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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Milwaukee Soul Veterans Brothers By Choice Regroup

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Photo Credit: Rachel Buth
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“We never really just broke up,” says Clarence McGee of Brothers By Choice, the Milwaukee R&B vocal group known in soul circles for their handful of collectible ’70s singles running a wide gamut of the era’s African American pop.

They may never have really broken up, but it has been one long hiatus since the Brothers have professionally hit a stage or studio. They will be donning concert finery and harmonizing for their first performance in decades this Thursday, May 22 at The Jazz Estate (2423 N. Murray Ave.) backed by members of Kings Go Forth, including bassist and renowned collector of local funkiness, Andy Noble.

Noble figures only recently into the Brothers By Choice story. McGee’s recollections of the ensemble’s past speak to a more innocent era in entertainment history, specific to his city, but likely paralleled in urban neighborhoods full of talented youth throughout the U.S. and his hope for the act’s future goes beyond reviving a singing style long out of the mainstream limelight.

“I just love to sing. I’ve been singing since I was five,” McGee beams of the talent that gave him and his mates a regional black radio chart topper with 1973’s “You Think That I’m A Fool,” a quiet storm squall as smooth and melancholy as The Stylistics’ best. A 45 from earlier in the decade, the socially conscious Something Could Be Done, was recorded in California for potential interest from Capitol Records. “They loved what we did,” says McGee of The Beatles’ and Beach Boys’ label, “but there were complications with one of the members related to youthful romance. The group was much different then.”

Though recording dates were sparse—they have yet to release a full album—the group kept a high profile in the ’70s thanks to opening spots for nationally known headliners playing Milwaukee. “Al Green, Bloodstone, The Moments [later Ray, Goodman & Brown]...you name ’em,” McGee recalls.

Brothers By Choice may not have maintained their professional mojo, however, were it not for mentoring from some of the city’s R&B elite. Years before their formation, McGee received encouragement from a member of one of the city’s most internationally renowned recording acts. As he was schooling some friends in harmony singing on a street corner “in ’67 or so,” the late Gilbert Moorer of The Esquires, best remembered for their pop Top 20 crossover “Get On Up,” heard them and told McGee, “You have too much talent to be our here on the street.”

As his group formed and grew in popularity, fortunate encounters continued, including a stint singing background with the godfather of Milwaukee soul, Harvey Scales and his Seven Sounds band. “We had a beautiful friendship,” McGee says of Scales.

An arguably even more colorful local celebrity played a role in grooming the Brothers, too. Hoyt “Dr. Bop” Locke, disc jockey on late AM soul outlet WAWA, may have made personal appearances wearing a stethoscope and scrubs and talking in the kind of crazed braggadocio that defined a long-gone stripe of radio personality, but he set a high standard for his young charges. “I’d describe us as young guys loving to sing, loving the industry, coming to the show, but being unprepared,” McGee says. “Under Dr. Bop, we started becoming a group that had integrity.” Locke became something of a one-man Motown charm school for the act, teaching them about proper demeanor, dressing sharply and other finer points of personal presentation.

Brothers By Choice might have never regrouped if McGee’s wife’s pastor hadn’t heard him singing while cleaning their church’s basement. After another encouraging word from that man of the cloth, some divine urging followed. “The Holy Spirit said to me, ‘I didn’t give you the gift to sit on it,’” McGee says.

Brothers By Choice aren’t scheduled to sing any of the gospel numbers that McGee has written over the past several years at their Jazz Estate show, but his faith is what both prompted him to recuse himself from music for a while and what precipitated his return. “When we stopped, I got away from my church life, just trying to put things in the right perspective, getting my spiritual side in order,” he says. Now he wants to use his gift to aid others in the same pursuit. “If someone can get their life together because of what I’m singing, all the better,” he says.

Brothers By Choice play the Jazz Estate on Thursday, May 22 at 9:30 p.m