Second time around: A forgotten odyssey

by Ryan Snyder

Getting the old band back together for one more gig is an idea that creeps around the minds of many, but rarely are they handed a stage, a band and a built-in set of admirers more than 35 years after their heyday in order to make it happen. Odyssey 5 has these things, and one of the Winston-Salem’ great forgotten singing groups is about to experience a revival when they take the stage at McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium on Saturday, July 23 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

Technically, the all-girl soul and R&B quintet hasn’t existed since shortly after the 1975 release of their lone album, a brassy and bold 10-track collection ingenuously called First Time Around. Initially, things began to move rapidly after Odyssey 5 was formed from members of singing groups Genesis and Carlotta & the Carlettes. Fellow North Carolinian and lead vocalist of the Manhattans Gerald Alston liked what he heard while the group was playing the Dungeon, Rodney Sumler’s long-since defunct club on Liberty Street. Before long, the group found themselves in Chicago recording their debut with producer Alonzo Tucker at the headquarters of soul music label Brunswick Records, home of greats like Jackie Wilson and the Chi-Lites.

“We were fairly young and being from this area, we were just happy to have a chance to record on a national label like Brunswick Records,” said the group’s primary vocalist Carlotta Fleming née Samuels. “That was pretty big for a local group to have the opportunity to do that. We were just happy to do it and see what happened next.”

The album was strong from top to bottom, with their combustible vocal dynamic anchored by Brunswick’s crack team of house musicians. Yet, there’s an argument to be made that it didn’t perform well simply because it came along at the wrong time. Disco was dominating radio and their vintage Chicago soul sound was pushed to the margins. According to Fleming, it wasn’t long after that the group was offered another opportunity when overseas promoter and record label owner Wesley Johnson asked them in 1976 to record in and tour Italy. The catch? They were to essentially become a new group, bearing the name Wess Machine and adopting the more synth-driven disco sound that played in the European clubs. Three of Odyssey 5’s members took Johnson up on the offer — Fleming, Jackie Sinclair and Sylvania Wilson — and the group that had originally evolved out of Genesis and Carlotta & the Carlettes was changing again.

“We had decided that we were going to make the name, not let the name make us,” said Fleming.

Wess Machine scored a minor hit with their album Mr. Sympathy, and the core trio of vocalists remained together at the end of Wess Machine’s run under the name the Expressions. The desire to perform the Odyssey 5 material once again had nagged at Fleming, but it wasn’t until an interview with writer, DJ and record collector Jonathan Kirby on behalf of Wax Poetics magazine that the opportunity to do so reared its head. Kirby, an authority on North Carolina soul music and regular contributor to Jason Perlmutter’s, was a fan of the record and brought the SECCA series to the attention of Fleming. Arrangements were made, and Fleming began to rehearse with Sinclair, Wilson and her own daughter Vakiyyah Niang in preparation for their return as Odyssey 5. Fleming said that former member Glenda Wharton declined due to her focus on visual art, but will be in attendance as a supporter, and attempts to contact the fifth member Katherine Rice were unsuccessful.

To recreate the robust arrangements found on First Time Around, Kirby recruited Ronnie Levels & his Genius Band, a Greensboro quintet who perform originals inspired by vintage soul sounds. The band didn’t have the luxury of sheet music for the assignment, and instead have been tasked with learning their parts by studying crackly digital files ripped from the vinyl LP by Kirby. The task was a challenge, said Levels, particularly summarizing the album’s dense orchestrations and nailing the expert bass lines.

“The bass player on that was pretty incredible. The parts are cool, but he was also doing a lot of improv, or at least it appears that way,” said Levels. “The orchestration on some of those tunes was pretty amazing for such a small label and for such a unknown group at the time. A lot of work was definitely put into it.”

The bass player in question was longtime house player Bernard Reed, a 35-year stalwart of sessions at Brunswick often unheralded despite tremendous ability, but not the only bygone great with which Odyssey 5 is linked. Fleming’s father was a founding member of Royal Sons Quintet, who would eventually become the legendary Winston-Salem R&B group The “5” Royales, led by revered guitarist Lowman Pauling. It’s likely that their music will be rediscovered along with Odyssey 5’s when Kirby and Perlmutter spin a warm-up set of rarities, but even Fleming said she’s starting to hear First Time Around in a different way.

“As we’ve been revisiting the album, we’re starting to see that there’s maybe a lot more potential in some of the songs than we realized at the time,” she said. It’s highly likely that a new generation of listeners will agree.

Odyssey 5 will perform at the McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art on Saturday, July 23.

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