Heavy instruments and rare grooves: The hidden history of Akron’s Soul Toronadoes

Pronounced like the car, which lent itself for their name…

by DJ El-Prezidente, as told to Roger Riddle

If you do a Google search for “Hammond B-3 funk,” nestled among the names of the great jazz artists and groups known for playing the heavy instruments — in both weight and sound — you will find mentions of Akron’s Soul Toronadoes. The band released a string of 7-inch singles during the ‘70s that went overlooked at the time by record buyers but have since captured the attention of today’s rare groove collectors.

I am one of those collectors. Always on the hunt for something out of the ordinary to play when I DJ, I happened upon one of those singles. Scanning the label, I noticed the address listed for the record company was nearby in Ohio. Then I began searching the mighty soul nightfor a contact to see if there were any other records they may have had. That search led me right back to Akron.

When I realized the band I had run across was based out of Akron, I originally named my funk and soul DJ night, “the Mighty Soul Toronadoes Night” – now called the Mighty Soul Night, a monthly event held at Uncorked Wine Bar – in homage to this little known funk outfit. Then one day, I caught up with the band thanks to YouTube.

The band’s leader, Bobby Heller, was posting videos and commenting on posts that featured the band’s songs. Because my night was called the Mighty Soul Toronadoes Night, Heller thought I was in a band that was illegally using their name and playing their music. When I explained that I was just DJing and playing their records, Heller noted that recently people had begun to sample their work, cover their songs and even use the band’s name with no compensation to him or his fellow band members. When I finally got Heller on the phone, the story of these unsung Akron musical heroes began to unfold. Then one day I found myself sitting with three of the members of the band and listening to their story first hand.

During the ‘70s, the band was comprised of Bobby Heller on organ, his brother Charles Heller on drums, Bruce Martin on bass and James “Boots” Smith on guitar. However, their introduction to the music business came during the early ‘60s when the Heller brothers took the stage at Akron’s night clubs as a dance duo while still in their pre-teens. Booked as the “Twisting Twins” — even though the brothers were not actually twins — Charles Heller became known for a dance style that rivaled the moves of his idol James Brown. In 1962, the brothers got a chance to see Brown live.

IMG_1731“And that changed me forever because his band was off the hook,” Bobby says.

The brothers became serious about playing music as opposed to just dancing to it. They wanted to form a band, and they wanted to own everything they saw on stage. Charles had his eye on the Ludwig drum set played by Brown’s drummer. Bobby wanted the B-3 Hammond organ.

“I already had an organ, a Thomas organ,” Bobby remembers. “When I went down there and saw James Brown, he had a B3 Hammond. I went home talking about that. ‘I want me a B3!’”

The hunt for the Hammond organ led them to Reynolds’ Music Shop in Akron. Bobby’s mom, Lulune Heller, who played an intricate part in the development of the band by taking on the role of manager, spoke with owner Frankie Reynolds about acquiring a B3 for her son. When he remarked that he had just the organ for them, Lulune flatly stated that she didn’t want a new organ. She was in the market for a used one. Reynolds led them to a back room and showed them an organ previously owned by jazz great Jimmy McGriff.

McGriff dropped off his organ for an overhaul and decided to buy a new model while it was being serviced. Reynolds tuned up his old organ, and now it was for sale. Bobby now had the instrument that would help shape the sound of the band, and it was blessed by one of the founders of the style.

From the mid to late ‘60s, Bobby recruited Bruce Martin on bass and Boots Smith on guitar. Heller credits Martin’s creativity on bass as being the foundation of their style. And with the addition of Boots Smith, who was steeped in the blues and played guitar and harmonica, the group was solidified.

While playing a show in Detroit in the early ‘70s, they met Ernest Burt who owned a small independent record label, Magic City/Burt Records. With Heller’s mother in the role of the band’s manager, they signed a recording contract with Burt and began recording. They recorded a total of six tracks that were released on three singles. Of the three singles, one was released on Magic City, another was released on the subsidiary label, Burt Records, but unbeknownst to them, Burt sold the rights to the third single to a different record label, Westwood. This was the first sign of trouble between them and their record label. This rocky relationship would cast a shadow over their entire career.

While their songs were being sold to other labels for release, the band began touring the south, winning the admiration of many of the other artists they were playing alongside. They were joined on stage by soul legend Wilson Pickett’s horn section when the band broke into a cover of Pickett’s “Funky Broadway.” One night they were approached by an employee at a club they were playing and asked if a singer in the audience could sit in for a song. After agreeing, they were joined on stage by Cuba Gooding, Sr. of The Main Ingredient.

During a show in Chattanooga, Tenn., bass player Bruce Martin fell ill and had to return to Akron. That night, Lucky Scott — who played bass with Curtis Mayfield — sat in for the evening. When the band played one of Mayfield’s songs, Scott tried to persuade Boots to join Mayfield on tour. Boots decided he couldn’t leave the band and pointed to their contract with Burt Records.

While the members of some of the best soul and funk bands in the nation loved the sound of the Soul Toronadoes, their singles never caught on. Part of this was most likely due to the rights being sold to different small labels that didn’t have enough recognition in the industry to get them the attention they deserved. Another factor was that the times were changing, and it was hard for an instrumental band to make its mark when most of the up-and-coming bands now featured a lead vocalist.

When their four-year contract was up with Burt Records, Burt exercised an overlooked clause to pick up an additional four-year option with the band. This was essentially the undoing of the band. They went their separate ways shortly thereafter.

Original Soul Toranadoe guitarist Boots Smith (Photo courtesy of Paul Hoffman)

Boots went on to work in the rubber industry for 11 years. Martin is now playing bass in a gospel band. Charles Heller now resides in California and is involved in the Christian ministry. Bobby Heller is still here in Akron, and he’s anxious to play again.

Over the time that has passed, the members have never seen any royalties from their records. The Burt Records catalog is now owned by Ernest Burt’s son, however there is very little information on where the younger Burt is operating the business. He is still active, as some of the songs have been licensed from the Magic City catalog. One in particular affected the Soul Toronadoes.

When Jazzman Gerald of Jazzman Records came to town in the early 2000s to get the band’s story for a box set his label was releasing, Bobby thought maybe Soul Toronadoes’ chance at a revival was near. The Jazzman record label out of the United Kingdom is known among record collectors as one of the best at finding extremely rare bands and re-releasing them with great treatment and respect for the artists. That box set, “Soul Toronados (sic) – the Complete Recordings,” was released in 2005. The set gained little to no press even though it sold out and is now as collectible as the original singles.

The lack of attention over the box set seemed to be right in line with all that the band had experienced in their career. However, when I showed Heller a video of people dancing to the Soul Toronadoes music at the Mighty Soul Night—and with word that they have a cult following in the UK—a new excitement has begun to bubble.

Akron could be the first to see these unsung local music heroes return to the spotlight. The city is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in music with clubs like Blu Jazz and Pub Bricco showing there is a market here for these types of sounds. Also, as new bands blaze new trails, Akron continues to have a strong sense and respect for their artists of the past.

Maybe it is time to add the Soul Toronadoes to that list of celebrated artists.

El-Prezidente is the host 88.7 WJCU’s “Soul Elixer” radio show. Roger Riddle is a record collector, DJ, and the Chief Curator for Unbox Akron.

Experience El-Prez in his element, check out The Mighty Soul Night every month at Uncorked with Forrest Getem Gump and Ben Crazy too.