Atlantic wanted to sign The Appreciations for “Afraid Of Love” / “Far From Your Love”, but Hattie didn’t want both groups on Atlantic, a decision which Charles says both the group and Hattie later regretted. The tracks were released on Jubilee in April 1965, and did make some noise in Charlotte and other cities. The boys, along with their backing band drawn from the best musicians in Charlotte, were booked for a number of public appearances across the Carolinas and Cleveland, Ohio for the rest of the year.
Their next recording was “I Can’t Hide It” / “No, No, No” (Aware 1066). Hattie set up Aware for this sole release. The tracks were recorded in 1966 at the Golden World / Ric Tic Records Studios in Detroit. The group liked the Motown sound and wanted to be part of it. Willie Mitchell (band leader, producer, wind and keyboard player) coached and arranged the session and according to Charles, played baritone sax. Mitchell is perhaps more associated with Memphis than Detroit. In reality however he wrote, produced, arranged and recorded a number of tracks for Lee Rogers, Buddy Lamp and others on Detroit labels such as Wheelsville, Premium Stuff and D-Town, either from his Memphis base or in Detroit itself.
The Aware release enjoyed some success in the south east and mid west regions. Up to that point The Appreciations’ ‘bread and butter’ work was confined to weekend campus frat parties mainly because they were still students at JCSU. However the success of their first two records allowed them to play in the summer break on the military bases of the east coast and Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach, Virginia Beach and Florida.
“We also had some challenging times however” says Charles. “There were times we were broke with hardly enough money to get to the next gig. There were times when we were refused accommodations or some would have too much to drink at a frat party and use a racial slur. Once we underestimated travel time and were two hours late for a show. We barely had enough money to get there and were depending on the money we would get paid. We arrived at the auditorium and started to rush to unload the equipment to get the band set up. A woman came out and said “you boys get right back in your bus and go back where you came from and we are not paying you one red cent”. We’d travelled over 600 miles to that gig."
By late 1966, Melvin and Oscar were drafted or enlisted into military service, which the remaining members knew would take them out for two or three years. They were replaced by Horace “Nick” Nichols as lead vocal and James Ardrey as baritone vocal.
The Appreciations' next recording was to be “She Never Really Loved Me” / “Place in My Heart” (Sport 108). The instrumentation was laid down in Memphis with once again Willie Mitchell’s involvement, the vocals for both tracks were recorded in Nashville, and final mixing possibly occurred in Detroit. Sport was a New York distributed label of primarily Detroit artists and producers founded by Andrew ‘Shelley’ Harris. The label ran from 1967 to 1968. Some of the luminaries who produced and arranged on the label included Joe Hunter, Lorraine Chandler and Andre Williams, all big names in Detroit soul circles. Artists included The Four Sonics, Tony Daniels, The Master Keys and The Dramatics.
The group's second Sport recording was “It's Better to Cry” (Sport 111). For many years it was rumoured that the instrumental backing for the track was facilitated by The Tempests. This seemed plausible. Hattie Leeper was also manager at the time of Mike Williams who recorded the Vietnam war song “Lonely Soldier”. The Tempests Band had backed Mike Williams and also The Appreciations on some live appearances. However Charles dispels the myth:
“In 1967 we recorded “It’s Better to Cry” and “Gimme Back My Heart” at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, NC. These songs were released on Sport Records. The studio band was Moses Dillard and The Tex-Town Review from my home town in Greenville SC. Moses was a couple of years behind me in high school. I remember when he first started learning to play the guitar. Most of us didn’t think he would ever be able to play the instrument. The sounds he made during high school were horrible. However, after a couple of years he had become a highly respected guitarist and music arranger. As a matter of fact “Mose”, as he was called, arranged the music for the songs right there in the studio during the session. Pay attention to his guitar licks on both songs. James “Toon” Debeuneure provided the lead vocals for both songs on this recording session. “It's Better to Cry” put the group on the map with the beach music sound. We were booked by Hit attractions owned by Ted Hall, the young entrepreneur who dominated the market for the beach music bands.”
Despite its popularity in the south east, the scarcity of this record appears to be related to a simultaneous release of another record on the same label, The Four Sonics “Easier Said Than Done” - another northern soul favourite. Sport had signed a distribution deal with Amy-Mala-Bell around the time of the two records. Amy may have put out the Four Sonics on Sport 111 to follow up on a previous release by this band, whilst locally Sport had released the Appreciations on the same number. Thus The Appreciations track may have been withdrawn shortly after its release. The claimed writers of “It’s Better to Cry” were New York based David Blake and Frankie Nieves, from Phil Medley’s Starflower Music Company. Frankie Nieves brought out his own very different latin soul take of the track, on the 1968 Speed LP “The Terrible Frankie Nieves”. When Blake was asked a few years back on Soul Talk (www.raresoulforum.co.uk) about “It’s Better to Cry” he didn’t know anything about it ending up on Sport until the 1990s. David Blake also produced the previously unreleased Johnny Watson version which eventually saw the light of day in the 1980s on Valise.
By 1969 the group were still dreaming of becoming national stars. Charles recalls how they held their own when appearing on stage with other big acts like Marvin Gaye, The Delfonics, The Manhattans, but The Appreciations just couldn’t get the right material. Things were changing. Melvin and Oscar had returned from the military. Melvin rejoined the group but now it was Nick’s turn to be drafted. Plans were to go to Chicago or Philadelphia to access professional songwriters and arrangers, but Toon and Lewis decided they would quit the group, partly due to family responsibilities. Melvin also left the group unexpectedly and went to New York. Oscar decided he would complete his college degree and was not going to continue in The Appreciations.
“We all remained friends with each other” says Charles. “The regrets that we all had were that none of us ever received any royalty payments. I don’t recognize the names of the people claiming credit for writing a couple of the songs and I have no idea how their names got put on the labels. We had good times together. Some led successful lives after the group. James “Toon” Debeuneure had a successful corporate career. He gave it up and went back to school after he was in his fifties to get a Masters in Education. He did that in order to contribute to the African American kids in the Washington, DC inner city schools. On 9/11 Toon was killed when chaperoning his fifth grade students on a National Geographic trip to California as a result of winning an essay contest. Their plane was crashed into the Pentagon. Lewis Dowdy earned a PhD in Psychology. He taught and counselled students at Johnson C. Smith University and currently is a professor of Psychology at Barber Scotia College in Concord, NC. Oscar Melton became a manufacturing electronics technician within the contractor sector for the defence industry. He is retired and lives in Baltimore, MD. James Ardrey owned a construction business in Washington, DC. Horace “Nick” Nichols lives in Charlotte, NC. I spent forty years in positions of supervision/management roles. I retired from Michelin Tire Corporation in 2007 after a 30-year career and live in Simpsonville, SC, a suburb of Greenville. I dabble in a real estate investing and spend a lot of time with my five grand children. I sang with a local group here in Greenville beginning in 1998. This group was named The Viverhearts. I was one of the lead singers and first tenor. I had a bad case of bronchitis which damaged my singing voice and I left the group in 2006 because my voice was shot. Now I sing in the shower when no one is around to hear a bad note. Hattie is still in Charlotte. (MW: Hattie Leeper became Professor of Communications at Gaston College in North Carolina. In 2000 she was inducted into the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame). We lost contact about eight years ago. At that time she was active in community affairs.”