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Cliff Nobles

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Though born in Grove Hill, AL, in 1944, Cliff Nobles' family moved to Mobile when he was a terrible two-year-old. He never showed any inclination toward music until high school, when he joined the school choir and started singing lead for a popular local group called the Delroys. After school, he moved to Philadelphia, PA, to seek fame and fortune. Nobles found the competition a lot stiffer than the Mobile scene and had to support himself by living commune-style with some musical friends in Norristown, a small town 18 miles from Philadelphia. Before the move, Nobles cut three singles for Atlantic Records that went unnoticed. In Norristown, he formed Cliff Nobles & Co., which consisted of Benny Williams (bass), Bobby Tucker (lead guitar), and Tommy Soul (drums). The outfit made tapes for Jimmy Rogers (not to be confused with the country singer of the same name), who made them available to producer/writer/singer Jesse James (not to be confused with the famous outlaw of the same name), who resided in the community. James had already heard something in Nobles' voice when he heard him sing in a local church. Loving their energy, James started writing songs for Nobles and the band, and secured a contract for the group with Phil La of Soul Records. The first release bombed. The second featured "Love Is All Right," backed with "The Horse." "The Horse" became a huge hit and established Nobles as a legit one-hit wonder. Ironically, "The Horse" was simply "Love Is All Right" without Nobles' vocal -- Nobles isn't even featured on "The Horse." He neither sings nor plays an instrument on the track; the brass playing on the song would become famous years later as MFSB. The whole incident was an accident, the side with the vocal was supposed to be the side that was plugged, but DJs kept playing the non-vocal version. The record would have gone to number one, but another instrumental, "Grazin' in the Grass" by Hugh Masekela, was even more popular and occupied the top spot for two weeks. The week of July 29, 1968, had to be the first time in modern pop music history that two instrumentals were ranked at numbers one and two, respectively, on the charts. Shamelessly, Phil La of Soul released two more instrumentals -- "Horse Fever" and "Switch It On," -- and credited them as being by Cliff Nobles, though Nobles didn't play an instrument. A later single on Roulette actually featured Nobles' singing and nearly cracked the R&B Top 40, stalling at number 42. Phil La issued an album entitled The Horse that consisted of mostly instrumentals and dance tunes like "The Mule," "The Camel Walk," and "Judge Baby I'm Back," a tune sounding like a hit that Nobles sings with a feel similar to a Berry Gordy, Jr. production for the Contours. Moonshot Records released an LP one year later, in 1969, where Nobles sang three songs, the rest being instrumental. The Atlantic material remains in the vaults. Supposedly, Nobles was an excellent entertainer and a gifted dancer, but, in essence, he was the Milli Vanilli of the '60s. ~ Andrew Hamilton

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1944 in Grove Hill, AL

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