It was July 4, 1969. “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet” was number one on the Billboard Hot 100. A gallon of gas was averaging $0.35. And in Rochester, New York Richard “Romar” Freeman, Grady “Rudi” Meeks, Johnny Lewis, and Bruce Pitts decided it would be fun to form a band, never imagining their idea would morph into an entity that would last more than half a century.
FROM CLUBS TO THE APOLLO
The Voltage Brothers grew to an 11-piece band that included Raymond Williams, Steve Brittingham, Gary Goins, Jim Kelly, Larry Withtaker, Douglas Smith, and PJ Scott. They started out on the Rochester club circuit making a name for themselves and eventually opening for national acts such as Earth, Wind & Fire and The Whispers. In the late 1970s, they traveled to NYC to test their talent at the iconic Apollo Theater during its legendary amateur night. A leading showcase for new talent, Amateur Night at the Apollo spring boarded the careers of legendary artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. The show was open to anyone – artists simply entered their names in a drawing to perform. During the contest, entertainers performed one song with that night’s audience determining the winner.
The Voltage Brothers chose a Mandrill song which to this day Ray Williams says cost them the win. “At the Apollo you only get a chance to sing one song, and as a matter of fact the song we picked was the wrong song. Our song was more instrumental than vocal,” recalls Williams. That night’s winner? A local funk band called New York City Players who shortly later changed their name to Cameo. Yes, that Cameo.
During this time, the guys were itching for a change of scenery. Their manager, Jerry Griffin, suggested they go on an extended tour. Band members jumped at the opportunity. The only problem? They were still teenagers in high school. Their parents were supportive of their dream to play music, but education was also important. An agreement was finally met. If the band wanted to go out and chase their dreams, tutor, Rich Cohan, would go with them.
Throughout the next few years, the band spent time in Kalamazoo, MI, Rockville, IL, Las Vegas, Southern California, and NJ. They even lived in Grand Canyon State Park for a while camping out between gigs. The Voltage Brothers were a regular fixture on the “Chitlin’ Circuit”- a collection of performance venues throughout the south providing commercial and cultural acceptance for African-American musicians, comedians, and entertainers during the era of racial segregation.
They also were popular on the college circuit playing at sorority and fraternity events throughout the southeast. In 1977, the band caught the eye of legendary booking agent, Ted Hall, who signed them to his agency, Hit Attractions, located in Charlotte, NC.
LIFE IN THE BIG HOUSE
In 1980, the band made a permanent move to Atlanta because it was a hot spot for live music and provided ample opportunity for collaboration with other musicians. Band members bought a six-bedroom house in Decatur, GA in southeast Atlanta which became affectionately known as “The Big House.” Eleven members called the house home. They turned the basement into a studio and added a rehearsal hall. The Big House was a Grand Central Station of sorts for the band with managers, musicians, and even some celebrities coming and going at all hours. It was a major hub at the time for up-and-coming bands like The Maxx and Bobby & The Aristocats.
THE ECE CONNECTION
In 1981, The Voltage Brothers played a local club in Richmond, VA. There they were spotted by EastCoast Entertainment (ECE) founder, Dennis Huber, who convinced the band to leave Hit Attractions and join ECE’s exclusive roster.
Signing with EastCoast Entertainment opened the doors to more high-caliber private events. One spring in the early 1980s, The Voltage Brothers were booked in Fort Worth by a Texas oil millionaire for a birthday party celebrating his granddaughter. Held at the Whitehall Hotel, the grandfather wanted entertainment that suited his friends while the granddaughter wanted a fun and lively band. They both got what they wanted. When The Voltage Brothers arrived at the event, they discovered they would be sharing the stage that night with the one and only Frank Sinatra.
THE GIRL WHO CAPTURED THEIR HEARTS
A pivotal point for the band occurred in 1986 at a night club in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jim Kelly walked up to a girl in the audience, introduced himself and asked, “Do you know how to cook?” She sassily replied yes and asked why. He said, “We like to eat!”
A couple months later, the band was back in town and Viola Williams brought them a full meal complete with fried chicken, potato salad, tuna salad, green beans, rolls, and pound cake. Through her cooking and kindness, she had won the hearts of all the band members — and one in particular, Ray. The two remained friends for a decade until 1996 when at a 4th of July concert at Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, the two decided to give dating a try. In 2005, they wed in Charlotte, NC.
THE BAND TODAY
The year 2019 marks the 50th Anniversary of The Voltage Brothers. Today, Ray Williams and Jim Kelly are the managing members of The Voltage Brothers. Ray’s wife, Viola, is the self-described “Girl Friday” handling all the band’s day-to-day administration needs.
The band continues their exclusive relationship with ECE. Since 1981, they have played over 3,000 dates bringing in more than $14M in revenue. In 2018 alone, The Voltage Brothers played at over 60 events and continues to be one of the most booked bands on ECE’s roster of talent.
Because of their talent, work ethic, and adaptability, the band has grown into one of the most popular private event bands in the country. (For instance, the band added a female singer in 2005 to increase their versatility.) They have played at high-profile events such as the inauguration of George W. Bush and numerous celebrity weddings. Additionally, they have been booked by Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Budweiser, Suntrust Bank, and Nissan and notable sports organizations like NASCAR, Charlotte Hornets, Carolina Panthers and the NFL Players Party.
“To celebrate such a milestone with my friends in The Voltage Brothers is and will be one of the highlights of my career. From my very first day in this business and at ECE, The Voltage Brothers has represented a standard of musicianship, professionalism, style and grace that most bands dream to master. For me, their history is my history, and I fondly look back at each year that I have been fortunate enough to be close to their greatness and watch their career flourish. As in any family, I am overcome with pride for them, and it has been an honor to have been accepted into their family and ours together,” shares ECE president and CEO, Doug Daniel.
CELEBRATING THE VOLTAGE BROTHER’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY
On June 20, The Voltage Brothers return to Charlotte to perform at an epic 50th Anniversary celebration held during Alive After Five at the Epicentre. Join us as we celebrate the band’s achievements with an evening filled with incredible music, showmanship, and fun. For more information, visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/313127649577160/.