The Whispers

Founding members Wallace and Walter Scott discuss their 50 years of harmonies that began on the street corners of Watts, CA.

Considered the leading romantic singers of their generation, The Whispers have been making timeless music for 50 years. They formed in the early 60s and, after perfecting their tight harmonies on the street corners of L.A.'s Watts section and in nightclubs in the San Francisco Bay area, had a string of hits in the 70s and 80s, including the R&B chart toppers "And the Beat Goes on" (which also hit the top 20 pop chart) and "Rock Steady" and even a gospel album. In this new millennium, twins Walter and Wallace Scott, Nicholas Caldwell and Leaveil Degree are still selling out music venues, as well as making time for work with various charities.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Celebrating 50 years of music is no small feat delivered by way of street corners in Watts where tight harmonies were honed to perfection by twin brothers, Walter and Wallace Scott, although don’t nobody call him Wallace [laugh].

If you’re a Whispers fan like I have been for many, many years now, it’s Walter and Scottie. They are the founding members of the acclaimed R&B group, The Whispers.

They began singing together back in 1963 recording chart toppers “And The Beat Goes On,” “Rock Steady” and so many others, inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2011 and recipients of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneers Award back in 2008.

The Whispers still tour and record. Let’s take a look at them performing their hit, “Rock Steady.”

[Clip]

Tavis: We were laughing before you walked on the set because, when they put up Walter and Wallace on the screen, I knew they said, “Who is Wallace? [Laugh]” Does anybody call you Wallace?

Wallace Scott: No, sir. No, sir.

Tavis: That’s funny. I can only imagine the tricks y’all played years ago.

Walter Scott: Oh, we had big fun.

Tavis: I know you did.

Walter: Oh, yeah. We had big fun…

Tavis: This is family television, so I ain’t gonna put you out there like that.

Walter: No, no, no.

Tavis: I can only imagine. Does it seem like 50 years?

Walter: You know, it doesn’t, Tavis. I think the only thing I’m amazed at, I think back if somebody would have said 50 years ago you’d be singing 50 years later, I would have laughed at them. I said that’s not gonna happen, but here it is. And it seems like it was yesterday. We been singing a long, long time.

Tavis: What do you recall, Scottie, about these humble beginnings on these street corners down in Watts?

Scottie: Well, you know, that was the best part of it, Tavis. I mean, when I really think back, when I look back on it, I mean, those were the fun parts. There wasn’t no pressure. You know, we were just dreaming. You know, we’d get on the street corner and the mop was the mic.

Tavis: Yeah, the mop was the mic [laugh].

Scottie: And it was fun. I mean, we wanted to, we thought we might could do something, but we were just doing it. You know, it would draw the girls. We’d get attention from the young ladies. They’d come up and listen to the harmonies.

But if anybody would have told us that we would have even ended up with a record deal, we’d have thought, well, there’s something wrong with them.

Tavis: How did R&B end up as your lane? Of all the things that you guys could have done, why R&B?

Walter: You know, when we came to Los Angeles from Nevada, we had come from an atmosphere where my father worked in Hawthorne, Nevada for the Navy and Scottie and I never heard too much Black music. We heard groups like The Hi-Los and the Four Freshmen and it wasn’t until we got…

Tavis: Wait, wait, wait. The Hi-Los and the Four Freshmen. You went way back on that.

Walter: I mean, that’s what we heard on the radio in Hawthorne, Nevada.

Scottie: And liked.

Walter: So here we come to Los Angeles in the ninth grade and we are bombarded with Motown. We’re hearing the Temptations, all these different people. So we did what everybody did. We formed a young vocal group and started singing rhythm and blues.

But what we brought to rhythm and blues was a Hi-Lo, Four Freshmen kind of a mentality. That’s all we knew. We had no bass singer. Barbershop harmony, that’s what we sang.

Tavis: Did anybody else in your family sing or you two just broke out and started singing?

Walter: No, my mother was a singer.

Tavis: Your mother was a singer too.

Walter: Yeah. My mother was a singer, but she’s just like Scottie. She was shy. She didn’t like to get in front of the microphone, but she had a great singing voice.

Tavis: So how did y’all get Scottie out of his shyness?

Walter: Believe it or not, it took Scottie to come down with an illness and it happened just in time. I had just got back from Vietnam. Scottie got sick. They removed one of his ribs.

Lo and behold, I’m thrust without him to do what he used to do and I wasn’t that good at that ’cause I had been in Vietnam. But you had to swim or drown and I ended up making it.

So when I got back, Scottie was a new guy. He wasn’t afraid anymore. The microphone didn’t scare him. He saw what I did while he was away and, for some reason, when he got back, he was a bona fide lead singer.

Tavis: True story, Scottie?

Scottie: True story. I mean, I always had the voice. It wasn’t the problem. But I didn’t want people looking at me. You know, like I wanted to look at the girls, but I didn’t want nobody looking at me, if you know what I mean [laugh].

Tavis: It don’t probably work that way [laugh].

Scottie: It don’t work that way, you know. So I could hit all the notes. I had the chops.

And later on, it became a thing to where when we saw other groups like The O’Jays performing, we realized it wasn’t about just singing. You gotta learn how to perform also.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. Stage presence is so important and there’s so many – I won’t call names, although I could. There’s a bunch of folk now who have all the pyrotechnics and the electronics and the this and the that and all that.

But for that distracting you, they really don’t have a stage presence, and you guys have always had that.

Walter: Well, we came from the generation when we first saw the groups like the O’Jays, the Temptations, who had that mic that spread and all of them sang on one.

The Whispers used to sing as if we were a little choir. We’d all form one little spot and we’d sing beautiful, but had no show.

Once we saw those groups, we realized if we’re gonna try to make it in this, you better get you a show. That’s when we started to concentrate on having a show.

Scottie: And I need to emphasize, those groups, mainly the O’Jays. Because when we first saw the O’Jays, it was five of them. And they should have been called the Five Stallions because that’s the way they impressed us.

Eddie and Walt, like us, they could sing, but they were performing then, way back then and they made us understand. Even Nick is the one that said, hey, man, this is nice, this harmony and stuff, but it’s boring, you know. That’s what he said.

Tavis: Yeah, we need the movement, yeah.

Scottie: Like you said, excitement. Do something, you know, other than just stand there and sing [laugh]. And about two years of looking at the Temps and the O’Jays – and I keep saying the O’Jays because nobody really knows it, but they blew everybody out the water, including the Temps.

Tavis: They’re amazing.

Scottie: I hate to say that, but…

Tavis: The mighty, mighty O’Jays.

Walter: Absolutely.

Scottie: The mighty, mighty O’Jays. After watching them, we said, hey, wait a minute. That’s what time it really is.

Tavis: Walt, you weren’t the first person who especially from your era who, at the height of their success or as their crew is getting off the ground, had to stop and go serve. The most famous person would probably be Elvis who had to stop and go serve.

How did you process going to Vietnam, being gone for a couple of years, and coming back to entertainment?

Walter: It was very traumatic because, number one, I had never been away from my brother. We’re twins. We’ve been seeing each other for every day, and I really didn’t know how to act without knowing that I was not gonna see him.

So for two years, I left, went to do my basic training and went off to Vietnam and spent 14 months there, and it was just a lifetime experience. I mean, I learned things about human beings. Now this was in the ’60s and I guess what I tell the guys all the time.

I learned in Vietnam we were fighting two wars. We were fighting the Vietcong and we were fighting among ourselves. The prejudice that I found that existed, it was in Vietnam between GIs who never thought that Black people took showers.

Here we come, guys from Detroit, Chicago, mixed in with guys from West Virginia and they had different views of each other. Well, that blew me away. And I came back and I told The Whispers.

I said this was the most exciting thing that I’d ever – I never knew this existed. It brought a bunch of people together that didn’t know enough about each other, but we were over there trying to fight an enemy called the Vietcong. The most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.

Tavis: I asked earlier how R&B ended up being your lane. But speak to me about how romance – Scottie is quite kind and generous when he gives the O’Jays a lot of love, and they deserve it, but the lane that you all know.

The Whispers own the lane of romance, which these days ain’t nobody trying to run in. It is so explicit. It’s in your face. It’s more than you wanna know. It leaves nothing to the imagination. How did ya’ll just own this romance lane?

Walter: Let me tell you who we have to credit that with. Nicholas Caldwell. The big guy that you – you know Nick.

Tavis: With the big beard.

Walter: He wrote “Lady,” the first song. But when we first started, we always talked about the importance of complimenting our ladies, our mothers, our sisters. That meant a lot to The Whispers.

So Nick wrote with that in mind. And when you hear songs like “Say Yes,” “Are You Going My Way?,” “Lady,” these were all songs really dealing with romance.

I hate to say it, unlike today, we deal in romance. We deal in love. We deal in the importance of relationships that last over 20 years. Nick was doing that when we first started.

So I think that’s how we kind of cornered the market on romanticism with the ladies. It means ever so much and we’ve been singing it the whole time we been together. That’s what we’re about.

Tavis: I could do this for hours and the time goes so quickly. Let me ask very quickly, how much longer? It’s been five decades now.

Walter: Yes.

Tavis: And y’all are still killing it. How much longer you gonna do this, Scottie?

Scottie: Well, I said last week I was gonna quit [laugh].

Tavis: And how many times has Scottie said that over the years? How many times you said that?

Scottie: Well, they’re now saying yeah, right. We know you are. But you know what? It’s a blessing. We understand like he said earlier. If anybody had told us that we would be here this long, we just simply wouldn’t have believed it.

So we’re gonna do what God allows us to do and mainly our fans. Our fans have said, no, no, you just keep coming with it. As long as they do that, we’ll be here week after next and after that. Come on and on.

Walter: But let me add this, though, Tavis. It’s really important. We go out every year. You kind of know when it’s not there anymore because we see vocal groups that it does happen like that.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Walter: It’s up to you to be honest enough with yourself to know when it’s time to call it. Fortunately, God has blessed us to where we can still do a very effective – when you come on. When you say I love ‘em, but it ain’t quite there no more. Now it’s up to that group to admit to themselves that that’s where it is.

I think, when we get to that point, we won’t have any problem being honest enough to admit that we’ve had a great career, but it’s time to say it was nice while it lasted.

Tavis: To Scottie’s point, y’all got a long way to go. And if you don’t figure that out, we fans will tell you. You look out and you don’t see us, you’ll know [laugh]. If you don’t figure it out yourself, we will help you figure it out. But again, y’all got a long way to go. I am always honored to be in your company.

Walter: Thank you.

Tavis: Anytime, anywhere. And congratulations on 50 years and you’re welcome back here any time.

Walter: Tavis, thank you so much for having us, brother.

Tavis: Love you both.

Walter: Thank you, man.

Tavis: Walter and Wallace, as their mama called ‘em [laugh]. We call them Walter and Scottie.

Walter: There it is.

Tavis: The Scott brothers, the founders of The Whispers. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Last modified: December 9, 2013 at 4:26 pm