had a low register, but it was kind of scratchy. Like a Macy Gray kind of scratchy.
Is it true that the band encountered the KKK somewhere in the South? Several members have told me this story involving the KKK pointing guns at you—
I don’t recall that. I do recall incidents down through the South; we were at gas stations and in these little small towns where it was predominantly white. We were looked at crazy, cuz we were Black. I don’t remember the gun situation. It may have happened. I’m not saying it didn’t. Again, you’re going back to the ’70s. I’m 64.
After the tour, there was a major argument and a number of group members quit 24-Carat Black. Can you tell me about that?
Clarence Campbell formed a partnership with Miss Talbert [the mother of keyboardist Billy Talbert] and Dale to manage the group. At some point, things weren’t going the way Miss Talbert and Clarence thought it should go. That started a conflict with Dale, like “We should be doing this, we should be doing that.” The management team behind the group started having problems. That’s when Clarence and Miss Talbert felt that Dale was screwing the group. They more or less started telling us, “This ain’t happening like he said it was, bla bla bla.”
Part of the group felt misled by Dale Warren? Is that correct?
Again, we were kids. And the management of Miss Talbert—we were kids, a local band that used to rehearse in her basement. She did everything in the world for us. When her and Dale fell out, it was hard for some of us to go with Dale and some of us to stay with Miss Talbert. Whatever their disagreement was—we were kids. We weren’t in a lot of the meetings that the management team had. We didn’t get to sit at the table with Miss Talbert and [Clarence]. All we knew is that we were kids and we had the opportunity to record and work with Stax Records. That was big in our eyes.
It’s kind of like a family. Mom and daddy fell out. If you a mama’s boy, you gonna listen to mama, no matter what daddy says. It was kind of like that for us.
A lot of the financials and stuff, we didn’t find out until later on. All of us—myself, Princess, Patrice, Tyrone, Ernest—we started finding out stuff at that point where we could put two and two together.
What kind of stuff did you find out later in life?
Later on, we found out that basically the deal we had was with Dale, more so than it was with Stax. We never signed or saw a contract between 24-Carat Black and Stax Records. Our deal was with Dale. And Dale had to deal with Stax Records. As kids, we didn’t care about any of that. I think that’s where the big upset came in. A lot of that part of the music business, we were not aware of. We were on the Stax label through Dale Warren.
Did you ever receive any money from the Ghetto album?
No. None of us did. None of us made any performance fees or royalties. The credit we got is what you see on the back of the album cover.
Did you receive any money from the album itself or from the recording session?
We didn’t get paid for the recording session. We didn’t get paid from album sales. Any money we made came from the live performances.
What about the time when a bunch of members of 24-Carat Black went to jail in Kentucky?
Yeah, that’s true.
Were you among the members of the group who got taken to jail?
Nope. I wasn’t there when they came. We were in Lexington, Kentucky. We were staying in a hotel just outside Lexington. I think we were there for maybe three weeks to a month. The money had just run out, so we were just staying there [without paying the bill]. The management of the hotel realized that and they called the police. They took several members to jail. At that time, I wasn’t there. I was somewhere in the area. It wasn’t that I was hiding or running. I just wasn’t at the hotel when all this went down.
I don’t remember them being in jail for any length of time. When all this went down, everybody kind of scrambled to get them out of jail.
My understanding is that a lot of members of the band were getting fed up by this point.
It is true. It wasn’t going anywhere. Dale was doing everything he could to keep it together. But there just was no money to keep it together. Stax had kind of backed up on him. He had exhausted his personal money. And plus he was going through a divorce. It just died.
When did the band end for good? What was the final straw?
I think the jail situation kind of did it. At that point, there was no more money. U-Haul was looking for the group—the U-Haul bill hadn’t been paid.
What do you think is the long-term legacy of 24-Carat Black?
We weren’t computer musicians, if you would. We weren’t big into sampling, like a lot of the rap artists are doing now. We weren’t into all that. We were actually musicians that performed and played. We played our instruments. Which, today, you don’t get a lot of that now. A lot of the music is computer-generated.
When did you first become aware of the rappers sampling 24-Carat Black?
Oh, maybe about 10 years ago. 10, 15 years ago. Tyrone Steels and Princess basically made me aware. Once they made me aware, I started researching and seeing and hearing what a lot of the rappers are doing.
Do you like the samples? What do you think of them?
There’s still some creativity there. Not just our group, but other groups are being sampled all across the country. I don’t have anything negative to say about it. There’s creativity there in the musicians that are coming up now that are doing things. There’s only eight notes in the scale. You can play the eight notes all different kinds of ways. Nobody really owns it. It’s like the wheel. You don’t own the wheel. But it’s on everybody’s vehicle.
Have you received any money for any of these samples?
Are you upset about that?
No. The reason I’m not upset is because, again, we didn’t know the business of the music. So we didn’t get set up in the very beginning to get the residuals later in life. We didn’t know. Dale didn’t sit us down and give us a business of music class. Miss Talbert didn’t give us a business of music class. Clarence didn’t give us a business of music. They didn’t know. All they knew was the band is a good local band.
There were a lot of questions back then that should have been asked and answered. As young kids, we didn’t know to sit down and say, “Ok, well, that’s the royalty structure?”
Why do you think rappers sample 24-Carat Black so much?
The same reason they like sampling James Brown. They’re good danceable grooves. Good melodic lines. Good grooves. Real good phrases that can be used over and over and over again.
Want more 24-Carat Black content? Check out Zach’s new 33 1/3!