By J.M. Martin
Christmas Angel, Mound Bayou, MS (2010), by Brandon Thibodeaux, from the series "When Morning Comes"
Even the people closest to Ed Townsend know only what he said, and what the record companies credited him for. As a singer, songwriter, and producer, he had a boundless energy, trying to make everything happen right now—the best time. This restless effusiveness comes out in the lush arrangements of his early doo-wop work. But he was also an enigmatic figure, known for possessing a chameleon-like charisma that could pull a song out of anyone. This was his real talent. He cut hits for Peaches & Herb, Cuba Gooding, Brook Benton, the Shirelles, Johnny Nash. He put Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s little sister, on the charts. His songs were recorded by the likes of Nat King Cole and Etta James. In 1958, with Cole in mind, Townsend took his doo-wop ballad “For Your Love” to Capitol Records. Instead, the label signed him on to sing it himself.
Al Bell, the former owner of Stax Records, wore out “For Your Love” back in his deejay days in Little Rock, Arkansas. Townsend’s voice—his crooning, dapper majesty—made such an impression that years later Bell gave him carte blanche at Stax to record Theola Kilgore, a spiritual singer who followed Sam Cooke into secular music. Townsend hired the Memphis Symphony to accompany Kilgore, and Bell vividly remembers the spell Townsend cast over the all-white orchestra during those sessions. “They were reacting to Ed Townsend like it was Beethoven up there,” Bell told me. “It was the spirit coming out of him, and they felt him.” Kilgore’s rendition of the Townsend original “The Love of My Man” would rise to No. 3 on the r&b charts in 1963.
In spite of his genius and success, Townsend hit a roadblock in the late sixties, when his studio in Englewood, New Jersey, went up in flames. He had just offered it as a refuge for the Isley Brothers to record “It’s Your Thing” in violation of their contract with Motown. Nearly forty years old, he was watching his life’s work burn when a man named Earl Lucas appeared. Lucas, mayor of the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Mound Bayou, had met Townsend a few years earlier in Memphis. He happened to be in New York City when he heard about the fire, so he rushed across the Hudson to Englewood, where he found Townsend in front of the charred remains of the studio, despondent and “wild drinking.” Mayor Lucas handed the ruined producer his card and invited him to Mississippi to start over.
At points between his professional highs and lows, Townsend had turned to alcohol. A few years after the fire, he landed in a rehab facility. By various accounts, the experience led him to an epiphany. The care he received revealed to him a new human capacity for peace and love, and the beginnings of a song started to unfurl in his head. Townsend had long possessed a deep sensitivity and a desire to make music a source of profit and prestige for the people—usually African Americans—who created it but didn’t always get credit. “He would get into—not a depressed mood, but deep in thought,” Bell remembered. “And he would raise questions about why things in life happened in a certain way, and in American society, and what was happening to us as it relates to the social order, and why does talent have to be judged by the color of our skin.”
Mound Bayou sits twenty miles east of the Mississippi River, not too far south of the crossroads in Clarksdale. Old Highway 61 runs through the town, though it is not the kind of place a near-stranger would think to stop for a visit. The stately historic downtown burned for the second and last time in the 1940s, and all that remains of it today are a few dilapidated mansions, an old cotton gin, and the shell of the Bank of Mound Bayou. The new downtown, running along the highway, is mostly boarded up except for a post office, a barbershop, a handful of churches, and a funeral home. It doesn’t reflect the pride with which many of Mound Bayou’s residents still speak of their home’s former glory or the openness with which they greet visitors.
“When I got here, Mound Bayou was jumping!” Hermon Johnson recalled. A trim, birdlike man with a quick smile and a bright Creole complexion from his half–Native American grandfather, Johnson moved to town from Louisiana in 1951. Those were the days when Mound Bayou was the only place in Mississippi where black people could swim in not just a concrete pool but an Olympic-size concrete pool. It had multiple cotton gins owned and operated by blacks, as well as a zoo that welcomed black visitors and two hospitals that served black patients. To Johnson it seemed like a dream, a world turned inside out, where people who looked like him ran the place. “When I learned that there was a town that was run by us, I said if I lived anywhere in the South, it would be somewhere where I could be a part of what’s going on.”
This was the vision—a fantasy, really—of the community’s founder, Isaiah Thorton (I. T.) Montgomery, a man who was a slave under the unorthodox plantation system of Joseph Davis, the elder brother of Jefferson Davis. In a strange twist of history, sometime around 1825, Joseph is said to have met the British philosopher and industrialist Robert Owen on a stagecoach ride. Owen was a utopian socialist. When Davis returned home to the Davis Bend plantation just south of Vicksburg, he implemented some of Owen’s principles among his slave community. These offerings—sanitary living conditions, education, regular work hours, a jury of one’s peers—seem more inalienable than utopian today, but back then they were radical acts for a Mississippi slave-owner. They also gave Joseph’s trusted slave Ben Montgomery, I.T.’s father, enough leverage to educate his children, to run a mercantile operation selling to both blacks and whites, and to buy the plantation, the third largest in Mississippi, from the Davises after the Civil War. In 1887, after his father’s death and the backlash of Reconstruction, I. T. Montgomery made a deal with the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad to settle the swamp wilderness where two bayous embraced a Native American burial mound. Some twenty years later, Montgomery’s experiment had grown into such a success that Booker T. Washington called Mound Bayou “a place where a Negro may get inspiration by seeing what other members of his race have accomplished.”
During the darkest depths of the Jim Crow era, African Americans in Mound Bayou exercised the right to vote, walked through the front doors of restaurants, and established banks, hospitals, and insurance companies. It was a place where black planters owned land and produced such a coveted grade of cotton that all farmers in the area, black and white, vied to bring their crop to the town gin so it could be stamped with the MOUND BAYOU label. A place where in 1907 a train rolled into town bearing Theodore Roosevelt, who gave a ten-minute speech declaring Mound Bayou “the Jewel of the Delta.” A place were T. R. M. Howard, a black man, would become one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in the state of Mississippi in the 1950s. A place where, before Medicaid, the nation’s rural healthcare system was pioneered at Delta Health Center. It was also a refuge where black people were not disinclined to resort to arms to defend their property, their way of life, and their bodies. During the travesty of a trial for Emmett Till’s murderers in nearby Sumner, his mother, Mamie Till, stayed in Howard’s house under armed guard.
Of course, leaving the town limits meant crossing back into the black-and-white world of hard boundaries and often the harshest of lessons. Before the Voting Rights Act, the people of Mound Bayou could vote, though today locals remember how somewhere between the town and the Bolivar County Courthouse about ten miles away, the ballot boxes for county, state, and national elections were often misplaced or miscounted. Johnson told me of securing a public housing project as town alderman that was later co-opted in part by a white-governed Delta town. “We’ve been struggling ever since we’ve been founded,” he said. “I’m just saying this because I don’t mind saying it—we’ve had to work ten times as hard as other communities to get what we got, and we get criticized for a lot of things that other communities get praised for.”
I first came to Mound Bayou about fifteen years ago as a newspaper reporter based in Greenwood, Mississippi, and later as a tour guide, drawn by the town’s improbable history, its almost invisible influence as a frontier of African-American enterprise and culture, and most of all by the warmth of its people. On tours with the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at nearby Delta State University, our buses—packed with college classes or international tourists—would pull up in front of the shuttered Taborian Hospital, once the only healthcare facility for miles around that would admit black patients through the front entrance, rather than a separate entrance marked “colored.” In the lush Delta, abandoned buildings quickly revert back to a natural state. The hospital—vines creeping up its immaculate Art Deco façade—was a perfect symbol of the rise and fall of Mound Bayou.
Today, the tracks of the old railbed have been uprooted or dug up, leaving only a long, low hillock of grass. Only one gin still stands, long inactive. The two operating restaurants are in gas stations. The concrete pool is veined with weeds and vines. For a while, the last survivors of the zoo, a wily ostentation of peacocks, roamed the woods around town—but no more. And while the Taborian Hospital has been beautifully restored as an Urgent Care center, to the eye Mound Bayou appears to be dying, or at best stagnating. Like other small Delta towns, it is rapidly losing population, about twenty-eight percent since 2000, crippled with a forty-five percent poverty rate, all but sinking back into the swamp wilderness from which it emerged.
“He could have gone anywhere,” said Earl Lucas, the former mayor, speaking of his old friend Ed Townsend. “Could have gone to Memphis, Little Rock, California, back to New York, wherever he wanted.”
Born in Fayetteville, Tennessee, Townsend had grown up in Memphis, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal pastor. As a producer, he occasionally worked at Stax, but his career had taken him far from home to the big studios: Atlantic, Capitol, and Motown. Moving to Mississippi, and Mound Bayou of all places, made little business sense in the early 1970s, a time when black people were still fleeing the Delta. Mound Bayou had a population of around 2,000 and no recording studio to speak of. It was a place where riches had been made in cotton—not music—though music was made there every day, on front porches and in clubs and churches all around.
But remarkably, years after the studio fire and soon after getting clean, Townsend took Lucas up on his offer to visit. And it was there that he began writing his greatest soul classic. This time he wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. He was looking for something more elemental—a voice, an old sound that would breathe life into a new idea, the shadow of the song that came to him in rehab. That search led him to Mayor Lucas’s living room, where, Lucas remembers today, “He was there talking to me and got on the piano and went to writing.” Struck mid-sentence by a fit of inspiration, Townsend played a few chords and then burst out the first uncontainable line: I’ve been trying . . . to hold back this feeling for so long!
Before Marvin Gaye and Townsend transformed it into an anthem of dance floor seduction, “Let’s Get It On” had purely a spiritual dimension—an acceptance of life’s ups and downs based on Townsend’s own experiences. “It was about the business of life,” Townsend later said of the song he wrote in Mound Bayou and eventually brought to a Motown studio. As he said, “Life is life, and let’s get on with it.”
Townsend wanted to get a band together to record his new song, so Mayor Lucas introduced him to the Mound Bayou Male Chorus. When he asked who wanted to sing, all fingers pointed to a young man named Sylvester Hogan. Now in his mid-sixties and still known in Mississippi churches and Masonic temples for his sweet, soaring voice, Hogan wasn’t so sure about the collaboration at the time. Townsend’s reputation in the music world preceded him, and while this new song might not have been about sex, it sure wasn’t gospel. “We didn’t want people to know too much what we were singing,” Hogan told me, his voice still an angelic tenor some forty years later. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against it. I like all types of music, but we never did go public with it.”
We were talking with his fellow chorus member Hermon Johnson around Hogan’s lacquered dining room table in Merigold, just down the road from Mound Bayou. It was approaching noon, but it might as well have been midnight in the house. Like many Deltans, Hogan keeps his curtains drawn against the heat of the day. A chandelier cast a dim glare over a centerpiece of plastic magnolia flowers as we pieced together the birth of “Let’s Get It On.”
Working with the chorus in the secret confines of the JFK High School band room, Townsend ran through countless arrangements, demanding more and more. He played piano and Hogan sang lead, backed by a host of good church-going folks like Johnson. “Sometimes till twelve-thirty, one o’clock we would be there practicing, practicing, practicing,” Hogan recalled, leveling his gaze over his eyeglasses. “He was very, very aggressive.”
Hogan judges the melody and form of the “Let’s Get It On” we know today to be “about ninety-five percent of what we practiced on.” (The Mound Bayou incarnation of the song is probably closer to the demo included as a bonus track on the Deluxe Edition of the 2001 reissue of Gaye’s album.) Working with Townsend, Gaye would make the song his own, earning himself a cowriting credit. There are many legends attached to the metamorphosis of the song from Townsend’s vision to Gaye’s. In one, Townsend’s needling criticism frustrates Gaye to the point that he rips off his shirt and starts belting out the version that appears on the album. In another, this moment is inspired when Townsend brings his friend’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Janis Hunter, into the studio, and Gaye explodes with desire for his future wife.
But before this history was made, and after weeks of working past midnight, practice was over for the Mound Bayou Male Chorus, and Townsend had an offer to make. “He asked me if I would go to California and record it with him,” Hogan said. “And I said no. I turned it down.”
At this memory, Johnson’s eyes lit up. “Instead of Marvin Gaye, it could have been Sylvester Hogan!”
“He was telling me I can make plenty of money with this song,” Hogan continued. “Put me up under the spotlight and everything. I said, ‘No, it’s not my way right now.’”
Instead, Townsend hit the road alone, the Mound Bayou Male Chorus returned to gospel, and the radio soon began to throb with the song they had helped bring into the world, reborn as a multiplatinum sermon of sexual salvation. No one in Mound Bayou expected to see Ed Townsend again.
On a spring day in 1984, a Mound Bayou teenager named Joe Johnson was in the garage, helping his father, Hermon, fix the family car, when a stranger in a green baseball cap walked up, carrying a stack of records. Hermon Johnson would have recognized him, but the man had come to talk to Joe, a talented drummer. It was a meeting that would change the course of Joe’s life. “This is me,” the man said as he shuffled through the records, saving Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On for last. “This is who I am.” Then he invited Joe for an audition at his new office at City Hall.
Grover Miller, a year out of high school, was walking home from rehearsal for a talent show that day, a bass guitar under one arm, Michael Jackson’s Thriller under the other. He too received an invitation. Like a Pied Piper of r&b, the man approached other kids with the records and the same proposition—to form a professional band, record some hits, and put Mound Bayou back on the map. More than a decade after he left and took “Let’s Get It On” with him, Townsend had returned with a vision to turn things around.
Miller went with Linda Gillespie, a girl he’d heard at the talent show singing Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” They played a song Miller had written in the style of Rick James called “Sexy.” Joe followed soon after. Others started hanging around: a girl named Nellie Travis from out in the country who could sing, a high school band director named Cedric Evans from nearby Cleveland. The offices downstairs began to buzz with bass runs and guitar licks, drumsticks rattling on desktops. City employees complained.
Townsend was a man who liked to hold court, and Joe Johnson vividly remembers one of his lectures about natural resources. As he recounted it to me, some places are blessed with them—iron, gold, diamonds. The Delta had music. Johnson channeled Townsend’s infectious energy, repeating some of his lines: This is the most influential music in the world. This is the backbone of everything that’s popular today, and there’s millions and billions of dollars being made off of it. Why is it that the place where it all comes from is one of the poorest regions in the United States? That don’t make no sense. I’m here to teach y’all how to take advantage of your own natural resource.
Soon, the kids began to see that Townsend wasn’t just talking about music. His was a vision that extended beyond Mound Bayou, beyond the Delta. “He was telling the people of Mound Bayou, Hey, let’s get it on!” recalled Al Bell, who came down from Memphis to work with Townsend and his fledgling group. They called themselves SSIPP, a name fashioned after the state’s third syllable by Nellie, now known in the Southern Soul circuit as Nellie “Tiger” Travis.
Things happened fast. They recorded some demos in Memphis. Then Townsend started converting T. R. M. Howard’s old medical clinic across the street from the Taborian Hospital into a studio and chartered a publishing company: Mound Bayou Records. He piled his royalties into these projects. When times were lean, he and Joe ate sardines and Vienna sausages; when they were flush, he had Joe drive over to the Kroger in Greenville to buy steak and lobster. People called on the phone, important voices in the industry: Al Bell; the producer Clyde Otis; Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. On Saturday nights, Johnson and Miller helped with Townsend’s radio show on WCLD in Cleveland: Ed Townsend’s Delta Midnight Special. SSIPP opened for Dee Dee Warwick in Clarksdale. Townsend was taking flying lessons in Merigold. There was talk of building an airport in Mound Bayou. The band got an offer to play in Austria.
At one point, Townsend convinced Ray Charles to play the basketball coliseum at Delta State and attached SSIPP as the opening act. Rehearsals went around the clock. The night of the concert, as the band was preparing to take the stage, Ray Charles walked out in his signature shades, put his hand to his ear, and didn’t like what he heard. The sound of too few hands clapping. Miller remembered, “He turned around, walked offstage, and never came back.”
By 1986, the dream that Townsend had for the people of Mound Bayou was coming apart at the seams. After the Ray Charles fiasco, a prospective deal with the publishing conglomerate BMI fell through. Johnson could only watch as his mentor deteriorated. Days passed when Townsend wouldn’t get out of bed. Strange packages were delivered. Signs of relapse, of harder stuff. Still, he tried to maintain the business, the band. Then one day he left for New York to pursue another big deal for Mound Bayou Records, and this time he never returned.
Weeks later, Townsend’s car was found parked at the Memphis airport. His belongings were still in Mound Bayou, scattered between the studio and his apartment—copyrights and royalty certificates for his songs, even his platinum record for “Let’s Get It On.” Johnson called around and finally reached him in New York with John Houston—Whitney Houston’s father, one of his old running buddies. That’s when Joe knew it was over: everything he had lived for, everything Ed Townsend had built in Mound Bayou—the band, the studio, the record company, the future—was gone.
“Everything I do right now is based on what I learned from Ed,” Joe Johnson confided to me in October 2014, sitting in the afternoon darkness of the storefront church where his brother, Darryl, Mound Bayou’s current mayor, preaches. Multiple days a week Johnson travels up and down the Delta and across the country, and a little bit internationally, playing blues festivals and clubs, most recently with guitar prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram of Clarksdale. Known as Joe “Eagle” for the touch of gold in his eyes, Johnson has drummed for Little Milton and Albert King, and he founded the Eagle Music & Media Academy to teach the kids of Mound Bayou about their musical heritage and modern production techniques. He did it all because of Townsend. “I can’t get away from him. Every time I try to stop, there’s nothing I can do.”
Since Townsend’s death in 2003 with more than two hundred songs to his name, Johnson and the people of Mound Bayou have been trying to memorialize his influence on their town. “Black people need to understand this city, what it represented, the power that it had—that it was self-sufficient—and that our role now is to restore that,” Johnson said.
But Ed Townsend has proven to be more of a ghost than a historical figure.
To issue a historical proclamation, the State of Mississippi requires official proof that history happened. It could be something as basic as a light bill or a P.O. Box registry. But no known records exist of Townsend’s residence in the public housing unit where, according to Lucas, he paid full rent.
“There’s no physical evidence that Ed lived in Mound Bayou,” Johnson said, shaking his head in dismay.
For a while, there was a paper trail—those copyright records—but Johnson and Miller mailed them to Townsend when he resurfaced in California in the mid-nineties. Now all that’s left of those days in Mound Bayou, when the doors of the music industry seemed ready to crack open and anything felt possible, are voices, memories, stories, hopes that still seem to hang in the air.
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