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The 'Beat'--and Spirit--Goes On

The Whispers deliver a message of spirituality while looking back at 30 years in music and the suicide of a friend, singer Phyllis Hyman.

November 03, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

Walter Scott, a member of the veteran soul quartet the Whispers, didn't realize how emotionally draining reliving moments from his own life would be night after night on stage while performing in "Thank God! The Beat Goes On," a dramatic representation of the group's personal and professional history.

Shown through a series of flashbacks, the play centers around an actual June 30, 1995, performance at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre, a celebration of the Whispers' 30th anniversary. The exuberance of that night was marred by the tragic suicide of the opening performer, longtime friend Phyllis Hyman, a few hours before the curtain. "Her band was there, waiting to go on, and we got the news that she was sick," Scott remembers, sadness overwhelming his otherwise chipper voice.

"Right before she was scheduled to appear, they announced to the crowd the real delay--she had committed suicide. All hell broke loose. Members of her family were there, because Phyllis was turning 46 only two days later.

"One of the women working for the Apollo told us that the theater was packed, and we couldn't cancel. I said, 'Ma'am, I can't sing. [Phyllis] means more to us than just someone who opened shows for us. She was a close friend. There's no way I'll sing "And the Beat Goes On," knowing that a close friend and fellow entertainer just died.'

"Then she said something I'll never forget. 'Thank God, the beat goes on,' she insisted, 'because if Phyllis were here, she'd want the show to go on.' She was right."

Scott is momentarily quiet as he relives the poignant moments of realization.

"Every night, when we come to that part of the show, part of our frustration and sadness is why didn't we see any of the signs earlier. Phyllis was very talented, yet a troubled, emotionally complex lady. I don't know what made her [commit suicide], but I always think, 'Wow, there had to be another answer.' "

'Thank God! The Beat Goes On," opening Tuesday for a five-day run at the Wiltern Theatre, attempts to provide an answer through religion. Conceived by veteran producer Barry Singer and the group's manager, Michael Gardner, the show was written, directed and has additional music by Loren Dean Harper, the creative mind behind the hit gospel revues "Wicked Ways" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

The play focuses on both the sanctified and sordid workings of the music business, the group's encounters with other legendary performers throughout the years--including '60s rock-funk pioneer Sly Stone--and Hyman's tumultuous career.

But the need for spirituality is the lasting message the group hopes to communicate to its audiences. Performances run the gamut of musical and emotional ranges during the show's almost three hours, culminating with themes of enlightenment.

"When I talk about our 30 years as a group, believe me when I say we didn't do it alone," Scott says. "We all came out of the church, from strong Christian families. And we believe that God kept us away from the drugs and the decadence that has claimed so many lives. I feel if God were in the lives of more people, there wouldn't be the violence, babies having babies, and talented people like Tupac Shakur dying before their time."

Born and raised in Watts, Walter Scott, 53, and his twin brother Wallace--also a member of the Whispers--can relate to hardship. Raised in the Jordan Downs projects, an area now plagued by drugs and street gangs, Scott remembers a comparatively idyllic place with manicured lawns, friendly neighbors and a courtyard filled with young men harmonizing till the wee hours of the morning.

"It was wonderful. We didn't even realize we were in the ghetto, even though we didn't have any money," he says with a laugh. "We'd sing in the yard past midnight on most summer nights, and our mother would literally have to come outside and drag us in the house."

After graduating from Jordan High School, in 1964 the five original group members (the Scott twins, Marcus Hutson, Nicholas Caldwell and Gordy Harmon) recorded their first single, "It Only Hurts for a While," for the local Dore record label. Walter left the group to serve two years in Vietnam, but rejoined by 1969, when they recorded "Planet of Life" for the Chess/Janus label.

By 1971, Harmon left the group and was replaced by Leaveil Degree, a former member of the Friends of Distinction. In 1975, the Whispers left Janus for Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius' Soul Train label (now Solar), where they had a number of soul hits, but didn't achieve true crossover status until their 1980 blockbuster "And the Beat Goes On." Sustaining a consistent hot streak through the '80s, with three gold and two platinum albums, the group nevertheless only reached the top of the charts again in 1987, when--working with then-unknown writer-producers L.A. Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds--they made "Rock Steady." Hutson left the group in 1989.

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