Exclusive interview Ralph Tavares – Soul Survivors
by Northern Life
Tavares have no plans to “take away the music” as the band prepare to return to Manchester with their classic smooth soul sound.
Growing up in the 90s, I’d not be expected to know most of the big soul songs from the 1970s. But I do, thanks to mum blaring them out of the car speakers on the school run and singing along every time she did the cleaning. And it seems I’m not the only twenty-something who grew up listening to 70s soul music.
With The Four Tops, The Temptations and Tavares performing together for what promises to be an amazing night in October, I caught up with Ralph Tavares on his younger fan base, learning new dance moves at 74, and why a chance encounter with Muhammad Ali will stay in his memory forever…
When I tell him about listening to Tavares songs as I was growing up, Ralph starts to laugh. “Tell her I said thank you for indoctrinating you all.”
He thanks me for the praise when I say that her influence means I’d much rather listen to his music than most of the songs in the charts right now. Despite all his success, Ralph is still very humble.
The five-brother band soared to fame with hits like Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel, More Than A Woman, Don’t Take Away The Music and It Only Takes A Minute – songs which are still favourites today.
“I just think it’s really great that the European audience have been such dedicated Tavares fans,” Ralph says, as he prepares to return to England for the first time in 30 years.
“There’s nothing like the fans over in Europe. They also bring their children with them, so now we have younger fans.”
As the oldest member of the band, Ralph retired from the music business back in 1984 in his early 40s, but came back into the fold two years ago when his brother Pooch suffered a stroke.
“I’m back in again and now I’ll be there for the duration,” chuckles Ralph, who is now 74. “They needed another brother to step in for Pooch. I thought I was only going to be there for a couple of shows but it’s been almost two years now.”
Brother Pooch is doing much better but still not ready to take on such a busy schedule. Ralph admits that travelling across countries and learning new dance routines is much harder when you are in your 70s.
“It’s just so good being back with my brothers again and doing that part of it. If it wasn’t for the travelling and the going through all the security that we have to now, it would be absolutely perfect; it would be like déjà vu.
“It does feel like I’m reliving something that happened to me a long time ago and it feels great. I feel honoured that I’m still able to do what I’m doing, it’s a tribute to God’s gift to me.”
Born in Rhode Island and later moving to Massachusetts, the brothers – Ralph, Pooch, Chubby, Butch and Tiny – started out as Chubby and the Turnpikes, before becoming just The Turnpikes. It was not an overnight success. The brothers were performing for years before they became a hit.
It was when they were offered a chance of touring in Europe, where the name turnpike (an American toll road) means nothing to us Brits that they decided to use their family name instead.
“When I first started out I was just a kid but when we started making records I was almost 20,” Ralph recalls.
“It’s like anything else, you’re working at something that you think you’ve got a gift from God, and especially with five of us being gifted with the same music but different, separate voices. We just wanted to utilise it.”
Singing and working with his brothers has been both a blessing and a curse. He says there have been a few arguments but being on the road with family has meant the world to him.
“We wouldn’t always agree on what we wanted to wear, what songs we wanted to sing. It was like any family, there is always rivalry or disagreements but fortunately we are still together, still performing as a family, we play golf together, we socialise, so it hasn’t been that bad.
“You were working for something that you didn’t know was ever going to happen. You saw other people on television and we wanted to be where they were and we wanted to be doing what they were doing but we just never imagined that it would happen. Lo and behold, look at all the years and all the albums.
“You know the only thing I ever wanted was to drive down the street and hear my song being played on the radio, one time, and look at what’s happened – I’ve heard them many, many times. We’ve been really blessed.
“It was a passion. It was a dream. I would go to bed dreaming at night of being successful and being able to try and help people, help my family and all those things have come true for us.”
Being from a small town, Ralph explains that there was little chance of getting into the spotlight. And the brothers’ parents couldn’t afford to drive them to shows. To this day, Ralph still thanks their manager Brian Panella for their success.
He says: “I thank God every day for Brian Panella who brought us to the forefront of Capitol Records and introduced us and from then they discovered that we had something that was able to be commercialised.”
In 1975 they released Top 40 pop album In The City, with the single It Only Takes a Minute topping the R&B chart and earning them a support slot with the Jacksons, who Ralph admits they have often been compared to throughout their career.
“We used to tour with them. We did the MGM hotel in Las Vegas while they were either closing their act, we were coming in, or we were closing and they would follow us into the hotel. We developed quite a relationship. I have pictures of them when they were young with my family.”
Touring with the Jacksons was one thing but for Ralph, a chance encounter with Muhammad Ali, who died earlier this year, will stay with him forever.
“We met him in Chicago at the Operation Push which was for Jesse Jackson, and we were staying at the Robinson Hotel. Howard Bingham, who did our first album cover, was Muhammad Ali’s photographer, and he was with him down in the lobby. We came out of the elevator, getting ready to go to the arena and Howard said he wanted to introduce us to him. Ali said ‘You don’t have to tell me who they are.
Those are the five non-fighting brothers from Massachusetts.’ “When he said that, we started sparring with him. It was so much fun and Howard took pictures of that whole event, but we never got the pictures.
“He always sparred with us, you know, pretending to throw punches, and tussle; it was great. There are certain things in your life that you just don’t forget.”
Another chance encounter with the Bee Gees was what led to Tavares singing the soundtrack to the hit film Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta.
The Bee Gees were watching their performance in Madison Square Gardens in New York and introduced hemselves after the show. Ralph tells me they told the group they were doing a song in a movie and asked if Tavares would consider it.
“We said ‘Are you kidding? Of course!’ You talk like that sometimes among other artists and sometimes its just talk. We were on tour again and next thing you know, in the mail we got the song from Saturday Night Fever. It was More Than a Woman.
“That song is going to be a favourite of mine until I stop to exist, believe me.”
Tavares will perform with Four Tops and The Temptations at Manchester Arena on 22nd October.