Gary James' Interview With St. Clair Lee of
The Hues Corporation
Their one big hit, their claim to fame is a song titled "Rock The Boat" which went all the way up the charts to number one back in 1974. The record sold over two million copies and continues to get airplay even today!
The name of the group is The Hues Corporation. They still perform today and actually have quite a colourful history. Hues Corporation member St. Clair Lee tells the group's story.
Q - Mr. Bernard St. Clair Lee Calhoun Henderson...
A - (laughs) Where did you get all those names from?
Q - From none other than the ultimate authority on rock 'n roll, Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll.
A - I can't believe that you actually got all those names. Most of that is wrong. That's weird. I can't believe it.
Q - You were born...
A - Bernard St. Clair Lee. Calhoun was a part of our family and so was Henderson. Somebody put all of that in there.
Q - Has this ever been brought to your attention before?
A - Yeah. Bernard is my first name. St. Clair was supposed to be spelled Sinclair. They made a mistake at the hospital. They spelled it St. Clair. So, my mother left it at that. Basically, before I got into performing music, I dropped off the Bernard. The St. Clair comes from the Indian side of our family. St. Clair means 'Big Bear'. So, it became St. Clair Lee. The headband which I always wear also came from the Indian side of our family. I found out that the Indian side of our family were Blackfoot and migrated down from Canada to Oklahoma and that's how I picked up wearing the headband. Now, what would you like to know? (laughs)
Q - The Hues Corporation was formed in 1969, in Los Angeles. Is that true?
A - That is true. It was actually Santa Monica. A lot of people didn't know that we originated after coming together in Vegas. In Vegas, we worked at Circus Circus. We didn't have a hit record then, but because we were young, everybody came to watch our show...Sinatra, who we worked with and all those people.
Q - You worked with Sinatra?
A - Yeah. This was before "Rock The Boat". We worked with him in Palm Springs. His manager called our manager and said that he knew about The Hues Corporation. We went to Palm Springs and this was before Vegas. We worked with Sinatra, Milton Berle, Nancy Sinatra and Glen Campbell. I got to tell you what was so amazing was to be up on stage and we were rehearsing and Sinatra walked in and he thanked us for being there. This was a benefit in Palm Springs. The funny part is, we didn't have a nickel to rub together. We didn't stay that night. We had to drive back home. Then we ended up in Vegas for the first time. In Vegas, it was called The Ring A Ding Ling Lounge. (laughs)
Q - You took the name of the group from Howard Hughes, but changed the spelling to avoid legal problems. Is that true?
A - Yeah.
Q - Were you an admirer of Howard Hughes?
A - Not really. It was a play on words. We needed a name that would make you think of money. So, when you think of Howard Hughes, you think of money. So, when our manager, Wally Holmes went to our lawyer, he said 'you can't spell it that way. You have to come up with a different spelling.' So our manager came up with "Hues", which means the colour hue. We thought this is nice because we always wanted to dress differently, but not dress differently, and it was the colour. You had three different colour blacks at the time. We were three different shades of black. So, it was kind of a play on words, but when you thought about it, you thought of Howard Hughes. You thought of money.
Q - Your group has been described as Disco Soul. I don't think that's accurate. Shouldn't it be Top 40?
A - How do you put a label on something like that? You can't. We had the number one hit that year. We were in the discos. We were in the Top 40. Basically, when you really get down to it, yes, our song came up through the discos. Yet, it was one of those songs that crossed the boards all ways. Yes, was a disco hit, but then it became a national hit. It became the number one song. I do agree with you in the respect of what you're saying.
Q - Oddly enough, "Rock The Boat" does not sound like a disco song. What dance did people do to it? The songs sounds like a pop hit.
A - You're the first person to realize that. It was a song that you could do anything on. You could cuddle or you could get crazy if you wanted to. It was a love song without being a love song. But, it was a disco hit and it happened because of the discos.
Q - And because you were in the disco era?
A - Right. When we first came out, we had a song called "Freedom For The Stallion". If you could get a copy of that and listen to that song, you would see that the group had a classic going there. Nobody knew The Hues Corporation. "Freedom For The Stallion" was the most beautiful song. The Black stations wouldn't play it because they said we were too white. I'm serious when I say this. The White stations wouldn't play it because they said they didn't understand what we were talking about. They said no, we're gonna go out with "Miracle Maker". Then all of a sudden, "Rock The Boat" took off.
Q - You worked the lounge circuit. Does that mean you played Holiday Inns and Marriotts?
A - We were strictly at one lounge and it wasn't a lounge really, it was Circus Circus. We worked for a few lounges in L.A. but, basically we were in Vegas. The wild part of it was, the guy who discovered us, and I can't remember his name but, he was at that time the president of RCA.
Q - Did this person catch your act at Circus Circus?
A - Basically. He heard about us and saw the act in Vegas. Then he set up a special showing that was in L.A. and we performed. He said 'I want this act.' So, that's how we got on to RCA.
Q - Wally Holmes, your manager, wrote "Rock The Boat". How long did it take him to write that song and how did you team up with Wally?
A - Wally was a school teacher. He was not in the business per se. Wally and I hooked up through my cousin. We talked and we had a group before that and it didn't quite work out. One day, I said 'Wally, I'm gonna find some people who want to perform.' As a matter of fact, Wally was supposed to go into being the music teacher for the band at Santa Monica City College. He gave that up to pursue working with us. He was teaching on the side. This man can play a horn like you can't believe. I'm surprised that he didn't become a great horn player. I mean he can play a horn. Wally likes to teach. He not only taught me how to walk and talk on stage, but offstage. We spent a lot of time in a church basement rehearsing. Wally would drill us even on how to talk to the press.
Q - Shades of Motown.
A - Thank you. A lot of people don't know that. Wally would have sessions with us and ask us certain questions and if you didn't come up with the right answer...You don't talk that way. You don't go there. You have to constantly protect yourself, which is something a lot of entertainers today don't know how to do.
Q - And probably don't care about either. Everything seems to be done for the shock value these days.
A - You're right. It is a shock thing and it's a shame. We've lost so much in music as far as even the Black entertainers. A lot of the great Black singers are passing away. Where is it going? When are you going to find some more? You've got Luther and Luther is there. He's fantastic. He's great. But, where do you go past that? Where are your Nat King Coles? All of a sudden it's about the record companies making money. What's happening is, you're losing the Black culture of the great singers that could be coming up right now. We don't have any great singers that came up the way we came up. And why? Because there's no place for them to go.
Q - "Rock The Boat" took you all over the world didn't it?
A - Yes.
Q - You performed in Europe, South America, The Far East and Australia.
A - We performed for the Queen Of England. We were there with Dionne Warwick. We performed with The Jackson 5 in Radio City Music Hall. We were with The Commodores. We worked in New York with them. We worked with The Spinners, Dolly Parton and Dinah Shore. We worked with Dinah Shore at least eleven times, doing her TV program. She loved us. We were the kind of group that could do anything. We could do soul, jazz, R&B. The group was very versatile. Wally always worked on that.. When our show came on, we put on a show.
Q - Did Tommy Brown sing lead on "Rock The Boat"?
A - No. It was Flemming Williams. He came into the group after our other guy, who had been with us for a couple of years, decided he wanted to go solo. So Flemming came into the group when we had "Rock The Boat". Flemming Williams left the group because he decided he wanted to be Flemming Williams and The Hues Corporation. We told him to blow it out your ear. No way. As a matter of fact, he just passed away. Tommy lasted with us through the first tour. You're getting information that a lot of people don't know. Tommy wasn't a bad singer. He was a really nice person, but he didn't know how to handle the media and he didn't know how to handle women. So, Wally decided to bring Flemming back into the group. He lasted maybe two, three years with us...and we had to get rid of him.
Q - Flemming then pursued a solo career?
A - From what I understand, he went heavy into drugs, which we didn't know he was doing. The Hues Corporation was clean. We didn't do drugs. That was not our bag. All we wanted to do was get on stage and perform. We wanted to be out there and entertain the people. That was all we were after. Everybody we worked with said one thing about The Hues Corporation; they were not only clean, but a lot of fun to work with. We were about performing. One of the greatest groups we worked with and really enjoyed was The Spinners. We'd tear up the building and they'd burn it down. We had so much fun with 'em. We'd go out to try and whip 'em every night. We would get a standing ovation for five minutes. They'd come out and get a standing ovation for ten minutes. It was that kind of competition.
Q - Why didn't The Hues Corporation have a follow-up hit to "Rock The Boat"?
A - We had "Rockin' Soul"* afterwards. The record company said 'you got to come up with something similar.' We didn't want to come up with something similar to "Rock The Boat". They (the record company) didn't understand where we were coming from. They didn't understand what we were about. Then, we got into a fight with the record company, which was a shame and I don't put them down. Then we had another song after that called "I Caught Your Act". It goes on the chart. It goes in Billboard and all of a sudden...and this was on another record company, they killed it because they wanted to push somebody else. Why would they do that? Figure it out. It's politics. Politics is like music. I tell young kids coming up today, 'hey, you want to get into this business, you better be ready to starve.'
Q - What's life like for The Hues Corporation these days. Do you have a record deal?
A - There's no recording contract. We've been contacted by a couple of recording companies in Europe. We are still traveling. We are still performing. We're constantly on the go. I still enjoy it. I love the business.