Renaissance Man Lenis Guess Kept the Norfolk Sound Alive
Singer Lenis Guess remembers that, in the 1950s, Coastal Virginia was a vibrant place for music, and it wasn't always fully appreciated. "Norfolk was a Rhythm and Blues town," he says. "Ruth Brown, blues singers … The Five Keys, from Newport News, they might have gotten some status. But the area has always been slow to recognize its music, you know.”
The multi-talented Guess, 77, knows something about that. Despite the fact that he has a star on Norfolk's musical Walk of Fame, and copped a lifetime achievement honor at the Veer Music Awards in 2015, few outside the crate-digging music world (and diehard fans in Britain and Germany) know his name. But this gruff-voiced singer and prolific writer and record producer was an integral part of what is now known as "The Norfolk Sound." In the '60's and '70's, Guess was a soul and funk machine, not only recording indelible regional hits (and misses) for producer Frank Guida's local music labels, but also his own companies, D.P.G. and Guess.
Lenis Defect Guess III was born in Norfolk in 1940. His father owned a sandwich shop, Guess' Snack Grill, and he grew up with a strong love for music. "I used to do janitor work with my uncle, and they used to have a piano in the church at Norview, and I would sit down at the piano and start playing it and learning the chords by ear."
He first encountered Frank Guida, the flamboyant owner of a Church Street record store, when he was a student at Booker T. Washington High School, and singing in a vocal group called the Five Latins. Years later, a collaboration began, birthing songs like the majestic “Workin’ For My Baby" and the stomping 'Just Ask Me"—regional hits that have been championed in recent years by U.K. music fans. “Just Ask Me” was recently ranked as one of the top 5 songs of the "Northern Soul" movement—a trend started in Northern England that champions rare American soul music—and one of Guess' last live performances, in 2009, was at a Northern Soul concert in Wales, performing his signature tunes before a screaming throng of young British fans. "They know all about black music in England; they're hipper than the Americans," says the performer, who is now living back home in Norfolk after decades of life and work in New York City.
In addition to all of the sounds he's made over the years, Guess is a filmmaker, playwright, actor and theater director who, even at an advanced age and suffering from Parkinson's, is still raring to go on projects. His last recording, 2015's "Now and Forever" was a gospel song. "Man, I love writing and making music," he says. "I'd do it right now, this minute, if I could."
You first met Frank Guida as a teenager. How did you hear about him?
There was nobody else down here. Who else could you go to? We knew about Guida because he owned a record store. This was 1957, before he recorded the hits he had with Gary U.S. Bonds and Jimmy Soul. We were a vocal group, and we took one of my songs to Guida, and he liked our group. We knew that he was recording groups, producing groups. He had helped [local R&B band} The Sheiks get their deal [on Atlantic].
So what happened?
The song was originally called ‘Strolling,’ but he changed the name to ‘Crawlin.’ And he changed the Five Latins' name to the Bluebeards too. I was listed as a co-writer, I wasn’t an artist on that recording, I co-wrote it. But I was too young to sign any contracts or anything. My father objected because Guida's was too long a contract. It was something like a 10-year contract. My father said, 'I’m not sending my son off to nobody for 10 years.'"
Did you continue to write and perform?
Yes, and when I was older, I met the singer Kenneth Deal. He used to be in The Sheiks. I was always an admirer of him. I met him one day on the bus and introduced myself. ‘Hey man, I write songs. I’d love for you to sing one of my songs.’ And he had stopped singing at that point, but he liked my songs, and he introduced me to [local restaurant owner] George Perkins. So we formed a record company together called D.P.G.—for Deal, Perkins, Guess—and I recorded my first record, “Thank Goodness,” at Fernwood Farms in South Norfolk with Norman Phelps.
There was a little studio in Hampton that I don’t remember the name of where we recorded Kenny Deal's "Clown Suit" and "What Have You Heard." For that record, Perkins changed Kenneth's name to Terry Sinclair. And my songs, “I’m Gonna Stop Running” and “Thank You Baby” weren't even done in the studio. We recorded it in George Perkins’ restaurant. We went out and got a tape recorder and said we were going to record our own stuff right here. The records weren’t a large print in the first place. 500 or a thousand. We’d sell them in the local stores, including Guida’s store. We were crazy, we were bold. (laughs)
When did Frank Guida came back into your orbit?
Well, D.P.G. lasted a year before Kenneth Deal passed away in a car accident. And we didn't do much after that; we recorded a guy named Prince George, and we recorded Sir Guy. But at that point George and I weren't working together. He continued on with the label and released a few things. "Thank Goodness" had been a big local hit, and Guida had heard it, and called me. Kenny Deal's death was devastating to me personally. And it prompted me to look for other venues … and that led me back to Frank Guida. All down through the years, I kept in touch with Guida.”
The U.K. box set that compiles Lenis' first three singles for Frank Guida's S.P.Q.R.
Almost immediately, the two of you came up with the 1966 classic "Workin' For My Baby."
The group we put together was Stinky Vann on drums, Chris Kempos on keyboard, Jerry James on bass, and Terry Bacon, who is playing that guitar riff. The guitar line came out of Frank Guida’s song, "New Orleans"—it’s amazing, right? You’d never think so. And that's why Frank Guida was a genius. He said, 'I like it, but it needs a riff. Put a riff in there. Why don’t you put a 'New Orleans' riff in there? [New Orleans was Gary U.S. Bonds' first big hit, and it had a calypso flavor] I was thinking, how am I going to put a 'New Orleans' riff in this ballad? The riff was 'ta da DA, ta da da DA da da'—and that riff added such weight to the song.
The song's backing band is inspired by a mixture of soul and rock players. Was that by design?
I didn’t have my own band at that time. I worked with put-together bands. We didn’t necessarily do that on purpose, but Frank always wanted to fuse music anyway. Black and white guys, it didn't matter. We just got the guys who were available. We wanted to make a record.
What was your relationship with Frank like in the studio?
We would clash sometimes; we were both headstrong, but we would each leave in a huff, but we always got back together. We didn’t butt heads musically too much. I would suggest things to him, but it was understood that he was the boss. In the 70s, we did “Some Woman’s Bedroom,” which was originally “Woman to Woman.” He wanted to change the name and I liked that but he wanted to put bedspring [sound effects] on it and I didn’t particularly care for that.
Did you ever have problems with him relating to business?
Guida was a businessman and took care of business. He and I used to argue, you know. But that was because I was so independent. An independent thinker. I didn’t go along with everything. One day, he called me a sore loser. If a record doesn't make it, I can take the loss, he said. But you’re a sore loser. And he challenged me to go into business for myself. One day I was complaining about how a record hadn't done anything and he told me I should put my money where my mouth was. He was putting up all of the money but I was the one complaining. I thought, he's right. So I started my own label.
When I interviewed him, near the end of his life, he talked about you all the time. “Lenis, he’s my pupil,' he said, like a proud father. 'He learned how to record from my equipment.'
It's true. Guida trusted me. He gave me the keys to the studio and said 'you have the knack for engineering; go to it.’ That's where I learned the business. He’s been the biggest influence on my career, by far, and it always meant something to me that the man behind the ‘Norfolk Sound’ encouraged me, told me I could do it, you know?
Did you work much with Gary U.S. Bonds?
Sure. I knew him in high school. I knew him when he was singing in his first band, the Turks. The first time I worked with Gary was on “Take me Back to New Orleans.” That was the first chance Guida gave me to lead the band. I directed the session. The bass line, the drums, I put all that together myself.
In 2010, Lenis Guess was part of a Norfolk Sound reunion show at the Attucks
Theatre, sharing the stage with old friends like Gary U.S. Bonds, and performing the
timeless, "Workin' For My Baby." Performances from the concert can be seen on
A lot of collaborators, including Bonds, and Gene Barge, have been quite critical of Frank.
I’ve always found Bonds to be very honest. He shoots a straight shot no matter what. Everyone has their own experience. All I can tell you is my experience. Their personal opinion is not any of my business.
Did you ever work with Jimmy Soul, who had the #1 hit for Guida, "If You Wanna Be Happy"?
I never worked with Jimmy Soul. In my opinion, Jimmy [McCleese] was a thug. Little slicker. He wanted to pick a fight with me one day in high school. We had words in the hallway one day. I wasn’t in his class but I knew him. He was a hustler; he liked the streets. Street life. He could sing now, that's for sure, but that wasn't what I objected to.
The 35th Street Gang, a.k.a. Raw Soul, was the house band for Guess-Brockington
Studio at 633 W 35th St. in Norfolk. The members included Grover "Groove" Everett
on drums, Bassist Maurice Glass and Guitarist Barry Saunders. 35th Street Gang
photo courtesy Steady Sounds Records, Richmond.
You also worked with the other Norfolk R&B music impresario, Noah Biggs, who ran the Shiptown label. What was he like?
Noah was my man, but I wasn’t with him until later in the '70s, when I produced [singer] Barbara Stant. He really helped me out a lot. One time, some thieves broke into the studio that [engineer] Dorsey Brockington and I owned. And Noah was kind of a little hustler on Church Street, you know. He was numbers running or whatever you call it. Junkies would just come by and sell the stuff to Noah and he’d sell it in his store, which was almost like a pawn shop. I called Noah and told him, ‘they stole my equipment. If you hear anything, let me know.’ He said, ‘OK, boy.’” (Laughs) That’s him talking. “He called me a couple days later and said, hey boy, I think I got your recorder; come here and see. It was a $2,000 machine and he said, 'I’m going to sell it back to you for $100' and right then we became pals.
You moved to New York City in the late 1970s and got involved in TV, movies, the theater. How did that start?
I had my own recording studio in New York on Eighth Avenue. Next door to me was a theater, and the owner of the theater and his wife enjoyed my music and said to me, 'why don't you produce a play?' I came to see some of their plays and I thought to myself, 'I can do that; in fact I can do it better because I have music.' So my first play was Lord, If I Slide Back. I did plays right up until the time I left; my last one was Too Many Women. In fact, the last thing that Guida and I did together was a play, produced in Norfolk called Just Us.
I had a TV show in New York called "Spirit Train." I was the host of that and I would bring on guests. I produced two movies as well, Pritchard Johnson, Spirit Detective and Lash Holmes, God's Private Eye, and funded them myself. All of my stuff, the movies, the plays, was integrated together. Lot of guts, man. (laughs) They may say I don’t have talent, but I got a lot of guts.
Photos/album cover/45 label courtesy of Lenis Guess
How to Hear Lenis
In 1979, Frank Guida advertised that a Lenis Guess compilation album was soon to be released. It only took 35 years to happen. One of the great crimes of soul music is that Guess’ work as singer and producer took so long to be properly acknowledged and anthologized.
The deluge finally broke in 2014 with the release of "The Story of Lenis Guess," on Germany's Tramp label, a two-record set that compiles early material on the D.P.G. label, including sides that Guess co-produced by Terry Sinclair (Kenneth Deal) and the amazing Sir Guy. It naturally includes his signature songs with Guida, "Workin' For My Baby" and "Just Ask Me" but also some rarities ("Some Woman's Bedroom," complete with creaky bedsprings). The set also reissues prime Norfolk soul and funk recorded with the talented band Raw Soul in the 35th Street studio that Guess owned in the '70's with engineer Dorsey Brockington. Complete? Hardly. But "The Story of Lenis Guess" is quite a story, and you can dance to it.
The London-based Soul Jazz label has also issued a 45 box set, "The Norfolk Soul Sound," that compiles Lenis Guess' first three singles on Guida's S.P.Q.R. label in the mid-1960s. These tracks are also available on “The Story of Lenis Guess," but the discs come in a handsome package, and it's always revelatory to hear these ageless classics on vinyl.
An excellent overview of the Virginia soul and funk scene of the '60s and '70s, the three volumes of "Ol' Virginia Soul," on the independent Arcania International label, puts the work of Lenis Guess in context with the greater soul music scene of Virginia. These packed compilations of rare and sometimes unreleased songs from artists across the state—but with the hotspot being Norfolk—feature Guess-related tracks by Barbara Stant, Raw Soul, Prince George and many more seminal performers, and the liner notes by archivist Brent Hosier are sometimes as lively as the music. Available through CryptRecords.com.